Running on empty | Bleader

Friday, March 2, 2007

Running on empty

Posted By on 03.02.07 at 07:13 PM

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Thoughts on The Departed in the aftermath of Oscar ... though considering all the red-meat exchanges on this already (see comments to Jonathan Rosenbaum's post of February 27), I'm not sure what more I can add here ...

In any case, what's got me going is Andrew Tracy's take-no-prisoners assault (in the winter issue of Cinema Scope magazine) on what he calls "the mostly uncritical canonization of The Departed" and, more important, of its fulsomely lionized director. "Do we really need Martin Scorsese?" is Tracy's first shot across the bow: "Good filmmakers naturally inspire proprietary feelings, but Scorsese has become less a going concern than a public trust. ... Hyperbolic overpraise can be a valuable weapon, but ... the possessive discourse swirling about Scorsese is little more than a many-throated monologue, and one from which the filmmaker himself has been largely excluded." Still it's "no more than poetic justice, for with [The Departed] Scorsese has absented his voice altogether. Whatever their individual virtues, flaws, or outright failings, the majority of Scorsese’s films have been about something, even if sometimes no more than their director’s ambition. The crucial defect of The Departed is that it is about nothing ... "

Actually, Tracy is almost too kind, since with the exception of what he refers to as "the Mean Streets-GoodFellas-Casino axis," plus a couple other candidates he can't quite fit in--The King of Comedy, New York, New York (to which I'd add Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and--in its own anachronistic, San Gennaro-ish way--The Last Temptation of Christ ... not to mention Gangs of New York, which Tracy doesn't so I won't either), each displaying the same kind of punk-smart, tales-from-the-naked-city street vibe--the "voice" he alludes to (or theme, or point of view, whatever the unifying rubric might be) has never really been there at all. Because what we've gotten mostly is helter-skelter scramble just to stay ahead of the pack: what's my motivation this time, and how to one-up the competition without losing your classical auteur's cred? Hard to hold that place in the pantheon when the ground's shifting under your feet, and for Scorsese there's always that threat of imminent collapse. Which is what makes every new film of his an adventure--eternal masterpiece or fall-on-your-face failure, and how does he keep all those balls in the air at once?--success always hanging by the slenderest of threads. But the odds keep getting worse and worse, and it's always a question of where do we go from here? So much easier if you're Tony Scott or Michael Mann, whose aesthetic commitments--to formal disintegration on the one hand, enervated tropicalia on the other--get them through the shoals, the pointillist/entropic brushwork applying equally to car chases, exploding haystacks, portraits of the lost and deranged ... But Scorsese's the everlasting chameleon, and for him it doesn't work that way.

Has there ever been an exit from this dilemma, that our scrambling hero might not have to reinvent--or, even worse, remotivate--himself with every new project taken? Arguably yes, and I'm thinking that The Age of Innocence--albeit  least characteristic of Scorsese's major films--holds the key. Consider its effortlessly gliding camera, tracking across lavish expanses of fabric, opulent parties, elegant banquet spreads, registering every fugitive incident--cigars being lit and intimacies exchanged, etc--but only glancingly, never holding dear to any one thing. An exercise in Zen, more or less--let's call it the bodhi option--which is also more or less transferable to every imaginable theme, like the breakup and entropy of Scott and Mann. Unfortunately, a couple years later came Kundun--though if ever a film cried out for bodhi, you'd swear this was the one. Not nearly the case: only wistful longings for vanished mountainscapes and mandalas, for abandoned destinies across the border, just the opposite of nonattachment, all literal and lachrymose and very much anti-Zen. Which implies, for me anyway, that it's all just grist for the maestro: not vision but opportunity, just one dispensable damn thing after another.

Back to where we started: so here you are now, The Departed under your belt and Oscar freshly on the mantel, all sleek and shiny in its reflected glory ... which, come to think of it, is a lot like most of your recent films, or at least the "better" selection of same, the "Casino to Aviator axis." Well, thank God that's over with, so what's left on the table?

Just fill the tank, Marty, you've been running on empty too long ...

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