3rd 04 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Playing by Different Rules: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.

Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.

Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.

The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.

Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.

Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.

Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.

Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.

Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.

Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.

Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”

In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.


7th 12 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Women in Love (1969)

Director: Ken Russell

By Roderick Heath

Ken Russell’s death last week at age 84 felt like the last in an endless series of cheats the director had suffered in his lifetime. The eternally puckish Russell had been until quite recently continuing to amuse and instruct in newspaper columns, belying his advanced years with a still-guttering mental fire, and thus his death cheated him, and us, of hope of a last good film. Also, it comes at a time when something like Russell’s due was finally coming to him. Lately, Russell has begun to be celebrated as the great British rebel he was, and like many great British rebels, ended up exemplifying something about the society he fell into struggle with. In that regard he resembled D. H. Lawrence, the writer Russell adapted for his third, and first truly, personally definitive feature film, Women in Love. Purely by living long enough, Russell became an elder statesman of British film, an unlikely end as there was a time not so long ago when Russell’s audacious, rampantly energetic, entirely wilful cinema was a byword for something nasty and crazy and degraded. Indeed, some of Russell’s essential aesthetic beliefs – that creative passion was superior to refined style, that interpretative vibrancy was more important than fidelity, that the erotic and the vulgar had a deeper and more vital place in art than they had been allowed – were red rags to the bulls of cultural guardianship, especially as one of Russell’s favourite creative guerrilla tactics was to remind us of the compost out of which much great art grows. During the 1970s, when most of his generational fellows tried to carve out places for themselves in Hollywood and British cinema almost died from a lack of passion and confidence, Russell didn’t always stay home, but he did try to stay true to his creed, and continued to shake things up until his career began to stall in the late 1980s.

Women in Love came after Russell had reentered cinema with Billion Dollar Brain (1968), the third of Michael Caine’s delicious series of Harry Palmer spy flicks, but also after he had excited audiences and attentive minds with a series of electrifying TV movies and shorts in the previous few years. Women in Love came amidst a steady flow of highbrow literary classics tackled by the young heathens of British cinema in the ’60s, some flagrantly modernist and playful, like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), some elegiac and expansive, like John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Russell’s take on Lawrence’s novel was something else again. Russell doesn’t seem to be filming Lawrence’s book so much as trying to live it out page by page. The superficially uncouth yet poetic, symbolic writer who tried to find the comprehensibility in things normally thought of as primal and vice versa, has been digested and defecated, reshaped into the literality of images and of feeling by Russell, who also poured his own emotional reflexes into it, and extracted in turn the potential in Lawrence’s material, true as he saw it when he wrote the book in the 1910s, to capture things nascent in the late ‘60s zeitgeist. Feminism in the form of Glenda Jackson’s ground-breaking performance and her character’s arc from frustrated parochial nonconformist to self-actualising femme du monde; frank homoeroticism in the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates; and sundry other fragments replete with satire, social observation, and philosophical yammering, which capture and distil that sense of import in the moment which distinguished the era. Would certain great cultural institutions survive as their foundations seemed now rotten? What was the future of human relations, between classes, between genders, when so much had gone wrong with them? Lawrence had tried to make the questions palpable, and Russell tried to capture with authenticity the way the questions had found new momentum.

In terms of actual story, of course, there’s an element of soap opera to Women in Love, depicting as it does two concurrent love affairs, one of which involves shattering social classes and ends in near-murder and then suicide. The soapy element is however what gives the intellectualism flesh. Some criticism was levelled at Women in Love for, however, keeping intact Lawrence’s loopy anti-realistic dialogue, but to adapt such a novel without trying to capture its depth of thought would have reduced it to a sex farce. Russell for the most part keeps them ably counterpointed with his animated, dynamic camera, a visual entity that reproduces the thrashing sense of life found in the characters. One of Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer’s more contentious touches was to relocate the novel to after the First World War, whereas Lawrence had been writing about the fin-de-siecle mood of bohemian boundary-stretching of the Edwardian era, and which the war had been used as a justification for repressing, a cultural war which Lawrence and his novel had been caught up in. But Russell makes this work for him, using the official pieties of dedicating war memorials and visions of mangled, poverty-stricken and begging veterans, to give immediacy and mordant pep to Rupert Birkin’s (Bates) oft-satirical, always frantic attempts to synthesise a modern kind of living, and the inevitable translation of this into terms of the film’s Vietnam-era anti-war mood. Russell also depicts flapper styles and jazz-age rags beginning to infest the hidebound British landscape, as its heroines in their wilfully colourful garb strut through grey and grimy streets and filth-clad working-class men, like Birds of Paradise nesting in Mordor.

These exotic birds are Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), daughters of a schoolteacher who are themselves now teachers. Except that as members of their mining town’s small intelligentsia, they become intimate with some of its flashier figures, including Gerald Crich (Reed), son of the mine’s owner (Alan Webb), his friend Rupert, who works as a school inspector, through which capacity he first meets Ursula, and his pretentious aristocratic lover Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron). Rupert and Hermione’s relationship is foundering as he becomes increasingly cold and sarcastic about her affectations and greed for attention, coming to a head when he breaks up a self-indulgent dance she performs whilst trying to overshadow Gudrun and Ursula, by getting the accompanist to start bashing out a Charleston rag. Hermione, enraged by his scorn and her offended pretence to cultural imperium, tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, but he survives and runs away. Gerald, intrigued by the sisters, invites them to an annual party the Criches throw for their workers and other townsfolk, but during the party his younger sister Laura (Sharon Gurney) and her newlywed husband Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable) drown whilst swimming naked in the estate lake. This tragedy catalyses both Ursula and Rupert’s and Gudrun and Gerald’s affairs, and also deepens Rupert and Gerald’s bond. But these relationships are fated to run very different courses, as Ursula’s conventional concept of love slowly reins in Rupert’s yearnings for multifarious relationships, whilst Gerald pours grief and anger into his partnering with Gudrun, who in turn drifts into an intellectual bond with a gay German artist, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), when the quartet head off for a holiday in the Alps. In a nihilistic rage, Gerald strangles Gudrun almost to death, but then wanders off to freeze to death in the mountains.

Like Lawrence’s novel, most of the captivating, invigorating illustrative vignettes in Russell’s film are loaded into the first half: Tibby and Laura racing each other to the church on their wedding day; Gudrun dancing before bulls like a Cretan priestess, oblivious to danger and given up to art as life in the moment; Hermione’s assault on Rupert and his ritual-like stripping and self-cleansing afterwards in the forest; the fatal drowning of the couple and Rupert and Ursula’s frantic copulation in the bushes, transmuting death-angst into life-spark as the lake is drained to reveal the drowned bodies, the living and dead couples wrapped around each other identically; Gerald wielding the same controlling instinct he pushes on his workers on his horse, in forcing it to remain close to a speeding train; his crazed mother releasing guard dogs on workmen coming to the family mansion. It helps that Lawrence provided such episodes that stick like burrs in the imagination and gave a filmmaker such naturally intense images. Women in Love presents a panoply of thematic tropes and visual motifs Russell would play about with in increasingly effusive and unique terms, and it stands as a definite prototypical work for Russell, who would achieve his most personal and intense extremes in the likes of Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Mahler (1974).

Russell did his best work when he was fighting against limitations of not only censorship and cultural expectations but also assumptions of technical competence and traditions of quality – the tension between the formal beauty his traditionally trained cinematographers, editors, and studio hands could give his films and his own anarchic impulses was in fine balance in his ‘70s works. Here Russell’s filmmaking, with the incomparable aid of the great cinematographer Billy Williams, attacks with physical force. They often employ hand-held camerawork, not affected like so much modern wobble-cam stuff, but charged with sweeping energy, to give the film a hungry, compulsive feel. Russell did some of the hand-held work himself in trying to upset the classic delicacies of movie photography. The sense of production detail is impeccable in recreating the ‘20s, with much of the costuming authentic stuff picked up in op shops and thrift stores. Despite this, or maybe because of this, there’s a resistance to the sort of precious, muted air that afflicts most such historical movies, an effect deepened by the material, which in part subverts our stereotypes of the era’s behaviour and personal world-views, whilst also offering up shots like the Crichs’ golden car knifing its way through knots of filthy mine workers, a concise visual nugget that reminds us what all the bohemian cavorting is being supported by. There’s Russell’s own satirical jab back at Lawrence, who, trying to wrestle his way out of the usual class presumptions and rhetoric of his time, seemed to yearn to belong to the upper class bohemians of the Bloomsbury group he nonetheless satirised mercilessly in the novel.

One irony of Women in Love is of course that it could as easily have been called Men in Love, for Rupert and Gerald dominate as much as the two sisters, and Rupert’s channelling of Lawrence’s philosophical articulateness especially, in the first half. Rupert hopes overtly for a kind of deep platonic partnership to counterbalance the familiar man-woman marriage, wanting to establish a kind of blutbrüderschaft with Gerald, expressed after the pair beat hell out of each other in a bout of Japanese-style wrestling as Rupert encourages Gerald to release his emotions following his sister’s death. The nude wrestling scene is famous for some obvious reasons – it was the first time a mainstream English-language feature allowed frontal male nudity, and two big-name actors to boot. But what makes it still a riveting scene is how unabashedly the men carry it out, and how Russell shoots it, even given that he’d worked closely with the censor chief to carefully tweak light levels and framings, nonetheless the scene doesn’t feel especially self-conscious when British cinema had been notoriously clumsy with erotic themes and nudity. Instead Russell here does some of his most vivid editing, ending with the two men entwined like lovers even in inflicting violence on each-other, and indeed the violence takes the place of sexual and emotional release. Russell ratchets up the flicker of homosexual bonding between the pair, apparent in Rupert’s glitter-eyed attempts to get the stiff-necked Gerald to understand his offer of a kind of love. The male romance counterpoints the two more traditional romances, and also the crack-up of Rupert and Hermione’s affair, which mirrors what later happens with Gerald and Gudrun, but with the gender roles reversed.

Although it’s certainly a film with a director’s powerful imprint on it, much of the force and beauty of Women in Love comes from the cast, an almost perfect confluence of talent. Jackson won the Oscar, but the film offers ensemble work of a high character, although I feel Linden’s Ursula is more distinctly whiny and petty than she should be. Amongst the supporting cast, comprising many of Russell’s stock company of actors, Bron is a stand-out. She inhabits Hermione with a mixture of gruesome egotism and defined pathos, particularly excellent in the lengthy dance scene where she both displays physical deftness, but also puts across the peculiar form of violence she’s inflicting on her so-called friends and lover, before her own exclamation of aggrieved disbelief when Rupert tells her he didn’t mean to spoil her dance, “My arse!” Bates, whom Russell reported identified deeply with Lawrence, is fantastic as Rupert, a difficult part to play at the best of times, bringing out the emotional charge, hints of drunkenness, desperation, and bisexual longing throbbing beneath his airy pronouncements: whereas Jackson’s Gudrun communicates the thrill of wilful self-liberation, Rupert suffers from a darker knowledge, of knowing new human paradigms have to be invented to survive. Bates might be at his keenest in the moment when he expounds a lengthy comparison of the fig with femininity, a scene charged with multiple levels of character revelation and tension, as the metaphor means different things to each of the people listening to it. This moment encapsulates indirectly the shift of Rupert’s affections from Hermione to Ursula, as Rupert is being honest, witty, and caddish all at the same time.

Similarly riveting are Russell’s two signal muses, Jackson and Reed, whom he would later often try to replace but usually unsuccessfully. A more different pair in terms of personal outlook is hard to imagine, but both had gusto, fearlessness, and a confrontational style, that well matched Russell’s own. Reed, whom Russell had cast before in several of his telemovies including The Debussy Film (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1965), and would use again in The Devils (1971) and other films, became an ideal vessel for his self-projection, for, as well as bearing a certain resemblance to Russell, he could exude a quality of poeticism filtered through a primitive bluntness. This is exactly correct for portraying Gerald, who in spite of his upper class background and machine-age ambitions, retains a kind of savage volatility in him which first seeks relief in Gudrun’s arms and then begins to metaphorically and then literally throttle her. One of the film’s most riveting scenes comes when, after his father dies and his mad mother has humiliated him, he stalks through the night, dressed as a working man, squeezing the mud from his father’s grave between his fingers and then sneaking into the Brangwen house, where he finds his oblivion in her bed. The next morning, in a marvellous volte face of point of view, she awakens with his bulk upon her, trapping her in bed.

Gudrun takes on Gerald as the only man fearsome enough to take her on, and she the only woman filled with enough energy for both creation and destruction to engage his innermost impulses. Early in the film as he parades about with hookers in one of town’s working class pubs, he encounters her slumming, taunting and despising the working men, one of whom she easily rattles by answering his come-ons with a stated desire to “drown in flesh.” Jackson, who would give another galvanising performance for Russell in The Music Lovers, seems to condense all of the other characters within herself, as well as a total intelligence that refuses to be pinned down, even as she chafes and occasionally shrinks before a world largely hostile to her, which she answers with prickly arrogance. Gudrun’s dance before the cattle, and her gestures throughout, channels the style of Isadora Duncan, about whom Russell had made a telemovie in in 1966. Russell almost always included a dance or mime sequence in his films. This recurring, crucial actualisation of the kinetic-creative force in his characters reflects Russell’s own adolescent training as a ballet dancer, and it’s often through such sequences that his truest, more elegiac impulses, and sometimes also his most humorous and surreal ideas, are communicated. A certain amount of homosexual panic, which underlies Gerald’s simultaneous closeness with and rejection of Rupert, erupts in him as Gudrun, who already tempts something destructive in him, drifts closer to Loerke. But Gerald’s world-view and private madness also can only finally find a sense of conclusion in a totally nihilistic gesture, leaving the film poised in an aspect of depletion and incompleteness, true to the novel, even as the characters all, in a way, find what they’ve been looking for. Of course, in Gerald’s case it’s a tragic end, but one that satisfies and takes to a limit his own impulses, and for the others there is a sense of cost and longing still inflecting their happily ever afters. Women in Love doesn’t so much end as stop, questions still in the air, the unease of the times still heavy upon characters, artists, and audience.


24th 12 - 2008 | 13 comments »

20 Meme Redux: Actors

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Whether this is an official meme or not, I thought it only fair to give the masculine disciples of Thespis their day in the sun. I found out something interesting that piggybacks on something I read last night in Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies: “It is only recently that men have come to monopolize the popularity polls, the credits, and the romantic spotlight allocating to themselves not just the traditional male warrior and adventurer roles, but those of the sex object and glamor queen as well. Back in the twenties and thirties, and to a lesser extent the forties, women were at the center.” When I look over my choices for favorite actors, I see fewer from the Golden Age than I had among the actresses I chose.

If I’m honest, a number of the actors were included for the “hottie” factor, though I also think they’re good at what they do. You’ll also see that I have an inordinate fondness for chubby guys, no doubt an Oedipal connection to my rotund father. I’m somewhat surprised by some of my choices as well—where are Bogey, Grant, Tracy, Newman? Sorry, boys, you lack that je ne sais quoi for me. Choosing photos, I discovered that posing men with cigarettes was quite the thing, so if you’re a man who smokes, you may have been inordinately influenced by the movie image of masculinity.

Once again, here are my favorites in alphabetical order.

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Daniel Auteuil is a prolific French actor who just seems to get better and better. He’s in a lot of the films I see, lending a certain unspoken sadness to each of them. I’m particularly fond of his work in the very touching The Eighth Day and the film from which the above picture was taken Girl on the Bridge. As long as he keeps making pictures, I’ll keep watching them.

Antonio Banderas is absolutely gorgeous, but so are a lot of actors. He makes the list for that and for having a brilliant sense of humor to go along with his swoonworthy qualities. He makes every film he’s in a little better.

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James Cagney is a fave rave of mine from way back. When I was young, I’d set my alarm clock to wake me when one of his movies was on TV in the middle of the night. Time has only shown me that he was more than a schoolgirl crush. He was one of the best actors we’ve ever seen.

Lon Chaney created dozens of amazing characters, undertaking physical distress to play the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the armless carney in The Unknown, and covering his face completely in The Phantom of the Opera. How he managed to make monsters sympathetic under all the make-up is beyond me, but he changed cinema forever by doing so.

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Gary Cooper is the stand-up guy of cinema. Whether he’s playing a humble war hero, a dying ballplayer, or a friendless sheriff, he shows inner strength and courage better than anyone I can think of. I adore him.

Russell Crowe is my swashbuckler for the new millennium. His turn in Master and Commander cemented his stature in my eyes, becoming mythic in a realistic performance. I look forward to basking in his aura for years to come.

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Johnny Depp first became a presence for me on 21 Jump Street. He wore his hair long in front so you couldn’t see his eyes. The network probably made him do that because his gaze is definitely too sexy for prime time. He’s become a fine actor with a particular talent for fantasy and imagination.

Keir Dullea has a quiet intelligence in his best roles. Watching him match wits with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is truly suspenseful, but I really fell for him in The Lathe of Heaven, where he could literally dream a different world.

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Charles Durning is the first of my chubby guys. He’s a wonderful character actor who makes his presence felt wherever he appears, stealing his scenes with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. I particularly like him as Charley in Death of a Salesman, truly being the only friend Willie Loman (Hoffman again, can’t that guy catch a break?) says he is. What a gentleman.

Bruno Ganz is a fantastic actor and will cause me to watch a film just because he’s in it. His most memorable role was the angel in Wings of Desire, but I can name so many films that are elevated because he’s in them. Truly a great actor of our time.

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Gregory Hines is another of my hotties. I could watch him dance all day and night. Even just standing around in a cashmere sweater, he seems in magnificent motion. Tap has a place of honor in my film collection.

Boris Karloff has become a favorite of mine ever since I got a chance to see his work in such films as Bedlam and Targets. The latter film especially shows what an elegant, generous actor he was.

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Klaus Kinski was the modern Lon Chaney, as out there as they get. One of the best things about our times is that a guy like Kinski could have a career playing something other than gunsels, though he did that, too.

Marcello Mastrioanni has attained legendary status based on his work with Fellini, but he’s so much more than that. His brilliant comic performance in Divorce, Italian Style showed me a new side of him. I love him. I really do.

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Joel McCrea is an actor who has displaced others I used to admire. His performance in Sullivan’s Travels is fabulous, but it was Ride the High Country that really put him on my radar screen. I’m finding out more about him all the time, and I like what I’m finding.

Eduardo Noriega is the handsomest man alive, and yet, he played against that fact in Open Your Eyes. He was chilling in The Devil’s Backbone. He’s one of Spain’s finest.

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Eugene Pallette is a wonderful character actor who created some indelible characters—Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Papa Bullock in My Man Godfrey, a political boss in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He made a ton of films in the studio system, so I’m constantly pointing delightedly while watching some obscure silent or 30s film and saying, “Eugene Pallette!”

James Stewart is one of the most versatile actors in motion pictures. His inherent likeability and a certain ardent romanticism made his performance in Vertigo both shocking and believable. If we have an everyman in films, he’s it.

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Rudolph Valentino has a small shrine in my office so I can gaze on his magnetic eyes whenever I want to. He jumps off the silent screen with the presence of Garbo, yet he also has a wonderful sense of humor that comes through in such films as The Eagle and Son of the Sheik. I worship him.

Anton Walbrook makes the list on the basis of two performances: Svengali-like Lermontov in The Red Shoes and German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. His range and his intensity are amazing, particularly in the latter film in which he ages 40 years and moves from open youth to sad disillusionment. He’s a wonder.


7th 06 - 2008 | no comment »

Persons of Interest: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Persons of Interest
A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

Frank Cottrell Boyce

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By Roderick Heath

A genre-bending, radically original, yet deftly humane writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce has become one of the major creative forces of modern British cinema. Like one of the loopier heroes he has invoked—Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People (2003)—Boyce inhabits many worlds at once without effort, if not without the odd disaster. Particularly through his partnership with Michael Winterbottom, Boyce has helped weld together previously disparate strands of Cinematic Britannia— the knowing, pop spirit born sometime around A Hard Day’s Night (1964); the mocking allusiveness of the quick-witted Oxfordian best exemplified by Monty Python; the madcap, yet purposeful anachronisms of Ken Russell; the musty highbrow historical and literary classic genre; the gritty, down-and-dirty Loach-and-Leigh realist stream; and a fractured but vivacious post-modernism.
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Boyce found a true collaborator in Winterbottom, a director of enormous inventiveness and unique restlessness of style and theme. Yet Boyce maintains his individuality. A film as anarchic and yet intelligent as Pandaemonium (2000) could only come from the hand also responsible for Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005). Boyce, born in 1961, was an Oxford graduate in English and palaeontology, a detail not unimportant to his writing’s sense of history and humanity entwining in chaotic ways. After working for many years as the TV critic for the magazine Living Marxism, he attempted to break into writing for television proper. After some scattered work, he finished up on a dreary assignment (penning a script for an anti-smoking programme) for a company that also employed frustrated trainee editor Winterbottom. The two met and decided to help each other along.

Both men made their feature film debut with Forget About Me (1990), which made exactly nil impact at the time and yet is now much beloved by a small band of fans. Boyce’s spell as a staff writer on the seminal Brit soap Coronation Street began soon after, the reason, some suggested, that Living Marxism was often seen on sale in the news agency on the show. In 1995, he and Winter- bottom returned for their second butterfly_kiss.jpgshot with the loopy road movie Butterfly Kiss, featuring Amanda Plummer as a mad punkette who accidentally becomes a serial killer whilst falling in love with bewildered Jane Lynch. The film was an earthy mixture of indie grit, new queer cinema, and ’90s-breed film noir, and was a breakthrough.

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Boyce followed up by penning two biopics for director Anand Tucker—the characteristically eccentric Saint-Ex (1996) and the more standard, and acclaimed, Hilary and Jackie (1997). A signature sequence in the latter film, in which Emily Watson’s Jacqueline du Pré and other young classical music students blithely bash out The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” is, in a way, a key to Boyce’s oeuvre. Often in his films, high culture, pop culture, low culture, new and old, collide and transform each-other, making new and witty connections. In his most distinctive scripts, the heroes are fools of fortune caught in webs of past and present, fiction and reality, all mashed together and made inseparable by that tyrannous agent, time. (more…)


14th 02 - 2008 | 8 comments »

Persons of Interest: Roy Scheider

A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool

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By Roderick Heath

One of the first films I ever saw was Jaws. My first viewing of Jaws was an auspicious event—a double bill with Raiders of the Lost Ark at a university movie theatre when I was five years old. I caught lice from some unkempt member of the collegiate crowd, and my dreams were haunted for weeks afterwards by melting faces and people being masticated by massive teeth. But a love affair with a medium had begun. Once we obtained the movie on videocassette, I memorised it. It’s also the film that made me appreciate acting. With Jaws, Spielberg perfected his Everyman hero, in the shape of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic but resolute Police Chief Martin Brody. Brody reminded me of a skinnier edition of my father, with whom he shared a propensity for singing shanties after sinking a few beers.

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Spielberg chose Scheider, passing on the studio’s pick, Charlton Heston, who, at that stage of his career, was guaranteed to have reduced Brody to a pillar of smarm. Scheider was a bony, self-contained screen presence, pushing 40 when he lurched into the public eye in 1971 with the one-two punch of Klute and The French Connection. Playing Buddy Russo to fellow late bloomer Gene Hackman’s explosive Popeye Doyle, Scheider’s cool provided a perfect counterpoint and the kind of distinctly real presence beloved of the American New Wave. He’d been around the block a few times by that stage. Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1932, he had been a young sportsman, playing baseball and boxing, where he gained his jagged nose, thus joining the long list of male actors who had their features interestingly rearranged in the ring (Yves Montand, Bob Hope, Gabriel Byrne, Mickey Rourke, Liam Neeson, etc). In college, he became interested in theatre, a passion that survived his conscription service.

Scheider’s stage career began professionally when he played Mercutio in a 1961 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet, and reached its height when he won an Obie award for the play Stephen D in 1968. His film debut at the age of 32 was in a trash horror epic, The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964). His work in TV and film was sporadic until his 1971 breakthrough. His lean physique and toughened, fairly proletarian demeanour first made him appeal as a modern heir to a tradition of screen male presences like Gary Cooper and James Stewart.

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Klute and The French Connection established Scheider as a star of the new urban-noir genre. He followed them up with a memorable turn as Lenny, a creepy hired killer, in Jacques Deray’s uniquely cool Franco-American thriller, Un homme est mort (The Outside Man, 1972). Tracking down Jean-Louis Trintignant’s on-the-lam patsy, Scheider anticipates future merciless forces of underworld thuggishness, like Karl Urban’s super-assassin in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007), taking out hippies and housewives without a blink. At one point, Trintignant attempts to convince him that they’ve both been used, and Scheider promises they will now join forces, but tries to shoot him anyway at the first opportunity.

Scheider was a self-effacing actor, not given to exercises in cunning ham and award grabs that made notable careers for costars like Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, the latter his costar in John Schlesinger’s gritty 1976 opus Marathon Man. Scheider played Hoffman’s older brother, a shady CIA operative who survives one brutally memorable scene: when an assassin tries to garrote Scheider, Scheider gets his hand between the wire and his throat, the wire digging into the flesh of his palm. Scheider played the Yves Montand role in William Friedkin’s big-budget, big-flop remake of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer (1977), and appeared in two Hitchcockian dramas, making for a soulful stand-in for Jimmy Stewart in Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace (1979) and Robert Benton’s Still of the Night (1982), opposite Meryl Streep’s mysteriously comatose impression of a Hitchcock blonde.

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Hoffman later beat out Scheider in vying for the 1979 Best Actor Oscar, Hoffman for the egregiously bland Kramer Vs Kramer, Scheider for his emotional and physical high-wire act in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Playing Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, Scheider is dynamite in one of the few parts that stretched his capacities to the limit, requiring him to sing and dance as well as put across with compulsive force the drama of a man whose lust for life and creation rapidly destroys him. All That Jazz was and is a litmus test, unbearable to some, hypnotic to me, but I don’t think anyone can doubt Scheider’s commitment to and impact in the role, whether in scenes as grimly memorable as when Gideon tries to ignore his heart palpitations during a cast reading or when he escapes his hospital bed to yak it with a cleaner, or when he sings, in Gideon’s imagined farewell extravaganza, “Bye Bye Love,” with its suddenly meaningful lyric, “I think I’m gonna die!”

Scheider%20Blue_Thunder1%5B1%5D.JPGAt this point, Scheider decided to go back to the stage, winning a Drama League award for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, before returning to the screen for Still of the Night. In 1983, he played another policeman in John Badham’s cheesy techno-crime thriller, Blue Thunder, a film stuffed with almost every fashionable “Screw The Man” cliché of its period. The hero is a haunted Vietnam veteran who tries to expose government corruption and the fascist threat represented by the titular chunk of super-expensive steel, an Apache helicopter, ready to deal with any potential civil disturbances (read “race riots”) during the L.A. Olympics. Scheider’s boss (Malcom McDowell, another terrific actor in B-movie purgatory) was also his ‘Nam commander, lending an edge of national, psychological struggle to their final confrontation as Scheider’s sturdy hero repurposes Blue Thunder to kick authoritarian ass.

Peter Hyams’ 2010 (1984) the sequel to Kubrick’s mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a good film that has been deliberately forgotten mostly because it substituted Kubrick’s poetic mysticism for a more spelt-out, standard, scifi drama. Scheider played Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester in the original), the man who conceived the disastrous Discovery mission to the Black Monolith at Jupiter, and hitches a ride with a Russian salvage expedition to find that HAL 9000 was reprogrammed by evil government types, and that the aliens behind the Monolith are now protecting a new experiment in life-creation, apparently disappointed by the still-festering tribalism of their human progeny. Amidst an excellent cast (including Helen Mirren, Elya Baskin, and John Lithgow), Scheider is laid-back and so unutterably down-to-earth, he slices through the bunk with barely a raised eyebrow and provides an easy emotional centre, like when he holds onto a frightened Russian girl as their spaceship makes a dangerous entry into Jupiter’s gravity. It’s easy to imagine him circumventing the original by demanding in his Jersey honk, “Hal, just open the goddamn pod bay doors, for chrissakes!”

Scheider%204th.jpgHe also contributed to Peter Medak’s sadly trashed but intriguing The Men’s Club (1986), an adaptation of Leonard Michael’s novel, about a group of professional men, aging golden boys all, who attempt to start an encounter group and end up fleeing to the boyish dream world of a high-class brothel. With a few flops behind him and now over 50, Scheider ceased to be a star around this time. He did feature in two substandard John Frankenheimer films, 52 Pick-Up (1986) and The Fourth War (1989). A solid TV movie, Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture (1990), saw him play a photographer documenting an execution who tries to save the condemned man’s life. Steven Spielberg had found a younger, better-looking actor in the Cooperesque mould, Harrison Ford, for the Indiana Jones films, but handed Scheider a good role as the stoic captain of a huge futuristic submarine in the expensive TV series SeaQuest DSV (1993-1995), an ambitious enterprise that unfortunately proved a dull update of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, something Scheider publicly bitched about.

After this, Scheider was officially an aging character actor with more roles than good films to his credit, and a smattering of genuine cult films: David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991) and, working for Peter Medak again, the utterly perverse Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). But the last 10 years of Scheider’s career are not much to look at. He had made some missteps from which he never recovered, like not taking the role offered to him in The Deer Hunter that eventually went to Robert De Niro; instead, he made Jaws 2 (1978). He never achieved that sort of late-career recharge that Michael Caine gained with The Cider House Rules or Peter O’Toole had with Troy. Scheider died on February 10, 2008, of bone cancer.

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For most people, he will always be Chief Brody—and that’s fair enough. Jaws still rocks, and remains a rich, tart study of male behaviour. Brody is one of a trio of men engaged in a primal rite of hunting a rampaging beast, the utterly ordinary man between Robert Shaw’s Quint, the ancient mariner and bullying blowhard full of patriarchal arrogance and a Conradian sense of horror, and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, the rich kid with a billion-dollar brain, convinced of his own brilliance. Hooper’s willing to go toe to toe with Quint in a game of one-upmanship, whilst Brody, whom we’ve seen barely able to hold his own against his chaotic family life and politicking small towners, is reduced to watching as they compare scars—he can only glance furtively at his appendix scar. And yet, both Hooper and Quint’s attempts to be technological in taking on the Jungian nightmare gets one of them killed and the other very nearly. Brody is the only one to confront the beast directly with no protection other than his guts and wits, building to one of the great climaxes in cinema, where Scheider’s joyous, triumphant whoop rings in the ears. He’s just as good in the inevitably contrived sequel, Jaws 2, where Brody’s warnings about history repeating get him sacked, even more impotent than before in confronting the indifference of civil authority. He gets drunk and mopes, and the next day, embarrassedly kicks aside a stack of beer cans from the front lawn. You just gotta love the guy. And you know he’s gonna be proved right.


19th 07 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Bernardo Bertolucci, Carol Reed, Robert Wise, and George Cukor are some great directors who gained Oscar triumph for films that were, by their standards, second-rate or impersonal works. So, Martin Scorsese finally gaining his statuette for a patchy remake of a slick Hong Kong crime drama seems almost appropriate. The Departed, an American remake of Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao, 2002), directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak, was greeted by many as a return to form, as if the last 15 years of Scorsese’s career hadn’t been a series of virtuoso, chameleonlike experiments.

The appeal of Hong Kong genre cinema—Infernal Affairs included—is due to its dedication to the Old Hollywood formula: simplicity of technique, broadness of appeal, rigour of story craft, and adherence to archetypal. Infernal Affairs plays like a James Cagney-Humphrey Bogart vehicle shot with the style of a Sony commercial, and was made watchable largely by excellent, yet resolutely unshowy, acting by Tony Leung as Chan Wing Yan, a policeman undercover in a mob, Andy Lau as Lau Kin Ming, his opposite, a gangland mole in the police department, and Eric Tsang’s Hon Sam, a perpetually smiling, calmly malevolent godfather.

These three characters become William “Billy” Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), all hailing from the blue-collar, ethnic Irish suburbs of South Boston. What Scorsese and his Bostonian screenwriter William Monahan brought to the material was a sense of local, ethnic, macho culture missing from the original and, for the first hour, a steely sense of social folklore and personal drama, with many unsentimental, amusing observations on class and race in Boston. Scorsese introduces us to the fractured sensibility of the city via news footage of 1960s race riots and the commanding voice of Costello proclaiming “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me!” Costello, kingpin of the Irish mobsters, struts with untouchable confidence. In the late 1980s, he enters a grocery store, makes obscene advances on the owner’s teenage daughter, and recognises the young Colin Sullivan (Conor Donovan) as a boy of potential. (“You do well in school?” “Yeah.” “Good. So did I. They call that a paradox.”) Soon Costello lectures Colin and other talented tykes in the lore of tough-guy necessities: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”

Skip forward 15 years or so. Sullivan is in training to join the Massachusetts State Police; so is Costigan, a hot-headed young man whose mother is dying of cancer. Costigan’s uncle was a crime boss, but his father, despite being superlatively tough, rejected the mob and worked his whole life as an airport baggage handler. His mother was from the more genteel end of town. Costigan thus loathes his blue-blood relatives and his criminal kin equally. Departed%207.BMPHe is soon picked as a perfect candidate by two senior officers—the fatherly Queenan (Martin Sheen) and the provocative, profane Dignam (Mark Wahlberg)—to become a mole. Dignam digs at Costigan’s psyche and generally takes the endemic Yankee-Irish verbal abuse to new heights of hilarious insult. Underneath this is a rock-solid commitment to the job at hand, and Costigan is offered some “real police work.” He is to appear to be kicked off the force and jailed for assault, then seek a way to infiltrate the mob. Simultaneously, Sullivan, smooth and confident, is earmarked for rapid promotion. He joins a squad headed by Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) that is looking to take Costello down.

Each man soon is engaged in a paranoid duel with a mystery doppelganger burrowed into their home organisation and threatening the other’s safety. Each has a quasipaternal relationship with the monstrous Costello. In this way, with its highly Irish flavour, The Departed becomes a modern-dress remake of Gangs of New York; as a father figure like Bill the Butcher, resplendent in his masculine prowess, Costello lolls with multiple women in bed (under a shower of cocaine no less) dealing with an inadequate son who is not what he pretends to be—except here the son is split into good and bad twins. All three figures are characterized with a depth Infernal Affairs avoided—which in the case of Costello doesn’t achieve much. Initially presented as a cool, intelligent, but utterly savage enforcer, rising in the opening as the cynical voice of a tough and fractured city, Costello enjoys deft verbal tussles with Queenan and Dignam and provokes the local clergy with amusingly vicious admonitions about pederasty and breaking one’s vows with pretty nuns. Yet he dissolves into a dull-witted, cartoonish monster—much, but not all, of which is the fault of Nicholson and his latter-day propensity for showboating. Unlike other corrupt surrogate father figures in Scorsese’s films—Bill the Butcher or Paulie or Jimmy the Gent or even Eddie Felson—Costello is required chiefly to be a monstrous foil in a melodrama.
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Sullivan, like a classic Scorsese antihero, is motivated by desire to get ahead; for him, being both an exceptionally good policeman and Costello’s agent are complementary ideas. He eyes the gold dome of the city hall with hope and ambition, and buys a swanky flat in sight of it. But inner tension manifests itself in a crippled sexuality. With wit and skill, he romances Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), a state-employed psychiatrist who deals with police trauma and violent offenders. He coaxes her into a relationship that is troubled by his lack of emotional clarity and bouts of impotence. Costello doesn’t help by making sexual threats towards Madolyn if Sullivan fails him. Costigan has to visit Madolyn both to maintain his cover—she is his court-appointed shrink—and as a relief valve for his assailed psyche. Costigan, whilst in her office, is a ball of scarcely compressed rage and desperation, demanding drugs to numb him from his sleepless agitation. Soon he’s yanking off her underwear when she succumbs to a moment of relationship jitters. The idea of two men sharing a life so tightly interwoven that they sleep with the same woman and still don’t know each other’s identity, seems fit for a truly mind-warping psychodrama, but this doesn’t eventuate. Madolyn, despite her spunk and intelligence, doesn’t get to be much more than sideshow in this orgy of Men’s Business.

Costigan deals drugs with his dimwitted cousin Sean (Kevin Corrigan) and gets a reputation for impressive violence. When he beats up two foot soldiers from Mafia-controlled Providence who are trying to enforce protection in Boston, Costello informs him that unless he intercedes, Costigan will undoubtedly end up whacked. In return for leaving the two hoods in a park with bullets in their heads, Costigan is inducted into Costello’s entourage of thick thugs, which includes his intimidating, but soft-spoken lieutenant, Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Costello’s big score for the year is a stolen shipment of microprocessors that he proceeds to sell to some heavies paid by the Chinese government. Ellerby, Queenan, Dignam, and their men uneasily join to arrest them in the act, but Sullivan has given Costello a chance to make his deal (which is a scam anyway) and escape. With both sides realising they have rats in the ranks, an increasingly loopy Costello sniffs out his own men, most specifically new boy Costigan, whilst Sullivan finds himself handed the alienating but highly convenient task of seeking out the mole in the force. Sullivan promptly uses his new powers to have Queenan followed, hoping he’ll be seen meeting with his man in Costello’s mob. This nearly works; when Queenan meets Costigan in an empty building, Sullivan has Costello’s boys descend on the locale. Costigan slips away, and the frustrated thugs throw a tight-lipped Queenan to his death from the window, prompting a gunfight with the cops watching for him.

Most of the entertainment value of The Departed comes from its souped-up cast, all kept on their toes by Scorsese and armed with fierce dialogue by Monahan. For DiCaprio, it’s possibly the best performance of his career; his efforts to be tough in Gangs of New York and mercurial in The Aviator look pallid compared to the lean, mean, half-mad characterization he presents here of a guy with adrenalin so constantly drugging his synapses he can barely tell black from white anymore. Damon, though fine, has an easier time, largely because he’s played variations on this part before—a benign-seeming young man who is actually emotionally closed-off and inherently dangerous, with deep, underlying social and paternal resentments. It’s more impressive for him to play Jason Bourne, who has many of the same characteristics and is still our hero. Many of the interchanges, particularly those involving Wahlberg’s salty mouth provide classic Scorsese macho confrontations, as cops and hoods gouge each other with insults and epithets, jockeying for supremacy of both competence and attitude. For example, Dignam upbraids an incompetent surveillance with “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

Much of this pleasure drains away in the plot-heavy second half, leaving behind the interesting social and character elements. After Queenan’s death, for which Sullivan is blamed, Dignam assaults him and resigns rather than hand over to Sullivan the password for Queenan’s encrypted computer files that contain Costigan’s details. Sullivan sets up Costello in a drug deal; most of the gang perish in the ensuing battle. Sullivan kills Costello himself. This is not so much because, as with Lau Kin Ming in Infernal Affairs, he realises he longs to be a cop and a good guy, but for the less weirdly positive reason that Sullivan feels betrayed on discovering, thanks to Costigan’s digging, that Costello is a federal informant and also is resentful of his brutal father figure. When Costello, coughing up blood, says Sullivan’s been like a son to him, the young man provokes him by suggesting Costello needed a surrogate son because, despite his self-trumpeting sexual capacity, he’s been shooting blanks all these years. The shot Costello takes at him gives Sullivan final cause to fill his abusive patriarch with lead.

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Costigan can finally come in from the cold. Waiting in Sullivan’s office, he recognises an envelope he himself had written on containing all the Costello’s crew personal details on Sullivan’s desk. Costigan realises Sullivan is the mole and flees. Sullivan panics and deletes Costigan’s records from Queenan’s computer. Costigan tries to shake Sullivan’s life to pieces by mailing to Madolyn a recording he dug up of Costello and Sullivan talking. Madolyn is, of course, less than ecstatic. Sullivan goes to a meeting arranged with Costigan, but he has no intention of making a deal, intending instead to take him by surprise and arrest him. “Just fucking kill me!” Sullivan begs. “I am killing you.” Costigan assures him. But Costigan gets his brains splattered all over the wall of an elevator by another cop, Barrigan (James Budge Dale), who reveals himself as a second Costello plant; he also kills Brown (Anthony Anderson), one of the few other officers who remembered Costigan from training. Sullivan shoots Barrigan in the head, eliminating the last known link of him to Costello. Costigan is given a hero’s funeral after Sullivan reports he and Brown died trying to take in the mole Barrigan.

This almost parodic proliferation of brainless bodies is more or less where Infernal Affairs concludes. Instead of giving us two sequels, however, as followed that film, The Departed delivers a sharp coda in which Sullivan, thinking he has triumphed, continues his everyday life, but returns home from grocery shopping to find Dignam waiting in his apartment, armed with a silenced pistol. Dignam has worked out everything and determined to remedy it in the most direct fashion by shooting a resigned Sullivan in the head. The final shot shows a rat crawling across the rail of Sullivan’s apartment, backgrounded by the gold dome towards which Sullivan had looked with hope.

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It’s a symbolic joke that sums up the film itself—gritty, cynical, and funny, but also facile and broad. The self-parodying trend is extended in Nicholson’s performance as Costello literally sniffs out a rat and in one scene, appears bathed in blood with no explanation, like a Monty Python gag. Scorsese’s stylistic imagination is almost entirely quelled, except for some self-referencing snatches, as when his camera makes a lateral dolly past DiCaprio doing push-ups in his cell, a Cape Fear quote. Apparently all a Scorsese film is, according to some people, is swearing, shootings in the head, and Rolling Stones songs played loud. Scorsese felt empowered to make a good genre film by the legacies of directors like Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller, and Don Siegel, and his hand on the helm ensures the film is constructed with some fearsomely good editing and structuring. The experimentation in story-through-montage in Goodfellas, Casino, and Kundun proves useful for commercial purposes in the fleet-footed skill with which The Departed sets up and puts in motion its story. But with its overly long, overly tricky story, and relatively bland style, The Departed is very much a well-done genre film of today, not one of the superbly done genre films of yesterday. In Scorsese’s best works, social context is everything, but in The Departed, it is thoroughly subordinated to constructing a cops-and-robbers drama. Yet, The Departed feels unusually true to the zeitgeist in that it depicts an age where officialdom is infiltrated by the self-serving and disloyal, and the true warriors are isolated, frustrated, and doomed.

The Departed is Scorsese’s most financially successful film to date, and seems set for the foreseeable future to remain his most mainstream-appreciated work. If nothing else, it stands as the most honourably foul-mouthed Best Picture winner ever. And yet it’s a minor film in his career, one of his least fully realised, garbled in theme and story. It surely won’t be the end of Scorsese the creative force; his next two projects on the books The Silence, about Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan, and The Rise of Teddy Roosevelt, to star DiCaprio as energetic patrician populist, promise meaty material and chances to extend Scorsese’s life-long fascination with religion, cultural struggle, and history.


13th 07 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

The myth of Howard Hughes in his later years, a gnarled weirdo cocooned in a hotel room, casts such a powerful spell that The Aviator’s presentation of the magnate in his youth as a swashbuckling entrepreneur, airman, and lover, was almost bewildering. Inevitable accusations of soft-pedaling dogged it. Indeed, whilst the film is grazing in contemplating genius dissolved by madness, it avoids Hughes the obnoxious control freak, the rabid anti-Communist, anti-unionist, and anti-Semite. The younger Martin Scorsese would have loved tearing apart such a figure and his place in society. But The Aviator was a pet project of star Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off Gangs of New York. The appeal for him was a different Hughes legend, that of the upstart Texan who marched into Hollywood, spent a fortune to make a fortune, and set about doing all the sorts of things we’d like to do if we were young and rich—fly fast planes, make love to gorgeous movie stars, fearlessly boss around money men and politicians, and look good doing it. Michael Mann was originally going to direct, but with Mann tired of doing biopics, DiCaprio offered the reins to Scorsese. The director and DiCaprio’s visions matched in that The Aviator offered Scorsese an opportunity to evoke an era of glamour, electric with cultural action.

Inspired by his dark side and incipient madness, many filmmakers had built stories around that older, troubled Hughes, including Max Ophuls with his 1947 noir Caught, Jonathan Demme and his Melvin and Howard (1980), and even the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971). DiCaprio, screenwriter John Logan, and Scorsese succeeded by realizing that the best way to sell Hughes’ story was primarily as a giddy adventure, keeping one step ahead of Hughes’ assault from within and without. Hughes and the people who jostle in his world, like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Errol Flynn (Jude Law), Hughes’ pet what-the-hell plane designer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), are infinitely much more vivid and interesting than the dullards who populate today’s celebrity and business worlds—including the actors who play them.

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The Aviator follows Hughes’ career beginning in the late 1920s, when he set up the self-financed production of the WWI aviation epic Hell’s Angels, a production that dragged on for years, shifted from a silent to sound production, introduced Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), and ended up costing so much it didn’t make its money back on its first release. Hughes is swiftly introduced as a high-powered young man glad to have finally shoved off the mantle of “junior” with his parents’ deaths (perhaps also signaling DiCaprio’s determination to escape his post-Titanic boy heart-throb status). He’s going to spend his fortune from a company that manufactures drill bits as he wants. Hughes’ independent production is anathema to the Hollywood of the time; Hollywood titan Louis B. Mayer (David DiSantis) mocks his production methods and advises him to go home. At one point, Hughes keeps his fleet of aircraft—the largest private air force in the world—on the ground for months, waiting for clouds, the only way he can communicate to the camera lens, via relative motion, the speed of the aircraft. He hires a UCLA meteorology professor, Fitz (Ian Holm) just to keep an eye out for them. When they finally come, Hughes and his fleet cavort through the clouds to the strains of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” in the first of the film’s brilliant aerial scenes.

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When Hell’s Angels opens, its lavish premiere and rapturous reception make Hughes a star. But cracks are already beginning to show. In a vintage show of Scorsese’s technique, Hughes’ march along the red carpet with Harlow on his arm is a nightmarish experience, as flashbulbs explode (a Scorsese fetish) and shatter under his shoes, the crowd screams deafeningly, a woman hurls herself in front of him, and Hughes, deaf in one ear, can barely hear an interviewer’s questions. His brow, slick with pomade and jazz-baby style, wrinkles with fierce concentration of will just to make it through. It’s the first sign that though he loves courting adulation, it assaults his fragile senses.
aviator_024%20edit.JPGNevertheless Hughes launches a career as a Hollywood producer and playboy. He gets a date with Hepburn using the direct approach—he flies a seaplane to a beachfront set where she’s working with George Cukor and Cary Grant and asks her for a game of golf. In the course of this contest, however, she quickly outpaces him, with her mannish gait and motor-mouthed confidence: “Now we both know the sordid truth: I sweat, and you’re deaf. Aren’t we a fine pair of misfits?” Although their affair is possibly not much more than a fling, The Aviator pitches the Hughes/Hepburn romance as the centerpiece of his romantic life largely for the chance to explore oppositions—Hughes’ Texan industrialist rough edges against Hepburn’s Brahmin poise. Blanchett’s sharp, if initially broad, performance (the fifth in a Scorsese film to get an Oscar) aids her creating a portrait of Hepburn patterned after her signature character, Tracy Lord, from The Philadelphia Story—an apt characterization as Lord was in turn built around Hepburn’s persona. Hughes snares Hepburn by treating her to uncommon pleasures, like flying her by her night over Los Angeles, and keeps her dazzled with his energy. She quickly deduces Hughes’ underlying fragility, and warns him: “Howard, we’re not like everyone else. Too many acute angles. Too many eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in, or they’ll make us into freaks.”

Hepburn comes from an arty old-money Connecticut family (her ex-husband lives with them). When she takes Howard to meet them, his true pride in his work and talents is swamped by familial blather and pseudo-intellectual talk. When Hepburn’s mother (Frances Conroy) casually says, “We don’t care about money here,” Hughes irritably ripostes, “That’s because you’ve always had it!” This places Hughes firmly among Scorsese’s socially resentful heroes. Though rich from birth, Hughes sees himself as combating “high-hat Ivy League assholes” and corporate giants like Pan-Am with earthy grit and old-school American can-do. His mix of neurosis and down-home intransigence spectacularly annoys Hepburn. One fight between the combustible pair results in her heading to a film set in tears, where Spencer Tracy (Kevin O’Rourke) asks her what’s wrong. “There’s too much Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes.” she sniffs, focusing on the actor who will soon fill her life instead. When she officially busts up with Hughes, he is snaky: “Don’t you ever talk down to me! You’re a movie star, nothing more!” Yet later he will intervene when a photographer (Willem Dafoe) plans to publish pictures of her and Tracy, who is still married to someone else.
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Simultaneously, Hughes is conquering aviation. He achieves tremendous fame when he flies around the world. He and Odekirk work on a racing plane, which eventually becomes the fastest aircraft in the world. The H-1, which, when he flies it, breaks a speed record before running out of petrol, forcing Hughes to crash-land in a beet field; Hepburn at first mistakes the juice caking his legs for blood. Soon he’s taking over TWA and competing with Pan Am’s lethally smooth boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) for the future of commercial aviation. Key to his efforts is the new fleet of Lockheed Constellations. He also helps the U.S. Army’s war effort by producing the spy-plane XF-11 (“My Buck Rogers ship”) and his behemoth transport plane, the H-4 Hercules, also called the Spruce Goose. Such efforts anticipated today’s tactical and commercial airships, but were pursued with wild abandon; Hughes orders his frazzled manager Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to hock assets, ignore shareholders, and generally spend fortunes on his latest wild idea. Hughes approaches business like a sport, delighting in defying belief and beating competitors, even as it slowly tears his mental muscle to ribbons.

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Scorsese goes to town in evoking the thrill of Old Hollywood, as when Hughes and Hepburn visit the Cocoanut Grove, playground of Hollywood’s A listers, where dancing girls ride on swings and gloriously corny 1930s-style singers perform. Hughes and Hepburn are pestered by Errol Flynn (Law), who picks a pea off Hughes’ plate, preventing Hughes from being able to touch his meal, before Flynn gets in a fight with a man who calls him a “Limey bastard.” “I’m a Tasmanian bastard, you ignorant prick!” Flynn responds before ironing him out. It’s the most entertaining scene of Law’s career. The film’s visuals reproduce the effect of two-strip Technicolor, which Hughes used to shoot some of Hell’s Angels. He moves to the ripeness of three-strip Technicolor, making for gloriously weird effects, as the peas on Hughes’ plate appear turquoise. DP Robert Richardson won an Oscar for the film, though these effects were done post-production. Oddly enough, considering cinephilia has powered so much of his oeuvre, The Aviator is also the first Scorsese film to portray film-making and the movie world.

Hughes’ mental state begins to deteriorate after Hepburn leaves him. He incinerates all his clothes and searches for a new starlet to mould, interviewing ingénue Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) at night in a hangar. Hughes is seated in forbidding shadow, foreshadowing his ultimate retreat into monstrous isolation. When she tells him she’s 15, he mutters “Holy Mary, mother of God.” This doesn’t stop him romancing her and Ava Gardner simultaneously. Gardner, fiercely independent, resists Hughes’ romantic style of buying a girl, and mocks his personal cheapness. When Hughes takes Gardner out to dinner, a furiously jealous Domergue crashes her car into theirs—if only she’d ever been that spunky in her acting career! Later Gardner physically assaults Hughes and drives him from her house when she finds he’s been bugging her place: “What do you mean, all the microphones?”

Hughes finally cracks in the wake of a terrible crash—a tremendously powerful cinematic sequence in which the XF-11 falls from the sky and crashes into suburban Los Angeles. Hughes is almost pulped, and spends months recovering. His ambition for TWA to compete with Pan Am in post-War transatlantic trade results in Trippe calling in favors from bought-and-paid-for Maine senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who proceeds to hound Hughes through several Senate committees and reinforce Pan Am’s monopoly with legislature. The Civil Aviation Board grounds all Constellations after a crash, threatening TWA’s future. Treating Howard to a luncheon in his New York hotel room, Brewster presses him to sell out to Pan Am, before he spills the dirt he’s collected and brands him a war profiteer for money Hughes made on the XF-11 and the Hercules. Brewster coolly assumes the mantle of government authority: “We just beat Germany and Japan. Who the hell are you?” The combined effect of all this drives Hughes to lock himself in his office for months, spiraling into a prolonged obsessive-compulsive fit.

Although efficient, Logan’s script is one of the most standard and Hollywoodish of Scorsese’s films. And yet, under the candy-colored gloss of The Aviator is an acute portrait a man in whom genius and mental illness were intricately linked. Hughes’ business in the 1960s reflected his own paranoia, as he made listening devices for the government. The Aviator opens with a warm yet creepy scene from Hughes’ childhood, where his beautiful mother Allene (Amy Sloan) washes him down at a disturbingly advanced age in a tin bath, making him spell the word “Q-u-a-r-a-n-t-i-n-e” and harping on about outbreaks of illness. From this point of textbook Freud onwards, Hughes’ obsessions are delicately entwined, especially his sensual thrills. The erotic satisfaction Hughes gains in flying—he needs to fly in front of clouds that look like “giant breasts full of milk,” and caresses the skin of the H-4 like that of a woman—matches his fixation on large breasts and his desire for cleanliness. He swills milk, both because of its maternal and sexual associations and because it’s reliably disease-free. He alternates design discussions over the Hercules with blueprints, aviator_016%20edit.JPGindiscernibly different, of the cantilever bra he’s designed to show off Jane Russell’s boobs when he directed her in her debut film, The Outlaw. Hughes’ eroticisation of technology predicts a strong tendency today in everything from advertising to pornography. He can swap bodily fluids with all the women in the universe, yet still fear touching a steering wheel because of the association he has between sleek curves and cleanliness. “I want her clean, Odie!” he commands in reducing the wind resistance of rivets on the H-1.

Scorsese reveals Hughes’ brain as working like a supercomputer in one scene when he refocuses his attention to the Hercules’ design; Scorsese inserts quick-scrolling blueprint images. Shortly thereafter, Hughes fixates on a sweeper, his simple acts imbued with alien quality, establishing a direct link in film-making between Hughes’ mind working precisely and Hughes’ mind working faultily. His commitment to detail underpins both his success and his ultimate collapse into obsessive-compulsive disorder. Increasingly, Hughes deals with moments of romantic or business trial by retreating to the bathroom and furiously scrubbing his hands with a cake of soap he keeps in a tin. In a grimly funny scene, after such a cleansing session following a run-in with Trippe, he realizes he can’t touch the doorknob to leave the washroom.
Once Howard locks himself in his office, his disease runs riot as he endlessly repeats phrases, strips naked, and fills up precisely placed milk bottles with his own urine. He watches his films in endless loops, Jane Russell’s lips constantly zooming up like an offering of sexual annihilation, or violence from Hell’s Angels projected on his body evokes his mental and physical agony. Hepburn’s entreaties at his door are ineffectual. He receives a provocative visit by Trippe, promising his destruction in public hearings Brewster is holding. Trippe even blows smoke through the keyhole to irritate him. Hughes soon gathers himself together enough to leave his office, and lets Ava clean him up. Hughes proceeds to reduce Brewster’s interrogation to comedy, turning all of his questions back and effectively answering all charges. He proceeds to give the Hercules its first and only flight, managing to coax the mammoth plane whose size and shape predicts the airbus, into the air. It’s a rousing moment, but Scorsese delivers a mean sucker punch of an anticlimax, as Howard, raving to Gardner, Dietrich, and Odekirk about the coming jet age, spies white-gloved handlers who his brain processes once again as alien, and begins repeating the line, “The way of the future,” over and over. And over and over. Escorted into a toilet to get a grip, Howard gives up trying to control it, staring at himself in the mirror, still repeating “The way of the future”—a phrase that winds together his vision of progress and an acceptance, even an embrace, of his fate, retreating into solitary, self-obsessed dissolution.

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The portrait of a man who wins everything but loses to himself is heartland Scorsese territory, but The Aviator lacks the lacerating weirdness of Raging Bull or his other portraits of humans who stake their souls on victory in the rat race. That’s not to condemn the film, which, though Scorsese’s brilliance comes in short bursts rather than rapid fire, moves sleekly and with huge entertainment value for nearly three hours. The film is much like DiCaprio’s performance at the center; dynamic, sustained, delightful, but lacking the manly muscle and loopy, personal force of its precursors. l


5th 07 - 2007 | 1 comment »

Gangs of New York (2002)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

“The blood stays on the blade,” Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) tells his young son Amsterdam (Cian McCormack) as he slices his cheek with a razor blade, inducting the boy into a creed of macho lore. Priest shows him a medal of St. Michael: “He cast Satan out of paradise!” GONY%20cross.BMPFather, holding an iron Celtic cross, leads Son and a gathering army of jostling tribes—Celts, Africans, sheer barbarians—out of an underground labyrinth. These warriors inclue Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), who’s filed her teeth into fangs, McGloin (Gary Lewis), and Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). Their rise to the day passes through eons; from Neolithic depths to the medieval squalor of the Old Bakery building, used as a home by immigrant families. Pounding on the soundtrack is a “shammy,” a military march with a syncopated tin whistle, a Civil War style that eventually mutated into jazz. Like a negotiation between Agamemnon and Achilles, Priest briefly discusses payment to take part in battle with Walter “Monk” McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), who wields a club riddled with notches for men he’s laid low, before Monk kicks the doors open on the snow-crusted amphitheatre of Paradise Square, the Five Points, New York, 1846.

This great opening sequence lays out the scheme of Gangs of New York, a devolution of American society and a study of the nature of myth—the way cultural memory is transmitted through legendary narrative. Its plot evokes The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Saul and David, and many other legends, tied to a factual work of social history. The germ for the film was planted when, as a boy, Scorsese heard a piece of Catholic New York folklore, of communal resistance to an attempt by Protestant Nativists to burn down a Catholic Church. Scorsese re-encountered the tale in the book The Gangs of New York by demimonde historian Herbert Asbury, published in the 1920s. For 31 years, Scorsese tried to turn that work into a movie. He finally got the money from Miramax, shooting the film on detailed sets at Cinecitta, home of the Italian film industry and of so many epic film productions. The film was supposed to do for Scorsese what Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan did for Steven Spielberg—garner him an Oscar, which, of course, it did not. Scorsese wanted The Clash to act in the film when he tried to make it in the 1970s, and heavy doses of such punk spirit, period cynicism, and black comedy drive the film, rather than an easily laudable “quality” aesthetic.

The germ for the core subject of Gangs of New York was found in the true tale of Bill Poole, a Nativist-affiliated enforcer, probably assassinated by the son of an Irish immigrant he had murdered. Scorsese had screenwriter Jay Cocks pen a script, refined later by Kenneth Lonnergan and Steven Zaillian, telling the story of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), who leads the Federation of American Natives to challenge Priest’s Dead Rabbits and allied Irish gangs in a fateful rumble. Bill claims the mantle of his father, killed in the War of 1812, as a defender of his nation from “the foreign hordes.” The gang members, outcasts and victims of Empires, drag power out of the earth and wield it fearlessly in this recklessly created New World. Their titanic street battle is a whirl of cracked skulls, torn mouths, gouged eyes, bitten-off ears. Bill kills Priest, whom he declares an honourable enemy. He outlaws the Dead Rabbits and orders Amsterdam committed to Hellgate Asylum.

When Amsterdam has grown into the glowering adult form of Leonardo DiCaprio, he is released from Hellgate, given a bible by the warden, and told “God has forgiven you. Now you must learn to forgive.” Amsterdam throws the bible off a bridge as he walks back to Manhattan, and retrieves from the now-emptied caves below the Old Bakery his St. Michael medal and a knife of his father’s. He is assaulted by, but easily beats, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) and Negro pal Jimmy Spoils (Larry Gilliard Jr.); Johnny had, as a boy, aided Amsterdam in his attempt to escape the Butcher’s men, and Amsterdam falls in with their gang of petty thieves. Monk now runs a barber shop. Amsterdam learns that Bill, in an annual act of political theatre, commemorates his killing of Priest by drinking a flaming glass of alcohol before his assembled court. Amsterdam determines to kill him in the act.

New York is kaleidoscopic with nationalities, brisk patricians and vigorous plebeians, a seething society trying to cut out its two cancers—slavery and poverty—before they become terminal. The Civil War is hurting. Irish immigrants streaming off the boats are shoved into uniforms and shipped off to fight the Confederates. The first draft in U.S. history is about to begin, spreading discontent amongst the poor who can’t cough up the $300 to be exempted. Bill likes to throw knives at Lincoln’s posters as his bully boys, who now include McGloin, assault Negro freemen. McGloin typifies the racism of Irish immigrants, displacing the loathing directed at them onto blacks.
gony12%5B1%5D.BMPPresiding over the city is the Tammany Hall boss William Tweed (Jim Broadbent). He governs through bribes, vote-cramming, dirt-dealing, and back-stabbing. Tweed makes overtures to Bill, wanting him to aid the Tammany machine with muscle work, clobbering political opponents and mustering the voting power of the slums. “The appearance of the law must be upheld,” Tweed asserts, “especially when it’s being broken.” Bill perceives himself the emperor of the underclass, his strength, the streets that converge on Paradise Square: “Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you.” Public utilities are a tool of such politics; volunteer fire services in the town war with each other and rob burning houses. A brawl between a team sponsored by Tweed and another gives Amsterdam and Johnny an opportunity to brave the flames and get the loot. From the window, Amsterdam catches sight of Bill riding on a fire engine to Tweed’s aid, bathed in demonic red with Melvillian portent. Amsterdam and his gang must share spoils with Happy Jack, now an extremely corrupt policeman, and with Bill, whom Amsterdam and Johnny pay off at Satan’s Circus, the saloon he holds court in. They’re treated to the sight of Bill stabbing a man he plays cards with in the hand for making small bets, then assuring the boys, “Come closer, I won’t bite.”

Bill gives the lads a lucrative score, a Portuguese ship in the harbour. They find the crew’s been massacred by another gang. Amsterdam steals away the captain’s body and sells it to science. Bill congratulates them: “They made the Police Gazette, a periodical of note.” He soon finds himself drawn close by Bill, a trusted lieutenant for his well-proven smarts and toughness; Bill clearly fancies Amsterdam as a surrogate son. Bill, who really is a butcher by trade, educates him in the finer points of knife fighting on a pig carcass. The Natives attend a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which an actor playing Lincoln preaches harmony. They pelt the actors with missiles. In the ruckus, an assassin tries to shoot Bill. Amsterdam reflexively tackles and kills him, and Bill’s wound is slight. Amsterdam is stricken over his confused impulses, and Monk, having recognised him, questions him pointedly about his intentions.

The link between the Democratic Party and the Irish that eventually produced JFK begins here, when Bill, having rejected entirely the idea of courting the immigrant vote (“If only I had the guns, Mr. Tweed, I’d shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil!”) forces Tweed to reject the Nativists and embrace the Irish. “You’re turning your back on the future,” Tweed warns. “Not our future,” Bill replies.

The soundtrack jostles with folk music, Irish shanties, African laments, field-hand chorals, and Chinese melodies, all of which one day will be compressed into American pop music. Scorsese’s camera laps up the antique, pimped-up styling the gangs affect, eyeing the roots not just for his own films’ social studies, but for the popularity of gangster and Western films, punk music and gangsta rap, in the power-defying showiness of these criminal-warriors. The film mixes physical realism and grand theatricality. Scorsese references Visconti again—he frames advancing soldiers after the Battle of Palermo sequence of The Leopard. His staging of fights and baroque sense of period style evokes Sergio Leone, John Ford, even Samuel Fuller, as he has singers walking through shots, for example, when Finbar Furey, as a publican, plays to the camera like a congenial host to a patron, sings the period ditty “New York Girls” as we explore Satan’s Circus. Pitch-black comedy gives the film idiosyncratic punch, like in a public execution where the bailiff disgustedly announces crimes that includes “sodomy!” or when Bill pretends to cry over the corpse of a “poor, defenceless little rabbit”
gony6%5B1%5D.BMPJenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket, comes into Amsterdam’s life. Rescued off the street as a child by Bill, she became his lover before having an abortion that left her scarred, something Bill can’t abide. Amsterdam and Jenny’s encounters are fraught with mutual loathing and sexual attraction, which comes to a head when she steals his St. Michael medal, prompting him to trail her across town to get it back. When churchmen who are rebuilding the Old Bakery as a Church hold a dance, everyone flocks there, including transvestite prostitutes who solicit incredulity from the ecumenical Minister (Alec McCowen). Johnny, severely smitten by Jenny, is heartbroken when she chooses to dance with Amsterdam. Their later attempt to rut on the docks ceases abruptly when Amsterdam realises she is “the Butcher’s leavings.”

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After the assassination attempt, Bill and Amsterdam retreat to a brothel; Jenny tends Bill’s wound as the men lounge with bare-breasted prostitutes and smoke opium. Bill watches Jimmy Spoils dancing to a jig, and comments, “An Irish ditty mixed with the rhythms of a dark continent, stirred to a fine American mess.” Despite himself, Bill is aware of what is happening to his country. He beds three women, each a different colour, whilst Jenny and Amsterdam have a noisy quarrel (“Is there anyone in the Five Points you haven’t fucked?” “Yes, you!”) that turns into vigorous sex. Amsterdam flag_bill%5B1%5D.BMPawakens in the morning to Bill, seated by his bed with Old Glory wrapped around his shoulders, recalling how Priest had given him a severe beating in their first fight. Bill punished himself for flinching from Priest by plucking out his left eye (he now sports a glass one with an bald eagle painted in place of the pupil) before returning strong enough to kill Priest. At 47, Bill says he has kept power by “the spectacle of fearsome acts.”

Jealous, Johnny spills Amsterdam’s ancestry to Bill. When, finally, Amsterdam throws a knife at Bill as he’s drinking his fiery liquor, Bill parries the blade with dazzling skill and plants his own in Amsterdam’s belly. He offers a spectacle of murder for the baying crowd, but, respecting the chance Priest gave him, restrains his abuse of Amsterdam to beating him terribly and scarring him. Jenny spirits Amsterdam away to the caverns, where he spends months recuperating. He is visited by Monk, who gives him what he secretly preserved, Priest’s straight-razor, his symbol of blood responsibility. Monk expects to answer to God for his killings, as opposed to Bill, who considers himself a divine wind. “Your father tried to carve out a corner of this land for his tribe,” he recalls. “That was him, that was his Dead Rabbits.”

Amsterdam re-emerges from underground and hangs slaughtered rabbits in the square to announce his return and the return of his father’s ideals. Soon Amsterdam draws all his friends back, hiding in and defending the Catholic Church’s construction. They embrace their religion as well as a mission to build a safe Irish enclave. When McGloin visits to pray, he’s outraged that Jimmy Spoils is present; when he squeals about it to the church’s long-haired, one-armed, radical priest (Peter-Hugo Daly), the priest wallops him over the head. In retaliation, Bill and the Natives come to incinerate the building, but find it protected by massed ranks including families. Even Bill won’t go that far. Johnny and Happy Jack soon die in tit-for-tat killings. Tweed proposes to Amsterdam that he swing Irish support behind Tammany. Amsterdam proposes Monk for the office of Sheriff. With the aid of Tweed’s electoral shenanigans, Monk gains “a Roman triumph.” But Bill, before shocked onlookers, viciously assassinates Monk.

Bills and Amsterdam’s relationship, like several in Scorsese’s oeuvre, is as a surrogate paternal relationship, man and boy drawn to each other through mutual appreciation of the others’ strengths, and ultimately drawn to destroy each other, loaded with jealousies and sexual strife. DiCaprio inhabits Amsterdam with a fair intensity, though he lacks indelible grit as a young hard case or ease with his deliberately weird Irish-American accent. Bill and Amsterdam act out several forms of division, with Amsterdam a man straddling Bill’s dinosaur bellicosity and thoughts of a new, more hopeful world. Jenny, daughter/lover to Bill, mother/sister/lover to Amsterdam, loves each in different ways. Her attraction is Amsterdam is at first that between two rodents—tough, cunning, ruthless, but morally innocent. Violence in this embryonic world flavors all things, including sexuality. Jenny kisses Amsterdam’s scars, marks of survival from Hellgate, after showing him her Caesarian scar, a sacrament of flesh for their physical and mental pains. Written on their bodies is the violent growth of their selves and the world about them.

Bill dominates the film, and not just because of Day-Lewis’s epic, perversely witty performance. He is one of the last Titans, a creature of great physical prowess with a warrior-poet’s soul belonging to a premechanical age. He is obsessed with purity, physical, racial, and cultural. In this regard, he resembles Travis Bickle. Bill’s sense of the physical is intensely spiritual, and enacts totemic punishment on flesh—cutting out his own eye, searing Amsterdam’s face for failing to act like a man. He cannot touch Jenny’s torn body lest it speak to him of the violence, decay, and waste that otherwise surrounds him. He respects the code of honorable warriors and detests the cult of commonality, which is why he feels justified in assassinating Monk dishonorably. It’s also one of his “spectacles of fearsome acts,” a declaration that he will not yield to Amsterdam’s efforts at egalitarianism without a fight. The death of the warlords will come by the sword.

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Incensed by Monk’s death, Amsterdam challenges Bill to a gang fight. Simultaneously, the beginning of the draft causes New York’s working classes rise up with virulent fury. In all of Scorsese’s films, class and ethnic tensions simmer; here is a nightmare vision of when America’s mostly closeted skeletons of race and caste resentment emerge. Scorsese observes the root of American distrust of high culture; pop culture emerges from the chaotic swirl of the lower classes. The rich propagate high culture in their mansions; as rioters torch their shiny elegance, troves of classical-style paintings burn up. So, too, do political fliers showing the linked faces of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Jimmy Spoils is lynched by the mob along with many other blacks. Jenny only avoids being murdered by shooting a woman. Warships pummel the city, soldiers shoot rioters, and the streets run with blood. McGloin is gunned down, and Amsterdam and Bill fight in a dust cloud before another shell plants a shard of shrapnel in Bill’s side. “Thank god, I die a true American,” he says before allowing Amsterdam the coup de grace; he dies clutching the young man’s hand. The city is a burning, shattered mess, corpses laid out in long lines. Amsterdam attests, “All that we knew was mightily swept away.”

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The final shot is as great as the opening, as Amsterdam and Jenny pay tribute at Priest’s and Bill’s graves, side-by-side in a graveyard overlooking lower Manhattan. As they leave the frame, the burning skyline of a haunted city fades through phases in the Manhattan skyline, finally resting at the end of the 20th century, the Twin Towers still in place. l


27th 06 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

1999 was one of the most important years for modern American film, as a rash of works by new auteurs and entries from older ones sparked controversy and conversation right across the new audience of cinephiles. In contrast with end-of-millennium positivism and alt-capitalist dreams of the dot-com boom, political and social cynicism reigned in films after the wasted opportunities of the Clinton administration; the year of the Seattle anti-globalization riots found much rhyme between street and screen. Several of the year’s most striking films, as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix, and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, presented noir-influenced portraits of social disintegration, wars of anarchy and nihilism played out within psyches, societies, and individuals, in hallucinations and digital realms and fantasy worlds, often within a compressed time period—a dark night of the soul indeed.

Scorsese’s impact on other filmmakers was finally becoming indelible, though audiences seemed to prefer him present in spirit rather than in new works themselves. Taxi Driver’s sociopathic spirit possesses Fight Club; Magnolia marries the disparate influence of Scorsese’s with that of his most serious rival for greatest modern American director, Robert Altman. After Casino, Scorsese made two aggressively noncommercial films that expanded his high-montage aesthetic to examine in the conscientious souls of the world. Kundun (1997), a portrait of the young Dalai Lama, is Scorsese’s most abstract film, conjuring a visual tapestry in observing his hero attain a state of grace in the face of suffering and massive loss.

Bringing Out the Dead is intricately linked with Kundun, and also with Taxi Driver, to which it stands as a kind of response or repudiation whilst diving back into its nocturne-New York landscape. Scorsese had Paul Schrader pen the script, their first collaboration in 11 years, adapting a novel by former ambulance medic Joe Connelly detailing the pressures of that job in early 1990s New York. Where Travis Bickle surveyed his surroundings from his taxi with utmost misanthropy, Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage) feels soul-crushing sympathy for the city that pulsates around him with crime, social disasters, and countless ghosts. Frank’s worked as an ambulance medic for five years, on graveyard shift. It’s been months since he saved anyone, since his ill-fated encounter with 18-year-old streetwalker Rose (Cynthia Roman), where attempts to get her breathing again resulted in her oxygen tube constantly going into her stomach instead of her lungs.

Now Frank is assailed by troubled sleep and nights at work alternating between near-hysteria and catatonic observation, jolting back shots of bourbon to get him through, seeing Rose’s face projected onto every potential patient on the streets. The film unfolds on three nights, on each of which Frank has a different partner; on Thursday, chubby, cheery, ambitious Larry (John Goodman); on Friday, evangelizing sex-obsessive Marcus (Ving Rhames), and on Saturday, sleazy nutball Tom Wolls (Tom Sizemore), Frank’s ex-permanent partner, with whom he was once “legends in their own lunch hour,” as their sarcastic dispatcher (Scorsese) recalls. On the Thursday night, hot and greasy, with a full moon to boot, Frank and Larry are called to a family residence to treat a mannamed Burke (Cullen Oliver Johnson) who’s suffered a heart attack. As the medics labour to restart the man’s heart, Frank advises his family to play music the man likes—Sinatra—mainly to give them something to do. Lo and behold, the man starts to respond. Amongst the family, it’s daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette) who seems both the most anguished and alert; she wants to ride in the ambulance, but Frank instead advises her to drive her family, who need her composure.

BOTD3.jpgFrank and Larry truck Burke to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, called Our Lady of Misery by the mordant medicos, a Hades whose Cerberus is fierce security guard Griss (Afemo Omilami). He constantly faces down a jabbering army of relatives and hangabouts with his signature threat: “Don’t make me take off my sunglasses!” Inside, charge nurse Constance (Mary Beth Hurt) sarcastically interrogates myriad alcoholics and junkies; the hallways are crowded with casualties; the patient’s arrival is greeted with groans from the doctor on duty, Hazmat (Nestor Serrano); “You told me he was dead, flat-line!” “He got better.” Mary recognizes one patient, Noel (Marc Anthony), pest to everyone else but someone her father had let stay in the family flat in his troubled youth. Noel’s strapped to his stretcher, crying for water, which no one will provide as Hazmat has diagnosed him with a liver condition. Mary unties him, and Noel runs to a fountain to guzzle. Mary explains with glassy tears that she can’t stand to see anyone, let alone Noel, tied down.

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Partly out of pity and partly because he’s attracted to her bruised and melancholy beauty, over the next two days, Frank buys Mary pizza in between jobsand gives her rides to the hospital. In one gorgeous moment, the pair sits in the rear of the ambulance, rocking against each other, and Mary can barely restrain laughter. Mary offloads her anxieties to the routinely receptive Frank, explaining her and her father’s troubled relationship with her father—she had wished he would die, but now only longs for a chance to talk to him once more. Mary’s a recovering drug addict. “You probably picked me up once or twice,” she muses to Frank.

The medics like to ride to the rescue in life-and-death situations, and feel insulted when, too often the case, they merely cart around a regular clientele of substance abusers, mentally ill, and homeless. Also troubling them is a deadly new street drug, Red Death, that is causing a procession of ODs. With Scorsese’s customary propelling soundtrack, most importantly Van Morrison’s scorching blues “T.B. Sheets”, the film moves within tones of blood red and bright white light against molasses black; Frank feels like he lives in an underworld, and Robert Richardson’s camera aids Scorsese in conjuring an urban tale told by Poe.

Frank and Larry soon deal with Noel again; he’s suicidal and lays in the middle of a street to be run over. Frank gets him to come back to the hospital on the promise of giving him his choice of suicide methods (“Pills. Definitely pills!”). They’re diverted to a multiple shooting in which two young men have been wounded, Red Death vials scattered around them. Frank drafts Noel’s help as he tries to save one in the race back to the hospital; they arrive just as the man, who tearfully vows that he does not want to die and will join the army, expires. Noel promptly runs off at the sight of raw death.

Bringing Out the Dead shows impeccable tonal command. The film could have been a grueling or boring exercise, but Scorsese handles beautifully the alternation of adrenalin-provoking jobs and nocturnal chaos—the sheer visceral thrill and black humor of which keeps the medics, and us, interested—with moments of calm and melancholy, bleary daylight exhaustion and peace-seeking. Frank hopes he’ll be fired by his frazzled, motherly, male boss Captain Barney (Arthur Nascarella). But no one gets fired from this job, they’re too hard-up for staff, and wear and tear on individuals is inevitable; “I promise, I’ll fire you tomorrow!” Barney assures.Frank meditates on the pleasure of saving a life: “Saving someone’s life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see…God has passed through you…why deny that for a moment there, God was you?”

botd5.jpgFrank’s three partners all contrast Frank in their ways of coping, or not coping. Larry plans his meals assiduously and anticipates a day when “it’ll be Boss Larry calling the shots.” Marcus radiates religious passion, and the film’s black comedy highlight has Marcus making a bunch of Goths hold hands and pray whilst Frank resuscitates one of their friends from a Red Death overdose. He also taunts prostitutes with handfuls of cash and flirts relentlessly over the CB with Love (Queen Latifah), the alternate dispatcher whom he once took out on a date that ended with her hitting him over the head. When Marcus decides, against Frank’s pleas, to make an extra trip for the night and guns the motor, he crashes, flipping the vehicle on its side, a wreck from which Frank crawls in giddy laughter. Tom Wolls is completely split at the seams, on the far side of the chasm Frank’s trying to avoid falling into; Tom plans to beat Noel to death for being a nuisance.

The film is littered with wry observations of modern American racial and sexual politics; Griss can be seen reading a book called “Black Robes, White Justice”; Marcus claims “I never mixes my seed;” Mary, in her druggy daze, questions if Frank his Galahad attentiveness means he wants to fuck her (“Everybody else has…”). But despite the social-realist concerns of the film, Scorsese gives the film a surreal, voodoo-noir edge. Religious imagery and references are implied constantly—from the Plague cites (its title, the Red Death) inward—not with a proselytizing purpose, but with a conscientious irony. The names of the hospitals, even the schools Frank and Mary attended, present ingrained religious ideas that underlie these strenuous efforts to survive and heal. The pair are both from this neighborhood, but where Mary’s family stuck around, Frank’s took the path of white flight and may account in part for his guilty zeal. Frank encounters a “virgin birth” when he and Marcus help two Hispanic kids in a crack house, the male of whom assures them his girl can’t be pregnant because, as he proudly announces, “We’re virgins!” Frank also attends resurrections—of Burke and the Goth boy—and equivalents of crucifixions.

There’s also a seductive devil. Mary spends a second grinding night at the hospital, with her father constantly going into cardiac arrest, fighting for his life. In the morning, she goes to see Cy Coates (Cliff Curtis), a local drug kingpin, in desperate need of some emotional numbing. Frank promises to watch out for her and eventually follows her up to Coates’ apartment, a tranquil harbor where Cy holds court with his afro-haired girlfriend and various henchmen. Cy is a silk-tongued, effetely friendly magician of intoxicants who decries the Red Death as “poison”; he has his boys looking to deal with its dealers, and proposes himself as a community-minded man, which Mary later ridicules, knowing that Cy or one of his goons put the bullet in Noel’s head that has made him crazy. With Mary unconscious, Frank lets Cy slip him a downer. Frank plummets into a hallucinogenic dream where he struggles to aid an army of ghosts in escaping the earth, and then relives Rose’s death, where snow rises back into the sky. Frank awakens in screaming rage and drags the stoned Mary from Cy’s place, before collapsing in her apartment. When he awakes, he muses beatifically on the joys of washing his hands with her scented bars of soap.
BOTD2.jpgCage was in one of his periodic disgraces for appearing in too many action films (around this time, I heard Cage described by one critic as a ham and by another as wooden) after his Oscar win for the tawdry, faux-realist Leaving Las Vegas (1996). But Cage fulfills his role as Frank with a haunted grace and hard emotional commitment. Like another underrecognized, late-career classic, Kurosawa’s Red Beard, Bringing Out the Dead is a statement of the necessity of human relationships and altruistic responsibility. Frank seeks fulfillment from helping people, a dedication little rewarded and brutally self-abnegating. As in Casino, Scorsese uses the fate of the villain as a catalyst, except that where Nicky’s grim end underlined a disgust in violence, here Cy presents Frank an opportunity to save a life when the Red Death dealers shoot up Cy’s flat, driving Cy to try leaping from his balcony. Cy ends up skewered on the railing, dangling floors above a crowd crying for a spectacle. The police rescuers who don’t care if he falls or not; Frank risks his life to prevent him plummeting to earth as Cy crows joyfully as the sparks of their cutting torches light the sky like fireworks.

But saving a life doesn’t relieve Frank. He decides what he wants is violence, and, by now terribly strung out, lets Tom talk him into helping him assault Noel, everyone’s victim. This involves following Noel into a red-soaked labyrinth where the homeless sleep. It’s like walking into hell; the image of sin that confronts him is Tom cracking Noel’s bones with a baseball bat. Frank drives Tom away and takes Noel to be patched up. Frank realises he needs to learn to let go, which he enacts by plugging Mr. Burke’s monitors to his own body and letting the man, whom he has imagined is begging for death, die. He then goes to tell Mary of his death, in the course of which he imagines he’s apologizing to Rose as well. “It’s not your fault,” Mary/Rose replies.

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The final shot is of Mary cradling Frank on her bed, white light flooding the frame. It’s the most hopeful final image of any Scorsese film to that point, especially for Scorsese’s most likable, if troubled, male-female partnering since Charlie and Theresa in Mean Streets. Frank, like Jesus and the Dalai Lama before him in the Scorsese canon, is a selfless figure who is rewarded for his sheer courage in the face of intimidating odds; but Frank is an ordinary guy, rather than a religious icon. He is great simply in his willingness to recognize and still fight his limitations to serve the people around him. Bringing Out the Dead effortlessly outclasses the shallow social commentary of Fight Club or that year’s Best Picture winner, American Beauty, not just in technique, but for its feel for the gnarled, aching landscape of modern urban life. It has a breadth of heart and mind to grant its heroes a true sense of the world beyond their own tawdry frustrations. l


21st 06 - 2007 | no comment »

Casino (1995)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Casino presents the rare, inspiring sight of a director pushing his capacities, obsessions, and stylistic experimentation to the limit. Scorsese’s attempts to shunt narrative and explore worlds through montage and voiceover, to fuse high and low culture, to gain panoramic insight into America, to show violence as harsh and ugly as possible—all pushed to the far edge in Casino. If The Age of Innocence is Scorsese at his most poised, Casino is Marty gone wild. It’s a film where a shot from within a cocaine snorter’s straw, white flakes hoovered up towards the camera like a sandstorm, seems subtle. The film that erupts in its opening scene—literally, as Robert De Niro seems to be blown sky high by a car bomb to strains of Bach’s “Matthaus Passion”—becomes an opera of the sordid (the credits also represent the last work of the great film editor and title designer Saul Bass). Scorsese’s first film in 12 years without Michael Ballhaus is instead filmed in the bolder colors and light-diffusing style of Robert Richardson. Richardson’s camera drinks in a landscape of bad wigs and make-up caked faces, cocaine and blood, phony glamour and phonier humanity.

For all this, Casino is a film about marriage—bad marriage on a Shakespearean scale undone by what kills most marriages: money, distrust, and infidelity. Casino is another logical step up from the street-level quasi-hoods of Mean Streets. It pointedly lacks the comforting blue-collar attitude of the Goodfellas crew; Jimmy the Gent, Tommy, and Paulie are lovable when contrasted with the at-all-costs obscenity of Las Vegas and its resident hoods. In its cut-up aesthetics and spurning of the subtle, Casino was Scorsese’s angriest, most punkish film since Taxi Driver and joined two other exciting films from the mid 90s—Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls —in offering a purposefully excessive take on the city of excess; like those films, though not as severely, Casino was greeted without adulation.

But Casino is Scorsese’s great burn-it-down statement, the furthest end of his disgust and delight in everything seamy in American culture. He films Las Vegas in all its Technicolor glory and grotesquery, a symphonic swirl of lights, sex, currency, and gore. The film follows the true story of alleged mob tool Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Chicago mobsters Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, and Frank Cullotta, rendered here as Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), and Frank Marino (Frank Vincent). Sam and Nicky are boyhood friends, the closest the film gets to the “years ago back home” vibe of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Sam is a great gambler, a scientist of chance, who has, up to the early 70s, made his living as a bookie at the behest of the mob. He leaps at the shot at managing the new Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas, theoretically controlled by developer Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak) who’s borrowed financing from the infamous Teamsters Pension Fund. This, of course, means it’s a mob-controlled development. The Mafia dons, headed by Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano), won’t venture any closer to Vegas than Kansas City, the future of their cash cow requiring a squeaky-clean image whilst their finely calibrated skims bring in titanic revenue.

Sam does his job with micromanagerial finesse and ice-cold authority. His awareness of systems— systems of control, systems of surveillance, and the systems of luck—is brilliantly spelled out by Scorsese’s ever-mobile camera. He knows that, for all the illusions the town presents, the house almost always wins, and even when it doesn’t, it can be dealt with. He can sabotage big winners, as he does with a Japanese high roller, keeping him stranded in town until he gambles away all he has won, and ruthlessly punishes cheats. One gets his hand smashed with a hammer by his partner, who is offered a choice between “the money and the hammer” or walking away. In a fashion, Sam and the rest in Casino also have chosen the money and the hammer.

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Sam enjoys his apparent acceptance into elite circles, his status, wealth, and power, which he’s never been allowed before. “Vegas was like Lourdes. All our sins were washed away.” Yet Sam isn’t a happy pawn. He wants to be legitimized, gain a Nevada gaming license—requiring years of bureaucracy and bribery—and a wife. He sets his eyes on Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the most beautiful, sexy, clever, greedy hustler in town. Sam uses the omnipresent surveillance system of the Tangiers to watch her bilking a gambler and steps in to save her when he gets uppity. Ginger is a virtual personification of the city, a mesmerizing surface over a heart of steel, greedy, dishonest, and perversely attached to sleazy beginnings. Sam proves his ardor with a nest egg of a million dollars’ worth of jewelry, which Ginger fawns over with childish glee before it’s locked in a safe deposit box at the bank. For Sam, it’s a pledge of trust and fidelity; for her it’s the golden egg from a goose ripe for the dinner table. He doesn’t marry her until they have a daughter together, Amy (Erika von Tagen), a sure way, he thinks, of binding her close.

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When Nicky arrives with his crew of heavies, including brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) and Marino, he’s been sent by Remo to protect Sam and the operation. But Nicky has a very different idea of his Vegas mission. He establishes kingpin status, robbing and intimidating left, right, and center. Nicky soon gets himself banned from every casino in town, and attracts an army of police and FBI agents, forlornly trying to catch him on something. Sam knows what the pint-sized psychopath is capable of: he has seen Nicky stab a man in the neck with a fountain pen for a flash of brusque attitude. Nicky thinks nothing of threatening bankers, working over bookies, or shooting Phillip Green’s litigious ex-business partner—a middle-aged, middle-class woman—in the head. When a gang shoots up a local diner, Nicky is ordered to punish them. He tortures their leader, eventually putting his head in a vice and popping an eyeball from its socket, before cutting his throat. He also gets up every morning to make his son breakfast and eagerly chats with cops watching their sons at Little League games.
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Sam is unable to restrain Nicky, and is even resented for his attempts to play Mr. Legit: “We’re supposed to be robbin’ this place, you dumb fuckin’ hebe!” Nor can Sam maintain authority over Ginger, who keeps a flame for her first lover and pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods, defining “sleazeball”), who cajoles her for money whilst keeping her psyche on a short leash. He can hypnotize her over the phone by recalling the “young colt with braces on her teeth” he sold. Sam detests the man as much as Ginger pities and adores him. When Lester taps Ginger for $5,000, Sam gives it to him, but then has Nicky’s goons work him over, to Ginger’s hysterical protest. Ginger descends into drugs and drink. In her unstable, paranoid state, she convinces herself that Sam will have her killed, and begins coming on to Nicky as a potential protector, an act that can only have evil consequences.

Cue what was voted the worst sex scene in screen history by one newspaper’s readers: Joe Pesci screwing Sharon Stone. It’s logical in this film exploring a world of sensual excess. Here, indulgence has long outstripped desire, a substitution which, consistently in Scorsese, is the worst possible sin, and one too readily tempting in rich America. Not for the first time, Scorsese dragged a career-best performance from a star, here Stone, who inhabits her half-mad minx with bodily force. In comparison, Pesci is close to parodic and De Niro’s Sam is a much cooler performance than he usually delivered for Scorsese, fittingly as Rothstein’s relative sympathy contrasts his surrounds, but with some tired lurches into familiar refrains (“Can I trust you?…Can I trust you? Answer me, can I trust you?”). It’s also Scorsese’s last collaboration with De Niro to date.

The poisonous threesome of Sam-Nicky-Ginger sends this tale careening into insanity, but other events help, like when FBI agents, bugging the grocery store of put-upon don Artie Piscano (Vinnie Vella), overhear him bitching about his responsibilities to his curse-shy mother (Catherine Scorsese, in her last part for her son before dying in 1997). Nicky can still run rings around them. Agents watching Nicky in a light plane run out of petrol and have to land on a golf course where he and his goons are playing; they happily pelt the plane with golf balls. But Nicky has unbalanced Vegas’ stability. The casino cash-counters who perform the skimming soon begin pilfering for themselves. Marino soon finds himself piggy in the middle, having to answer questions from Remo over the dwindling revenue and whether Nicky is screwing Ginger. Worse, Sam gains far too much attention when his refusal to humor local redneck nepotism results in failure to get his license. He explodes at a Gaming Commission, rants to reporters, and gives himself a high-profile television host to justify hanging around the Tangiers.

Sam is the only person in the film who maintains relative dignity and sympathy, for his professionalism and especially his fatherly concern for Amy, who, at one point, is tied to her bed by her mother who wishes to go out for the evening. In the screenplay, Sam was to have had Lester killed by Nicky, but this was left out of the film, perhaps because Sam is the story’s only link to common humanity. Like so many Scorsese heroes, Sam is defined by his yearning, his desire to transcend his lot and live his version of the American dream through Vegas, the institutionalized loophole in American post-puritan morality. Yet his ferocious poise in gambling and management is matched by a lack of emotional smarts, and his willingness to employ thuggery in settling a romantic rival’s hash, his unleashed loathing for an establishment of country club blazers and cowboy hats who won’t let a Jewish bookie join their ranks, all doom him.

The recreated cocaine-stained polyester and sleazestache chic of 70s style is noxiously intense (largely responsible for the glut of 70s retro films of the late 90s), Scorsese’s culture riffing alternately playful—like the painfully exact recreation of Sam’s TV show or caricature of Siegfried and Roy—and carefully planned. Like the soundtrack’s use of three different versions of “Satisfaction”—from the Stones’ driving, declaratory original to Devo’s disintegrating, masturbatory edition—Nicky and Sam’s control dissolves in a welter of blow-induced shootings and soul-grinding jealousies. c1%5B1%5D.BMPScorsese honors his locale with typical idiosyncrasy, by casting Vegas headline comedians like Alan King, Don Rickles (as two of Sam’s casino lieutenants, Andy Stone and Billy Sherbert), and Tom Smothers.

Casino fulfills Scorsese’s interest in the mechanics of violence, power, and criminality, and opens up territory suggested in The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull in studying not just social outsiders, but its winners, to study how often in American society that old adage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s about there being no second acts in American lives, proves true, and why. Sam, Ginger, and Nicky triumph by being the most exacting, enthusiastic, and ruthless in their fields. They are pure entrepreneurs, but their utter confusion of success with plunder destroys all three of them to varying degrees. Ginger and Nicky are seriously screwed-up people, and Sam’s offering all he has to a woman he knows is venal and untrustworthy reeks of masochism. Casino moves from Goodfellas’ true-crime black comedy to a new realm, one of classical tragedy. As in Euripides and Shakespeare, it uses the extreme lives of its colossal characters to reflect on ordinary human faults, allowed to reach an extreme through the scale of their lives. Most people only feel like the world collapses when their marriage busts up, but in Casino it literally does.

Ginger runs off with Lester, taking Amy with her, then crawls back when Lester blows all their money. Sam, fuming, accepts her but bitterly harps on Lester’s waste and finally spits death threats. Ginger only wants to get her hands on her safe deposit box, but Sam won’t hand it over, knowing it’s the only way he can keep her around. His and Ginger’s concussive brawls and mutual abuse result in Sam dragging Ginger by her hair down a hallway and throwing her out, only to have her return in the middle of the night, their rage temporarily spent. Ginger tries to push Sam by declaring Nicky is her new sponsor, but Nicky contemptuously has her thrown out of his restaurant in her hysterical state. Sam, justifiably paranoid that Nicky’s goons will arrive, has Sherbert come with a shotgun. All they get is Ginger instead, repeatedly ramming Sam’s car in their driveway. She uses the police intervention to snatch the key to the safe deposit box, and beats Sam to the bank to make off with her treasure chest, only to be stopped by detectives.

But they’re not after her—they’re drawing the net on the whole operation. They even try to get Sam to rat on Nicky by showing him photos of Nicky and Ginger together; he shuts the door on them. Still, Remo and the bosses, Nicky, Frank, dozens of made men,and parasites are arrested. In reply, the bosses order a bloodbath. Witnesses, weak links, traitors, and the problematic litter the landscape from Kansas to Costa Casino.jpgRica. Nicky and his brother, released on bail, are met in a cornfield by Frank and their crew. The boys, happy at the chance to remove the scary little creep from their lives, hold Nicky down and force him to watch them beat Dominic to a bloody pulp, and then do the same to him, before burying them both alive in a dusty grave.

It’s perhaps the rawest scene of violence ever in a mainstream American film, and Scorsese finally confronts a limit here, both of what he can get away with and of the lifestyle of these people. This is what’s at the center of the onion he’s peeled, and fittingly for an angry repudiation of violence, it’s Nicky the psycho who’s the suddenly sympathetic victim. The only amusing aspect is that Frank Vincent finally has revenge for the beatings he received from Pesci in Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

What’s left of Casino’s narrative runs out on burning sand, scored with perhaps Scorsese’s most perfect sound-vision fusion by The Animal’s version of “House of the Rising Sun.” That most iconic of blues songs—like the film—mixes cautionary tale, deterministic social argument, and ironic sensual celebration. Alan Price’s organ burns away as Ginger, as a groaning husk, drops dead in an anonymous hotel hallway, murdered with a hot dose of heroin, her fortune squandered. Sam, we find, is saved from a bomb planted in his car only by incredible fortune. Our last image of an aging, thick-spectacled Ace Rothstein, is another Scorsese Odysseus washed up on the shore, emptied of torturous passions and laden with experience, happy to be simply alive. As old Vegas collapses flames, he muses with due sarcasm about the laundering of the town; gone is, at least, the sense that the town was run by human beings, guys like himself who had risen from nothing, replaced by corporations. America’s playground becomes another place for the bedazzled and hopeful to give their money away to the giants. l


11th 06 - 2007 | no comment »

The Age of Innocence (1993)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Martin Scorsese finally arrived as a Hollywood force with the multiple Oscar nominations of Goodfellas and the big box office of Cape Fear (1991). The latter film, a remake of a 1963 J. Lee Thompson thriller (from a novel by John D. MacDonald), stands as probably Scorsese’s worst movie; the original film’s poised, subversive evil was lost in an exercise in flashy style. Sold as being “more adult,” the remake actually diluted the charge by turning Robert Mitchum’s chilly, reptilian Max Cady into Robert De Niro’s ranting, hammy psycho; airbrushing the threatened pedophilic rape of the family’s daughter by making her a goofily rebellious teen; and throwing out believability around the time De Niro straps himself to the underside of an SUV.

Scorsese made the commercial Cape Fear for Universal as thanks for funding The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas. After discharging this obligation, he set out to adapt a novel his friend, the writer and critic Jay Cocks, had given him to read in 1980, claiming it was bound to become his “romantic” piece. The novel was the 1920 Pulitzer Prize winner The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. In the tradition of tightly wrought symbolist studies shared by Henry James, the book is a tale of late 19th century social mores and their corrosive effects on personal happiness.

Scorsese and Cocks cowrote the screenplay, turning down an offer from Gore Vidal, who begged Scorsese to be allowed to write it to keep the adaptation from being screwed up. The early ’90s saw a glut of spit-shine literary adaptations, typified by Ismail Merchant/James Ivory films such as Howards End, as a kind of boutique genre of fin de siècle nostalgia for upscale cinemagoers. The Age of Innocence was lumped amongst them, suspect Oscar bait for Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, and possibly for Scorsese himself. I hadn’t even watched it in more than a decade. Returning to the film, it rises resplendent out of its period with a lucid, lustrous beauty.

At first glance, it seems as much of a departure for Scorsese as any possible—from wise guys and psycho taxi drivers to the genteel requirements of the period drama. But Scorsese the anthropologist, responsible for the deftly articulated social studies of his great films, was simply taking his fascination with the building blocks of American life about a half-century further back than he had gone before. Scorsese also may have been trying to channel some of the enthusiasm he had for the long-planned project Gangs of New York, announced after New York, New York but perpetually backburnered. The Age of Innocence is about what goes on at the end of Manhattan Island furthest from Five Points. One can spy in its genes the spirit of films beloved by Scorsese, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Senso, particularly in the opening sequence (Scorsese’s analysis of Senso in Mio Viaggio in Italia reveals just how much). All provide elegant examples of how to stage the intricate, restrained, fetishistic character of period passions.
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Joanne Woodward narrates Wharton’s prose. The tough, ruggedly democratic, idealistic, rebellious mood of the Civil War era has been comfortably anesthetized; the Gilded Era is in full swing. Upscale New York comfortably replicates European social forms with a strict, uptight insistence that betrays its provincialism. It’s a more refined, studious, curiously more intense world than the one we live in; small changes and challenges generate enormous ripples.

AgeNewland%20edit.JPGNewland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), as his name implies, is a man of the New World—vigorous, talented, yearning, inquisitive, morally and intellectually progressive in private, largely conformist in public. We meet him, a young lawyer with impeccable status, at the opera in the company of Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowen) and Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant), two men who fancy themselves weather vanes for the minutiae of form and content in New York society. Newland has just become engaged to May Welland (Ryder), who is present at the performance in another box with her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and her cousin Ellen, the Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer).

Ellen has just returned to New York, a city she barely knows because her parents had been itinerant bohemians in Europe, where she eventually fell into a nightmarish marriage to a libertine Polish aristocrat. Her return, sans husband, sparks rumors that she had been scandalously shacked up in Switzerland for a time with his secretary. Immediately taken with her, Newland takes up her cause. After the performance comes one of the major social events of the year, the Opera Ball. Its hostess is another relative of the Wellands, Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt), who married the intransigent, rakish broker Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson) in a precarious balance of old name and new money. Ellen’s presence is bound to create a stir; Newland counteracts this by announcing his and May’s engagement.

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Ellen is welcomed happily by her family’s matriarch, the bedridden Mrs. Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), but her attempts to present Ellen fail miserably. Newland successfully argues to the last court of appeal for cases like this—the Van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), mandarins of this scene. They invite Ellen to a dinner they give for a cousin of theirs who is a duke. “When the Van der Luydens chose, they knew how to give a lesson,” the narrator wryly notes. Newland argues with Jackson over the rights of a woman to be extended the same privileges as men. If Julius Beaufort can have his scattered mistresses without being bothered, why should Ellen be ostracized if the story of her and the secretary is true?

Newland soon finds himself entrusted with the sticky chore of advising Ellen on the risks of trying to obtain a divorce from her husband—virtual social suicide. Ellen is a fine, strong, but threatened woman, made nervously fluttery by her lack of sureness of the world around her; it’s to her absolute surprise that democratic America is more repressive than Old Europe. “Why did Columbus bother discovering a new world if he intended it should just be a version of the old?” she jokingly, but pertinently questions. This mixture of forthright character and wounded charm entirely intoxicates Newland. He finds himself doubly frustrated by the year-long engagement he’s faced with by May. On observing that Julius Beaufort is aggressively courting Ellen to be his mistress, Newland urgently urges Ellen to confide the truth of her life to him, fondly imaging her embracing him from behind, and becomes angered when Julius, like he has done, follows her to a country retreat on a Van der Luyden country property. When Newland finally confesses his torturous ardor, he finishes up kissing her feet as Ellen strokes his hair. But the narrow window where they might have done something about it closes when May tells him that she’s argued successfully for their marriage to be brought forward.

“The taste of the usual was like cinders in his mouth,” the narrator explains as Newland struggles against the chafing harness his lot puts him in and the burning promise of Ellen’s passion. His business and his private life demand attention to propriety. When Beaufort gets into trouble with his business, he and his wife are brutally dismissed by the society that noted and kept a ledger on his transgressions even as it trusted him with their money. Newland’s continued healthy existence in his rarefied sphere demands adherence to forms he despises. Day-Lewis was, at the time, the most electric actor in Hollywood, and he’s at the height of his art here in a performance that is marvelously contoured with fires of feeling that flare and smolder, particularly in a moment when he spitefully remarks to Jackson, “If everyone had rather she be Beaufort’s mistress rather than some decent man’s wife, you’ve all gone about it perfectly!”

Age%20of%20Innocence%202.jpgMay hardly seems his equal; Newland feels everything seems to conspire to match men and women of intelligence and energy with dullards and cowards to provide a kind of natural friction. Yet May is not dumb, or wrong, or anything less than a charming young woman; it’s just that there’s no doubt in her about the appropriate shape of the world. Unlike himself and Ellen, she is no misfit or rebel; on the contrary, her psyche fits exactly with her prescribed function. Half-consciously, she resists, corrects, manipulates, and controls. May possesses a covert, cunning nature that manifests itself in minute insinuations with an obeisant, girlish anguish, such as when she discourages Newland from inviting an interesting but “common” French acquaintance, Rivière (Jonathan Pryce) to dinner on their tour of the continent on their honeymoon. Newland recognizes that, far from being someone he can enable to become an expansive-minded soul like himself, May will slowly, dully process him to a fretful scion.

Newland is so intoxicated and sensitive in this straitened epoch that the smallest moments become laced with sensual possibilities, as when he thinks he’s found Ellen’s parasol, sniffing the handle for a trace of perfume (it proves to be another girl’s). Kissing her gloved hand is the most physical and powerful moment he has with her. The first time he sees her after returning from Europe, Ellen stands at the end of a dock, staring out to sea in a gold-bathed afternoon. Sent to fetch her, he instead vows only to go to her if she turns around by the time a sailboat passes a neighboring lighthouse; she doesn’t, and he leaves her, but later goes to her anyway, and discovers she was purposely avoiding him that day. The pair edge closer to a proper affair. Ellen admits cryptically that she knows what the far side of the invisible barrier they dance on looks like, that land of freedom and rebellion, a harsh, scary realm that is “no place for us.” Rivière turns up, casually recognizing Newland as he visits Ellen at a hotel, and later informs Newland he’s acting as an agent of the Count, her husband, who’s trying to arrange her return to Europe. But Rivière surprisingly implores Newland: “Don’t let her go back!”

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Cocks understood Scorsese well in giving him the book. The Age of Innocence crystallizes one of the most consistent of Scorsese’s themes—doomed and impossible passions, and torturous male-female relationships afflict the protagonists of almost all of his films. Newland is a sensitive, romantic aesthete; he reads voraciously (having all the latest books shipped from London), and absorbs paintings, poetry, and books on Japan with a longing fervor for traces of life outside the commonplace—all of which Scorsese’s camera drinks in with the same enraptured poise. Scorsese’s films are always careful to counterpoint individual drama with social environment and cultural evocation, and Newland does this consciously as a character. He studies techniques in the first wave of Impressionist paintings and considers his own place in the ludicrous niceties of the New York upper crust with the same intelligence. Newland seeks something of the same passion, fulfillment, and sensual release he gets from art in his life, and he absorbs the pleasures of his love for Ellen in the same way—standing back and watching, meditating, critiquing, savoring, constantly driven beyond his good sense by the force of his yearning. Newland becomes one the most personal and aware of Scorsese’s heroes. His own ironic relation to his world resembles Scorsese’s reactions to his own background.

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Newland and Ellen are finally driven apart irrevocably, as Newland tries to confess all to May, who slyly prevents him from doing so. When Mrs. Mingott suffers a stroke, she concludes her affairs by arranging for Ellen’s permanent independence from her husband, whereupon Ellen abruptly sets about returning to Europe. Newland and Ellen have been seen by Luffets and Jackson on the street, a fleeting glance. May arranges a farewell dinner for Ellen, attended by the scintillating members of society, up to and including the Van der Luydens, and, Newland realizes it’s a purposeful show of support for May in triumphing over her rival, his presumed mistress. Newland announces to May he intends to give up the law and travel—code for his intention to follow Ellen to Paris. But May gains her final victory; kneeling in the passive, entreating manner of a classic Victorian maid, she informs Newland she’s pregnant, and that it was her hinting this to Ellen that caused her to leave.

Some 30 years later, Newland is a widower with two grown children—his daughter married to one of Luffets’ sons, and his son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) to a daughter of the Beauforts. He is a good-natured, well-seasoned gentleman who has successfully shepherded the family fortune into the budding 20th century. He lets his son coax him on a voyage to see Paris. There, Ted reveals that on her deathbed, his mother told him that Newland “nearly threw everything over” for Ellen, who still resides in Paris. Ted now insists they visit her. But Newland won’t go into her flat, sitting outside, a sundog from her window making him recall watching her on the pier. “I’m only 57,” Newland murmurs, but strolls idly away, content with his memories and the new, comforting assurance that May had been “one person who felt his anguish and took pity on him.”

The Age of Innocence moves as insistently as any Scorsese film. Michael Ballhaus’s camera swirls and soars with the precise grace of a waltz, and reproduces physical effects (as when Luffets surveys a crowd through binoculars, the editing reproduces the quick refocusing the human eye does at such a moment, rather than just panning) and enjoys the human spectacle. The Beauforts’ ball is a tour-de-force sequence, beginning with a wondrous layering of time-progressing shots, as the room is prepared; then the camera strolls through the halls and rooms of the house, discovering meeting groups, and finally soars high overhead to observe the geometric patterns made by the dancing couples. Color is used carefully, painted with a flat, slightly pressed texture, delicately recreating the texturing of the paintings Newland loves, but without walloping the eye with sheer prettiness (except in the necessarily dazzling dock scene). Such is Scorsese’s control that the film fills with some supreme moments of emotion (and a word of special praise to Elmer Bernstein for his lush, symphonic score).

Newland belongs to the people who owned and ran the world that Scorsese’s and so many others’ ancestors had to fight tooth and nail to penetrate, to win a share of respect and equality. The delicate pinpricks deployed at the top of the social heap manifest as sabers at the bottom; there are things at stake in this social organization Newland never begins to contemplate. But The Age of Innocence is not Ragtime; it’s closer to a dream-memory of an era beauteously decaying, just past the edge of recollection. In the end, Newland drifts away from confronting a past that never worked out, content to keep the pleasant, glorious impressions in mind. He might not have gained everything he wanted, but as all things become with passing time, even the things he wanted were just milestones on a journey.


31st 05 - 2007 | no comment »

Goodfellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

My clothes may still be torn and tattered/
But in my heart I’d be a king/
Your love is all that ever mattered/
It’s everything.
– “Rags to Riches” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, performed by Tony Bennett

Knocked out in bed last night/
I´ve had my fill, my share of looting/
And now, the tears subside/
I find it all so amusing/
To think, I killed a cat/
And may I say, oh no, not their way/
But no, no, not me/
I did it my way.
– “My Way” by Claude François, Jacques Revau, Paul Anka, and Sid Vicious, performed by Sid Vicious

1990 was a vintage year for gangster films. Francis Coppola revisited old turf with the underrated, operatic The Godfather Part III; the Coen Brothers made a typically skewed visitation to the Hammett/Chandler subgenre with Miller’s Crossing; Stephen Frears tried Jim Thompson’s hardboiled milieu with The Grifters. But it was Martin Scorsese who laid down the template for a glut of gangland portraits with Goodfellas, creating surely the most stylistically influential film of the following decade. Goodfellas’ punchy aesthetic is reflected in films as diverse as Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), through to TV’s The Sopranos. Countless pseudo-indie confections made its tone-setting, narrative-driving voiceovers irritatingly popular.

After the cacophony that met The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas must have felt like safe ground, and Scorsese was handsomely repaid with his most generally admired work. For most of its running time, Goodfellas is an experiment in sheer cinematic motion – a deeply expressive virtuosity, structured like a cocaine binge, all electric pulse and giddy thrills to begin with, concluding in sweaty paranoia and collapsed perspectives. It’s impossible to forget the impact of first watching the film and being instantly hauled along by its compulsive force, the giddy, dirty life story Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates. We meet Henry during a moment of staggering brutality: his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) shooting and stabbing a groaning, bloodied man in the trunk of their car. Henry slams the trunk shut, and Scorsese freezes frame on his pale, sweat-flecked face, to the immortal voiceover announcement, “All my life all I ever wanted was to be a gangster.” In five minutes we know all there is to know about Henry and why he ended up confronting this, and why his expression looked like he was thinking, “Well, I knew there’d be days like this.” As it happens to Henry, so the film happens to us; the logic is there, but shit happens so quickly you hardly know it.

Henry’s a half-Italian, half-Irish, blue-collar boy (played young by Christopher Serrone) whose working-class life of straitened circumstances and furious belt beatings looks like excellent training for the brutality, avarice, and lordly authority gangland life offers. Henry starts his underworld career as a gofer for local Mafia heavy Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and the vibrating network of hoods, stick-up artists, skimmers, and scammers he patronises.

In the arc of Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas was important not just for being a return to the criminal milieu underpinning Mean Streets and Raging Bull – although, unlike those films, Goodfellas is about the men on the far side of the invisible line that Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Jake La Motta danced on – but also as a return to his neo-realist inspirations. Goodfellas achieves its great impact by fusing the slickest of modern movie technical, editing, and storytelling techniques, with a carefully expostulated charting of a specific milieu utilising a flavorful verisimilitude straight from the neo-realist playbook by using real ex-mobsters in the cast and the casting Scorsese’s parents in key roles. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi adapted Pileggi’s nonfiction account of Hill’s life, Wiseguys, which was dedicated to analysing and describing just how the mob works in all its sleazy, entrancing details.

The film warps our perspective, not just with Henry’s incessantly nasal, quick-fire patter reproducing a high-pressure salesman’s enthralling seduction of the senses whilst numbing critical faculties, with his constant phrasings (“it’s just good business,” “makes sense,” etc.) ad nauseum. Scorsese furthers the effect with tunnel-vision framing, edits, and dizzying camera movements – most famously, the single-take tracking shot in which Henry, trying to wow girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco), treats her to the alternative entrance to the Copacabana, passing through kitchens and hallways, greeting chefs, waiters, necking couples, and celebrities with easy flair, to a table summoned from nowhere especially for this VIP. She (and we) is knocked flat by the effect. Much later, as Henry descends into coked-up, paranoid hysteria, Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (this is the film credit he’ll probably want carved on his tombstone) go all out – whip-pans, flash edits, zoom shots, dollies, tracking shots, distorted sound, jaggedly intercut musical cues – in a sequence as impressive to film makers, who have hailed it as an experimental film construction in itself, as it is to ex-junkies for whom the sequence is queasily accurate.

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Goodfellas shows how crime families are just that – families consisting of people who spend all their time together, living, dying, raising families in each other’s laps. Henry’s vicious upbringing makes him drawn to the earned respect and familial trust of the mob. He and Tommy are virtual favourite nephews to Jimmy’s corrupting uncle when he’s the local dapper gent, god to all the two-bit punks. When Henry is busted for the first time, he is greeted by a celebration (“You lost your cherry!”) as affirmation he has now passed the final rite of passage for a wiseguy. As Henry sells it, the Mafia life is the ultimate refusal to kowtow to moneyed authority and the deadening demands made on working-class men – befitting the Mafia’s roots in Sicilian quarrymen’s attempts at union-building (the Italian phrase “syndicate” that has come to refer to the Mafia, also means “union”) – who earn with sweat and (literal) blood a life of luxury and authority that ordinarily would be denied them.

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That Tommy is an explosive psychopath is only of concern to Henry and Jimmy when he turns it on them – otherwise he’s the kind of scary force you’re glad to have in your corner. Tommy casually shoots a lippy waiter (Michael Imperioli) and is willing to risk assassination by their Mafia overlords to get revenge on obnoxious Bill Batts (Pesci’s old stand-up buddy Frank Vincent, getting his second beating off Pesci in a Scorsese film), a made man who teases Tommy about his childhood job shining shoes. Pesci’s signature moment – which, according to legend, Scorsese let him write and direct himself, and which did most of the work in capturing him his 1990 Best Supporting Actor Oscar – is when, in joking over drinks, he suddenly seems to take offence to Henry calling him “a funny guy.” Although he eventually realises it’s a put-on, Henry is momentarily a deer caught in Tommy’s headlights. It’s entirely possible, and he knows it, Tommy might shoot him for the perceived insult. But most of the time, Tommy’s their trouble-prone, motor-mouthed kid brother whose mother (Catherine Scorsese in her most indelible performance for her son) pesters him to get married, and who cheerfully takes the boys to her place and has them sit down for dinner with her whilst Batts is locked in the trunk.

Batts’ death echoes right through the film, both as the first true reality check and a narrative refrain at various points: when the dons look for their missing paisano, when the trio have to dig up the rotting corpse from its forest grave, right through to when Tommy gets a bullet in the brain when he’s expecting to be made a member of the Mafia fellowship he has insulted by killing Batts. It’s a thoroughly deserved death, but Jimmy and Henry weep for their comrade.

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The film’s second narrative voice is Karen’s. Bracco arguably gives the film’s best performance, sublimely communicating in body language her arc from fiery young suburbanite to a middle-aged woman addled by cocaine and cynicism. Karen is no innocent victim or clueless neighbourhood wife. She readily admits, when Henry sticks a gun in her hand, that it turns her on. Initially volatile, having been thrown together on a double date neither wanted, Henry eventually cements their relationship by beating a neighbour who molested her. It’s instantly apparent to Karen that Henry achieves the things – hard revenge, wads of cash, universal respect – most guys promise, and she swiftly lets herself be seduced by it.

Her own ironic perspective on events – she’s middle class, Jewish, independent-minded – sees her aghast at the classless, foul-mouthed, violent mob wives like Rosie (Illeana Douglas) she’s supposed to hang with, the industrial-grade brutality, tackiness, and socially incestuous people she’s now surrounded by. But she’s fine with that as long as Henry’s handing her inch-thick bundles of bills (and not that Karen and Henry’s tastes are especially superior – when they give a tour of their newly furnished house, it’s an empire of kitsch). She loses her cool steadily in dealing with Henry’s institutionalised infidelity with Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo), a lengthy imprisonment (she puts up with years of raising kids and struggling on her own without help – the moment he gets out, taking in their crummy house, he declares “We’re moving.”), until one morning he awakens with her jamming a revolver in his face, interrogating him about his girlfriend. It’s catching, this violence thing. The pair reconciles on the orders of Paulie – the Mafia’s family values are more about the potential security breaches of busted marriages than actual emotional concern.

Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy make most of their money through robberies, especially hijackings and skims done from the freight terminals at Idlewild/JFK Airport which is on their turf; Henry also, whilst in prison, branches out into drug dealing, which Paulie has strictly forbidden him to do. The cosiness of their lives finally shatters when they pull off one of the biggest heists in history, ripping off Lufthansa of several million dollars. It renders them the most triumphant group of criminals in the country and the most paranoid. Soon Jimmy’s got Tommy and other thugs assassinating all the noncertifiably trustworthy partners in the heist, like Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson) and wig salesman Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low), whom Henry tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save from Tommy’s ice pick. Morrie’s the kind of guy who’s just born to be murdered, a clinging, cajoling, money-hungry schmuck; we, and Henry, cringe in defensive longing. The film’s almost unique in showing how truly dumb and loosely organised most of these people are – Henry’s drug posse includes his wheelchair-bound brother, his sexpot girlfriend (who leaves cocaine-glutted cookware around her flat), and his superstitious stoner babysitter. Only violence and codes of ethics keep this world in motion, and finally Henry realises even these don’t necessarily count for much.

Morrie’s TV spot is a superb recreation of cheap advertising style, cementing another of the film’s strong aspects. Scorsese, always sharp with cultural reference and satire, also provided a blueprint for the increased pop cultural awareness of ’90s filmmaking, with his vividly utilised retro soundtrack and constant refrains to ephemera, like Henny Youngman entertaining at the Copa and polka king Bobby Vinton (played by his son Robbie), continually providing cultural context for the events portrayed. Early in the film, Tony Bennett’s gorgeous “Rags to Riches” blares, a height of Italian-American jazz-pop both declaring a cultural ascendency and providing an ironic counterpoint of emotional riches with the gangsters’ greed.

After the ugly fallout from the heist, Tommy is brutally whacked; confronted with an empty room that should be filled with Cosa Nostra elders, he ejects “Oh no!” before having his brains sprayed over the tiled floor. Jimmy begins to make overtures to Henry that sound alarmingly like invitations to get whacked after he’s busted by DEA officers after his day-long crack-up. Karen calls him paranoid until she herself feels mysteriously threatened when Jimmy seems to be trying to set her up for a gang assault on the pretext of selecting some second-hand furniture. This convinces them both to flee for the cover of the witness protection program. Henry shops Paulie and Jimmy out for stiff stretches, whilst he lives out the rest of his life in squaresville suburbia, haunted by the image of a vengeful Tommy shooting at him, to the strains of Sid Vicious’ punk brutalisation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a logical end for a steady decline from glam to sham.

Made hugely famous by the film, Hill, now long divorced from Karen, got himself kicked out of the WPP for eagerly announcing his identity to anyone who’d seen the movie, went back to prison for a stretch, and now stars in every other cable TV documentary on the mob. (It’s an interesting job to compare the film with the TV-made film The Million Dollar Getaway (1991), about the Lufthansa heist, featuring John Mahoney as Jimmy the Gent. In the latter film, Jimmy is portrayed as a folk hero contending with the determination of his Mafia partners to kill all the good blue-collar boys who actually committed the crime and keep the dough for themselves.)

The final shot of Tommy blasting at the camera is a direct quote of The Great Train Robbery (1902), the first American narrative film, and western, and crime flick. As well as summarizing Henry’s final mood, it makes a statement about the history of filmmaking and American society, the long drift from Wild West banditry to suburban conformity, which Henry lives out in a particularly surreal, compressed version. Scorsese also puts in a shot of Karen watching The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound film, which is both appropriate to her character – a Jewish kid alienated from her parents like Jolson’s titular hero – and another turning point in cinematic history, continuing Scorsese’s self-conscious motif. In the course of the film, he uses just about every narrative and cinematic trick extant, and these references seem to complement his awareness that in the 146 minutes of Goodfellas, he had found the perfect material to realise his own ideal of cinema’s potential. l


17th 05 - 2007 | no comment »

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Whilst making Boxcar Bertha in 1972, Barbara Hershey gave Martin Scorsese a book, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek author whose novel Alexis Zorba became the famous film with Anthony Quinn. The novel of the Christ led to Kazantzakis’ excommunication, and the work was often banned. Last Temptation remained lodged in Scorsese’s imagination until he began developing the project in the early 1980s. Nervousness pervaded all stages of bringing the film to realization. Paramount, which had agreed to bankroll the film, pulled out before shooting began. The production went ahead in Morocco on a $7 million budget provided by Universal and Cineplex/Odeon. The early hand-wringing proved justified by the film’s reception. Christian organizations lobbied for its banning. Some offered to buy the negative for the production cost and destroy it. Picket lines attended screenings. French zealots threw Molotov cocktails at a Parisian showing. Wildfire controversy accompanied the work wherever it went. If it was a grindhouse film, its video cover might still boast “Banned by Bulgaria and Blockbuster!”

All this from a guy who came close to enrolling in the seminary? You’d think Marty had portrayed Jesus as joining in a cocaine-fuelled threesome with Mary and Judas and voicing support for Michael Dukakis. Rather, The Last Temptation of Christ is merely a vivid, strident, intellectually curious work. It is also possibly Scorsese’s greatest film—not that it’s ever likely to win that consensus from a popular culture that has made a fetish of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas—and one of the most vigorous and original religious films ever made.

Kazantzakis’ written prologue establishes the spiritual territory; the disturbing, incomprehensible struggle of a man who is also divine to reconcile the struggles between the flesh and godliness. The Jesus thus conjured is not a beatifically smiling savior assured of his own rectitude and sublime purpose, but (as embodied by Willem Dafoe, dedicated to the role with hypnotic effort), instead chased by restless dread and unseen torments, filled with self-loathing and hate for the God he knows wants something great and terrible from him. He struggles through deadly stigmatic fits and phases of doubt, fear, anger, despair, and human longing.

Spurning the lamentable history of Jesus flicks, Last Temptation dedicates itself to a portrait of the beginnings of Christianity as it sprang from the brute soil of Roman-occupied Judea—this raw, dirty, poverty-stricken landscape on the edge of both the Empire and the realms of the human psyche; beyond here is only the bone-cracking desert, playground of Yahweh and Satan. Judea’s native culture has been reduced to ineffective theatre. It’s a multicultural crossroads, infused with Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Africans, tough and vital. The land has turned its attention to wandering preachers and soothsayers like John the Baptist. Guerrilla resistance simmers; the Zealots, including Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), act as paramilitary enforcers, searching out traitors both religious and secular. Jesus has made himself a pariah by being the only carpenter willing to manufacture crosses for the Romans. He even participates in crucifying a seditious prophet, anticipating his own hideous fate. “God loves me…I want him to stop! … I make crosses so he’ll hate me. I want him to find somebody else!”

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Jesus determines to pursue his fate, and leaves his home and mother (Verna Bloom). Walking the shores of Galilee, he senses himself being followed by an invisible thing that strikes him with pain before directing him to the house of Mary Magdalene (Hershey – Scorsese made her audition so she wouldn’t think he was just returning the favor of the loan of the book in casting her). He watches the degrading sensual spectacle of Mary with her clients for the day. At the crucifixion he helped perform, Mary, amongst the jeerers, had spat in his face. Jesus begs her forgiveness; they were childhood sweethearts, but Mary lost Jesus to his crisis, which caused him to reject the possibility of marrying her. Broken-hearted and out of suitors, taking up a whore’s life was her only option, and she taunts him sexually and emotionally with forlorn rage. And yet a powerful friendship still holds them together.

Jesus reaches a remote, rugged, desert monastery. He is greeted by the spirit of the recently deceased Abbot, who states that he knows who Jesus is. Jesus confesses his purposes and weaknesses to young monk Jerobeam (Barry Miller), who tries to advise him on the tasks that confront him. When two black cobras emerge from a hole in his cell and speak with Mary’s voice, Jerobeam recognizes it as a sign Jesus’ impurities have been cast out, and he can return to the world.

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The film’s greatest twist on the traditional story is Judas, embodied with great force and emotional complexity by Harvey Keitel. Taking a cue from the Gnostic texts, Judas is Jesus’ angry doppelganger, another childhood friend who has become an agent of the Zealots. Jesus takes Judas’ knock for whatever it is that dogs him, and indeed, he is the incarnation of Jesus’ merciless responsibility. Judas kicks at Jesus’ tools and wood for the cross he’s building, and when Jesus plaintively explains, “I’m struggling,” Judas ripostes, “I struggle. You collaborate!” When Jesus returns from the desert, Judas holds a knife to his throat—the Zealots have ordered his assassination. Jesus accepts the knife if it’s what God wants for him, but, stirred by Judas’ hesitance, suggests, “Perhaps He didn’t send you here to kill me. Maybe He sent you to follow me.”

Judas walks with Jesus back to civilization, stating “If you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you.” A righteous opportunity quickly presents itself; the pair comes upon Mary being stoned by a mob, scapegoat for festering frustration. Jesus intervenes, facing down the righteous hypocrites, accosting wealthy Zebadee (Irvin Kershner—yes, the one who directed The Empire Strikes Back) with a telling count of his sins: “He’s seen you cheat your workers! And what about that widow you visit, what’s her name?” Jesus leads them instead to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, except that both the crowd and the impact of his words aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Jesus is too crippled by the conflict of his ideas and impulses to trust himself as a preacher: “God is so many miracles. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say right thing?”

Jesus gives a parable of a farmer sewing wheat, some of which withers, some of which finds no soil, and some of which grows and feeds a nation, and then explains, when he’s met with stony looks, he’s the farmer. His parable proves immediately true; some declare him an idiot, some take him for a provocateur and bay for blood, ltocapostle.bmpand some, the most intellectually and spiritually curious, are intrigued. Jesus’ band of adherents swells. Taking a leaf from Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St Francis, Scorsese uses the Apostles for gently, highly human, comic relief as they fight for sleeping space by the fire. Judas finds them silly and useless, whilst Jesus ponders the purpose-sapping contradictions of his efforts. His return to Nazareth is met by mockery and stones.

Judas suggests they go to see John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who condenses the spirit of the Old Testament in his scrawny, wild-haired body. He rants prophesies of judgment, brimstone, godly wrath. “Now he sounds like the Messiah!” Judas croaks. They have come upon The Baptist at a ceremony, surrounding by religious ecstatics; women dance naked, drums bang, chants sound. As Jesus comes toward John from behind, John turns abruptly, just as Jesus had with his own unseen pursuer, and demands, “Who are you?” The noise of the ceremony dies, leaving only the sound of rippling river water, and does not return until John anoints Jesus’ head.

This is a scene that captures Scorsese’s jarring approach at its finest. Scorsese achieves a vivid sense of the past by spurning pure historical detail; he emphasizes the raw remoteness of time and place by mixing Judaic scenery with multicultural tropes. Roman soldiers are dressed in stylized garb that might have come from a punk staging of Jesus Christ Superstar. Isaiah visits Jesus in a bleached Darth Vader costume. With dashes of ’80s New Wave and punk aesthetic, right down to Peter Gabriel’s gorgeously weird score and casting alterna-music figures like David Bowie and John Lurie, Scorsese reinvents history with a melding of modernist dance, art, and film styles. Partly enforced by the low budget, there is a complete rejection of epic plush; this is a desert world.

“The God of Israel is a God of the desert,” John the Baptist tells Jesus, and that is where he must now go for his first confrontation with Satan, a pillar of flame with an elegantly mocking English accent (voiced by Leo Marks, writer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom). The miracles, visions, and apparitions are starkly simple, in contrast with Mel Gibson’s setting in the The Passion of the Christ, where the only angels one could sense Gibson’s God trying to hold back were ten-thousand CGI artists (one could write another essay comparing these two films).

Facing down Satan’s taunts finally gives Jesus the warlike purpose he lacked; he returns with an axe he finds in the sand, ready for revolution, and pulls his heart from his body to display his newly granted capacity for miracles and to awe his followers. He passes through the landscape determined to heal and cast out demons; madmen and cripples slither out of crevices like he’s dragging the disease out of the flesh of the earth. Lobbied to raise Lazarus (Tomas Arana), brother of Mary (Randy Danson) and Martha (Peggy Gormley), who sheltered Jesus when he returned from fasting, Jesus bids the stone on his tomb rolled away, at which point everyone covers their face from the stench. Yet Lazarus still claws his way out of his tomb, numbed and covered in green rot.

Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws out the moneylenders from the Temple in fiery indignation in a scene met with the shock and anger of a rabbi (veteran character actor Nehemiah Persoff), who perceives himself as stalwart defender of Judaic tradition in a time of assault by foreign mores and Gods. Saul and the Zealots, seeing Jesus’ influence and that Judas has joined him, visit Lazarus and murder him, eliminating the proof of Jesus’ greatest miracle. When Jesus leads a mob to assault the Temple again, he is stricken by stigmata; God telling him he will not die a quick, heroic death, but with the ignominious cruelty of crucifixion, and there’s no way out of it. Jesus collapses and is helped away by Judas as Roman soldiers slaughter the mob.

ltoc10%5B1%5D.BMPJesus already expects his end, told to him by a visitation of Isaiah. He tells a grief-stricken, conflicted Judas that he needs him to give him up. When Judas asks if he could give up a man he loves to such an end, Jesus replies, “No. That’s why God gave me the easier job.” In short time, Jesus writhes in doubt at Gethsemane before being dragged off to see Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), a calmly intellectual appraiser (“You’re just another Jewish politician.”) who swiftly diagnoses Jesus as being more dangerous to the Zealots. “It’s one thing to change the way people live, but you want to change the way they think, the way they feel,” Pilate explicates, as embodiment of Pax Romana logic. “It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things. We don’t want them changed.” Jesus is beaten, crowned with thorns, and led to his bloody consummation on Golgotha. Jesus screams forlornly as a grimly apocalyptic dust-wind rises.

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As it had with The Baptist, the clamor of the scene dies, and a golden-haired girl (Juliet Caton) approaches through the crowd. Tugging the nails from his feet and hands, she tells Jesus she is his Guardian Angel, and that God has granted a reprieve—he’s not the Messiah, and he can lead the rest of his life in simple ease. Led into a newly verdant Israel, Jesus is married to Mary and living in sublime peace with her before God appears to her and kills her. Jesus is enraged, but the Angel assures him, with her honey-toned, oddly psychopathic rhetoric, it was simply her time, that all women are the same. She encourages him to take a new wife, Lazarus’ sister Mary, and eventually also to bed her sister Martha. He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age, where he’s ashamed to think of his self-abnegating, egotistical, religious mission. He encounters Saul, now calling himself Paul, preaching in a public forum, of his conversion to Christ’s teachings and of the legend of his sacrifice. Jesus angrily declaims his death and mocks his own legend. Paul ripostes, “I’m glad I met you…my Jesus is far more powerful.” Paul is popularizing Jesus’ legend, arguing that humanity needs Jesus’ message of universal love and redemption.

Jesus is dying as Jerusalem is laid waste in the wake of rebellion, and his Apostles emerge from hiding to gather at his side. “Be careful, he’s still angry!” they warn of Judas, who enters, blood staining his hands from fighting the Romans. Judas erupts, accusing Jesus for not following his path, then lifting the veil on the Angel as Satan; this has been his most powerful, bewitching assault on God’s plan. Jesus, horrified and appropriately penitent, crawls out into the fire-stained, scream-riddled night and cries to return to the cross, which he promptly is, muttering “It is accomplished!” before dying. The movie literally dissolves, sprocket holes, scratches, and strips of film showing like the reel has broken.

The Last Temptation of Christ affirms Christ’s sacrifice; although Jesus wants earthly fulfillments—and those earthly fulfillments are twisted as Satan slyly draws away from the singular purity of his ardor for Mary Magdalene into a more ego-fulfilling threesome—he recognizes its insignificance before his great task, which is to reinvent the religion of his forefathers and humankind along with it. The film, scripted by Paul Schrader with contributions from Jay Cocks, is built around symbols, with sensitivity—as perhaps only a filmmaker can be sensitive to them—to the meaning that can charge images.

The film charts one of the Jesus myth’s strongest contributions to modern religious thought—the substitution of the physical for the symbolic. In the Last Supper sequence, Scorsese cuts betweens the rivers of blood spilt in Temple sacrifices—wasteful and grotesque in a starving country—and Jesus reinventing the idea in drinking “his blood.” “God is not an Israelite!” Jesus shouts on the Temple steps to an outraged crowd, losing their sympathy. His specific condemnation of nationalist self-love continues the film’s study of Jesus recreating the hard concepts of old Judaism into the symbolist thrust of Christianity—from real blood to transubstantiation, from Promised Land as a physical state to Promised Land as a spiritual promise. Stanton embodies Paul, the greatest convert to Jesus’ worldview, with whacko, shifty fervor; the symbolism is crucial. He doesn’t care whether Jesus really died on the cross or not for he recognizes the force of the idea and its appeal. The symbol is more powerful than the deed.

This leads to one of the film’s most forceful subtexts: the strong suggestion, dimly perceived by, and thus perhaps explaining, the rage of the film’s attackers, of a pointed rejection of the ’80s ethos of monumental greed (Scorsese stages the ejection of the moneylenders forcibly and repeatedly, making the film seem like an historical prequel to Wall Street) and the fatuous posturing of Moral Majority-era figures like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ronald Reagan. “God is not an American!” Jesus might as well be shouting. Simultaneously, by portraying the Zealots as religious terrorists as theoretically rebellious, but really tools for power, the film engages with the troubles that engulf present-day Israel and drive many of the contradictions of current terrorist movements. The film’s Jesus, pained, morally questioning, tempted, and dedicated to multitudinous truth, stands at a vast distance from absolutist hypocrites of all stripes. Scorsese and Schrader, essentially unbelieving men but obsessed with the religious grounding of their perspectives, attempt with the film to recreate Jesus for themselves.

Scorsese’s most stylistically rigorous film, Last Temptation evokes the spiritual terrors that chase Jesus with a hungrily mobile camera (Michael Ballhaus behind it again). Having a blonde little girl as the harbinger of Satan was a touch directly inspired by Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura, and cunningly, during the alternate reality of the last temptation, it’s the only time Scorsese recreates the sun-kissed, twee atmosphere of standard Jesus portrayals. Finally, Scorsese had confronted the root source of many of his fixations head-on. For his next feature, Scorsese headed home again. l


9th 05 - 2007 | no comment »

The Color of Money (1986)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

As Scorsese himself put in the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his kind of pre-indie film artist seemed to have no place once the era of the blockbuster began. Through the early ’80s Scorsese’s oeuvre was still interesting and provocative. The sweat-inducing pop-culture satire of The King of Comedy (1983), along with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, could be said to have closed the curtain on an unofficial trilogy studying the intersection of the celebrity media and the sociopath. After Hours (1980), a picaresque, absurdist comedy featuring Griffin Dunne as an office drone whose momentary lapse into frightened anger at loopy date Rosanna Arquette is punished to the point where he seems to have an entire city out to get him. The film gained Scorsese a Best Director award at Cannes. Yet The King of Comedy, though sickly brilliant (and brilliantly sick), is borderline unwatchable in its sourness, and After Hours is formless and cartoonish, inferior to the Elizabeth Shue vehicle Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the Disney rendition of the same idea. Satire was not Scorsese’s thing, and his eruptive visual sensibilities had been tamed almost to flatness.

The Color of Money was both a ticket for Scorsese back to the mainstream and a return to his cinematic roots in the pungent milieu of bars, pool halls, and wiseguys (and girls). It also presented a daunting challenge in that it was a star vehicle for Paul Newman returning to his greatest role in one of the great American movies – one that had paved the way for filmmakers like Scorsese – Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). In Rossen’s film, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, eponymous hero “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) challenged the world’s greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) twice. He lost the first contest because of his emotional volatility. He won the second when all that had been scoured from his body, in the intermediate process of romancing and losing to suicide the self-destructive, bottle-abusing bohemian girl Sarah (Piper Laurie). Both the suicide and the rematch were thanks to Eddie’s sharklike backer Burt (George C. Scott). Finally, Eddie, unlike, it is suggested, Fats, refuses to sell himself out to this nocturnal life, walking out on Burt and the life with a bag full of cash, to Burt’s jocular threat, “Don’t play anymore big-time pool halls!”

Walter Tevis’ follow-up novel The Color of Money touched the expected bases, such as reuniting Eddie with Fats. For their adaptation, Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price (a fine author whose The Wanderers had been lovingly filmed by Phillip Kaufman) reduced references to the first film to a cryptic line from Eddie, when he recalls that “somebody retired me,” in explaining why his titanic skills on the green felt have gone to seed. We rediscover Eddie smooth-talking his girlfriend, bar owner Janelle (Helen Shaver), but being distracted by the sounds of the pool tables in her joint, most specifically the “sledgehammer break” of Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), who is kicking the ass of Julian (John Turturro), Eddie’s own stakehorse. Eddie is now a wealthy liquor salesman, but he longs for the adrenalin-factory that is high-stakes pool playing, betting, and hustling.

tcr_color02.jpgTimes, of course, have changed. Nine-ball is now the game of choice, and the young players are all cokehead punks rather than boozy sharpies. Vincent is an horrendously talented player who prefers his abilities at computer games and doesn’t give a fig – yet – for money. His femme fatale girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), met Vincent at the police station, when she drove getaway for her previous boyfriend who robbed Vincent’s parents’ house. She shows her necklace to Eddie; it belonged to Eddie’s mother’s, and Vincent remarks that his mother “has one just like it…Vincent’s sweet – Vincent’s real sweet.” Therese mutters, adoringly awed by this royal schmuck. Vincent works as a quick-talking toy salesman in a hideous suburban retail barn. Eddie, carefully soaking in these details, begins with equal care to manipulate them. His master plan is to take Vincent on a full tour of East Coast pool halls to teach him the arts of hustling in a carefully plotted campaign to win a major nine-ball championship in Atlantic City.

Eddie must extricate Vincent from his work-a-day life. He establishes his grandee abilities in a memorable dinner table scene in which he explains that Vincent has, in his gauche, the overeager style a “natural character…you’re an incredible flake,” that is, a perfect persona for entrapping the greedy, self-impressed types who engage in the almost mystically charged macho challenge of the pool hall. Eddie appeals to Vincent’s enormous ego and pride by giving him a Balabushka cue, the most perfect instrument of pool. “John Wayne carries ’em like this!” Vincent gushes. Eddie also works on Vincent’s insecurity over keeping Carmen with his low wage (“She don’t dig the allure of this place,” Eddie assures Vincent, regarding the toy store), a game Carmen eagerly buys into in. “We got a racehorse here! You keep him happy, I teach him how to run,” Eddie urges, and the pair tie Vincent’s ego in knots until he signs on.

Eddie is leaving behind frayed relationships with an aggrieved Julian, and with Janelle, fuming at his almost adolescent inability to commit. Vincent and Eddie’s relationship evolves, part father-son, part jealous admiration on Eddie’s part (“Like watching movies of myself thirty years ago”). Vincent is driven by a young egotist’s need to establish dominance, which leads him to brazen shows of skill and spectacles, all of which cuts against the grain of Eddie’s efforts to teach how to be an actual hustling champion, the guy who makes the big scores by sucking in money players. Returning to Chalkie’s, a pool hall run by its one-time sweeper Orvis (Bill Cobb), Vincent’s insistence on caning Eddie in a warm-up match and then the local quickdraw Moselle (Bruce A. Young) costs him the chance to play the desired opponent, a numbers chieftain who always plays with $5,000 in pocket. Eddie walks away cringing and berates Vincent later. Asking how much he won, Vincent announces “One-fifty!” Eddie retorts; “You walk into a shoe store with a hundred and fifty bucks, you come out with one shoe!”

Carmen, trying to manipulate Eddie, teasingly flashes him. Eddie irritably puts paid to this when he drags her in the bathroom: “I like it in the shower!” “Child care!” is how he describes handling this pair. Eddie teaches Vincent a vivid lesson of the harsher aspects of the game. When Vincent won’t bring himself to beat a man whose esophagus has been removed, Eddie bloody_lip.bmptells him to lose on purpose and then leaves him without any money to pay up just long enough for Vincent to be roughed up. When Eddie returns to rescue him, pretending to be his angry father, he’s made his point: nice guys finish last. Slowly, Vincent learns to temper his showiness with Eddie and Carmen’s carrot-and-stick approach, and in a marathon match with the fatuous reigning champ Grady Seasons (Keith McCready), after a sexual threat from Carmen, dumps the game, setting up the perfect scenario for Atlantic City.

Eddie, on a high, takes the Balabushka out for a spin, and gets caught in a match with a weird young player, Amos (Forest Whitaker, positively screaming “star potential”), who eventually proves to be a sublime hustler. It’s a humiliation Eddie finds crippling. He tells Vincent and Carmen to do the rest by themselves, giving them the stake money, a rejection to which Vincent reacts with howling filial rage, tearing a rail off the wall and throwing the cue after Eddie. Eddie determinedly sets about rehabilitating himself as a player, first acknowledging his weakened eyes by getting a pair of bifocals and then retracing steps, refining his style, and taking down all of Vincent’s opponents and a few more (including a noxious punk, played by Iggy Pop, the epitome of everything Eddie’s at war with), before arriving at the championship. Scorsese’s merciless eye for kultur evokes the town’s faux-classy aura with such touches as presenting the pool hall using a soaring crane shot and a blast of organ music, suggesting it’s a cathedral for spivs, and highlighting a lacquer-haired singer killing the exoticism of “The Girl From Ipanema.”

When Eddie encounters Vincent and Carmen again, she is goggle-eyed in stating “Vincent’s changed!” Vincent is now hard, critical, and voracious. Instead of being tempered by Eddie’s lessons, he’s absorbed them into his narcissism. In the championship, Eddie destroys Julian, and Vincent breaks Seasons, bringing them to a quarter-final face-off. But Vincent has devised an intricate revenge on Eddie; he deliberately loses to him. Eddie is, of course, overjoyed, and reunites happily with Janelle in his hotel room, until Vincent and Carmen knock on the door, presenting him with a cut of the money they won betting on him. Janelle dismisses Vincent: “Little prick!” But Eddie stews until he uses Carmen to bait Vincent into a private rematch. “All I want is your best game,” Eddie requests. “You can’t handle my best!” Vincent spits. But he relents. “If I don’t beat you this time I’ll beat you next month,” Eddie says assuredly, and declares, before the film’s concluding freeze frame; “Hey, I’m back!”

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AMPAS agreed, and awarded Newman his belated Oscar for the role; in ’61, Newman had bewilderingly lost to Maximillian Schell’s excellent, but more limited supporting turn in Judgment at Nuremberg. Advised by Scorsese to play the film’s comic scenes as if they weren’t comic, Newman delivers an often sublimely sketched performance as a man who seems light years removed from his youthful, volatile, suffering self, but still has him lurking inside, along with a large dash of Burt’s master manipulator. Eddie is still fighting his worst side, trying to age gracefully without losing his zeal – he’s still shy of commitment and complacency. But Newman occasionally hits beats too heavily, like his berating of Mastrantonio in the bathroom scene, which degenerates to pure Oscar-clip gravitas.

The film contains perhaps Tom Cruise’s best performance. Scorsese uses Cruise’s trademark persona – blithe embodiment of a yuppie-masculine ideal of unleashed hubris, athletic grace, and emotional vacuity – and drags it down quite a few social levels. Vincent is as antiseptically charming a wunderkind as his Top Gun character. Vincent partly hankers to go to West Point (he believes his video games will, in a few years, make him a qualified push-button warrior), but soon heartily embraces the vicious, venal qualities of a great pool shark. Mastrantonio keeps pace with both men in her flinty, charged performance, and she masterfully manages the bitterly amusing shift of her character from dominant witch to terminally confused backseat driver.

Superbly scripted by Price, with endlessly quotable dialogue, The Color of Money is nowhere near as dramatically compressed as The Hustler or Scorsese’s best works, but it is one of his most purely watchable films. It is also in a different mould and predicts in some ways Scorsese’s next film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it is a drama of moral and personal regeneration, rather than a tragedy like em>The Hustler. It also charts, as precisely as other Scorsese works, like The King of Comedy without that film’s contempt for its characters, the often painful things men and women do to each other in situations charged with desire and ambition.

Scorsese slyly extends Taxi Driver’s motif of the iconography of the motion picture Wild West extending into and defining modern, unheroic existence. The pool artistes of The Color of Money pitch themselves as gunslingers – Moselle even wears a cowboy hat – trying to best each other. Eddie, as the aging gentleman of the game trying to leave behind a troubled past recalls one of Peckinpah’s aging heroes, or Gary Cooper’s Man of the West (1958), a man for whom the seediness of his past and the sorrows of the milieu he dwells in has a humanizing, sensitizing effect. In this way, Scorsese links together strands that swirled through his early films and through the American life he charted. The Balabushka cue, swapped back and forth by Felson and Vincent, is an Excalibur, like the weapon that is the focus of Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), loaded with suggestions of male sexual potency, as surrogate father and son jockey to see who is the most worthy to wield it. Eddie eventually retains the stick, and, in a hilarious touch, Janelle presents him with its vaginal counterpart, a cue chalk.

The film, Scorsese’s second with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who paints the film with a gauzy, smoky appeal, was a real stylistic reinvigoration. The soundtrack is a careful layering of punchy original music by Robbie Robertson and rock classics, some re-recorded specifically for the film to blend them precisely into the film’s texture. In between the crisply caught evocations of seamy urban America, the pool sequences are dazzlingly filmed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing makes abstract whirlpools out of the skittling balls. When Vincent beats Moselle, the camera rapidly circles the table as Cruise strikes samurai poses and dances to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” between performing shots of supreme legerdemain – a perfect fusion of Scorsese and Cruise’s show-off voltage. l


18th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

robvjake.bmpMartin Scorsese was at his lowest ebb. The failure of New York, New York was the first big blow of his career. He indulged his cocaine habit whilst making the rock-doc The Last Waltz, and was finally hospitalized following an overdose. To stimulate his friend’s creativity and, Scorsese felt, saving his life, Robert De Niro pressed him to make a film of the autobiography of Jake LaMotta, one-time middleweight champion of the world and another Bronx-Italian prodigy. Marty, who hated sports movies, virulently declined at first, but De Niro’s continuing passion for the subject eventually convinced the burnt-out auteur to film the subject. Scorsese got Mardik Martin to pen a screenplay; Martin did months of research and turned out a regular biopic script before himself dropping out from exhaustion. Scorsese then got Paul Schrader to redraft it; Schrader broke up the structure, injected dashes of his dirty sensibility, and combined two major characters, LaMotta’s brother Joey and friend Peter Savage into one. Scorsese and De Niro then sat themselves down and spent six weeks making the script exactly what they wanted. What they wanted was described by UA executives as a portrait of “a cockroach.”

Whatever the qualities of NY, NY, it was clearly not the future of Scorsese’s career. So he stripped his approach back to basics; Raging Bull reinvents his early style – black-and-white photograph; flatly-lit, long-take, improvised scenes; experimental film editing. It was the first time since Who’s That Knocking On My Door? that Scorsese was allowed to work with his film school chum Thelma Schoonmaker, who had been a victim of absurd union regulations. Schoonmaker’s touch is instantly, virulently, eye-catching. Raging Bull is set thoroughly in the milieu of Scorsese’s childhood (the story begins proper in 1941, the year before his birth), and details a scene, wispily remembered, of small Bronx flats with the constantly intrusive neighborly noise, marital rows, baby whines, tinny radios.

Raging Bull has an ironic style. The distancing veneer of gleaming black-and-white offering one of the most vivid historical recreations on film, with almost every shot seeming fit for Life magazine. The elegant music with which Pietro Mascagni dreamily fills the film suggests a deep sorrow at the transience of glory, the brutal beauty of life, the dulling of youthful quality, and stands in raw opposition of the tawdry humanity Scorsese filmed. In contrast to the starkly shot personal scenes, the intricately choreographed, expressionistic, anti-naturalistic fights are almost like horror movie moments. Scorsese uses sound effects and slow motion to turn Jake, and later Sugar Ray Robinson, into prowling beasts of prey; steam and smoke weave gothic fogs.

Jake LaMotta. Who is this brawling hunk of masochistic meat, this man who became famous for the amount of punishment he could dish out and take in a ring? In many ways he’s masculinity run amok. He fuels his abilities in the ring with resentment and sexual frustration that eventually curdles into sexual paranoia. His raging_bull%2017.jpgmost admirable quality – his long-standing refusal to kowtow to the Mafia – springs from venality. “You gonna let them take my money?” he demands of his brother-manager Joey (Joe Pesci), before clobbering him in a sparring session, when Joey’s connected friend Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) comes sniffing around at the behest of local godfather Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto).

The singular quality of Scorsese’s oeuvre, especially for an American director – his willingness to make films of less-than-admirable, even despicable people – is at its apotheosis here. Even Peckinpah tended to love his bastards; Scorsese has an endlessly unblinking eye for the hypocrisies, thuggery, betrayals, cruelties, and pathos of LaMotta’s life and of the culture that surrounds him.

In the first scene of the proper narrative, we meet LaMotta, 1941 model, losing and winning at the same time – the film’s keynote of his character – when he knocks down a black boxer but loses to him on points. This provokes a riot from the fight fans; chairs and popcorn fly to the roof, punches are thrown, a woman is knocked to the ground and trampled by the blood-lusting crowd. So often throughout the film, the corners of the tapestry Scorsese weaves are crowded with evidence of some violence or sleaze; even in the legendary Copacabana (something of an icon for Scorsese, who returns to it in GoodFellas), there’s the evidence of fights just finished or just about to start.

After the travesty of the ’41 fight, Jake, in one of the lengthy domestic sequences that anchor the film, starts an argument with his frazzled first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) that boils over into a painful, hilariously accurate moment of marital cacophony. She’s a hard-as-nails, standard-issue, Italian-American woman who lets duty take her only so far before she erupts. Jake, barely concerned or even interested, frets over his tiny hands, the fact he’ll never fight Joe Louis (whom he thinks is the best there is and whom he thinks he is better than), and finally eggs Joey to punch him in the face. Jake lives in a dialogue with the flesh. He understands people and himself, feels and expresses through the way he comes into contact with their meat. He subjects a young boxer, Tony Janiro (Kevin Mahon), to a disfiguring beating because his second wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty, in her film debut) called him good-looking (“He ain’t pretty no more,” Como notes), but also lets himself take a brutal beating for many rounds in another bout, to pay for a row with Vicky, before turning around and clobbering his opponent.

The spirituality and eroticism of punishment of the flesh echoes long through Scorsese. Vicky’s kissing his bruise-riddled body has its parallel in Cameron Diaz kissing Leonardo DiCaprio’s scars in Gangs of New York. Jake is an ancient kind of human, inarticulate and foolish, macho bordering on insane – but when it comes to that language of meat, he’s Aristotle. After he retires from boxing, Jake enters showbiz, which then had a strange, symbiotic relationship with boxing.

Joey, Jake’s usually stabilizing influence, says to one of his children at the dinner table, “If I see you put your hands on that plate one more time, I’m gonna stab you with this knife, d’ye hear me?” Yes, this is the familiar world of working-class fatherhood. The film’s brute honesty about what constitutes family life in this period for these men is best seen as Jake and Joey’s respective wives (Theresa Saldana is the other) sit like decorous dolls on the floor tending the children and Jake walks in and pinions his wife on the floor with kisses.
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Jake falls for Vicky when she’s a 15-year-old nymphet (Joey’s already taken her out and tried to make her), the gimlet-eyed, platinum-haired minx who promises intricate sexual possibilities and delivers them. She’s initially one of Salvy’s entourage, and for Jake, it’s partly a pleasurable, infuriating challenge to steal her away from that representative of the unseen influence that’s caging his talents. Vicky’s barely more articulate than Jake; in fact, she’s an icy, careless youth who is overwhelmed by Jake’s sheer physicality (his seduction of her is almost paternal). She enjoys provoking and indulging his sexuality, even as she grows up and finds the oppressive quality of his adoration intolerable. Jake’s desire for Vicky is identified as an illness central to this and any hypermacho culture, which delights in asserting sexual ownership of adolescent women to simultaneously leash and exploit them. Jake lives an American dream riddled with familiar American termites. Is there any more pathetic yet typical, personally apt a comeuppance, than losing his long-worked-for nightclub by mistakenly aiding sleazy businessmen get laid with two underage schoolgirl hookers?

Jake is jailed and strains at a bleak cell, punching the wall in howling agony. He has by this time destroyed any personal support. Once upon a time, Joey put his neck on the line when he found Vicky back in Salvy’s company at the Copa; reacting to Salvy’s sheer cheek, Joey went berserk, hitting Salvy in the face with a glass and slamming his head repeatedly into a door, the height of the film’s violent absurdity. Yet later, Jake, aging, getting fat and lazy after finally gaining his title, starts off trying to fix his television, prodding Vicky over her trips out and Joey over the near-forgotten Copa incident; slowly and malevolently, Jake works himself into a jealous fury (“D’you fuck my wife?”), slapping and threatening Vicky until she spits back confirmations, “I sucked all their cocks, whaddaya want me to tell you?!”, going to Joey’s house and, in front of his family, putting Joey’s head through a door and cold-cocking Vicky. She can forgive him, but Joey can’t. If Jake can’t find a real opponent, he’ll make a shadow one. Even many years later, when Jake’s a washed-up comic, he tries to reconcile with Joey without actually apologizing; in a sticky, cringe-worthy moment, he draws his not exactly thrilled brother into an embrace. Vicky’s already kicked his butt out before the nightclub arrest over infidelities; to her chagrin, he barges into her house to gouge jewels from his championship belt to pay his bail.

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Jake breaks just about every heart to come in contact with him, but then, his is broken a few times in the film. He feels the long period when, in resisting the mob, he can’t get his title shot, as a slow, maddening torture. To get his shot, he gives into Como’s clear declarations and throws a fight to Billy Fox (Eddie Mustafa Muhammad); he can’t fake it, and afterwards is reduced to a blubbering mess. Here, and in the jailhouse, Jake’s ability to inflict suffering on others seems tame compared to the suffering he generates for himself when his clear, simple, natural capacity for violence is manipulated and betrayed. As a boxer, he’s finished off by Robinson, who, in their last bout, destroys LaMotta, aging, out of shape, having lost Joey’s counsel. Robinson crushes his nose, destroys his face, and tears him down to a bare trunk of masculinity; his flying blood decorates the judges. Still, his sliver of unbowed triumph: “You never got me down, Ray!”

De Niro gained his second (and, to date, last) Oscar for his performance, probably more for his commitment to gaining and losing weight. His LaMotta is a prowling, growling, dead-eyed creature when not in the ring (he reminds you of Quint’s description of sharks in Jaws), then, in the ring, quite literally the raging bull. Only Pesci keeps pace with him; it’s amusing to watch Pesci beating the crap out of Frank Vincent (which he’ll repeat, worse, in GoodFellas) knowing that Pesci and Vincent were, before the film, working as a comedy duo; the underemployed, demoralized Pesci had to be talked into appearing in the film.
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The final scene has Jake, 1961, rehearsing the taxicab scene from On The Waterfront (the Tao of palookas) for his act, facing himself in a mirror (a scene egregiously copied by director Paul Thomas Anderson at the end of Boogie Nights. Jake has traveled the full arc of American celebrity, not most or least successfully, but most pungently typical, which is perhaps what finally made him interesting to De Niro and Scorsese. Reflected from the distorted eye of LaMotta’s tale is a grotty, tawdry culture that sups money and youth, pride and strength. As such it manages in a more sophisticated and compressed fashion than New York, New York to eviscerate the self-mythologizing fabrications of pop culture. Raging Bull, finally, is a statement of enormous cultural disgust. Scorsese would continue in this vein with his next film, The King of Comedy. With Raging Bull, deconstructing the ugly truths of American celebrity and life, Scorsese ironically reinvented himself. The film’s epilogue, suggesting a form of religious self-realization, also pays tribute to Haig Manoogian, his mentor.

As for LaMotta, he had, in 1961, made a cameo appearance basically as himself in The Hustler, to which Scorsese would make a sequel, The Color of Money. He was helpful with the production, and later watched the film in the company of Vicky. Astounded and horrified, he asked her, “Was I really that bad?”
“No,” she replied, “You were worse.” l


12th 04 - 2007 | 1 comment »

New York, New York (1977)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

When the yellow moon begins to bloom / Every night I dream a little dream / And of course Prince Charming is the theme for me / Although I realize as well as you / It is seldom that a dream comes true / To me it’s clear that he’ll appear / Some day he’ll come along / The man I love / And he’ll be big and strong / The man I love / And when he comes my way / I’ll do my best to make him stay… – “The Man I Love,” George and Ira Gershwin

Taxi Driver’s surprise success gave Scorsese heft and fame. He was at this time tagged, along with the other young directors taking American cinema by storm—Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Carpenter, John Milius, Michael Cimino, John Landis, Peter Bogdanovich, and others—as a “Movie Brat,” an epithet that, like the label “Impressionist” about a century earlier, became a rallying cry. If there was a common feature of these directors, it was their argot of total cinema. Their first and almost last point of reference was earlier movies. They reinvigorated Hollywood as a commercial entity, largely due to their willingness, even love, of making genre cinema, in recreating the dream films of their youths. All of them worshipped Fellini and Godard, but Scorsese was just about the only one damn fool enough to want to be them.

Coppola had given the generation its big breakthrough with his canny melding of the cool, studious effects of European art cinema with epic American narrative in the Godfather films. For all these filmmakers, there were differing layers of irony in their attempts to meld auteurism, art cinema, and classic Hollywood. Many of them wanted to take a shot at the total stylisation of the musical. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s One From The Heart, Landis’ The Blues Brothers, even Spielberg’s 1941 (which he made for the opportunity to stage a 1940s musical number), were all troubled productions, most of which flopped and dented the Brats’ domination.

Scorsese went to Hollywood to make New York, New York, but remained a New Yorker. For his fellow Movie Brat directors, melding old and new, hip and square, lush and spare was a necessary and entertaining act of cultural synthesis. Scorsese, however, dedicated his new film to examining precisely the gap between life and art, old and new style, façade and critique, spectacle and honesty. New York, New York sets out to be, as Marty called it, a film noir musical inspired in form by such showbiz tales as The Man I Love and A Star Is Born, with a screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin. It tells, in livid, often bruising detail, of a marriage between two professional narcissists, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Scorsese set out to create the texture of a personal, realistic film in the Cassavetes mould—virtually all dialogue improvised, which made editing the film hellish. The film’s exchanges make up in vivacity what they lack in the arch, contoured crackle of screwball style.

The first half-hour of New York, New York is a virtuoso, near-continual scene. It’s VJ Day in New York, and the streets have erupted in confetti and abandon. Jimmy strips off his uniform, casts it out the window, and hits the town in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt looking for just one thing: to get laid. The jam-packed Rainbow Room, where Benny Goodman and Orchestra are playing, represented the peak of the sweet glamour of the Big Band era as well as the emotional apogee of four years of war. Jimmy tries his pick-up lines on every bird in sight. He is especially drawn to Francine, seated by herself waiting for friends, splendid in her USO uniform. When his every attempt has failed on the hostile, evasive woman, he announces a new plan: “I want to stay here and annoy you!” He does just this for the rest of the film.

Eventually, when Francine’s fellow USO performer Ellen ( Kathie McGinnis) arrives, her date is Jimmy’s friend Eddie di Muzzio (Frank Sivero, soon a Scorsese regular), who has arranged for the four of them to hook up. Jimmy makes sure to cook Francine good before dropping her home. The next day, Francine is trying to find Jimmy to contact Ellen, who’s on the run from killers and shacked up with Eddie. She watches in amusement as Jimmy bluffs the hotel’s concierge, posing as a wounded war veteran (“Anzio!” he hollers, “I was at Anzio!”) and skipping out as always without paying his bill after being manhandled. Jimmy’s in the not-so-fine tradition of Scorsese’s keenly observed Noo Yawk flakes; indeed, New York’s riskiest, most original idea is to make such a flake the hero. For Jimmy is, we learn, talented. He contrives to drag Francine to his audition with a Brooklyn club manager (Dick Miller), and shows he’s a mean tenor sax player, but too edgy and modern for the cleaned-up tastes of the time. Francine reveals she’s just as talented; when the manager expresses a desire for something like Maurice Chevalier, Francine launches into a sweet, swinging rendition of “You Brought a New Kind Of Love,” which Jimmy accompanies with contrapuntal elegance. They are fused instantly into a double act.

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Romance, or something like it, blossoms. After a gig, Jimmy won’t let Francine get out of the taxi they share to her hotel by kissing her. Francine skitters, slips, and flops about, half in the pouring rain, trying to escape his voracious mouth. Francine finds she’s been offered a gig with the touring big band of Frankie Harte (Georgie Auld), and Jimmy is also offered a slot. Unfortunately, he’s gone before she can tell him, so she packs up and goes to join the band whilst sending her agent (the great Lionel Stander) to inform Jimmy. Jimmy promptly skips town and catches up with the band. He almost gets himself assaulted by Hart when he sits in the audience, draws Francine off stage, and won’t let her return. Jimmy is simultaneously declaring his “not love. I like you very much” whilst ranting at being left behind: “You do not leave me! I leave you!”

De Niro gives the greatest portrait of the artist as major-league irritant since Kirk Douglas’s Vincent Van Gogh. Jimmy’s alternately (and often concurrently) charming, funny, annoying, foolish, dishonest, angry, sullen, violent, and prone to larceny, but always propelled by a volcanic creativity and contempt for a world of schmucks, squares, and sycophants. He dances up steps in joy, throws tables in rage, play-acts, fakes out, schmoozes, assaults, and plays some mean jazz. (De Niro learnt sax technique, but the music he makes is by Auld.) He tries to sweep the world and Francine off their feet with the purity of his energy, and it sometimes works.

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The tour continues, endless wheeling between towns in the band bus; Harte’s crusty and boozy, but he keeps the band disciplined. He won’t give Jimmy any opportunity to play his arrangements or his bop style, but he often relies on Jimmy to lead the band. Jimmy dabbles in composition, tracing out the bare notes that will become the title tune, whilst Francine writes poetry. After eading one of her poems about him, Jimmy says, “That was it! That was you proposal, get your coat on, put your shoes on, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” and drags her to a justice of the peace. When Frankie decides he’s fed up, he concedes to Francine that Jimmy “blows a barrelful of tenor, oh, but he’s some kind of pain in the ass!” Jimmy takes over the orchestra, but appears set for a flop until Francine saves their bacon at an audition with a soulful rendition of “The Man I Love.” With Francine headlining, the orchestra enjoys major popularity, but Jimmy is quietly furious she’s getting the attention, and he jealously guards his command. One evening Francine dashes off stage and reveals she’s pregnant. She returns to New York to have the child, and the band, saddled with a far less talented singer, Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place), whom Jimmy beds in Francine’s absence, soon faces disaster.

Jimmy signs over the band to another leader, and returns to New York to find Francine riding on a wave of good publicity, her agent having secured her recording dates; Jimmy, the arch, proud individualist, feels she’s degrading herself by kowtowing. Jimmy meets up with black musician friends and jams with them at a Harlem club (“Do they let white cats in?” “Just come in the back way.”). For the first time, Jimmy’s style is set free and wild in the be-bop milieu. Meanwhile, behind the pyrotechnics of Jimmy’s approach to life, Francine grows, quietly, from defensive doll, to urgently helpful wife, to coolly calculating go-getter who gets it. And Jimmy, without saying a word, knows he’s going to get screwed by life again. The subterranean arc of anxiety in Jimmy begins driving him crazy.
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Like many Scorsese narratives, New York, New York is a study of a macho slow burn, except that this one remains entirely interpersonal. Jimmy gets himself thrown out of a nightclub by getting increasingly soused and truculent as Francine is courted by a Decca executive (Lenny Gaines). In one of the film’s most striking images, Jimmy is manhandled along the entry hall lined by bright neon tubes, embodying the electric distress by which he is caged. He and Francine fight in their car, whereupon Francine is stricken and almost loses the baby. When Jimmy visits her in the hospital, they mouth caring statements for each other, but it’s clear what held them together has dissolved.

Francine is much more a question mark than Jimmy. Minnelli often looks dazed by De Niro, appropriate to the character, yet she barely registers when not singing; her trademark acting touches feel by rote in comparison. Francine is, finally, the opportunist of the pair. Insufferable as he is, Jimmy is curiously honest even when bullshitting. Very few films paint so vivid a tale of how colliding egos and intentions can destroy relationships. Jimmy and Francine are scrutinized by the camera like a microscope on a pair of mating insects. In the space of about a year, we have one failed marriage, the kind that Francine, later a big Hollywood star, will sigh over if mentioned by interviewers.

In the film’s epilogue, we are treated to a short film purporting to be Francine’s latest hit movie, Happy Endings, which Jimmy is watching in a theater. Happy Endings is a brilliantly made pastiche of 50s-style musicals, charting the rise of a doe-eyed usher to major star who yearns for her gentlemanly agent Donald (Larry Kerns), who disappeared just when she made it big. Happy Endings presents just such a spin on the New York, New York story that such a musical would have done. The number was originally edited out of Scorsese’s film, and this was credited with its flop; without the sequence, the film’s careful alternation of glam and grit is unbalanced.

Out in the real world, Jimmy’s not doing too badly. He has a spiffy nightclub, his song “New York, New York” has, in its cool jazz incarnation, become Casey Kasem’s theme song, and Francine’s singing her mountain-leveling version in her live shows. Actually, of course, the song is the work of Kander and Ebb. (In the film, Francine’s poetry becomes the lyric, with Jimmy unimpressed: “These vagabond shoes…are longing to stray…and step around the heart of it?” he reads, nose curled up like it’s week-old fish.) Backstage after seeing her sing, Jimmy meets his son, and proposes he and Francine get together later; she agrees. But neither can finally be bothered.

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And yet the film around them is a lovingly textured dream, a paean to the total style of classic Hollywood, indeed catching how artifice can sometimes suggest reality better than reality: in the snow-crusted villages the band tours in, where Jimmy and Francine bicker and are married, or the stunning vignette of Jimmy watching, after the first night with Francine, a sailor and girl jitterbugging in the street below a railway line, suggesting an otherworldly staging by Gene Kelly of Alfred Eistenstadt’s Times Square kiss photo. The musical sequences are bravura in style. Marty’s camera (with immeasurable aid from DP Laszlo Kovacs) zooms, dollies, and glides, picking out soloists and darting in on them, then drawing back and painting rich group shots. Scorsese tips his hat to the influence of Michael Powell at several junctions: Jimmy signs into a hotel as “M. Powell;” the scene where Jimmy cracks up in the nightclub is decorated entirely in neon that glows an infernal, maddening red, a favorite signifier for both directors; and the way Happy Endings reflects, in a distinct, distorted mirror, the larger film’s story, is reminiscent of the ballet at the centre of The Red Shoes.

The central couple’s personal separation symbolizes a vital split in American pop culture. Francine goes Hollywood—big, slick, entertaining, vital but without edge, embracing of artifice over truth. Jimmy remains New York—hip, hard, leaning to black culture, small in scale but intently creative, calmly resigned to his busted dreams (“Yeah I saw Sappy Endings,” he tells Francine). The story, conceived as a variation on A Star Is Born doesn’t entirely reverse the formula; instead of having one figure supplant another in stardom, New York, New York suggests there is more than one kind of stardom, more than one kind of success. This Scorsese film obviously had a stylistic influence on such jazz-and-nostalgia-themed films that followed as ‘Round Midnight, Bird, and Henry & June. It failed on first release, but there is a happy ending; when the film was restored to its proper form, it did good business in a 1980 re-release.


27th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
– The Pilgrim; Chapter 33, by Kris Kristofferson

Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard were brought up in a strictly Calvinist household. Paul tells a story of how his mother once stabbed him with a needle to inform him what hell was like. Creative storytelling was one of the few household luxuries. At age 18, Schrader snuck off to see Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and instantly set himself on the path toward making movies; the deliciously sinful sensuality of cinema and the tradition of creativity lodged in Schrader were an inevitable siren call. Clearly talented in film school, Schrader made his name in publishing studies of the spiritual cinema of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson. He worked for a time as a film critic, encountering and later loudly breaking with Pauline Kael. In a period of personal crisis following a move to Los Angeles, he left his wife for another woman, saw both relationships crumble, and wallowed in debt, drink, and a gun fetish until being hospitalized. Schrader also read the published diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot Gov. George Wallace. Combining personal emotion and this weird character premise, Schrader furiously composed the first draft of an expression of pure psychological anguish—Taxi Driver.

Schrader hit the big time by selling, with Leonard, a screenplay for The Yakuza, a remarkably grown-up thriller that flopped. Paul bounced back when Taxi Driver was taken on by maverick producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who first tried to interest Al Pacino in starring and Brian De Palma in directing, before deciding on Martin Scorsese, who brought Robert De Niro with him. It was to prove an epochal mesh of talents. Scorsese and Schrader were both religiously and intellectually minded, aggressively sensual, and awkwardly, angrily progressive, cinephiliac by default.

Taxi Driver was a very new kind of movie, yet a large part of the film’s energy comes from being a terminus—the most fluent depiction of “Drop Dead!” fin de siècle New York, Columbia Studio’s last film to use to the old Torch Lady logo, the dying composition of the great Bernard Herrmann, and the last great American New Wave film, at the time when the affectations of the genre were being borrowed to make blockbusters and crowd pleasers (Jaws, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever). Taxi Driver shatters the sheen of outsider chic that drove films like Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Easy Rider by presenting an alienated “hero” whose secret life is the poisoned well of the mainstream, a manifestation of the sickest elements of the time. The sense that, say, Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea had a squall of rage in him finds its thematically final, ugliest consummation here, as does the fascination with assassination after the political violence of the ’60s, which formed part of the texture of Robert Altman’s celebratory Nashville from the previous year, and also to Network, whose famously ranting newsman has his mirror image here in a strung-out, raging black man on the street; they share a telegraph wire to the zeitgeist.

Taxi Driver represents a vital intellectual and emotional severing point. Out of the volcano of this film formed the cool, ironic crystals of indie cinema, with its rejection of emotional conflation. A New York Times critic much more recently labeled the resultant film a work of “disco noir,” an evocative if reductive phrase describing the hedonist idiocy and decayed glamour of the cocaine-and-polyester scene; indeed, to many today, Taxi Driver is that scene.

As a basic story, Taxi Driver follows the template of Dirty Harry and Death Wish as tales of lone white men engaged in a violent battle with a universe of moral entropy. The difference is that in the course of emptying out their own shit-caked psyches, Schrader and Scorsese analyse the mindset behind the popularity of those other film, with a judicious, but not judgmental, dissection of their racism, misogyny, and macho conflict in an age pushing feminism, racial equality, gay liberation, all that jazz. “All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” Travis Bickle muses, watching the brawling night life of New York, with its panoply of contemptible, obscene creatures dedicated to living a life of extroverted sensual expression Travis cannot take part in. Herrmann’s music swells as Travis’ vehicle fins through the night, liquid neon spewing across his windshield; Herrmann’s theme features whispers of romantic saxophone alternating with a stygian mass of woodwinds and brass, evoking a fine filament of humanity struggling through Hades and capturing the film’s driving dichotomy of Travis both as hero and devil.

Travis Bickle’s desire is to transcend, to become be an angel of death and savior. We learn that Travis was a marine, honorably discharged, a Vietnam veteran, setting the mould for a future movie cliché. War trauma may be part of his trouble, but I also suspect Travis, as a returned Taxi%20Spinell.jpgwarrior, expects himself to become a exemplar of democracy. Instead, he’s barely keeping his mind together as he roams the city, driven by insomnia, dogged with an inability to relate. His smirk for the man who hires him for the taxi company (Joe Spinell, a signal ’70s character actor) reflects his unhinged, amused contempt for the work-a-day world. He gobbles candy, a cinema staple since Psycho for suggesting the rot of arrested development. His desires—to find a woman, to accomplish fine and brave things—are mostly at odds with his impulses, which are basically to rage, kick, insult, defile, debase, and destroy. The tension between these two opposing states keeps him, for the first two acts of the film, in a muted, awkward, semi-normal stasis. As The Clash would succinctly describe it, Bickle is one of “those who see ghettology as an urban Vietnam.” Taxi Driver is the first true Vietnam film in that it deals with its social, intellectual, and emotional fall-out in the terms of the conflict’s experience.

Travis is often described as a monster, a sick and twisted beast. But he’s an iconic monster not because he is a condensation of tropes that signify the Other, like the evil comfortably divorced from the everyday represented by Hannibal Lecter, but rather because he’s a condensation of every neurosis, embedded prejudice, latent source of rage, and antisocial impulse common to the average male in the ’70s. Travis is Dostoievsky’s Underground Man—a savagely unsentimental intellectual for the Nixon era. Although Travis quotes Kierkegaard when calls himself “God’s Lonely Man,” he utterly resists traveling down the route of philosophy (“morbid self attention” as he calls it) in an age as sentimental as it is anti-intellectual. Travis, like stations of Cross, passes through devolving forms of culture—office humor plates, taxi1cybill.jpgBetsy’s (Cybill Shepherd) faux-intellectual quotation of Kris Kristofferson, the pseudo-advice of Wizard (Peter Boyle), through to bathing in the sublime idiocy of The Young and The Restless, soft rock on American Bandstand, and combating Iris’s (Jodie Foster) idea that her lifestyle is in some fashion “hip,” that is, self-liberating. No wonder his training regimen has an aspect of Buddhist self-abnegation. Travis wants to strip himself down to a concept of pure force, and remove himself from this realm of gibberish entirely.

“Here, a man wants to die, he locks himself in a room and stabs himself in the belly,” says Richard Jordan in The Yakuza. “Back home he takes out a gun, shoots a lot of other people.” Schrader’s clearly referencing his own thinking, poured into the other screenplay on his mind, and he establishes a crucial divergence between Western and Eastern spirituality and social life. When Travis shaves his head to a mohawk, he is engaging in a primal ritual, one practiced for real by some soldiers in Vietnam when setting out on patrol. It is a timeless burial of the self into warrior guise, animal form (“Animal Mother,” Adam Baldwin’s baby-faced nutball in Full Metal Jacket, is named for a shamanistic idea of human rebirth into pure force via an animal totem. Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now all delve into the primeval devolution that fuelled the consciousness of Americans engaged on the ground level of the war). It is clear then that to be reborn, Travis needs to pass through this savage ritual and follow it to a conclusion, however apocalyptic.

The taxi drivers all hang out at the Belmore Café. He listens to the make-believe sex life recounted by Wizard, who serves, by default, as a wise elder. When Travis goes to him for advice, Wizard eventually shoots back, “What the fuck do you expect from me? I drive a taxi!” Everything that surrounds Travis is possessed with some import, either sexual (like another driver who shows off a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub with its traces of legendary sexual escapades) or demonic (a menacing cohort of black pimps).

Fittingly for a study of pagan impulse, Taxi Driver charts an Odyssean route, to the point where Travis journeys to Hades after meeting a goddess and a king. The goddess is personified by Betsy. Betsy works in the campaign of the would-be king, presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a populist WASP icon whose hollow rhetoric sounds Taxi%20Driver%20Cybill%20Brooks.jpguncannily like the tripe that would soon gain Ronald Reagan the White House. Betsy’s engaged in a go-nowhere romance with witty but so-not-butch co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Tom is everything Travis isn’t—easy, witty, safely asexual. In Schrader’s script, he was a standard, whitebread, pretty boy, a dully easy match for Betsy. By casting Brooks, Tom becomes the nebbishy kind of guy who makes a career out whining about not getting the girls, thus getting all the girls.

Bickle encounters Palantine in his taxi. The politician’s unspecified appeal to the disgruntled finds its readymade fan in Travis, who appeals to Palantine to clean up the city with the fire of the righteous. Palantine, in a small, but telling touch, slightly curls his mouth as he exits Travis’ taxi, partly derisory, knowing he’s just met someone neither brilliant nor nice, but certainly uncommon. Betsy responds to Travis for similar reasons—his intensity and honesty, even in his clichés. Betsy’s radiant looks hide a shallow, vaguely narcissistic personality. She’s someone who’s already heard every line in the book, never expecting something as corny as “You have beautiful eyes” to be recited with such feeling. She is intrigued before being repelled. Betsy makes a perfect bitch goddess to idolize and trample, and Scorsese’s sympathetic heroines of earlier films essentially go out the window.

Travis’ social ineptitude is made clear with bleak hilarity when he takes Betsy to a porn theatre, blowing the chance of romance for good—the apogee of the film’s blackly comic edge. Later, when Travis tries to call Betsy again, Scorsese moves the camera away from him to regard an empty hallway to avoid the embarrassing spectacle and to more forcefully illustrate the gaping maw at the center of Bickle’s future. To Scorsese, this was the most important shot in the film.

Travis’ second phase begins. He blows up at Betsy’s workplace. The menacing score, suggesting a wakening leviathan, which first accompanied shots of Bickle’s cruising taxi, now lumbers beneath a slo-mo shot of Travis in the fab red-velvet jacket he wore with such flair to his and Betsy’s first meeting that is now a signpost of distress and a predictor of the blood that will coat him. Travis the avenging angel has broken from his shell.

Travis has a grim vision of himself when one of his customers, a ranting, coked-up businessman (Scorsese, in his greatest personal performance) who spins a spell of perfect malignant energy: “You see that window with the light? The one closet to the edge of the building? You know who lives there? Of course you don’t know who lives there, but I’m saying ‘Do you know who lives there?’ A nigger lives there, and that isn’t my apartment. My wife is in there and… I’m gonna kill her…Have you ever seen what a .44 Magnum will do to a woman’s pussy? Now that you should see.” Destruction of female sex with Dirty Harry’s mighty weapon. Travis reacts to him like he’s scum, but Travis’ own warped condition registers this as a visitation by an evil demon, a harbinger, to be paid attention to.

Travis arms himself to the teeth with guns brought from a cheerful get-you-anything salesman (Steven Prince, a real salesman and acquaintance of Scorsese’s) and sets about training himself for the coming war, rehearsing imagined confrontations and planning the tactics of street fighting. He kills a black kid sticking up a convenience store owner; the unpeeled loathing of the store owner, who begins beating the corpse with a baseball bat whilst promising to cover for Travis, is the most coldly brutal element in the film and one whose racism Scorsese originally wanted to back off from.

Travis_%26_Sport.bmpTwo missions appeal to Travis: assassinating Palantine and rescuing 12-year-old prostitute Ivy from her pimp, “Sport” Matthew (Harvey Keitel). Travis first met Iris when she tried to escape from Sport in Travis’ taxi. Sport bought his inaction with a crumpled bill made by some act of alchemy to resemble a soiled condom. Travis keeps it as a marker for some future rite of vengeance. Both scenarios offer electric transcendence, and the instant fame of the assassination trumps. But Palantine’s secret service goons spot him, so Travis instead goes off to kill Sport and the timekeeper (Murray Mosten) in their tenement block base.

Scorsese and Schrader decided the way to play the story was to have Travis essentially become a Western hero, a brutally dissected yet still Travis_battle.bmpcuriously heroic example of the sort of sociopath who’s good to have on our side (Wyatt Earp). By mimicking the varmint-plugging structure of a John Wayne film, Taxi Driver retains its driving quality. De Niro, in his improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scenes, is quoting Shane, and Travis reminds us how much heroism can be divorced from moral sensibility, as he blows the concierge’s hand off, shoots Sport in the stomach without giving him a chance to arm himself, and riddles one of Iris’s johns with holes. Much like those Wild West titans, Travis is lauded for his actions by the popular press purely for being, for converting thought and impulse into action.

Schrader had wanted the final impression to be surreal and garish; instead, Scorsese’s handling of the (scripted) tracking shot from out of the tenement coolly creates a voyeuristic context for the finale, as it finds corpses sprawled as they will appear in the newspaper photos, chalk outlines, with a crowd of flocking onlookers. We meet Travis again after a long cooling camera drift past his triumphantly collected newspaper clippings and the dryly caring sound of Iris’ father thanking him by letter. Travis is grinning and chatting easily with the other drivers outside the Belmore, and gets Betsy as a fare. Travis gives her a free ride, and leaves her behind, with a look through his rear-view mirror at….something, suggested by a swift sound effect quickly swallowed by Herrmann’s music and the city night. Travis will never be free of the demon singing from the back seat, but his song is sweeter now.

As much as the work’s blood is Schrader’s, the muscle and flesh are Scorsese’s. Taxi Driver is a work of total style, despite the intense reek of realism. Almost every shot is skewed with a succession of editing, lighting, and camera effects (with cinematographer Travis_Iris_breakfast.bmpMichael Chapman working his butt off), bending perspective through the gravity of Travis’ perception, and only finding clear-eyed calm when Travis converses with Betsy and Iris in mirroring scenes. Taxi Driver reveals Scorsese’s potent capacity to charge objects with totemic, fetishist import; for example, when Travis cavorts with his guns and weapons, it is as chillingly clear as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey handling bones and realizing potential. Both scenes that have become iconic for masturbatory latent violence. Scorsese’s previous heroes are lost in maelstroms of ethical and physical confusion. Travis Bickle is the first to emerge from the other side. l


21st 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Mean Streets (1973)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) awakens in the night, sweating, wracked by pain of the spirit. Is this before or after the action of this film? Mean Streets concludes with its characters torn up; its lovers left as mangled messes, one man probably dead, another having sacrificed friendship and humanity for respect. Charlie, waking from a bad dream, premonition, or memory, is right to sweat. “The flame of a candle by a thousand times,” is how Charlie conceives the fires of Hell, adding, with piquant theology, “You don’t fuck around with the infinite.” Charlie sets out to make up for his sins, as the famed quote goes, in the streets. For Charlie, religion, love, and action are a texture of being.

Scorsese’s breakthrough film was adapted from a screenplay Scorsese wrote with Mardik Martin in the late ’60s called “Season of the Witch.” The redrafted screenplay gained its title at the suggestion of film critic and future screenwriter Jay Cocks, from Raymond Chandler’s prose treatise on crime fiction. Scorsese initially found it a tad pretentious. Indeed, the film has little to do with Chandler’s aestheticized pulp. Rather, it is more in the mould of such litterateurs as J.T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, and early Hemingway, as well as Italian filmmakers Visconti, Rossellini, and the other Neorealists (the film borrows much from Visconti’s mighty Rocco and His Brothers especially). It’s easy to imagine the characters of Mean Streets as the boys of Who’s That Knocking On My Door? six years older and at the age where things start going seriously right or seriously wrong. Scorsese’s technique has now reached a point where he can use his eruptive, self-announcing style to deliver narrative in new forms; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the drum beats that announce “Be My Baby” at the start.

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The opening sequences are now quoted endlessly, as the lead characters are given introductory epigrams showing us in a stroke their essential nature, capped by their names flashing on screen. Tony (David Proval), who runs a popular bar, is seen ejecting a junkie and pusher from his joint and berating his useless bouncer. Tony is a no-nonsense guy, who loves people, but who will never be a sucker. Michael Longo (Richard Romenek) is a low-level mafioso supervising cigarette robberies and trying to sell German camera lenses to a connection who instantly identifies them as Japanese-made lens adapters, virtually worthless. Michael is thick, shifty, and mindful of his overblown image. Johnny Boy Civello (Robert De Niro) is a grown man who likes blowing up mail boxes with firecrackers. And Charlie’s in church, trying not to fuck with the infinite. The opening credits show all these guys when they were younger, fooling about with a Super 8 camera (Scorsese would later use the ghostly, nostalgic texture of such films to even more powerful effect in Raging Bull). They were young and friends then. They still are, but the types of men they choose to be are the subject of Mean Streets, and how making the wrong choices can put you in the shit.

Second cousin to Who’s That Knocking‘s JR, Charlie is wrestling with identities that don’t fit anymore. He is fed up with the Hail Marys his priest hands out. He wants to sleep with the cute black dancer who works at Tony’s, but he’s too nervous about the color line. He has overcome the hang-ups that crippled JR enough to have a happily sexual affair with Johnny’s cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson), but can’t take their relationship anywhere because he knows not many others have. Johnny Boy is Charlie’s albatross.

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De Niro became an instant star on the back of this performance; his Johnny Boy is a playful, reckless, cheeky brat who cuts through the nightlife and girls like an aftershave-reeking Moses of cool. One of the great musical moments in cinema is “Jumping Jack Flash” blaring as Charlie watches Johnny enter Tony’s place, two girls in arm, a spectacle of delight in life, both awesome and dread-provoking. Trouble is, Johnny’s an irresponsible flake whose tendencies to push situations too far ignites them again and again. An incessant gambler heavily in debt to many loan sharks including Michael, Johnny parades carelessly through life expecting to be yanked out of any jam by the grace of God, pals, and sheer nerve. When the pressure cranks up, Johnny unravels. He assaults random men on the street, insults lifeline Charlie, and dissolves in blubbering nobody-loves-me tirades. Early on, when Charlie, Johnny and others go to extract a debt out of a pool room owner, Johnny’s mouthing off (“A mook?…What’s a mook?”), his tinny truculence and adolescent attitude, precipitates an all-in brawl that sees our lads careening off walls, dancing on pool tables, swinging broken pool cues, fighting three-to-one, until the clash is busted up by cops who accept taxi fare to Philadelphia to go away. Johnny even blows the resulting truce, and he and his pals flee in a flurry of index fingers and insults.

It’s a hilarious and invigorating scene, justly famous, that perfectly captures a common brand of macho confrontation, surreal violence, and urban incident. It also refers to the opening street fight of Who’s That Knocking…, and reveals how Scorsese nurtured his style. Instead of the gifted-child impressionism that breaks up his first film’s texture into fetishized pieces (the ghost of film theory and experimental ethic in Who’s That Knocking…, which favor the shot over the scene, the dominion of narrative and Hollywood), Marty constructs well-contoured scenes whilst still delivering punchy, innovative filming, a form of cinematic prose that communicates in sensation. He uses wide-angle lenses, especially in the fight scenes and moments of physical motion, to give the vertigo-drag of deep space to match the urgency of the action. When Charlie gets drunk, the camera is strapped to Keitel’s chest and lurches drunkenly with him. Instead of merely watching, Scorsese makes his camera and editing an organ of the action and thematic communication.

Scorsese wasn’t the first director to do such things, but he systematized the approach to form a new lexicon. For the rest of his career, most importantly in The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese links image, idea, and theme with his camera, rather than just show off (though he’ll do that, too). The keynote of Scorsese’s career was his uncommon devotion to individual artistic expression through the potential of film as a form of composition rather than mere photography; thus, despite his essentially social-realist ethos he was never tempted to become Ken Loach.

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Sociologically, Mean Streets is the first of Scorsese’s films to follow Abraham Polonsky’s strategy of expostulating a view of capitalist extremity through the vicissitudes of gangland. The nexus of blood, cash, and machismo is irresistible film material and a fine conduit for studying how commitment to money and material things erodes the true values of human beings. Importantly, it’s practically Scorsese’s first “gangster” film (though only Michael counts as one proper) .and sets a pattern admirably fulfilled by Goodfellas and Casino. Scorsese’s fondness for his own ethnic background meshed neatly with the post-Godfather romance of the cinema for goombahs and wiseguys. But Marty’s approach is subtly, but relentlessly opposed to The Godfather‘s epic infatuation. Coppola’s inspiration was to graft an operatic vision of Italian familial tradition and Shakespearean drama onto the seamy milieu that Scorsese analyses more honestly. Mean Streets’ tragic study of the ingrained clash between the finer and the least fine American values will eventually be recast, especially in the course of Raging Bull, The Color of Money, and reach götterdamerung in Casino.

Mean Streets is most forcibly a character study; character is fate just as relentlessly in Scorsese’s best work as in Thomas Hardy. Charlie, for his ambitions to play savior, is termite-riddled with his sycophancy to his quasi-Cosa Nostra uncle Giovanni Cappa (Cesare Danova). The Cappas play a faux-civilised version of the game that the Michaels of the realm enforce more ruggedly. Charlie is indecisive in almost every aspect of his life, perhaps most tartly signaled when he arranges a date with the dancer, and then stands her up.

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Theresa, one of Scorsese’s many Mary Magdalenes endangered by her lover’s Christ fixations, is an epileptic but far from fragile; her hale, husky-voiced persona and lucid sexuality are admirable counterpoints to the sweaty, vaguely sex-panicked men who surround her. Entrapped by the subtle clash between Johnny Boy and Charlie, Theresa is first driven to a fit and then almost dies in the finale. Johnny reveals, in time, his enraged contempt for Charlie’s posturing that lacks concrete salvation. Charlie gives Johnny talkings-to, admonitions, even slaps, but no decent sums of cash, no offers of a job to help him pay his debts. Nonetheless, Johnny, Charlie, and Theresa all love each other; before being collectively crucified for loving too much, the trio find a fraternity and catharsis for themselves. Mean Streets is a film about love, and Marty will never, after virtually eviscerating the emotion at the end of the film, be so loving again.

Michael, defending his tinny authority, casually unleashes a mini-apocalypse when his hired gun shoots at Johnny behind the wheel while Charlie and Theresa are riding with him. Shot in the neck, Johnny crashes the car, sending Theresa through the windscreen, screaming for Charlie, who lurching around in a bloody daze; we last see Johnny stumbling away, probably dying. It’s a breathtakingly cruel and dynamic scene that is both chaotically real and tragically perfect, and it’s also the strongest of the three fractured finales Scorsese has essayed to this point; Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Boxcar Bertha, and Mean Streets all conclude with their crises unresolved and their characters dangling over the void. Later Scorsese heroes will pass through such orgies of riot and violence and emerge cleansed, purified.

Beyond the central story, Mean Streets is a landscape of vignettes and character haikus dotted with such lovingly weird moments as Tony hugging a lion cub; Michael putting on a pair of Joisey longhairs trying to buy fireworks; the assassin casually walking up behind a drunk in Tony’s joint’s toilet and shooting him the back to avenge a petty insult (the two played by Keith and David Carradine); returning veteran Jerry the Soldier (Harry Northup) cracking up at his homecoming party. A little too long, and populated by less than inspiring men, Mean Streets still stands as one of the great American films. It’s the last time Harvey Keitel plays centerstage with Scorsese, as De Niro established his capacity to shift with protean skill from role to role. Keitel had proven perfect for playing Scorsese’s alter ego. De Niro would prove the necessary catalyst for moving into a bigger world. l


14th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Boxcar Bertha (1971)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen,
And as through your life you travel, yes as through your life you roam,
You will never seen an outlaw drive a family from their home.
“Pretty Boy Floyd” – Woody Guthrie

“Congratulations!” John Cassavetes cried to erstwhile former employee and fan Martin Scorsese after viewing his second feature, Boxcar Bertha, “You’ve spent a year of your life making shit!”

Shit? No, not at all. It’s almost worthy of the declaration, “Scorsese and Corman, Together At Last!” Roger Corman was one of the top four or five creative forces in American cinema at a time when the studios were brontosaurs collapsing under their own weight. Many talents—Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Nicholas Roeg, Robert Towne, Monte Hellman—passed through Cormanville on the way to Tinseltown. Corman handed Scorsese $600,000 and a simple equation: give skin, have artistic freedom. Hell yes, Marty said. The film is most memorable to many for the Playboy photo spread it yielded. Letting Barbara Hershey wear a gold belly chain for a sex scene in a Depression-era ruin is pretty dumb.

Boxcar Bertha is indeed an extraordinarily sensual film, though I’m not referring to eyefuls of Hershey (her best performance, light years from her later, mannered drip). Scorsese composed 500 storyboards preparing the film and shot on location. Despite the low budget he conjures a delicious feel for time and place, a quality of light, a world that positively reeks of morning dew, coal smoke, lovers’ flesh, fresh-cut wood. One of the post-Bonnie & Clyde wave of Depression-exploit flicks (see Big Bad Mama, The Grissom Gang) but one with more than bullet-riddled flappers on its mind. The epic anthropologist of Gangs of New York lurks here, digging into a past of labor wars, gambling, prostitution, racism, of grim survival located just on the edge of a collective memory. “Just what are these Reds, anyway?’ Bertha asks, quoting Tom Joad. The movies have a longer memory than society. Rather than being based on a pulp novel or tabloid hero, the film is adapted from the testimony of a real Bertha, as recounted in Ben L. Reitman’s oral history Sisters of the Road.
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Bertha’s the auburn-haired, dress-bursting peach of a daughter of a barnstorming crop duster. In the pre-title sequence, he’s sent aloft in a rickety plane by unscrupulous capitalist types. A bunch of workmen, including perpetually cop-dodging labor leader Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine, warming up for Woody Guthrie), and her pal, blues-blowing man-mountain Von Morton (Bernie Casey), watch with her in grief as Daddy crashes, and immediately start pummeling the men who have caused his death. Bertha wanders the highways and byways looking for a way to survive without becoming a prostitute. She’s in love with Bill—their unions are always sexually explosive (hello, skin)—but because he’s constantly pursued by strike breakers, they never can stay together.
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The one place Bill is safe is giving speeches. In an hilarious scene, he points out two “McIvers,” aka, railroad-employed private detectives (Victor Argo and David Osterhout, who resemble a malevolent Laurel and Hardy), to his crowd of attentive strikers, ordering them to beat the pair up. “Bullshit!” the McIvers blurt before bolting. Vengeance is theirs. When the strikers are jailed by redneck cops and Von is bullied, the prisoners start fighting back. They take the cops easily, but the McIvers calmly march in with shotguns and randomly blow holes in the rioters until the jail is a sea of carnage.

Bertha, still rambling, encounters a tight-lipped gambler who, the moment he opens his mouth, blows his identity as an exiled Noo Yawker. This is Rake Brown (Barry Primus), who might as well be Joey from Who’s That Knocking On My Door?—whiny, fussy, sharp but comical, physically uncourageous, railroaded into foreign climes. Bertha coaches him in Southern elocution (“Mah dee-ah”) and poses as his elegant mistress, keeping opponents’ eyes on her figure rather than his cards. One game turns violent, and Bertha pops a guy with a derringer. Bertha and Rake spring Bill and Von from the clink, and the foursome find themselves described in the papers as a gang. Bill is stricken by the appellation. He’s a worker’s warrior, not a criminal, but when he learns even his union finds him persona non grata, he leads the foursome in a criminal war harrying capitalist institutions, most notably the Sartoris clan (cheeky Faulkner name-check) and its scion H. Buckram Sartoris (even cheekier, casting John Carradine, David’s father and the former Preacher Casey; the scene where David sticks him up and swaps Bible quotes is a film geek’s delight), raiding their trains and even a ritzy party.

Sartoris plots a trap, which they walk into. Rake, with chip on shoulder from being called a coward in the papers and being jilted by Bertha for Bill, refuses to surrender. The McIvers shoot him, giving Bertha a chance to make a break. On the chain gang, Bill is beaten and becomes ill. Bertha, hungry and desperate, takes up work in a brothel, where her clients include a glass-eating weirdo and a lonely guy who doesn’t want to sleep alone (Scorsese himself, plump and beardless, in his first cameo). One night, passing a blues joint, she hears a familiar wail.
Inside Bill%20crucified.bmpshe finds Von, who has been released. He reveals Bill has escaped. Von takes her to the shack where Bill is holed up, and she finds a gray-haired wreck of a man, ponderously penning radical tracts like a down-home Trotsky. Bertha stirs Bill back to passion, and Von leaves them alone. As they leave the shack, they are set upon by the McIvers and hillbilly thugs. As a final punishment for the offending rebel, they crucify Bill on the door of a boxcar, forcing Bertha to watch.

Ah, Marty, ever the Catholic fetishist. He is, however, drawing the vital link in image and theme with the pre-Moral Majority conjunction of the labor movement and Christian idealism, the folk-wisdom of Woody Guthrie’s Jesus Christ (and also Guthrie’s charitable outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd). Bertha is Scorsese’s most baldly pinko film. Its imagery anticipates the twin religious/historical imagery of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and anticipates, with its boxcar Jesus, Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” The heroes of Boxcar Bertha, not as conflicted as later Scorsese protagonists, are a likable bunch of outsiders, all of whom embody a different perspective—pre-hippie radical Bill, pre-civil-rights black individualist Von, prefeminist wild child Bertha, and Rake, his unmacho, urbane self tragically stuck in Hicksville. The villains are likewise plainly villains.

Dramatically speaking, the plotting is poor, and the film chugs and rattles more than one of its vintage steam trains. Scenes, characters, and acts come and go with picaresque speed and scant logic. The idea of Bill and his band conducting a guerrilla war on big business is brilliant, but these scenes are fiddle-and-banjo hijinks staged for yucks. Marty was still having difficulty calibrating his style to a story; in spurts, the film has the lean and dangerous despair of classic noir, the wistful melancholy of Nicholas Ray, the knockabout grace of Preston Sturges, but too often it’s overstuffed with comedic chicanery and tonal uncertainty. The cray-zy comedy and harsh violence sit uneasily together.

Yet I prefer it to most of its rivals of the time, of which there were many—comedy-drama westerns and gangster flicks infused with Hippie Americana. It evokes the world of Guthrie’s songs more effectively even than the biopic Bound for Glory (1976). It possesses a lucidity about the period conflicts that Bonnie & Clyde elides. Boxcar Bertha combines folk-nostalgic whimsy and Depression misery in a more meaningful way than The Sting (1973). Scorsese already has a deft flexibility, delivering sex and violence within an oddball, vital film. He creates startling shots, including one scene where dozens of escaping chain-gang convicts flee through stacks of fresh-cut timber and another with Bill, in a fury, marching down the hall of an abandoned warehouse being pursued by Bertha and Rake, slanting light sun-dogging on the lens. These shots are not just technically impressive, but also create a beatific historical vision.
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It’s also Scorsese’s first film to really deal in violence. When guns fire, Scorsese amplifies the sound to the point where shotguns sound like cannons and blow bloody gouges in people. When someone gets hurt, you feel it. I’ve rarely been happier to see a bunch of bad guys shot than at the end of this one, and when Von returns, takes up one of the McIvers’ shotguns, and massacres the thugs as they smugly watch Bill’s crucifixion, it’s hard not to cheer. Scorsese’s staging establishes his career’s dichotomist view of violence. He can’t really see Von’s outrage as a triumph (especially as he’s too late to save Bill) and Von, judging by his baleful final expression, finds even justified violence degrading and soul-depleting. All the ethic of violent repression practiced by the McIvers and Sartoris has accomplished is brutalizing everyone. In storyboarding the crucifixion scene, Scorsese specified the nails that pierce Bill’s hands be seen protruding from the wood, smeared with blood, visceral but avoiding a Mel Gibson horror show; he would repeat the shot later in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Bertha is still Scorsese’s most unaffected and appealing heroine, bolstered by the script written by the husband-and-wife team of Joyce Hooper Corrington and John William Corrington. Bertha is partly a bawdy joke fit for the period—a country girl in a loose dress looking for adventure, a cliché slowly dismantled as Bertha watches the men she loves destroyed and is driven to selling herself. It’s clear why, with the sympathetic and successfully drawn women of his first three films (The Girl, Bertha, and Mean Streets‘Theresa), Scorsese was chosen to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Solid were his credentials as a cinematic feminist, but Scorsese would lose that reputation when his women became as perverse as his men.

Cassavetes was right, however, when he told Scorsese to do something personal next. With greater skill and experience, Scorsese would return to the old neighborhood in Mean Streets. Pause a moment, though, to regard the final shot of Boxcar Bertha, one of my favorite shots of all time—simply accomplished, but starkly effective—as a distraught Bertha runs alongside the moving train (a dangerous and impressive physical feat from Hershey), trying to keep hold of the dangling Bill’s hand, until she is left behind in the setting sun amidst the railside rubbish.

So long it’s been good to know ya. l


7th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Bravo, Scorsese

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Giuliano Di Tanna

Isabella Rossellini was flying high on a plane when an Italian journalist called her to break the news about Martin Scorsese’s first Academy Award as best director for The Departed. Rossellini, daughter of the late, great Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who was married to Scorsese from 1979 to 1983, commented, “I couldn’t watch the ceremony, but I’m so glad for him. He really deserved that honor. I think this Oscar is a prize for his career and not just for this specific movie.” Rossellini’s words pretty much summarize the way Italy reacted to Scorsese’s capture of his long-awaited first Oscar.

Scorsese was born in New York’s Little Italy from second-generation American parents. His grandparents landed in America in the early 1900 arriving from very poor country towns in Sicily. His upbringing was molded by Sicilian civil and religious traditions–roots which deeply affected his cinema. In Italy, Scorsese is considered almost like an Italian moviemaker, more than other Italian-American directors such as Coppola and De Palma. Critics and movie fans have been rooting for him over the past 20 years when he failed to score an Oscar.

So the 57th Academy Awards night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood was a night of relief and joy, a joy shared by Italian movie buffs and celebrities like Roberto Benigni, the best actor Academy Award winner in 1998 for Life Is Beautiful, who expressed his satisfaction: “Martin Scorsese is one of the world’s greatest directors.”

Benigni wasn’t the only Italian film luminary who rooted for Scorsese on Oscar Night. Ferzan Ozpetek, an Italian-Turkish writer who has been recently on his way to the top of Italy’s movie industry with films like Le fate ignoranti and the recently released Saturno contro, said: “I’m happy for (Scorsese) who’s been deserving an Oscar for such a long time.”

Ozpetek’s appreciation of Scorsese’s body of work is echoed by Goffredo Bettini’s own satisfaction. Bettini, the powerful president of the recently born Rome Film Festival where, in September, Scorsese was one of the major guests at the Italian premiere of The Departed, said, “The Departed is a wonderful movie. Congratulations to Martin Scorsese. I hope our mutual collaboration will continue in the future on some of his projects like the restoration of old films with his film foundation.” l

Giuliano Di Tanna is chief editor of the life section of the daily newspaper il Centro, published for the Abruzzo region of Italy.


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