(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2006)
Martin Scorsese is perhaps America’s best director, and certainly its most disappointing. I’m glad he had a commercial and critical success with The Departed, because I guess I’m just the kind of guy who likes to think of great filmmakers being well treated in their advancing years. And I was completely entertained by the film, from start to finish. But is it worthy of a man who might be America’s best director? The answer is plainly no, obviously no. Obvious to everyone, that is, except the many worthy and perceptive writers who see this as one of the year’s best films, and as Scorsese’s best film since (at least) Casino, which I find a bit like saying that George W. Bush is the best president since Gerald Ford.
America’s Best Director
I’ve written my “why can’t Scorsese be better” article several times now, and I didn’t mean to get into it again, but it’s just too damn hard to avoid. I did recently write a rapturous article on my favourite of his films, The King of Comedy, which I’m saving for a rainy day. That film continues to occupy my mind from time to time, because I think it’s the most challenging psychological study he’s ever produced, it’s the most truly mysterious of his works, and the one that best connects to contemporary issues of more than trivial importance. Others of his work score highly in at least one or two of those three categories. But it’s a bit depressing, when you look over Scorsese’s body of work, to realize how little you’ve actually learned from it. You have lots of memories – great scenes, great lines, great bits of acting – but it’s all fragments.
It’s strange, because it’s not as if he doesn’t have a refined sensibility. For example, his recent documentary on Italian cinema was a captivating, eloquent, detailed homage to the films of De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, and others. I actually changed my long-held opinion of several directors solely because of Scorsese’s explanations of them. Mind you, if memory serves, too much of his analysis may have centered on individual scenes and flourishes. It would be trite and, well, just not true to say that Scorsese can’t orchestrate an entire film, and yet his work seems consistently marked by a loss of energy or focus in the closing stretch. The beginnings are good because beginnings are about impact, about raising questions and possibilities, but you have to assess the greatest of filmmakers by where they ultimately take us, and the arrival points of Scorsese’s films are generally arbitrary, murky or otherwise unsatisfying. This certainly applies, for instance, to Gangs of New York and The Aviator (although most people were simply grateful that the films did, eventually, end).
The Departed doesn’t actually flag in the late stages, which is quite something given its two and a half hour length and astonishingly sustained pace. It’s as engrossing a thriller as I’ve seen for a long while. Based quite closely on the Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs (which in itself seems like a sign of incomplete ambition), the film is set among cops and gangsters in present-day Boston (although, once we get past a flavourful prologue, it’s so devoid of local colour and real people, so immersed in its concentrated conflicts and intrigues, that it might as well be set on the moon). Leonardo DiCaprio plays a cop who’s gone deep undercover within crime lord Jack Nicholson’s organization. Matt Damon is a cop who’s actually a mole for Nicholson. Vera Farmiga plays a psychiatrist who sleeps with both men. You can see how things could get complicated, but the film is actually a relative model of clear, economical exposition.
Scorsese claims the following theme for the film: “Good and bad become very blurred. That is something I know I'm attracted to. It's a world where morality doesn't exist, good doesn't exist, so you can't even sin any more as there's nothing to sin against. There's no redemption of any kind."
"There were a lot of big names getting involved, a lot of different schedules to marry, a lot of pitfalls we could have fallen into. And yet I stayed with the film," he says. "Because I guess there's an anger, for want of a better word, about the state of affairs. An anger that hopefully doesn't eat at yourself but a desire to express what I feel about post-September 11 despair. My emotional response is this movie. It became clearer and clearer as we did it, more frightening. It came from a very strong state of conviction about the emotional, psychological state that I am in now about the world and about the way our leaders are behaving."
Certainly one can concede that Scorsese achieved this ambition (although only people who think that everything is now about post 9/11 will particularly detect that theme here). But I think it tells you a lot about his artistic ceiling. One: We’re not actually living in a world where morality doesn’t exist, where there’s no concept of sin, no redemption. Concepts of relative morality and virtue structure both the personal and political of our lives (and those of our leaders) every day. Positing their absence is a crazy extrapolation of the corruption Scorsese detects in the post 9/11 environment, and it leads to a hollow movie, because if there’s no morality, there’s probably no meaningful psychology either.
Raging Like Bulls
Two: Scorsese’s “emotional response” to these conditions is an inherently second-rate way of speaking to these matters. It’s largely because the world is being run through emotional responses, extrapolations and abstractions that we’re in such a mess. It’s time, I believe, to be explicit. Oliver Stone dodged the ball with World Trade Center, and Paul Greengrass in United 93 merely turned in a self-described “Rorschach test” of a movie in which you can see anything you want. It is actually possible, although one almost starts to doubt it, for great filmmaking to be political. But Scorsese has always demonstrated a certain intellectual timidity in putting himself on the line.
Three: the big names, the different schedules, the pitfalls. When he says that, he reminds me of Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy justifying his failure to listen to Rupert Pupkin’s audition tape. Scorsese loves making movies, of course, and he makes movies you can’t help but love watching. The strange thing about The King of Comedy is that it’s flatter, plainer and less obviously proficient than any of his other films, but it’s also one of the few times when he broke through. Maybe the real theme that links Scorsese’s recent work, from the absent morality of The Departed through the trapped Howard Hughes in The Aviator through the wretched, hermetic conflicts of Gangs of New York and back, is a sense of charismatic, even swaggering individuals overpowered by their physical and figurative environments, drowning in self-delusion, raging like bulls without realizing the limits of the pasture. It’s fascinating, but as an expression of the director’s limits rather than his strengths.