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Entries in Scorsese (4)

Thursday
Aug252016

The Departed

I gave you the wrong address. But you showed up at the right one.

Successful, enduring criminals – be they of the pocketbook or the heart – must be able to do one thing well, and that thing is lie. They must live under the guise of law-abiding normalcy and profess no knowledge of underworld happenings; yet for them to move up (or down) within this realm, they will have to know how to double-cross, triple-cross, and endure an endless series of betrayals just to emerge victorious. We will need a word far stronger than Pyrrhic to caption such winners' accomplishments, who don't seem nearly as happy as they should be. That is likely because they know full well the ways of the gun, which have replaced the ways of the sword without overmuch changing the outcome. A brief introduction to this much-acclaimed film.

We begin with an unmistakable voice, for our immediate purposes inhabiting the body of Francis "Frank" Costello (Jack Nicholson). At this point in his career it seems unreasonable to expect Nicholson, who rightfully owns one of cinema's most enduring reputations, to do a role that might disparage his off-screen persona. Thus even without hearing the racist platitudes he utters strolling through the noonday Boston shadows, we know what his philosophy "a man makes his own way" really means. This suspicion is reinforced in a measured early scene in which he stands very still behind sunglasses, his voice slithering from his lips. People at a family diner react to his presence, and their first impression is fear. The second, especially after a lascivious remark directed at the owner's teenage daughter, is disgust; but their third impression is perhaps unforeseeable. As he dismisses the girl from her cashier duties, Costello whispers something in her ear that induces a genuine, coquettish smile; later comments suggest that this type of banter comes to him with enviable ease. So when he turns his attention to a ten-year-old boy by the name of Colin Sullivan, we might expect the mesmerizing of a true prodigy – but this is precisely what does not occur. Costello's life (we begin to get flashbacks of his methods) is neither appealing nor safe; that he is about to turn seventy is a testimony to both his sadistic ruthlessness and a long and passionate affair with Lady Luck. And as Colin, who pleases Costello by unhesitatingly identifying the phrase non serviam with this author, replies that he does indeed do well in school, our gangster finds that they have something in common. "That's called a paradox," Costello quips, talking about himself. But what he is actually saying is that given some of the alternatives in South Boston, a microcosm of life's struggles to an Irish immigrant, organized crime is simply what people do who think the Church, the State, and every authority in between do not really abide by another Latin phrase, Deus est Deus pauperum.

Is it all about money? Well, insanity aside, there is no other explanation. Consider when a grown-up Sullivan (Matt Damon) graduates from the academy for Massachusetts State Troopers, still completely under Costello's patronage (that Costello, a publicly-known mobster, drives up to the ceremony grounds is either audacity or a glitch in the plot), and moves into an apartment that will make him "upper class on Tuesday." If his "co-signer" is who we think it is why does he want to draw attention to himself? Is there nothing more suspicious than a cop who lives in a luxurious home? These and many other, admittedly minor points in The Departed are left unaddressed, mostly just to maintain the plot's pleasantly frenetic pacing. As Sullivan is set to be Costello's inside man, we meet a moody, somewhat delicate fellow by the name of William "Bill" Costigan Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). While Sullivan seems like he could have come from decent, hard-working folk, Costigan's pedigree is decidedly felonious: his uncle was a high-ranking criminal, as was, we are told, most of his family, and Bill spent weekends in thug-infested Southie. In fact, the only males in his family who did not have a connection to organized crime were Bill and William Sr., whom everyone labeled an underachiever because he worked baggage carts at the airport. Much later in the film, a rather dubious source insinuates that even William Sr. had criminal tendencies, although "he would never accept money" – and whatever that means may depend on what you would do for a bit of coin. With his high SAT scores, gentle manner, and pretty boy looks, Costigan doesn't strike one as a typical cop – even if he has attended and excelled at the same academy that graduated Sullivan. And for that reason, among others, is he a near-perfect candidate to infiltrate Costello's gang. 

Counterpoised moles are hardly a novelty and, indeed, The Departed is itself a remake of one of Hong Kong's most successful cinematic ventures. I cannot say I plan to see Infernal Affairs – one of the greatest movie titles of all time – because most of its pleasures will likely already have been filched by Scorsese and his exquisite cast (a scene with Chinese gangsters, a tip of the hat to the original, is perhaps the film's least necessary, merely allowing Costello to indulge in more ethnic slurs). After the identity-switching motif starts feeling at once contrived and too devoid of genuine suspense, one character makes a brilliant leap in logic by entertaining a second character’s advice then reversing it. The utter genius of this tactic is undermined by the fact that it seems to bear fruit that very day, but such is the expediency of the plot. This monumentally fateful decision triggers a slow climax that shines at so many moments it is hard to count them all. The best may be when one mole calls the other, and neither one says a word, both of them fully aware that the person on the line is either the spy each has long sought or a dead man (and, in a way, he is both). Another occurs at a funeral, when we see one character approaching from very far off and know she will not look at much less stop for Sullivan, who issues perhaps the film’s most piteous single line. Yet the film will be remembered not for its moments of silence but for its barbs, most of which are not printable without expunction. Costello gets some of the finest repartees (the quote that ends “With me, it tends to be the other guy” must rank as the absolute best), as does a bilious bully of a cop called Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), who has some choice words about everyone, including federal agents. It is when, however, a dead man turns up that we thought could not possibly be a policeman, but is declared as such by the evening news, that we start to wonder about another scene which suddenly makes much more sense – including the unforgettable line that begins this review.

I have never cared terribly much for this famous trilogy. Yes, Coppola’s works are beautifully, almost tenderly, produced; but the romanticizing of the Mafioso lifestyle belies the ugly truth of its daily business. That is why The Departed and, in a very different way, this brutal masterpiece, are more powerful statements on America’s most revered bandits (this work, also by Scorsese, while at times even-handed, likewise drifts too far down lover’s lane). Although The Departed is very much a character study, the details do not allow us to forget we are dealing with a grim environment (this is, in other words, not a French film). Surveillance and technology sustain shocking failures, fistfights break out regularly over trifles, and, as is usually the case among men who beat heads for a living and those who seek to arrest those men, an endless litany of filth drips from everyone's mouth. The vitriol is pervasive and nasty, but verbal violence, talking the talk, especially in this age of political correctness, is the first rite of the outlaw. The only person somewhat immune to this disease is police psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), the lone female with more than two minutes of screen time and/or four lines of dialogue. Apart from the teenager in the opening scene and a few pro forma 'policewomen' who do nothing more than smile shyly, Madden is the only female who isn't a corpse, nun, hooker, or secretary – the four age-old misogynist categories subscribed to by imbecile men. At least we can report that something will happen to Madden that is wholly predictable, and something else that is dramatically incorrect yet laudable, specifically because it so defies expectations. And does the rest not defy expectations? I think a rat can always see it coming.

Tuesday
Nov242015

Cape Fear

This film begins with one of the most heavy-handed title sequences in recent memory, proceeds to a narrator who is both unappealing and, frankly, a twit, and then hands off the baton to Max Cady (Robert De Niro). Whenever it is enraptured by Cady's words, the film blooms and glows. We first meet the tattooed back of him (with truth and justice as captions) before an "eight-by-nine" library of a jail cell. On his wall hang pictures of mustached dictators that we would all do well to forget, as well as law books with stipulations and codes that he justifiably cannot. "What about your books, Cady?" asks a guard as he struts out of the Georgia State Correctional Facility and into our camera, literally ramming it with his ground teeth. "Already read 'em," he replies coolly. He has had all the time in the world – fourteen years, to be precise. And it is clear to absolutely every viewer of Cape Fear that after spending a third of his life in lockup, Max Cady is now on a mission.

That mission will take us to New Essex, North Carolina, that type of sleepy little town that tends to harbor the wickedest of secrets. It will also introduce us to the Bowdens, "Slippery" Sam (Nick Nolte, who has never looked quite so slick and unpleasant), an attorney, Leigh (Jessica Lange), a designer, and their only child, fifteen-year-old Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Even from the opening vignettes, one has the impression that the Bowdens have seen far unhappier times. Too many of their words seem weighed as if they were all striving not to exceed some invisible boundaries of pain. Lange, for example, is made to look as dowdy as is possible for a woman of her attractiveness (my childhood awe of her in this film has never dissipated). This otherwise inexplicable move serves two purposes: mother and daughter gain a passing resemblance and Sam's roving eye seems extenuated. One June evening a family outing to the movies is tarnished by the maniacal laughs of Cady, who happens to be enjoying a cigar (the camera caresses his bikinied lighter) only a couple of rows in front of them. Our cigar-smoking hyena never even turns to address the indignant requests so Sam orders his clan to decamp. When Danielle eggs on her father in that way we all have of taking pride in those who protect us ("Dad, you should have punched him out"), Sam espies an opportunity for a parental lesson in non-violence. Yet it is precisely here – as if to undermine Sam's credentials as a domestic lawgiver – that Leigh chuckles that Sam should be used to "fighting dirty," a comment at which he takes umbrage.  As he goes to pay for their after-movie snack, however, Sam is informed that "everything's been taken care of." The caretaker? The fellow with the cigar glowering at them from the red convertible in the parking lot. But that person and his car are now gone.

Since Cady is a very recent ex-convict and Sam a criminal defense lawyer, we suspect a vivid back story. We get one, and it comprises the primary distinction between Scorsese's plot and that of the 1962 original. While the first Sam Bowden is scapegoated by a madman whose legal culpability was never really in question, our Sam is not quite as innocent. Once upon a time and place, 1977 Atlanta to be exact, Max Cady couldn't even read the laws he had every intention of breaking, a handicap that obliged his kindly attorney to enunciate every statute for Cady's own frustrated half-comprehension. About the only thing that Sam did not have to dictate to his client was the latter's eventual conviction for the sexual assault and battery of a teenage girl. Events throughout Cape Fear make it painfully obvious that Max Cady is not a good man victimized by an imperfect justice system; in fact, one might properly wonder why on earth we would ever release such a beast from incarceration. Nevertheless, the letter of our imperfect laws was not followed: after Cady buttonholes him in his car and punctuates their reacquaintance with a whisper that sounds a lot like "you're going to learn about loss," Sam confesses his own sins to another attorney. And what was Sam's unpardonable offense? Nothing really if you understand guilt as absolute and not relative to the weaknesses of the prosecution and its toolbox. Looking back at what he did and did not do for his client, Sam cannot help but imagine his own daughter, now the age of the victim in 1977, and consider Cady's disgusting acts in a more personalized context ("If you had seen," he assures the same skeptical colleague, "what he did to this girl"). Sam's moral character is further tainted by his implied escapades with a frisky law clerk (Illeana Douglas, Scorsese's girlfriend at the time) about whom he does not see any need to tell his wife. One evil night, of course, Cady will happen to chat up this same clerk, whose regrettable taste in men turns out to be unwavering. At the precise center of the film, in a masterful scene more suspenseful than anything involving a killer shark or slasher, Cady will also get a crack at sweet helpless Danielle. While Lewis as a sex symbol remains one of Hollywood's greatest implausibilities, she can play rather effortlessly the incipient rebel who might like a little dope and a little of this author. And Danielle has long since determined that her parents are neither soul mates nor entities worthy of their proclaimed authority, which will explain a few minor discrepancies in our story.

The conclusion to Cape Fear was quickly spoiled by trailers that prove you can't just name a film after a location and not feature its natural obstacles. I remember seeing it in the theater at Danielle's film age and being put off by the utter inevitability of what happens, an opinion I swiftly forsook upon reviewing. As it were, the film's strength is drawn specifically from its irresistible force, from the notion of old sins that recur to the sinner, from the sense of implacable doom. Although not his best role, De Niro immortalizes himself in Max Cady in no small part through his much-ballyhooed fitness and his even more celebrated tattoos, most of which avow Biblical vengeance. Despite this unorthodox appearance, Cady is so smooth, silver-tongued, and terrifyingly literate that at times one forgets his most recent permanent address. Then we realize he has been performing this role, in gradually modulated versions of perfection, for the last fourteen years. His very best monologue is delivered in his convertible before a standing Sam after the latter has just been informed of when exactly Max learned to read in jail and what he chose as his favorite texts. In this scene, if but for one or two seconds, De Niro succeeds in making us pity someone who was, at least in terms of due process, deprived unfairly of his freedom. When Sam interrupts this brilliant flow of details by proposing monetary compensation, Cady simply crunches the numbers and accuses his former attorney of offering him below minimum wage. "Not to mention," he mentions anyway, "the family and respect [he] lost" during his long sentence. The worst sequence involves a hare-brained scheme to lure Cady into a trap in the Bowdens' house, and the less said about these minutes the better. But the finest moments remain those at the film's midpoint between Danielle and Cady. Here several possible, perfectly viable outcomes present themselves, but only the best and, in a way, the most shocking occurs. It is also here that Cady warns the youngest Bowden that "every man carries a circle of hell around his head like a halo. Your daddy, too. Every man. Every man has to go through hell to reach his paradise." And whatever that paradise might entail is not ours to imagine.

Tuesday
Mar032015

Raging Bull

Now, sometimes, at night, when I think back, I feel like I'm looking at an old black-and-white movie of myself. Why it should be black-and-white I don't know, but it is. Not a good movie either, jerky, with gaps in it, a string of poorly lit sequences, some of them with no beginning and some with no end. No musical score, just sometimes the sound of a police siren or a pistol shot. And almost all of it happens at night, as if I lived my whole life at night.  

                                                                                                                  Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull

As long as we possibly can, we must preserve the innocence of childhood. We must preserve it in our children, protecting them from the storms of age and agony, of the pain and cruelty so widespread in our world, of sin in its deceptive and myriad guise. But we must also preserve it in ourselves. So often are adults informed of their immaturity by wiser minds, usually as a means to explain why the world doesn't quite fit them like some oversized coat or shoe. Yet on occasion it is immaturity in the form of faultlessness, an inability to see the world for the den of iniquity it most certainly is, that can absolve a soul. And at other times, it is the expiation of sin in a troubled being that can restore a faint trace of childhood lost: a hand print on a window pane, a taste of cinnamon candy, a beautiful pink ribbon amidst beautiful curly locks. Something akin to an imposition of penance redeems the protagonist in this famous film.

The bull in question is Italian-American prizefighter Jake LaMotta (a marvelous Robert De Niro), twenty troubled years old as our film opens in 1941. In one of life's little ironies, an adolescence of crime and bare-knuckle brawling has left LaMotta medically exempt from military service but fit enough to become one of the most feared middleweight boxers in the world. His manager and only friend is his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci), whose flabbiness, squeakiness, and insecurities embody what professors of literature like to term a "perfect foil." Joey does not come off as a particularly bad fellow until we hear his advice on how precisely LaMotta should extricate himself from his marriage. There is also the small matter of Joey's "friends," a relationship far less easily shed – yet I digress. In the opening scenes we begin to sense the undercurrent beneath the Bull: his ambition lies not with belts of silver and gold but with hearts and minds. Like any artist worth his salt, LaMotta's dream is to be acknowledged by true connoisseurs (including, of course, other fighters), by those who know his sport inside and out, by those who will inscribe his terrifying force into the annals of pugilism and make him eternal. A championship, the layman's understanding of who is the best at a given time, matters little to the Bull, as does, to some extent, the concomitant fortune and fame. All throughout our film, we are afforded glimpses into the ruthless rings in which LaMotta annihilates his enemies (as Joey boasts, "he knocked [an opponent's] nose from one side of his face to the other"). It is then perhaps not surprising that LaMotta's father exploited the teenage Jake as one might a gamecock: as a gladiatorial pawn against other child ruffians with a purse earmarked for the family's rent. It is equally predictable that LaMotta would develop a profound disdain for any sort of authority, be that authority a parent, brother, spouse, or promoter. What matters to the Bronx Bull, as he is often billed, is the understanding that no one has ever knocked him off his feet or hurt him: only he can do that to himself. Which brings us to his ruination in the tall and very blonde form of Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).

Many viewers will know that Beverly Thailer, dite Vickie or Vikki, will become the second of LaMotta's seven brides; it is up to the actors, therefore, to make an historical fact a dramatic inevitability. Vickie, for her part, doesn't express much initial interest – but someone of LaMotta's fitness, determination, and utter lack of fear can usually mate with whomever he chooses. That Vickie is but fifteen and LaMotta twenty at the time of their introduction is less remarkable than the fact that Moriarty was herself a teenager (De Niro, by contrast, was thirty-six), if one with innate poise and polish. Moriarty is perfectly cast for many reasons, but mostly because she is the lean mean De Niro's size (a petite leading lady would have been no match). When he calls her over to sit on his lap, she takes up more space than he expects. This equation is repeated in a Technicolor fast-forward when he tosses her into a pool, and when, after a scene of brief but vicious domestic violence, her face resembles his own post-fight countenance. They court the only way LaMotta knows how: by simple displays of what has made him a man. He drives her around in his convertible, takes her to mini-golf, and shows her his father's apartment with a lovely observation about a neglected cage ("That's a bird. It was a bird. It's dead now, I think."). In time, she will become both his inspiration – he is but a knight of the rubber gauntlet – and his distraction, and here I will permit myself an aside. It is a commonly held belief among viewers of Raging Bull that what propels LaMotta is jealousy: of a sexual nature as far as Vickie is concerned, and of a fraternal kind with Joey, especially given the attention Joey bestows upon his "friends," but yet again we must demur. As in most films by Scorsese and Schrader, the true focus is not upon an individual tragic flaw, but sin itself. LaMotta's only path to purity is in the ring, his trials and tribulations very similar to those of an artist who will not compromise (which makes his own sell-out, his one thrown fight to curry favor with power brokers, all the more painful, like a potboiler a true artist will forever rue). His life, his work, his thoughts, his ethics, should be pure, because he is pure, bottled rage, to be unleashed only on his opponents, whom he pummels with force available to few men. Artists also unreasonably expect their loved ones to be as true to them as the artists are to their own works, a near-impossible task that begets the most savage disappointment. That his rage spills out of the squared circle, and gets the better of him on more than occasion, means ultimately that he has failed to achieve his destiny – the worst nightmare any artist could ever imagine. And Jake LaMotta's nightmare will only begin in the ring. 

Raging Bull enjoyed a tepid reception upon its release in 1980, in no small part because it was very different from that Philadelphia story of four years earlier. Black-and-white like the real LaMotta's dream, the film was as tragic as its operatic soundtrack, which suits it perfectly and suggests the Bull's idealized vision of himself as a knight-errant. Although boxing's brutality does not lend itself to much enjoyment, especially since its long-term consequences are now properly understood, there is something Romantic about such a life. A life about combat, rigged or not by underworld krakens who drain betting pools, about being alone and fighting with one's hands, about becoming world-feared as well as famous. Underworld? Well, for Joey LaMotta they hover quite above the surface. Almost from our opening scenes, Joey's "friends" function as a third layer to the sport and life of Jake LaMotta, because it is they who steer bulls and other ringed beasts to their own greedy ends. LaMotta's refusal to kowtow to some very powerful and very dangerous characters would, in a far lesser film, result in cruel retribution; yet somehow the mafiosi are just as proud of their native son as they are puzzled at his recalcitrance ("The man's got a head of a rock"). Joey, of course, would never have the audacity to stand up to the mob, which is one of the many reasons he adores his older brother. An uncanny sibling rapport allows many things to be left unsaid, although Joey insists that he "always tells [LaMotta] the truth the first time." But LaMotta knows the company his brother keeps and weighs that claim repeatedly. It does not help matters that Vickie was plucked from the selfsame milieu and that LaMotta also ponders her "friends," especially when these "friends" keep showing up at inopportune times (which, for LaMotta, means any time at all). So when the much older LaMotta turns to stand-up comedy and a bon-vivant lifestyle, it is a wonderful – and completely logical – departure from the young LaMotta, so serious and so focused as to have become the proverbial agelast. And how are we to understand the final scene, ostensibly one of redemption, at least in LaMotta's eyes? Perhaps he's the only one to see the events as such. Or perhaps his eyes have simply been swollen shut for years. 

Sunday
Jun202010

Shutter Island

The name of this film could be heard with certain accents as "shudder," which would dovetail nicely with its explicit content.  "Shutter," in any case, is far better since it suggests furtive glances through a convenient window from where one sees what one is not normally entitled to see although hardly enough to form a fair conclusion.  This conceit has fueled dozens of films, tragically pigeonholed as voyeurism by computerized reviewers, yet it remains such a basic premise as to allow for new versions that do not simply echo their inspirations.  And our reinvention comes from a thirtysomething U.S. marshal by the name of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio).

We first see Teddy violently seasick aboard a ferry to the titular isle which houses a mental institution with the repute and splendid isolation of Alcatraz.  Once he has righted himself and gained the deck, we notice the beauty that surrounds him – the cresting water, the scudding clouds, the lone boat heading into eternity.  His dress and speech as he accosts his fellow marshal on the assignment, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), indicates we are not in the present time; further details tell us the year is 1954.  The fact is important not only because it explains why smoking is the third most common on-screen action after breathing and talking, but also owing to Teddy's G.I. memories of the liberation of Dachau.  The flashbacks to that time, including a visionary scene in the quarters of the camp's commanding officer, will provide Teddy with his superimposed daydreams and eventually with nightly tortures.  His horrible narrative ("There were too many bodies to count.  There were too many bodies to imagine.") literally bleeds into his current predicament, the localization of a missing young murderess called Rachel Solando.  Teddy believes in Rachel Solando, in what she is said to have done, in the existence of a place like Shutter Island because he has had first-hand experience in what human beings can do to one another.  To him and perforce to us, there seem to be few boundaries to wickedness. 

Solando's evil will be as repulsive as the evils of any war, only on a smaller and more personal scale.  She apparently drowned her three small children in a lake; apart from vague allusions to her mental unwellness, the reason why she did so is never made explicit.  A gentle excuse ("her husband died on the shores of Normandy") is circulated but never condoned.  Although the institution is a technological fortress flush with armed correctional officers and an atmosphere of, well, more than brooding suspicion, Solando is said to have escaped a locked cell barefoot without leaving a trace.   Thankfully, Teddy and Aule do not examine the room too closely perhaps because they are too busy scrutinizing the wisdom and manners of Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley).  Cawley will resemble many other heads of mental institutions in his complacent geniality, as well as the supposition shared by him and everyone else that he is much smarter than you are.  He is parentally proud of Ashecliffe, the actual name of the institution, as "a moral fusion between law and order and clinical care."  Such a slogan may appear either absurd or self-evident depending on how you define morality; but to an intelligent person it should not come off as intimidating – which is, of course, exactly how Teddy takes it.  In fact, as Cawley offers a limited tour of two of the three wards, Teddy begins to sense that something is awry.  It is at this point that Aule coaxes the truth out of him: he is not really here to find Rachel Solando, who may or may not exist, but to confirm whether Andrew Laeddis, the incendiary responsible for the death of Teddy's wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), is indeed housed in the third and completely off-limits ward for the supremely dangerous and unstable.   

My non-disclosure policy prevents me from revealing much more, but the attentive viewer should ask himself the following.  Why do the names Solando and Laeddis sound so odd?  Can we really believe Teddy's account of what happened to the Dachau guards?  Is the film's etymology of the German word for "dream" correct?  How would Teddy, a very intelligent but not a cultured man, immediately recognize a piece by this composer?  And, as Teddy himself is asked, what is "the rule of four" and why would intelligence agencies consult a psychiatrist like Dr. Cawley?  Through all these investigations, Teddy never leaves our sight: he is our compass and chart, and it is incumbent upon us to judge everything he sees and feels.  Upon researching some bits and pieces to Shutter Island, I learned that DiCaprio in his acting career has received three Academy Award and seven Golden Globe nominations.  Not that nominations are a surefire way to measure talent, but given his accepted status as a boyish charmer the number is still remarkable.  As it were, DiCaprio's effectiveness as Teddy Daniels is contingent upon Daniels' biography: a highly-decorated war veteran but still a kid; a once-raging alcoholic with violent tendencies; a German speaker who mistrustfully addresses the sinister Jeremiah Naehring (Max von Sydow), one of Cawley's colleagues, in that language; and a young man full of love and despair.  DiCaprio looks and plays the part so smoothly – his German heritage and good accent making him all the more convincing in his GI role – that we are loath to disparage him for some of his frankly unsubstantiated accusations.  So when he jabs at Cawley with the scornful "you act like insanity is catching," he may not be terribly far from the truth.  Too bad the truth may be light years from him.