Have you ever been hit on the head with a lead pipe? If you have, you know you don’t fall to your knees, and, after three louts with more than their fair share of bone in their jaws give you a few more angry zonks, trip one of them up, grab his bar, dispense with all of them in a flurry of quick, perfectly-timed blows, arise bloody and triumphant enough to make a ranting soliloquy. Except in the movies – but isn’t this supposed to be a true story?
As I mentioned before, I’ve embarked on an old movie binge adventure, revisiting classics I loved as a child and young man, to see how well they (and I) have held up. I’m thinking about Where Eagles Dare, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Day of the Jackal, The Guns of Navarone, It Happened One Night, Roman Holiday, Get Shorty, Easy Rider, and 12 Angry Men to name a fistful. Some, like Gone with the Wind are such soap-opera syrupy they’re pretty painful to watch; others are the unmitigated delights I remember – The English Patient is one example, even though I’ve come to loathe the self-serving and heinous betrayal of the protagonist. I recently wrote about Oliver Stone’s JFK, (Stone Cold) and I’ll continue this series in fits and starts as I ploddle along through a vast back catalogue of memories and various cinematic escapades and vicarious scrapes and escapes.)
It seems to me what is similar between Martin Scorcese’s muscular, masculine posture and the fascist idea of the noble savage, for example, is their contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. He celebrates a brawn-over-brains might-is-right vibe; mocks ethics; glamorizes criminality; suspends common sense and reality, all at arms length. And his women are merely breeders or keepers who represent a subtle albeit containable threat to the integrity and strength of the men. The classic but banal Freudian virgin-whore complex incarnate.
I am thinking about his grim fantasies: Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and most recently, The Irishmen – which exhibit all the machismo virtues – superb force, a skilled and mature confidence, as well as a knowing nod to paternalism and glorified surrender/death. He has an able and witty gift for film making, granted, but it is thin loam laid on unyielding ledge. Cape Fear was the perfect chance for him to go deeper, into granite and insight. Instead he’s content with (and it seems only capable of) macho posturing – technically brilliant and beautifully done, but poorly conceived and without the vision of an interesting and interested mind. And his shocking displays of gore in the name of graphic realism is not only gratuitous but vaguely pornographic.
This he-man stance manifests itself in gangsterism, and the more than tacit wink to hooliganism (which is essentially soft-core porn bullying) that runs through these films, a sort of sympathy for the devilish. And one doesn’t get the feeling that Scorsese is kidding either. His Jake La Motta was a thuggish, misogynistic son of a bitch, whose brutality was shot in a way that made you kind of like the guy. No punches were pulled, literally, but Scorsese neglected to show us that most of those thrown were either rabbit, or below the belt, and that the gloves were filled with lead pellets. The cold-sweat spiral staircase of paranoia which his goodfellas try to claw and climb up by murdering anybody and everybody, most often the weak, should make one not like them.
But one does, even though one doesn’t really believe Scorsese distrusts his audience enough to resort to brilliant film technique to help him out of impasses such as: character development, intimacy, humor. Has he really become a flabby, intellectually-dishonest master who seduces us using what is essentially cheap, pseudo-nazi aestheticism, i.e. a fetishism of courage that is both prurient. and romanticized, and full of disdain? Or was he always, just more subtle and original, and so excused and lauded? Let’s look at Cape Fear and see.
Robert De Niro is almost always astounding because the random, haphazard, plodding nature of his method is, even still, a delightful form of self-discovery, for himself and us. However, his cartoonish tattoos and smug smirking in this film suggest far less than they show. Is he the innocent man, wronged by a dishonest lawyer, who, after spending fourteen years in jail for rape seeks a Count of Monte Cristo-type revenge? One can’t help but admire and actually identify with the guy, despite hating him in the role – but has he lost the gift, the elusive magic that captured our imagination? He is exactly what Scorsese longed for – an expressive and elastic shape that would hold whatever he chose to put in it – and he has been a stunning chameleon.
Jessica Lange, as the wife fearing for her life, is like a wild animal fidgeting on her stool in the drawing room. One can almost hear her prehensile tail thwacking against the rungs every so often, but she stays basically put like she’s told, which is a pity. I secretly hoped she’d lunge and throat clamp her deserving chump husband, or claw-swipe his putty mug. It’s a beautiful shame she copes so bravely and cries so convincingly while taking all those angry drags.
Juliet Lewis, who plays the daughter, steals the movie with her smooth thighs and perky, amusing person spilling out all over the place. Luckily even Scorsese can’t contain her, yet one realizes by the end that she’s just another unevolved incarnation of Iris, the Jodie Foster character in Taxi Driver, and just a beguiling cipher to be saved and protected.
As the adulterous shyster Nick Nolte is his usual fascinating, barely-articulate one-dimensionalness, this time with Yuppie hair and designer eyewear. Joe Don Baker, representing the law, again, is much less effective this time with a gun and Teddy Bear than I remember him being with just a big stick, once upon another time. In a much ballyhooed cameo, Robert Mitchum (who starred in the original) adds glamor as the Police Chief, but for some reason puts one in mind, with his droopy lids and baritone swum up from the bottom of the unplumbed ocean, of an old sleepy moose drowning.
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin? My old friend Bob? Can you tell me where they’ve gone? The Martin who made Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and The Last Waltz, both unholstered joys, with character arc, and heart, and flyover country humor . Or the Bob who made one want to drink beer and spit nickels in The Deer Hunter, or Bang The Drum Slowly, for instance. And explode like broken-rhythmed dynamite in The Godfather Part II?
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