Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scorcese: prospects for horror from the director of Goodfellas

I've been seeing trailers and buzz for a new Martin Scorcese pic called Shutter Island. Odd, since it's not coming out til February 19, 2010, but whatever -- it's never too early to start publicity. For my own part, I finally saw Goodfellas this past week. This is in addition to the other fare I've seen from the director: Taxi Driver, The Departed, The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, and (back before I was much of a movie-watcher) Casino.

There's something fundamentally unfair about making a list like that, because when you see all those titles side-by-side, they just become a list of "essentials." However, when you have to think about any particular Scorcese film, or study one, or choose a favorite, you may notice that each of those films is a monolithic masterpiece, an iconic moment in contemporary cinema. This is how a great director like Scorcese should be defined... not by his near-misses, as cynics are likely to claim, but by the scale of his combined masterpieces.

I mentioned in a previous post that Quentin Tarantino's filmography seems to be packed with "career-defining" movies, little opuses that fans like to cite as his greatest masterwork. In Tarantino's case, he feeds into this public perception, often talking about how his next movie is "a love letter to cinema" or the film he's been "waiting his whole life to make." Scorcese exhibits a similar effect, but unlike Tarantino, he doesn't have to push it... it's a function of his filmmaking style that so many of his movies seem like epic, career-defining cinema masterpieces. From Last Temptation, whose subject matter distinguishes it as a genuinely brave literary achievement, to Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, both of which are psychological portraits unsurpassed in intimacy, Scorcese keeps making movies that push the limits of storytelling as far as they'll go.

Goodfellas was an opus, as much as any of the other movies mentioned above. It was a highly subjective film, told almost entirely through Henry's eyes, but from this vantage point, it told a sweeping story of organized crime as it went through a key turning point in the 1970's. If I saw Scorcese as a mob-movie director, I'd see this as the pinnacle of his career. If I saw him as an essentially Italian-American director, I'd see Last Temptation as his high point... if I saw him as a directorial vehicle for his iconic actors, I'd see Raging Bull as his greatest achievement... and if I saw him as a representative director of the city of New York, I might see Taxi Driver as his greatest film. It's hard to see him as all of these at once, but I think it's the only way to do him justice.

Shutter Island looks like a departure for Scorcese, perhaps a surprising turn, if you haven't realized how versatile he's been. From the trailer, it looks like a horror film (or a "supernatural thriller," if you want to distinguish it from Hostel). It has jump-out scares, deranged faces and whispery voices, cryptic messages, and frantic breathing and movement through dark environments. In this aspect, Shutter Island looks like much more of a genre entry than Scorcese's previous films, and this may be a concern. Is it going to ruin the sense of universality and scale that's been such an asset to Scorcese's films? Is it going to slide too easily into a niche, and end up squandering the director's talents for complexity and ambiguity?

I hope it doesn't. There are certain skills Scorcese has in his filmmaking -- the ability to make us sympathize with a lost and desperate soul, the ability to make us feel threatened and alarmed without using cheap scare tactics -- that could work beautifully for portraying madness and claustrophobia. These skills have been at work in scenes like Henry's drug-induced paranoia and arrest, or inside Travis Bickle's head as he's become fixated on violence. However, Scorcese's never really turned these skills into the kind of rabid fear that horror movies tend to go for. If anything, he's turned them into suspense, discomfort, and intimidation. Whether those work for him in the kind of film that Shutter Island seems to be identifying as... or whether Shutter Island decides to be something totally unexpected and misrepresented by the trailer... those will be the key determining factors in whether Scorcese's next film is successful.

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