Monday, February 26, 2007

Scorsese's Departure

This year's best picture winner, The Departed, shares more in common with last year's intruder than critics would like to admit. Conventional wisdom and plot similarities inform us that Babel is incredibly similar to Crash in its construction and themes. Interestingly, it is just as coldly manipulative and exploitive as the Oscar winning film as well. However, although I admire the Academy for selecting a genre film prizing pure excitement over big messages, The Departed strikes me as too reflexive, and not in a good way. Maybe Scorsese wanted to call attention to how rigorously structured the film is, but one would think that given the material he would want such manipulations to be non-existent rather than dogging every narrative step of the film. Yes, the structure reflects the film's themes of identity, betrayal, and the blurred line between good and evil. But to me, it is too calculated; the artifice is too upfront. Its utter precision in unveiling the dualistic plot took me out of the film rather than drawing me in, which is one of my many criticisms of Crash. Keep in mind that I think The Departed is a much better film than Crash. I just couldn't enjoy it for the great film that I knew it could have been. Its greatness lives in individual moments but drifts out of focus in the overall execution of plot.

Martin Scorsese has said that this is the first film he's made with a plot. While I love an excellently plotted movie as much as the next person, I think my inability to totally get into the film was partially due to the fact that I knew this was a Scorsese picture. All of his trademarks are here but something about it just doesn't feel right. Such a criticism is unfair and biased, but I must be honest about my feelings of the film. My love of Scorsese's films is rooted in his value of story and character. He is amazing at visually executing a story in a way that reflects the inner fears and passions of the characters. With The Departed, the Scorsese "look" is there, but the interest in the characters isn't; and that's because the movie is so focused on plotting that characters take a back seat. It's then no surprise that David Bordwell determined that the average shot length of The Departed is much shorter than the typical Scorsese picture; The Departed is Martin Scorsese bringing his look and sound to popular entertainment. Perhaps if I hadn't brought the knowledge of Scorsese's previous work to this film, I may have enjoyed it more and it would have made a greater impression on me. But the beauty of cinema and criticism is that viewers do bring knowledge and experiencs inside the cinema and out to individual films.

I certainly don't mean to demean Martin Scorsese's film or undermine its success. But just like the feeling I had with the sight of him clutching that Oscar, watching The Departed is a disjointed experience for which I had reserved enthusiasm; I don't think I've been so reserved yet so embracing of a film's ability to entertain. I am ecstatic that he finally won, much in the same way that he made a film that captured so many and is now back in the public limelight. But somehow, The Departed just doesn't gel the way most Scorsese movies do, even the ones that aren't masterpieces. It's overall very difficult to react to a film that both embodies a director's personal style so much yet feels so artificial and hollow by his standards, like he's consciously bowing to what people want to see. That being said, I still very much enjoyed the film despite the odd feeling I had watching it. But in the end, that feeling prevented me from loving the film the way I have so many other of his films.

Part of the reason for my reaction to the Oscar win of the film and the experience of seeing the film as muted excitement is that I had a real problem with how so many pundits, critics, and viewers were claiming that Scorsese has "returned to form." Jim Emerson revealed in a post a while back that he feels that we may be patronizing Scorsese at this point. And I think that whole discussion upset me, especially in relation to how I felt about the film. Honestly, as exciting and classically entertaining The Departed is, it doesn't have an ounce of the heart and passion that films like Raging Bull, Age of Innocence, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Last Temptation of Christ possess. Scorsese makes excellent mob movies, but to say that he's better at making mob movie, and to pigeon-hole him for that is to horribly misunderstand this great director's work. He has made several passionate, brilliant films that transcend genre, despite many of them borrowing from conventions of certain genres. His films take those conventions and internalize them, giving them meaning through his fascinating characters and striking images. With The Departed, the shell appears to be all that's there; the conventions of genre. It is more of an outward celebration of genre and narrative styles. While it worked on that level, it doesn't represent Martin Scorsese doing what he does best. Scorsese "at his best" is not limited to certain genres or narrative conventions; it instead emerges when he makes films about people, films which explore guilt, death, violence, obsession, and temptation in visually exciting ways.

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