Bright Lights Film Journal

Lovers and Killers? Only on This Island

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.

For anyone who might be genuinely stunned by this biographic bombshell — as I certainly was — he explains that “[in New York’s Little Italy] the people in power were the tough guys on the street, and the Church.” Suddenly, my feelings of surprise seem naive. Yet, in my own viewing, there had been nothing clearly pointing the way to the theme of spirituality in Scorsese. So, for example, it wasn’t his feature about the young Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997) that sent me in this direction. That honour goes to his segment in the portmanteau film New York Stories (1987), made with two other famous New Yorkers — Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen.

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.

As for religious training, few priests materialised to guide my own spiritual development. The blurred Non-Conformist/Anglican Christianity that pervaded the school system was, presumably, deemed intrusive enough. And the idea of gun-toting crime lords helping to conserve good order would have been totally redundant, most “decent” parents acting as effective enough enforcers.

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.

Today, with Martin knocking seventy and Dennis long since departed, I wonder if Scorsese will soon share Potter’s fate and lose much of the kudos he once had. Then I remember that, greatly to their credit, neither of these guys has ever been remotely cool. Hot-house plants with a leaning to Gothic, thirsting to intensify their effects via the raw potency of music — that’s nearer the mark. For Scorsese, of course, “music” hasn’t been confined to the pre-WW2 hit parade. So to a fading soundtrack of songs from the ’30s, I bid adieu to Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective and focus on the still active member of this club of two.

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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.”

Bringing Out the Dead (1999), to be literal for a moment, isn’t Sophocles or Homer: it’s Martin Scorsese and his oft-present screenwriter buddy, Paul Schrader, doing full justice to Joe Connelly’s autobiographical novel. Yet this tale of paramedics in East Harlem, with all its incessant, unavoidable, mentally and physically threatening calls to duty would, I think, be easily recognised by a drama-loving ancient Athenian. What’s more, after the Pity and Terror — and however uncertainly — we arrive at a point of catharsis. Scorsese here uses an overhead shot of hero and girlfriend finally in bed. Too tired for sex, they lie on their right sides with his head on her left breast. It’s almost another aftermath of a crime scene, another medical emergency, an effect only bolstered as we lose sight of them in a glare of bright contrast that could be the lights of an operating theatre. So there’s a hint of merciful release, but nothing we could call final redemption, much less romantic love.

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.

But resurrected critic and modern filmmakers would agree on one convention: the horrible predictability of the main action. In ancient tragedy this wasn’t something to be avoided at all costs but rather to be prized as essential. Indeed, this still holds true for modern tragedy: witness Lars Von Trier’s latest effort, Melancholia. Though for me, with its flimsy end-of-days scenario and no deeply felt human poignancies, this is, at best, Tragedy Lite.

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.

In Cronenberg’s favour, he does bring out the strangely dull excitements of bourgeois life in the early twentieth century. But, having seen this on the big screen, I feel such intimacies would actually work better on DVD. Nevertheless, this adaptation of a stage play (itself an adaptation of a nonfiction book) did get me thinking again about doom-laden predictions. That reminder comes in the very last piece of dialogue where Jung, giving little detail, tells his mistress of the apocalyptic dreams he’s been having. I thought this might refer to Jung’s interest in parapsychology and, more literally, with the coming of World War I. Film writer Michael Wood, however, saw Cronenberg associating these dreams with Nazism and the death camps. Immediately after Jung’s sombre revelations, and leading into the end titles, we’re shown a list of WW2 obits of the main players; so that’s surely the right reading. In any reading, though, it’s hard to miss the emphasis on Jung’s “gift” for prediction — a gift, as this scenario points out, Freud believed would only damage the new “science” of psychoanalysis.

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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.

The emotional depths of Dennis Lehane’s beautifully crafted novel are, as one might have expected, thoroughly explored by Scorsese and his usual team — including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, set designer Dante Ferretti, and, supervising the extraordinarily sombre musical soundtrack, Robbie Robertson. Sadly, this seems to have made it too easy for some reviewers to look no further than the credits and the “cool” literary and filmic allusions of the piece. Whatever the reasons, they’ve somehow missed the fact that Shutter Island is not only a masterpiece of modern Gothic but quite possibly Scorsese’s own best picture.

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.