(2010) director Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese is a film scholar of the first kind. That is, a film scholar before film scholarship became an actual study in universities. Film scholars of his generation had no DVD’s, limited television re-showings, and only the primary experience of seeing films on their initial release in the cinema. And it’s that formative experience and how he developed his passion for cinema and his aesthetics and ideas that really defined him. Of course, he would go on to teach film, but as well, he would go on to make films, films that are worthy of scholarship on their own. I don’t think it’s radical to suggest that Scorsese is among the important American directors of his generation and that he has made some excellent films.
Nowadays, film is more readily available, watchable on demand, able to be studied virtually frame by frame if one is wont to, and not only are film studies programs available all over the world, but there are now perhaps armies of armchair cinephiles clocking hours of film-watching but via internet and blogs, everyone is (potentially) a critic, though how scholarly they are, I don’t know.
Scorsese, between his own films, new films that he helps to produce by other filmmakers or even revivals of classics and favorites, his influence is pretty pervasive. And he knows good stuff. His A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), made for British television during cinema’s centennial is something I’ve been meaning to go back and watch again for a long time. It’s a great primer and it’s very informative about what draws Scorsese to certain directors, films, and aesthetic focal points. He, as I’ve said, is a scholar and a professor, and the man simply knows his stuff. He’s great to listen to.
Scorsese’s best work, arguably, was in the earlier part of his career: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), with his last “great” film being Goodfellas (1990). With both Raging Bull and Goodfellas getting ruefully overlooked at the Academy Awards, he finally got some long-deserved recognition in finally being awarded Best Picture and Best Director for The Departed (2006) after swinging for the fences with Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004). But what earmarks much of Scorsese’s last two decades of films is that they are big films with big ideas, epic scopes, and strive mightily to tell big stories. And as with some of the material, the epic is clear, but what’s funky about The Departed and now Shutter Island is that these stories are perhaps a bit more of genre films, less epic in nature, more cut out to be leaner, meaner films.
Now, one could argue that Scorsese took The Departed to that more epic place, but Shutter Island is much more pulpy material, and it’s funny having watched some of the Val Lewton movies that I’ve tracked lately, films all clocking in at much less than 90 minutes, low-budget affairs which Scorsese has a fervent appreciation for, you can see sort of the other side of the coin, the lean, effective thriller, without all the fancy effects or the more grandiose narrative devices. And I think that a lot of critics felt that Scorsese tried to take the “pulp” and make it operatic.
Shutter Island, adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone (2007), Mystic River (2003)), is a psychological thriller set in a mental institution on an Alcatraz-like island off the coast of Boston. It stars Scorsese’s favorite actor Leonardo DiCaprio (in his 4th starring role for Scorsese) as a law enforcement officer seeking an escaped inmate. DiCaprio’s character is coming off a trauma of his own, having tragically lost his wife (the beautiful Michelle Williams), and he’s got some issues of his own. And ultimately as this mystery/horror film unfolds, DiCaprio’s character’s own sanity becomes more and more suspect and the reality of the surroundings become more and more dubious in their reality.
Oddly enough, I’d read the book, the only of Lehane’s works that I’ve read, so I knew where everything was going, which sort of drew some of the joy and suspense (if not most of it) out of the film. And the film is over-long at over 2 hours. Is it sort of a time threshold at which “serious” feature films have to cross to be deemed “serious”? But I didn’t find the film to be as ponderous or weighted down as a lot of reviews that I’d read had made it out to be. I’m not really a DiCaprio fan, he doesn’t do a lot for me, though he’s not repellent (like Tom Cruise for instance), and here in this film, I found him quite good (no matter how good or bad you think his Boston accent is). The film spends a little too long unwinding in the finale in particular, which does support the notion that Scorsese would have done well to tighten his film and align it perhaps more with a Lewton-esque concision.
But who knows? Scorsese scholarship, assuredly studied in some universities already, will come to find Shutter Island somewhere among the spectrum of his oeuvre, doubtlessly not at the top and doubtfully not at the bottom.