Friday, February 12, 2010

Why I'm not rushing to see the latest "Scorsese picture"

“I have to wonder whether or not young people who have grown up on digitally engineered effects and DTS soundtracks can actually find the patience required to watch a film by Bresson or, for that matter, an Ozu or an Antonioni. In a way, it seems impossible: it’s as though they’re from different worlds….”

“Once Elvis Costello said that whenever he’s writing a song he asks himself: is it as tough as Hank Williams? Meaning: is it as ruthlessly pared down, as direct, as unflinching in its gaze at aspects of life I might feel more comfortable ignoring? Young filmmakers might ask themselves: is it as tough as Bresson?”
--Martin Scorsese, on filmmaker Robert Bresson

I was a child of the Seventies, so Martin Scorsese’s best films are works I can never shake, and would never want to. His masterpieces from the Seventies and Eighties are some of the best American films ever made, and even his big, wildly miscalculated coke-fueled messes from that period (think New York, New York) are fascinating to me. I have committed his older work to memory, but have absolutely no desire to rewatch anything he’s made in the last decade after I’ve seen it once. What exactly happened to the kinetic stylist who made character-driven films, the finest American filmmaker of his generation?

Well, perhaps he’s just not making films “as tough as Bresson” anymore, or perhaps it all comes down to his having said several years ago that it rankled him when he was considered merely a “New York filmmaker” — he wanted to be considered a “Hollywood filmmaker.” He also said in an interview with Bob Costas that he envied Steven Spielberg for the way that Spielberg was able to direct crowds, a la David Lean. The fact that Scorsese’s strong suit has never been and never will be pageantry, and the bigger and more Hollywoood-like that his films have become the less soul they’ve had, has apparently escaped the man himself.

Scorsese is one of the most devoted film fans in the filmmaking community, and a god in the preservationist world. He has often noted his utter adoration of the Golden Age directors who worked under the studio system, and are hard to get a handle on in terms of a visual style or an “identity” (as opposed to stylists like Ray and Fuller, whose personality is emblazoned in every frame of their work): brilliant craftsmen like Hawks and Wyler who made great movies in every genre and worked smoothly with the biggest stars of the Thirties and Forties. And who, of course, lost major ground and fumbled around in the Sixties (excepting the terrific The Collector), the era when Scorsese’s generation was beginning to forge a new approach to filmmaking. The traditional studio system, it seemed, was entirely dead and has remained so. But not so Scorsese’s desire to make that kind of film.

Thus, he’s chosen to make a string of extremely long, epic-themed films with Leonardo Caprio, an actor of limited means who was a superior child and teen performer, but has demonstrated a far weaker presence as an adult lead (thus his constant scowling, to approximate an adult demeanor). This phenomenon started with The Gangs of New York, where slight Leo was supposed to be the physical equal of the scenery-chewing Daniel Day Lewis, and is now continuing with Shutter Island, where Leo will once again do a “Bahston” (please, Mr. Scorsese, stop it please with the bad Boston accents already!). What seems to be going on here is that Scorsese views DiCaprio as a kind of Rock Hudson for the 21st century, an actor who couldn’t ever hack it in grittier films, but has a certain type of “glamour” — and more importantly, who had studio heads interested in him post-Titanic, although the success of that film was a convergence of elements and not specifically due to his presence. What DiCaprio seemed to represent was a performer who could get the movie financed and also, at the hands of a Douglas Sirk-like filmmaker, become a really interesting screen presence, despite his lack of range as a performer and the fact that his idyllic good looks limit his ability to play earthy characters.

Well, it hasn’t worked. The DiCaprio-Scorsese as Hudson-Sirk experiment that has gone on for three films and continues with the current Shutter Island is one that does not seem to have stirred a major interest in most viewers, but it has continued unabated. Each time De Niro worked with Scorsese in their shared heyday, there was a buzz of expectation from fans and in the press (this was quelled by the workmanlike and unnecessary remake of Cape Fear). Perhaps the nicest remark I’ve heard from movie-mad friends when discussing this constant casting by Scorsese of the Baby-Faced One in his films has been, “well, he was okay in The Aviator, he really tried in that one.” Yes, he tried, but the film was a giant, overblown biopic that got stuck on a Hughes court case that just wasn’t interesting. The scenes in which Leo was naked in the screening room were welcome in that they were strange and downright odd for a Hollywood biopic, but they also required an actor who didn’t look as if he was wearing fake facial hair while writhing around the room.

The obvious change in Scorsese’s style seems to have come from the fact that he was in personal transition throughout the period when his best films were made, and now that he’s a comfortable icon of cinema, he is making films that are sheer craft — technical experiments that have far more in common with David Lean than they do with his onetime mentor John Cassavetes. Casssavetes famously chided Scorsese on having made the (actually pretty great) Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman, telling him to stop making “crap” and do something he really cared about. One can’t imagine what Cassavetes would’ve made of The Departed, a bloated adaptation of a tight, nothing-budgeted Hong Kong cop thriller that finally got Scorsese the Oscar he deserved for the rough-edged, uneven-but-yet-curiously-perfect films like Raging Bull. The craft pleases the eye, but the brain and emotions are not engaged. The “Leo era” has not been an interesting one for fans of Scorsese’s work.

Admittedly, the Scorsese style of the Seventies was already starting to become self-citation in the Nineties: in the brilliantly cast (supporting roles only) but wildly uneven Bringing Out the Dead, one wasn’t sure if the film was taking place in the Seventies or the Nineties, as he attempted to update his Taxi Driver style sans the energy, devotion, and drive (and chemical stimulants?) of that era. (As for the stimulants being a part of the TD process, this has gone into common lore, and was the premise for the plot of the only good episode of the cartoon series American Dad). In Casino, he offered a smoother, more stylized version of the Goodfellas approach; this was unfortunate, as the splendid Goodfellas was already a work that seemed to be intent on sanding off the rough edges that made Mean Streets such an eternally rewatchable work about a low-ranking mob member (the exquisite use of pop music from the Sixties that began in Who’s That Knocking At My Door? reaches heights of dazzling brilliance in Goodfellas — and then tapers off to become the umpteenth use of “Gimme Shelter” in The Departed). We can count our blessings that the Dino project, the proposed Scorsese adaptation of Nick Tosches' immaculately detailed Dean Martin bio, was never produced, as it in turn would’ve been a “cleaner,” smoother version of Casino (like a Russian doll version of the same film, slightly transformed with each larger-sized version….).

However, even though Terrence Rafferty this week in the New York Times remarked that the last decade has been the “liveliest, most varied, and most consistently inventive stretch” of Scorsese’s work since the Seventies, I’d make the argument that the very bumpy Nineties was the most varied era for Scorsese in recent memory, as the last two films of his that had a genuine emotional “kick” were the ones that seemed the most uncharacteristic and atypical, The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997). Both were films I thought would be odd exercises for him, but both had small emotions at their core and were absorbing and brilliant as a result. Who would’ve thought that the story of the search for the Dalai Lama would’ve been the last truly involving film made by the filmmaker who made such cornerstones of gritty, challenging NYC cinema as Taxi Driver and King of Comedy?

But there haven’t just been fiction films, there have been documentaries. And yes, they have been very long. Scorsese’s love of cinema and rock music is unparalleled, but oddly, each time you watch his documentaries, you feel overwhelmed by duration, yet only in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies did it seem like he opened a doorway to invite viewers to actually experience the works he was praising for themselves. His study of Italian cinema, Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, is a hermetically sealed work that offers Cliff Notes-like plot synopses of each Italian film which tend to make the viewer feel as if he or she has taken in the whole film — they don’t inspire the inclination to view the complete film that just seeing a significant scene or two would produce (American viewers feel that if they know the plot, they’ve seen the movie already, or read the book).

His Dylan documentary was a project he inherited and didn’t do the interviews for — thus it was the polar opposite of his work on The Last Waltz or his wonderful film about his parents, Italianamerican, which can be seen here. Also, Dylan and/or his people clearly approved of the squeaky-clean image given of him in the film — thus it seemed as if (scenes of Greenwich Village from underground films aside — that was the old Scorsese!) he was making a record company-sponsored portrait of Bob that was really, really long (and Todd Haynes reached the core of the artist in a shorter time with a “fiction” film). His Stones concert docu, Shine a Light? I won’t kid, it’s the one Scorsese film I haven’t yet seen, and am not racing to catch it on the home screen.

I reflect on all this because the latest “Scorsese picture,” Shutter Island, looks to be a dedicated exercise in style with some beautiful craft (there will NEVER be a bad-looking film by him) but no emotional drive. The visual effects showcased in the trailer exhibit that Mr. S has watched a bunch of “J-“ and “K-horror” (Japanese and Korean) films lately, and wanted to try out some new visual tricks. That kind of mega-budgeted recreation of lower-budgeted Asian action fare has the feel of Quentin Tarantino, not the man who clearly (among many) influenced Tarantino with his own lean, spare, and haunting work. Unlike Scorsese’s personal work, which really needed to be viewed in a theater, Shutter Island will most likely be more overwhelming and eye-catching on a TV screen.

The Rafferty piece in the Times went along the lines of nearly everything written about Scorsese in the mainstream press (to wit, the Leonardo films have been “bold and exciting”). His best filmmaking work is indeed indelible, his work as a preservationist and a champion of the great films and filmmakers is unassailable. He is an incredibly valuable individual for film fans in so many ways. Thus, journalists and mainstream critics will not honestly reflect on how the films he has made have become less and less (and less) interesting in the last decade. To do so would be to not be able to interview him, not be able to hang with him, or simply to greet him at movie-industry parties (he does seem like a nice guy, and certainly a helluva conversation partner). This means that movies that are “al dente” (to quote Raging Bull on the subject of cooking, “it defeats its own purpose!!!”) and lack an emotional core are hailed as being in the same league as films that were angst-ridden masterworks.

I will continue to see his work, of course, as I hope he will somehow offer us a personal work at some point in the future. The model of countless “senior” European and Asian directors, as well as Funhouse god Robert Altman, seems to be the only way to proceed as a filmmaker grows older (unless, of course, the filmmaker started out as a crowd-pleaser, in the Spielberg fashion). In a phrase: “small movies.” Films based on character and plot, little films made on lower budgets, funded outside the established Hollywood studios. Films that are “as tough as Bresson.”


And since, like “Marty,” we all love to watch movies, below are remembrances of the filmmaker when his films were smaller. Interestingly, there are NO interviews with the intense, fast-talking, bearded Scorsese on YouTube (it can’t be that they don’t exist, I have a few on VHS — does no one else have them, or were they taken down?). There was absolutely nothing like the intense pace that Scorsese used to think and talk at. Here, for example, is a rare audio interview from 1975

UPDATE: Somehow when I was writing this, I forgot that *I* put up a slice of Scorsese during his amazing "beard era." Here he is discussing Jerry Lewis in a French documentary:

The unforgettable beginning of Mean Streets:

Who needs a documentary about the senior-aged band when you have this?

The trajectory of Taxi Driver as recounted by Scorsese; mentions of Hitchcock, Godard, and Fassbinder:

The beginning of the De Niro-Pesci team. They had quite a way with comedy team-style dialogue (and where the hell has Joe been in the past decade?):

Very strong, extremely personal cinema:

The details are the picture: check out the gentleman on screen right mimicking Rupert’s every move:

Jerry lets loose, and the result is a sublimely uncomfortable sequence:

A memorably small, dark paranoid comedy:

The film that was the closing of the “golden era,” along with Goodfellas. The one he was born to direct, the uneven but visceral and powerful and VERY brilliant Last Temptation of Christ:

The 2000-year-old man said you could learn a lot of new words from Scorsese’s films. Here’s one:

And in closing, from the days when Scorsese's films excited us all incredibly. Note that, even though the video was made by the time that he had shaved off his beard, the pics used are all of him from the bearded period. The album version of the song is even more maniacal, as John S. Hall inserts the word "fuck" in every sentence:


fort90 said...

I couldn't agree more, though I do believe that his Cape Fear remake was, in fact, "actually pretty great" as well.

Jckinnick said...

Great article and I agree also but unlike you i will probably still see Shutter Island the day it opens.

In the one King of Comedy video the guy isn't really mimicking him but really listening and studying him.