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Monday, February 18, 2019

February 18, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: Scorcese

[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]

On why the acclaimed filmmaker doesn’t do it for me—and why that’s an American problem.

There was a good deal of controversy and debate over director Martin Scorcese’s 2012 film The Wolf of Wall Street. More specifically, there was significant debate over whether the film celebrates the Wall Street swindlers and criminals it depicts, especially Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort; whether it instead portrays those criminals as over-the-top buffoons; and, for that matter, whether Scorcese has any obligation to think about ethics or morality at all while making a feature film about such characters (a topic on which the daughter of one of Belfort’s real-life victims has weighed in). I never got around to seeing Wolf (for reasons that this post will likely make clear), so I can’t offer an opinion one way or another—but I can say that I have found these same questions to be present and a significant issue in nearly every Scorcese film I’ve seen, and certainly in his highly acclaimed Goodfellas (1990).

The protagonists of Goodfellas, such as the three leads played by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, are of course far more overtly and proudly criminal and reprehensible than Jordan Belfort. But as far as I can tell (and I haven’t seen all of the film in nearly two decades), Scorcese’s film glamorizes and celebrates them far more than it offers any critique or even analysis. True, Pesci’s hot-headed and violent gangster is frightening even to his friends, but that’s due simply to his own character traits and flaws, and if anything is contrasted with the smoother (and not much less violent) other criminals. Moreover, Scorcese’s choices as a filmmaker—his montages and musical backdrops, his camera moves and bravura sequences—all seem designed to amplify the coolness and compellingness of these violent criminals. And his famous final shot of Liotta in witness protection, overlaid by the voiceover in which the character calls himself “an average nobody … [I] get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” likewise contrasts unfavorably with the glamorous gangster life.

I’d say much the same about the protagonists of many other Scorcese films—the Las Vegas gangsters in Casino, De Niro’s violent psychopath in Taxi Driver and his violent brute of a boxer in Raging Bull, even the Irish draft rioters in Gangs of New York. Scorcese may want to portray these characters with nuance and complexity, perhaps examine the social and historical worlds out of which they emerged—but I find more often than not that he ends up glamorizing their violence and their crimes, perhaps even more so because they allow them to transcend and (at least briefly) triumph over their settings. And in doing so, I’d say his works have tended to fall squarely into a tradition about which I’ve blogged a few times already: our longstanding and fraught national embrace of the outlaws and the gangsters, of the violent outsiders who seem to offer individual escapes from our social codes and limitations. Sometimes they’re targeting criminals (like De Niro in Taxi Driver), sometimes they’re the criminals (like in Goodfellas and Casino)—but the similarities seem to me more pronounced than the distinctions. As Jack Nicholson puts it in the (typically bravura) opening sequence of The Departed: “When I was your age, they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?

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