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Scorsese's soul

By Mark Butterworth
web posted October 9, 2006

The Departed

The DepartedWith Oscar season in full swing, Martine Scorsese's The Departed (worst title in a awhile) comes out with the promise of big performances and intense drama. Knowing that Scorsese is considered an important director, I went into the movie reminding myself that if I didn't like his movie, I should be considerate and thoughtful in my criticism.

After having seen this complete and total piece of garbage masquerading as an exercise of idiotic cinematic nihilism, though, I can only say: how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

The film starts out promising enough with strength and a tone of seriousness in which Scorsese sets the stage with speed and aplomb in fleshing out the characters and conflict to come.

Jack Nicholson plays the Boston Irish mobster, Frank Costello. We see him in action as a hoodlum some twenty years prior to the main action of the movie as an extortionist thug when he befriends Colin Sullivan, a boy who becomes his mole in the state police.

Nicholson stands in the dark in these early scenes so that his face is hidden and we can't see how old he is while also lending him a demonic air since everyone else is well lit.

We then get scenes of the grown up Sullivan (Matt Damon) going through the police academy, graduating, and quickly moving up in the force to sergeant and getting a place on a state task force against mobsters like Costello.

Intercut with that montage is a similar one of Billy Costigan (Leo DeCaprio) going through the police academy where he is recruited by two state officers, Queenan and Dignam (Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg) to work undercover for them, top secret, hush hush, nobody but us will know -- not even the state task force or FBI. (A classic recipe for disaster.)

There it is. The police have an informant (maybe more than one) in Costello's gang, and Costello has a mole in the state police.

After that, it is all viciousness. Scorsese never misses an opportunity to denigrate the Catholic Church and so we have a lunch scene where Costello bullies an older priest as a pederast and then his fellow younger priest for his sleeping with the nun who was dining with them. This is all done in the most vulgar terms, of course, and is mentioned again later on.

The dialog is extremely vulgar throughout the movie and blood is freely spattered. So much so that one could say it's up to it elbows in blood. Literally. In one scene Costello is drenched, hands and arms, in it.

Sullivan lives his life as a yuppie cop with ambitions for the statehouse whose golden dome he can observe from his apartment while he woos a state psychiatrist, Madolyn.

Costigan sinks into the violence and gore of a hoodlum while he grows nervous, afraid, and occasionally visits (what a coincidence!) the same psychiatrist as part of his probation (since he had to become a criminal to get into the Irish mob).

So we have an elaborate cat and mouse game with the added complication of a love triangle as the movie bogs down to a snail's pace and loses all the energy it had begun with while maintaining some of the tension.

We have some sympathy for the undercover Costigan and wish him success in his endeavor and career choice, but by the end, we are so inured to violence that we don't care at all about anyone or thing.

There are so many crosses, double crosses, triple crosses that cat and mouse turns into a litter of kittens and a rat pack. What is Scorsese doing? The movie begins strongly enough and degenerates into a Grand Guignol and abattoir of killing. It's as if he is trying to make a movie as long and important as The Godfather, but can't seem to get anything right. The utter nihilism of it is deeply depressing. It has no reason for having been made at all other than to drench an audience in meaninglessness and blood.

Yet this is the Hollywood liberal who said, "It seems to me that any sensible person must see that violence does not change the world and, if it does, then only temporarily. "

Is there any major filmmaker who uses violence more than Scorsese? Is it all meant to show us just how useless violence is? That case might be made for Goodfellas which attempts to de-glamorize mafia thugs and show them as the cheap punks they are, but The Departed goes far beyond that. Nothing in this movie attempts to make any sense of life as we know it. It simply piles absurd contrivance on contrivance for two and half hours, doesn't end when we expect it finally should, and then, like a Roman tragedy, splatters the audience in successive bloodbaths.

This film illustrates Scorsese as a madman whose lost his bearings and has no raison d'etre to govern imagination. What was he thinking? Was there no one to tell him that his movie is both insulting and insane? Why would anyone want to make such a thing as this?

Sure there are good performances. Nicholson is riveting at times, and even DeCaprio and Damon hold up their ends. The camera work is fine, we even get steaming streets again a la Taxi Driver along with the cute device of a telescoping fade in and out a few times. The soundtrack is impressive and we even get the primal screaming of John Lennon.

Some critics reflect on the idea that Scorsese depicts self-condemnation, the hell that people create for themselves by the false personas they craft out of the muck that is their lives. I might buy that if this movie ever pointed in any other direction than the cesspool; if it had any one moment of relief or instance of the transcendental.

Scorsese is sixty-three years old. Shakespeare had written The Tempest by the time he was forty-seven. Can't we expect something more from an old man who's lived awhile than violent revenge fantasies? Is there nothing good for him to say about life which has been extraordinarily kind to him? But here we have a movie entirely bankrupt of ideas, good intention, and value; a complete waste of talent and time.

Is this the director's Titus Andronicus or Duchess of Malfi? Did we need or want another one? And why do so many critics, thus far, love this film? Some are calling it another great gangster movie from the maker of Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. Is that really a good thing? Are their lives so empty of meaning that the intense and skillful depiction of meaningless depravity and soullessness finds a home in them? Yes. I think there's a pessimism, a distrust and anger that resides deeply in the secular soul; an abject surrender to nothingness that leeches out as poison from their hearts, corrupting their judgment and debasing their tastes.

No jade ever notices from their study of Ecclesiastes, that the Preacher leaves out one item in his long list of vain things - prayer. Of vanity of vanities, he never mentions prayer as ultimately chasing after wind. Maybe Scorsese should try casting his bread on that sea. He might just get a clue that it is his soul which he has departed from.

The Last King of Scotland

There are movies which show us the world as it is in its hardest aspects, it's harshest facts which can be highly instructive, greatly sobering, but completely undesired at large. The Last King of Scotland is one of those movies like John Sayles' Men with Guns which remind the prosperous and protected that this world is ruled by the aggressive use of force, and no number of "peace" activists can change that.

It is not that might makes right, but that might will have its way. Violence will not be deterred by wishing.

This new movie about Idi Amin, a former dictator of Uganda, is dreadful in the original sense. It fills one full of dread for humanity and for one's own people since it reminds that the rule of law is never really as strong as the will to power over time as governments and civilizations break down or are conquered by barbarians. Civilization is a fragile thing.

We see in Iraq, not a suicidal insurrection that has no real ideology for revolution nor desire to build a new nation, win over a population, but a reversion to chaos for chaos' sake that simply leads to the division of territory and rule by warlords (and may the best Islamic warlord conquer all the others and impose the caliphate). This is the case in many parts of Africa and is clear in Somalia now.

Unfortunately, I confused something at the beginning of the movie which altered the way I looked at it over its course. The movie states that it is based on real persons and events. I took that to mean that not only was Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker) real, which I knew well in advance, but that the character of Patrick Garrigan (James McAvoy) was a real person and the movie was based on his experiences. It wasn't. The movie is based on a novel and is entirely fictional apart from the actuality of Amin.

Even so, it is a powerful story that nods to Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness.

The movie opens with Garrigan having won his degree as a doctor of general medicine facing the prospect of working with his stifling, old dad in his boring practice. He spins a globe and vows to go wherever his finger stops it. Uganda it is, then.

Next we see him on a bus in dusty Africa. The film takes on the oversaturated colors and graininess of a Super 8 movie. It will be like that to the end.

Garrigan arrives during the coup that put Amin in power. As he's settling in to a rural medical mission with another doctor and his young, pretty wife, we see that Garrigan is just out for fun and adventure, some fornication and perhaps an adulterous affair given enough time.

That time doesn't arrive as the doctor is swept up in events with Amin's ascension. Seeing the General speak to a large crowd, he is impressed by Amin's charisma. Later, called upon to treat the President after he has an accident on the road with a cow, the young doctor acts boldly and impresses the general. Even more so when it is revealed he's Scottish, a people Amin greatly admires and has even named one of his children MacKenzie Campbell in fondness for the Scots.

It is this eccentric love of the Scots that gives the movie its title while it also hints at MacBeth, the bloody tragedy.

Amin brings Garrigan to Kampala, offers him a job as his personal physician, and charms him into joining him in service to Uganda.

After a precipitous rise in stature and fun for the reckless and naïve physician, things turn sour. He is nearly killed with Amin in an assassination attempt on the General. He begins to take part in palace intrigue, informing on the health minister who then "disappears."

Garrigan has also insulted the British Foreign Office "spooks" who sought him out for back channel clarifications and info.

The star of the movie is Whitaker's performance as Amin who swings back and forth from crazed paranoia, brutal revenge to generous ebullience and charming dictator. The sweaty faced and volatile Amin is captured with stunning believability by the actor and everyone is calling it an Oscar worthy piece of work.

Some have complained that too much attention is paid to Garrigan, his rutting, his preening, his arrogance, but I prefer the movie that way. Amin is too big a character to be the main focus. It's best to encounter him in the powerful glancing blows we get. He has too much force to endure for long. Also, Garrigan has some strengths. He is reckless, but also unexpectedly courageous at times.

In one of the last scenes where it appears that he will pay for his foolishness, Amin tells him, "You are in Africa. You think because you are white that nothing real can happen to you. But let me tell you, this room is real. I am real. Africa is real. And the only real thing you will probably feel for the first time in your whole life will be your death."

This is very much the truth for so many in Europe and North America who think that brutality and evil will all be kept at bay by the right wing Americans and their terrible war machine while they carp, complain, thwart, and prance in the streets with their stupid slogans when they aren't getting drunk, taking drugs, having sex, and going crazy over the World Cup or cheering the newest Michael Moore fake-umentary.

So Garrigan wakes up from his hangover, notices that 300,000 Ugandans have been slaughtered, he can't leave the country, but lives at the beck and call of a paranoid madman who can't decide from one minute to the next who his friend or enemy is.

It's a powerful movie and few will see it because the movie is serious about illustrating the world as it is, and few are serious about seeing the world as it is.

There is vulgarity, graphic violence and images along with nudity and sexual scenes but these things are instructive and not exploitive in their context. They did not strike me as gratuitous except in a few instances of nudity. ESR

(C) 2006 Mark Butterwort




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