Has the fight gone out of Martin Scorsese?
In the orgy of list-making that commemorated the last decade in film, familiar names (David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, the Coens) mingled with new stars (P.T. and Wes Anderson, Jia Zhangke, the directors of the Romanian New Wave) on surveys of the best movies of the aughts. But one name was conspicuously missing: Martin Scorsese.
For decades, Scorsese has been the face of American cinema—our Greatest Living Director. In the 1970s, Mean Streetsand Taxi Driver were hailed as two of the decade's best. In the 1980s, Raging Bull topped many lists. In the 1990s, it was Goodfellas that captured the imagination of critics and movie buffs. But where is the defining Scorsese film of the 2000s? In Film Comment's poll of top critics, not one Scorsese film came within shouting distance of the consensus elite. The highest Scorsese finisher was The Departed, all the way down at No. 79. On Indiewire's survey, The Departed got all of one mention from more than 100 critics, just as it did on Slate's own survey of the decade's best.
The omission is striking, not least because Scorsese is, by some measures, as successful as he's ever been. The last decade saw him finally bag the Oscar he has long lusted for, and also gave him three of his four biggest-grossing movies ( Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed). And yet it's hard to shake the feeling that Scorsese's best days may be behind him. His first release after winning the Oscar was Shine a Light, a concert film of the Rolling Stones that couldn't even sit on the same shelf as The Last Waltz. It left me cringing: Here they were, Scorsese and the Stones, rebel icons in a previous life, now establishment royalty and loving it. Tomorrow comes Shutter Island, Scorsese's first fiction film since the Oscar, and as unnecessary a movie as he's made. Brooding and baroque, it suggests a fierce intelligence behind the camera and displays a mastery of film vocabulary that can be enthralling. But it's also impersonal, silly, and a waste of time—both his and ours.
Are the days of Scorsese shaking up film culture over? In an interview, Quentin Tarantino intimated as much, calling Scorsese's films "geriatric" and stating, "I really do think directing is a young man's game." David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, sniffed at the "greatest director" designation and hinted at unfulfilled promise: "Scorsese's may be the greatest biography in American film since that of Welles. And the most painful."
Scorsese's greatness has become such an axiom for cinephiles that it's easy to forget that the last time he really galvanized critical and public opinion was 20 years ago with Goodfellas. That triumph marked the end of Scorsese's wilderness years, spent mostly outside studio gates, and the beginning of a rapprochement with Hollywood. Since the 1990s, Scorsese has found a niche for himself in the studio system. He has spoken of operating with a "one for me, one for them" philosophy, alternating between personal projects ( The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York) and studio assignments ( Cape Fear, Casino).
The resulting filmography has its sublime moments, but it's indisputably the more compromised and less essential half of his oeuvre. Some films have their partisans: You'll find critics and fans who see a masterpiece in The Age of Innocence (including yours truly), Casino (the French love it), or Gangs of New York. But it's fair to say that the typical endorsement of a Scorsese movie of late has been qualified rather than rapturous—and that's when it's getting good reviews. Considering how good we know he is, it's a disappointment to have our anticipation rewarded with a Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator, or Shutter Island. And lately, "one for me, one for them" has seemed more like "one for them, one for them." Tarantino and Thomson may have been overly harsh, but their verdicts are indicative of the fraying consensus around—and increasing irrelevance of—a Martin Scorsese picture.
It would be too simplistic to blame the unevenness of Scorsese's recent output on the system. Nor is it necessarily a matter of Scorsese veering from his metier: The Age of Innocence, a most un-Scorsese-like movie on the surface, feels more personal and is vastly superior to the dark, gritty Bringing Out the Dead. But there's no question that the questing intensity of his earlier films has been replaced by a maestro's proficiency. When looking at the movies that we think of as his masterpieces, the technique is there but so is the insistent throb of a sensibility burning to get something out of his system. That sense of struggle has been missing more often than not recently. No longer an outsider, Scorsese now has more freedom than ever to choose projects. And all he really wants, it seems, is to be a venerable studio pro.
Elbert Ventura is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
Photograph of Martin Scorsese by Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images.