Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Cinema in the time of computer graphics: De Niro’s “jaundice face” and other side-effects of The Irishman

Two young actors not
seen in The Irishman.
I spent a good part of my adolescence and 20s worshipping Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker. I still admire and respect him as an archivist, a curator, a funder of restorations, a writer of film texts, and above all else, a brilliant cinephile. As a filmmaker, his output became a matter of small surprises after Goodfellas, with the best, most interesting titles being the odder items that didn’t fit his persona — Age of Innocence, Kundun, Hugo.

The items that pertained to his former strong suits — from Cape Fear to the current Irishman — and his attempts at massive-budgeted pageantry — from Gangs of New York to Silence — were bloated, directionless, bloodless works that, while gorgeously directed, didn’t  *need* to exist in the way that his earlier, rough-edged, eternally watchable films were, and are.

And thus The Irishman, a Faustian bargain made with the endless financing of Netflix, which has as its core a character study of a nasty fucker and is blown up to epic length (the book it’s based on was 384 pages in hardback; the film is 210 minutes in length). It also contains Scorsese’s deepest-dive into CGI technology. He started using computer-tech in his films most noticeably in Kundun (one gorgeous, unforgettable image was a “computer fake” that was made with that year’s state of the art technology). Here, he lets the CGI blight the acting and create strange creatures onscreen that are at once actors we know all too well but are “touched-up” versions of them, an attempt to provide youth in the guise of “cleansed” digital imagery.

There are lovely things to be found in the film. Firstly, the visuals are gorgeous. All of Scorsese’s films, even those bereft of any palpable human feeling (Bringing Out the Dead, The Departed), have been miracles of craftsmanship. The soundtrack is a beautifully arranged melange of unobtrusive music by Robbie Robertson and some vintage orchestral music that conjures up the times in which the film takes place (and then doesn’t move on chronologically — meaning that either the characters are stuck in the Fifties/Sixties, or the filmmaker is). One of the nicest inclusions in that regard is the theme from Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954), the great masterpiece about aging gangsters, which clocks in at a lean, tough 83 minutes. (My in-depth tribute to Becker can be found here.)

There is the cast, which is a short list of Scorsese’s most important actors — Harvey Keitel, the one I wanted to see most, gets the short end of the stick and has seemingly been permanently supplanted by Joe Pesci as the “actor allowed to work in the most scenes with producer Robert De Niro under the direction of Mr. Scorsese.”

"I killed everyone worth killing!" -- Frank Sheeran
There is also the matter of cross-talk. The film’s script by Steve Zaillian is way too long and should’ve been sliced and diced down to a two-hour length, but Scorsese CANNOT bring himself to edit his films down below two hours (even the soulless music docs run for eternities). The script contains some amusing cross-talk moments, which used to be the finest moments in Scorsese’s films. The back-room discussion between Keitel and De Niro in Mean Streets will always be a high-water mark of this kind of humor.

Here, the cross-talk scenes are enjoyable — but, like everything in the picture, there are lots and lots of them. And they go on for long periods of time. And they don’t have the spontaneity of that great scene in Mean Streets — like the film as a whole, these cross-talk comedy bits are older gents revisiting something they did to perfection as younger men but now “telegraph” (and keep on telegraphing).

In 1995, shooting Casino.
The matter of length also is reflected in the fact that Scorsese is revisiting familiar turf here, turf which he covered beautifully at first in masterful movies with running times in the vicinity of two hours. In this period of his career, where *everything* he signs as a director must run to an epic length (be it a period piece, a gangster drama, or just a regular old rock-doc), The Irishman is the natural result of this beached-whale running time (which I thought he had hit the wall with, in the least-interesting pic he ever made, The Departed). 

So, The Irishman at 210 minutes is a remake of a remake (Casino, at an unwieldy 178 mins) of a remake (Goodfellas, at 146 mins) of a sublime rough-edged, lower-budgeted crime drama (the 112-minute Mean Streets). As a point of comparison, this reviewer loves Rivette and Tarkovsky, saw and enjoyed Satantango, and has happily watched Berlin Alexanderplatz and Out 1 twice. But man, oh man, Marty's "pictures" became endless as of the 2000s. (New York, New York, on the other hand, is incredibly rewatchable, because its schizo-cocaine construction is amazing to behold; it's fascinating when it's working and fascinating when it's failing... big time!)

He'd spit on CGI fx for his actors.
Scorsese seems to have a Howard Hawks fetish (I first noted this here), but with Hawks his final film was a shorter remake (Rio Lobo, 114 mins) of a shorter remake (El Dorado, 126 minutes) of a masterpiece (Rio Bravo, 141 mins). Only the most diehard Hawks fan would make an argument that El Dorado and Rio Lobo are utterly essential viewing. They’re both better than Casino, though….

25-year-old De Niro, Greetings.
But let’s set aside the beached-whale aspect of the film and get to its most conspicuous aspect, the “de-aging” digital makeover that Scorsese is so excited about (and audiences and critics say “melts away” as the film moves on). This gigantic aspect of making the film cost an amount that is not less than 15 million dollars (quite the Faustian bargain, that!) and perhaps several million more. The budget breakdowns online got murkier when Scorsese started this costly process — all because he couldn’t emulate his cinematic heroes and cast younger actors as the younger characters. De Niro rrrrreally wanted a tour de force Oscar bid!

This de-aging business was clearly the result of De Niro’s ego, and so he plays a character who ages from his mid-20s to his 80s, while he himself was 73-74 (the film was shot from 2017 to ’18). He produced the film and it is clearly intended as a “return to form” (since he now makes many, many, MANY wretchedly bad movies just for the money). Oddly enough, it’s not a return to his actual form, but instead he is a kind of a CGI creature onscreen, a hitman variant of the “Gollum” syndrome (where a live actor plays a computer-created creature).

Computer-masked De Niro at 25. The computer
was mistakenly on the "young Anthony LaPaglia" setting. 
So much for those who claim that the yellow-ish, blemish- and wrinkle-free face that was painted on De Niro’s own by CGI technology “melts away” as the film moves on. It really doesn’t, and simply can’t for those who have watched De Niro over the years and remember quite clearly what his face looked like when he was young (before the persistent wince-face that grew on him in the Eighties). Since he started working in film, he has rarely taken time off, and so we’ve seen him age from 25 (when he appeared in Brian De Palma’s Greetings) to 76 (his current age). He has never looked anything like the yellow-faced guy who appears in The Irishman.

A younger person can be made up to look old, but an older person playing a much younger person is fighting the laws of nature — and gravity. One only need to see the scene where “young” Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who is supposed to be under 40, beats up a guy who shoved his daughter, to see the gait of an old man who is trying to behave like a young one. It’s been noted online that there was a “posture coach” on the set of The Irishman to aid De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci to behave like younger men. Does it work? Well, kinda, but that’s mostly because they are seen sitting and talking for much of the film’s running time, so the matter of their old-man bodies adhering to the laws of gravity isn't as troublesome as it could've been. Of course, there's another logical problem  as they get older, most men get fatter; "young" de-aged De Niro has the un-toned, chubbier physique of a 74-year-old man.

This CGI de-aging business is akin to two things. First, a bad facelift, since the computer-enhanced expressions inhibit the emotions seen on the performer’s face. One need only think of the last few movies Cher appeared in, where her kabuki mask of plastic surgery inhibited her from any complicated expression on her face (and she was quite a good actress before she started revamping her head).

Fred Travalena wearing
a prosthetic face as De Niro.
The second are those amazingly scary full-head prosthetic masks that Fred Travalena wore in his later years — leaving nothing to chance, Travalena had masks crafted that looked like cartoon nightmares. Here, 77- to 78-year-old Al Pacino is wearing a digital version of that — as Jimmy Hoffa, his hair is stunningly phony-looking and his de-aged face looks around 60 when he’s supposed to be Hoffa at 44 and remains 60 when Hoffa is 62.

For his part, De Niro was surely one of the best actors in the world in the 1970s and ’80s – perhaps the best film actor working at that time. However, as of the early ’90s he fell into self-parody (by This Boy’s Life, he was an actor doing a De Niro impression). The de-aging process “erases” his wince-face look, but it adds nothing in its place. The smaller range of emotion he’s had for the last 25 years-plus is made even smaller by this state-of-the-art tech that produces a digitized Kabuki mask.

And this technology truly is state of the art. Although those of us who do acknowledge the movement of time realize that there’s nothing that ages faster than “state of the art” tech. One imagines that in 20 years (perhaps 10 or even 5?), audiences will look at the yellow-ish “jaundice-face” that De Niro has in his “youngest” scenes here and smile (if not laugh), recognizing that what was cutting edge in 2019 is quaint (if not downright primitive) in their own time. [UPDATE, 1/7/20: I was wrong. The costly CGI de-aging technology is already out of date! A "deepfake" expert found a way to do a "clearer" approach to de-aging De Niro's senior mug (and it does look much better than what you see in the film). It took him seven days and he used *free* software! Here's the Esquire piece that links to a video clip showing the improved approach.]

De-aged old guys. De Niro in
his Robin Williams mode. (The drawn-on
eyebrows don't help matters any.)
To deflect one from focusing on how inappropriate (and egomaniacal) it was for this digital “erasing” to have been used, one can play a little game while watching The Irishman: try to figure out who De Niro looks like in any given scene. In the “youngest” scenes, his digital face has some of the young Alec Baldwin about it. As he grows older and “age” (but not much!) was added to his face, his digital mug looks like his old costar (and Belushi-visiting buddy) Robin Williams. At one point, I thought he resembled Glenn Ford; at another, his face is so round he looks like W.C. Fields. When he’s super-old (read: older than his current age), his snowy white hair and old-guy demeanor made him the spitting image of the latter-day Robert Loggia. One thing is certain throughout most of the film: the digital face of De Niro doesn’t look anything like the younger Robert De Niro that we saw in all those films.

And yes, the de-aging was used on Pesci and Pacino as well. Of the two, I’m fascinated by the critical praise lavished on Pesci. The de-aging in his case (as with De Niro in some scenes) changes the shape of his head, to the point where Joe’s noggin looks like a walnut. Setting that aside, he seems very tired — not only in his character’s old-guy moments but also when the gent is a younger, influential gangster. Pesci has opted to stay out of film for many years now, and his return here is welcome on a general level, but he seems at points to not want to be in front of the camera, especially compared to the super-wired performer he was back in the Eighties and Nineties.

Pacino, as can always be expected, is the exact opposite. He’s super-wired and doing his “AL PACINO!” hyper-acting, to the point that Jimmy Hoffa is the comic relief in the film. At times he’s the only character you’d actually want to meet. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is an odd, mostly quiet cipher and Pesci’s Russell Bufalino is some Pennsylvania Mafioso whose purpose in life seems to be cautioning Sheeran that he (or Hoffa) is getting out of line.

As for the plot, it seems to be about, as critics and criminologists have dubbed the real-life Frank Sheeran, “the Forrest Gump of organized crime.” The validity of Sheeran’s claims has been debated via articles that say he was confessing to things he had no part in. The addition of him being the sole killer of Joey Gallo seems ridiculous on the face of it, and the bizarrely circuitous way in which Sheeran is asked to kill his friend Hoffa is mind-boggling (as if only HE can do it — the Shakespearean aspect is melodramatic and the very definition of “incredible”). And, of course, like everything else here, it is time-consuming.

De Niro and Pacino in Rightous Kill (2008).
De Niro is 65; Pacino is 68. Both were in the thick of
their "we will play in anything we're offered" period (which has yet to end).
In closing, I’ll just return to a notion that I wrote about in 2010 when noting the fact that Scorsese’s work was very definitely different (and lesser) than it used to be. I quoted from a piece he wrote for a book on the immortal Robert Bresson. In that book he said:  “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?” (Robert Bresson, editor: James Quandt, The Toronto Film Festival International Group, 1998, p. 579)

Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951),
a film that influenced Taxi Driver.
Cinema that is much "tougher"
than the present-day Scorsese....
In that 2010 entry I noted: ... 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.

I still firmly believe what I wrote then, and it’s become obvious as the years have gone by since then that Scorsese doesn’t want to make a “small movie” (Godard’s worshipful term) EVER again. He made “news” when he commented about Marvel movies not being “cinema.” He is 100 percent right (my thoughts about this are here). But is it “cinematic” to use computer tech to disguise an actor who is too insanely old for a part? It can easily be viewed (third metaphor!) as the CGI equivalent of hiding the visage of an aging glamour queen with soft focus or Vaseline on the lens. If you’re making a serious drama, using tech to de-age an egotistical performer-producer is about as cinematic as, well, the technicians who work on Marvel movies having to insert an apocalyptic landscape behind actors dressed in capes and tights.

Scorsese also utilizes computer-tech that has been put to exquisite use by foreign filmmakers. (And the saddest thing of all is that the majority of the present-day Netflix viewers – and even the bulk of those who saw The Irishman in a theater – haven’t seen a foreign film in eons.) Just one example: the super-slow-mo used for a pointless wedding scene. The technique was used by von Trier in his brilliant Antichrist and Melancholia. Here, it’s used to slow down a wedding sequence, in order to show us how mobbed up the affair is. von Trier’s use of the effect was evocative, emotional, and moving. Scorsese’s is ornamental and pointless. The Irishman is “arthouse lite.”

An actual arthouse film. "That you should see...!"
Possibly Scorsese can’t make small films anymore — he has become addicted to the gargantuan budgets he’s been allotted, and unlike Coppola, he’s not going to move backward and make a character study or a “short story” (in the manner of Youth Without Youth). More’s the pity, since his two-hour and under films are marvels of concision and rough-edged brilliance. And right about the time that I endured the fourth or fifth cross-talk conversation in The Irishman, the bristling-with-energy (and, let’s be honest, cocaine) brilliance of King of Comedy and After Hours (both under 110 mins) seemed just about right for a palate-cleanser….

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