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.