It was in 1973 when, coming off Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and Boxcar Bertha (1972), Martin Scorsese put together the film that foreshadowed the kind of morally ambiguous, gritty, personal filmmaking that would come to define the celebrated Scorsese aesthetic for years to come. In Mean Streets (1973), the story of Harvey Keitel’s Charlie and Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy plays out against the backdrop of early 70s New York City, incisively invoking the irreconcilable conflicts that plague every human being, and that have plagued representations of the modern citizen for decades. Right versus wrong; tradition versus progression; friendship versus responsibility; one’s city versus one’s church. That last, inner dichotomy can be summed up in a quote from author James Baldwin in his 1953 debut novel Go Tell It On the Mountain; indeed, the sentence reads like a character breakdown of Charlie:
“And then what of his soul, which would one day come to die and stand naked before the judgment bar? What would his conquest of the city profit him on that day? To hurl away, for a moment of ease, the glories of eternity! These glories were unimaginable — but the city was real.”
Contradiction, hypocrisy, and moral inconsistency are, of course, the currency of the Scorsese milieu. And so, when watched in 2019, Mean Streets reveals itself to be as much as anything else a precursor, a harbinger for what was to follow, featuring many of the characteristics of Scorsese’s films that viewers have come to adore: mature and explosive performances from its leads, in this case Scorsese regulars Keitel and De Niro; stylish slow-motion shots through bars and restaurants packed with crowds of people; an ever-present sense of danger, with characters who understand the loose grip on life we all maintain; the use of popular music to tease out the dramatic irony of the narrative; and moral insecurities of the characters. In other words, stylistic hallmarks of a Scorsese picture which, when totalled, ask questions of the characters and audience alike; indeed, he is a filmmaker who dares his viewers to ponder the complexities and hypocrisies of the human condition.
One may reasonably critique the film for a certain lack of polish — there’s a rough quality to the formal filmmaking techniques Scorsese would go on to refine and, by 1990’s Goodfellas, arguably perfect — and there are thematic opportunities that Mean Streets never quite realises. But the ambition is there; the aspiration is there. With this film, Scorsese boldly asserts his desire to cut through the noise and empty iconography of traditional narratives, and craft a cinematic object that not only defies convention, but also prioritises art over ease of consumption.
Clearly, to watch the film now is to experience it through the rubric of what Scorsese has gone on to accomplish. Those early films were more blunt and artistically experimental, and in his later work Scorsese would make difficult and challenging film art widely digestible, as he moved away from his roots at the vanguard of New Hollywood filmmaking and broadened his appeal to a larger cross-section of cinema-goers in career outliers like Kundun (1997) and The Age Of Innocence (1993). This is partially what renders Mean Streets an important touchstone in his career. In hindsight, Mean Streets acts as an aperitif, introducing us to the stylistic preferences of the great and unitary master of the form that Scorsese would become.
Then, after the aperitif, we let the drink settle in our stomachs for a moment. We digest. And soon enough we get to the main course: Goodfellas, Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). And now, after watching his most recent film The Irishman (2019), I have the distinct impression that we are being served the dessert.
I was in a certain frame of mind in the months leading up to The Irishman. 2019 will forever exist in my recollections as the year in which I pierced the cinematic veil, looking at cinema in an entirely different way, unable to ever return to that naïveté. I had been watching almost exclusively 60s and 70s cinema, a lot of which was foreign language or independent. Most of the new release films I saw in cinemas left me underwhelmed, perhaps because I began to approach movies with a certain set of aesthetic expectations, found more commonly in the cinema of yore: a bold and spectacular look; an acknowledgement of the camera as an apparatus of deep subjectivity; the director as stylist; a challenging and provocative viewing experience; or even just an experience in general.
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (2019) came around at the perfect time, precisely because the film positions itself technically and stylistically as a visitor from cinema’s past. For example, Brad Pitt (as Cliff Booth) and Leonardo DiCaprio (as Rick Dalton) bring a pure star presence to their roles, an old-Hollywood combination of glamour, assertiveness, sexual power, matter-of-factness, and sheer aspirational appeal; Margot Robbie is much the same, and her power is all the more remarkable given how physical, as opposed to dialogue-driven, her performance is. But Tarantino also recalls a long-forsaken priority for spectacle and idiosyncracy of style — a definitive emphasis placed upon aesthetics as opposed to strict adherence to the “laws” of story and screenwriting.
What results from Tarantino drawing such a distinction between style and narrative, in the case of Once Upon a Time…, is an emphasis placed on a portrayal of the era, the spirit, the feeling and atmosphere of 1969 Los Angeles, rather than on conventional narrative. This emphasis manifests itself throughout the film, in numerous riveting moments: sequences composed entirely of tracking a 1966 Cadillac DeVille down the golden-aired and neon-lit L.A. highways, set to the upbeat sounds of 1969, KHJ’s The Real Don Steele on the airwaves; a gloriously luxuriant set piece of a party at the Playboy Mansion, where figures like Michelle Phillips, Steve McQueen and Roman Polanski dance by the pool; the sheer delight of being a fly-on-the-wall to Booth’s nightly dinner routine with his dog Brandy. All of this is filmed in such an incendiary and lively manner as to glue a smile onto the spectator’s face. The film is a joyous expression of the pure pleasure that cinema can bring, direct from the hands of a master entertainer and Pop artist extraordinaire. I was floored.
And then, four months later, I was presented the work of another consummate showman and was floored again. In equal measure to Tarantino’s film, The Irishman shows us cinema’s sheer capability, when in the hands of a master craftsman, to construct complex worlds and prosaic stories. But the two films are also, in so many ways, totally different.
Both films present their worlds with a sort of wistfulness and nostalgia, but The Irishman is considerably more pensive, a drawn-out and dolorous elegy. At times it almost verges on passivity as it demands the viewer to reflect on their own existence alongside the characters. Scorsese is certainly not the kind of filmmaker to take a clear moral stance, especially given the sorts of criminal characters he’s made a career out of depicting. In this way, the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) and his involvement with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and renowned Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) presents itself as an almost fable-like tale of a man’s rise and fall, relevant to all three main characters. Indeed, The Irishman mirrors Goodfellas in how it constructs and then de-constructs the mythology of the individualist American narrative: the self-made man who plays into the rules of his world and thrives in the land of opportunity, only for that same set of rules to prove his undoing.
Scorsese is very much interested in what makes human beings satisfied and fulfilled — what is their measure of success? It’s a question posed repeatedly in the Scorsese oeuvre, even in a film like Silence (2016) which, though so ostensibly different from many of Scorsese’s previous works, slots neatly into his filmography, as it examines this same question of success. How do the two priests of Silence know they’ve done their job, or will they always ruminate over their doubts? Did Goodfellas protagonist Henry Hill ever see his financial success for what it was — superficial? Was Frank Sheeran’s life of corruption and betrayal worth it, considering we finally see him without a single tether to anything or anyone he loved? These questions make up Scorsese’s exploration of the spiritual peregrinations that a quest for success brings, and in The Irishman, every character is drawn into the questioning; it reminds me of a momentary reflection from Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays: “I mean, maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?”
However, there is an argument to be made (and indeed it has commonly been made) that the ostensibly similar narrative of films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Irishman makes Scorsese’s most recent film somewhat of a re-hashing of old, well-worn ideas. Would it not be the opposite of ambition for Scorsese to use The Irishman to rephrase some of those same questions outlined above?
It is for this reason that we need to take a step into the cinematic prism and examine this film as it is: a theatrical experience that (with opening advertisements included) has its audience sitting in the dark, alone with the characters and their world, for close to four hours.
The movie plays out on an epic scale — of course it does, considering its 210 minute runtime and $160 million budget — and is executed with such an exacting and refined precision that the sequences often prove breathtaking. Pacino himself, as Hoffa, gets multiple sequences in which his bravura, the enormity of his “commitment to the bit”, is complemented by Scorsese’s own commitment to the interaction between scope, intimacy and spectacle; the result is that these moments become pure pleasure to watch. But the remarkable achievement of the film is that, through its mosaic of characters, locations (over 100), and scenes (over 300), every face tells a story. The film includes playful title cards introducing each character and how they died, throws around an enormous amount of nicknames, and rifles through an incredible amount of extras and minor roles. Thus Scorsese draws out the scope of the film, and allows for a broader ruminative feeling of loss, remembrance and remorse to hit home for viewers.
This is particularly true of the character of Peggy (Anna Paquin / Lucy Gallina), Sheeran’s daughter; she hangs over Frank’s life like a spectral presence, a great regret and missed opportunity that will follow him to his impending grave. Peggy isn’t allocated the amount of dialogue that, for example, Lorraine Bracco enjoys in Goodfellas; but just the same, the power of Paquin’s character is mostly communicated through Scorsese’s continued attention to the power of her look. If we consider Mean Streets to have a powerful “leanness”, as critic Kevin Thomas wrote, the dramatic importance of Peggy’s gaze in The Irishman recalls Scorsese’s early work as much as any other formal aspect found in both films. In an otherwise thrillingly talkative, tightly scripted film, Paquin and Scorsese prove that wordless moments can be indelibly cinematic too.
This is precisely the ambition that Scorsese brings to his movies. It is of course the case that he, like Tarantino, has the financial means to make epic, prosaic pieces of film art, with the studio support that most filmmakers can only dream of. But even when both directors worked with less — Mean Streets cost $500,000 to make, Reservoir Dogs (1992) $1.5 million — the ambition was there, and that is why 2019 will stand out. It is a year in which two of cinema’s greatest aesthetes have confirmed their status as the best going around, because both have an ambition to make soaring works of film art, immersive, attentive to detail, unflinching, and undeniably entertaining. They both want to stretch the form to its limits.
From time to time I look at the ‘In Theatres’ page on IMDB, or the ‘Coming Soon’ page, or even the ‘Most Popular Movies’ or ‘Top Box Office’ or ‘Release Calendar’ or ‘Movie News’ or really any section of that website, and the titles of the films – the biggest, the most expensive, the most discussed – pass across my glazed-over, indifferent eyes, and sometimes I despair. I run my hand through my hair, I rub my eyes, I take deep forlorn breaths. Or at least I used to — I think I might be getting past that stage, moving crucially from denial, to anger, and finally to acceptance. But the sense of mourning undoubtedly remains; it occupies the seats of the mostly-empty theatres; it lives with the few consistent cinema-goers (who themselves are usually not too far away from death); it even pervades the Oscars, a dying and meaningless ritual acted out by the clueless and self-congratulatory Hollywood class.
It thus becomes hard to reconcile my morbid awareness of the dying form with, on the other hand, the experience of The Irishman, a piece of contemporary cinema that with stunning vivaciousness bursts forth from the screen like a punch to the mouth, a film as alive as any released this decade. How can we explain, in our current moment, that The Irishman even got made, let alone will come to define the cinematic year that was 2019? What is it about Scorsese’s latest film that made me, in a flurry of reignited cinematic fervour, rush off from the theatre and write journal entries in my notebook about the experience of watching it? I went back and looked at that journal entry, dated 18/11/19; I also looked at the entry I wrote three months prior, after seeing Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. Some words appear distinctly, words like “compelled”, “art”, “epic”, “spectacle”. But there is one word that separates itself, appearing over and over: “ambition”. Where The Irishman’s narrative may feel familiar and perhaps, for some, unambitious, well-trodden ground, it instead reads like an authentic statement of auteurship, because of the consistent stylistic aspirations of its director. We don’t mind that Scorsese rehashes similar stories because of the refined, precisely executed style he brings. Ambition is the thread to which filmmakers like Tarantino and Scorsese are tied, and looking back on the entirety of Scorsese’s filmography, we see that same ambition book-ending his career. If nothing else, The Irishman continues the trend that Scorsese had started 45 years earlier, with his grand and stylish attempt to translate man’s inner contradiction onto celluloid.
If we take a broad survey of the statistical points and cultural conversations surrounding film today, to which Scorsese himself has recently contributed, we begin to see a certain picture being painted. Each brush stroke suggests its own truths: that we are now accustomed to think that “immersive” equivocates to the work of 20 Marvel movies; that we consider “provocative” to be the wildly and predictably unambitious Joker (2019); that we only want focus-grouped, tried-and-true, by-the-numbers, unchallenging filmmaking, which in a tragic twist of fate is often made by talented and creative people; that visual media must be created for smaller and smaller screens; that an aesthetic of slickness, of being “well made”, reigns supreme.
But audiences are hardly to blame: viewers can only respond to what is being put in front of them, and I don’t happen to believe that, if given the theatrical choices that once existed, we would be satisfied with what is currently being served to us by the demands of studios and executives. Yet the buck must stop somewhere, and where that buck stops is where we must ask: where has the ambition gone?
It rests in the hands of a different generation. We can’t wish this problem away, nor can I make too much of it — the times change, of course, and that’s not an inherently bad thing. In the early 1960s, New Hollywood pioneer Bob Rafelson told his colleague, producer Bert Schneider, that “the problem with moviemaking is not that we don’t have talented people; we don’t have people with the talent to recognize talent…these people exist here as well, but the system for allowing them to flourish doesn’t exist, there’s no encouragement.” 50 years later and filmmaking faces that same dilemma. I was fortunate enough to see The Irishman in cinema during its cinematic release, and having watched it again on Netflix, I found it much more compelling in the big dark room — although some, like Richard Brody or Bret Easton Ellis, believe it plays out extremely well, and even better, on the smaller screen. The Irishman’s complicated exhibition looks to be only the start of things, if, as was the case with Scorsese, Netflix is the only means for cinema artists to have their work properly funded. More and more talented filmmakers will go to these services if they can have their vision realised; the potential cost being that the classical cinematic experience will be slowly and insidiously replaced. What will be the apotheosis of this trend? Old souls like yours truly can only shudder at the thought. I’m no misanthrope, but I am more than a little concerned.
Film has always been a question of who gets their movie made and who doesn’t. The distinction between opportunity and talent is in flux, due to the democratisation of the medium, but the sorts of cinematic experiences we have come to expect are now more than ever subject to that distinction, with the involvement of big-money forces driving the challenging and idiosyncratic work away from extended cinematic exhibition and towards Trotsky’s famous “dustbin of history”. One of the great works of 2019 — Scorsese’s The Irishman — highlights that distinction, and highlights the moment we find ourselves in. Indeed, the film’s funereal tone seems to apply to more than just its characters; Scorsese has crafted an elegy for cinematic ambition.
The Irishman is now showing on Netflix.
Elroy Rosenberg is a writer (read: louche layabout) based in Melbourne, with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. His work has been published by The Dog Door Cultural, Almost Real, and Melbourne University’s Turn It In Journal. elroyrosenberg.com