Shutter Island is silly and impersonal. Has the fight gone out of Martin Scorsese?

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Feb. 18 2010 11:52 AM

Aging Bull

Has the fight gone out of Martin Scorsese?

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For all the mainstream unfriendliness of many of his works, Scorsese is a true believer in the idea of movies as a popular art. It's a faith that might explain his trajectory. He may have cribbed his moves from the European New Wave—Fellini, Godard, and Bertolucci were the gods of his film school days—but it's the old studio veterans—filmmakers like Anthony Mann, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh—whose careers he wanted to emulate, directors who could do a professional job on any script and genre they were assigned and even sneak a bit of their personality into mass products. "I think I would have liked to have been one of those directors working at Warner Brothers, as they made the kind of pictures—the gangster films, the musicals, the westerns—that I would have liked to have done," he has said.

Which is why it's fitting that Scorsese finally got the Oscar for 2006's The Departed. It was an unlikely winner, a cop thriller—remade from a Hong Kong flick to boot—that was marketed around its two stars rather than its Oscar-bereft director. (Contrast that with Harvey Weinstein's handling of Gangs of New York and The Aviator, which he dipped in sodden obligation and shoved down the Academy's throat.) Winning for The Departed only seems to have affirmed Scorsese's aspiration to be a studio auteur. Working within the system, he had created a genre film that bore his unmistakable imprint. It was his biggest hit ever and it finally broke his Oscar drought. And true to Academy form, it was hardly his best work. For all its crackle and pop, it was merely very good—peerless technique in the service of a borrowed vision, a movie that stared up at the masterpieces in its maker's canon.

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Perhaps the bar we have set for Scorsese is too high. Surely he has made enough masterpieces to secure his place among the greats even if he never makes another film. And let's not neglect his other contributions to cinema now that he's settled down. No longer struggling to make his movies, Scorsese spends much of his time saving others'. His advocacy for film restoration and preservation has been nothing less than heroic. (It's a role that he has increasingly become identified with: At this year's Golden Globes, he was introduced as "director/producer/preservationist.") He has also been a relentless evangelist for cinephilia, producing documentaries on American, Italian, and, now, British cinema, a film addict trying to hook everyone else on his drug.

But watching the febrile nonsense of Shutter Island, with its hoary tropes and ridiculous twists, one can't help but recall John Cassavetes' exhortation to the young director after he had just finished Boxcar Bertha, a 1972 exploitation flick for Roger Corman. "You just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit. You're better than that stuff; you don't do that again," Scorsese recalls Cassavetes telling him. Scorsese took it to heart and went on to make Mean Streets. One gets the feeling that the same admonition wouldn't work this time around. Playing the professional, he seems to relish the challenge of trying his hand at new genres and imbuing the pedestrian with his style and sensibility (his next project will reportedly be an adaptation of a children's book).

As he indulges his nostalgia for a Hollywood he never lived in, we nurse ours for the rebel we may never get back. What's frustrating is that he clearly still has the chops to make great movies. Think of The Departed's propulsive, fractured montage, the playful use of color in the otherwise leaden The Aviator, or the set-piece pageantry that rivaled Sergio Leone in the flawed, valiant Gangs of New York. I'd take a mediocre Scorsese film any day over Up in the Air or An Education; even at their most impersonal, his movies evince a restless search for new ways of showing. Whether that formal mastery ever aligns with an uncompromised vision again is the twist we all await in his career's closing act. Slate V: The critics on Shutter Island and other new releases

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Elbert Ventura is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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