Thursday, October 12, 2006

You Do It In the Streets

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This particular week has been my first genuinely busy week of this semester---and there's more to come! Two midterms in two days---my Editing & Layout midterm yesterday, my French Film midterm today---and two papers coming up this weekend---one short one for my journalism seminar on documentaries, and another, much longer one for my Major Filmmakers class on Clint Eastwood.

Regarding the midterms: it's funny. During high school and my first two years of college, whenever I felt like I had done less than great on a midterm exam, I'd become quite the worrywart, stressing out over a possible bad grade to the point that it felt like life or death, even though it wasn't. But, when I finished taking these two recent midterms, I felt that, though I most likely didn't do amazingly well on either, I didn't feel a sense of devastation or anything. In fact, my immediate impression was something close to...well, perhaps close to indifference. It's not that I don't care how I do in the course---I do. Perhaps I've begun to simply worry less about grades---at least, individual exam grades---in general. What do they matter? They're just letters, and it's not like grades necessarily indicate success in life or anything like that. With the prominence of the Mighty Curve in college, perhaps I've just begun to take them less seriously than I used to do in high school, when every bad grade seemed to feel like one step farther from going to a good college. (That's probably an exaggeration, but there's some truth to the hyperbole, I feel.) Even if I do surprise myself and do very well on an exam, I know I have my academic faults, heh.

Anyway, I'm taking some time out of my day to pool some of my thoughts on Martin Scorsese's recent film The Departed (** out of ****), an entertaining yet impersonal and rather nihilistic thriller which may be a sigh of relief for people who disliked the prestige pretensions of previous epics like Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but which nevertheless doesn't necessarily signal the triumphant return to form that some critics seem to be suggesting it is. In fact, I'd be more inclined to go the opposite way: it's Scorsese continuing the mainstream acclaim-mongering he's been seemingly doing since Gangs of New York, except now he's "going back to his roots" in a cynical attempt to remind people of earlier triumphs like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. The Departed is not in the league of any of those three, to say the least.

Scorsese must have thought to himself: if the Academy won't take me seriously enough with these two historical dramas, then maybe I should return to the mean streets for my next movie, and then people will really embrace me again. I think it's kind of a shame that critics seem more willing to shower macho spectacles like Goodfellas or Casino with knee-jerk acclaim---just because they're Scorsese mob movies---and seemingly take less seriously more interesting, underrated fare like, say, The King of Comedy. But hey, delving into manhood and street life---as well as bringing an impassioned visual and religious sense to those films---is what made Scorsese's reputation, and for a Scorsese who, these days, seems more like he's looking for success and acclaim than he is exploring or deepening his themes and his art, why not revisit that gangster milieu one more time?

But masterpieces like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver clearly had a sense of personal involvement that The Departed lacks. Those earlier films seemed to be about subjects close to him: religious guilt, what it means to be a man, etc. In Mean Streets, it seemed like he was trying not only to dramatize his own personal experiences and exorcise his own personal demons: he was trying to reveal the harsh reality behind the gangster lifestyle. This is what he also tried to do in Goodfellas, albeit on a broader scale than Mean Streets.

Goodfellas, really, is the film to which The Departed deserves comparison, not only because they both try to spin big stories, but also because they both display Scorsese at his most technically uninhibited. If nothing else, the gritty street life seems to bring out the energetic stylist in Scorsese, and The Departed---especially during its first hour---recalls the former film with its restless moving camera and stylistic tricks (including one surprising iris-out shot). And the soundtrack is, once again, full of classic rock songs and even opera arias, indicating the kind of operatic crime melodrama he's aiming for.

Certainly, The Departed has a brilliant premise: an undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) seems to be living a gangster's life, and a gangster (Matt Damon) is living a cop's life. Thankfully, the film is much more complex than that one-sentence summary indicates---Damon isn't exactly a gangster, but he's starting to act more and more like a cop as he keeps moving up the force; DiCaprio is desperately trying to hold on to his old cop identity as he seems to be becoming more and more of the kind of gangster he's trying to catch. It's an identity swap-movie that, as an action thriller, is certainly superior to the adolescent revenge melodrama of, say, John Woo's Face/Off. And, for its first hour, The Departed is terrifically well-constructed: in trying to chronicle these two separate lives at once, Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker create a startling parallel structure that makes for some interesting connections.

But the final impression I get from The Departed is of a technically brilliant yet ultimately impersonal gangster-genre machofest that doesn't add anything interesting---except more macho violence and profanity---to what Scorsese didn't already do, to much better and more involving effect, in his earlier gangster films. He's no longer seriously contemplating both the allure and the harsh reality of the ruthless gangster lifestyle: in The Departed, it just seems like he's rehashing his greatest hits, sans any sense of moral consideration. The result is both undeniably entertaining and rather dismaying.

Rather humbling, too, considering that The Departed is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong action thriller, Infernal Affairs: a film which one of its directors, Alan Mak, acknowledges is partly inspired by Scorsese. Admittedly, it's been a while since I've seen Infernal Affairs, so my memory of the film is somewhat fuzzy---but what I remember is a film that stood miles apart from the usual ultraviolent Hong Kong violence-fest by virtue of the way it took its characters and their situations with real emotional gravity. It was a crackling good thriller, yes, but also a gripping character study that dared not to paint any of its characters as simply good or bad guys.

Infernal Affairs rose above genre; The Departed doesn't, although, for about an hour or so, it seems like it's really trying to. But when Jack Nicholson, as Irish mob boss Frank Costello, starts making rat faces and talking like...well, like Jack, you know that something has gone astray, as if Scorsese has let some of the movie get away from him. (DiCaprio and Damon are vastly more credible in their roles; if the film's worth watching it all, it's for them, as well as for Vera Farmiga, who makes something out of almost nothing with her role as the shrink who falls for both of them.)

I think conviction is what ultimately disappears from this movie. Scorsese isn't interested in interrogating his own fascination with the gangster milieu anymore. He's too busy trying to put on an emptily entertaining show. The Departed has its gripping moments, and it is undeniably stylish and inventively constructed. But emotionally, it's as if Scorsese went into this project thinking that he just wanted to make another gangster movie. If all you seem to be looking for now is popular acclaim, might as well revisit the genre in which you've found your greatest success, right? I suppose this movie isn't bad, but, despite its intriguing premise and some fine performances, The Departed feels more warmed-over than inspired, and its final shot---of a literal rat---puts a final, cynical exclamation point on the mostly meaningless proceedings.

1 comment:

odienator said...

Kenji, I would rather have all of your current assignments than the group presentation I have to do tomorrow for my Comm Theory grad class. I'm so bored by the topic that I might actually have nude pictures of me PhotoShopped in a menage a trois with Halle Berry and Barbara Stanwyck (circa 1941) in the Powerpoint presentation. Believe me, I can find a comm theory to apply to that. This might be the only F I ever get in my entire scholastic career...but it'd be worth it.

Want to switch assignments? I'd kick ass on your French Film midterm and the Eastwood paper. And you can go explain my naked Powerpoint trickery to my professor.

As for The Departed, I don't think it's the masterpiece some crix are proclaiming, but it's nice to see Marty's head out of Oscar's ass. I'll take Marty-lite over Desperate Marty popping up in the corner of the screen every 5 minutes saying "GIMME DAT OSCAH! GIMME GIMME GIMME!" He started doing that when the subtlety of his first "prestige" picture (The Age of Innocence--talk about underrated Scorsese!) went unnoticed by AMPAS. His rabid bids for Oscar in Gangs and Aviator reminded me of his performance in my fave Scorsese, Taxi Driver.

The Departed is to Scorsese what The Black Dahlia is to DePalma: Director for hire movies onto which their respective directors sloppily Krazy-Glued their styles. Scorsese did this before, with Cape Fear, but this time it works. There are moments when The Departed seems, like Dahlia, ready to derail under the unhinged style of its direction; unlike Dahlia, it manages to always right itself on the tracks.

I went in expecting a Face/Off style movie that wasn't as good as the original source material, and that's what I got. I disagree with you that this is less juvenile than Face/Off--it's probably more juvenile. Face/Off never tried to be realistic.

Poor Vera Farmiga! Her character is a complete waste of talent, and if more than five people had seen Down to the Bone, she would probably have saved herself from the travesty of the role she plays here.

As for Jack--this isn't About Schmidt. This movie calls for Crazy Jack! I loved how Scorsese's camera caressed his larger than life features. Only Kubrick did it better. I expected him to reach out of the screen and into my bag of popcorn.

I can't believe you got through your entire review and didn't mention the two best human things in the movie, Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin! (The best thing about the movie overall is Schoonmaker's editing.)

I'd add half a star to your rating.

Back to my stupid group presentation...