Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I'm sorry. I was getting tired of pictures of that damned statue, and I just couldn't resist... Besides, Jack Black should have been nominated!


I think your suspicions are absolutely correct. Ten weeks after the Oscar ceremony, it will give me genuine pause trying to recollect the name of the movie that does win Best Picture, or the name of the actor who wins Best Supporting Actor. And 10 years from now, I feel as certain as you that the movies people will consider important, the movies that will have already begun coalescing into classics of varying stature will be some of the ones you mentioned, like Pan’s Labyrinth; or A Prairie Home Companion; surely Inland Empire; quite possibly Miami Vice; most certainly Borat…, which had people still doubled over with laughter on their way out of the auditorium and over to the box office to buy another ticket and see it again; or the new horror masterpiece The Descent, which boasted the one quality almost every other horror movie in 2006, good or bad, could not—it was original-- or Iraq in Fragments, which introduced whole new perspectives for American audiences bludgeoned by processed information (and misinformation) about our current international nightmare; or even movies seemingly as feather-light as Charlotte’s Web and Nacho Libre, both of which can make kids (and some adults) deliriously happy in two completely different ways.

But it’s hard to see an Academy whose history includes the honoring of road show spectaculars and other white elephants ranging from The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), to Ordinary People (1980), Gandhi (1982), Out of Africa (1985), Forrest Gump (1994) and Braveheart (1995) changing their tune anytime soon. In this regard, Babel seems like the movie to beat.

However, though I sympathize with your argument regarding The Departed (see, I’m getting there) as being the kind to which the Academy should be paying more attention, I also see more than just lip service to worthy genre entertainments scattered all over the Best Picture winners roster. I think the case could be made that movies as varied as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gigi, Lawrence of Arabia, In the Heat of the Night, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, Rocky, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Shakespeare in Love and certainly The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are all, on some level, genre pictures—some aspired to depths (or, if you will, pretensions) beyond the pale of their baser origins, some even succeeded at achieving them, and all, I think, fit the model to which you ascribe The Departed. It seems to me that at least the more recent history of the Academy is fairly evenly divided between the “good-for-you” picture and the what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “inflated genre” picture, so it’s hard for me, on precedent alone, to guess that The Departed has less of a chance than Babel based on that fact that it’s a popular entertainment. Actually, aside from all this “little movie that could” talk about Little Miss Sunshine, I think the Scorsese and the Inarritu movies are the only two real contenders for Best Picture, and I think the odds are just about as even as they could be as to which is more likely to win.

Which brings me around to Martin Scorsese. Just so I could be as fresh on The Departed as possible, I saw it again on DVD last night, and I will say right now that if Martin Scorsese wins the Best Director prize, as everyone (yourself included) is predicting he will this coming Sunday, I will not be unhappy. In fact, I came away from this second viewing with a greater appreciation for the balls Scorsese keeps in the air in this movie and how lively it is as a whole-- except, I’m afraid, for the Vera Farmiga subplot which, however much its tricked up with snappy dialogue and wonderful bits of acting (I love the glance she gives that ridiculous dessert tower leaning precariously on the table between herself and Damon) seems musty and obvious and burdened with serving as the oasis of reflection to which the characters occasionally recede when the movie needs to take a break from the fun stuff. Truth be told, of all the recent movies in the Poor Marty saga, only Gangs of New York comes off to me like anything resembling pretentious hackwork, the director’s grand-scale stab at grafting Visconti and Bertolucci onto his own all-too-familiar frameworks. (Gangs could have been called Muddy Streets.) Had not it been in competition with Million Dollar Baby, I would have been more than fine with a Scorsese win for The Aviator, a brilliant, haunted movie, even if it coincided with his most desperate and unpleasant Weinstein-induced groveling at Oscar’s feet.

In my mind, Di Caprio is as close to just right as I think I’ve ever seen him in The Departed—I think about how miscast he seemed in Gangs, and how he often struggled too mightily to fill the unfillable shoes of Howard Hughes. He struggles in The Departed too-- the scene in the bar when Costigan must twist and turn around the question of whether he is or is not the rat in Costello’s organization is effective, but it doesn’t have the pall of the horror of discovery about it that it should. Di Caprio’s own acting seems a bit too desperate in this scene—too much of the character’s desperation is allowed to come through, too much to escape Costello’s immediate notice, anyway, and the rings of logic he spins to save his own ass don’t seem convincing. But throughout the rest of the movie he pitches his desperation and improvisatory cunning much more expertly; he demands our attention, and he deserves it.

I think Nicholson does more to undermine that bar scene than Di Caprio does, and it’s emblematic of Nicholson’s inability to rein in the court jester that plagues the performance as a whole (it’s what’s at the heart, I think, of your observation that he looks less like a Boston hard-case than a Hollywood bum). By the time Nicholson gets around to his Hannibal Lecter-Jack Torrance bit, rolling his eyes, staring gape-mouthed at Di Caprio, and then imitating the squeaking of a rat, all the intimidation had drained out of the characterization for me. At least Nicholson whipping out the dildo had some context—he is meeting Damon in a porno theater, after all. When the actor gets up to leave a fazed Di Caprio in the bar booth and is suddenly replaced, in the seeming blink of an eye, by Ray Winstone’s Francis, that ball-bearing-in-the-gut feeling came speeding back unexpectedly, the intimidation factor shot immediately back to 11. This second viewing of The Departed made me long for a version where Nicholson’s role could have been played by Winstone, all dead-eyed stares and completely believable I-will-kill-your-fucking-family comportment. Winstone could have done the inappropriate humor to keep the troops off balance without turning it into a clown show. In contrast, Nicholson’s performance shoots tiny little holes in the movie that don’t sink it, but constantly distract you with all the Jack-style antics he probably felt assured would get him the Oscar nomination that never came.

All that said, The Departed has a beyond-sharp script that, as you say, cruises between comedy and pressurized suspense with ease—my favorite line comes early, Damon to a uniformed academy recruit: “You got any suits at home, or do you like coming to work dressed like you’re gonna invade Poland?” Nicholson excepted, the ensemble cast assembled by the director, from Damon and Winstone to Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, right on down to David Patrick O’Hara as the slurry Irish pug Fitzgibbons, is peerless. And Scorsese, despite the cheapening effect of that increasingly infamous last shot, certainly deserves to win Best Director over Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and even Stephen Frears and Paul Greengrass. The Departed is a much better movie than I first thought, much better in the Scorsese canon than the overrated GoodFellas (and I’m not just saying that because we just finished up Contrarian Weekend over at Jim Emerson’s place).

But I really do think Letters from Iwo Jima is better. And I’m really looking forward to seeing it in tandem with Flags of Our Fathers-- I can’t imagine how together they won’t add up to one of the strongest war movies in American cinema—because even though they do tell separate and fascinating stories, I’m very excited to see how the two dovetail together, having one fresh in the mind while seeing the other. (It’s for this reason that I avoided picking up the Flags DVD this week—you know that Warner Brothers is going to package the two at some point, probably with all the fascinating, as well as the state-the-obvious and redundant, extras they left off of this initial package.)

Eastwood’s style as a director couldn’t be more different than Scorsese’s, and for some that translates as, Scorsese has the mastery of filmmaking juice, while Clint’s visual sense and grasp of pacing tend toward stale TV-like setups and slack, unmodulated rhythms. A friend of mine echoed your sentiments exactly about Iwo Jima in an e-mail to me last week—the humanizing of the Japanese was obvious, the movie’s flashbacks felt canned and visually uninspired, and the movie was just too damn long. To me, Eastwood’s boldness in taking on the Japanese side of the story of this battle goes far beyond a simple humanizing of the enemy for our edification. ("Those poor savages had homes and families too, you know!") Eastwood, whose films already display the kind of patience and observational style that are anathema to the sensibilities of Leone and Siegel, from whence he sprang, takes his stylistic confidence to another plane by adopting a sensibility suited to a Japanese filmmaker in order to tell this Japanese story. Those long takes and the movie’s steady, unhurried pacing were anything but boring to me—they allowed me to soak in a sense of the impending doom by which these characters were trapped, and allowed Eastwood as a director to focus on elements that allowed him to separate this film from the tradition of post-Saving Private Ryan war films, to which even Flags belongs to a certain degree (even though it too resists the temptation to use optimized cinematic technology to churn the audience’s emotions to specious ends—there are no battles in Flags or Iwo Jima that carry the cinematic excitement of the ones in Ryan.)

I’m not saying that the director has suddenly morphed into Yasujiro Ozu—hardly. But I am saying that his level of empathy in Letters to Iwo Jima is such that he’s able to comport a more classically quiet, somber stylistic view, one which makes room for the contemplative sadness of these soldiers hiding in man-made tunnels waiting to die. There is room for the horror, the cacophony, the confusion of battle, but there is also room for flashbacks that bring us toward a clearer understanding not just that Japanese were human too—only a thundering meathead could fail to notice this—but that they embodied or were an inseparable, often oppressed part of a culture shot through with militaristic values and codes of honor that went aside from, and often well beyond, the orchestrated American support of the war effort. I’m sure Eastwood would pooh-pooh the comparison, but I think there are moments in Letters from Iwo Jima where the influences of John Ford meet up with moments and emotions and filmmaking style comparable to those of Kenji Mizoguchi (Genroku Chushingura--The Loyal 47 Ronin) and even the cultural criticism of Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence).

So the Marty vs. Clint battle could be pitched as a battle of styles—though both are, as you say, crime and war movies unmistakably made by old men. One feels cinematically vital and energized through camera movement, editing, sound design—all the tools Scorsese, a master stylist, has at his fingertips—and the other is suffused with the patience and mourning of a master filmmaker unafraid to hold his images, his effects, yet never push his points or his approach—a truly classical style of which Eastwood may be the last genuine practitioner. A modern movie star born of impatience and disaffection with old models and molds of genre films, Eastwood has turned into a great ambassador of old school Hollywood craft grafted onto a more contemplative, introspective method that still finds ways, as in Iwo Jima and especially Flags, to challenge some old, calcified societal assumptions. It’s enough to make me hope for a Katharine Hepburn-Barbra Streisand-style event-- a tie. But that wouldn’t really satisfy you or me, would it, my friend? In my heart of hearts, I’m still pulling for Clint. And you’re absolutely right—Ken Watanabe was unquestionably, unaccountably screwed out of a Best Actor nomination. To make room for Will Smith?

Okay, I promise to try to reign in my logorrhea for the rest of the week—I blame it on my never having given myself a chance to write about either The Departed or Letters from Iwo Jima to any great extent. But this is already so much fun for me, and I suspect you (and, I hope, the readers) that I can’t wait to get your return response.

Here are a couple of thoughts: Do you think the price of gas this past summer had anything to do with the slightly cooler reception given by some critics to Cars? Is this year’s crop of Best Cinematographer nominees the best, most wide-ranging ever, or is it just exciting to see a list that drifts so far away from the nominees that dominated the rest of the awards? And what about Morricone? His best? His worst? (That Arena Concerto DVD is on its way from Netflix.)

All the best,


Anonymous said...

'Eastwood’s style as a director couldn’t be more different than Scorsese’s, and for some that translates as, Scorsese has the mastery of filmmaking juice, while Clint’s visual sense and grasp of pacing tend toward stale TV-like setups and slack, unmodulated rhythms.'

I agree that's how Scorsese's rather bitter fans see Eastwood but it's such a terribly ignorant & condescending viewpoint don't you think? If they really feel that way then they must also hate directors like Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz and any other number of equally great directors who 'lack' Scorsese's flashy visual style. Let's be honest, this insistence in some quarters that Scorsese's style is some sort of definitive fusion of image & sound & nothing else can possibly come close is just absurd. It's just ONE style not THE style.

I'll tell you what comes to mind when I think of Martin Scorsese - I think of a director capable of great set pieces but incapable of sustaining that level throughout an entire movie. Setpieces are what I take from Scorsese's oeuvre. Not thematically coherent, strongly constructed narratives but a few flashy setpieces that standout in an otherwise clumsily constructed narrative. For some this is evidently enough to elevate Scorsese to the rank of 'greatest living director', but it's a claim I've always found unwarranted.

Having said that I did like The Departed, mainly because unlike most of his previous films Scorsese's direction here keeps a consistent tone from start to finish. I didn't think the movie was in any way great, btw. There are just too many flaws in the performances & Monahan's script is at best adequate (and inferior to the HK original). I did enjoy it but it wasn't a movie that lingered in the mind. I'll be amazed if it wins Best Picture as for me it's far from the best of the nominees.

Eastwood towers above Scorsese in more ways than their respective heights. Sometimes I have felt Eastwood's direction was sluggish but I think this is more due to his interest in his characters. If you look at Flags of Our Fathers, its dragging in the third act seems to me the result of an excess of ambition with the story rather than any weakness in the directing. One of Eastwood's greatest strengths for me is his ability to make you forget about the camera. I can't tell you how refreshing that is. I don't want to notice the camera moves when I go see a movie. I'm not interested in director's showboating their style. But unfortunately we seem to live in an era where self-consciously flashy, attention grabbing camerawork counts for more than the totality of the work. Hence I think these ludicrous accusations that Eastwood isn't a good director. Doubtless the pendulum will swing back eventually. For me - and combined with an amazingly understated quality in his movies - I think Eastwood is a far better director than Martin Scorsese and it's hard to argue with the claim that he is indeed American cinema's greatest living director.

Christian said...

I don't want to keep commenting here when others will have more insightful ideas and questions, but does it bug anyone else that Scorcese's remake adds 50 minutes to the running time of the Hong Kong original? Is it that subplot Dennis mentioned that accounts for the extra minutes?

I thought the film ran out of gas. Or maybe I was just too deadened by all the bloodletting to care at some point. Very stylish, well edited, and performed nicely across the board, but "The Departed" took a little piece of my soul with it, and I'd like to have it back.

As for Eastwood's "Letters," I second everything Dennis said, although I wasn't a fan at all of "Million Dollar Baby." Nor did I care for "Flags of Our Fathers," which I'm in line to rewatch later this month. But "Letters" slowly snuck up on me and moved me more than any war movie I've seen since "The Burmese Harp."

I hear that Japanese audiences are responding strongly to the film. That has to be gratifying to Eastwood, who probably won't receive any Oscars Sunday night.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

To Anonymous — Who is saying that Scorsese is a greater director than Eastwood, or that Eastwood is not a good director? Not I. Not Dennis. One style does not trump another. They are both great directors. There is a school of thought that Scorsese is a great director who's never made a complete great film (but I would argue for the documentaries, as well as Mean Streets and Raging Bull.) As I've said before, Eastwood is the only person in film history to be both an icon as an actor and as a director. (Welles was not an acting icon, in my view, and Chaplin was not a stand-alone directing icon.) That's a phenomenal accomplishment. His place is secure. Having said that, I want Scorsese to win.

Anonymous said...

To tlr-hb - I cannot tell you how many times over the past few years I have read the most bitter criticisms of Eastwood made by Scorsese fans on various movie message boards. Given the nature of the net it's difficult to tell whether these are the genuinely held views of many fans or just a few bitter souls posting under multiple aliases. But the criticisms certainly exist. I agree that 'one style does not trump another' but that doesn't seem to be the view of some Scorsese fans. I have no idea why Eastwood engenders such hostility in some fans but he apparently does. All the more ironic that Eastwood & Scorsese are good friends.

>>There is a school of thought that Scorsese is a great director who's never made a complete great film

I think he has gotten there a couple of times. I have mixed feelings about the acclaim for Goodfellas. I always think of it as 2/3 of a great movie but I really felt 'After Hours' was terrific. Those aside I do agree with that school of thought and 'Raging Bull' is a perfect example for me of a movie in which a few set pieces completely overshadow the work as a whole. That film is thematically incoherent (one does not come away from RB understanding the director/writers point) and the structure is clumsy. Nothing flows naturally & there's no sense of a unifying theme. For me it's one of the most overrated movies of the '80's but then I think the reason for its acclaim goes back to what I was saying earlier about living in an era where the dazzling set piece is elevated above the work as a whole. It was not always this way, fortunately.

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

To Anonymous: People say to me: What's Raging Bull about? And I go: It's about the end quote: I was blind, but now I see. I've always viewed it as a grand metaphor for Scorsese's raging coke addiction and that he was somehow able to pull himself out of a near-death spiral and find his way back. Unlike Jake LaMotta. Scorsese was using LaMotta to explore the rage and unhappiness in his personal life. In many ways, he was pummeling himself like Jake was pummeling others, or getting pummeled. It's about the internal anger/violence and lack of direction in Scorsese's own life, mirrored through the character of Jake LaMotta. Yeah, I read that somewhere once. Sometimes, I don't know what the hell that movie is about. If it's nothing but set pieces, then I would argue that set pieces can be a great movie. Because that is a great movie, clumsily constructed narrative or not. Although it is sort of his David Lynch movie, as in weirdly compelling but kinda inexplicable. It works for me, it doesn't work for you. That's cool. As far as those unreasonable Scorsese fanboys: Let's sic Pesci on 'em.

benaiah said...

Why is Babel getting so much hype as a darkhorse Best Picture favorite? The only award it won is the Golden Globes, which has some panache, but ultimately is voted on by about 40 European journalists. Babel isn't expected to win in any major category (the only award it might win is for editing, as Supporting Actor, Director and Original Screenplay have heavy favorites already) The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine meanwhile, won nearly every award at the SAG, Writer's Guild and Director's Guild awards and are favorites to pick up some other Oscar hardware (Marty wins best director, both probably win Screenplay awards). How is Babel remotely a favorite, besides the fact that it reminds people of Crash?

Flower said...

I think I read somewhere that Raging Bull was also very much about Paul Schrader's guilt over his relationship with his brother Leonard. Not sure which personal connection gets pole position...

Anonymous said...

has there ever been a scenario where a film's only Oscar win was for Best Picture? Because it seems like that could easily happen this year...

benaiah said...

has there ever been a scenario where a film's only Oscar win was for Best Picture? Because it seems like that could easily happen this year...

I was thinking that exact thing earlier today, except I was thinking that is proof that Babel won't win. I haven't seen it, but I am going to give it a try this week at some point.

Nobody said...

"Muddy Streets"! Ah, I wish I had thought of that. (Personally I thought The Departed should have been called "Cell Phone." It was more phonocentric than 24!)

I'm glad I'm not the only one to dislike the cacophony that was Gangs of New York. Like Anonymous, I think After Hours is my favorite Scorsese.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Everyone-- Sorry for being so delinquent in my own comments section, but here it is 11:00 pm PST and this is the first look I've had at the blog all day. (Ask me about it someday over a brimming cup of boo-hoo-hoo.)

Anyway, I'm going to have to beg off again because I'm about to fall asleep and I still have to drive home. But I will say I'm of the mind that Scorsese is a great director whose great films are maybe two-- Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But I also have an inordinate amount of love for The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The King of Comedy, New York, New York and The Aviator-- all flawed, all brilliant in their own way, and all movies I want to see again and again. (I have a whole lot less love for GoodFellas, mixed feelings about Raging Bull which, I'll admit, I need to see again, and absolutely no love whatsoever for what I'd term his worst movie, Bringing Out the Dead. I also think Cape Fear, is addition to being markedly inferior to J. Lee Thompson's original, pretty despicable.)

And before I get labeled a fawning Eastwood apologist, I'd just like to say two words-- Heartbreak Ridge. And two more-- Absolute Power. Maybe two more-- Pink Cadillac. All right, just two more-- Blood Work. And two of those were made after he'd won the Oscar for the first time. He is a great director, and I'd say he's made about as many great movies as Scorsese-- Unforgiven and A Perfect World, and though I'd say the jury is still out, Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima look like candidates to me. And what about Bronco Billy? I'm serious. (Let the outcry begin!)

So it's not one over the other for me (only at Oscar time). It's simply that as I get older, Eastwood's unassuming style, what "Anonymous" (oh, how I'm beginning to dislike that nom de plume!) describes as his ability to make you forget about the camera, while remaining pictorially and editorially fascinating, is the kind of filmmaking to which I'm more responsive. For example, I love the way he's almost always on the edge of shooting in complete darkness, and the way he uses the pools of black as an expressive tool, in Million Dollar Baby, a quality that many smart critics used as evidence to rip his cinematographer, Tom Stern, for being incompetent. I'll always dig Scorsese's abilities as a craftsman, and treasure him for ItalianAmerican and for the image in Mean Streets of Harvey Keitel holding his hand over a burning candle while that tortured inner monologue plays out underneath it. But Eastwood speaks clearer to me as an artist these days.

Okay, I'm off to bed. TLRHB has a new post up, so I'll read it, ruminate upon it and have something new up in response tomorrow. That's a promise! Must defend Monster House! Must defend Monster House!

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

I'll take a break from fawning over Scorsese to say: Heartbreak Ridge is my favorite Eastwood movie! Really. I love every minute of that movie. It does not deserve to be in the category with Pink Cadillac, Blood Work and his unfortunate Charlie Sheen collaboration, The Rookie. Everybody makes bad movies. It's still the good ones that count, and Clint has plenty of those.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

All right, I'll trade you Heartbreak Ridge for The Rookie-- just about as indefensible a movie as Eastwood has ever directed (the winner of that contest being Sudden Impact, I'd have to say), but loads of fun, anyhow!