”Film culture today,” I muttered, as I waded through (and into) an unusually bothersome post on the usually half-annoying (but compulsively readable) Hollywood Elsewhere site. Look: It’s OK not to get, or to enjoy, Douglas Sirk pictures like All That Heaven Allows (1955) or Imitation of Life (1959). I’m not all that crazy about Terrence Malick or Wes Anderson, who have similar followings. But not to acknowledge Sirk’s continuing influence (on, among other things, Mad Men) or to back up what you believe and simply assert that “women’s pictures have cooties” and “melodramas are queer”—and then to attack Powell and Pressburger classics and Mildred Pierce—is a low blow even for a pseudonym-ridden blog.
My mood improved with a thread in the Arthouse, World & Hollywood Cinema section of the superior Mobius Home Video Forum. The subject is directors over 70 still wielding their megaphones, and there are more than I’d imagined, which is encouraging. Participating in both these discussions happened to coincide with me seeing Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer, from two senior, Oscar-winning cornerstones of film culture, Martin Scorsese (67, but, hey, he wouldn’t mind keeping company with Clint, Woody, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the busy 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira) and Roman Polanski (76, as his attorneys won’t let us forget as he fights extradition).
The beancounters were ecstatic over last weekend’s performance of Shutter Island, a personal best, loot-wise, for Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, in their fourth collaboration. It held pretty steady this weekend, which represents something of a triumph over its marketing. The trailer and TV spots emphasize its twists and turns and horror film elements, which are present and accounted for—but by the end of its labyrinthine 138 minutes it’s as much a horror picture as Raging Bull is a boxing movie. (Just as 1991’s Cape Fear, a master class in tightening the screws, registers as a meta-movie about gearing up a remake for a contemporary audience.) Not that Scorsese dislikes horror—there are nods here to the psychological unravelings of Val Lewton-produced chillers of the 40s, like The Seventh Victim (1943) and Bedlam (1946), as well as the run of asylum-set movies, particularly Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), which like the 1954-set Shutter Island trades in on the anxieties of its age.
As for the plot, well, if you don’t figure it out from the trailer, or guess what’s going on in the first half-hour, you will be genuinely surprised. (Not having read Dennis Lehane’s novel I can’t say how it delayed the inevitable.) DiCaprio’s federal marshal is sent to an experimental psychiatric facility off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the disappearance of a patient, a visit that triggers personal demons, most disturbingly the memory of his wife (Michelle Williams). I don’t think Scorsese really cares that much about the mechanics, which are expertly managed but in the end perfunctory, diversionary tactics enacted by an excellent cast (inmates and physicians include Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow). The high-dread production, from cinematographer Robert Richardson’s shuddery bounced lighting style (you’re not quite sure where the sources are) to the impeccably gloomy avant-classical score, assembled by Robbie Richardson, is likewise eventful, but not the main event.
Figuring out where this dark and storm-tossed road will lead rests squarely on DiCaprio’s shoulders, and he’s up to the task. I’ve almost always liked him, if I’ve never responded to him quite so strongly as I did in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), a remarkable performance for an 18-year-old to give. He comes close, though, in Shutter Island, as if his underrated portrayal in Revolutionary Road was just a warm-up for emotional punishment, and Scorsese’s faith in him is fully justified. Would Robert De Niro have smacked him around harder in This Boy’s Life if he knew Leo would one day usurp him as Marty’s go-to star?
DiCaprio’s last scenes left me profoundly shaken, and align the film as another of the director’s studies of fallen, fallible men, stretching from Jesus to goodfella Henry Hill, rather than the calculated exercise in suspense it’s been sold as. Pouring his vintage into a new bottle Scorsese has uncorked a film that unites the paying public and all but the most finicky auteurists, not unlike…Douglas Sirk.
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The Ghost Writer is more modestly accomplished, yet I can see myself wanting to watch it again in a few months. Polanski wanted to film Robert Harris’ exciting historical thriller Pompeii, which I was eager to see; there’s never been a great volcano movie (Ghost Writer co-star Pierce Brosnan was in one of the more successful, Dante’s Peak) but the combination of a volcano and a Chinatown-like plot got me interested. That failed to erupt, so Polanski has instead made a film of Harris’ modern-day, torn-from-the-headlines-ish The Ghost. There have been several great political thrillers…and The Ghost Writer (a title change that makes it clear that this is not a horror movie) isn’t one of them.
Still, it’s pretty good, with the bitemarks of menace and the rueful humor that Polanski excels at when he’s working in this vein. Like the underrated The Ninth Gate, the film is about the talismanic power of books (which only an old master might still believe in), in this case one that’s only partly written, a tongue-tied memoir by a former British prime minister (Brosnan) living in America. Enlisted to help shape the tome is a ghost writer, known simply as The Ghost (Ewan McGregor)—the second one on the job, after the unfortunate demise of the first. The paranoia-tinged story hinges on The Ghost’s not wanting to end up as one as the PM, sequestered in his oceanfront house (a chilly, modernist place), is implicated in a terrorist rendition scandal, protesters appear on the island, skeletons tumble out of the closet and fault lines appear between the politician, his wife (Olivia Williams), and his personal assistant (Kim Cattrall)—who is also his mistress. McGregor and Brosnan, often a little bland, stir themselves in the company of these feistily secretive women.
The eclectic and spirited supporting cast also includes Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, 94-year-old Eli Wallach, and a chrome-domed Jim Belushi, not the likeliest CEO of a publishing firm with $10 million to invest in memoirs. But we value Polanski for these eccentric touches—the smudge marks on the canvas are his own, along with the rest of the painting—and a delicacy of craft that excludes hyper-editing and a lot of noise (the ticklish score is by Alexandre Desplat). The post-production of the film was interrupted by his arrest, and it’s tempting to read the film’s commentary on exile as personal. Polanski, however, isn’t interested in making a statement, or pushing the story into excess. The Ghost Writer is a hardback movie for Kindle times.
I can’t say how these two films, and the reputations of the makers, will age over 50 years. Despite their own chill, however, they improved my week on the film front and made February a warmer month here in the Northeast.
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