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"Shutter" Up: There’s More To Scorsese Than Gangsters

Not blogged for ages! To ease myself back in, here’s the text of the talk I gave last week about Shutter Island, prior to the screening at Derby QUAD on Tuesday, 6th March:

[For yer actual review-type-thing of the film, head over to Clothes On Film where I’m moonlighting as a guest reviewer!]

Shutter Island is based on a novel by Boston-based crime writer Dennis Lehane, which puts it in good company. Over the past decade, Lehane provided the source material for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, both released to widespread critical acclaim.  Now, the writer has been filmed by Martin Scorsese, widely regarded as America’s greatest living director, which confirms Lehane is now a major, bankable name for studios…

But where does this leave Scorsese?  The director’s choice of Lehane makes this the New York director’s second fictional film on the trot about a Boston cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and this time – unlike The Departed – there aren’t any gangsters.  With the debatable exception of Cape Fear, about a lawyer’s tussle with his convict client, this is the first time Scorsese has made a crime movie solely from the viewpoint of the good guys.

Is this unusual? Well…yes and no.  Scorsese has developed a reputation for being the guy who makes gangster movies…even though, in actual fact, gangs account for only a handful of his movies.  There’s Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York and, of course, The Departed, the film that finally bagged him that elusive Best Director Oscar.  It’s as if the Academy had been subconsciously waiting for him to make an ‘authentic’ Scorsese gangster flick before bestowing the honour he’d deserved countless times in the past.

Interestingly, all of those films bar Mean Streets have been made in the past two decades – so where did this reputation come from?  Until 1990, Scorsese’s big theme was the violence of masculinity: the subject that drove films as diverse as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as well as Mean Streets.  But along came Goodfellas, which returned to those streets with such panache and technical skill that it single-handedly convinced everyone – and probably Scorsese, too – that gangland is his natural habitat.  Ever since, no matter how hard he’s tried to avoid it, he’s kept coming back.

But I think It’s time to reclaim Martin Scorsese from being seen as a specialist, and celebrate his virtuosity and ventriloquism.  He’s able to tackle a whole range of genres: the “women’s picture” in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; black comedy in After Hours; period romance in The Age Of Innocence; Hollywood history in The Aviator – and that’s just the films that begin with the letter A.

Scorsese, it’s fair to see, is a connoisseur of cinema.  His knowledge is encyclopediac, his hunger insatiable.  As a viewer, there’s no way he’d be able to stick to watching one genre, so why do we insist on labelling him as a director?  Aside from sci-fi, the cop movie is just about the only kind of film he hasn’t tackled, and Shutter Island, set in the 1950s, is a perfect opportunity for Scorsese to indulge his love for film noir, pulp B-movies, and the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.   Bloggers have been playing a new online parlour game, trying to identify every Hitchcock reference in the movie, but this isn’t just homage for homage’s sake – as in the case of Scorsese’s peer and Hitch-enthusiast Brian De Palma.  It’s integral to the film’s depiction of madness and murder, the two subjects that Hitchcock made his own.

Consider Scorsese’s back catalogue, and you’ll see that his filmmaking style is often balanced between a reverential love for classic Hollywood, and a desire to blow away the cobwebs to see what lurks underneath.  It’s a trick he pioneered in New York, New York, both a loving tribute to the stagecraft and stardust of Vincente Minelli musicals…and a subversive commentary on all the stuff Minelli left out: the sex, the violence, the jazz music.  This was a new generation, and Scorsese underlined it by casting Minelli’s daughter, Liza, as a very different kind of heroine to the one her mom Judy Garland played in A Star Is Born.

New York, New York was a famous flop, but a hugely influential film in Scorsese’s development – something that I don’t think he’s given enough credit for.  He’s returned to the style of that film, that deliberate clash between old-school artifice and raw, contemporary power, in several films.  It’s there in The Last Temptation of Christ: regarded as blasphemous by some, but also a film with one sandal buried in the sand of 50s Gospel epics like King of Kings and Ben-Hur.  It’s there in The Aviator, a film that delights in pulling apart the real-life people behind screen legends like Katharine Hepburn and Errol Flynn.  Most obviously, it’s there in the remake of Cape Fear, a film where Scorsese doesn’t even bother to change Bernard Herrmann’s original score.  In Shutter Island, Scorsese gets the chance to make explicit those stormy subtexts that the censors wouldn’t allow 1950s filmmakers to play with.

But Scorsese’s choice of Shutter Island isn’t just a matter of movie make-believe.  The consensus has it that Scorsese isn’t comfortable outside the wiseguys and angry loners of New York, which does him a disservice, because it fails to take into account why Scorsese is interested in the wiseguys and loners.  It’s often overlooked, but between the big films, Scorsese makes documentaries on the side: chronicles and documents of rock and roll, friends and family, and cinema itself.   The documentary instinct infects his storytelling, too, which is driven by a genuine anthropological interest in his subjects.  What interests him in Goodfellas and Casino is how the characters live: the clothes they wear, the music they listen to, the way they move – and that kind of attention to detail travels.  Think of The Age Of Innocence not as a fusty period piece, but a remake of Goodfellas in a world where gossip, rather than guns, is how you destroy your enemies.

Shutter Island is set in a lunatic asylum, which finally gives Scorsese a chance to explore a world that most of his famous characters probably should have ended up in.  Scorsese’s films are full of madmen: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy, Max Cady in Cape Fear… The only surprise is that it’s taken this long for him to get here.  But perhaps that’s something to do with casting.  Robert De Niro, of course, played Bickle, Pupkin and Cady; it probably wouldn’t work for him to play a cop on the verge of madness, because it’d stretch belief that he even passed the psych evaluation when he applied for the job.

Casting Leonardo DiCaprio is another matter, and a good test of his mettle.  In many ways, if you ignore his first collaboration with Scorsese, Gangs Of New York, this is the third in a trilogy fascinated by the possibility of madness in DiCaprio, the corruption of those boyish good looks into something darker.  In The Aviator, Howard Hughes wrestled with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  In The Departed, Billy Costigan’s undercover work caused an identity crisis. Here, as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, starts to crack up while investigating a disappearance at the asylum.  With De Niro, Scorsese mastered the external violence of man; now, with DiCaprio, perhaps he’s out to examine the inner life of his characters. It’s further proof that Martin Scorsese isn’t just the gangster guy.  Here’s a director with the willingness and ability to explore new territory, no matter what the genre.

(C) Simon Kinnear 2010. Published with kind permission of Derby QUAD

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