Sometimes people ask me, "Hey Palinode, how's your old English?" And I say, "Hwaet!" and then they run away. And sometimes they ask me things like this:
Ok, so here's my question.
Its been 26 years since Raging Bull and 16 years since Goodfellas. Why in the hell do I keep getting my hopes up with Scorsese? Has he completely overstayed his welcome, veering much to close to Brian de Palma territory? Or is it me? "The Departed" got 92% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. I fail to see why. I didn't get "A History of Violence" either. Are films actually getting more brilliant, but I'm getting soft-headed? Okay, that's sorta two questions.
losing my patience with movies
Mr. G. Tuma, I hear you. Like the fabled beavers of yore, Martin Scorsese and all his ilk are beginning to gnaw away at my faith in films. Gangs of New York was a whole lot of so-so. The Aviator was a triumph of some cool shots and a little cupful of entertaining scenes poured into a big bowl of blah. Like you, I'm pretty much in agreement that the last unbroken pleasure from Martin Scorsese was Goodfellas. Not that this is unique to Scorsese; what has Brian de Palma done in the last fifteen years that's worth watching? The answer to that question isn't Snake Eyes, which pretty much made my eyes bug out with its awfulness, and it isn't Femme Fatale either.
As for those other young turks of filmdom: Francis Coppola went from Apocalypse Now to Jack; George Lucas retreated behind a bank of computers and started looking more and more like Jabba the Hutt, or maybe a Guild Navigator; Hal Ashby, who directed Harold and Maude, ended up with stuff like "Beverly Hills Buntz" before he died of cancer in the late eighties. And there was a time when Stephen Spielberg had some kind of handle on his sentimentality.
Clearly, something bad has happened to these people in the late arc of their careers. The only one who seems to inspire perpetual hope, the one who's able to shrug off the string of second-raters and say "This time for sure!" is Martin Scorsese. Somewhere in all the hype leading up to The Departed, with all the reviews and blurbs claiming that the movie marked a "return to form," I became half-convinced that this was the movie we movie nudniks had been waiting for - a redemptive last-minute turn against the boring, the mediocre and the unconvincing. Once again, brutal men with foul mouths and a taste for the pleasures of life, the boot in the rib and the plate of osso bucco, would rescue filmgoing for male audiences in the coveted 18-34 deomographic. I felt not just excited - hell, I got excited over Slither- but hopeful.
Okay, let me interject here to confess something - I'm finding The Departed really difficult to write about. I want to reach into the movie and grab something solid, find a handhold to swing into a discussion on the damn thing - but it's so squishy. It's like putting my hand in a bowl of tapioca. After a couple of experimental swirls, you realize that you're looking for something solid in tapioca, and that's one thing you definitely don't want. So I'm going to pull my hand out of The Departed and grab onto Scorsese himself. A hank or hair, or maybe that nose. Or I'll just ram my index fingers right into his eyes and then crook them in a coy c'mere Martin gesture.
Don't worry. I'm not threatening to kill Scorsese with my bare hands. As far as I can tell, he's already dead. If Martin Scorsese made Goodfellas and Raging Bull and the truly awesome After Hours, then his autistic double is the force behind The Departed. This film is like a memory of Scorsese, a babble of fragments from the mouth of a man rocking back and forth in the corner, tossing up a snatch of patter from Mean Streets, a plume of manhole steam from Taxi Driver, a sudden Goodfellas spray of blood. Someone wrote it all down, slapped on a plot from a Hong Kong flick, set it in Boston - et voila. A Scorsese flick.
There's a good rule of thumb in major studio films that says: the more producers, the lousier the film. Actually, I don't know if that's a rule of thumb, but I know enough about making films to know that there's an ideal number of people to have on a film - just enough to get it made, but not enough to fuck it all up. Too many producers bring too many ideas, pull a film in all sorts of directions, introduce pet obsessions or set unworkable conditions. The Departed has a whopping thirteen producers: four full, five executive, three co- and one associate. That's not a credits list, that's a trail of blood (although to be fair, it looks as if there were extra hands involved because it was an adaptation from the film Infernal Affairs).
Thanks in no small part to Scorsese's longtime editing companion Thelma Schoonmaker, the first fifteen minutes of the film is a kinetic delight (yup - a kinetic delight) as the characters are introduced and the premise is laid out: two young men, one a criminal who infiltrates the police (Matt Damon), the other a cop who infiltrates the Irish mob (Leo DiCaprio). Both are sent undercover so deeply that none but a few people on either side know their true identities. Nothing's entirely believable yet, but the 'I fucked your mother' jokes fly fast and furious and the plot points land with admirable precision. By the time the title card comes up, we're set for two and a half hours of epic gangland action, with cops bleeding into criminals, and criminals finding themselves unwittingly on the side of the law. The premise is cartoony and schematic, but moral grey areas and identity vertigo abound, right?
No! Not at all! Not even a bit. For a film that attempts to ground itself in gritty front-stoop and back-room realism, with criminal behaviour tied into cultural identity and sense of place, The Departed fails completely to understand what makes human beings commit crime, what makes them take a stand against it, and ultimately, the nature of corruption in a country so sold on hucksterism that violence becomes another legitimate way of getting ahead. Goodfellas knew it intimately; the movie spelled out exactly what the Italian mob was, and what it became as ever-greater amounts of money and drugs flowed through it. Cops bent the rules because they rubbed up every day against the attractions of criminal life; criminals ratted out their colleagues to save their own lives. The Departed chucks all that and gives us a metaphysic of good and evil, with principled warriors in place of ordinary folk.
For all his violent behaviour, Leo DiCaprio's character never displays any real liking for it, nor does he ever lose sight of his crime-fighting mission. The easy power and entitlement of being a gangster never affect his resolve, and his only real conflict stems from what amounts to job stress. In a suspiciously parallel development, Matt Damon disappears entirely into his role as a crackerjack detective rising in the ranks, with even less convincing results. Damon's character is unswervingly dedicated to Crime, even though he doesn't derive much benefit from it. He spends his time being impotent with his girlfriend, arguing with Jack Nicholson on the phone, and earning the hatred of his peers when he's assigned to track down a suspected mole within the ranks (oh dah irony).
You can practically see the script notes piling up as the movie pushes on, keeping these two characters on course, making sure they never do anything interesting or start exhibiting a hint of complexity. By contrast, the characters in Goodfellas were not people to root for: greedy, venal, violent and selfish, crudely judgmental but blind to their own faults, and above all, abidingly ordinary. The story of Henry Hill, if you take out the drugs and violence and jail time, resembles the tales of nouveau riche Americans in the post-war age, the wasteful children of hardworking immigrant families. That hidden normality, the sense that these gangsters were no different from the rest of us, was the heart of Goodfellas.
Damon and DiCaprio's characters are given a dash of backstory and a Manichean psychology to start with, but after that they are left alone to wage their wars on behalf of their secret masters. As the plot pushes them along, the snappy dialogue and the flying teeth begin to feel like more air pumped into an ever-expanding balloon. Finally there's a big showdown that looks like it was made for a film with half the budget, and then there's another, smaller showdown, and then there's another one. Then you can go home.
It's like Scorsese forgot what makes crime films interesting. And then he forgot what makes people interesting. And then he peed his pants and started storing his dentures in the production assistant's latté, but they just kept on shooting.
Bonus alternate script
Here's how I envision the movie going:
JACK NICHOLSON, CRIME BOSS: I sure do enjoy flailing my arms around and making fun of priests. Now to business. Boys, we got a rat.
THUG: Sure and begorrah, I bet it's the new guy, the young one what used to be a cop,* who before he showed up we never had a problem, and now we do.
LEO DICAPRIO, SUPER RAT-COP: What?
JACK: Kill him.
[They kill him]
THE FUCKING END
*Yes, they knew he'd gone to cop school before he joined the gang, and still they spent two hours wondering just who the rat could be. Plus Jack Nicholson is supposed to be this seasoned crime boss, but he keeps on showing up for big incriminating transactions like Captain Kirk on his way to the next backlot planet.
Hey, you folks are good folks, with the good questions - and you want the good answers. Ask me in innocence and get besmirched: askpalinode @ gmail . com.