DEPARTING FROM THE DEPARTED
by Roger L. Simon
Who could deny Martin Scorsese is a great filmmaker? His camera work and staging is nonpareil, his work with actors flawless. He’s already an American Master.
So why don’t I love his movies? (Yes, I like them, but I don’t love them the way others do.) I think it’s because – in recent years at least – they don’t have all that much to say and, for that reason, their entertainment value diminishes as the movies progress.
A case in point is the much-vaunted The Departed, which has been ballyhooed as a return or homage to the gangster classics of the 40s and 50s. At first I was enjoying it on those terms, watching Matt Damon, Mark Walhberg, Leonardo DiCaprio (who gets better and better) and Jack Nicholson (who was always better and better) act up the proverbial storm with William Monahan’s neo-Mametian dialogue (But do cops always talk that dirty? I’m not so sure.), not to mention luxuriating in Marty’s, as always, dazzling camera moves, so elegant for their seeming lack of intrusiveness.
But after awhile, I started to get that itchy feeling. I was watching by myself on a 42-inch plasma screen with good sound, but I still thought about my remote.
“How are the Lakers doing? Why don’t I care very much about these characters? Why is my mind wandering?”
Despite the accuracy of the Boston accents of various classes and the authenticity of the locales, something was beginning to feel fake about the entire Departed enterprise. I was off down memory lane, thinking of the gangster flicks I loved – White Heat and High Sierra, both directed by Raoul Walsh – musing how distant their romanticism seemed from our times. It was a strain to reproduce that style, as the The Departed did, in a world of forensic shrinks and political correctness even if those aspects of modernity were being criticized or questioned implicitly in the film. The movie seemed to want to have its cake and eat it too – being taken seriously as reality and homage at the same time. The plot became hard to follow or reliant on transparent tricks. I found myself not caring about what happened, so by the time of the final shoot out, everything appeared anti-climactic. It just went on and on to make sure everyone, good or bad, got blasted in the head or somewhere. At the end, logic went out the window in an orgy of inconsequential bloodletting.
I do love some Marty Scorsese movies – Mean Streets and to a lesser extent Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But those were a long time ago. Raging Bull, the last of the three, was 1980. But I don’t blame Scorsese in the slightest for this decline. It’s often true of artists that they do their best work early.
This is particularly common in film where, once you have obtained a measure of success, you dissolve into the movie industry itself. You become a creature of it and it consumes your daily life. After a while, you become increasingly distant from the subject matter that made you want to create in the first place. You are “taking meetings” when you should be engaging with the world at large. In the world of films, in that environment, every day life is something far off in the distance, something that takes place elsewhere. It’s no accident some of Hollywood’s best films (Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain, even The Player) are then about Hollywood. It’s also no accident that some of Scorsese’s most realized scenes in recent years are the Howard Hughes/movie business scenes in The Aviator.
But to ask Marty Scorsese to live another life so he could make more interesting films is absurd. It wouldn’t be possible. We should be happy with what we’ve got.
So I guess you have surmised I won’t be voting for The Departed for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. (My ballot just arrived – deadline February 20.) Nor will I will be voting for Marty Scorsese for Best Director, although I think, now that the DGA has anointed him with their award, he is a lock in the category. It will be an early lifetime achievement award and a deserved one. For the record, I will be voting for The Queen in those categories, although I doubt it will win either of them. I will reveal my votes in other categories – and what I think the Academy will vote for – at a date closer to the awards. But I will say this – In the interest of levity I’m sure to pull the lever or check the box for Borat Cultural Leanings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan for Best Adapted Screenplay. Maybe that way Sacha Baron Cohen will be the awards host next year. Now that would be interesting.
Roger L. Simon was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of Isaac Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story.