Thursday, May 2, 2019

Some Notes on the Reconsideration of THE AVIATOR(by John Logan & Martin Scorsese) by 'Trevor Lynch'

Trevor Lynch sure has strange taste in movies. He likes WILD AT HEART and DUNE, two films by David Lynch most people(including myself) can't stand. It must be a matter of taste and sensibility. Live and let live, to each his own, I guess. Still, despite the commitment and production values, I must say GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR fall way short of their overarching ambitions. They were Too Big To Succeed, the general consensus on the two films. While I don't hate those works(like I hate CAPE FEAR and THE DEPARTED), I never liked them either even though both have their moments. Stanley Kauffmann faulted THE AVIATOR for trying to be the Great American Movie. An element of strain, artifice, and self-consciousness enters into an artist trying to do too much. Self-importance can be fatal in art, something Guido both embraces and repulses in 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini. Artists are at their best in just being themselves, on a voyage of discovery(or recovery) as with Odysseus. Artists often fail at trying to be Atlas with the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Or taking flight like bold but foolish Icarus to attempt something more than difficult or improbable: The Impossible. There is something to be said for the Grand Folly(as noble failure), but A-for-effort is like a set of steak knives next to the Cadillac Eldorado in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. (Who really cares about 1900 by Bernardo Bertolucci or ONE FROM THE HEART by Francis Ford Coppola. There a are defenders of LOLA MONTEZ by Marcel Ophuls and HEAVEN'S GATE by Michael Cimino, but it's hard to get excited about them.) It is no wonder Bob Dylan withdrew from the 60s pop scene when people expected him to be something more than an artist, poet, and song-and-dance man. They wanted him to be the 'spokesman of his generation'. Dylan was willing to speak for himself but not for the conscience of the world. Lennon did take on that role alongside Yoko Ono but mostly to make a fool of himself. He became his own Sexy Sadie.
THE GREAT AMERICAN MOVIE is like the folly of attempting THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. There have been many great novels written about the American Experience, but the scope of THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL is too big for any artist or any single work. (It's like no one really takes Herman Wouk's THE WINDS OF WAR as serious literature or THE GREAT WORLD WAR II NOVEL.) One can argue that Leo Tolstoy wrote the GREAT RUSSIAN NOVEL with WAR AND PEACE, but then, it's unlikely he was thinking in those terms. There are novels that may be construed as THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. THE GREAT GATSBY comes to mind. But again, it's unlikely F. Scott Fitzgerald thought in those terms. And even though his novel is about money, power, privilege, and publicity -- Big American Themes -- what really resonates is the fragile and almost pitiable poetry of Gatsby who dreams of Daisy, a vapid creature tenderly romanticized by his yearning. In some ways, he seems less interested in winning her love than impressing her with his vaunted worth. Norman Mailer attempted the GREAT WORLD WAR II NOVEL with THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. I'm not sure if the novel is still a topic of discussion. Mailer mentioned John Dos Passos' U.S.A. TRILOGY as coming closest to THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, but it's been some time since it's been the center of cultural discourse(perhaps because Dos Passos turned rightist later on?). Possibly, Tom Wolfe tried hardest to write the GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, but he is appreciated more as a social observer than a literary giant. At any rate, novels work best when intensely focused upon the matter-at-hand than contemplating what grander message or implication it may have for the world. That should be decided or 'deciphered' by critics and readers, not sweated out by the artist. While the artist needs a sense of vision and scope, it is how he deals with the nitty-gritty, with all its contradictions and complications, that really decide worth. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE works so well because it's a story about this eccentric lonely kid Holden Caulfield than a statement about youth. It was left up to readers to decide if the book speaks to them.

Among movies, it's conceivable that CITIZEN KANE is indeed The Great American Movie. But then, Orson Welles was one of a kind, the boy wonder, who had the Midas touch with just about anything: Theater, Radio, Movies. He has the rarest genius to achieve the near-impossible. Other works that may qualify as The Great American Movie are IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE(one of the true miracles in cinema) and THE GODFATHER. One is mostly about Wasps in a small town whereas the other is about immigrant-Italians in New York. THE GODFATHER I and II may serve as an allegory of ethnics(with Italians standing for Jews) eclipsing the Wasps represented by the likes of Senator Geary. And yet, under the direction of Frank Capra the Italian-American, there is an element of Immigrant-Guilt-Complex in Wasp-dominated IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. George Bailey feels guilt about leaving his small town behind for the Bigger-Wider-World, the America-America of Big Dreams than mere modest Americana. There's a scene in THE GODFATHER PART 2 where young Vito and Sal watch a stage musical-drama about a man who receives letter about his mother's death in the Old Country and breaks into a tearful tune. Though George Bailey is All-American, he is like someone who isn't able to immigrate to greener pastures. He is stuck in the place of his birth where his father is buried. He's like a slave who can't escape the plantation. And yet, like the trapped man in WOMAN IN THE DUNES, he finds special meaning and significance within that small world.

Perhaps, due to their populist character, movies have resonated more as collective American Imagination, not least because the average movie is aimed at a larger audience than the average novel. THE GRAPES OF WRATH was, for a time, considered The Great American Novel, but I'm not sure how the story of Okies as the noble salt of the earth would go over with today's decadent globo-homo-shlomo elites whose agenda for the white working class is for white men to die of opioids and white women to have mulatto babies, eventually to be replaced by brown masses from South of the Border. (In contrast, THE GREAT GATSBY continues to be relevant in an America that never lacks for oligarchs, scandals, and vast riches. Maybe economic collapse will make GRAPES relevant again.) William Faulkner was a great novelist, but his focus was maybe too provincial -- the decaying Old South -- to qualify as All-American. There were a number of great Jewish writers after World War II, but their subjects were often ethnic and perhaps overly neurotic(and perverse). Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were very Jewish writers. Some may argue that, putting snobbery aside, The Great American Novel can really be found in popular fiction, say GONE WITH THE WIND, which also spawned the biggest box office hit of all time(adjusting for inflation), which was furthermore a tremendous cultural propaganda for the Old South. But due to its subject matter, people generally don't want to consider it as the quintessential novel or movie(as with THE BIRTH OF A NATION, the father of all cinema, buried and hidden away like Cronus and Titans by the Olympians). If not Margaret Mitchell, then maybe the works of Edna Ferber or Ayn Rand who wrote big-themed novels with grand narratives might fit the bill. One was even called GIANT. Where does E.L. Doctorow belong in all this? Somewhere between serious and popular fiction? RAGTIME was his attempt at The Great American Novel, and the movie adaptation by Milos Forman wanted to be The Great American Movie, with mixed results(but far superior to THE AVIATOR). Though Anglos built Essential America, their tendency for moderation & propriety restrained the prophetic outlook that flowed more freely from Jewish authors like Ferber and Rand(and Emma Lazarus) for whom AMERICA was even a grander project than the America of the Anglo Imagination. City on a Hill wasn't enough. It had to be an empire on a mountain. Some may argue MOBY DICK and HUCKLEBERRY FINN qualify as The Great American Novel, but neither was conceived as such and, if anything, their greatness owes to naturalness and richness of details than fixation with grandiosity(also true of SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION by Ken Kesey).

It's understandable why artists wanted to write THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL or make the THE GREAT AMERICAN MOVIE. There was nothing like America in human history with so much land, resources, freedom, opportunity, and achievement. America was both an inheritor of all the culture & knowledge of European Civilization AND a blank slate from which one could start anew. It had both the pedigree of an ancient civilization and the birth certificate of a new nation. So, naturally an artist or storyteller wanted to capture and convey the essence of this wondrous multi-faceted dynamism called Americanism. And yet, precisely because Americanism is about rapid & relentless change, it's difficult to pin down what is quintessentially or comprehensively 'American' in the grand narrative/thematic sense. And this has been made more problematic by vast demographic changes, the very subject of THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, which is about Two Civil Wars. Off-Screen, there is the Civil War between the North and the South. But in NY itself, we see mini-civil-wars between 'Native' Americans(the Anglo-Protestants) and New Americans(Irish Catholics, though given the nature of Americanism as a state of flux, alliances also form between Anglos and Irish). But then, at least until 1965, most immigrants were white, and they could more-or-less meld together as Anglo-European-Americans. It's now a whole new ballgame with masses of non-whites becoming 'Americans' and being stoked by Jewish Supremacists to hate whites.
The more schoolmarmish types have pushed TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as The Great American Novel. It lionizes white liberal conscience(and guilt) as the highest redemptive virtue of America, but is that novel relevant today when blackness is mainly expressed through rap music that has blacks indulging themselves like savages in ways more decrepit than what 'racists' once warned of Negroes in the past? Though DEATH OF A SALESMAN is a play, it too has been interpreted as a commentary about Americanism as dream and tragedy.

Perhaps, because of the tireless dynamism of America, it requires some distance to take in Americanism as a panorama. And perhaps, no one was more successful in this than Sergio Leone who, with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, imagined the American Saga as a grand myth than merely a narrative. Though the former is about the violent cowboy West of the 19th century and the latter is about violent gangster East of the 20th century, there is no sense of hurry. Despite all the changes afoot, they unfold like cosmic operas. Matter is temporal, Myth is timeless. Because Leone elevated Americanism into myth, it didn't matter if the material world was always changing. Myth, like a dream, circumvents time.
In a way, it's understandable why Americanism has been so defined by the outsider, the wanna-be immigrant. After all, while an American lives in the America of reality, the wanna-be immigrant dreams of America as a myth he wants to be a part of. The castle is more special to those on the outside looking in than those on the inside for whom everything has grown routine and mundane, even dull and boring. Just like adults relive the excitement of Christmas through eyes of children for whom everything is new and magical, Americans who've grown weary of America get to re-experience the 'myth' of America via stories of Immigrants who come with a sense of dream, hope, and wonderment... that is until immigrant children also grow weary and depend on more New Comers to keep alive the myth of America. For me, The Great American Movie might as well be THE BIG COUNTRY. Watch that at the impressionable age of 6 or 7, and there can be nothing more magnificent than America, the land of giants where myths come alive.

One problem with THE GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR is due to excess of ambition and ego. It was as if Martin Scorsese, flush with flattery(as the 'greatest living director in the world') and lavish funds, embarked to make The Great American Movie. He had already made great films(some of the best ever), but that wasn't enough. He had to make THE Great Movie as a statement(or even testament) laden with truths bigger than the subject matter at hand, one that might finally sweep the Oscars for him. In other words, if GOODFELLAS is specifically about Italian-American hoodlums in their particular milieu, THE GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR wouldn't simply be about 19th century hoodlums or a 20th century aeronautics wizard. They would convey something Big and Important about the American Experience, the Human Condition, the Individual Spirit, the Tide of History, and etc. While impressive works can be made this way, it is usually not the best approach. Manny Farber discussed the problem in his essay about White Elephant Art and Termite Art. White Elephant Art begins with a Big Idea and Big Ambition, and everything is made to serve that bigness. But in fixating on grandiosity, it often overlooks the quirky details that make a work special and unique. (I don't necessarily agree with Farber on what constitutes 'white elephant art' and 'termite art', let alone on which directors deserve praise or scorn. He used the terms too broadly, as in accusing Francois Truffaut of 'white elephant art' for SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, a ridiculous charge.) The angel, along with the devil, is in the details. It's like the movie K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER(dir. Kathryn Bigelow) where the Soviet Military builds these super submarines but neglects the details that could have prevented the nuclear meltdown.

White Elephant approach and Termite approach can be seen in the contrast between RAN and SEVEN SAMURAI. One was conceived from heaven above, the other from the ground-up. Akira Kurosawa envisioned of RAN as a grand project, and it is a great work in certain respects. On the macro-scale, it is very impressive and awesome at times. But the mid-section of the movie is like a collapsed bridge. There wasn't enough dramatic cement to keep it together. RAN works wonderfully with big scenes but often falls short with smaller moments that are crucial to the structure of tragedy and catharsis. In contrast, SEVEN SAMURAI is packed with wonderfully detailed little scenes that, in summation, make for an unparalleled masterpiece. It feels like wet clay. And SEVEN SAMURAI doesn't have to spell out what it's about. We see and feel it in our bones in everything that happens. In contrast, RAN inevitably builds up to grand statement about the human condition that is bit too ripe with 'significance'. To serve up another comparison, 13TH WARRIOR is 'termitic', whereas THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is 'elephantic'.
Scorsese was at his best in termite art mode, all the more so because he looks and thinks like a rodent. Scorsese's nature is to tirelessly burrow through everything, physically and psychologically. Consider his use of space in GOODFELLAS as when Henry(Ray Liotta) takes his girlfriend through the back entrance to a night club. Or how Scorsese follows Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin around New York, all the while worming into their psyche for clues. Or the nooks and crannies of the gambling business in CASINO. This obsessive quality about Scorsese isn't suited for grand sweeping narratives or glowing moments of inspiration. That is best left to directors like Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis(or Ron Howard). In terms of sheer talent, Spielberg is Scorsese's equal but with the difference that Spielberg is a master conventional director of crowd-pleasing spectacles whereas Scorsese has the natural sensibility of an artist. The artistic sensibility isn't smooth or glowing. It's like what Hepburn(Cate Blachett) says to Howard Hughes. "Howard, we're not like everyone else. Too many sharp angles. Too many eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in or they'll make us into freaks." An artist just can't help himself. He is too curious, too honest, too obsessed with truth(factual) or The Truth(spiritual), too anxious, and filled with self-doubt to just settle for a smooth/conventional narrative. While Spielberg also made serious movies for adults, his sensibility is that of an entertainer. Serious Steven is like Americanized David Lean or Richard Attenborough. While there are complexities in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and GANDHI, they are mainly meant to entertain and serve comforting myths(though LAWRENCE has moments of darkness that approach art). But a true artist cannot settle for something like GANDHI. Too many compromises and convenient lapses, too much padding and tenderizer. Oliver Stone has worked in both entertainer and artist modes, and NIXON shows how an artist really works. It is a tormented tale of power and corruption made with great empathy and insight. And GOODFELLAS and CASINO are works of art in their honesty, courage, and intelligence, served with tremendous mastery and ingenuity. Sidney Lumet made perhaps the best film about policemen, PRINCE OF THE CITY, a work that pulls no punches on the soul-wrenching agony of sacrificing friends/partners in doing the right thing in a world that may be undeserving of such virtue.

Because works of art break free of the comfort zone, they tend to be less popular. PRINCE OF THE CITY was a box office flop. GOODFELLAS made some money but mainly due to violence and laugh factor(as Joe Pesci is hilarious). CASINO and NIXON lost money. In contrast, SCHINLDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and BRIDGE OF SPIES made considerably more money(though not as much as Spielberg's blockbusters). While Spielberg's serious movies show plenty of violence and horror, especially in SCHINDLER'S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, they are dramatically smooth sailing with comforting message about how Good triumphs over Evil. We see visions of hell but always through the windows from within the Spielberg Theme Park Ride. There are shocks and explosions, but not many surprises. In contrast, Scorsese's art films are about constant derailments and stops along the way to inspect matters up close. They are many 'sharp angles' or sharp turns. Scorsese is about angles, Spielberg is about angels. This was never a problem in works like MEAN STREETS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, THE KING OF COMEDY, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, AGE OF INNOCENCE, and KUNDUN. But it was a problem with NEW YORK, NEW YORK because a grand musical-drama of that caliber needs narrative flow and dramatic unity, like George Cukor's THE STAR IS BORN. The puffy genre elements and tough artistic sensibility locked horns in NEW YORK, NEW YORK to no avail. They cancel each other out, and the result is a mess. Similar problem mars THE GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR. They are hybrids of art and entertainment, and the two modes trip over one another. Scorsese proved he could make entertainment movies with THE COLOR OF MONEY, CAPE FEAR, and THE DEPARTED, though his restless artistic or at least 'auteurist' tendencies overloaded those works with stylistic ingredients too rich for meager substance. No need to play chef making a hamburger or hotdog. But THE GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR(and later the confused HUGO) try to have it both ways. They are meant to be big-budget crowd-pleasing spectacles but also personal expressions of an artist, the 'greatest living director in the world'. THE GANGS OF NEW YORK begins like Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR. Technically, it's well-done, but it's a bundle of worn-out visual cliches, sound effects, and Hollywood Acting. Instead of realistic characters, everyone is larger-than-life, an archetype or walking symbol. People don't so much trade in dialogue as statements bursting with rhetorical flourish or 'meaning'. The first scene with build-up and the fight struck me as 'dumb'. Well-done but dumb, the sort of thing any film-school graduate or journey-man director could do. Why was Scorsese resorting to such tripe, the man whose reputation rested on the brilliance of TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS, works that expanded cinematic language in new directions? In THE GANGS OF NEW YORK, Scorsese went through the motions as just another director of spectacle with a bagful of old tricks. Now, if THE GANGS OF NEW YORK just wanted to be Gone-with-the-Wind with hoodlums, it might have worked. But there was the artist Scorsese getting in the way ever so often and trying to squeeze meaning and depth out of the material. Thus, narrative flow is all but impossible, and the films spirals into a morass of confusion and chaos. It certainly has its moments, but it lacks unity and wholeness. And the U2 song at the end and the montage that shows the transformation of Old NY into New NY is total schlock, like the ending scene with stones on the gravestone in SCHINDLER'S LIST. While THE GANGS OF NEW YORK is not a terrible film, it is certainly a failure.

But then, as if he learned nothing from his earlier film, Scorsese made the same mistake with THE AVIATOR. In a way, THE AVIATOR looks and feels like an old-fashioned movie. In contrast, even though RAGING BULL has the look of 1950s b/w cinema, it is very much an uncompromising work of New Hollywood. In contrast, with THE AVIATOR, it seems Scorsese was aiming for something like an Old Hollywood movie made with 21st century technology(and bit of licentiousness). It's rather reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's TUCKER, not so much an intense portrait of an American inventor but a nostalgia-saturated biopic of an American Legend. This is exactly what Philip Kaufman avoided with THE RIGHT STUFF, an inspiring but unsentimental look behind the myths at the reality of the Space Program. It found both mendacity and humanity, the real stuff of life. The heroes are humanized. It blasted through the sound barrier of nostalgia that marred so many period movies with haloed remembrances of the past. Its patriotism was hard-and-honestly-won(relative to most Hollywood fare) because it made us care about the people involved as humans, warts and all, than larger-than-life legends.
With THE AVIATOR, it's as if Scorsese was trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it is awash with the glow of nostalgia, the stuff of Hollywood legends and myths of American Heroism. And it's as if Scorsese was channeling the Old Masters to make a neo-Hollywood-spectacle worthy of their name and tradition. There is a bit of King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, John Huston, and lots of Howard Hawks, the man who directed SCARFACE for Howard Hughes. Hawks also directed the terrific aerial adventure ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. And of course, there looms the shadow of Orson Welles who soon found himself unwelcome in Hollywood because, being an artist, he just couldn't make a conventional Hollywood movie and insisted on doing things his own way. (In that sense, THE AVIATOR is like an esoteric biopic about Welles as well.) Now, while Scorsese's cinema from the beginning was inspired by the greats he so admired -- everyone from John Ford to William Wyler to Federico Fellini to Robert Bresson -- , he was artist enough to develop his own perspective and personal style. He didn't merely imitate the greats but digested and absorbed them. He became a giant himself. But with THE AVIATOR, it's as if Scorsese was always looking over his shoulders at the greats who inspired him. And having climbed upon THEIR shoulders, he tread gently with excessive humility. As a result, it doesn't really feel like his movie. It feels as though he was trying the channel the skills of his gods & heroes in the Pantheon to make a work as tribute to them. It's like he was seeking approval and benediction. In works like TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, the diminutive Scorsese was like a little giant. With THE AVIATOR, he's like a big dwarf. It's the work of someone who comes across as overly reverential(to the point of servility) to the masters. He was walking in their footsteps than forging his own steps(rather odd since he'd done that already with his several masterpieces). The Orson Welles factor makes it even more problematic. There is a reason why Welles ended up trying to scrape together funds to make more movies in Europe. He was persona non grata in Hollywood that found him 'too much'. He wouldn't play by the rules like Howard Hawks, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and etc. Hollywood had plenty of great film directors but not many personal artists. Welles was one of them and just couldn't fit in. So, when THE AVIATOR cops styles & motifs from both Classic Hollywood and maverick Welles, the result is more than a little strange, like an airplane ride riddled with turbulence. It'd be like making a movie inspired by classic Fordisms and maverick Peckinpahisms. While both have value, Ford worked within rules, whereas Peckinpah was a tireless rule-breaker in search for unfettered personal expression, for better or worse. Given the contradictions, THE AVIATOR feels at once too safe-and-comfy(and old-fashioned) AND bold-and-brazen. It's like a co-directorial effort by Ron Howard and Oliver Stone(who, though rarely great, has tried to be a film artist than mere entertainer). Also, no amount of fireworks can redeem or fix a film that is thin, hollow, or confused at the center. Francis Ford Coppola's COTTON CLUB has lots of visual wonders and pizzazz, but it's mostly filled with cookie-cutter characters, gross caricatures, and lame signaling about racial injustice. (Do we really want NAACP messaging in a movie about thugs, black and white?)
Enchantress Ava Gardner
Katharine Hepburn, fresh as an apple.
Cate Blanchett... Ewwwww
Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in THE AVIATOR?
There is also the problem of casting. Leonard DiCaprio can be a fine actor but comes across as too slight and 'weeny' to take on the role of a legend. His partners and employees barely register as screen presence. But the most disastrous are the two female leads by Cate Blachett and Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale is a pretty woman but can't hold a candle to Ava Gardner, one of the most beguiling movie stars to grace the silver screen. Gardner wasn't merely pretty. There was mystery and exoticism in her beauty, a quality utterly lacking in Beckinsale. Well, at least Beckinsale is pleasant to look at. But Blanchett? Yes, she has talent, but she is one of the most repugnant-looking woman in cinema. She's so ugly, even a warthog will refuse to mate with her. She's so ugly, she could turn spring back into winter. Now, Katharine Hepburn was no great beauty, but in her youth she was vivacious and strikingly attractive. As Pauline Kael wrote of her cheeks in BRINGING UP BABY: " “no paleontologist ever got hold of a more beautiful set of bones.”
It's all the more painful to watch Blanchett because she got Hepburn's voice down pat. Imagine Don Knots speaking like Sean Connery. Blanchett's uncanny vocal impersonation makes us feel Hepburn's presence, but what we get is someone who looks like Harpo Marx. Bob Dylan was no great looker, but Blanchett was too ugly for him in the dreadful I'M NOT THERE. It's a crime to have her play the lovely young Hepburn.
Scorsese sometimes missed big with casting. What made him cast the toothy and deranged-looking Willem Defoe as Jesus in LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST? And even though Michelle Pfeiffer was a good-looking woman, she was all-wrong for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, otherwise a perfect work. But because her character is so central to what unfolds in the story, it's a near-fatal error. But that was nothing compared to spending the first hour of THE AVIATOR looking at Harpo with Hepburn's voice. That was painful, a kind of torture, as icky to the audience as germs are to Howard Hughes.

For a person of deep movie knowledge, it's interesting that Scorsese's two movies about movie-making involve rather unimportant figures in cinema. Melies of HUGO is significant only for historical reasons. He was among the first to tinker with cinema as device but hardly contributed anything of artistic value. But HUGO inflates his reputation. And Howard Hughes' idea of movie-making was all production and engineering. HELL'S ANGELS(apt description for Catholic Scorsese's place in satanic Hollywood) is pretty decent as an action-war spectacle but hardly a seminal masterpiece. Hughes was far more significant as businessman and aeronautics guy than as a movie-maker. And the only reason THE OUTLAW is remembered is for breasts. It's telling that Hughes even approaches the matter of cleavage from an engineering perspective, a matter of measurements and data, as if(as with 'John Nash' in A BEAUTIFUL MIND), there is a mathematical formula behind everything: mammary and armory. I'm not sure if it really happened that way or was meant as homage to VERTIGO where we learn that the formula behind the Golden Gate Bridge is identical to that of a certain ladies bra. Because Hughes wasn't a significant figure in cinema, THE AVIATOR seems rather strained in making him out to be more important than he really was. Also, allusions to CITIZEN KANE are rather irritating. Such homage is unnecessary as we know Welles was a giant. Furthermore, Scorsese has proven himself to be another giant. Scorsese's reverence for his elders is admirable, but as a fellow giant, he should act like one than a little boy asking a baseball player for an autograph. Now, if Scorsese was signaling that his was an attempt to make another CITIZEN KANE, it was again unnecessary but also presumptuous because one genius cannot(and should not) copy the genius of another. Every artist has his own signature, and each should stick to his own. No sense trying to imitate another's autograph like the Talented Mr. Ripley. One of the problems of HUGO was its attempt to be a Spielbergian movie. Spielberg was wiser in making A.I., which originated as a Stanley Kubrick project, into something entirely his own in terms of style and feel. For THE AVIATOR, Scorsese should have emptied his mind of all the reverence and sentimentality for old masters and just do his own thing. Indeed, the ONLY lesson to take from Welles is to follow one's own muse than guess as to the muses of others. Scorsese did exactly that with films like MEAN STREETS and GOODFELLAS, but THE AVIATOR is all too self-consciously indebted to Classic Hollywoodisms. For that sort of thing, the Coens do it better, especially in the brilliant HAIL CAESAR! But then, Coens are writers and satirists(riddled with irony) as well as directors whereas Scorsese is essentially a visual auteur and sincere moralist. Coens are more adept at toying with Hollywoodisms. Scorsese is more of a straight-man director.

THE AVIATOR's nod to THE GODFATHER works better than to CITIZEN KANE. For one thing, there was something inimitable about Welles' idiosyncratic genius. You can admire it but can't quite replicate it. And it wasn't just about Deep Focus, light tricks, low-angles, montage, and use of reflections, which anyone can do. It was about the alchemy of all those effects, the secret recipe of which is known only to the Sorcerer, rather like the Charm of Making of Merlin the Magician. Those who attempt Wellesism by imitating the mere outer manifestations of his films end up with the kind of garbage produced by Terry Gilliam. The only way to approach the genius of Welles is to find the Source within oneself and run with it. Carol Reed came close with THE THIRD MAN. John Frankenheimer with the brilliant THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, his only movie touched by genius. And Johnny To and David Fincher are masters of image, though rarely with the fortune to work on worthy material. FIGHT CLUB is great film-making with tawdry material, for example. ALIEN3 is the most amazingly directed in the series but rather silly as an concept. Doing Welles is futile like doing Picasso. Unless touched by a kindred spirit, one mistakes the shell for the flesh.

However, the magisterial style of THE GODFATHER can serve as the basis of other films as it itself was developed from earlier styles of Otto Preminger(esp ADVISE AND CONSENT), Luchino Visconti(esp THE LEOPARD), and Akira Kurosawa(especially BAD SLEEP WELL). It is classic than idiosyncratic expression, like English landscape painting, the imitation of which is no crime as it's about shared standards and further perfection by technique(by any new takers). Anyone who tries to do Van Gogh or Picasso is asking for trouble: Either plagiarizing another's brilliance or suppressing one's own personality in slavish imitation. But there is no shame in building upon the classical style that stands for shared tastes and reverence of symmetry and beauty. THE GODFATHER is about gangsters and crime, but it is a beautiful work, painterly and unfolding like a procession.

So, while Scorese's razzle-dazzle Wellesian antics go off like bad fireworks, his Coppolaean handling of the duel of will and wits between Juan Trippe/Owen Brewster and Howard Hughes comes off pretty well(though a pale shadow of THE GODFATHER movies). Still, it's too bad that Scorsese felt a need to do his own Coppola-isms. With MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS, and CASINO, he made his own kind of movies about gangsters. Unlike Brian DePalma whose works were often like remakes of movies by other directors(especially Hitchcock), Scorsese was always careful to forge his own distinct style. (SCARFACE and UNTOUCHABLES are entertaining crime thrillers, but they are like Old Hollywood movies on cocaine or steroids. DePalma drew from the old well and spiked it with strong drugs. The notable exception was CARLITO'S WAY, his greatest movie, that truly managed to be a new kind of gangster romance.) But what Scorsese does with Hughes vs Trippe/Brewster is rather tame. It's pretty good Coppola-ism but why isn't it Scorsesism? After all, Scorsese is more than Ron Howard, a pretty good director who learned the tricks of the trade but never did anything bold or remarkable. Coppola and Scorsese at their best did change the face of cinema, and there was no reason for Scorsese to walk in Coppola's footsteps in THE AVIATOR. As entertaining as the scenes with Owen Brewster and Juan Trippe are, we can't help thinking that Scorsese is trying to do His Godfather Moment. Leone with ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA made HIS gangster movie instead of doing a variation of THE GODFATHER or whatever. Perhaps, the problem with Scorsese is he's much better at dealing with trees than the forest. His roving eyes notices so much within a tight social milieu, but his talents fall short of the grand vision essential to a mythic work like THE AVIATOR. Like Roman Polanski, he's best with rat's eye than bird's eye.

Also, contrary to a conceit of Auteur Theory -- "the worst films of a superior director are better than the best films of an inferior director"(like Dave Kehr usually favoring the worst of Clint Eastwood over the best of Woody Allen and Federico Fellini, two directors he mostly detests) -- , personal expertise, brilliance, and mastery are not everything. Steven Spielberg can run circles around Clint Eastwood, and the action scenes in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN blow away FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, but Eastwood's films are more memorable because of the characters and ruminations on the ethics of war. And Scorsese is many times the director that Danny DeVito will ever be, but HOFFA is, overall, a better movie than THE AVIATOR because of its powerhouse performances and tragic sense of friendship that really sears. What happens to the two men in HOFFA is incredibly heart-wrenching, whereas I doubt if anyone much cared about Hughes of THE AVIATOR as they walked out of the theater. (I cared more for the Hughes of MELVIN AND HOWARD though just a minor character.)

If there was something laudable about Howard Hughes, he always did his own thing his way. Granted, his romantic individualism of the swashbuckling kind nearly ended his life several times, a 'mistake' generally avoided by Jews who preferred to remain safe while making 'dumb goyim' take all the risks with life and limb. Perhaps, Hughes the reckless risk-taker and the Hepburn Family(in the best scene in the movie) suggest as to why Wasps eventually lost out to Jews. One kind of Wasp was too addicted to risk and adventure -- Ernest Hemingway ended much worse than Philip Roth and Saul Bellow who took better care of themselves -- while the other kind of wasps was too insular and priggish to see beyond the bridge of their noses. Like Burt Lancaster's character in THE SWIMMER, the adventurous wasp failed to sit still and take stock of himself and the world around him. In contrast, the priggish wasp was so busy with being self-righteous about one thing or another that he or she never bothered to ask WHO decides what to be outraged about. What mattered most is being a prig, therefore anything would suffice as long as it was offered on the dish of prigdom. Notice how prigs took so quickly to Homomania once it was served to them on the prig-prog dish. Such 'priggressives'.

*I suppose Elon Musk is like the Howard Hughes of the 21st Century. Is he for real though?

Though Scorsese didn't write THE AVIATOR, he came of age in a time when the director, as 'auteur', was suppose to stamp the material with his personality and vision. And there is some of that in the movie. But there is also a lack of self-awareness amidst the self-consciousness. I wonder to what extent Scorsese realized that his approach to THE AVIATOR(or GANGS OF NY) was saddled with the same problems faced by Hughes in his ridiculous project of building Hercules, the biggest plane in the world. Just like Hercules that barely manages to walk on water (like Jesus?), THE AVIATOR barely manages to get off the ground with its excess cargo of ambition and conflicting objectives. It lifts off ground but fails to soar. (I wonder if it inspired Hayao Miyazaki's THE WIND HAS RISEN, which may have worked as live-action movie but utterly fails as biopic of a real historical figure.) Whether Hercules could fly or not wasn't the issue. It was a bad idea borne of megalomania from the start. Simply unrealistic from any sane perspective, it was the product of quasi-autistic personality that figured that the best plane had to be the biggest and most impossible, just like Hughes' idea of a great movie(or greatest movie) was one made with biggest budget, longest shooting schedule, and perfectionism bordering on pathology. And yet, in the dream of making the seemingly impossible possible, there is an element of 'spiritual' longing in Hughes' personality. It's as if he believes in miracles, indeed as if his holy mother as personal Madonna smiles down upon him from clouds above. And this is where Scorsese slips in his Catholic-Christian theologisms into the movie.
In a way, several of Scorsese's movies are tales of fallen or misled christs or false saints. Their 'trials' have outer resemblance to the Passion of Jesus Christ. And yet, they are agents of satanism whose martyrdom is really a sick parody, a perverse mimicry, of the King of Kings. Travis Bickle is a would-be christ-figure who is willing to lay down his life to 'save' a girl in corrupt New York. But he's incapable of grappling with his own sickness and projects his psychosis onto the world. Jake LaMotta must deny himself food and sex in his total devotion to boxing. Boxers undergo tremendous suffering in the ring, and in the end, LaMotta gets 'crucified' by the fists of Sugar Ray Robinson. And yet, boxing is a blood sport. It is about men taking money to batter other men for beastly entertainment for the masses. Rupert Pupkin is willing to risk going to jail. He is utterly devoted to the world of entertainment. He is willing to make any sacrifice to enter the gates of TV heaven. But he has no sense of worth other than celebrity. He's fanatical like a saint but for trash culture. Ace Rothstein speaks of washing away sins in Las Vegas. It's the place where underworld figures like himself can go legitimate and do things under legal sanction and become 'respectable'. And yet, casino world is filled with criminals and degenerates. It exploits the worst aspects of human nature: Addiction to mindless thrills.
Howard Hughes is presented as yet another false christ. The movie opens with an image reminiscent of Madonna and Child. Hughes' mother is bathed in golden light and warns her son of the world infested with germs and filth. He is like the perfect child, radiant and pure. (There is a nod to Buddhism as well perhaps, not least because Scorsese made KUNDUN, a stunning work about the young Dalai Lama. Buddhism too has the story of purity in an impure world. Siddhartha is born into what appears to be a perfect world, only to discover it is mired in disease, decay, and death, and he devotes his life to seek Nirvana, the escape from the pathology of illusion that is the world. But then, KUNDUN shows how even those seeking Nirvana cannot escape court politics and world events.)
It's been said Jesus was the only Perfect Man, born without sin. And yet, both Hughes and Jesus had to make their way in a world of filth and foulness. The way of Jesus was to love sinful mankind. To embrace the wretched and the diseased and offer them hope. He wasn't meant to guard His purity for Himself but to share it with impure mankind so that sinners may be offered a path toward redemption and salvation, ultimately to the gates of Heaven. In contrast, Hughes' way is to recoil from the filth and grime. He is shown to have so many phobias about food and hygiene. And yet, he is more than willing to indulge in the corruption of the world to get his way.

There is a moment when Jesus, during His 40 days of soul-searching, is visited by Satan who presents Him with several temptations. Jesus rejects them all: Turning stones into bread, Jumping off the Pinnacle to test God, and Surveying the world from atop the mountain. Hughes is like the christ-figure who accepts the temptations. In a way, his diet is about turning stones into bread because he must have everything his way. And through flying machines, he toys with death in the conviction that angels will always save him somehow. And he wants control and dominion over everything. He complains about Pan Am's monopoly, but he wants to be head honcho of whatever he lays his hands on. He has over-arching ambitions like Charles Foster Kane. No matter how much Hughes suffers -- and he does so greatly at times -- , he is a satanic christ because he chose the material world than the spiritual one. Indeed, the room in which he is secluded for long stretches(like with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys following SMILE sessions) is lit in hellish red. And in the final scene, as Hughes recalls his childhood while gazing into the mirror, he hears his younger self saying, through the glass darkly, "When I grow up, I want to fly the fastest planes, make the biggest movies ever, and be the richest man in the world." And the movie closes with Hughes muttering, "The Way of the Future" over and over. Jesus was about Eternity, a timeless concept where ALL OF TIME is oneness with God. Eternity is bigger than the past, present, or future. In contrast, the notion of the 'future' is temporal, always dissatisfied with the present, always dismissive of the past. 'Future' implies that the world is not good enough. We need more money, more glory, more gadgets, more devices, more fun, and etc. No matter what you accomplish, it's not enough because someone will come up with something better, in which case you have to make something better before he does. But life is finite, and in the end, everything you do will be surpassed by new achievements in the future. That was the basis of Western Greatness -- individualism and competitive spirit -- , but it was also a betrayal of Jesus' teachings of spirituality and eternity. The airplane is shaped like a crucifix, and in one scene, we see Hughes become 'crucified' in it. It is his moment of Passion. And in his seclusion in his dark private room, with hair growing long and beard on his chin, he looks like a demented jesus. And the way he sits on the chair is like the image of the naked Jesus on the Cross in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Scorsese alludes to his own film, and one wonders if Hughes' megalomania rubbed off on Scorsese at times:
And the ultimate triumph with Hercules is like his moment of resurrection(or at least that of Lazarus). But the film reminds us that material success and achievements are but fleeting moments. They come and go until the new hot thing comes along. After all, Hughes admits at the end that Jet engines are the future. So, everything he and his kind have produced thus far will also pass into the dustbin of history. No matter how much we seek elevation and transcendence via worldly things, it can only be a parody of true salvation. You can fly high and fast, but you can't enter Heaven with an airplane, no matter than a camel through the eye of a needle... or so Catholicism tells us.

The movie also intimates that Hughes' interest in cinema may not have been merely economic or egotistical. Maybe it was a way of playing God or at least Christ. After all, there is something Biblical about how rays from the projector lights up the silver screen. It's like a "Let there be Light" moment. The world is imperfect and impure, but the film-maker can use the light to create the world as it 'should be'. He can play God. And in the 'purity' of the screen image, there are no smells and no germs. But alas, movies are make-believe, no matter how excellent or entertaining they may be. And the light that illuminates the screen is a fake light generated by electricity and illusion of 24 frames per second. It is not the real light of sun and soul, the glimpse of which is seen in the ending of SILENCE with the glowing makeshift crucifix in the hands of the dead priest.
Silence by Martin Scorsese

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