Over the past decade, as American film literacy has continually diminished, Martin Scorsese has become our cinephile-in-chief on a one-man mission to keep vast slices of American film culture from disappearing from our collective memory.
The other night, I wandered across Scorsese on Scorsese, a career-overview interview with the director on Turner Classic Movies, and sat rapt as the director discussed his work. This is a man who talks about movies with the same depth of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm with which ex-Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown talked hoops.
So how is it that, in a 30-plus-year film career, Scorsese has never made a narrative feature about the medium? It's a mystery, but one that Scorsese's latest, the ostensible Howard Hughes bio-pic The Aviator, puts to an end.
I use the word ostensible because The Aviator actually skirts the edges of the bio-pic genre. Despite a brief, questionable, pre-credit glimpse at the childhood Hughes, The Aviator focuses on only a 20-year period in the life of the American capitalist icon, aviation innovator, failed movieland maestro, and world-historic wacko. The Aviator picks up Hughes in 1927 as a young heir to a Texas tool-company fortune playing movie producer in the dusty fields of California. It leaves him in 1947 having beaten back a Senate witch-hunt and gotten a plane the size of a football field (the Hercules) into the air.
Scorsese doesn't seem particularly interested in picking at the bones of Hughes' infamous late-life torments. He tracks the development of Hughes' legendary neuroses -- an OCD case marked by severe germphobia, occasional nervous breakdowns, obscenely long fingernails, and the preserving of his own urine -- but ends the film just before Hughes slips over the edge. Scorsese is more interested in the daring exploits --in the movies, aviation, and romance. And if this isn't entirely true to reality (the centrality of a romance with Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator seems to surpass its importance in Hughes' actual life), Scorsese doesn't seem to much care.
And I don't either. Because The Aviator is about the breeziest three-hour epic you'll ever see. It's a movie of gleaming surfaces, skillful pacing and transitions, and chewy film-fan content. And this is a good match for Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role.
DiCaprio is well-cast here in a way he wasn't in Scorsese's last film, Gangs of New York. The perpetual teen-dream actor didn't have the heft or physicality to pull off that role. He was far better as the precocious kid in Steven Spielberg's contemporaneous Catch Me If You Can, which Scorsese seems to take note of here in his casting of DiCaprio as vibrant young Hughes.
As the title indicates, it was aviation that was Hughes' true love, and Scorsese supplies plenty of detail on that front: Hughes building a plane that flies above the weather, one that crosses the Atlantic faster than Lindbergh, his breaking speed records as a test pilot, and his multiple crashes. But Scorsese is more interested in the Hollywood side of Hughes, and The Aviator is drenched in loving period detail about the golden age of American movies.
These obsessions come together with Hughes' first project, the WWI epic Hell's Angels, for which Hughes assembles "the largest private air force in the world" in his fevered pursuit of dogfight verisimilitude and lets it (as well as a paid crew of pilots and cameramen) sit by for months waiting for the perfect cloud formation to provide the contrast needed to convey the speed of the planes. When Hughes barks, "Find me some clouds" to a befuddled meteorologist (Ian Holm) he's just hired, it's probably as much a tribute to other silent-era tyrants as Cecil B. DeMille or Erich Von Stroheim. Scorsese, who bucked computer-generated convention for the hand-crafted epic Gangs of New York, must surely approve.
From that giddy beginning (with its thrilling, no-doubt computer-enhanced aerial scenes), Scorsese dives deep into the Hollywood arcana the project makes possible. A lot of this is on the margins and in the details: Hughes asking Louis B. Mayer for extra cameras and reshooting Hell's Angels in sound after the debut of The Jazz Singer. Passing references to the likes of George Cukor, Fatty Arbuckle, and Theda Bara. An avalanche of fantasy-casting cameos (No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani as blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, Kate Beckinsale as brunette beauty Ava Gardner, Jude Law as naughty boy Errol Flynn).
But other movie-history elements take on a more central role: There's a delicious side trip about Hughes' making of the controversial "western" The Outlaw, really a star vehicle for Jane Russell's mammaries. Watching dailies in his screening room, Hughes barks to his minions, "We are not getting enough production out of Jane Russell's breasts. We need smooth titties. It's all about engineering," as he sketches brassiere designs on a legal pad. This is followed by an achingly funny bit with Hughes in front of the movie censorship board, comparing Russell's cleavage in The Outlaw to that of other actresses in approved films.
But best of all is Cate Blanchett's indelible turn as Katharine Hepburn. Introduced in a nine-hole golf game/banter bout that could have been lifted from Bringing Up Baby or Holiday, Blanchett is so deliriously entertaining that she threatens to pick up the movie right there and run away with it. Playing Hepburn's horsey New England bray for everything it's worth, Blanchett's portrayal is as gleefully stylized as Scorsese's movie. Was Hepburn really like this off the set? Who cares? As another denizen of old Hollywood once concluded: Sometimes it's better to print the legend.
Just before the end credits roll on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray, as the title character, a sea explorer and documentary filmmaker modeled after Jacques Cousteau, picks up an 11-and-a-half-year-old boy, a nephew of a crewmate, and hoists him on his shoulders for a triumphant red-carpet stroll.
Earlier in the film, as Zissou talks to a pregnant journalist played by Cate Blanchett, the writer says of her unborn son, "In 12 years, he'll be 11-and-a-half." Zissou's melancholy response is, "That was my favorite age."
These moments reveal much more about director Wes Anderson, whose previous films are Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, than about the lead character in his latest film. The precocious pre-teen boy is Anderson's ideal -- and idealized -- state, which may be why some viewers tend to be overwhelmed by the wistful humanism and adolescent energy of Anderson's films while others think the sugar-buzz is too precious by far.
For Anderson's first three films, I found myself decidedly in the first camp (Rushmore might be my favorite film of the past decade), but The Life Aquatic has me coming around to the dark side.
In retrospect, Bottle Rocket is inspired but clearly formative. Rushmore, a full flowering and the rare perfect film. The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's first flirtation with self-parody but lifting off with a series of emotional epiphanies in the closing moments.
The Life Aquatic has everything you'd expect or want from a Wes Anderson movie yet is almost exactly what the director's detractors complain all his films are. The motifs and themes are familiar from his other films: characters dealing with losses in their past (Zissou has lost his first captain, Seymour Cassel's Esteban, to a shark attack; Owen Wilson's Ned, Zissou's illegitimate son, has lost his mother to suicide); difficult father-son relationships (Zissou and Ned, together after 30 years of denial); makeshift families (Team Zissou, with all members of the happy, multi-culti crew wearing matching outfits and red caps and, at night, matching PJs); diorama-like visual design (Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, is explored in cross-section, like a doll house or the apartment across the courtyard in Rear Window); '60s/'70s British rock (an African crew member likes to strum David Bowie songs on his acoustic guitar).
In fact, Murray's Zissou is essentially a reworking of Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum: His fame is on the wane. He's having trouble getting financing. He's having issues with his son and most faithful employee. He even has an estranged marriage with Angelica Huston.
Anderson packs this proven framework with the same kinds of small comic moments and bits of visual wit as in the past, but the parts never coalesce.
The Life Aquatic is like a triumph of design above all else, but while the visuals are eye-popping enough, they don't impart background information, character traits, or emotional texture like the equally immaculate set designs of The Royal Tenenbaums or, especially, Rushmore. I've seen Rushmore several times now, but I still see background details in seemingly limitless spaces like Edward Appleby's bedroom or papa Fisher's barbershop. On one viewing, the clutter of Life Aquatic seems less thoughtful. It's just a bunch of neat props.
Similarly, the plotting of The Life Aquatic, both narrative and, perhaps more importantly, emotional, never comes together. The final-stretch grace notes are forced, whereas those of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums provoked tears, because we're not made to care about these relationships in quite the same way. The Life Aquatic desperately wants to be lovable, but it constantly strives for effects it can't quite grasp. It's a novel concept in search of a movie. ·