The Irishman

The Irishman

I know I'm late. Even excluding the theatrical release window, there are few good reasons to get to such a big movie (in all senses of the word "big") two-and-a-half weeks after it became immediately available in my own home, but I swear I have one: I wanted to do it all at once. 209 minutes is a big chunk of time and I finally found it this morning. Luckily, I live alone, in the high country, and with no immediate neighbors, so I didn't even have to pause when I needed to pee - I just stood with half of my body outside the door and my eyes focused on the screen.

Despite my commitment, I'm still late. So I'll breeze past everything we already know: The Irishman is good; De Niro is good; Pacino is good; Pesci is good; it's long but it works; still, it's long; no, Anna Paquin does not say more than ten words, but it kind of works with the character as established by Young Peggy (Lucy Gallina); the de-aging worked; the script worked; that sequence with no score really worked; and Scorsese worked his butt off. A fine film. I might call it great in a few days. It's already steadily growing on me.

But because I basically agree with most of what I've gleaned from the public-at-large's reaction to this, I'd like to take this opportunity to ruminate on Scorsese's career as a whole. His last three films (The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence and The Irishman) have shown him to still be in total control of all his cinematic powers and instincts, and his dip in quality before them (Shutter Island is fine and Hugo is awful. (Come at me. Better yet, read the original novel and then tell me that John Logan didn't totally destroy what Marty could have made into something really good. It's not Scorsese's fault.)) he was still on top of his game (I'm a big fan of Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed). And of course there are his early years, when the only objective failure is New York, New York. I'm not a fan of After Hours, but I recognize that it's just not for me. His middle years feature a successful attempt to get Paul Newman that Oscar in one of the best examples of how to make studio filmmaking work for a true artist. They also feature my favorite of his films, The Last Temptation of Christ. And who can forget Goodfellas? I could easily forget Casino, but I guess there are some people out there with surgically-affixed Casino-colored glasses who just don't get what "good" means. I don't know where they are. In fact, I can't think of anyone I've ever spoken to about Casino who thinks it's good. As of this instant, I'm convinced that everyone on the internet who says Casino is good is just a Russian bot or troll trying to sow discontent on Film Twitter, America's second most powerful voting bloc after uneducated, middle-aged white males.

So what has allowed him to keep up such a relevant career in the face of such rapid change? A lot of his contemporaries - Coppola (the old male one), De Palma, and Bogdanovich, for example - have either lost it or gotten lost. Spielberg is still possibly the most recognizable director from America, but he has always been happily ingratiated in the studio system a little more than Scorsese and he's done quite well for himself. Lucas just got out of the directing game entirely. I'm sure there's an example to refute this claim, but he seems like the only one of his ilk still out there killing it on the regular.

The first and most obvious component to his continued success is that he hasn't stopped. In the fifty-two years since he started making feature films, he's made twenty-five, never taking more than four years between theatrical releases. (It's worth noting that the one four-year gap he had was between The Departed and Shutter Island, a movie that was originally slated to come out in 2009, not 2010.) And let's not forget all the feature-length documentaries the man has directed. Although I suspect that he's much less involved in those than he is the features, it's still a huge commitment. The man just doesn't stop. Even when he has Kundun and Bringing Out the Dead come out in 1997 and 1999 to critical approval but neither of them get an international release or make their budget back, he comes back swinging with Gangs of New York in 2002 and earns ten Oscar nominations (including Picture and Director) as well as almost 200 million dollars at the world box office.

In the 1980s, when the studios were taking over the beautiful mess New Hollywood made breaking their eggs for some tasty omelets, he didn't quit. Raging Bull was made during the 70s, so it doesn't quite count, but it's still amazing. The King of Comedy also didn't make a lot of money, but the critics loved it. After Hours is about as close to a cult classic as one of the most-revered directors of all time can muster.

But I think his insistence is best represented right after that.He waited through two more movies (good ones) to get to make his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ on half of the original budget and with much less organization. He, a "lapsed Catholic" directed a script by a former Calvinist based on a book by a man raised in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Those are three Christian faiths that don't see eye-to-eye on a whole lot of things, especially when it comes to Jesus. Yet he made a transcendent, spiritual, human picture and faced all the backlash from the religious right without so much as missing a beat.

How do I know? His next film was Goodfellas. Goodfellas.

So now our question becomes, what keeps this man driven to be this productive? Maybe he's just trying to catch up with the speed of his mouth. Maybe he is so grateful for the new life he found after drugs that he won't waste a minute of it. I'm sure there's some quote about it somewhere. No time to search. Or rather, it's far more interesting to let the work speak for itself.

Each one of his films is connected to the man we perceive Martin Charles Scorsese to be. All of his crime films can be loosely connected to the environment in which he was grew up, seeing the criminal element in Manhattan's Little Italy. Any time I see Catholicism, I assume it's because he grew up Catholic and once considered going into the priesthood. While he may not write these stories, he's certainly drawn to them. Write what you know, right? Why not direct what you know? Not that the man hasn't done his fair share of writing, but when you're picking true stories like The Irishman the Italian criminal life and the little bit of Catholicism we get had to have been attractive to him.

On a broader, less tangible scale, the man loves to tackle movies that let the main characters wrestle with feelings of guilt and regret. Even with The Color of Money, a film on which Scorsese wasn't terribly involved on a script level, Newman's Eddie Felson is dealing with a ton of guilt resulting from events we see in The Hustler and it comes up in the film. I also see that film as a turning point in his career because he begins to do films with characters that are either: A) significantly older; or B) much wiser. I'm thinking of De Niro and Pesci to Liotta in Goodfellas or the Dalai Lama or Jesus or the mentor/mentee relationships that form in Gangs of New York and The Departed and Silence.

In essence, Scorsese has never been afraid to evolve as an artist. Sure, The Irishman features the same kind of flashbulb edits that he had in Raging Bull, but the film ends up pondering what it means to be old and alone and the fading value of things as those new dynamics evolve. The Wolf of Wall Street is blustery and ballsy in a way that none of his films had been since Goodfellas and it even tops that. But even with the youthful energy of that and the actual relative youth of his characters, the film closes with a gut punch of a scene that lets us know Scorsese wants you to look at yourself and wonder, "Am I the reason America is focused on the wrong, vapid things?"

Silence tackles spirituality as explicitly as Last Temptation and Kundun and as implicitly as Bringing Out the Dead did, but it is far more inward than either of those films. As Scorsese as aged like a fine wine, so have his films. They have become more ethereal and thematic without losing the gravitas of sheer human imagery.

I once had a professor who had worked a long time in the arts criticism circles say that the only critic she ever knew of who never lost the passion for it was Roger Ebert. Everyone else, she said, became jaded and dry. But Ebert loved film so deeply and loved writing about it all the more that he never grew tired of it. I think Martin Scorsese is the same way. He wants to make a film his children can see, so of course he goes and makes Hugo, a children's film that ends up being a lesson in early film history. He is always looking for a way to connect with his next project. Forget how much money it will make based on its curbside appeal to the masses and forget whether or not there's already a script for it. Is it a story that interests him? Does it speak to him in this moment now? Each and every time, you better believe it.

I cannot wait for Killers of the Flower Moon.

Nathan liked this review