Sunday, January 16, 2011

Latter Day Saint

An interesting fate: Martin Scorsese, whose career-long love-and-hate struggle with the Hollywood studio game is deservedly the stuff of legend, has finally reached the Promised Land of commercial impunity and critical immunity just as his films have largely shed their individual ambition. There’s a knee-jerk cynical connection waiting to be drawn there, the half-validity of which I’ll get to in a moment, but even as my direct interest in the old man’s latest works has increasingly waned, my fascination with them as Event Films has only deepened. At this point, I’m equally interested in looking at our reactions to Scorsese films as the films themselves, as his cross-fertilization of awards-bait banality and genre-steeped cinephilia is poking us in a very interesting place.

Gangs of New York, for example, remains a most intriguing failure, which is about the most polite thing I can say about it. Scorsese threw himself headfirst into the eternally tricky game of historical filmmaking, and to my mind, came up empty (at best) every step of the way. His depiction of American religion was superficial and inert, his take on the bloody political transitions of the 1860s felt pandering and simplistic, and his visual and physical re-creation of his beloved city’s past stood out both garish and cheap, putting me in mind of an over-ambitious high school play (or, more relevantly to modern Hollywood, an over-faithful comic book adaptation). Above all, the film’s hammered-upon connections to 9/11 were tenuous, forced, substance-free, and more than a little insulting, especially given Spike Lee’s utterly committed, utterly faithful, and utterly successful 25th Hour that same year. Yet there’s something about Scorsese’s stubborn, catastrophic ambition, his undeniable panache for artfully loaded mise-en-scène, and his excavation (however clumsily) of a deeply embarrassing and easily forgotten time and place in American history that reminded me of what drew me to his films in the first place.

The critical community at large reflected a similarly confused unease. The film’s historicism and connections to modernity were faintly praised, but most reviews quickly honed in on the safest elements of Scorsese’s deranged spectacle: the fastidious design, Daniel Day-Lewis’ camera-magnet performance, and, of course, Marty (Still) Hearts NY. The film was dutifully nominated for Best Picture, but unlike Goodfellas or Raging Bull, nobody expected it to win, pulled passionately for it to do so, or was enraged when it didn’t. Gangs of New York seemed both more and less than what had been expected, and nobody was sure what to do with it; this isn’t the mark of a great, or even passable, film, but it did mark Scorsese out as a still-interesting, if not still-vital, figure in American film culture.

Indeed, the man was rapidly becoming larger than his movies, a trend which overtook The Aviator entirely. Scorsese’s filmmaking-as-OCD metaphor made for an instant talking point, and again, an excuse to talk about Scorsese’s career in facile macro terms. Ludicrous Citizen Kane comparisons were made early and often (because Marty loves old movies, doncha know), and older critics went into endless spasms of delight over Cate-playing-Kate (younger critics decrying Hollywood’s Broadway-style self-cannibalization were few and far between). Aviator remains a prime example of the growth of self-referential Hollywood hype machines. The film hadn’t even been released before writers were breathlessly wondering if this would be the one to deliver Marty his Lifetime Achievement Award Oscar, while the Academy, of course, increasingly takes its cues from that same overeager buzz. Certainly, there was more than a little retconning flop-sweat in the unanimous praise offered Scorsese’s (dull, fanboyish) biopic; as the director’s older masterpieces were increasingly being canonized as such, the Academy, among others, was almost explicitly looking to make up for lost time before the old man died on us.

As I said, it’s easy to argue that the Academy, et al only fully opened their doors to Scorsese when he started playing by their rules and letting his art suffer in the process. It’s also partially correct, as hinted at by his paint-by-numbers scripts and his films’ politics, alternately awkwardly forefronted and dangerously subsumed (the lack of attention paid to The Aviator’s Rove-ready conservatism remains a staggering critical gaffe). Still, I’m suspicious of any argument that casts Scorsese and the studios in rigid opposition. Like peer John Carpenter (now there’s a fun juxtaposition) he’s often spoken wistfully of his admiration for the studio-savvy directors of the ‘40s (Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock) and has always demonstrated willingness, even eagerness, to work within popcorn context. Keep in mind that the superficially auterist theories used to set Marty against Oscar are descended from the work of the Bazin acolytes (and Nouvelle Vague directors worshipped by a young Martin Scorsese) who filled the pages of Cahiers du Cinema with radical defenses of…Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock. Skip forward to the ‘90s, and Cahiers scribe and medium-shattering filmmaker Olivier Assayas is leading the charge to artistically recoup Clint Eastwood, whose superb drama Million Dollar Baby, unimpeded by studio pressure, would go on to upset The Aviator at the 77th Academy Awards.

Such are the feverishly creative confusions upon which Martin Scorsese has made his career, which is why “cross-fertilization” seemed to me an apt descriptor of his contemporary studio-flicks-cum-passion-projects. If his filmography poses questions about the relationship between passionate artists and bottom-line studios, there are (as usual for that relationship) no easy answers to be found. Besides which, the aforementioned flattening trend among studios, critics, and awards ceremonies over the last decade is bigger than any one director, as 2010’s horrifyingly communal cheerleading of mediocre-to-awful American products (Inception, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right) demonstrated. Ultimately, The Aviator’s soporific success has more in common with Dances With Wolves, the po-faced snoozer that beat out Goodfellas for the Academy’s top prize, than with anything in Scorsese’s oeuvre.

I’ve talked a lot about The Departed on this blog and elsewhere, which is odd given that it’s a rather unsurprising film that I mildly enjoy. Such is the fascinating and maddening nature of the triangulation among an aging, nostalgic Scorsese, an adoring public including both lifelong fans and curious relative newcomers, and the fungibility of the films themselves. What The Departed is (a superbly edited, otherwise unremarkable crime flick) isn’t nearly as interesting to me as what it represents: a remake of a Hong Kong blockbuster that nicked its aesthetic from Hollywood in the first place, a stodgily mounted genre entry that still reeled in younger audiences who’d seen Pulp Fiction before Goodfellas, an almost ideologically generic box-office smash that nonetheless rode the vapor trails of its director’s signature obsessions. The Departed, in its genesis mythos as much as its guns and Catholic crosses, is perhaps the definitive modern film product, almost grim in its determination to deliver a good time, squeezing the world and its medium dry to do so, and only barely succeeding.

Yes, it’s his best feature since Casino, but what’s the competition? Bringing Out the Dead? More importantly, notice how much it took to drag a decent film out of latter-day Scorsese: a framework on loan from Asia on loan from younger Scorsese, a script stuffed with as many rapid-fire quips and as much “local color” (the go-to critical buzzword for the recent slew of Boston crime flicks) as possible, a cast list overflowing with fame and testosterone, and a Sisyphean effort by longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who earned her Oscar far more than the director) to tie the whole damn thing together, all for a final product I’m comfortable giving a B- to, and then watching Inside Man for the 25th time instead. There’s simply too much loaded on to The Departed, by filmmakers and fans alike, and the flimsy, work-a-day material can’t hold it. Which is a shame, because unlike his prior two features, The Departed’s ambition is more mechanical than theoretical, and as Saturday-night male genre porn, it holds up just fine. But neither I nor the Academy can nudge the film from out of the maker’s shadow. Witness his old buddies Spielberg, Coppola, and Lucas handing Marty his Best Picture trophy, and his knowingly self-deprecating acceptance speech. The Departed had just few enough flaws, and faced just little enough competition, to hop the fence. Not exactly cathartic.

Which brings me, finally, to Shutter Island, which I saw nine months ago but have resisted writing about until the wave of popular reaction had long passed the film by. And so it has: Shutter Island, being the most genre-specific, least awards-ready, and (to my mind) most representative of its maker’s unmistakable headspace among the recent pack, offers significantly fewer overarching talking points than its predecessors. The critical reaction has been muted and split, resembling more Gangs confusion than Aviator/Departed rapture—which didn’t stop Shutter Island from becoming the highest-grossing Scorsese film ever. Of course, his first three Leo vehicles had accomplished the same feat, indicating that the director has finally achieved that coveted Spielberg status: whatever else they do, his movies will keep making money, and keep allowing him to make the next one and make it the way he wants to. That last point is a particular coup. Scorsese’s name is so ingrained in generations of moviegoers and movie-lovers that the notion that, at the onset of the 21st century, he still had significant careerist terrain to conquer may sound absurd, but his story is full of disappointments, compromises, and films that simply aren’t his. His venerable reputation among critics, cinephiles, and especially fellow filmmakers has been cemented since Goodfellas (if not sooner), but not until Shutter Island outlasted The Departed was his stability as a commercial warhorse truly tested and fully established.

I can’t begrudge him this success, especially as I’ve yet to fully sort out my feelings about Shutter Island itself, as confounding a mediocre film as I’ve ever seen. And it is mediocre, make no mistake: ludicrously untenable in its narrative twists and turns, laughably histrionic in its pacing and constant, breathless upping of its wholly internalized stakes, while simultaneously (yet again) dubious in its period-piece absorption of history (including arguably the most unnecessary Holocaust divergence in recent memory, which is seriously saying something). Still, I find it easier to forgive “more! MORE! Flashbacks and HUAC and the hydrogen bomb!” than “whatever, just hit the 4/4 and don’t waste the producer’s money.” Ferocious, giddy pulp, even if largely unsuccessful, is vastly preferable to the sort of ham-handed, cool-hearted genre trash that seems to be all Hollywood can come up with lately.

I’ve somehow managed to get this far without talking specifically about genre, and that’s as silly as Shutter’s anagrammed climax. Scorsese doesn’t just “work within” or “wrestle with” film genre, he loves it, deeply and excitedly; this unabashed geekdom, as explicated in his documentaries My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, is arguably more central to his legacy than stunted gunplay or conflicted Catholicism. (Just ask Quentin Tarantino.) Shutter Island is fully fermented in its maker’s adoration of the hardboiled pulp flicks made in the 1950s, the decade Shutter can’t escape. As such, the film never comes close to establishing a distinctive identity, but I still enjoyed the experience of watching it unfold far more than Gangs or Aviator, if not as much as The Departed. Scorsese’s latest genre fixations (horror and period thriller) are rooted in the sensorial rather than the pseudo-intellectual (Gangs) or familiarly emotional (Aviator); as such, Shutter Island “just works” in a way those others didn’t. It’s difficult to argue with a jump or a flinch, and Shutter delivers plenty of both. It’s also hard not to admire the loving visual flairs (rusty, dangling manacles, rain lashing furiously against patterned windows, a still-lit cigarette on the edge of a cliff) and the Robbie Robertson-curated score, but even Shutter’s most acute pleasures are never grounded the way the generic and political are intertwined in Polanski’s masterful The Ghost Writer.

Scorsese’s film is the sort of half-competent drivel best enjoyed with a wandering mind, letting the eyes drift to the corner of every shot and doing one’s best to ignore the nonsense being spouted and visualized up-front. Lord knows I love watching masterful craft applied to B-movie aesthetics—my alltime favorite filmmaker is Brian de Palma, who could’ve taught his old pal Scorsese a thing or two about how to make this particular movie. (Remember The Fury? C’mon, let’s go watch it. Haha, John Cassavetes is exploding, awesome! Rewind!) Although Shutter Island as a whole betrays a director running seriously low on ideas, the (relative) lack of self-seriousness here is undeniably refreshing. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it: Shutter Island may be the first Scorsese picture in over a decade not to be nominated for Best Picture.

The great irony here is that Martin Scorsese, a richly experienced cinephile whose aged perspective could hold many lessons for young filmmakers, appears to have embraced the worst aspects of many young filmmakers: unfiltered reverence for complex subjects, overstuffed mise-en-scène that reflects carelessness as much as obvious talent, tasteless politics, too many punchlines (of various kinds), and most painful of all in relation to Scorsese, a banal, overly stagey treatment of star performers. Decades distant, the Scorsese-DeNiro project stands as the most fruitful director-actor collaboration in film history. What’s to be said about Marty-Leo? Not much, beyond the self-duplicating aura of spectacle.

It’s that sense of a navel-gazing industry and artist that I keep returning to, as Scorsese’s constant teasing out of film-as-commercial-industry, film-as-genre-storytelling, and film-as-personal-project has stopped leading to soul-shaking cinema unlike anything before it and started leading to movies so schizoid and self-reflexive that they barely exist on their own, in ways both fascinating and deadly boring. Spread himself thin, losing his touch; pick your cliché, and then wrestle with the fact that Marty’s more successful at the box office than ever. Again, this isn’t a case of a simple binary between critics and audiences, or between hardcore and casual fans. This is a case of a truly strange artist becoming a little less strange, and thereby becoming something even stranger, practically unique in our time—with the exception, again, of Spielberg. Again like Spielberg, Scorsese has become a brand while keeping the personal and (perhaps more importantly) ever-evolving nature of his work alive. Even as I increasingly appreciate Scorsese more as a social phenomenon than a vibrant artist, and even as I stop enjoying putting my money towards his next seat-filler, I’ll keep showing up to watch.


  1. Mm I quite enjoyed this. Interestingly, it's something I plan writing a thesis on at some point or another. As always, brilliant work comrade

  2. Thanks awfully, man! It practically goes without saying: I'd eagerly pore over anything you wrote on the subject.