Which is why you and I must escape
In Scorsese on Scorsese, America’s most famous living director tells us that, from childhood on, he’s been deeply motivated by music and movies. No surprises there, perhaps. But we also discover that Mean Streets and the many violent films that followed were made by a former altar boy who, before deciding on film school, was considering a career as a Roman Catholic priest.
Life Lessons is the story of a painter (Nick Nolte) whose chronic lack of self-control has somehow morphed into a megabucks career in abstract expressionism. Along with the fame and money, every young female admirer is his to enjoy as he wants. Yet there are things this monster of depravity gets right: first, he puts a lot of time and effort into the paintings; added to that, his behaviour toward the latest girlfriend is not always uncontrolled. Indeed, when she repeatedly asks if her own paintings are any good, his inability to reply looks almost like restraint. Not kind. Not cruel. It’s a forced acknowledgment of his — implicitly anyone’s — limitations as a mentor. Adapted from Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, there’s an awkward wit here at the expense of the art establishment. But with its hard-rock soundtrack as favoured by the artist at work, this becomes a broader indictment of blind human desire.
About Scorsese’s upbringing, my sense of shock has already begun to fade. After all, I grew up in the same era, also in an “inner city,” also raised by people sympathetic to, yet keen to stay clear of, local “lowlifes.” Up to the mid-1950s, aspirational Brits (i.e., my mother) referred to these as “common people.” But even at the time, we worried whether our instincts for self-preservation might betray a lack of fellow-feeling. An examination system called “the 11 plus,” designed to favour academic ability, did nothing to preserve early friendships, though it was a huge boon to an “Us-and-Them” way of seeing the world.
Long before Scorsese, though, I was drawn to someone else with a familiar-looking background — the British writer Dennis Potter. After winning a scholarship from a mining village in the Forest of Dean to Oxford University he became, for thirty years or more, Britain’s leading TV dramatist. And while Potter and Scorsese aren’t exactly Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they’re both edgy moralists who, by challenging ingrained snobberies about “common” (!) media like film and TV, changed Art forever.
In both their careers, religious inspiration is identified early on as, at best, suicidally maddening, at worst, homicidally provocative. Of course, I’m thinking of Taxi Driver (1976) and De Niro’s deranged Vietnam War veteran. But even more vividly I recall Son of Man from Easter 1969 when, assisted by burly Irish actor Colin Blakely, Potter stunned a huge TV audience with his portrait of a very manic — and very frightened — Jesus. Suddenly, we knew Christ’s Passion as never before.
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Musically, Gangs of New York (2002) is more prog rock than La Scala, but the “unique” overall structure of a very American tale is not a million miles from Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera — which, annoyingly, drags me straight back to a shared Scorsese/Potter aesthetic. Helping me on, Tom Charity in TimeOut sees the film as a “surrogate Oedipal revenge drama.” This definitely hits the right note, but my own odysseys among ancient texts suggest Homer’s Iliad as an even better fit — one that seems to hang ever more comfortably on that ceaselessly active spiritual warrior, that hard-working jihadi called “Marty.”
Admittedly, our ghostly Greek might wonder how a freelancing evil killer got into this scenario — and not because this was one of the para-medic “good guys,” but because, in The Iliad, justice is always blind, with no invitations to prefer one kind of killing over another. And those “hallucinations” seen by Nicolas Cage’s exhausted chief protagonist? They’d have to be dreams sent by the all-seeing, always-interfering gods.
Meanwhile, sympathy and horror in Bringing Out the Dead keep me in mind of Scorsese’s childhood and the deep ambivalence of his feelings toward some of the people with whom he grew up. But I’m reminded also that, in one of a clutch of recent apocalyptic screenplays, that word “ambivalence” gets its own special mention. In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, we learn from Jung (Michael Fassbender) that the term was first coined by Bleuler, the Herr Professor under whom he now worked. Pain and pleasure during sex, as Jung and his mistress experience it, might seem rather mundane S&M these days; but I suppose crazy-making contradictory emotional needs can still be cooled by scientific-sounding names.
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Tragedy and Prediction go so closely hand in hand that when we come to the unpredictable plot of Shutter Island we seem to be dealing with an exception to the rule. And by breaking all box-office records for Scorsese, the film is certainly exceptional. But to explain such success we have to look a bit further than mere faithfulness to the commercial requirements of genre.
Lehane has stated that he was very keen to evoke the imaginative universe of the Brontes. And my first reaction was to feel that the film, as opposed to the book, actually owed more to Dante’s Inferno, especially the sequence showing Di Caprio’s “Teddy” descending into the hell that is cell-block C. In a community of the criminally insane, this holds the worst of the worst, and the whole episode is staged and lit accordingly.
However, across the biggest stretches of the film, Scorsese does somehow manage to keep us remarkably close to the high moors around Haworth village: Teddy and Dolores standing in with breathtaking effect for the most spiritually inseparable lovers in all literature — Cathy and Heathcliff. Of course, there’s more than modern S&M fetishes or the rules of ancient Greek tragedy to that kind of love — not least, the denial by the lovers of any truth that doesn’t support their vision of united souls.