Thursday, December 12, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.23: Martin Scorsese's 2000s miscellany

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Martin Scorsese isn’t known for taking long breaks – in a recent interview, he mentioned how he’s taking a few weeks off after The Wolf of Wall Street but that he doesn’t really ever go on vacations. That’s especially true in the past decade, where almost every year saw the release of a new Scorsese project of some sort.

Feel Like Going Home: 46/C+

Scorsese’s first documentary of the 2000s was Feel Like Going Home, part of the Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues project that ran on PBS in 2003. Alongside Clint Eastwood, Charles Burnett, Wim Wenders, and a handful of other directors, Scorsese made a series about the history of blues music in America from its inception in the early 20th century to its influence on artists as varied as Ray Charles, Jeff Beck, and Chuck D.

In theory, it’s a fascinating project. Music is almost as integral to the success of Scorsese’s films as the dynamic camerawork and editing, and Scorsese begins the film saying that he “can’t imagine life without music”, so the prospect of him covering music as rich with history and emotion as the blues (specifically the Delta blues in his segment) sounds promising. So it’s curious that Feel Like Going Home feels so aimless and dull. Scorsese collects a lot of interesting information – Son House and Lead Belly were major figures, the Library of Congress came to Lead Belly to record some of his songs for historical purposes, and the genre has major roots back in Africa – but it’s largely without any narrative shape.

Worse, Marty stays silent for much of the film and instead turns the movie over to meandering interludes with modern blues musician Corey Harris chatting with people about the music without any acuity. It’s not a terrible film, but it feels like a collection of stuff rather than a proper movie, and it rarely feels like something that comes specifically from Scorsese’s heart. It’s his weakest work.

No Direction Home: 77/B+

Scorsese’s next documentary, Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, saw him on surer footing, which is ironic considering how late he came onto the project. Started by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen in 1995, Scorsese was brought on board in the early 2000s to give shape to the massive amount of interview and archival footage collected. The film covers Dylan’s youth, his growth from folk fan to songwriter to superstar, and his disillusionment with his original fanbase up until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

On the surface, No Direction Home doesn’t scream Scorsese, especially considering how the director’s voice never comes in. But in many ways, Dylan fits right alongside Charlie Cappa, Jake LaMotta, and Howard Hughes as a Scorsese protagonist. He grew up in a conservative Minnesota small-town and spent his youth trying to buck convention. He tried to bring rock and roll into a town that rejected it, and took to the socially conscious material of Woody Guthrie and the restless anger of Jack Kerouac’s prose. The film sometimes wanders in the early sections, but to a large degree it’s necessary, as it shows the times and the people who helped shape Dylan (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Guthrie, Baez, Inside Llewyn Davis inspiration Dave Van Ronk) before he left them behind.

The first half of the film is a fairly sweeping look at the era and at how the early folk anthems of Dylan – “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, “Masters of War” – connected to the times, and how he was the right person at the right time. But Dylan makes the point that he wasn’t a terribly political person, and Scorsese frequently cuts to footage of Dylan in 1966, now testy and given to dodging any questions that reveal something about himself. To a large degree, Dylan is still enigmatic by the film, even as he’s more revealing here than he is most of the time. But that’s to the film’s credit, as it’s less a look at who Dylan is and more a look at a folk hero’s disconnection and disillusionment with being a hero for everyone, for being pigeonholed as one particular thing.

Dylan’s youthful enthusiasm at the March on Washington gives way to heartbreak at JFK’s assassination and growing interest in surreal and personal songs over political ones. As he’s constantly met with boos from fans who hated his electric material, it’s easy to see why he became a more enigmatic and prickly figure. There’s something deeply admirable about it (the archival footage of Dylan’s infamous “play it fuckin’ loud!” performance of “Like a Rolling Stone” is presented pretty triumphantly), and yet, Bob’s clearly burnt out by the end of 1966 even before his motorcycle accident. Scorsese, who’s seen plenty of moments where he felt disconnected from what was expected of him or frustrated with what he could accomplish, could no doubt relate.

The Key to Reserva: 81/B+

Between The Departed and Shutter Island, Scorsese made another homage to classic film with the short The Key to Reserva, a commercial for Freixenet Champagne and one of Scorsese’s most playful recent works. The set-up shows Scorsese showing interviewer (and the short’s writer) Ted Griffin the script to an unmade Hitchcock film, The Key to Reserva, which has pages so delicate that Scorsese doesn’t want to touch them in their protective envelopes. Scorsese then says he’s embarking on a new challenge: filming the script of the long-lost, incomplete Hitchcock film. There’s some funny tweaks on Scorsese’s film preservation interests (“It’s one thing to preserve a film that’s been made, it’s another to preserve a film that has not been made”) and the idea of the auteur (will he shoot this as “Scorsese” or as “Hitchcock”?) befor the ball gets rolling.

The film-within-a-film follows a man (Simon Baker) arriving a box seat of an orchestra, where another man (Michael Stuhlbarg) is holding his wife hostage. He sees a key hidden in the light bulb above his head, but one of the orchestra performers, who’s secretly in cahoots with the villain, sees him and goes to kill him.

The whole thing is a near-perfect mimic of Hitchcock’s style, from the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography (courtesy of the late, great Harris Savides) to the voyeuristic tracking and crane shots. The film is littered with specific references, from the use of Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest score to a replication of the fall in the beginning of Vertigo. Scorsese even makes the short’s actual tie-in to Freixenet Champagne a Macguffin, an excuse to stage an elaborate Hitchcock homage.

And then there’s the most playful touch: the short has a missing page, so rather than invent a new climax, Scorsese preserves “Hitchcock’s” intention and skips right to the resolution (“So what happens here? We don’t know, because the page is missing, so I just shot the last paragraph”). The Key to Reserva is a minor Scorsese short, but it’s an endlessly entertaining one, and the punchline about what film Scorsese is going to reconstruct next is priceless.

Shine a Light: 74/B+

Scorsese’s films are known for their great use of rock music, to the point where it’s damn near impossible to listen to “Layla” without thinking of Goodfellas, or to “Be My Baby” without thinking of Mean Streets. But he hasn’t returned to any artist as frequently as he has to The Rolling Stones (“Gimme Shelter” alone has been in three of his films). It’s surprising that Scorsese took so long to get to making a Stones concert film, which he did in 2008 with Shine a Light. It’s hardly the most essential Stones doc – they’re at least 20 years past their prime, for one thing. Yet Shine a Light is a strangely endearing look at a band that’s kept on chugging along for the better part of 50 years.

The film benefits from the who’s who of great cinematographers Scorsese assembled for the concert (Robert Richardson! Robert Elswit! John Toll! Emanuel Lubezki! Albert Maysles!), whose mixture of heavily choreographed camera moves and light-on-the-feet handheld work (plus Scorsese’s first extensive use of digital) give the film a spry feeling that recalls Scorsese’s earliest films. The film also has a murderer’s row of great guests for certain songs, with Jack White assisting on “Loving Cup” and Buddy Guy flat-out stealing “Champagne and Reefer”

That being said, it’s mostly about the band, and the Stones can still play like sons-of-bitches. Mick’s voice isn’t quite what it used to be (he really butchers “As Tears Go By”), but he makes up for it with infectious high energy, and the rest of the band follows suit. And while Scorsese’s use of archival footage is sometimes a bit too cute (“How long do you think you’re gonna carry on singing?” is thrown around a lot), it mostly feels earned. Shine a Light is ultimately a celebration of career longevity, of people who aren’t going to stop just because they’re getting a bit long in the tooth, from someone who knows a little bit about that himself.

A Letter to Elia: 76/B+

After working with PBS on The Blues and No Direction Home, Scorsese returned again for the American Masters episode for Elia Kazan, dubbed A Letter to Elia. Unlike, say, My Voyage to Italy, which saw Scorsese go on about Roberto Rossellini for well over an hour, there’s a limit to how in-depth Scorsese can go on one of his greatest influences. Indeed, someone looking for more than a cursory glance at Kazan’s full career might be disappointed.

But while the film feels like it could use more direct parallels to Scorsese’s work, it’s still a highly personal work from Scorsese, who identified with Kazan’s portraits of alienation as much as he did with his blend of the formal and the realistic. The heightened emotions of East of Eden and On the Waterfront are direct ancestors to Raging Bull and Mean Streets, and Scorsese’s one of the many who think that Kazan’s unfortunate HUAC testimony shouldn’t overshadow his artistry. And if there’s a cinephile who doesn’t isn’t moved by his final monologue to the camera, expressing his gratitude to the man who helped a lonely, alienated kid from New York find something to connect to, then I don’t even know what to say to them.

Public Speaking: 76/B+

Less personal but equally interesting is Public Speaking, Scorsese’s Fran Lebowitz documentary for HBO. It’s probably among the least formally thrilling of Scorsese’s documentaries (although there are some nifty throwbacks to Taxi Driver here and there), but any pyrotechnics would distract from Lebowitz, and endlessly fascinating and funny presence who has an opinion about everything and doesn't wait for anyone to ask her about it to start.

 Scorsese is more present in the ideas he really lets Lebowitz elaborate on: that good ideas don’t come from day jobs, but it talking with fellow creative types (something Scorsese got plenty of in his movie brat days); that New York went from being an interesting, vibrant, dangerous place to being an antiseptic tourist attraction; that it’s necessary that we have an audience of discernment and connoisseurship to have better art and better opinions about art; and that the idea of requiring someone to churn out masterpieces regularly is psychotic.

I’m particularly heartened by a section where Lebowitz says that “nothing is new because our culture is soaked in nostalgia”, charging the people her age for holding a monopoly on what the culture talks about and charging young artists and writers to start doing new things rather than copying. Scorsese’s a longtime supporter of old art, but as someone who’s embraced new technology and influences in his films with the same level of boyish enthusiasm he’s always had, I can’t help but hear his voice here as well, as if he’s saying, “Guys, no art is dead yet. Go out and make something great.”

Boardwalk Empire Pilot: A- (I don’t get as idiotically specific with TV episodes)

Scorsese’s mostly in work-for-hire mode on the pilot for Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t bring his usual flair to the table. The first episode mostly sets up the conflict between political figure/bootlegger Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his protégé turned rival Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), who’s too ambitious, too greedy, and too hotheaded to play assistant to some ward boss. The episode also introduces Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), the put-upon wife of an alcoholic who gets Nucky’s sympathy.

Boardwalk Empire is Winter’s brainchild, but the material fits nicely into Scorsese’s wheelhouse, with Buscemi making a perfect coolheaded kingpin and the normally laidback Pitt playing as a handsome young parallel to Mean Streets’s Johnny Boy or Goodfellas’s Tommy DeVito. The portrait of a constrictive society sticking women with abusive husbands (even as the society members tut-tut Mr. Schroeder’s alcoholism) feels like Scorsese touch as well.

But really, the director mostly comes through in the visual dynamism: an opening that freeze frames on a stick-up, then travels back in time a few days; a tracking shot that changes perspective, implying Nucky’s shift in one moment from charitable man to businessman; a crane that loses Nucky and company in the colorful New Jersey milieu before finding them again, just like in Taxi Driver; and a sense of grandeur in the cross-cutting final minutes of the episode, showing murders both of business and passion. If this is any sign of what’s to come with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s upcoming collaboration with Winter, then we’re in for a treat.

Living in the Material World: 70/B

Scorsese’s films are often as spiritual as they are emotional, and while George Harrison: Living in the Material World feels on paper like a corollary to No Direction Home (right down to the whopping 208 minute running time). The film, which covers Harrison’s journey from Beatle to spiritually-minded solo artist, is just as sprawling as No Direction Home, and a lot more shapeless. The early bits with The Beatles feel a bit more purposeful in showing how Harrison was just as integral to the group as anyone else, and how the weight of being in the most famous band in the world wore on him.

As soon as the film moves past the group’s breakup and the release of his masterpiece All Things Must Pass, though, the film starts to get lost in digressions involving his funding of Monty Python or his work with The Traveling Wilburys. It’s not without interest, but there’s a reason the best biopics and documentaries about famous people usually take a slice of someone’s life rather than the whole damn pie. After a certain point, Harrison’s life got a lot less dramatic, the Patti Boyd/Eric Clapton situation and his stabbing by a deranged fan notwithstanding.

But what gives Living in the Material World a cumulative power is its focus on Harrison’s mix of spiritual yearning and tangible emotional feelings. He’s described at one point a man with separate personalities, one of goodness, one of anger, and his struggle with that as the Beatles got bigger and he tried to make a name for himself as an individual gives the film real resonance. Harrison wanted to feel love and connection for all things while he felt anger at his bandmates for not appreciating him.

 It’s a bit like Scorsese’s portrait of spirituality in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus is as much driven by human desire as by divine duty. Scorsese is ultimately moved by Harrison’s quest to become a better person, and to communicate that through his most transcendent songs – “My Sweet Lord”, “What Is Life”, “Something”, the last of which can be seen just as much about spiritual love as it is about emotional love. For Harrison, and for Scorsese, the two aren’t altogether very different.

Street of Dreams: 76/B+

Finally, there’s Scorsese’s most recent bit of miscellany, this year’s Dolce & Gabbana advertisement Street of Dreams. The three-minute short follows Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson, two of the biggest stars and most beautiful people in the world, in a gorgeous car as they drive through the streets of New York. Black-and-white cinematography recalls both classic Hollywood and Federico Fellini for its crispness and enchanting nature. The conversation the two have about the city’s past shows a world that’s not sticking around – perhaps Scorsese’s view of New York and the movies? – but it’s more sweetly nostalgic than it is a dirge, and that makes it all the more charming.

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