Tag Archives: de niro

Twenty Years Hence: Heat

heat-ss3There are precious few directors that know how to wield a single scene quite like Michael Mann. His single greatest moment behind the camera belongs in Heat, a mid-film bank heist that overflows into a stuttery shootout that mashes together the rhythms of an urban jungle, the pageantry of an urban carnival, and a geometric fascination for odd, cutting edits and fascinatingly counter-intuitive visual storytelling. The shootout is one of the most perfect action scenes ever filmed, one of the most perfect scenes of 1990s cinema, and a startling showcase for a director who defines life as a collection of people (usually men) wallowing in their own danger until those men overflow onto each other and bubble till they erupt.
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American New Wave: Raging Bull

Ahh, the biopic. Lionizing and valorizing when you ought to humanize and critique, you are the greatest filmic manifestation of the hyper-individualist tendencies of modern America society which favor a view of the world where-in individuals are its chief agents. You emphasize not the complicated and conflicting causation of change in society, but the “greatness” of certain individuals who can rise above others and lead. As a result, you tend to see something innately compelling about individuals and displace how these individuals developed in the first place, what social factors drove their development. If you are particularly adventurous, you will pay lip service to how complicated and flawed these individuals can be in secret, but nothing more.

You give us a sort of “greatest hits” version of a life, where we see important events we are familiar with and learn how individuals are connected to them, and often influence them. You are a lecture in a film’s clothing, not a living and breathing account of human frailty but a waxworks show for middlebrow suburban types interested in a patina of depth without willing to truly seek it out. You suffocate on your own boredom. You are formally stifling, for you rely on “historical evidence” in lieu of storytelling prowess, banalized content rather than form, and you place all your cards on one “Great Performance”  as a galvanizing center in hopes that he or she will distract from the lack of directing or scripting skill on display around them. Continue reading

American New Wave: Taxi Driver

Edited for Clarity

Taxi Driver seems to take place in New York circa 1976. Perhaps it does, but the New York it essays is a thin façade stretched over a more hellish imagination-scape where the real essence of the city brews to a boil. This is a nightmare version of poverty-stricken urban life that bears a resemblance too close to reality for comfort. It’s an empty, soulless urban jungle. It produces men and women who accept it, who hate it, who love it, who are indifferent toward it, and a few who try to fight it. It produces men like Travis Bickle who is all of these things even when he won’t admit it.
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Film Favorites: The King of Comedy

Update mid-2018: I never fully concur with the writing in these early reviews, but I still agree with my score on this one, perhaps Scorsese’s best – yes, you read that right – and certainly De Niro’s most incisive work, revealing basically everything about a man whose most frightening feature is how simultaneously transparent and opaque he is, how incapable of reflection he is and how this makes him somehow perversely both a blank slate and a black hole. Their gruesomely innocent vision is of a cracked-mirror protagonist, a figure who gives us nothing and everything and who steadfastly refuses to grow precisely because he’s already reached a social apex in his mind. Yes, Raging Bull visualizes masculinity and Americana as unfettered, unmediated attack dogs. But King of Comedy masks its murderous masculinity in the disarmingly gentile visage of male self-victimization, making it a uniquely singular dissection of its moment, our moment, and “nice-guy” masculinity, superficially domesticated but all the more sinister for it, in America. It’s far easier, but no less valid, to decode Travis Bickle’s messianic aspirations as an interrogation of American masculinity in Koch-era New York, but Pupkin is equally deluded, and more presciently frightening for his ostensible innocence.

Original Review:

The King of Comedy is famously Martin Scorsese’s misunderstood picture, the one that had the great misfortune of being a follow-up to a film that did nothing more significant than simply be the best work of the 1980s while capturing like no other film the spirit of the 1970s all in one fell swoop. In other words: a follow-up to Raging Bull. No big deal. And if that wasn’t enough, if for no other reason than to fulfill his masochistic desire to invite negative comparisons to his other films, Scorsese went and made The King of Comedy with that previous genre defining film’s star too. Audiences didn’t take to the film, although it has recently been re-evaluated by critics, if not the movie-going public. Perhaps audiences were right to shun it – it’s creepy, unnerving, and it directly mocks the entire entertainment-audience relationship. In its own way, it’s as nihilist as any film the director ever made. Only, unlike his crime films (although this, truly, is a crime film if ever there was one), The King of Comedy was marketed as, and masquerades as, a loopy, giddy comedy. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable, unfathomable film. At least superficially, it’s perhaps the director’s lightest production (excepting maybe the recent Hugo), the kind we’re supposed to get into and fall in love with for its quirky amusements and revelatory lunacy. Turns out Scorsese had something else in mind. Continue reading