the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Age of Innocence (1993)

The Age of Slumber

     The paradigm Martin Scorsese fiction film is a beautifully stylized work which features violent, street-wise New York life. (e.g. Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas). He has strayed from this motif with varied results. Certainly Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was artistically successful. After Hours, The Color of Money and Cape Fear were plagued with problems. New York, New York, The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ were problems. Mr. Scorsese has, once again, trained his eye on New York. This time it is the genteel upper class world of the 19th century. Choosing to adapt Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence is his most radical thematic departure since he told the story of Christ. One could argue this is even more bold because of the lack of violence.

    Edith Wharton writes about the duplicity of polite society. The central protagonist in her novel is a young lawyer who knows the rules. His professional insights are not as significant as his social prowess. He knows how to play the game outside of the office. He lives in a world of men to whom work is merely a sport. They are beyond caring about money. The huddled masses are light years away. In this framework his social skills are survival tools which he has mastered. No gesture goes unregistered. No slight unnoticed. This young man falls victim to the velvet glove brutality he is expert at overcoming. Mr. Scorsese movie is about props (i.e. white gloves, waistcoats, earrings, ball gowns, cigar cutters, oil paintings and food and food and food…) and customs (i.e.greetings, bows, table arrangements, dances, music, expressions…). Mr. Scorsese deserves credit for the research. The homework must have been exhausting. He realistically re-created the ethos of 19th century New York. The task at hand, however, was to translate Ms. Wharton's words to the screen. Mr. Scorsese forgot the assignment and he became a filmic Liberace: everything was showy but nothing was in context. The scenery cannibalized the scene. The performers and the thrust of Ms. Wharton's novel lingered in the background. Appearances are everything in fashion but fiction features require more than a facade.

    It is hard to imagine that the same director who devised the brilliant narration of Goodfellas could allow the intrusive voice over which permeates The Age of Innocence. Mr. Scorsese was meant to bring life to Ms. Wharton's words. Instead he chose to have them read by Joanne Woodward. Ms. Woodward can read. Ms. Wharton can write. Mr. Scorsese should have directed. The narration indicates countless emotions which needed to be enacted. A small example is a moment when the Countess crosses the room to talk to the protagonist. As she walks towards him the narration dutifully indicates she is committing a social faux-pas. This might seem trivial but it underscores the central flaw in the film. It would be difficult to discern that any grievance had occurred by simply watching the action. Mr. Scorsese seems to believe that since these people were discreet and subtle there is no way to convey the sense of the scene without Ms. Woodward's play-by-play. Since the crux of the novel hinges on the delicate balance between societal perceptions of events vs. the actual reality of what is occurring, this choice is fatal. It leads to Ms. Woodward's intrusive explanations of what all the protagonists are feeling in the course of the climatic final dinner party. It begs the question: if Ms. Woodward reading of the words is such an integral part of understanding the film why not simply read Ms. Wharton's book?

    Other movies have demonstrated that it is possible to portray the sub-text of a scene without resorting to the vulgar use of voice-over. John Huston's The Dead, based on the James Joyce's short story, is a case in point. This film also contains a dinner party in which people are interacting on a myriad of levels. The scene shows the party and yet it told many other stories. It lacked narration. Including it would have been a needless intrusion. The director worked with the performers and created an ensemble piece which clearly delineated the sub-text. This dinner party enacted the reality of Mr. Joyce's words. Mr. Scorsese chose to indicate what was occurring in Ms. Wharton's book. Adding insult to injury was the choice of Ms. Woodward as narrator. She is a talented reader but the story is told from a man's point of view. It is true that Ms. Wharton was a woman but the sex of the author is irrelevant when compared to the gender of the central protagonist. The all-knowing female voice was a peculiar distraction in interpreting the thoughts of the young man. It became yet another reason to disregard first hand perceptions of events presented and focus on what the omnipresent narrator was instructing the audience to feel.

    The central performers added to the need to seek outside opinions in determining the nature of the film. All three leading players were flawed. Michelle Pfeiffer is an American born European Countess who feels alienated upon returning home after many years. Unfortunately those many years in Europe failed to leave any residue. Ms. Pfeiffer seemed more American than Daniel Day Lewis, the supposedly All-American exemplar of old world New York. Mirages of modern day California appeared whenever she uttered a word. The combination of the two was awkward and unconvincing from the moment they met at the theater during opening sequence. She boldly holds out her hand for him to kiss and he merely shakes it. Is he trying to instruct her on American etiquette? Is he re-kindling a past romance?  Is he suddenly struck by cupid's arrow? It is difficult to know. This confusion only increased as the film progressed. Was he dutifully supporting his wife or was he willfully a part of the world which conspired against his true love? In the end is he a pathetic weakling who was duped into remaining married or a man upholding tradition as a religion? Mr. Lewis's sphinxlike performance leaves no clues. He and Ms. Pfeiffer are talented performers who exhibit many skillfully executed moments of passion/hate/warmth/love. Neither, however, could convince an audience that they were together in spirit. These were two mis-cast virtuosos not a desperate love-struck couple. The third part was the most challenging. It required a ingenious blending of callow innocence and ruthless cunning. Winona Ryder was not up to the task. She wallowed in the basics. She never reached beyond mastering the manner of the age. In a sense she embodied Scorsese whole approach to the novel. A true rendering of Ms. Wharton's complex antagonist required more than speaking without contractions and handling the props properly. An audience must know that this smiling waif has the will and cunning to massacre the innocents. Ms. Ryder only proved that she could recite her lines with a minimum degree of unpleasantness. 

    Mr. Scorsese had the same ill-luck with the implementation of special effects. Raging Bull and Goodfellas take full advantage of the film medium. The fades, freeze frames, tints, colors, shading, dissolves, textures, framing, sound… all worked beautifully in rendering the stories. The special effects in The Age of Innocence were self-conscious distractions. A notable example would be Daniel Day Lewis's entrance into the ballroom. The camera was placed on a steady-cam and swirled hysterically over all the lavishness as Mr. Lewis mingled with the guests and Mrs. Woodward's droned on explaining the action. It was as if Mr. Scorsese felt the endless photographic roamings over all the extravagance would shed light on Mr. Lewis's disposition. Compare this to Ray Liota's arrival at the Coppa Cabana in Goodfellas. Here is essentially the same scene, the initial moments of an important social function rendered with the use of a steady-cam.  Mr. Loita's entrance, however, told the audience his relationship to that world: the endless stream of people greeting him and clamoring to shake his hand while knowing his first name… The steady-cam gave the sense of excitement and power to his movement thus re-enforcing the underlying thrust of the scene. Mr. Lewis' arrival, on the other hand, only told the audience that the host for the evenings entertainment had expensive taste in art and a large exquisitely furnished house. Little of Lewis's standing or attitude could be gleaned from the entrance. The same lack of artistry was shown in the vignetting and highlighting of characters in the midst of important discussions. When Mr. Lewis seeks out Ms. Pfeiffer at the opera they are magically highlighted and all the other voices are silenced. By separating them from the rest of the crowd, i.e. the society, Scorsese fights the central focus of the novel which is how society digests their clandestine love. Their struggle would be better served if the couple was placed in the midst of the group where they would be forced to show the nature of the conflict. The ramifications of the consequences of their actions would be better understood. It is not their love which is intriguing but how the society reacts to it. Society must be given equal weight (e.g. Huston's The Dead). Separating and highlighting, by whatever means, should never have been employed in the telling of this story. The other two techniques which were used, fading to primary colors and presenting mini-montages (e.g. when people responded by letter declining the party), seemed contrived. There were a few moments when Mr. Scorsese showed that he possesses a master's control of the medium (e.g. the camera choreography and editing in the opening scene) but these were pearls in a very, very large desert.

    This is a long, long movie by someone who must know better. What is behind this behemoth? There are rumors that Mr. Scorsese has been incensed by his perennial snubbing by the geniuses at the Academy. The success of the Merchant Ivory formula must have hit home. Ironically the thinking is  sound. He might walk away with a best-director trophy for one of his worst films. Elite societies reward those who play by its rules. Certainly Edith Wharton knew that to be true. It would be curious to know if she would applaud or smile wryly if Mr. Scorsese secured the award. Judging by her writing one would have to say the latter.

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