A NEW PRESS PLAY COLUMN: Seth Abramson’s “Metamericana”: Is Martin Scorsese’s Latest Offering Unbelievable On Purpose?

A NEW PRESS PLAY COLUMN: Seth Abramson’s “Metamericana”

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This biweekly column
looks at instances of American film, television, drama, and comedy that
are in some way self-referential—”art about art.” Also discussed is
American metamodernism, a cultural paradigm that uses both fragmentary
and contradictory data to produce new forms of coherence.

Greed, Martin
Scorsese suggests in his new film The
Wolf of Wall Street
, is now executed in U.S. financial markets on such a
colossal and audacious scale that it no longer has the capacity to scandalize
us. That’s why The Wolf of
Wall Street
may well be the most unbelievable film Hollywood has
produced in more than a decade, a claim that seems extraordinary given the
film’s grounding in the memoirs of the real-life “Wolf of Wall
Street,” Jordan Belfort. There’s a difference, however, between a biopic—something The
Wolf of Wall Street
exhibits little interest in being—and a movie that
intends, instead, to enter the historical record as High Art. The foremost ambitions
of High Art are to illuminate the unknown and frustrate the conventional;
entertainment value is a secondary consideration, indeed sometimes not even a
consideration at all. Which is why it’s little surprise that not only does
nearly everything that happens on-screen in Martin Scorsese’s new film strain
credulity, there’s little evidence that either Scorsese or his actors (among
them Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jon
Favreau, and Bo Dietl) intended it to be otherwise. Even the movie’s run-time—an
arguably bloated three hours—seems calculated to emphasize the excess this
movie not only revels in but elevates to the level of conceptual spectacle. And
sometimes America needs a spectacle that outrages rather than delights; in
fact, often it is the outrage of unmet expectations that inspires America to
take dramatic action in its own self-interest. Given that, where malfeasance in
the American marketplace is concerned, America has yet to act decisively to
punish individual and institutional wrongdoers, dramatic remedial action is
long overdue.

To read major-media reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street, you would suspect
that many of the nation’s most esteemed film critics have missed the point of
the film entirely. Focused on the exploits of a gaggle of crooked stockbrokers
who sell near-worthless penny stocks to wealthy investors, Scorsese’s epic is
indeed, as Joe Morgenstern grumped disapprovingly in The Wall Street Journal,
a “hollow spectacle” (let’s ignore for a moment the jaw-dropping
irony of that publication in particular issuing such a declamation). But those
who opine that Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays stockbroker kingpin Jordan Belfort,
doesn’t seem “terribly comfortable” in the role (Christian Science
Monitor
), or that the film is, in sum, “about getting your own” (The
Detroit News
), or that DiCaprio’s and Hill’s on-screen antics are intended
as “slapstick” (National Public Radio) saw in Scorsese’s grand
vision only reflections of their own unwarranted disappointment. These critics
wanted a relatable human drama with an unambiguous moral; what they got was a
piece of High Art deliberately inaccessible by Hollywood standards.

To quote Belfort’s father Max upon seeing a credit card statement detailing
outrageous payments to prostitutes, “Crazy? This is obscene.”
Indeed it is. The Wolf of Wall Street is an aestheticized
obscenity—that is to say, one whose scope is intended to provoke awe, not
understanding—and unlike obvious predecessors such as Oliver Stone’s Wall
Street
, it comes to American movie-goers with no canned message whatsoever.
That’s right: Scorsese doesn’t deliver a Wall Street morality play so much as
offer his audience a spectacle of meaninglessness that’s intended to be exactly
that. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t
seedy realism; it’s garish fantasy. Scorsese knows, and The Wolf Of Wall Street confirms, that misbehavior in the American
market has risen to the level of the sublime. The nation’s class of
moneymakers—whose sole exports are bullshit and nonsense—are the abstract
expressionist painters of contemporary America, the only difference being that
their canvas is the nation itself rather than a legion of
gallery wall-spaces.

It’s impossible to overstate the three-ring circus of absurdity on display in The
Wolf of Wall Street
. Donnie Azoff (Hill), upon seeing a gorgeous woman at a
crowded party, removes his penis from his pants and begins to masturbate;
Belfort (DiCaprio) snorts coke out of a prostitute’s asshole, sexually assaults
airline stewardesses, demands someone fetch him a bag of cocaine just moments
before drowning at sea, tapes thousands of dollars to a naked woman to smuggle
ill-gotten funds into Switzerland, and invites into his large-scale boiler-room
“office” a veritable parade of outrageous guests: everything from a
half-naked high school marching band to dancing prostitutes and begoggled,
velcro suit-wearing little people. In the film’s most audacious scene, Azoff
and Belfort take so many Quaaludes that the latter ends up crawling across a
country club parking lot, while the former falls through a glass table and
nearly chokes on a piece of ham. None of it, taken in its totality, is the
least bit plausible—no more than is Azoff urinating on a federal subpoena to
the applause of his officemates, or Belfort having sex with his wife atop a
giant pool of neatly-stacked hundred-dollar bills. But why do we expect that it
should be? And even if it’s all ripped straight from the pages of an
autobiography—mind you, the autobiography of a self-admitted drug-addict,
felon, and confidence man whose profit motive in selling his life story is
self-evident—ought we not credit Scorsese with sufficient artistic vision to
know when the truth is not just stranger than fiction but veritably
indecipherable?

If the characters and scenarios of The Wolf of Wall Street seem plastic
and deliriously unchanging, it’s because, Scorsese submits, the scope of American
greed is likewise far past the point of plausible melodrama. The 2001 Enron
scandal cost that company’s shareholders, many of whom were mid-level employees
with retirement accounts comprising exclusively Enron stock, more than $74
billion dollars; the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other global financial
services firms in 2008 cost American taxpayers $700 billion in bailouts. What
these and other recent financial scandals of similar scope have in common is
that they were preventable before the fact and only lightly redressed (in terms
of criminal penalties) after the fact. In short, even after years of DC-led tough-on-crime
initiatives emphasizing reductions in street crime, America had insufficient
stomach to punish the patrons of a different sort of “street” when their criminal
conduct cost the nation untold anguish and financial distress. That’s why
DiCaprio’s Belfort routinely breaks the fourth wall—not, as you might expect,
to educate the audience on why his character is doing what he’s doing, but
rather to remind the audience that whether they understand what’s happening or
not is beside the point, because the movie’s obscene spectacle continues
regardless. Never before has a film so baldly lectured its paying customers on
the irrelevance of their credulousness and comprehension. If Michael Douglas’
Gordon Gecko (Wall Street) monologued with sufficient gusto to encourage
(in some moviegoers) an understanding and even admiration of the reasoning
behind his avarice, DiCaprio’s Belfort is a villain more suited to the often
amoral twenty-first century. When he tells his lackeys, “I want you to
deal with your problems by being rich,” it’s immaterial whether he
believes his own bullshit, or whether you do, or whether you believe he
loves his wife or feels kinship with his friends, because the scope of what
he’s doing is beyond your small understanding in any case. Which is exactly how
America’s worst villains want things to be, and exactly why they’ve become
nearly impossible for the rest of us to stop.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

VIDEO: HUGO and the First Movie Magicians

VIDEO: HUGO and the First Movie Magicians

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The 84th Annual Academy Awards will be announced this Sunday, with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo leading the pack with 11 Oscar nominations. Along with the 10 nominations for fellow front-runner The Artist, silent cinema will occupy center stage at the ceremony in a way it hasn’t since the dawn of the sound era. To commemorate the occasion, this video links Hugo to several films by the early pioneers of cinema.

Originally published on Fandor. Visit Fandor to read the transcript and watch some of these great silent films.

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Director Martin Scorsese, HUGO

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Director Martin Scorsese, HUGO

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. Follow along HERE as Press Play decides the major categories including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting ActressBest Supporting Actor and Best Documentary.  Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

This year's Oscar race for Best Director features an especially strong roster. The five nominees are Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist, Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life, Alexander Payne for The Descendants and Martin Scorsese for Hugo. Four of them did magnificent work this year, one of them less so, but in the end there will only be one winner.

nullWoody Allen's Midnight in Paris is not a love letter to nostalgia or a trite piece of idol worship. Instead, it's a mature artist realizing his own folly. It's a melancholy film, yet Allen's direction is full of hope, with the final choice of the hero underlining the pointlessness of living in the past and the necessity of having to trudge on. Michel Hazanavicius' supreme achievement in The Artist is making people talk about the silent era again and argue about whether the film accurately represents it. Terrence Malick's canvas is as wide as they come in The Tree of Life, where he explores life, death, the universe and everything in a spasmodic stream-of-consciousness narrative. He finds the personal in the expansive. The theme of loss permeates the film. Malick arranges the beautiful movements with grandeur. The Descendants is perhaps Alexander Payne's most conventional movie to date. Loss, once again, is prominent in this family drama deftly directed by Payne with a loving eye for the minute details in the grand scheme of life.

But this year's Academy Award for Best Director should go to the master, Martin Scorsese. In Hugo, Scorsese shares with the audience his eternal love of movies through a magnificent palate of colors and exuberant motion made all the more fantastic by an exemplary use of 3D. But despite the added dimension, Hugo is the rare 3D film that works without it; the opening title sequence alone is a marvel of direction. Scorsese also displays a knack for physical comedy that one wouldn't have expected. Generally, though, Scorsese's direction manages to put a sense of wonder front and center. His love of films and filmmaking may be the hidden true subject of every film he has ever made. In a strange way, Hugo might be Scorsese's most personal film to date.

Kevin B. Lee is editor in chief of Press Play. Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog.

OSCARS DEATH RACE: HUGO

OSCARS DEATH RACE: HUGO

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in a fairy tale, in both senses of that word. He's not troubled with real-life adolescent bagatelles like homework, and he lives unsupervised in the clock tower of a Parisian train station, where he's in charge of keeping the clocks running.

nullBut Hugo is unsupervised because his parents have both died. (…I believe? I'm not entirely clear on what has become of his mother; his father, played by Jude Law, is consumed by a fiery backdraft in flashback, and this is not explained either.) Hugo's druncle Claude (Ray Winstone) takes custody of the boy, sticks around long enough for Hugo to learn the station-clock trade, then goes on walkabout, and Hugo is left to fend for himself. Fortunately, he's gifted at fixing things, so he keeps the clocks running in the hopes that nobody will notice Claude has gone missing, and dodges the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), an orphan-phobe with a mechanical leg and an equally hostile Doberman. Hugo nicks pastries from bakeries, and spare parts from Georges, the sour proprietor of a toy stall (Ben Kingsley), because on top of keeping the time and staying out of the boys' home, Hugo has a third job: trying to fix an old automaton repatriated by his father from a museum, in the hope that the machine will send him one last message from beyond the grave. And it does, in more ways than one.

Hugo is beautiful entirely aside from the thoughtful 3D effects. Snow looks real, and cold; clock gears look real, and old; the characters frequently compare movies to dreams, and the visual style has a heightened, almost Burton-y dreaminess, in the small touches almost more than the big showy bits (the bishop's sarcophagus; the weave of Hugo's sweater). The characters, and the way they're shot, contribute to the fable feeling; Hugo shortly finds an ally in Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Georges's goddaughter, a girl who loves libraries and big words and longs for one of the adventures she's enjoyed within them, and her ally is the peerless Christopher Lee as bookseller Monsieur Labisse. Labisse is usually shot from an angle that emphasizes his towering size, which both intimidates and protects.

nullThe mythological story — the labors to earn back the notebook, the redemption of the warrior of the past who now toils in heartbroken obscurity — might not seem like an intuitive choice for Martin Scorsese. But the story is a love letter to film, and to the "indoorsy kids" through the ages who, confined to quarters, learned the world through the stories of others. That sort of elegy could pall quickly, and the speeches about the magic of cinema are…just that, but they're also relatively short, utterly sincere, and backed by Scorsese's voluminous knowledge. I liked The Artist well enough, but Hugo makes it look even gimmickier by comparison.

The superstitions of children that aren't just children's; Law, examining the automaton and recalling the company he kept in AI; Isabelle's horrified "DON'T YOU LIKE BOOKS?!" and Georges's defeated "Please, just — go away" — there is a bittersweet current running through Hugo that makes it much more than its technical achievements, and a wonderful note to hit for Scorsese. I love the man's work, but he can present at times as alienated from the concept that movies are by and about human beings. Here, he's operating from that idea's lap, and that shift shows up all over the movie; just when you feel like you've had enough of the glowering station agent and the gags with his leg locking on him, Cohen delivers this line from the depths of a sinking chest: "Yes, I was injured in the war and it will never heal, good day mademoiselle." And there's the character in three dimensions, no special glasses required.  

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in a fairy tale, in both senses of that word. He's not troubled with real-life adolescent bagatelles like homework, and he lives unsupervised in the clock tower of a Parisian train station, where he's in charge of keeping the clocks running.
 
But Hugo is unsupervised because his parents have both died. (…I believe? I'm not entirely clear on what has become of his mother; his father, played by Jude Law, is consumed by a fiery backdraft in flashback, and this is not explained either.) Hugo's druncle Claude (Ray Winstone) takes custody of the boy, sticks around long enough for Hugo to learn the station-clock trade, then goes on walkabout, and Hugo is left to fend for himself. Fortunately, he's gifted at fixing things, so he keeps the clocks running in the hopes that nobody will notice Claude has gone missing, and dodges the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), an orphan-phobe with a mechanical leg and an equally hostile Doberman. Hugo nicks pastries from bakeries, and spare parts from Georges, the sour proprietor of a toy stall (Ben Kingsley), because on top of keeping the time and staying out of the boys' home, Hugo has a third job: trying to fix an old automaton repatriated by his father from a museum, in the hope that the machine will send him one last message from beyond the grave. And it does, in more ways than one.

Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.comFor more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.

GREY MATTERS: Martin Scorsese’s interesting year

GREY MATTERS: Martin Scorsese’s interesting year

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Aside from being a lousy whitewash out to prove God-knows-what, Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World doesn’t even live up to some simple realities, things like the fact that when you’re Martin Scorsese, you most certainly do have a huge responsibility when taking on such an undertaking. Nobody will ever again have your resources, access or your name, and the sobriety of purpose and sheer cred that goes with it.

And now, to super-complicate matters really interestingly, we have Hugo, easily one of Scorsese’s top five films, a masterpiece, coming mere months on the heels of the Harrison debacle. The two films, in eternal orbit and connected by “George” as a name and notion – of the guitar player and his revolution in sound, and of the disgraced special effects trailblazer, Georges Méliès, who, in our world, delighted a small, asthmatic Italian-American boy in Little Italy almost 60 years ago with his lowest-fi wonders.

My sense is that Scorsese – a Catholic boomer from the age of Aquarius, director of Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ – simply could not have made Hugo without the mysteries of Harrison’s persona and life-long mysticism nagging him on. It’s just a damned pity that a huge chunk of facts, music history and Harrison’s vast, real legacy had to be the sacrificial lamb for Scorsese’s beautiful triumph.

So am I arguing that artists have responsibilities? Nope, no way. Do journalists? Yes. Absolutely.

nullBut in Material World Scorsese straddles art and reportage and screws the pooch on both. And yet Hugo, a film that makes no bones about being a total spin on some history using the toolbox of fiction, absolutely gets the heart of so many truths: truths about cinema, anger and healing, growing up and magic. And yeah, ironically, of the creation of history.

The irony is that the methods and mindset that serve Hugo so well are poison to Material World. Before we move on, though, a quick view of both films.

Material World offers a superfan’s mind-blow of previously unearthed Beatles and Harrison footage to drag us through a brilliantly edited but still relentlessly middlebrow, Ken Burns-like take on The Beatles and Harrison.

You know the drill. Grew up in grim, post-war Liverpool. Played crap clubs with John, Paul and Ringo until gaining world domination. Became entranced with Indian culture, the sitar and transcendental meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Made the magisterial All Things Must Pass solo record with the insane Phil Spector, now imprisoned for murder. Formed The Travelling Wilburys with Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Did too much coke at some point. Got cancer, beat it. Suffered a knife attack by an insane person. Got cancer again, died peacefully. Every so often something new and interesting pops up – Harrison was a race car driver? – only to be summarily deleted.

nullAs you’ve probably heard, the film’s talking heads – among them Ringo and McCartney – are sometimes identified and sometimes not. About fifteen years of Harrison’s life are simply omitted, one assumes, because, like that racing bit, they just don’t fit Marty’s thesis: quiet guy becomes mystic. (You could say this lacks dimension.) The tales we’ve heard of George as a compulsive, somewhat cruel womanizer are whimsically hinted at by his wife Olivia, and then dropped. The epic coke binges occupy a fascinating single string of video that suggests the great film this could have been – I’ll return to that topic.

In general, Scorsese behaves as if his love of music will cover for the fact he truly doesn’t understand the thing, how it works or why the damned it so bewitches and obsesses him.

On the other hand, Hugo finds Scorsese not only at home in multiple cinematic languages and dialects, but talking about talking those languages. And so 3D not only works as immersion technique, but as an element with its own sacred history in a film that assumes longing for the cinematic experience and love of illusions as basic currencies.

The incredible richness of Scorsese’s visual languages allows him to express Harrisonian spiritual values delivered with an Amélie-like breathlessness and a neo-Gaultier splendor. (If costume designer Sandy Powell doesn’t win an Oscar for her designs, heads will roll – to speak only of heads.) As much as The Tree of Life is intrinsically Christian, Hugo is deeply Eastern in tradition, a film of real and metaphorical deaths and rebirths, of spirit animating the material world.

The film’s about Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a smudge-face Dickensian literally marking time by minding a Paris train station’s clocks and trying to repair the broken, beautiful automaton gifted to him by his deceased dad (Jude Law).

Hugo’s enemy is Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), once a foster child, now a spiritually broken policeman crippled by war. (Scorsese/Cohen/writer John Logan only play Gustav for laughs until they understand the true depths of his brokenness).

nullHugo’s redemption comes in the form of Isabelle (Chloë Moretz), a young girl who’s never seen a film, and who’s the foster granddaughter of Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), a cranky man with a toy shop in the station, and who is on the run from the slow reveal of being the Georges Méliès – more than just special effects’ godfather, a man who rejects bleak reality for the hygienics of extreme fantasy.

By the way, we already we know far more about Hugo’s fictional characters than we ever learn about anyone in Material World. Just saying.

Scorsese’s film, the stuff of John Logan’s script (itself based on Brian Selznick’s book), unfolds a series of beautiful, almost Hindu cycles of death – Hugo’s dad and uncle’s passing – of birth – Isabelle’s discovery of cinema, the “awakening” of the automaton – and rebirth – the automaton coming to “life,” Georges’ films rediscovered, his reputation, his essence, Inspector Gustav healed of the burns of a bad childhood.

Along with its spiritual transcendences and heroic humanism, Hugo addresses, delights in and celebrates film history through mostly-fictional characters, fantastic devices and interlocking, exquisitely alive tableaus.

The reason this works with Méliès and not Harrison would seem obvious: most of Méliès’ films were destroyed after World War I, most Americans have no idea who he was, most historians have no idea what the “real” man was like. And so there’s no such thing as “doing” Méliès inaccurately. Harrison’s life, on the other hand, as we see in Scorsese’s own film, is ridiculously open to scrutiny, which means the director has to work that much harder to float his revision.

In Hugo, fiction about fact frees Scorsese. In Material World, what we get is an attempt to mold fact to fit intent. After a while, it’s like a root canal; the only painless part is when it’s over.

nullI get the temptation to rewrite George as spiritually ahead-of-the-curve, as an enigma tucked inside a mystery. Problem is, in order to do this properly, you have to commit all kinds of misdemeanors against the artist, the arts and history. Scorsese ends up so busy whitewashing alone, he has to, for example, mostly play down the matter of George’s, well, guitar playing.

Off and on, people – mostly unidentified – declare George’s playing to be “soulful.” This means nothing. Paul and Ringo – both acquitting themselves with warmth and grace – speak of their fallen mate with respect, with Paul saying he was the best musician by far when they started, which is something as George was, like, 17 years old at The Beatles’ beginning. Whatever – I eat this stuff up with a spoon, Paul and Ringo’s humbled late-life understanding of their band’s magnificence.

But aside from the static, overlong middle section of the film involving George’s interest in the sitar and Ravi Shankar, there’s not much in the way of musical insight. Scorsese seems so bent on fuck-knows-what, he misses the ready-made metaphor for Harrison’s spiritual quest sitting right there on his AVID screens.

It’s Harrison’s mysterious morph from the edgy, all-elbows player on early hits like “Don’t Bother Me” to the soaring transcendent slide guitarist you hear on Badfinger’s “Day After Day” (not in the film) and pretty much everywhere after the White Album.

What happened? How did he change? This is exciting stuff – the sound of a man’s soul in transition!

nullScorsese, literally, could not care less. Instead of this tale of self and spiritual discovery through music, Scorsese fritters away precious time with Eric Clapton, who shares tales of his cockmanship, of his creation of Scorsese’s favorite GoodFellas track, “Layla.” Scorsese is so enraptured with Clapton, who comes off as the epitome of noxious, boomer rock royalty, chortling about stealing George’s wife and choosing to not join the Beatles due to his extreme awesomeness, that Scorsese doesn’t seem aware Clapton is most recalled as a soft rock favorite and that, more importantly, aside from the solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and some shared women (nice), Clapton has fuck-all to do with our story here.

The Clapton infatuation is, however, a side effect of what’s really wrong: Scorsese refusing to leave his boomer bubble for context or insights, and in so doing, missing Harrison’s vast contributions beyond his own first edition vinyl collection.

Based on what’s here, Harrison is a minor figure – no big deal, used to be in The Beatles, saw God, Ommmmmmm…. You’d never know that Harrison’s early Beatles compositions (think “If I Needed Someone”), with their signature bell-toned arpeggios, tightly harmonized, octave-sweeping melodies and oddly chorded middle-eights, provided the vocabulary for New Wave, power pop and indie pop, inspiring/defining everyone/everything from Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and Glenn Tilbrook to David Bowie’s wholesale theft of the song in “Blue Jean” to Elliot Smith’s post-Brit Invasion confessional aesthetic.

You’d never know that, as much as John Lennon, Harrison brought the ways and modes of the avant-garde into pop, whether it was the teeth-rattling extreme dissonances in “I Want to Tell You,” the tape-loop floaty-ness of “Blue Jay Way” or the triumphant wall of feedback in “It’s All Too Much.”

nullIt’s an amazing legacy that Scorsese omits, and it doesn’t end there. There’s George creating “world music” decades before the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sting or Björk via the 1968 Beatles track “The Inner Light” and its pulsing dress of sitar, harmonium, flute, table and santoor. (That Scorsese used world-music-style music by Gabriel for the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ makes this omission a real head-scratcher – or is Scorsese simply unable to connect the dots?)

Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be clean fun to chart Harrison’s perversely “WTF?” appearances on records by Belinda Carlisle (The Go-Go’s), Fleetwood Mac and Electric Light Orchestra?

Who was that George? In particular, the George who, again like the Georges Méliès of Hugo, lived to enjoy a late-life resurgence with 1987 Top Ten hits like “Got My Mind Set on You,” “When We Was Fab” and the album Cloud Nine? You’re not going to hear much about that George. In order to buy the mystic-dude-in-the-material-world shtick, you have to – simply have to – accept that an entire fifteen or so years of Harrison’s life didn’t much matter.

Actually, Harrison seems to leave Scorsese’s radar as soon as the counter-culture dissipated. Which means that Harrison only has meaning for the director if he’s attached to a larger context, like the perky midlife crisis that was The Traveling Wilburys.

What does compel more than anything in the film comes from the artist’s cocaine days (told you I’d get back to this.). Not because it limns him bottoming out way, but because Harrison with his throat trashed by blow doing godawful Philly-soul-inflected versions of his hits so utterly deconstructs the narrative Scorsese has so painstakingly constructed. Because it turns Scorsese into Jake LaMotta beating his own film, which, for a few moments, is incredibly liberating. Here and only here is the Scorsese we all love and admire, the actual artist willing to go way out on a ledge.

Who is this George Harrison sarcastically mixing a throat concoction recommended by Barbara Streisand? We’ve been hearing, in draughts here and there, about an anger living beneath George’s placidity, a cooled, arched-eyebrow lividity amping up even early solos.

And here, in his cocaine days, finally, that anger twitches near the surface and Harrison cackles. You get the sense that if a mantra showed up, this George Harrison would spit at it and laugh.

I wish Scorsese had started here, or referenced this more. Not because it’s “dark,” or what I want to see, but because it’s true, because it goes beyond the firewall of the Harrison legend and because, if you want the mystery of George Harrison, it’s hidden in plain sight.

I want to believe that Material World will be forgotten – an aberration in a great career. I know Hugo will be remembered as long as cinema exists in any form.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.

SLIDE SHOW: Martin Scorsese’s greatest movies

SLIDE SHOW: Martin Scorsese’s greatest movies

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This has been quite a year for 60-something American filmmakers. Terrence Malick, who started directing in 1973, created the year’s most divisive conversation piece with The Tree of Life.  Woody Allen, who started directing in 1966, had his biggest financial success with Midnight in Paris. Steven Spielberg, who directed his first feature-length movie 40 years ago, has two blockbusters coming out this month, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. And Martin Scorsese, who made his directorial debut in 1966, has had another success with Hugo, a film history-conscious 3-D art film for kids that finished second to The Muppets at the box office during its opening weekend and was just named film of the year by the National Board of Review. It’s as good a time as any for a Best of Scorsese list — as if I really need an excuse!

What you see here is my own personal list of Scorsese’s 10 (actually 11; I cheated on one slide) greatest films. I’ve tried to cast a wide net here and include both fiction and nonfiction; he works regularly in both modes, and the latter tends to get neglected. This list was in some ways harder to compile than the Woody Allen list from a couple of weeks back, because although Scorsese hasn’t made a film that totally satisfied me in a while, his films are nearly always brilliant in places — sometimes for very long stretches. Even The Aviator, Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York — which I think are sorely hampered by miscasting — are often breathtaking. If you’re wondering where Cape Fear, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Last Waltz, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Color of Money are, I don’t hate them. I just think these films are ultimately richer.

You can view Matt's slide show here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.com.

Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear at 20

Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear at 20

Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is first and foremost a work-for-hire directing job; this doesn’t make it a lesser film, simply a movie he didn’t attach himself to from the beginning. Released 20 years ago this month, Cape Fear was the bookend to that other thriller released earlier in the year, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Yes, 1991 saw America’s top two filmmakers try their hands at psychological thrillers – adult horror stories, really – and the results were movies that wiped away the last remaining residue of ‘80s exploitation – mechanized shocks designed to elicit robotic responses. With Lambs, Demme, who had up to that point made a name for himself as the most humane of American directors, used his training from working for Roger Corman to execute an unrelenting serial-killer thriller. What made the movie special was Demme’s refusal to sacrifice humanity for easy scares. He turned the platonic doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and F.B.I. trainee Clarice Starling into one of movie history’s unlikeliest love stories. Even when dealing with monsters like Hannibal the Cannibal or Buffalo Bill, Demme was incapable of seeing then as just monsters. He had to locate their humanity. With Cape Fear, Scorsese left behind his comfort zone of big-city streets to tell an intimate story of a seemingly normal family imploding. His ongoing exploration of sin and guilt – whether it is ever too late for a man who has done wrong to be saved – courses through every frame of Cape Fear. Both films were big hits, but while Lambs became a zeitgeist movie complete with a character cementing a permanent place in our collective imagination, Cape Fear might be, in hindsight, the more disturbing of the two.
nullFor some critics, Cape Fear was seen as a placeholder, an attempt by Scorsese to earn some financial security so he could make his more “personal” stories. (The film was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, with Spielberg wanting to produce his friend’s most financially successful film. Cape Fear remained Scorsese’s top grosser until Gangs of New York.) Like The King of Comedy in 1983, Cape Fear was the follow-up to an artistic triumph for Scorsese. King came after Raging Bull; Cape Fear came after GoodFellas. It may be hard to believe, but even as critically acclaimed as GoodFellas was, it was still an underrated movie, and its decent box office showing gives little indication of the film’s current standing in the culture. (It would take Tarantino’s mix of violence and humor – and shock – for audiences to go back and re-evaluate the genius of GoodFellas.) Cape Fear was not Scorsese’s first instance as a work-for-hire director. Ellen Burstyn had picked him to direct her starring vehicle Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Of all the ‘70s feminist pictures, Alice remains the best precisely because it dares to suggest that the Burstyn character isn’t interested in a man to complete her. Scorsese also brought a sense of dangerous unpredictability, especially in the scenes with Harvey Keitel. In 1986 he directed The Color of Money, a hard-boiled character piece that checked in on “Fast” Eddie Felson from The Hustler. Yes, even Scorsese was seduced into making that go-to staple of the 1980s: a sequel. The movie allowed Scorsese to play with music cues, montages and the expectations of the sports movie formula. It also allowed him to deconstruct the movie star iconography of Paul Newman. (Along with Top Gun, it also helped Tom Cruise form his image as an All-American go-getter.) The Color of Money is a lot of fun, with Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio kicking its energy level into the stratosphere. (You can feel some of the energy leak out of the movie when they are off-screen.) But Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price blink by not giving the audience what they want; the decision of not having a showdown between Newman and Cruise reeks of “integrity,” as if Scorsese couldn’t bring himself to completely surrender to Hollywood conventions. (Luckily Newman’s delivery of his last line saves the day. It’s a classic star exit.)


But Cape Fear felt different. From the outside it looked like Scorsese might be going on autopilot by signing on to do a remake of a forgotten Gregory Peck star vehicle. The original Cape Fear was a somewhat soft adaptation of a lean piece of pulp by John D. MacDonald about a tight-knit family being terrorized by convicted rapist Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) who holds lawyer Sam Bowden (Peck) responsible for his conviction. Released barely a month after To Kill a Mockingbird, the sight of Peck as an upstanding family man and lawyer who’ll do anything to protect his family was already starting to define him. Director J. Lee Thompson did a solid job of clearly defining good and evil, with Peck as everyone’s protector. The wild card in the movie was Mitchum’s unsettling performance as a man entitled to seek revenge on someone he felt was impossibly upstanding. (With Peck in the role, we have no problem believing he’s flawless.) Mitchum was able to suggest his malevolent nature as almost a virus, capable of infecting even the most honest and innocent of people. Like Norman Bates, Mitchum’s Max Cady was a portent of a shift in society’s identification with weakness.

And it is Mitchum’s performance that’s the jumping-off point for the Scorsese version. (You can imagine a young “Marty” enjoying the squareness of the original, but really lighting up whenever Cady showed up.) The screenplay by Wesley Strick re-works both the book and original film and comes up with its own modern-day moral universe. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is now a former public defender and currently a successful prosecutor in the affluent New South community of New Essex, North Carolina. Sam’s wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is a graphic designer with just a trace of emotional instability, and their daughter Danni (Juliette Lewis) is your typical 15-year-old who retreats into music and talking on the phone to avoid her parents’ drama. The sly joke of this updated version of the Bowden family is that from the outside they look like your typical, well-adjusted family, and it isn’t until an outside force disturbs their delicate harmony that simmering resentments and old wounds come to the surface and threaten to destroy them.
nullAnd that’s where Max Cady (Robert De Niro) enters the scene. His rage at Sam is not only palpable, it is justified. It’s revealed that Sam defended Cady for rape and battery 14 years ago, and in the process of preparing a defense, he buried a report that said the girl Cady raped was promiscuous. For Scorsese, Sam’s “moral” choice to protect the community by violating his oath has rendered him a fallen man who has forsaken his rights to protection from the law – and God. Cady, who was illiterate at the time of his conviction, has become a self-taught man and intends for Sam to “learn about loss.”

This would be De Niro’s second-to-last collaboration with Scorsese, which seems appropriate as Cady represents the final evolution of a character they’ve been exploring throughout their work together. From Johnny Boy to Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Rupert Pupkin to now Max Cady, these have been portraits of men who demand to be noticed. (“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads! Here is a man who would not take it anymore! […] Here is a man who stood up!”) Obscenely pumped-up and covered with tattooed Biblical quotes that make him look like a walking advertisement for the Apocalypse, talking in a soothing Southern drawl that would be charming if didn’t make every word sound dirty, De Niro’s Cady is more than an Avenging Angel. He’s a man who refuses to allow anyone to think they’re better than anyone else, let alone him. (Cady’s class resentment against those who look at him as “white trash” fuels his vanity as he constantly sculpts his body.) While Hannibal Lecter is locked away in his cell, almost dignified in his choice of victims, Cady is on the loose and capable of lashing out at anyone who dares to think they’re smarter than him. (Chances are they’re not.) It’s a great performance by De Niro, who plays Cady as almost mythic in his power and intelligence, but someone who, in the end, is also one of us.
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Scorsese’s trademark hard-charging editing rhythms are not present in Cape Fear. This film is quieter, more patient as it slowly ratchets up the tension. When the movie does indulge in editorial flourishes – the quick montage of Sam locking the doors and closing the windows, or when the family is startled by the sudden ringing of a telephone – they’re like spasms of relief. The way editor Thelma Schoonmaker lays in insert shots of, say, a hand grabbing a gun or the tapping of broken piano key (aided sometimes by a stinger from Elmer Bernstein’s re-working of Bernard Herrmann’s terrifically ominous score) keeps us off balance, as if even inanimate objects are ready to pounce. Insinuation is the name of the game.

Cady starts to stalk the family before they even know someone is watching them. (There’s a nice Scorseseian touch of having Cady light a big cigar and laugh obnoxiously during a movie – the ultimate offense to any movie lover.) Sam’s guilt over not providing the best defense his client is afforded manifests itself whenever Cady is around. (As the movie begins he’s resisting pressure from his boss to manipulate the law in a potentially unethical way in order to procure some hidden money.) The more Cady circles the Bowdens the guiltier Sam looks. When he attempts to pay off Cady, we side with Cady’s disgust at such a pathetic appeal to his intelligence. The way he systematically breaks down Sam’s money offer in terms of daily earnings makes clear his intentions are more sinister. (The way De Niro breaks down the numbers like an accountant is funny in its logic, and serves as an early version of the scene in Casino where he tries to account for Sharon Stone going on a spending spree with her pimp boyfriend.)
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At first the Bowden women are excited by this unseen threat lurking about. They see it as a distraction to break up the monotony of summer. The possibility of sex and violence colliding runs throughout Cape Fear, with the erotic charge that can occur when you’re in the proximity of evil permeating the film’s more disturbing sequences. Leigh is turned on by the idea of someone intimidating her husband; intimations of Sam’s past indiscretions allow her to tease and taunt him. (After a bout of ordinary Saturday night sex, Leigh gets up and applies makeup as if preparing for a date.) She quickly gets over her curiosity about Cady after she meets him in the harsh light of reality. Cady, however, is more interested in getting to Sam through the more vulnerable women in his life. He first targets Lori (Illeana Douglas), the co-worker Sam’s been carrying on a more or less innocent flirtation with. The scene where Cady assaults her is the most shocking in the film. The sudden cut from Cady and Lori sitting at a bar to the two of them on her bed never fails to startle audiences, and while the actual violence in the scene is brief, it’s so brutal that audiences always seem to claim they see more than is actually shown. Scorsese knows what he’s implying is far worse than anything he could show. (Compared to the prison escape sequence in Lambs, this scene is almost restrained.) When the actual assault begins, Scorsese cuts to an outside shot where we see Cady’s silhouette through a bedroom window doing unspeakable things. It’s interesting how some audience members and even some critics reacted negatively to Cape Fear’s slow-burn inevitability, as if Scorsese was being penalized for making a thriller that was too effective. He was accused in some quarters of being mean, gleefully rubbing our noses in our willingness to be manipulated. (Hitchcock was accused of the same thing.) I guess it boils down to Cape Fear rooting itself in the real-world fear of the sanctity of the family being violated while The Silence of the Lambs tapped into the more abstract fears of abandonment and a woman’s need to assert herself in a male-dominated world. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that the psychological violence of Cape Fear trumps the ritualistic violence of Lambs. It stays with you.
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The film’s most famous scene is all about psychological terror as Danni, having to take summer classes as punishment for being caught with marijuana, is seduced by Cady, posing as the school’s new drama teacher. The scene, with improvisations enhancing Strick’s finely detailed writing, is not fueled by something as obvious as Danni’s attraction to evil. Instead, Cady shows how disarming he can be. He validates Danni in a way her parents don’t. When she asks him why he hates her dad, he tells her he wants to save him – “I pray for him.” Earlier, we saw how Sam dotes on Danni and is still capable of talking to her. Now, we watch in mounting horror as Cady severs that bond. The scene plays likes a primal version of a father’s dread of when his daughter no longer needs his protection. Nolte’s beautifully understated performance peaks in the scene where he confronts Danni about her encounter with Cady. His look of rage and anguish is heartbreaking as he realizes his daughter in not a little girl anymore.

The final act of the movie consists of two set-pieces. The first is a hide-and-wait trap orchestrated by private investigator Kersek (Joe Don Baker) as a way to set up Cady for breaking into the Bowden house in order to justifiably execute him. Baker is so winning that it’s almost cruel: we know he’s doomed. Scorsese has fun playing with the conventions of the situation, complete with false alarms that lull us into thinking maybe everything will be alright. The big reveal of Cady right before he kills Kersek is a wicked homage to Psycho, and Scorsese ends the sequence with a gruesome bit of slapstick as Sam slips on some blood. It’s precisely at this moment that the family starts to bring itself together. (At one point Leigh wonders, “I’d like to know just how strong we are…or how weak.”) A shot of the Bowdens driving to their houseboat is like a skewered version of a typical American family on vacation. It’s when the Bowdens are on their boat, cut off from the rest or the world, that the movie enters another world. Thinking they have escaped their problems, Cady emerges to force the issue. Scorsese uses the works – matte painting, optical effects, extreme close-ups, a dizzying shot of the camera spinning around as things go topsy-turvy – to place us on that boat in that moment. (Shooting in widescreen for the first time, you feel Scorsese’s glee in being able to use the entire frame.) And at the center is Cady putting Sam “on trial,” with his family as jury, for his crimes, his sins. We realize that Cady wants to destroy Sam and his family in order to save them – and himself. The final shot of Cady (a recall to the opening-credit sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass) shows him at peace with the Bowdens. They are a family again. While the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs leaves you with a laugh, the ending of Cape Fear leaves you spent as you emerge from its spell shaken. Cape Fear was just a warm-up for Scorsese tackling psychological violence. His follow-up would be even more brutal: The Age of Innocence.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: George Harrison Living In A Material World

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: George Harrison Living In A Material World


Martin Scorsese's new HBO documentary about George Harrison is as serious and sometimes mystifying as its subject

By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play Contributor

Who is your favorite Beatle? If you prize humility, generosity and gratitude — or if you’re a kid who loves the sound of his funny name –you might answer Ringo Starr. Otherwise it’s probably a two-way race between Paul McCartney, who stands for sentimentality, old-school musical craft and ceaseless productivity, or John Lennon, whose name still epitomizes rebellion, sarcasm, soulfulness and martyrdom. I’ve rarely heard anyone answer “George Harrison,” and Martin Scorsese’s two-part HBO documentary Living in the Material World (Oct. 5 and 6, 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 Central) incidentally suggests the reasons why. Harrison was the most studious, elusive and impenetrable Beatle. And as he got older, he became increasingly uninterested in celebrity except as a vehicle that could expose him to new experiences, and bring him into contact with artists and thinkers from whom he could learn something.

George — as I will refer to him from now on in this review, because calling the Beatles by their last names seems too formal — was the youngest of the Beatles, but by consensus he was the most mature. From a shockingly early age, he was a student of life, cultivating the demeanor of an acolyte on an endless pilgrimage to an unknown destination. John Lennon had a questing spirit, too, but his life had a wild, often deliberately comical performance-art aspect that George’s mostly lacked. Where Lennon’s personal evolution was a series of diary entries that he invited the world to read, George’s happened, or seemed to happen, in private. The outward evidence of whatever quest George was on (hair length, wardrobe, sitar lessons, Hare Krishna chanting) seemed mostly unconnected to his life as a public figure. He explained himself in the media only because, as one of the world’s most famous men, he had to — and because he hoped his celebrity might encourage strangers to try whatever he was excited about.

You can read the read of Matt's piece here at Salon.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.