The Banal Sublimity of Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Shutter Island, opened today. It received a decidedly negative critical reaction. A.O. Scott writes representatively: “Nothing is as it seems. Something TERRIBLE is afoot. Sadly, that something turns out to be the movie itself.” Many of reviews deliver an unusually acerbic sting, the product of disappointment that Scorsese isn’t as good as he used to be. Slate ran an article on the subject, lamenting that his recent output has been so mediocre when “for decades, Scorsese has been the face of American cinema—our Greatest Living Director.”

Disappointment is misplaced. Scorsese was never that good. The notion that he has ever been Our Greatest Living director, in particular, is an insult to Stanley Kubrick, who died in 1999, to PT Anderson, yet living at 39, to the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, Whit Stillman, Roman Polanski, even Sam Mendes on a good day. And of course if “Our” is meant to encompass not just the United States but the whole world the phrase is even more ludicrous. Godard and Rivette are still kicking around the Quinzieme, after all.

Scorsese is remembered for three films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. All three are good movies (though again, the comparison to Kubrick is unflattering; even the least of his post-Strangelove films has its cult following, ardently insisting on its world-historical greatness; can one say this of Aviator?). Taxi Driver is unquestionably excellent, but I’ve always been mystified by the appeal of Raging Bull, which has never seemed significantly better to me than, say, Rocky. And while there’s no doubt that Goodfellas has moments of brilliance, especially the famous long take, that scene’s particular failure is instructive. The camera follows a couple through the byzantine behind-the-scenes of the Copacabana, passing through hallways, kitchens and backstages as the staff wave them through obsequiously. The shot is meant to convey the elation of access, of knowing the right people and having a table made specially ready for you. The audience experiences this elation as awe at the power and importance of the man the camera is following, and his date clearly shares our emotion. “What do you do,” she asks. “I work in construction,” he answers. The line is played for a laugh, and we’re meant to go on admiring. The scene is an invitation to indulge our worst impulses as moviegoers and enjoy a little tickle of the sublime, to appreciate the grandeur of the character’s nonchalant perfidy in the same way we appreciate the sexiness of a Rolex: as something unattainable, radiant with the glow of money and power. In doing so the scene is false both to reality and to the film itself, which is ostensibly about how things turn out badly for you when you work for the mob.

Great directors never destroy their films to make one scene seduce their audiences like an ad for a luxury sedan. Many directors who are not great do exactly that, and it’s interesting to think about why. One reason, perhaps, is that it is easy to mistake grandeur of subject for grandeur of achievement. This is why some people think Saving Private Ryan is a great movie. Its scope is as epic as its images are pedestrian. Similarly, because Scorses’s films strive so mightily to induce in their viewers the feeling of greatness or importance, it is easy to think that the films themselves are great or important.

This is an important mistake, not only because the best films are often light-hearted about their own greatness (if greatness is anything more than a 19th-century perquisite, of course) but also because is a mistake representative of our age and culture. James Poulos used to inveigh against the verbal substitution of “a sense of X” for “X,” and I think he meant something similar. “The sublime” is a passable definition of “a sense of grandeur,” and it is by now almost a cliche in some circles to understand our society’s obsession with the sublime as deeply pathological: the depiction of violence instead of suffering; the destruction of small-scale urbanism; and Fascism itself. Not, of course, that Scorsese is an active participant in any of these evils. It is precisely his passivity — that his films could have been coughed up by Madison Avenue — that makes his work unworthy of the praise that is heaped on them. More disappointing than the total mediocrity of Shutter Island is the inability of the critics to see that its mediocrity dominated his work all along.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

52 thoughts on “The Banal Sublimity of Martin Scorsese

  1. “Scorsese is remembered for three films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. ”

    Yeah, and The Last Temptation of Christ, Casino, the Departed (won a couple Oscars), among others. I personally have a soft spot for Cape Fear and Gangs of New York, but mileage will vary.

    Even if every film he made from here on out was crap, Scorsese has made more “classic” films than (seriously?) PT Anderson (5 films total), Wes Andersen (6 films total), OR Sophia Coppola (4 films total).

    Don’t get me wrong, I liked Boogie Nights, the Royal Tennebaums, and the Virgin Suicides –sorry, but Lost in Translation was NOT a great movie– but these people have a long way to go before they supplant Scorsese.

    Report

    • I did gloss over the question of total output, certainly, bur what I meant to attack was exactly all these classic films, which I think owe their “classicness” to their attempt to portray grandeur or importance not to their own merit.

      Report

  2. I thought of working up some sort of rebuttal. But I disagree with essentially everything you wrote on such a fundamental level, it’s kind of pointless. Though having long detested Godard and the French New Wave (excepting Truffaut), I am a bit sympathetic to your need to rip.

    Report

      • I’m taking a lot of justified flak for the list, which I didn’t intend to be a canonical listing of the great living American directors. I am a Sofia partisan, though (thanks for the correction on the spelling), and don’t actually like Mendes (who is not an American anyhow, it turns out). Obviously Kubrick is better than any of these other guys, and if there’s one among them who does deserve to be called the best living American director it’s PT Anderson.

        Report

        • Here’s my problem: It’s one thing to disagree with the idea that Scorsese is America’s greatest living director (as if such a distinction could really be made anyway). There’s no accounting for taste, and that’s fine. It’s another thing entirely to say that granting Scorsese such a designation is an “insult to … Sofia Coppola.” Coppola has made three feature films: One is quite good, though through no particular skill on her part as far as I can tell (Bill Murray carries “Lost in Translation” like he’s Atlas shouldering the horizon), one is quite overrated (“The Virgin Suicides”) and one is quite terrible (“Marie Antoinette”). Scorsese, on the other hand, has made three films that could reasonably considered one of the five best in their given decades (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas”) and another that is reasonably considered to be one of the all time best in its genre (“The Last Waltz,” arguably the greatest concert film ever made alongside “Gimme Shelter”). He’s made another dozen films that rate between “Very Good” and “Great.”

          Now, I happen to agree with you that Kubrick is better — more versatile, fewer complete whiffs, more consistency — and P.T. Anderson is Kubrick’s heir (Altman’s as well). But to suggest that Sofia Coppola even sniffs this rarefied air strikes me as entirely unreasonable and probably does violence to the rest of your argument by giving critics like myself something to focus on that calls the rest of your judgment into question.

          Report

  3. … and Sofia Coppola? Really? Because if you’re forcing Scorsese to forfeit greatness over a mixed bag, I’m not sure how you could include Coppola, post-Marie Antoinette. And Mendes? Stillman? Really? On the basis of what?

    Report

        • In some sense he is much more American than any of the other directors mentioned, inasmuch as his films only seem to have one topic, which is the United States in its peculiar glory. But I just didn’t realize that he lives and works in the U.K.
          We shouldn’t go too hard on him, anyhow. Obviously there is much to object to in his ham-fisted culture-war movies like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, but I thought Road to Perdition and Jarhead were both pretty good. And even American Beauty is perhaps better than the current backlash gives it credit for. It’s not a straightforward anti-suburb manifesto, tempting as that reading is.

          Report

  4. Why did you leave Sophia’s father off the list of better than Scorsese? Factoid for anyone who’s interested: Scorsese was an assistant director on Woodstock.

    Report

  5. I guess a lot of Goodfellas seemed to me to be applying the Madison Avenue technique to kitsch. Even that shot creates an aura of grandeur around coming through the kitchen to see Henny Youngman. But the narrator thinks this is the height of glamor because he and his associates have no taste or culture. Which leads to the problem I always have with Goodfellas: the main character lacks culture, intelligence, dignity, decency, a modicum of humanity, and a moral compass. On one hand, I take that as a really accurate picture of a hoodlum, but at the end of the film, I always wonder just why we’ve been watching this non-person for two hours.

    Report

    • I agree with this… the conclusion more than anything else is a slap in the face of the folks in the theater. “I had a life that was interesting and full and had all kinds of stuff that you’re never going to do. AND NOW I LIVE NEXT DOOR TO YOU BORING PEOPLE.”

      That said, I thought that “Bringing Out The Dead” was an exceptionally interesting movie. It had a moral center, I think (it’s been a while), that his gangster movies didn’t have. Nick Cage was trying to save the world. And it didn’t work out.

      I’m still haunted by some of the scenes in that film.

      Report

      • the conclusion more than anything else is a slap in the face of the folks in the theater. “I had a life that was interesting and full and had all kinds of stuff that you’re never going to do. AND NOW I LIVE NEXT DOOR TO YOU BORING PEOPLE.”

        That’s straight from Henry Hill’s book. (He also complains that the town that witness protection placed him in has no decent Italian food.) Blaming Scorsese for it is shooting the messenger.

        Report

        • I was agreeing vigorously with the “I always wonder just why we’ve been watching this non-person for two hours.”

          Though I suppose it might be fair to wonder why Marty said “hey! We need to tell *THIS* guy’s story!”

          Report

          • I had this same problem with the Sopranos.

            There’s this guy. He’s murdered men, beaten women, killed his best friend and, on top of that, we see him kill all sorts of folks and *COVER* for all sorts of folks.

            And he has panic attacks.

            Which, of course, immediately makes him sympathetic. Hey, he likes ducks too! He’s a complex murderer!

            Eh. Why am I spending time with this guy again? Oh, yeah. His mother. And season 2 was really good.

            Report

  6. When Scorsese’s latest work comes up, you get a lot of the attitude, said explicitly by Quentin Tarantino in a recent issue of GQ, that directing is a young man’s game and that directors lose their edge as they get older. I tend to think instead that people judging the older director’s work are looking at it from a young man’s perspective, and I wonder what you do with Ran in that argument.

    I like Taxi Driver, although age has turned it into more of a biting parody of a certain kind of urban aesthetic (which doesn’t mean that parody was never intended). I’ve never understood the regard for Goodfellas, and Casino, forget about it. Raging Bull, though now overemphasized, is a real success. The real argument, I think, is Mean Streets. I would recommend watching it again to anyone who hasn’t in some time.

    Report

    • Funny thing, Freddie -To me, David’s post here reads exactly like one of those Slate pieces you’re always complaining about.

      The only thing I can agree with is that the Coens are at least as great if not moreso than Scorsese.

      Report

  7. The book was by far Lehane’s weakest, so it’s not surprising that the movie sucks too.

    But I think this is unfair:

    in doing so the scene is false both to reality and to the film itself, which is ostensibly about how things turn out badly for you when you work for the mob.

    Yes, things turn out badly, but until they do, the life is incredibly seductive. Which is precisely what that take shows.

    Report

    • That is exactly the sentence that made me go “Huh?!”, too. The fact that the movie is about how things turn out badly as a mobster is one of the reasons why that scene is so great, isn’t it? I mean, you have to show the appeal a mob-life has in the first place to make the whole thing interesting.

      On the other main points, I tend to disagree, too, but on the one mentioned above, I’m quite certain I am right.

      Report

  8. Is there any reason to compare Raging Bull and Rocky other than the underlying narrative? The character arcs are exactly backwards.

    Anyway, the conflict is pretty obvious here. Critics like Scorcese for his characters and realism; generally, your preferred directors are known for aesthetics and ironic detachment from reality. When Scorcese focuses on the latter, the result’s generally judged mediocre (Gangs of NY, Bringing Out the Dead, Last Temptation of Christ, Shutter Island apparently). When he focuses on characters, the judgment is usually positive (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Aviator, Mean Streets, etc).

    As far as Raging Bull goes, the protagonist’s development is fairly similar to what you see in There Will Be Blood. I think that it’s much more compelling, but that’s obviously subjective. And if we’re just talking about technique, Raging Bull’s fight scenes are incredible.

    It’s sort of ironic that Scorcese’s editing style in Woodstock prefigures a lot of techniques used by your preferred directors. And The Big Shave could easily be transposed for various mental breakdown scenes in every Wes Anderson movie ever made.

    Report

  9. Some thoughts –

    No one has mentioned Scorcese’s film Age of Innocence, which I think is a great movie, featuring my favorite actor, Daniel Day Lewis. It was beautifully done in almost every way.

    Scorcese seems to prefer working with the same actor over and over – DeNiro, Pesci, Day Lewis and DiCaprio.

    Scorcese films are interesting. They are very New York-centric, however. Probably Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas are classics.

    I think Casino is extremely entertaining, though probably not a great film. Scorcese’s use of classic 70s music is emblematic.

    As for Kubrick, was Eyes Wide Shut better than Goodfellas?

    Probably Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman (not living) produced more true classics than any of the directors you mention – possibly aside from Kubrick.

    Report

  10. I’ve never been a huge Scorcese fan but I think you are cutting him short… while Sutter Island may not be a great film I think Scorcese’s body of work speaks for itself. Very few directors can hit a home run with every film.

    Report

  11. This is why some people think Saving Private Ryan is a great movie. Its scope is as epic as its images are pedestrian.

    If there’s a more powerful image of the sheer impersonal horror of modern warfare than SPR’s first scene, I’m unaware of it.

    Report

  12. Pingback: What’s the matter with you? » Postmodern Conservative | A First Things Blog

  13. You’re forgetting Woody Allen: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Another Woman, Radio Days, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, Sweet and Lowdown, Bullets Over Broadway… I think Allen belongs in any discussion of the best American directors.

    An excellent body of work with literate scripts and complex characters. And many terrific performances by some of the finest actors around: Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Gena Rowlands, Michael Caine, David Ogden Stiers, John Houseman, Gene Hackman, Martin Landau, Alan Alda, Sam Waterston, Sean Penn, José Ferrer, Meryl Streep, Wallace Shawn, Max von Sydow, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner, Carrie Fisher, Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Lily Tomlin, Blythe Danner, Olympia Dukakis…

    Report

  14. The images in Saving Private Ryan are “pedestrian”?

    I’d say they are the opposite: disturbing, haunting, powerful. The battle scene on the beach is amazing, the German soldier plunging the knife in slowly, an American soldier dying after being shot and receiving a fatal dose of morphine…

    Report

  15. “It is precisely his passivity — that his films could have been coughed up by Madison Avenue — that makes his work unworthy of the praise that is heaped on them. More disappointing than the total mediocrity of Shutter Island is the inability of the critics to see that its mediocrity dominated his work all along.”

    I think that this passivity actually belies something that is much deeper than you are giving him credit for. It is an ironic passivity that is being displayed in Goodfellas, a cool cynical wink at the audience. Maybe too cool, I’ve seen the film criticized for being so remote as to be emotionless. Obviously the cheap veneer of greatness is suppose to be seen as just that in Goodfellas – it’s all a cheap veneer, the whole enterprise is corrupt.

    I’m biased of course. Goodfellas is my favorite movie of all time, and the reasons for why I like it, have almost nothing to do with that infamous shot. That shot is cool to look at sure, but that’s not what makes the film great.

    Report

  16. Pingback: Martin Scorsese é uma farsa? | Dicta & Contradicta

  17. Pingback: Speaking of Scorcese | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  18. Pingback: Conventional Folly » Gee, you know what else is really quotable? That Casablanca!

Comments are closed.