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?

Martin Scorsese. Click image to expand.
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.

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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.

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.

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.