Friday, April 9, 2010

Misunderstood Marty

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

Among my multitude of favorite moments in Martin Scorsese’s 1972 American masterpiece Mean Streets, is when one of the character says, out of nowhere: “D.D. Disappointed Dunsky.” Well the word on the less-than-mean streets of pop culture city is that my main man Marty has lost it, that the last couple of Scorsese’s specials have been pandering and bloated Hollywood production line figurines, and that the continual Scorsese-Leo DiCaprio partnership isn’t half as innovative, explosive, or enthralling as the venerated run of Scorsese and his prior acting totem, Robert DeNiro. Meanwhile, Scorsese cultists (like myself), have been reduced to half-wacky, half-flagellant worshippers who resemble Michael Imperoli’s infamous Soprano’s character, Christopher, who once ran into Scorsese and sputtered “Marty! Kundum. I liked it.” For us, it’s quite simply: “M.M. Misunderstood Marty.”

Scorsese’s latest, Shutter Island, while doing strong box office, has received a wide array of critical reception, ranging from baa-baa-bad to flawed to “best director of the present” B-plus. Adapted from a Dennis (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) Lehane potboiler, set on a craggy, phosphorous island outside Boston harbor that houses only a state run insane asylum in 1954, the ideal setting for Professor Scorsese to delve into the arena of Alfred Hitchcock while setiing the appropriate framework for a psychological creep show.

At the same time, for the naysayers and those who’ve long vamoosed off the director’s bandwagon, the movie is yet another ideal cog in the Scorsese-DiCaprio decline and fall--- another chic and mannered populist sell out, at one with the recent likes of 2002’s The Gangs of New York, 2004’s The Aviator, and 2006’s The Departed, for which the fillmmaker won the Best Director Oscar. Conventional film maven wisdom follows along these lines: Scorsese is still more than capable of rendering virtuoso cinematic moments, whether they be set pieces or daring images, but he’s long been enmeshed in the Hollywood mainstream (which has muted his edginess), and DiCaprio simply never carries the weight his director entrusts to him, inexplicably remaining an unconvincing figure as a full borne adult. (What, has Johnny Depp somehow morphed into Jason Robards or William Holden?) Finally, there is this: Aging, 68-year-old Scorsese is beyond mustering up to the energy and originality of the unimpeachable DeNiro collaborations like 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1980’s Raging Bull, 1990’s Goodfellas or 1995’s Casino.

Shutter Island offers up a shimmering, tightly woven and even disturbing psychological thriller for a solid four-fifths of its way, before becoming boggled down with its overwrought denouement. DiCaprio plays a combustible Boston detective poking into the asylum’s shadowy goings on accompanied by his weirdly passive sidekick (an adept Mark Ruffalo), haunted by his dead wife (Michelle Williams), and turned round and round by docs, coppers and patients (finely done up by Ben Kingsley, Max Van Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, John Carroll Lynch, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Levine.) The movie is ripe with Scorsese’s usual fusion of genre pastiche, filmic quotations, cliché-rattling and commanding visual verve, all in all a technically masterful and deft excursion, only marred by a few small miscues. Production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Robert Richardson, music supervisor Robbie Robertson (aided by John Cage, John Adams, Nam June Paik, and Gyorgy Ligeti), are first class contributors, and, as always, editor Thelma Schoonmaker defines the boundaries of a cutting edge classicist.

Wrongly being bandied about as a slip-slide into more Scorsese-DiCaprio populist mediocrity, Shutter Island is by and large another big budget mediation on the particular wonders of genre cinema, speckled with vivid flourishes and consistently foreboding, while simultaneously another Scorsese portrait of a man gone dissolute. It may not be overflowing with eccentricities and jagged energies, but it’s delivered with propulsive relish, and overflowing with B movie spectacle rendered pointedly. On top of it, DiCaprio delivers---compact and sturdy, continually simmering just under a boil, moral compass unfettered despite the heavy weight of guilt, he’s as drop down earthy and subtly neurotic as John Garfield or early Jack Nicholson---unquestionably earning the baton pressed upon him by the director.

While no Scorsese-styled masterpiece, Shutter Island easily ranks up their with the aforementioned fictional Christopher’s Kundum (‘97), and with other such just-this-side-of paradise Scorsese entrees: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (‘74), New York, New York (‘’77), After Hours (‘78),The King of Comedy (‘82), The Color of Money (’86), The Last Temptation of Christ (‘88), Cape Fear (‘ 91), The Age of Innocence (‘93), or Bring out the Dead (‘99) . In the long and short of it is that Misunderstood Marty remains a uniquely visceral and masterfully evocative filmmaker with razor-sharp skills, despite his abandonment by cinema hipsters and a portion of the critical set. I’m more than certain that’s still a long way to go before we close the red velvet curtain on his storied career, until he contributes another shooting star to his master auteurist firmament.


skylolo99 said...

I'll take a failed experiment by Marty over any successful attempt by just about anyone else,(not that I think of this movie as a failed experiment). I think it's a joy to watch and Scott - you hit the nail on the head with the John Garfield comparison. I really enjoyed Shutter Island, I didn't try to guess the ending, I just enjoyed the ride.

mdoggie said...

Scott, I have not seen Shutter Island yet. My comment is simply to acknowledge a very fine, and perspicacious piece of writing.

(Okay, I used a thesaurus)

Scotty D said...

From Jim Celenza, aka Dr. Hackenbush, on Facebook:

Without Mr Schrader (or the equivalent) Mr Scorsese seems always to be at loose end: stunning imagery like raisons on a cake but the whole somewhat bland, like soda bread.
I think of Mr Scorsese & Mr Hitchcock as kin: both with unassailable and total command of the language; but both in dire need of someone to spin an interesting tale that makes it come to life.