Tag Archives: shutter island

Talking to Schickel about Talking to Scorsese

Conversations-with-directors books can go one of two ways: Either the directors want to analyze their work, or they don’t. Those who do either obscure the films with trivial esoterica or — as is the case with Martin Scorsese, in Richard Schickel’s new book, Conversations With Scorsese — illuminate their choices with a pragmatic instinct verging on the intimate, as though they were discussing not shots and lenses but their own biography.

Click here to read my L.A. Weekly interview with Schickel about his interview with Scorsese.

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In Which The Author Uses the Impending Release of the New James Ivory Film as an Excuse to Briefly Regard the Films of Merchant Ivory

The City of Your Final Destination, Merchant Ivory’s first movie without Ismail Merchant, will be released this Friday.

For as long as I can remember, Merchant Ivory movies have met with a strange mixture of admiration and distain. The admiration comes from readers and writers who see in pictures like Maurice and The Remains of the Day the stuff of serious literary adaptation, the distain from hardcore movie people who rebuke Merchant Ivory’s masterpiece-theaterish tendency to favor dialogue and scenery over more rigorous forms of cinematic storytelling. The first group thinks of the second group as narrow-minded snobs, and the second group thinks of the first group as grey-haired fogeys. I’m proud to say I’m a member of both.

At best, these pictures are faithful evocations of lost mores, told with great attention to mise-en-scene and language, impeccably acted, and often beautifully realized. Yes, beauty; on the level of imagery alone, slices off Howards End and A Room with a View are as stunning as any painting at the Met (if not more so). But as a good friend of mine used to say, “Beauty is easy.” I know what he means. Only a fool, when his gondola pulls into Venice, wouldn’t think to remove his lens cap.

So where does that leave Merchant Ivory? Good movie or good housekeeping?

Good movie. Director James Ivory has something no other English-speaking director of costume pictures has – he knows it’s the man that makes the clothes, not the other way around. Take Scorsese, for instance. His period films, for all their strength of decor, show little of life as it was, or even as it might have been. New York, New York, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Age of Innocence (minus Daniel Day-Lewis) and even Raging Bull imbue eras past with contemporary behaviors. Wonderful behavior, rich, evocative, and stirring behavior, but all weighed down to present day by its wonderful, rich, evocative stir. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a point of reference.

James Ivory understands the distinction. To watch Anthony Hopkins, in The Remains of the Day, thwart, fight, and deny his every human impulse without ever drawing attention to the fight, is to see an actor in full understanding of his era’s given circumstances. Because, to Hopkins’s Mr. Wilcox, the fight is not a badge of honor, as it would be today; it’s a requirement, part of being a civilized British servant. It’s his job. A director without Ivory’s appreciation for Wilcox’s milieu would ask for more from Hopkins, or try to rationalize this very old, very English attitude by making Wilcox appear to be prisoner to his own beliefs. But Ivory knows too much for that. He knows Wilcox is not a tragedy.

So while The Remains of the Day doesn’t approach Barry Lyndon’s level of technique, it proves that James Ivory, when it comes to the way we were, is as adept a historian as we have in film today.

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Shutter Island Paradise

I’m not surprised Shutter Island has put people off. It’s bombastic, loud, prone to hysteria, and engaged with the sort of horror hokum we want to think Martin Scorsese – our most popular highbrow filmmaker – is too good for. To be frank, some scenes clank. Others are embarrassingly operatic, and a few too many moments stumble into kitsch (“He’s in here. I can feel it.“), but the gestalt is insidiously addictive.

Attribute it to Scorsese’s deft handling of noir-like flashbacks and horror-type fantasies, which he fuses to induce that place of semi-consciousness between vivid recall and total insanity. It is a state of mind perfectly suited to America of the mid-fifties – not coincidentally the time-setting for Shutter Island – when post-war trauma, McCarthyism, and the pressure to keep it all together were making a paranoid mess of those the nation once counted amongst its sane.

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With material such as this, it’s no wonder Scorsese isn’t shy about going all out. Maybe Michael Haneke would have played it closer to the vest, but when was the last time the director of films as visceral as Raging Bull and Goodfellas traded in whip-pans and splattered blood for a feathery touch? (Even The Age of Innocence is exploding with cinematic guts.) More than that, when was the last time insanity was ever depicted as polite?

Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin anything. From the word “asylum,” we should have a pretty good sense of what’s at stake for our main character. And anyway, the surprises – and there are many – have less to do with twists and turns in the plot than watching Scorsese re-explore one of his favorite subjects – this time with new eyes. Here, in the realm of noir and horror, genres that lend themselves to surreal breaks from objectivity, he can indulge his flamboyance to the nth degree, continuing to build, quite logically, on a sequence of madness that started way back with Taxi Driver, and expanded to include Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, and The Aviator (with side trips to After Hours and The King of Comedy along the way).

Scorsese’s invocation of madness in Shutter Island is as satisfying as anything he’s filmed in twenty years. The Departed was a good time too, and so was Casino, but neither did much to grow the director beyond the walls of his comfort zone. Shutter Island, on the other hand, pushes our conception of Scorsese to the brink. It tests him, and he comes out the cleverer for it, proving that he has what it takes to navigate through the film’s several timeframes and planes of consciousness both the old fashioned way – with a system of symbols triggering the narrative from one association to the next – just as he and his editor, the amazing Thelma Schoonmacher, shuffle us through a trick deck of visual sleights of hand. Like something out of Vertigo, disorienting shifts between points of view – shots that begin (it seems) from one perspective and end up (it seems) from another – evoke the kind of psychological rupture lesser directors would fob off with cosmetic gimmicks, nutty angles, and (God help us) the standard hand-held effect (scary!).

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But there’s more. In the midst of the fancy-footwork, the director proves, once again, that he knows where his characters’ hearts lie. Like all good films noirs, Shutter Island must eventually confront that moment of original sin, when, way back in the past, things started going wrong. When it comes time to show it, in keeping with everything else about Shutter Island, he isn’t afraid to pump up the volume. Scorsese knows there’s no trauma without trauma. Fearlessly, he conveys the wound with a seriousness that belies what many, myself included, consider the limitations of the thriller.

And in the midst of all this, Shutter Island happens to be one hell of a fun ride. If you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy listening to the Coney Island clicks and creaks of the old rollercoaster as your wooden car makes its fateful way up.