Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Irishman, My Martin Scorsese Problem And Donnie Brasco‬

A note to a friend:‬

‪I just read your nice, spritely review of The Irishman. Don’t take this in an unintended way: there’s no accounting for taste. We’re both reasonably intelligent and we both respond with some insight and sensitivity to films. But with respect to this film, our tastes go in quite different directions. It’s not a matter, natch, of who is right and wrong. It’s just different views stemming from different senses of taste here, although exploring them with a little polemical vigour couldn’t hurt.‬

‪I’d say it’s not so much that I didn’t like the movie. I do, after all, despite my reservations, give it 3.5 out of 5, which isn’t stale bread. I recognize its highly commendable excellences, principally the superb acting, also the sweep of the thing and the obvious cinematic riches and craft, the most latter of which, the craft, I’m least well versed in—the famed long, long single camera shot in Goodfellas means little to me.‬

‪I’ll go back for long, long sec to my main bugaboo. ‬

‪I just can’t see all this creative energy and focus on a murderous, obtuse dem, dese and dose thug like Sheeran and I can’t see giving all his fellow murderous thugs the pleasant cinematic haze in which Scorsese, maybe despite himself, bathes them. They come across, as I noted, like lovable old uncles, made for the most part wise and to be respected in virtue of passing with honours the hard lessons of their own experience. Having survived and ascended through their hard, treacherous lives, they’ve gotten their PhDs from the graduate school of homicidal hard knocks. They’re, to borrow Ross Perot’s line, roads scholars. ‬

‪So, for me, it’s not a question really of disdaining movies about hateful or disgusting characters. That’s not the issue at all. It’s rather how they’re treated. And with Scorsese and his thug movies, with the seeds of it in Mean Streets, which I love and am least offended by, I confront a paradox: they, Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets, The Departed, even Who’s That Knocking At My Door, are compellingly entertaining and watchable—they count among the movies I mostly see over and over, but, and this is may be where my weird idiosyncrasy comes in, I find them morally bereft. ‬

‪I’ve mentioned to you my contrasting example of Donnie Brasco, where the thugs are shown to be the true low lifes they are, but where Al Pacino’s “Lefty” is given enough humanity to make him simultaneously a sympathetic but so sad a figure. There’s no admiration for these guys. But there’s the art of the thing, the genuine friendship between Donnie and Lefty even as we see Lefty in all his sad coarseness, at his dumpy home apartment, shlumpily wearing his track suits, sunk into his couch watching the nature channel. ‬

‪There’s a truth in this that it seems to me Scorsese never touches in his thug movies. And not just there, but in The Wolf Of Wall Street too. His high jinx, fun, flashy cinematics in showing the thugs and the cheating profiteers balling it up joyously undercut any felt critical sense of what bottom of the moral barrel dregs they all are. It’s my beef with the Roy Cohn doc too. The obsession in it with Cohn’s wealth, his power, his celebrity, his hoity toity socializing at all the hot, high and mighty spots with the high and mighty themselves all raise, to my mind, a subtextual admiration for it all. ‬

‪I get that with Scorsese, just that in The Irishman, the voltage has aged, as has he, and has lost its flashy power. The energy has been slowed, toned down and quietened. But the rosy, cinematic hue is still there regardless and there’s the rub of the paradox, where the contrarieties meet: the compelling entertainment of it at one with a deficient moral vision. Proof of the paradox: I’ll see The Irishman again virtually the minute it hits Netflix and it will without doubt  join my list of eminently rewatchables‬

‪Here’s a thought test. Say a Scorsese movie was made of Trump, showing him in such rounded complexity as he has and not without its dimension of sympathy and maybe some discernible subtextual admiration for him. And imagine that all the Scorsese film pluses comprise the movie, say fabulously entertaining recreations of Trump at one of his rallies, wowing the crowd or dramatizing with some admiration his sheer resilience even as all the shit comes down on him. How do you imagine you might take that? My point is that Scorsese’s thug protagonists are no better than Trump. ‬

‪A final note: I find the same paradox in Godfather 1, an utterly compellingly watchable movie but for me morally failing in rosying up these hoodlums, while Godfather 2 is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, the truth of these guys realized in Michael’s fratricide and in his final sheer joyless, almost inhuman, aloneness.   ‬

‪As I said, “a long, long, sec.”  😊 ‬


  1. Are you suggesting that the "tragic" character isn't well realized in the Irishman? If so, what's your definition of tragedy? I'm not arguing that your analysis is right or wrong. It's an appreciation of a body of work in which the slippage of the director's age spent living on the same street is starting to show.

  2. Hypothetically, with different unknown aged actors, would you figure the same? The hoodlums get their medicine, either as paint on a wall or by fading into self-oblivion, existentially shelled out. The narrative voice, literally, has but a trickle of the energy of the cinematic treatment. A Beckettian treatment would have had a stage backdrop of a red smeared ruined gable wall and a voice from ground level with lips only visible, murmuring the sequence of a murderous life in perpetual cycles in a downbeat cadence.
    Anyhow, doesn't art have a moral pass, a get out of the sinbin card as it were, a moral dispensation? Besides, that little scene at the bank, where the Irishman queued to extract emotional interest from from the locked vault of Peggy's filial love, provided the coldest, most comfortless and telling verdict, the harshest of lingering agonies that Frank was capable of feeling. Peggy is the jury for the lone survivor.
    Is he a tragic hero? Hardly. Look at how pointedly the twenty something generation that deal with him in the care home are utterly oblivious to him and his context. There is no Horatio to lament his noble heart, and there isn't the slightest innuendo that there was even a whit of nobility in the aura of Frank the fixer.
    Scorcese's treatment of the story was utterly compelling, the acting exceptional in some ways even by the actors' lofty standards.How convincingly they inhabited their characters, even to the faces, especially De Nero with his plank like mask, virtually unsmiling throughout, operating on instinct rather than cogitation.
    But the paint is on the wall at the end.

    I've only viewed it once, so I've gotta see it again sometime for a more critical overview.