In the past few decades, the premier American New Wave survivor Martin Scorsese has made a career of nostalgia. Not that his films are nostalgic, mind you; if anything, his deeply ragged works of human frailty tear and fray nostalgia with rusty teeth. They do not play, within themselves, with nostalgia, but they exist, as objects, as nostalgia. Specifically, they exist as nostalgia for Scorsese’s other, earlier films, playing on his anti-nostalgic style for increasingly middlebrow audiences with the heyday of “back when they made real films”. Continue reading
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
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.
Update fall 2018: Been a few years since I last saw this before the current viewing, but After Hours remains truly unstable, and clearly too brutally crazed to be labeled a psychoanalytic “portrait” of Scorsese, with all the easily-contained clarity and visibility the notion of a portrait implies. After Hours is much more of a working-through than it is a legible work of art; it’s the rattled consciousness of a director obviously exposing himself to nervous tendons in search of transcending them, and it’s gloriously untamed.
Like his previous film King of Comedy, 1985’s After Hours is something of an unheralded masterpiece from director Martin Scorsese. It’s certainly non-traditional, being rather aimless and lacking a conventional narrative or even character development. But it’s also obsessive, dangerous, playful, worrisome, and energetic in a way that veers close to satanic. It’s the kind of open-ended film that people often struggle to understand, and others say is only for the enlightened. My opinion – forget about understanding and just let it wash over you and take you along for the ride. I’m not sure even Scorsese really understands what happens to his main character here, but it undeniably meant something to him, and it undeniably affects us. This is not a film to intellectualize – intellectualizing is what the human mind tells us to do to make sense of event in narrative format, and After Hours is intentionally anti-narrative. While we may want to look at the film in terms of cause and effect, it has other things in mind. It captures like few films the pure chaotic senselessness of human life, how little control we have over our fates, and how narrative cohesiveness is a violent lie we force upon sensory experience so that we can find sense in things which were never meant to be sensical.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s 2013 quasi-biopic of American greed and self-destruction in the ’90s has a number of very notable factors acting in its favor. Primarily, it has Martin Scorsese really just tearing up the cinematic joint. Here, he’s a cavalier madman again, a persona he hasn’t adopted in a long while. The Wolf of Wall Street is less interested in telling a narrative than in expounding upon destructive impulses and raw propulsion, and the fact that the film adopts the disorderly persona of its main characters is almost categorically a civic good.
Secondly, Leonardo DiCaprio throws himself into the role of Jordan Belfort, the early ’90s capitalist fat-cat du jour, like a deranged madman – as a performance the closet thing it approximates is loose-limbed, improvisational jazz, and it’s a stunning display of pure physicality and cognitively-dissonant charisma. This too is of no small import, as he’s the center of the film. The Wolf of Wall Street is touted by many as a “film about us”, and that’s true in the sense of its emphasis on American debauchery and inequality more prevalent today than in the ’90s the film depicts. But it is also a film uniquely about Jordan Belfort, a singular man who could convince just about anyone to follow him, and who is depicted less as a villain or a conflicted person than a living “performance” of a human being, having no inside core other than to perform his wealth. The film’s attitude toward him is mocking, yes, but it also undeniably sees his charisma for the undeniable appeal it breeds. Continue reading