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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hong Kong comes to Boston, or, why Scorsese deserves the Oscar

Part two of two on Scorsese. Click here for part one.

I still have a couple of films to see in the best director category, but I am prepared to say that, if Martin Scorsese finally wins this year, his Oscar will be deserved. (Check back Saturday night for the complete list of my Oscar predictions and preferences.)

People sometimes speak imprecisely about what a director does and doesn't do. The best case I can think of is another Scorsese film, Gangs of New York (2002). There were several awful things about that film, chiefly its insufferably stupid screenplay, but the film's problems cannot all be laid at the director's feet.

Visually, Gangs of New York is an outstanding and inventive film. I only saw it once—I can't bear the thought of watching it again—yet one shot has stayed with me since. Scorsese created a waterfront 360-degree pan that, in one revolution, told the entire story of the Irish in America: first we see the Irish immigrants stepping off a ship, then we see the newly arrived being recruited and outfitted for the Union army, then we see them setting off to war, next we see the coffins returning from the battlefield, and finally the coffins are loaded into a ship to return to Ireland for burial. All that visual storyteling occurs in a single rotation of the camera. That is great directing.

A film director's main task is the visual interpretation of a screenplay. The director also bears the theatrical responsibility of directing the actors, but to my way of thinking, that comes second. Acting-wise, Gangs of New York was a wildly mixed bag: Daniel Day-Lewis's ferocious and frightening fury as Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting versus the limp intertness of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. But on filmic æsthetics alone, Gangs is a great feat of directing. (Who should have won the directing Oscar that year? Pedro Almodóvar for Hable con ella. Easily.)

This year, Scorsese is nominated for The Departed, his adaptation of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (2002), starring Tony Leung and Andy Lau. Many Hong Kong police films since the 1980's have featured a pair of doubled or opposed male leads. John Woo's The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) come to mind. In Infernal Affairs, the doubling is ratcheted up to new levels as we follow a police mole in the mob and a mob mole in the police trying to outwit and discover each other. Hong Kong screenplays are typically cavalier narrative affairs. People don't watch HK hyper-violence to scrutinize the details of plot points. Even so, by local standards Infernal Affairs had a tight plot with few obvious holes.

This then is the film Scorsese chose to remake: a proven international box office smash with an intricate and intriguing double cat-and-mouse plot. But the script is not a director's responsibility. The cinematic interpretation is. And Scorsese has managed to make this film his own while working in several visual cues to its Hong Kong roots.

The film's visual HK borrowings include some slow-motion and a Chinatown scene wherein DiCaprio, in the Leung role, spots his fleeing nemesis in the suspended shards of a glass hanging ornament. Without knowing the geographic source of the material, one might find these bits hokey, but they ought instead to be recognized as very economical and clever ways of paying homage in an adaptation that winds up being all Scorsese from start to finish.

Infernal Affairs relies on Tony Leung's typically melancholic eyes to provide the film's emotional weight. In The Departed Scorsese replaces HK cool with genuine horror at the violence that men do. I know that some of my readers will strenuously object to my saying this, but it's Scorsese's most eloquent portrayal of the ugly side of masculinity since Raging Bull. No particular shot stands out in the way that the dock scene did in Gangs. It's more of an overall impression achieved, in part, by a revision of earlier Scorsese moments.

Readers may remember the scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta uses his gun to bash the face of the Long Island neighbor in Lorraine Bracco's driveway. That was a deliciously nasty little scene, but the neighbor had invited revenge by attempting to impose himself sexually on Bracco's character. When we first witness DiCaprio's violence in The Departed, he finishes a guy off by ramming the hook end of a coatrack into his face. True, the guy was a mobster, but it's a far more chilling scene than in Goodfellas, not simply because DiCaprio is a cop, but because he is doing it to prove his tough-guy bona fides to an invisible audience of other men. There's no quotable, amusingly demented Joe Pesci here. ('Whaddaya mean I'm funny?') Just darkness and men behaving badly towards each other. Even the Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter', by now a Scorsese mainstay, is back, but this time we're not along for a drug-addled automobile ride fleeing a police helicopter with a pot of tomato sauce possibly burning at home, as in Goodfellas. This time we hear the shout of 'War, children, it’s just a shot away' as Jack Nicholson's ganglord character recruits a child into mob life. The gang's induction—or is it seduction?—of children in Goodfellas invited our identification with Henry Hill's acceptance into his new 'family'. Here the scene is sickening.

Acting-wise, I finally see why Scorsese has persevered in his belief in Leonardo DiCaprio. I had written off DiCaprio's adult career as a series of failures, but here he rises to the occasion as his character sinks into despair and isolation. His suffering is not as economically portrayed as Tony Leung's—how could it be?—but he achieves genuine pathos and clearly works for it. Matt Damon makes the devilish most of his deceptively boyish face. And Jack Nicholson? He stays on the right side of the line, ham-wise. It's Scorsese's conspicuously dark lighting in his first scene that defines the character, not Nicholson's sometime tendency to run rampant through a film. But if Scorsese's directing is visible in the acting, it's in DiCaprio's surprisingly mature suffering.

Going into the film, I expected none of this. I thought it would simply be a tight thriller and perhaps a compromise by Scorsese to go for the gold with a proven seller. It was anything but the latter. Instead, it was a very good Scorsese film and one that should earn him a deserved Oscar.

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17 Comments:

Anonymous chow yun fat said...

Hong Kong screenplays are typically cavalier narrative affairs. People don't watch HK hyper-violence to scrutinize the details of plot points.
This is hella patronising, and also untrue.

by local standards Infernal Affairs had a tight plot with few obvious holes.
It had a tight plot by any standards, particularly by the standards of your average Hollywood thriller. The bloat and fat of Scorsese's pedestrian remake just goes to show how tight the original was.

But the script is not a director's responsibility.
Oh, in that case you shouldn't praise Scorsese for the film being his "eloquent portrayal about the ugly side of masculinity", surely?

8:00 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Blando said...

Is it true that people sometimes speak imprecisely about what it is a director does?

A director is more than just a glorified cinematographer, vulernable to the caprice, whimsy, or stupidity of a screenwriter. It's a Bush-era defense of Scorsese: blame someone else. The fact that The Departed is mostly an unimaginative, often awkward re-telling of a very sharp HK film cannot be blamed only on a leaden script that simply prevented Scorsese from soaring. The same is true of GONY.

You aver that Scorsese's Oscar will be "deserved" in a competition, but do not account for his competitors, who include, this year, the much wiser, surer direction of Stephen Frears; or Paul Greengrass' daring direction; or the steady hand of Clint Eastwood. You seem to ignore how Frears, Greengrass, and Eastwood all made films that were much braver - both aesthetically and politically - than The Departed. This doesn't mean the Academy will or should reward them over Scorsese; only that Scorsese's direction is the most mediocre, bland, even cynical of the lot.

You defend Gangs of New York by saying that "the film's problems cannot all be laid at the director's feet", but it is the director who takes ultimate responsibility, and it is the director who takes the most risks, aesthetically and politically - risks as visual interpreters, risks in how they direct their actors, risks in how they run the creative collective that creates a work of cinematic art. Again: Eastwood, Greengrass, Frears put Scorsese to shame.

8:15 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Blando said...

In The Departed Scorsese replaces HK cool with genuine horror at the violence that men do. I know that some of my readers will strenuously object to my saying this, but it's Scorsese's most eloquent portrayal about the ugly side of masculinity since Raging Bull.

Have you seen Infernal Affairs? It's far too confusing, and Tony Leung is far too emotionally vulnerable, to be dismissed as Hong Kong Cool. And while both films are about masculinity, they are not so much about masculine violence as they are about fatherhood and family. The superb, textured performances by Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, and Alec Baldwin, and the voluptuous fun that Nicholson brings to his role, should all be acclaimed as the one interesting addition to the original. Both Infernal Affairs and The Departed are about vulnerable boys trying to do the right thing, and the fathers (and, in the case of The Departed, the uncles) who watch over them.

8:28 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous chow yun fat said...

A director is more than just a glorified cinematographer, vulernable to the caprice, whimsy, or stupidity of a screenwriter.

Blando is quite right! But in a way it is even more complicated than that. For a director also has a cinematographer, and a film editor, working for him, and there are notorious examples of directors taking a free ride on the visual craft of those underlings in particular. So even to say that a director has whole responsibility for the visual aesthetics of a film is a simplification. Some of the most brilliant directors in history have mainly been brilliant for their talent in organising and encouraging the talent around them. Of course, blando is also right to say that the buck for the whole damn thing stops with the director - who, if he wants to take credit for a movie, should also be prepared to take responsibility for whatever is wrong with it, in any department. I suggest Mr Strabone decide whether he still believes in auteur theory or not: right now, he is trying to have it both ways.

Out of the contenders for this category, I have not yet seen Letters from Iwo Jima, but on the basis of Flags of our Fathers I would rate Scorsese last out of the contenders. In particular, though two out of the three narrative strands of Babel are pompous, simplistic melodramatic gush, Iñárritu provides (with the help of his cinematographer and editors) a few scenes - particularly, a Mexican wedding and a Tokyo nightclub - that, plastically, are more dazzling, original and challenging visual compositions than anything in The Departed.

8:39 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous chow yun fat said...

In purely visual terms, moreover, Infernal Affairs is much more interesting and creative than Scorsese's pedestrian Americanization.

8:47 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Blando said...

Quite so, Chow. You will notice that I referred to a "creative collective"; film is necessarily one of the most collaborative of arts, but this does not entirely preclude the auteur, the visionary at the helm. Where Scorsese deserves most credit is in his collaboration with his actors. Jeff is correct that Scorsese's confidence in DiCaprio has been rewarded with a frankly decent performance. Conjuring witty and sensitive portraits from Marky Mark and Ray Winstone does not seem like it would be hard, but we can thank Scorsese for giving them the room to perform so beautifully; Damon was perfectly cast; and Scorsese brought the best out of Baldwin and DiCaprio.

The director, though, deserves the special accolades or harrumphs reserved for him or her. At the end of the day, the director must take the fall, for the same reason that when there are terrible scandals about torture, politicians resign rather than let their underlings take the blame. (With one obvious exception). And to prove the point: there is only one man to blame for that most ham-handed and laughable image thwarting the ending of The Departed - that sniffing rat.

9:13 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get really frustrated by all of the people who claim The Departed shouldn't win the Oscar (not that these things matter but it would be cool) because it's a thriller with nothing to say. Sorry, but The Departed has more to say about the Irish-American culture, the negative effects of masculinity and identity than any movie has to say about anything. When Scorsese released Taxi Driver after Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, people said he was referring back to his old macho self after a dalliance with feminism. Scorsese responded by saying that Taxi Driver was his feminist picture! Travis Bickle was a disturbed dude who had watched too many westerns and thought he was John Wayne. He wasn't and as that tracking shot proved all that came of it was needless violence. At the end of Alice, the title character basically resigns herself to a life as a housewife. The point I'm trying to make is that most people are stupid and can't get any message more than is thrown at them. Little Miss Sunshine is a "biting critique of our winner take all culture?" Well, you know what, so was The Bad News Bears (1976) which was a better, funnier and more poignant movie. Also, did anyone else notice that Matt Damon's character is either a closeted homosexual or a victim of physical/sexual abuse. It's there, if you look for it, it is completely there. Also, I'm convinced that William Monahan is the best screenwriter to come out of Hollywood in the last five years, especially with his answer to the second to last question in this interview: http://www.collider.com/entertainment/interviews/article.asp?aid=3700&tcid=1

11:41 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meant to say it had "more to say about...than any movie had to say about anything *this year.*

11:42 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous chow yun phat said...

When I hear that films have "things to say" about grand-sounding abstract themes, I sigh and reach for a cigarette (and my pistol).

11:55 AM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, that's legit

12:08 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Blando said...

I'm not sure the claim has been made - here at least, or anywhere else to my knowledge - that The Departed doesn't deserve to win because it's a "thriller with nothing to say." Genre has not been debated at all. And however much The Departed has to say is rather less important than how well it says whatever it is understood to be saying; art is quite often judged on more than its documentary value.

That having been said, I would be curious to know exactly what this film says about "Irish-American culture, the negative effects of masculinity and identity", other than the general hotness of the Irish Boston mafia and the cops who are out to sink them.

As it happens, I didn't realise that Matt Damon's character was a closeted homosexual; until this movie, with all these hot Irish boys, I didn't realise that I was either.

1:34 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous chow yun o'phather said...

To be fair, it cannot be said often enough that Irish boys are hot.

1:47 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Although I am a fan of both Chow Yun-Fat and Hong Kong cinema, I stand by my claim that the latter suffers from frequently slapdash screenwriting. Rather than provide a list of such films—which would not in itself prove a thing—I will instead direct Chow to a film starring his namesake, John Woo's Once a Thief (1991).

As for Chow's implication that I cannot praise Scorsese's portrayal of masculinity while also reminding readers that directors don't necessarily write their own screenplays, I would remind Chow of all of the visual, non-screenplay elements of The Departed that I cited in my original entry. I was indeed interpreting the film cinematically.

Blando is indeed right that a director is 'more than just a glorified cinematographer'. But the examples I gave were clearly directorial and story-boarded. The waterfront shot in Gangs of New York was the invention of a director, not a cinematographer.

As for the scripts, I think The Departed has a fine adapted screenplay. Scorsese's only culpability for the screenplay of Gangs lay in choosing it.

Blando cannot accuse me of not accounting for the other nominated directors because I explicitly said I was not making a comparative judgment yet. Here is what I said:
'I still have a couple of films to see in the best director category, but I am prepared to say that, if Martin Scorsese finally wins this year, his Oscar will be deserved. (Check back Saturday night for the complete list of my Oscar predictions and preferences.)'
If Blando wants to know whether I think Scorsese's work was better than that of the other four directors, he will have to return to my blog Saturday night. (I have now seen all but Babel.)

I certainly never called Tony Leung 'HK cool'. I said the opposite: Leung is the most emotional presence in a film that is otherwise steely blues, urban modernity, and Michael Mann-ish in appearance. For the record, I adore Tony Leung, possibly the most soulful film actor in the world.

As for Chow's second remark, the only thing I exculpated Scorsese for was bad screenplays (Gangs, The Aviator). Everything else occurs under the director's stewardship. The writing sometimes does but often does not.

The reason I made the point I did about Gangs was that people were saying at the time that Scorsese had 'lost it' or was over the hill when all they really disliked about Gangs was the story. Visually, it's a great film and ample evidence that Scorsese is still a great cinematic thinker.

4:38 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous chow yun fatwa said...

As for Chow's implication that I cannot praise Scorsese's portrayal of masculinity while also reminding readers that directors don't necessarily write their own screenplays, I would remind Chow of all of the visual, non-screenplay elements of The Departed that I cited in my original entry.

Yeah, and which of those non-screenplay elements, exactly, constituted what you swoon over as Scorsese's "elegant portrayal about [sic] the ugly side of masculinity"? Huh? Was it this bit?:

When we first witness DiCaprio's violence in The Departed, he finishes a guy off by ramming the hook end of a coatrack into his face. True, the guy was a mobster, but it's a far more chilling scene than in Goodfellas, not simply because DiCaprio is a cop, but because he is doing it to prove his tough-guy bona fides to an invisible audience of other men.

Oh, but see, here you are appealing to story, ie to script, in order to explain why the scene is so chillin'. Fraid you're not allowed to do that if you are trying to argue that script is not the director's responsibility (of course you are only saying this so as to get him off the hook of a previous turkey).


people were saying at the time that Scorsese had 'lost it' or was over the hill when all they really disliked about Gangs was the story

Let me help you out with that one: "all I really disliked" about Gangs was everything about it except for Day-Lewis's performance.

6:08 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. I was not insinuating that genre has been discussed here but it has been elsewhere. As for the notion that a film's message is not really the point, I couldn't really agree more. I was simply responding to those, not here, who have said that The Departed is less important than say...Babel. It isn't, particularly where aesthetics are concerned: the economy of the storytelling is some of the best I've seen in years.

As for what The Departed does have to say, well, I guess that's a matter of perspective. One thing that I think is brought up, albeit indirectly, is the notion that in the Irish-American culture struggle is admired while success is not. Costigan is berated by Dignam, almost a charicature of an angry Irish-American, for his middle class familial situation. Yeah, Dignam's an asshole but the implication is "you think you're better than me, cuz you're rich? Fuck you!" Also, it's a source of pride for Costigan that his father never took the easy way out and takes great offense when Costello (barely) insinuates that his father was "nothing." Look at Costigan, he had wonderful grades and SATs and could have gone to a good college but chose to become a Police Officer. Why? Maybe because it's a more noble profession. I don't know, I'm not from Boston. I also like the attitude behind the line Costigan says to the therapist who questions why the last patient of the day is always the hardest. "It's cuz you're tired and you don't give a shit. It's not rocket science." Not that it's Shakespeare but in my estimation, sort of personified that culture.

As for the comments regarding the hot Irish boys. Now, that you mention I suppose a few of the leading actors in the film could be considered handsome. I didn't notice so thank you for bringing that to my attention. But that's beside the point. I could walk through the film and list every odd look on Damon's face, every strange reaction to Costello's hand on his shoulder, to Costello asking him if he likes the therapist sucking his cock, to him lying in bed saying "you need to get out...I'm Irish, I'll live with something being wrong all my life" while his wife cries, his cocksure attitude coupled with his inability to please her. Let me ask you, why in the first scene are two young boys shown happily walking out of the grocery store while young Colin is shown sullen, shy and indoors? Also, in the porno theatre, Damon is really really uncomfortable, even disgusted, watching what appears to be an all-woman scene. Costello says to him, as to why he picked the meeting place, "I hope you're not indulging in self-abuse." It's not thrown in your face but I do believe certain things were put in to hint towards past abuse, possibly by the church. It's the same thing with all those X's. It ain't an accident.

8:01 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Anonymous blue blood said...

"I certainly never called Tony Leung 'HK cool'. I said the opposite: Leung is the most emotional presence in a film that is otherwise steely blues, urban modernity, and Michael Mann-ish in appearance. For the record, I adore Tony Leung, possibly the most soulful film actor in the world."

Your choice of Tony Leung as possibly the most soulful film actor in the world is unimpeachable - except perhaps for the "possibly". He is.

But I never said you called Tony Leung "HK Cool". I said, "Have you seen Infernal Affairs? It's far too confusing, and Tony Leung is far too emotionally vulnerable, to be dismissed as Hong Kong Cool." That which should not be simply packaged as "Hong Kong Cool" is Infernal Affairs; I was agreeing with your overall assessment of Leung, but, at the same time, was pointing out that his emotional vulnerability, while very cool, is part of the reason why Infernal Affairs is not Hong Kong Cool, while you said it was (as an aside, melancholy can be Hong Kong Cool).

The reason why this is important is that that The Departed doesn't depart from Infernal Affairs on the horror of violence, or the ugly masculinity of violence, or the ugliness of masculine violence; it would have been more interesting had you addressed my contention that The Departed's only improvement on the original is that enrichens a few other male roles through Wahlberg, Winstone, and Baldwin. In this context, The Departed is Scorsese exploring a fundamentally different aspect of masculinity (which is not entirely new to him): loyalty amongst men, loyalty to one's father.

Speaking of which - Anonymous, I like your careful reading of the possibility of abuse in Sullivan's past as well as your recollection of "the line Costigan says to the therapist who questions why the last patient of the day is always the hardest. "It's cuz you're tired and you don't give a shit. It's not rocket science." The film tempts you with these psychological interpretations, even with these Oedipal themes of loyalty to and freedom from the father (through murder, no less), and then to reject any possible psychological depth with lines like Costigan's, appealing to bullish "common sense", and the psychiatrist's endorsement of them (either with her words or her kisses). It's quite possible that there are other reasons why the last patient of the day is the hardest - but Costigan will have none of it. What are we then to do with the sexually threatening father brandishing his massive cock and telling his golden boy what to do and what to be, until his golden boy kills him? These themes are rather differently framed in Infernal Affairs.

11:16 PM, February 22, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

The question implicitly posed by Chow Yun Fatwa is, Was the choice to strike the mobster's face with a coatrack written by screenwriter William Monahan or choreographed by Scorsese? I suppose only the text of the screenplay can answer that for sure, but my money is on the latter. Screenplays don't generally contain blow-by-blow fight commentary. I did not catalogue every cinematic choice that Scorsese made in The Departed, but I did mention these: HK-style slow motion, the coatrack beating, the use of 'Gimme Shelter', and the dark lighting of Jack Nicholson.

Surely, Chow Yun Fatwa exaggerates when he says that Daniel Day-Lewis's performance was the only likeable thing about Gangs of New York. The cinematography and art direction are first-rate. I wonder if he means to deny this.

I like what Anonymous said about the Irish-American themes in the film. The cast was well-accented, too. There's also a lot more to be said about the film's sexual themes, not least of which being the reproductive failures of Frank Costello (Nicholson) and possibly Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). I believe we are meant to infer at the funeral scene that Sullivan has inferred that his wife's pregnancy was due to Costigan (DiCaprio). Also, one of Costello's ladies was reading a book on getting pregnant, but it ain't gonna happen.

I see that I may have misunderstood Blue Blood with regard to his remark about my remark about the great Tony Leung.

But I don't agree that Infernal Affairs is as thematically rich as The Departed. There are surrogate father-son issues in the original but nothing like The Departed's focus on the problems of masculine violence per se. He is right, however, that the added male characters, Alec Baldwin's for instance, help develop the themes further. Let it also be said that screenwriter William Monahan made the right call in merging the psychiatrist and Andy Lau's girlfriend into one character. That added to the uncanny doubling.

And since the issue of HK screenwriting came up earlier, let it also be said that, despite great roles for Michelle Yeoh and others in martial arts films, female love interests in HK cinema are generally two-dimensional at best.

Finally, I made the correction pointed by Chow Yun Fatwa

2:12 AM, February 23, 2007

 

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