Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
A car rides into darkness. The film cuts to the three passengers and we hear noise from the back of the car.
“The f*&k is that? … Jimmy?” says the man behind the wheel. “Did I hit something?”
“… the f*&ck is that?” the man in the back says. They pull over and get out. Lit by the red back light of the car the men draw their weapons. The man in the trunk is bloodied but still alive. Swearing, they finish him off. They are Henry, Jimmy and Tommy, our protagonists.
After this violent beginning Henry’s voice-over starts with what is probably the most famous line in the movie:
“As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
”[Madonna’s character] is a beautiful woman. But when the trial is over you will see her no differently than a gun or a knife. Or any other instrument used as a weapon. She is a killer and the worst kind—a killer who disguised herself as a loving partner,” Mantegna thunders to the jury. Now, far be it from me to challenge the veracity of anything said by a character played by Joe Mantegna, but I would argue that the worst kind of killer is one who wears a necklace made out of puppy skulls and a rain poncho made out of the stitched-together torsos of murdered kittens. That, to me, is worse than a killer disguising herself as a loving partner.
There’s exactly one thing I would change about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed: the last thirty seconds or so. The rat on the balcony railing. To me, at least, it felt like an insulting wink to the audience: “This is what the movie’s been about. Get it? Get it?”
I probably found it more insulting because the rest of the film is nearly perfect: the casting, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the choice of music. I haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, the original Korean movie that Scorsese’s film is based on, so I won’t say anything about remakes at this point, except for this: if a remake is this good, what does it matter that it’s a remake? That’s a discussion about cultural imperialism, perhaps, but it’s not what I’m interested in here. I’m interested in what may be Scorsese’s most enjoyable movie ever.
Of course, there were lots of people who complained when Scorsese was awarded the Oscar for this film, and indeed, he should’ve received the Academy Award for some of his earlier work too. But what gets up my nose is that most of those who complained felt that The Departed is somehow less good a movie because it isn’t deep – and by deep they mean existential, or perhaps they mean, “If you can enjoy it, if you can have fun watching it, chances are it isn’t that good.” Which is silly, pretentious snobism. I don’t want every single one of Scorsese’s movies to be Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. True, these films have more social depth, they’re more tragic, but I hate the knee-jerk equation of ‘tragic’ with ‘good’ or ‘important’. Please note that I also hate the reverse snobism that goes something like this: “Oh, you’re so la-di-dah with your Stanley Kubrick, Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut, elitist gits! Go and jerk off to your boring, black-and-white arthouse bullshit, while I enjoy Die Hard!” Just like I don’t always want The Seventh Seal, I don’t always want Star Wars or The Rock either.
And I appreciate craft. In my opinion, there’s a lot to enjoy about, say, Die Hard, because it’s one of the best crafted films in its genre. There’s a lot to enjoy about the deft lightness of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake, just as there is a lot to enjoy in Jules et Jim. The things you’re enjoying are simply very different, but all of these films are by filmmakers who are amazing craftsmen. And quite often it’s genre cinema where you get great examples of the craft: Blade Runner, The Godfather, Out of Sight, Aliens.
And it is in terms of craft that The Departed absolutely excels. From the first few shots in the movie, you know that this was made by people who know what they’re doing. When I saw the film at the cinema, it was the first time that I had an inkling what critics mean when they talk about “muscular filmmaking”. In spite of the clumsy allegorical rat at the very end, I left the cinema energised and wanting to see it again. So, for all those who thought that the film wasn’t ‘deep’ enough, here’s another clip. It expresses quite neatly what I think about arrogance towards genre cinema. Enjoy.
P.S.: I am not saying that all quality is relative; I hope you understand that. As far as I’m concerned, the difference between, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Citizen Kane, or indeed between Raging Bull and The Departed, isn’t one of quality. It’s not that one film is better than the other – it’s the subject matter and its treatment that are different. Arguably one is deeper than the other, but in the end depth is something I can take or leave. Sometimes I want an intricate seven-course meal, and sometimes I want a hamburger… but I want a good hamburger.
Let me be clear. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are great cinema, and they deserve all the accolades they get. But they’re the kind of movies I appreciate rather than enjoy. Watching Raging Bull yesterday, for the second or third time, I was struck less by the virtuoso cinematography and editing, by Martin Scorsese’s effective use of music (yet again), or by the performances, than by the sheer masochism in the movie. LaMotta’s masochism, where especially the later fights are extended bouts of self-punishment for his dimly understood sins. De Niro’s masochism, putting on 60 pounds for the role. But there’s also an element of masochism in sitting through this masterpiece. Paul Schrader (probably more so than Scorsese) writes the most effective guilt trips, but it’s difficult not to flinch and despair a little more at mankind (it’s really the men who come off looking worst in the guilt stakes) when LaMotta punches the walls of his prison cell or when he does his “I coulda been a contender” speech, or when Travis Bickle puts a finger dripping with blood to his temple and mimes blowing his head off.
On a less masochist note: last night’s episode of House, M.D. (“Que Sera, Sera”) featured a remarkably controlled performance by both Pruitt Taylor Vince and his fat suit, transforming him into a 600-lb patient. While the episode was far from perfect, kudos ought to go to the House team for an astute handling of what could have been eminently tasteless TV.