Great American Directors – Martin Scorsese

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Every now and then I check in on Quentin Tarantino’s career.  He is, after all, a man who likes to talk about his career (in highly self-aware terms) as much as he likes to make movies.  Every month or so, an article appears on some inane movie website where Tarantino has once again claimed that he is only going to make ten films (he uses a tricksy piece of maths where the Kill Bill films – which I definitely paid to see twice – counts as one film.)  His rationale is that directors do not make good films when they are old.  Broadly speaking, there’s an element of truth to it, but specifically (and by specifically I mean look at the late period careers of Bresson, Malick, Kurosawa et. al. who were all producing some of the most interesting work as they got older) it’s a limited argument.  And no place is it more limited than in the career of the director who Tarantino owes the most to (violent, masculine, camera movement, populist auteur)… Martin Scorsese.

With The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016), Scorsese has produced some highly compelling films in a career that had been largely treading water since Casino (1995).  They are works of a reasoned, mature artist, that quite extraordinarily for 2016, treat their audience’s intelligence with a dignity and respect.  The Wolf of Wall Street had an energy and vitality that would be alien to most people producing films in their seventies.  It was however, somewhat tone deaf in its approach, with scenes that were frightfully sexist (more on which later) and used some anti-disabled language for comic effect.  If Scorsese was satirising these elements of society, the audience I was with did not realise this and laughed a little too hard, and perved a little too much for my liking.  Old men are old men…

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Silence (2016 – Martin Scorsese)

Silence is something wonderful, and achieved a level of transcendence that most films reach for.  Going to the cinema is the closest thing we have to church in a secular society.  It’s a shared, collective experience that seeks to move you.  It is the story, both personally and nationally, of how Christianity refused to take root in Japan.  The priests contend to their flimsy notion of ‘truth’, failing absolutely to reflect on why they value it so highly.  Stories don’t have to be true to have value.  The Japan depicted in the movie battles against the foreign invaders who seek to claim the land for their god, and it’s easy to view their actions with distaste (especially for the irreligious) but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that this idea of imperialism and nationhood is a flimsy as religion.  It is both important and irrelevant.  People have been living within empires for the past 2,500 years – it has proven to be a remarkably stable form of government, certainly no more violent or repressive than the leadership it has replaced.  Is Egypt safer as a ‘free’ democracy or under a Mubarak dictatorship?  One of the great strengths of the film is its pluralism, how it presents the deficiencies of both Christianity and Buddhism – how they are both mere ideologies as real and as manufactured as other values that we perceive to exist outside the self, such as communism, liberal humanism and progress.  Convincingly, the film shows that imperialism, and in its own part religion, have allowed for vastly disparate nations to communicate with each other, to the extent where in 2016, nations are really ceasing to exist, so much that they have been absorbed by global conglomerates (who lest we forget, have traditionally funded imperial activities.)

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A Christlike Andrew Garfield in Silence (2016)

Andrew Garfield roots the film with a subtle shift in character.  He begins dedicated and honest, but the moment he sees his work (who he measly attributes to his god) take effect, his vanity starts to take over.  By the crux of the film he is megalomaniacal in his devotion, to his and others chagrin.  It is an astonishing performance (and one where he convincingly begins to physically resemble traditional depictions of Christ) from an actor who has often been distractingly earnest in whatever roles he has played.  By moving towards a Christlike allegory (a not uncommon icon used in cinema – see the portrayals of John Connor, Superman, Ripley) we are able to see the hollowness of Christ’s actions.  So often we talk about (or are talked to about) the sacrifice that he made.  But ultimately he only had to give up his own life.  Had Christ ever been confronted with the choices made within the movies, how would he have behaved?  If some unruly centurion had threatened to murder his disciples unless Christ renounced his teachings and declared himself a false prophet, what would he have done?  Would we speak of him as a sacrificial lamb?  Would we call him a coward?  A liar?

It’s telling that when we hear the voice of god in the film, it sounds remarkably similar to Ciaran Hinds, who earlier appeared as a superior priest.  An implication that he is a delusion?  Or that he is an invention designed to self-justify actions?  There are no miracles in this film.

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Christ (Willem Dafoe) tempted in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988 – Martin Scorsese)

At times the movie plays like an extended version of the desert temptation scene from The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  In what is by far the most effective moment in that respective film, Christ (Willem Dafoe) sees visions of what his power could bring.  Tense and genuinely unnerving, these scenes are reflected in the runtime of Silence.  Priests are individuals given great power (blessed with supernatural abilities if we believe the consubstantiation and absolution doctrines of the Catholic church), and this power can exert great influence over their followers.  They are everyday actors, playing parts, being local celebrities, intruding in lives within the communities that they work in.  Silence effectively communicates the great temptation that comes with playing this part brings.

Frustratingly, the film breaks my Scorsese rule-of-thumb.  Historically, some of his least satisfying films have been those ones that he has built up in his mind and planned for years.  The aforementioned The Last Temptation of Christ, New York, New York (1977) and Gangs of New York (2002) were all long-gestating projects that once they reached the screen had a queer mix of being bloated in running time and deflated in content.  Alternatively, some of the films that he rushed to make, or were brought to him by others (I’m thinking particularly of After Hours (1985) and Raging Bull (1980)) have been the most exhilarating, surprising movies in filmography.  Perhaps with age he has finally mastered that essential mix of personal expression and popular interest that is so necessary in mainstream cinema.   

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Scorsese with Robert De Niro filming Raging Bull (1980 – Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese has consistently explored the nature of masculinity within his movies.  A not under-represented theme, he has chosen to focus on the relentless violence that pursues men throughout their lives.  How the wrong look can lead to a thrown punch.  One can easily imagine the frail asthmatic learning to keep his head down in order to survive.  His films fracture with violence, in both the explicit actions shown on screen, and the very disruption of the frame itself.  Cinema is a real, tangible force to Scorsese.  Every cut slices, as he presents extended shots of a hovering camera disrupted with quick cuts of brutality.  When he represents violence it’s as if he is presenting an extended dissertation on the shower scene in Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock).  One of the most startling moments in Silence comes when a painting of Christ flashes briefly on screen as a priest denounces his faith.  It’s an act of intrusion; it startles and unsettles a viewer far more that any enacted beating.  He intimately understands the true power of cinema to move an audience.

With his exploration of masculinity comes an unfortunate presentation of women, that at its least is sexist, and at its worst is misogynistic.  Scorsese has never really been called on his presentation of women, especially not in comparison to the drubbing his contemporary Brian De Palma received throughout his career.  Perhaps the veneer of respectability has inured an audience to his offensiveness.  But from his own cameo in Taxi Driver (1976) where he graphically describes indecently assaulting a woman, all the way to his consistently gratuitous representation of Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street, women are objects, and often the object of violence.  Excluded from the main narrative, and often represented as nagging distractions to our men, they are consistently met with brutal beatings (Ragin Bull is a tough watch.)  Scorsese’s men are allowed to be flawed – they may be psychotic, addicted murderers, but we are taught to sympathise with them.  None of his women are afforded the same luxury.

But perhaps we expect too much from our elderly.  As much as making a devotional film about the consequences of apostasy seems outlandish in 2016, maybe a progressive film from a man in his seventies is too much to ask.  We expect everything, and when our artists don’t reach our exacting standards, we are quick to denounce them absolutely.  But one thing that Scorsese has taught us, is that if we follow an artist, and allow them to consistently express themselves, the highs will be extraordinary and the journey will be a delight.  Scorsese leaves us, our last true mainstream cinematic auteur.

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