the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Not Spellbound

Martin Scorsese was 3 years old when Hitchcock released his psychological thriller “Spellbound”; choc-a-bloc with Freudian dreamscapes with Salvador Dali art direction. The same year one of the first Technicolor noir films,“Leave Her to Heaven”, featured Gene Tierney drowning her character’s husband’s paraplegic brother in a lake. Two years later Richard Widmark made his debut in “Kiss of Death” by guffawing while pushing an old wheelchair-bound biddy down a flight of stairs. When Scorsese turned 18 Hitchcock gave birth to Norman and his dear mother. Two years later Robert Mitchum would terrorize the upstanding Gregory Peck and his virtuous family in “Cape Fear”. Scorsese was so moved by the psychotic jailbird that he had Robert DeNiro reprise him in his remake nearly 30 years latter. Scorsese spent his youth devouring these and a slew of other dark movie classics centered on tormented, psychologically damaged, people struggling with the world. His childhood viewing would have an impact in his later work in addition to “Cape Fear”. One senses that the goodfellas in the mean streets would be very much at home being in “Public Enemy”; There is a raging bull in every “Scarface”.

What’s an old director to do? He’s finally got his statue with “The Departed”. There is an irony in being awarded “best director” for one of your lesser works (does this film compare to “Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, “Taxidriver”?) – but after so many years of being snubbed; it’s well deserved. But now that you’re a cultural icon, a popular success, lauded by your peers…. how do you avoid becoming irrelevant? It’s easy for someone born three years after “Gone with the Wind” to feel ill at ease in a world of iPhones; especially when you have made your name being one of the top feature film directors. It would be very dangerous to try and compete with the present. Do what you know: return to the past.: not “The Age of Innocence” but YOUR age of innocence: those Film Noir years when televisions were props in Sci-Fi movies or trinkets in exclusive homes. Bring it back and show everyone that past is prologue. However mesmerizing and dizzying our present world seems – nothing can compete with the timeless verities of well - crafted demons. This old man will scare you just as much anything on Grand Theft Auto or “Avatar”.

The only episode of Saturday Night Live not available for re-broadcast is Milton Berle’s 1979 appearance. This is especially significant since other hosts were banned from re-appearing but their original shows have been grinding through syndication for years. Berle earned the extraordinary banishment for making the hippest show on Television seem “old fashioned”. Mr. Television of the 1950s needed to be excommunicated by the young Turks who’d taken over the medium. We need to underline the fact that this is NOT your father’s Oldsmobile. The cardinal sin in cutting edge entertainment extends beyond merely being bad: it’s being old, stale AND BAD. No doubt Scorsese, a show business vet, knows the horrific scorn of appearing “old news”. “Shutter Island” is a bid to dispel any hints of being long in the tooth. It’s ironic to break out the old, to establish yourself as new – but like his “best director” Oscar shows – the world is filled with irony.

“Shutter Island” doesn’t work. Despite box office success this is a jumbled grandiose mess with enough craftsmanship to make the 2 hours pass moderately quickly. Mr. Scorsese, the master of small thugs in big worlds, tries to master the big world. This film touches on crime, punishment, Freud, the holocaust, justice, eternal love, revenge…. If you thought Scorsese had bitten off too much in “The Last Temptation of Christ” you’re eyes will roll when you see the first flash-back of Dachau. One wonders if Scorsese had seen episodes of the current entertainment industry Island fixation, “Lost”. That show does a marvelous job of keeping everyone in the audience, and on the island, guessing. In Scorsese’s Island the mood is more ponderous. Is not so much “what is going on?” but “what the hell is this?”. A serious parody/tribute? A stylized commentary? A meditation on old time movies? The justice system? Contemporary America’s anger towards the mentally ill? Maybe all. Maybe none. But the overarching question becomes: who cares? Not me. I’m glad he’s doing well financially. I’m happy he’s able to attract top rate talent but, judging by this work, his time has past.

Unfortunately one might think that “I didn’t get it”. Well let’s just say that I felt that I could have rented myself out to many groups of perplexed audience members as a guide to the action. I have no special talent – I’d say, judging by the mystified chatter, that 1 out of 6 people could actually follow the plot – not that this ability is the “end all” in movie appreciation. I still don’t know what happens in the last 1/5 of “2001” – but like the film. No, this is a more basic failure. “Shutter Island” is all dressed up – with absolutely nowhere to go. The endless music swells, superb acting, wonderful set design fail to mask that this pudding “lacks a theme”; or maybe it’s the potpourri of themes: The parallels between the protagonist’s crime and the perceived wrongdoing of others; the links between the Nazis in his mind and the actions of 1950s psychiatry; the line between cop and criminal – yep… check, check, check…. Ahhhhh what a bore it all is – I’m actually looking forward to one of Scoresese’ contemporaries newest production. Yeah I know he’s a rapist – but as someone who actually experienced the holocaust he’s smart enough not to drag it into a B movie. It used to be that when Scorsese asked the question “You talkin’ to me?”. It produced a shutter – now it’s just polite nod. Yep.

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