New York Film Festival 57—Scorsese, Baumbach, Norton: A Tryptic
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This year’s New York Film Festival hosted a broad spectrum of enticing new films, most of which deserve and will surely receive notice and attention. But one must choose, even in an umbrella review, and I have chosen the opening night, centerpiece, and closing night selections of the festival. They stand, serendipitously, as a felicitous tryptic displaying three American filmmakers at benchmark stages of their careers. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman marks an elegiac moment toward the close of his long and remarkable run as a director. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story stands at what is most likely the center of a career as an independent filmmaker marked by both extraordinary good luck and autobiographical focus. Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn is early days as a director, for this accomplished actor closing on two decades of noteworthy screen performances, including his well honed performance in this film. The three films all tell male-centered stories of white men, which may seem regressive. At the same time, each film is imprinted with a sensibility that suggests that the world has altered the shape of male privilege, the male gaze, and male identity. This is no substitute for the sound of other voices; and other perspectives were solidly present at this year’s festival. However, these three, celebrated by the festival through their placement in the Main Slate, form a natural triad that cries out for acknowledgement. They bounce off each other to suggest not only telling changes in the way entertainment narrativizes race, gender, and power, but also the uses of genre for a world in flux.
The Irishman rings changes on the essential masculine paradigm in American entertainment, the gangster, through the voice of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the protagonist of the opening night selection. Scorsese’s filmography is the fin de siecle history of the gangster genre and in adapting for the screen Charles Brandt’s book,I Heard You Paint Houses, a biography about hitman Sheeran, he adds another nuance to his oeuvre and to the genre. His interest in Brandt’s account of the life of Sheeran was rooted in what it brought to view of the deep reserves of human nature, he said at his press conference. At the same time, like his earlier gangster classic, Goodfellas, The Irishman is about how ingrained in American life the gangster mentality is. Except that while in Goodfellas, the lure for Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is the glamour of gangster excess and access shimmering as the essence of perverse American desire, for Sheeran being a gangster is about taking the path of least resistance. Despite Scorsese’s lifelong contempt for the off-screen gangster milieu, Goodfellas inevitably seduced some spectators with its specter of gangster razzle dazzle despite its clearly etched perspective on the essentially self-mutilating stupidity of organized crime—so the men around me at the press screening confessed. In The Irishman, Scorsese says goodbye to seduction.
We meet Frank in a nursing home at the end of his career, but we quickly tumble into a flashback about who he was when he was young, fresh out of the armed forces at the end of World War II, a guy who just wanted to work his way back into a peace time economy. It’s not the sentimental MGM version of America rebuilding after emerging victorious from a battle with evil, as in The Best Years of Our Lives, but a daunting view of a post-war terrain mushrooming with criminal opportunities, on which there isn’t a whisper of the usual late 1940’s promotion of America as the leader of the forces of good all over the world. This is a morally and ethically free environment. Maybe not everyone is a gangster in America, as Scorsese said after the screening. But in his latest film so pervasive is the gangster life in the land of the free that it does not even require Sheeran to be immersed in a neighborhood admiring of gangsters during his formative years for him to aspire to mob life, as was the case with Henry Hill. All that is necessary is for him to fall into it because of a brief, chance encounter on the road.
Sheeran’s truck has broken down at a truck stop, and some guy who just happens to be there, and takes the time to show him how to fix a very minor problem, turns out to be the unassuming, quiet, distinctly unglamorous mob fixer, Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci). No glitz for Buffalino, but lots of connections, and he brings dour, but eager Frank into a thriving network of gangsters. Frank never considers the implications of what Buffalino is offering him. Thus, the film tracks from 1947 an alarming lack of interest in or capacity for judging the ethics, morality, or legality of a good source of income, the same ethical vacuity that elected Donald Trump. Sheeran is welcomed by Buffalino into the oxymorons of a warm, supportive criminal brotherhood that is at the same time coldly shrewd and pragmatic, ready to kill its own summarily when it becomes exigent. Think murder and extortion in the case of the gangsters and, in the case of Donald Trump, concentration camps, sexism, racism, violation of the Constitution. Scorsese is spinning a fable for our moment and giving it a long history.
Although at the press conference, Scorsese more or less disclaimed any political intentions, given the texture of his work, it’s hard to believe that he did not have in mind using the gangster genre to depict the banality of evil with an American flavor, a dulled anesthetized absence of moral or ethical awareness in the pursuit of the satisfaction of basic human needs. In his review, A. O. Scott emphasizes aging when he contrasts The Irishman with Scorese’s previous work. But it’s more than that. Scott insightfully contrasts the long shot in Goodfellas when Henry takes his best girl into the Copacabana through the kitchen with a long shot at the beginning of The Irishman that tracks around a nursing home to where Sheeran sits in a wheel chair, remarking on the difference between the glamour of the “Copa shot” and the somber mood of the smooth, unbroken camera glide that discovers Sheeran. He attributes the mood swing from the earlier film to the fact that death is near for Frank. But death has always been near for Frank—he became a killer early in life—and, in fact, all of his gangster life has been somber. The striking contrasts between these two long takes seem more aptly attributable to a new sobriety in Scorsese and in our country, in the light of recent political events, about the capacity of ordinary men to misrecognize crime as a kind of norm.
De Niro gives a transcendent performance, quiet, restrained and on par with his previous personal best as an actor, as Noodles/David Aronson in Sergio Leone’s shattering exploration of the gangster as the prototypical American, Once Upon a Time in America. For both Leone and Scorsese, being a gangster is essentially being the guy next door who can’t grasp the big picture and lives moment to moment. It’s dry, mundane. So, it’s no coincidence that almost all actors portraying the main characters, including Buffalino—played by the king of manic, psychotic gangster portraits, Joe Pesci—abandon the pyrotechnics of their earlier performances for subtlety.
As Sheeran’s life unfolds before us in flashback, we find him to be a working stiff who became the intimate of the leading lights of gang life, and his narrative through line is what leads up to Frank’s assassination of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the closest of Frank’s associates, played by Pacino with a nuanced charisma and warmth we have not seen in his work for some time, nicely shaded with a natural understanding of how to manipulate large groups of men—and especially women. But no one is charismatic enough or a close enough friend to be a match for the organized crime machine. When the mob says, “kill,” with one or two qualms, Frank obliges.
In some respects, Hoffa is the maguffin of The Irishman, his life and his death at Sheeran’s hands less significant in itself and more important in what it reveals about the prosaic nature of treachery within the gangster context. As Scorsese has noted, although Brandt’s book contends that Sheeran confessed to the murder of Hoffa, it is impossible to know whether he actually did it. The film merely uses the assumption he did for the purposes of this fictional universe. And indeed because the murder so well characterizes Sheeran and Buffalino and their world, it is useful poetic contrivance. The death of Jimmy Hoffa is so low key as to be almost a throwaway moment. It takes no more than a bare, understated 30 seconds onscreen, and functions powerfully, but not as a moment of dramatic importance. Rather it testifies to the unimportance of any single act in the lives of men devoid of ethics and morality. All the moments are distilled by the near non-event of Hoffa’s disappearance.
But this is not a film adrift in the perversely bland moral vacuity of the gangsters. Just as in Goodfellas, in which Henry’s father and the government lawmen stood as moral anchors; in The Irishman, there is also a point of view that contrasts with garden variety mob corruption, but in a much more mysterious way. Fascinatingly, it is a woman this time, the Irishman’s daughter, Peggy Sheeran (Anna Pacquin). Over the span of Sheeran’s life of crime, Peggy, from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, speaks little. Rather she is shot in doorways, in corners, and in the midst of social occasions looking silently on at her father, and at his colleagues, with eloquent expressions that range from brooding dismay to contempt. In her adult life, she rejects her father entirely, a rejection from which Frank suffers in his vague, confused way to the end of his days. The audience, on the other hand, is privy to Peggy’s instinctual childhood hatred of Russell Buffalino as an unexpected lever by which Scorsese moves his fictional universe. If murder and betrayal are ordinary facts of Peggy’s life, she is animated by some mute but potent, implacable opposition, of indeterminate origins, to gangsterism.
If people tend for the most part to be shaped by their environment, Scorsese also points toward that rare person, Peggy, who is not, as a hope that there exists in an important minority an unquenchable if inexplicable, eternal flame of innate humanism, an inborn capacity for a higher understanding of life, without which there would be no way that legal and moral systems could have been developed in the first place. Is it significant that this figure is female? I leave it to you.
In Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach aims for less august goals as he asks us to consider a middle class man, deeply concerned with ethical conundrums, mostly in terms of the gender wars, and women do not fare as well as in The Irishman. Just as his first film, The Squid and the Whale (2005), was an autobiographical fictionalization about Baumbach and his parents, so Marriage Story, in his mid-career, is a fictionalization of his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. For that reason, it is not a surprise that he could not avoid creating greater sympathy for his hero, Charlie (Adam Driver), although he was clearly striving for gender parity in this story of the breakdown of a modern marriage. Charlie slogs through his days and nights in and out of marriage, and as a father to a son, in a new age, when women are asserting personhood, and therein lies Baumbach’s dilemma. The film is structured, at least in its opening montages, as if it were an even handed assessment about the domestic sorrows of Charlie and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), but the needle keeps moving toward Charlie. He is the focus of our sympathy; Nicole’s determination to divorce him registers on audience nerve endings as a betrayal.
The film begins with the seemingly pointless juxtaposition of Charlie’s evaluation of Nicole followed by Nicole’s evaluation of Charlie. But, there’s a point. We soon discover that it is part of an exercise conducted by a marriage mediator who has assigned each of them the task of summing up what they like best about each other. Charlie is a creative stage director, and Nicole a wonderfully experimental actress, loving father and mother to a precocious, intelligent young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). However, after an affectionately lit pair of montages that depict Nicole and Charlie as adorably quirky spouses and parents, everything founders on the rock of Nicole’s capricious intransigence. She refuses to read out loud the letter she has written to Charlie per the instructions of the mediator, forcing the couple out of a relatively benign mediation process into the iron grip of the laws governing domestic arrangements, and the claws of divorce lawyers, as well as under the microscope of the humorless government agents in charge of child welfare. Hands down, the divorce lawyers get all the funny lines; Nicole gets the blame; and Charlie gets the fuzzy end of the lollypop.
It is tempting to label Marriage Story a 21st century male melodrama, but it is more of a melange of genres, which Baumbach cheerfully, and even proudly asserted at his press conference. Whether the multiple genres are successfully merged is at issue, however. The mash up may be Baumbach’s attempt at experimentation with a free form approach to cinema, as he thinks they are. Or it may be that the film got away from a director who is still honing his aesthetic. My experience of the film is that it unfolds as if Charlie and Nicole were live action performers walking through a variety of cartoon environments. This combination has certainly worked in some films; you will determine if it works in Marriage Story. Charlie and Nicole are three dimensional, emotional, and act out of deep sensibility, but the lawyers and Nicole’s mother, Sandra, (Julie Haggerty) and sister, Cassie, (Meritt Weaver), who, like the film, also prefer Charlie to Nicole, are extreme comic types. They play out their scenes with the rhythms of screwball comedy, blustering one dimensional satire, or low key kitchen sink humor.
Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) is a highly stylized version of feminist divorce lawyer, whose sophistication and mannered, farcical dialogue surround Nicole with indomitable fire power against which Charlie and his lawyers are helpless. Neither of Charlie’s legal retainers, in their turn— Jay (Ray Liotta), a larger than life sized growling bulldog of a slick lawyer, who grubs money with every breath, nor Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), a smiling, home spun, no frills, urban version of the country lawyer—can make any headway for Charlie. Indeed they victimize him almost as much as Nora does. In all of this action, Nicole stands by innocently, barely understanding the pressures being put on her soon to be ex-husband, but nevertheless somehow becoming a proxy for everything that causes Charlie’s suffering.
Impaled by the women and the legal system, Charlie comes perilously close to being a version of the contemporary white man’s dilemma. No more catering to daddy. But he’s not an angry, Trump-loving hater; far from it. He is, rather, a talented, charming, and bewildered sweet dupe, who inadvertently falls into every trap set for him. His situation is summed up in a strange, comic scene in which he is demonstrating for the bloodless emissary from the child welfare agency a game he plays with Henry which for reasons that are never clear entails him running a box cutter, with the blade retracted, over his arm as if he were hurting himself. Only somehow, during the demonstration the blade is not retracted and he slices his arm. Trying desperately to hide this fail from the impassive government observer, he becomes increasingly bloody, and just manages to get her to leave before he collapses on the floor. Are you laughing? Or confused? No important damage is done, but it’s game over. Nicole gets everything she wants. Wimmen! But wait! That’s not really fair to Baumbach.
If the film gives Charlie the emotional edge, one of which Baumbach is unlikely to be fully aware, it intentionally strives for complexity. In sum, Marriage Story entertains a vision of marriage, rare in American entertainment, that love isn’t enough when the needs of the partners are incommensurable beyond compromise. Standing in the ruins of their defunct marriage at the end of the film, Charlie and Nicole still clearly love each other, but this film acknowledges a universe much larger than the desires, capacities, and will of any individual persons or couples, no matter how hip, or filled with good will, adding in its final scenes yet another genre, verité, or at least something verging on that. In the film’s parting view of Charlie, he finds and reads to himself the written statement that Nicole refused to read to him at the beginning of the film, and she sees him do it. They are both deeply moved, but the die is cast, and post-conjugal life goes on. With his denouement, Baumbach rejects the meliorism of the delightful comedies of remarriage that titillated previous generations along with their Hollywood truisms that love conquers all. It just ain’t that simple. Comedy and deep love do not automatically mean not having to say good-bye.
By contrast with Baumbach, Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a neo-noir, displays a rising director honing his talents by cleaving with intensity to one genre, a Hollywood favorite. Like Scorsese, Norton takes a trip back in time to use an old genre to create a lens on contemporary life. It’s 1957, and a man’s world in Motherless Brooklyn, as classical noir always was. But Norton is shooting for a new inter-racial component by shining a light on the racial politics of the late 1950’s that the movies didn’t reflect. Motherless Brooklyn aims for a new racial inclusivity through an altered view of the 1950’s white power structure and a racially aware reconfiguration of the conventional femme fatale. In the generic noir, the world is under the thumb of an old, deeply corrupt white patriarch, and audience concern about consequences of his greed and evil extends only to what he does to other white guys. Here, there are plenty of white guys—notably the hero, Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton)—coping with a world they never made. But although this world is filled lovingly by Norton, in his capacity as director, with the noir staples of dark, urban streets, shadows, secrets in high places, jazz, and men’s hats, the consequences of the evil, clandestine actions of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), the power broker in this story, deeply affect New York’s African-American community, important members of which we grow to know well. And forget Mitchum and Bogart. Essrog, is not your typical world weary, uber sexy, white noir detective.
Norton made significant changes to the book of the same name by Jonathan Lethem on which it is based, most importantly his addition to the story of two crucial new characters: Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Paul Randolph (Willem Dafoe), of whom more soon. But he anchored his film on the central invention of Lethem’s novel, a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, which, if you aren’t familiar with this nervous tic, causes those afflicted to blurt out obscenities uncontrollably. This is a major generic alteration, as the classical noir detective is the essence of cool composure and self-control. Here it is Essrog’s lack of composure that is cool; Essrog’s fast track to his subconscious, a mysterious component of Tourette’s, makes him more effective at seeing beyond appearances and Norton does a more than creditable job of creating this refreshing hero. He also strikes a blow for imagining disability. The character’s outbursts are often funny, but never demean him.
“Motherless Brooklyn,” the name given to Essrog by his mentor, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) a character who is the image of the traditional noir detective, when they were orphans together in Brooklyn, suggests a reason for the film’s title. But it has a far greater significance; it encapsulates the two major elements in the film: parentage and turf. Essrog is sent on a quest that involves both after Minna is killed, marking the end of the traditional noir, the beginning of this neo-noir, and the portal into some big discoveries about America. Essrog thinks he is looking for the man who killed his mentor and only friend, but it turns out that his search propels him into the real object of his quest, a face-off with Moses “Mo” Randolph, obviously based on controversial, much hated and much admired, Robert Moses. Mo, like his real life counterpart, is a city planner, and he is planning, as Moses actually did, to break up neighborhood communities by obliterating them and replacing them with a new system of highways that will be good for business, or so Mo says. Actually, Mo is a billious racist and most of the neighborhoods to be broken are those in which black New Yorkers live. Mo’s hatreds are always the real motives for his actions; he never says what he means. Where have we seen that before?
Alec Baldwin brings to the part, but not in a farcical way, the same kind of overbearing gravitas that he brings to his impersonation of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. It did not detract from the narrative that at times I found it impossible to watch him without the comedy show images overlaying his scenes. Mo is a Trumpian type, dangerously more intelligent, but like his alter ego, filled with secrets. The fun of the film is watching Essrog winkle them out, partly by means of his interactions with Mo’s brother Paul, a genius whom Mo delights in thwarting for no reason at all but perverse fraternal vindictiveness. Anything but his brother’s keeper, he sadistically, and self-destructively, puts the kibosh on Paul’s engineering proposal for the city that would have brought both benefit to New York and great credit to him, sending Paul over the edge, and inadvertently dooming himself.
Essrog also brings dark secrets to light because of his relationship to Laura Rose, a gorgeous black woman, a sophisticated political activist whose father Billy Rose (Robert Wisdom) owns a cool jazz club where a great trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams), à la Miles Davis, plays. Williams is, as always, magnificent, and Wisdom and M’btha-Raw as Laura, are both touching and powerful. Plunging into the jazz world at first seems like it is necessary in order for Essrog to find out who murdered his mentor Frank Minna, but it unexpectedly turns out to the key to the cabinet of Mo’s mysteries, of which Frank’s death is part. Laura also becomes Essrog’s love interest, seemingly a trustworthy woman of great integrity, as well as beauty. But in time we wonder if she is the femme fatale, potentially the greatest threat to Essrog’s life because of his vulnerability to her. I will refrain from revealing which she turns out to be, but I will say that Big Mo has fathered a child about whom no one knows and that secret is the time bomb under his grandiose bridge and tunnel dreams. Is it Essrog? The trumpeter? Laura? Any of the detectives with whom Essrog works in the agency Frank Minna built, for example Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannevale), a man who, like Mo, is not what he seems? Find out for yourself.
In sum, Motherless Brooklyn has all the visceral appeal of the classic noir plus an expanded sense of the environment of the old favorite. Like The Irishman, it uses history as poetry, heedless of external evidence and proof; but rather to evoke internal truths about human nature. As in all noir, great evil is part of the human genome, but in this noir, the arc of time bends toward justice, although not always of a conventional nature. The last, grey-toned frames of the film find Essrog, in a philosophical mood, at the ocean, with its limitless expanse of water, wind, and sky. It feels appropriately inconclusive: hopeful, new, and right. This is not your grandpa’s noir, which inevitably devolved into the claustrophobia and fatalism of a convoluted maze that leads ever more sinisterly into serpentine spirals from which it is impossible to break free. Like a python slowly choking its victim to death. Instead, Norton finds daylight on a path out of the labyrinth. Is he copping out at the end with good old-fashioned Hollywood, meliorism? Or is his story organically impelled toward release, and whatever that might mean, by the release of the noir from the all-white dream of racist America?
No theme parks these. (Thank you, Marty!) This is cinema, in the throes of experimentation. Seeking, risking, failing, succeeding, crying, laughing, smirking, gasping for breath, and always struggling to engage the human condition.