Monday, December 23, 2019

A Longish Note Back To Someone About The Good, The Bad And The Ugly In The Irishman

‪I don’t recall you objecting to the film on a moral basis. If you did, then either I didn’t read you fully enough or just missed it or forgot it. ‬

‪My recollection of what you said is that it was slow, tedious, with scenes so prosaic—stopping the ride for smokes—as to produce boredom and without much meaning. Though I do recall you saying, I guess more than once, that the idea of “it is what it is,” which I say is one way of putting the movie’s theme, is nonsense or dull and or without real meaning. ‬

‪I objected to all of that, arguing while the movie moves slowly, it doesn’t move ponderously, that each scene brims with subtleties and connections to other scenes in The Irishman, and in his other movies—notably Good Fellas, and that the theme of “it is what it is” *is* meaningful within the depiction of this film’s world and its ethos.‬

‪As to the stance the movie takes towards the criminality it recounts and depicts in Sheeran’s telling, I agree with you up to a point. I originally said to you and have always thought about The Irishman that Scorsese is too complacent, too gliding over, not dramatically critical enough of that criminality, the violent inhumanness of it not in the least assuaged by his daughter’s rejection of her father.

‪But, big but, and here we reach the end of “up to a point,” are we made to feel sympathy for Sheeran or are we made to see him as an utterly abject piteous figure, like Saddam Hussein found in the spider hole, from whom we’re detached? Sheeran being an abject piteous figure is different from our  pitying him. The emphasis is on the abjectness, the lowness to which he’s reduced. He wears the insignia of his former ostensible heights, the honorific watch and the honorific ring, while he’s sitting in a wheel chair at death’s door, alone, broken, dismayed, understanding the vast emptiness of his life, fighting failingly with all he’s got, not much left mind you, for a little light, a little grace, for not complete darkness.

‪From memory:‬

‪“Father could you do me a favour?” ‬

‪“Sure Frank, what is it?” ‬

‪“Could you leave the door open just a little? I don’t like it closed.”‬

‪I say Scorsese means to evoke the latter, Sheeran’s abjectness, means not to elicit our sympathy for him. After all, all the hoods get comeuppance one way or another, dying pathetically alone in jail or not, sick or crippled, or cold-bloodedly murdered under the very codes they live and die by, or shot by accident as happens to Sally Bugs—“Someone he told forgot to tell someone. It was a bad hit.” Russell in jail is without teeth, metaphorically toothless after all that power, brought so low he can only pathetically gnaw with his toothless mouth on the bread he used to love to dip into wine and savour, the wine now grape juice, the bread and the grape juice, aping and subverting the meaning of the Eucharist. Sheeran and Russell try to find solace, forgiveness and meaning in that Christian forgiveness, with at least in Sheeran’s case the effort miserably failing. The world of this movie eats these guys alive one way or another, and “it is what it is,” their reality, comes home to each of them. The death that awaits us all is in their case fully inflected by the way they lived.‬

‪So, what you miss in your moral criticism that Scorsese wants us in the end to sympathize with Sheeran and shouldn’t is that while in and by the movie’s end Scorsese tries to, he does not convey sufficiently the depths of the horror of Sheeran’s criminality. By presenting the movie’s world largely from Sheeran’s point of view, from, so to say, inside Sheeran’s head, Scorsese doesn’t allow himself enough critical distance to dramatically take the full measure of that horror. And, too, the whole story and sub stories and the acting and other cinematic things make The Irishman so compellingly watchable that we’re so drawn in to the way Sheeran sees things such that we’re not allowed to take that very measure. The Irishman fails in that. ‬

‪Ross Douthat puts it thus about this film’s relation to Scorsese’s thug movies: ‬

‪...He wants to offer a companion piece and a partial corrective to some of his most famous which the sheer pleasure of criminality, the scenes of lawless masculine delight, were allowed to occlude the larger moral vision, to hide the skull beneath the skin...‬

‪And Armond White puts it thus about The Irishman as such:‬

‪...By the time Fox News prelate Father Jonathan Morris appears, offering forgiveness to the decrepit Sheeran (and implicitly blessing Scorsese’s perpetual, backsliding glamorization of crime), the overwrought Irishman resembles an American kabuki play about sin that also relishes sin...‬

‪White, I think, misses that Sheeran realizes that there is no forgiveness regardless of what the priest tells him. But White’s pretty close to the point. And while Douthat theorizes that Scorsese means to remediate his past thug glorification, the point is that Scorsese doesn’t succeed.

‪Put most simply, the end doesn’t justify the means. ‬

‪But all this is different from your moral qualm about this film, which I do believe is your mistaken view of it. So, I argue you’re wrong on both counts. In a nutshell, I think you’re wrong about the movie as tedious and meaningless in that tedium and that you’re wrong in your moral criticism of the movie.‬

‪Finally, maybe in 500 years I will by historic consensus have been proved faulty about The Irishman but for now the best movie minds of our generation not destroyed by madness agree near to universally on its quality, differing only in degree.

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