Répliques : Scorsese, A New Overview
by François Bégaudeau
Translated by Sally Shafto
Cahiers du Cinema
Scorsese’s cinema in the last ten years? A costume-drama based on a long novel (The Age of Innocence), a vast summary of the mafia film (Casino), two biopics including the semi-legendary (Kundun) and a historical fresco (Gangs of New York). Only in large format. For that, there are two possible, non-exclusive, reasons. First, delusions of grandeur. To which all filmmakers used to high praise are susceptible. Under pressure to always do better-whence the bigger than life subject matter which guarantees, if not a masterpiece, the minimum volume which is in keeping with the stature of a great filmmaker. Second, strategy of avoidance. The films just cited are heavy with narrative responsibilities, which necessitates moving ahead rapidly and also authorizes one to skim over the subject, surveying it from an aerial perspective. Precisely, flight is perhaps a key to Scorsese. Coupled with the moral weightlessness of the Mafioso, he has produced with Goodfellas one of the really great aerial films of the last thirty years. Thanks to Howard Hughes’s airplanes in Aviator, the filmmaker’s only vocation now seems to be keeping the ground at bay. A speed either giddily intoxicated with its own velocity or a speed associated with flight, here are perhaps the two poles between which circulate, ambiguously, our relation to Scorsese, a mentor so evident of a generation of spectators, of critics, of filmmakers, that it is no longer a priority to evaluate him.
Might as well say straightaway that Scorsese didn’t always have his foot on the gas pedal. The films that shaped his legend are moreover rather static-the great slowness of Taxi Driver, of Raging Bull, of The King of Comedy. But we are speaking of a time that today’s twenty year old cinephiles can barely know, and when Scorsese rediscovers the contemporary everyday nature of an ordinary citizen in Bringing Out the Dead-the only recent film of this type, hence its absence from the foregoing list-the rhythm of cruising speed in the ambulance driven by Nicolas Cage no longer fits him. He needs to speed it up, hence those drole stroboscopic spins in the streets of New York, formerly surveyed in slow motion by the cult taxi. Why then this progressive acceleration? Why does Scorsese now fear slowing down like the plague?
At the end of Goodfellas, Ray Liotta caught by the FBI is assigned a residence in an nondescript housing unit. Immediate translation on the voiceover: I became a hick. You are arrested = you are mediocre: the equation is clear. Your frenetic feet that the mud doesn’t touch, become stuck to the earth, propelled outside of the mafia cocoon into real life. Left to its own slow tempo, life is unbearable. If Scorsese goes fast, it’s because he’s fleeing on the run. Just watch the way he speaks in an interview-or watch de Niro imitate him-, well, he films and edits just like that. As one word follows another, each shot seems to desire to be the next. Howard Hughes is not an ambitious man, in fact his only goal is to have one, to justify going ahead. No precise objective, just pretexts for revving up the motors, and going higher. The advantage of following the trail of an aviator rather than of a boxer or of small time hoodlum in Little Italy: at the end of the road, there’s a take-off.
Until then, since one must remain on the ground, it will be with “tennis shoes,” shock absorbers among many others which, reinforced by the digital patina, keeps Aviator in a permanent cocoon: padded walls, wall-to-wall carpeting, and muffled sounds, echoing the humming of the planes, as well as of the partial deafness of H.H., both feigned and real, real by force of not wanting to hear.
Scorsese runs because he doesn’t want to see. What doesn’t he want to see? The world, that is to say the current era. Since it’s understood that the planet is headed non-stop towards the worst, his revulsion can only increase. Whence his affective staggering of the decades. The 1950s: euphoria, classical bath, a fullness of surface. The 1990s: the final nothing, neither beautiful nor ugly-the sinister grisaille of the shot where at the end of Casino the new customers move forward. Nothing to shoot. Between the two, the 1970s, one foot in, the other foot outside, great tension, the best decade. The American society descends into vice. Beauty retires, but it is possible to film this very retreat, possible to look the serpent in the eyes. It’s the period of the anxious or disgusted fascination, Charlie’s eyes in Mean Streets, when his cross Johnny Boy, enters the bar (“Thanks a lot Lord for opening my eyes. You talk about penance and you send this through the door.”). Travis Bickle’s eyes in the rearview mirror, observing his decadent customers or the soiled city. With detestation. Already on the road of no return. If he still has the ambition to act in the world, to clean up this cesspit, Bickle imagines it only with a desperate gesture, precipitating the disaster rather than offering a respite to his brethren. All that rests is a grand gesture fashioned for him alone; this is terrorism for internal use, heroism as a form of releasing tension.
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