A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #18: The Aviator

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3For the first episode of 2019, Julie, Mege and Matt revisit Martin Scorsese’s much-awarded but rarely-discussed The Aviator. Is it one of Scorsese’s best or a bit of a mess? Does Cate Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn enter parody territory, and is it any less awesome for this? Will Mege pounce in defense of Leonardo DiCaprio? Find out the answers to all these questions and more, as the gang of pop culture baristas serves up some smaller helpings on AMC’s The Terror (a heady blend of Master and Commander and The Thing) and the interactive Black Mirror episode, “Bandersnatch”.

Also, we’re premiering our new theme tune “Mystery Street Jazz” at the end of the episode, so make sure to give it a listen. Thanks to composer Håkan Eriksson for his damn fine tune!

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Oh, how the ghost of you clings…

Is there another medium as nostalgically in love with itself as film? You don’t really see many paintings about the painters of yesteryear, or novels about novelists from the 19th century. Hollywood, on the other hand, loves looking at itself back when it was younger, had fewer wrinkles, and Michael Bay wasn’t even a twinkle in ILM’s eye.

In the run-up to the last Oscars, there were two major examples of cinema yearning for its heydays: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Artist, a French film whose point of reference is nevertheless the American movie scene of the early 20th century. Both received a fair share of accolades and both put a lot of emphasis on charming their audiences. Both movies are accomplished in many ways, but I’m somewhat torn on them: while I loved Hugo more, I have to say I appreciate The Artist more as a film.

Scorsese’s obviously one of the greats of cinema, and deservedly so. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, but also The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun or the concert film Shine a Light – the man has a strong style, but he doesn’t remake the same film over and over again. Hugo is strange for him in some ways, as Scorsese’s never shied away from gritty, violent themes; trying his hand at a family movie is decidedly new for him. Having said that, there are definite stylistic links between some of his more recent period pieces, especially Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and Hugo, in that a lot of emphasis is put on creating a world. And what a world it is – the Paris of the film is not real in any way, but the train station in which most of Hugo takes place is a beautifully imagined, intricate world.

At the same time, Scorsese’s latest feels like it’s at least two different films, one for children who enjoy Little Rascals-style capers and broad characterisation, and one for people who love the cinema. Narratively these two are bridged by the sadness at the heart of the film, embodied by the titular character who has lost his father, but the result is a work that doesn’t always feel coherent. After seeing the film I walked out of the cinema feeling a warm glow for the love letter to the movies that I’d just seen, but I also sat in the dark feeling impatient for the slapstick, the scenes of Hugo running away from a panto-style villain and the “gosh, it’s an adventure, isn’t it?” enthusiasm of Chloë Grace Moretz’s character to end and for the film to get back to Méliès. The scenes that are primarily about the magic of movies are beautiful and poignant – much of the rest of the film first and foremost made me think that it’s been decades since I was twelve years old. Perhaps I’m not the ideal audience – but I honestly wonder whether a twelve-year old would be all that likely to respond to the scenes focused almost entirely on Méliès and on film history. How many twelve-year old film buffs are there?

While I share Hugo‘s love for cinema, I’m by and large indifferent to silent movies, to the extent where I don’t even remember if I’ve ever seen an entire one. (Yes, I do feel a bit guilty about never having seen Metropolis. Happy now?) I’m not sure The Artist‘s makers are nostalgic to the era where films were silent, either, or that they wanted to start a new wave of dialogue-free films. (Our cinema showed a Swiss short beforehand, also silent and fashioned as a pastiche of the original films of the ’20s. It was unbearable, smug and shallow, having nothing going for it other than wanting to emulate the style.) Take away the self-conscious, meta-cinematic elements and The Artist doesn’t work; but it’s this (dare we say postmodern?) playfulness that is as central to the film as the considerable charms of its two leads, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. The film’s a meringue, as I would put it: sweet, delicious and so light the slightest puff of air could blow it away. It doesn’t have much substance in any conventional sense – but charm, style and wit can have a substance all of their own.

What The Artist finally does better than Hugo is this: it’s perfectly formed, it comes together into a whole. It is a complete film rather than two half-films patched together, with considerable skill that nevertheless cannot hide the join. And for all of Scorsese’s talent, The Artist works better because it has made a decision what sort of film it wants to be, and then it’s about the best such film it can be. As far as meringues go, it’s just about one of the best I’ve had.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world

It’s a detail, a cinematic in-joke invisible to all but film afficionados, but it adds to the ominous atmosphere on Shutter Island: the two head wardens of the mental hospital are played by Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch – Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb from Silence of the Lambs and Arthur Leigh Allen, the main suspect from David Fincher’s Zodiac. With these two in charge of security at Ashecliff Hospital, you wonder: are the inmates in charge of the asylum, or are the patients even more insane? Even the benevolent doctor, played by Ben Kingsley at his most unctuous, serves to make us more paranoid rather than comforted.

The main attraction in this Scorsesean Gothic horror, though, is Shutter Island itself: the location immediately joins an exclusive list together with Bates Motel, the Overlook Hotel and the abbey in The Name of the Rose, as one of those places that feed the imagination. Anything might be hiding in that old lighthouse, and the carpets of Dr. Cawley’s residence exude a sense of foreboding. The place breathes a diseased past: you get an almost tactile sense that things have happened here, things that shouldn’t be.

Things that, in fact, didn’t happen. The true horror house, as so often, is the human mind, protecting itself as it knows best: by inventing alternative histories that become more real, more believab le, and certainly more necessary than what has really happened.

Scorsese and Lehane’s psychological horror yarn isn’t original, and those who have seen or read similar stories will not be overly surprised by the main twist ten minutes before the end. But it’s been a while since the twist, its lead-up and denouement havve been told with such sensuality. The film is rarely subtle, but damn, if you don’t feel the clammy fog of Shutter Island stick to your skin as you leave the theatre.

Having said that, though, I have one quibble with the film. For the most part it plays fair with what is and what isn’t real. It doesn’t fool the audience in cheap ways and is usually pretty clear with respect to what’s in the protagonist’s mind. Hallucinations aren’t played for a cheap “Huhwha?” effect. There is one big exception to this, though, a scene which logically must be a hallucination, yet it plays more realistically than most other scenes in the film. On one level it helps that it features the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson, who invests the scene with a fevered intensity and conviction; on the other hand, it’s exactly the fact that she’s so believable in her part, her presence to solid, and the moment not a brief flash of unreality, that it takes on a solidity it shouldn’t have – logically, it must be a hallucination, yet it doesn’t have the markers of unreality that the film has established previously. And that’s why the scene keeps niggling at me. It stands out, yet I can’t help feeling that it doesn’t play fair. It’s a cheat – an eminently well-executed cheat, but a cheat nevertheless. And yet, and yet… Perhaps I need to see the film again to figure it out. Just when I thought I was out, Shutter Island pulls me back in. (Thank you, Sil.)

A matter of life and death… and Japanese movies

There are a handful of films that give off a glow in my memory, like a candle flame. They’re not necessarily the Assassination of Jesse James etc. etc. or Magnolia type of films. They’re not by people such as Steven Soderbergh or Martin Scorsese. One of those films is Roderigo Garcia’s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (great acting in that one, but more than that, the film is amazingly gentle – not soft, mind you, not anodyne, but gentle), which I saw by sheer accident. Another one is Kore-Eda’s After-Life.

I’d been wanting to see the director’s Nobody Knows for a while now, but I only did so yesterday evening. After the very emotional final episode of Six Feet Under (it got to me just as much this time as it did when I first watched it) I wasn’t sure whether a film about four children who are abandoned by their mother and who try to continue their lives as best possible, ignored by the world around them, wouldn’t be too depressing.

The film is definitely not cheerful, and the ending is quite tough in terms of what happens, but there’s something as gentle and comforting about Kore-eda’s direction in Nobody Knows as there was in his deeply spiritual but never preachy After-Life. There are moments of simple joy in the lives of the children. There are just as many moments of joy in the filmmaking: scenes that are both realistic and subtly poetic.

Nobody Knows, by Kore-eda

It’s strange: in a way I feel the movie should get to me more, especially considering the ending – yet somehow I also think that I’d resist a tougher film more. Kore-eda’s work doesn’t do the emotional work for you. It doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. And it doesn’t allow for simple, clear-cut emotions. Yet you have to be willing to be taken along by the film’s flow. I don’t think I’ve seen many films that have this sort of pace; the film that popped into my mind when I tried to think of other movies that had a similar effect on me was Le fils by the Dardenne brothers.

Writing about the film now, I feel I’m only circling around the emotions that it touched upon. I don’t think I’m an inch closer to understanding the effect Nobody Knows had on me. But I think, somehow, that I may be remembering this film, much like After-Life, for a long time.

Twins 2: Starring Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer ’till I start going on at great length about the films that didn’t click for me. You have my sympathy, though; it can’t be easy waiting even longer for something that highly anticipated… (On a related note: Amazon recently sent off my copy of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, according to the Moore-man “not my best comic ever, not the best comic ever, but the best thing ever. Better than the Roman civilisation, penicillin, […] the human nervous system. Better than creation. Better than the big bang. It’s quite good.” Sounds like something to look forward to.)

Anyway, the reason for today’s delay is this:

(Note: I’m afraid the YouTube video is in Spanish – here’s a link to the English video.)

While it’s probably a bit too precious for its own good, it’s still an amazingly well done advert. But what really throws me every time I see (and hear) Martin Scorsese is just how much he looks and sounds like an Italian-American, less neurotic though just as fidgety Woody Allen. And they both love New York.

Hmm.

Twins, separated at birth? Or are they actually the same person – i.e. Woody had better acting skills than we’d thought, and he’s been working on his Brooklyn accent? My guess is that this is just another one of those Hollywood mysteries that will never be solved. Like Ben Affleck’s success. Or William Shatner’s hair.

Spooky, huh?