Saturday, March 1, 2008

On Scorsese

We just finished watching Gangs of New York. I don't get it. I just don't understand it. I've been confused/bored by his movies on and off for quite some time, but everyone assures me of his
genius. I don't see it.

My "shepherd" at the University here is writing her thesis on Scorsese and De Palma, and I've tried to understand what or why any academic would do that. Unfortunately the only thing I can get from her is that "He's just simply super." I can't tell if this is because she couldn't possibly fathom why I don't fall for his movies and she doesn't know where to begin or if she doesn't have anything concrete. The only concrete thing I've ever really heard is about his view of masculinity or about his bold shots (I almost wrote "visual style," but I don't believe that I've noticed a coherent visual style through his career). But I have issue to take with both these points and will come to them later.

An incomplete viewing
Because my main contact with Polish academia (which seems healthier than Polish filmmaking, but not as thriving as their middle to high-brow criticism) seems to favor Scorsese's brand of Americana, I've tried to revisit it as I've had the capability. So I tried Cape Fear again (my first time was as a teenager watching TBS or TNT). I was sincerely impressed. I finally felt that, though a remake, this film's message was clear and worth while. A world where civility came in direct conflict with brutality and in the end civility is left impotent, and the intrigue comes to see how civility can 'hold its own' once it realizes that the only real rules in this world are those of brutality. Fascinating. I dare say that the film was most aided by the taming and domesticating influence of the Amblin-style decor and clarity of storytelling. I will also dare say that I think Mr. Spielberg is a more talented producer than director (but as my brother once said when I told him I didn't often care for Spielberg's movies: "I don't think he likes yours either"). Needless to say, Cape Fear, though often referred to as a 'minor work,' is currently one of the higher points of the Scorsese oeuvre in my mind.

Later, Ashley and I decided to see The Aviator after a review I finally caught up with piqued my interest. I was shocked to see how something that seemed so very far from a 'personal film' could be so delicately and precisely handled. I loved it. This film is one of the very few exceptions to my whole hearted agreement with Peter Greenaway when he said that he would trade all of Scorsese's films for any one of Bill Viola's. I have had the privilege of seeing 4 of Bill Viola's works, but that's still a very small portion. Yet I have to agree that I leave each work stronger and more sensitive than when I entered it. PLEASE. LET'S REMEMBER WE'RE TALKING ABOUT LIFE HERE, NOT MOVIES. I don't care about movies, I care about life and our responsibilities here. Are these movies helping us in those responsibilities, or are they hurting us? I feel the need to ask myself and us. If we have an approach, a philosophy to life, are we disciples of Scorsese or of Bill Viola? (Ideally we dismiss such petty questions and say "disciples of Christ," but I wonder which side of this over-simplified question might aide us more on that path).

Yet I remind you that I did enjoy The Aviator, as I enjoyed The Last Temptation (one of the few devout efforts to praise Christ in American cinema).

The trendist
So I thought that I may have misjudged Mr. Scorsese's later work and we watched Gangs of New York tonight. The opening operatic bloodbath stunned me. When did this "American genius" turn hipster? Was the shift from the Howard Shore score to the mock-heavy metal music needed? What about the rapid-fire extreme close-ups? Since when does this American icon need to take notes from MTV and hip, hollywood-favorite post-Fincherites? Am I the only one who feels slightly deflowered by Bono-style vibrato in an ultra-pop medium?

One of the most infuriating instances of the somewhat anxious use of action close-ups was a brawl between Leonardo DiCaprio and one of "the butcher's" (Day-Lewis) Irish henchmen. The screen is divided in two by a hanging pig corpse. DiCaprio and Day-Lewis (who constitute the film's true rivalry), on one side and the Irish second-tier character on the other. Though the shot initially was a bit awkward due to its asymmetrical nature, there came a release with a slight camera movement as DiCaprio's character moves away from Day-Lewis and behind the pig carcass to attack the Irishman. The interplay between the three characters and the floating flesh creates a visual complexity that I found delightfully illustrated the narrative complexities. On top of that, the slight camera movements should have been enough to pacify even the most passive of viewing palates. But the film bumps in with a close-up of every ensuing punch, which both lessens the beauty of the mise-en-scene and the thoughtful composition (rendering it almost unrecognizable) but also the narrative and character complexity of that composition.

And I look back on the film and wonder. What do we gain from this immigrant story? A new perspective on race relations? A new appreciation for American cultural complexity (or rather a reminder that everything will be appropriated and turned into a more digestible form of TV, anyway)? A new perspective on revenge, generational tensions, or violence? I can't answer yes to one of these. I will say that I will remember a few bravado shots, Daniel Day-Lewis's better-than-ever performance, a curious prayer sequence, and a peculiar yet disturbing use of triangulation in the end. Perhaps it is a kind of reverse deus-ex-machina when the two gangs stand off only to both be destroyed by the government soldiers. But I'm also left drained from dealing with the tiresome melodrama about immigrants, masculinity, brutal religion, and misogyny.

I wonder, does any one of the filmmakers look back on that film and say,"Boy, I sure am glad we put that female nudity in there. That sure made the movie. It would have been a disaster with out all those breasts." Are there viewers that say those things? Do people really believe that there are no moral implications of doing these things? I'm not even talking about the LDS notion that modesty in dress is of God. I'm talking about men manipulating women and praising those actions in a very public way. To do it in Who's That Knocking at My Door? seems to make sense (yet still highly questionable and pornographic, I'd say), but the point is about misogyny and brutishness preventing any kind of connection with the divine. But to do it now, at this point, in this way, seems like whore-mongering as filmmaking.

But perhaps most of all I am disturbed by those bravado shots. One sequence shows immigrants getting off a boat, being forced to sign up for the army, get clothed and ask about getting fed while getting on the next boat to go fight in the Civil War. Quite an impressive sequence, even if a bit showy and heavy for my tastes (a chorus from an Irish song describing exactly what's going on in the shot makes sure you can't miss it). But I am left with the question: when do we use these bold shots? When there's no other way to tell the story? When it makes the story more interesting? All the time? To emphasize emotion? To reinforce the narrative? Or to question the narrative? To problematize and expound upon the characters, the narrative? Though some may seem more reasonable than others, I am not satisfied with any of them. I find myself remembering that 'story' is very rarely the reason I watch or enjoy a movie.

I am disturbed by Scorsese's films because I always feel that there was something he was saying that I never got. Every personal film seems to be about the same things as the last, but I don't ever seem to catch up to it. This bravado and vibrato lets me know that he's being artistic and high-minded, but I never get the point, whereas the Dardennes Brothers seem to be so intensely concerned with everything EXCEPT being artsy that when the profundity comes, I'm overwhelmed. I'm changed because I never expected it, because they never expected it. I hope to choose subtlety.

Criticize the work but praise the cinephile
But I need to make the distinction between Martin Scorsese the filmmaker and Martin Scorsese the historian. I deeply respect the historian and preservationist, and he has definitely been a major influence to me in my over-blown aspirations. How much he has done. He's saved more than one Polish film, several silents, and some sources would say hundreds in total. What more could we ask of a man. I must also say that I am extremely impressed with how articulate he is about his work. Perhaps I should just keep to reading what he has to say about himself and his work.


Anonymous said...

"Am I the only one who feels slightly deflowered by Bono-style vibrato in an ultra-pop medium?"

That is a classic line, Trevor. Excellent stuff.

Trevor said...

That's quite a compliment coming from you, William. You've earned much of my respect over the past several months. Your encouragement is appreciated.