An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Saturday, February 20, 2010

ME VS. A.O. SCOTT: RUMBLE ON SHUTTER ISLAND

I generally like A.O. Scott. He's a clever writer who understands and respects cinema. (Look up the opening sentences of his Pearl Harbor review for one of the all-time great burns in film criticism.) But sometimes his cleverness goes too far in the wrong direction. Scott's merciless takedown of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, a movie I'm pretty much in love with just hours after seeing it, is one such instance. Frankly, I'm calling bullshit. You hear that, Tony? (Yeah, that's right, I know your friends call you Tony. "A.O," like keeping your name a secret makes you so fucking cool.)

Let's look at the first paragraph. I think it establishes that Tony and I are just not on the same page with this film. He complains about the "frantic" and "demented" "amplification" of "every detail and incident in the movie." For him, I guess this is a bad thing. Huh. You know, me, I sort of think that a psychodramatic horror-thriller steeped in noir and Hitchcock that's set at a freakin' asylum for the criminally insane...I sort of think a movie like that calls for a little amplification. Of the frantic and demented variety, even. This would not be the right film for Scorsese to practice the restraint and subtlety of, say, his adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Even our Tony concedes that the histrionic style is "not always unenjoyable," which I think is his absurdly fussbudgety way of admitting that he had a good time. But, whatever, what this opening graph comes down to is that this movie just isn't in Scott's wheelhouse. It is so centrally located in the exact sweet-spot of my own wheelhouse that I can only imagine how drab Tony's wheelhouse is. But enough talk of wheelhouses.

The next paragraph finds Scott paying lip service to Scorsese's directorial acumen. He observes that Marty uses his "considerable formal dexterity" to "conjure a tingly atmosphere of uncertainty and dread." Yes—I think this much is undeniable, so I'm glad Scott didn't try to deny it.

After getting that obligatory praise out of the way, Scott sets his sights on a rather puzzling target: the Boston accents of Leo DiCaprio and other cast members. He picks on these "dialect-coached Boston inflections" that "spread through the movie like a contagious disease." Um, okay. Tony, what the hell do you have against Boston? Is this some weird New Yorker thing? Why are you spending precious review space on this topic?

In a paragraph introducing some supporting players, Tony makes the flat-out dumb assertion that protagonist Teddy's death-camp liberation flashbacks are "gratuitous." Really? Expertly deployed visual depictions of a character's psychological demons and life-defining backstory don't strike you as, I don't know, at least potentially important?

From there Scott launches into a vague yet comprehensive list of the movie's narrative components, which he seems to regard, condescendingly, as silly. "All these riddles send out tendrils of implication that end up strangling the movie," he says. "Mr. Scorsese’s camera sense effectively fills every scene with creepiness, but sustained, gripping suspense seems beyond his grasp." Wait, really? You didn't find this shit gripping? What the hell, man! I guess this is hopelessly subjective territory here, but I can't even remember the last time I was so purely, undistractedly enthralled by a movie. My enthrallment had everything to do with Scorsese's "camera sense," in concert with what I think is a damned well-constructed story by acclaimed thriller novelist Dennis Lehane (adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, quite well I thought). If Tony didn't find the movie to be long-term suspenseful, I think that owes more to his own unwillingness to accept Scorsese's heightened, melodramatic approach than to any failure on the director's part.

Now here's where the review gets really annoying: it's time for A.O. Scott to prove how clever he is. He's so clever that, get this, he figured out the twist ahead of time! And because he's such a smart fella, the movie must pay the price of being deemed "a strained and pointless contrivance." Imagine you're Professor McBrainiac A.O. Scott, you're sitting through Shutter Island and it's halfway done or so, and you guess the twist. Now, you could spend the rest of that time examining Scorsese's stylistic stratagems and their thematic resonance. Or you could "study the threads on the rug [Scorsese] is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you." A clever line. But I thought those threads on the rug were kind of, I don't know, interesting and beautiful. And the claim of "pointlessness" says to me that Scott wasn't studying that rug closely at all. Because really there are all kinds of larger resonances here, on a societal level (the state of the mental-health profession in the '50s, creepy postwar paranoia), a personal level (post-traumatic stress, guilt so powerful you have to step into elaborate fantasies to escape it), and a meta-cinematic level (all the Val Lewton, noir, Hitch, and dozens of other genre influences that Marty has spent a lifetime internalizing). There's stuff here, but Scott doesn't want to acknowledge it because...

...It turns out he's got a big ol' agenda to push: A.O. Scott isn't down with the critical adoration of Scorsese. He says that certain people will ignore the silliness of this movie "out of loyalty to Mr. Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt." This agenda was confirmed on Twitter, where Scott posted that his review was sure to offend all the "Martisans" out there. (Again, very clever coinage, but stupid idea.) No one argues that Marty's been making perfect movies lately, or that he's batting a thousand in his filmography. But to attack Scorsese as overrated (as Scott implicitly does here) is basically like attacking Hitchcock as overrated: it smacks of wanton contrarianism and is hard to take seriously. Scott writes that Scorsese was "unable to locate what it is in this movie he cares about, beyond any particular, local formal concern." I think it's pretty clear that he cares about the DiCaprio character, about his tragic trajectory of violence and shame, and that the "local formal concerns" add up to a crushingly, damningly powerful ending, a "perfect note of empathetic despair" (to quote Glenn Kenny), pairing a final line and a final shot that collectively propel the film beyond simple narrative gamesmanship. But then, I didn't figure out the twist ahead of time, so I guess I'll never be as brilliant as A.O. Scott.

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