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indieWIRE Review: Scorsese’s “The Aviator”: The Boy Who Could Fly

indieWIRE Review: Scorsese's "The Aviator": The Boy Who Could Fly

indieWIRE Review: Scorsese’s “The Aviator”: The Boy Who Could Fly

by Nick Pinkerton (with responses from Jeff Reichert and Michael Koresky)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” © Copyright Miramax Films.

[indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot (www.reverseshot.com) is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot’s unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised.]

I can’t understand how anyone who takes an interest in the movies could not love Martin Scorsese; in his work and in his figure, more than in any other, there’s so much of what’s best and worst in the medium. I’ll grant that the post-New Wave cinephile directors, of which poster-boy-for-movie-love Scorsese is a representative sample, are an increasingly suspicious prospect. Tarantino‘s “exploitation” mix movies have nothing to do with the genre they’re allegedly celebrating; his self-important “The Fourth Film from…” undertitles and preciousness of presentation are the very antithesis of the quick-and-cheap grindhouse. But Scorsese has moved far beyond tracing and manipulation: through main force of compulsive obsession, he’s actually become one of the figures he canonized in his “Personal Journey Though American Cinema,” the “smuggler” directors who created indelible imagery and gutsy stories with a mangy and disreputable medium. I couldn’t call his historical films “nostalgic” (nostalgia never vibrates with such life); and Scorsese’s certainly not re-making — he’s making, for the first time, movies that should’ve been shot in 1950, replete with the two-strip Technicolor trappings. In “Gangs of New York” Scorsese eerily channeled the ghost of Sam Fuller, right down to the jarring edits and Draft Riot backdrop, which Fuller had imagined as the setting for an unfulfilled project, “The Lusty Days.” And now there’s “The Aviator,” Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes, a uniquely American figure whose outsized accomplishments are commiserate with our ability to dream. The result: nothing less than (need I say it?) his “Citizen Kane,” with all the faux newsreel, authorial self-portraiture, dime-store Freudianism, and yes, greatness, that the comparison implies.

In telling the real-life story of this plutocrat, pilot, producer, and madman, whose lifestyle put him in contact with a bevy of much-remembered public figures, Scorsese has to attach new faces to famous names — Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, etc. But this isn’t a case — as in “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or “American Dreams” — where we have to squirm while contemporary lightweights swim uncomfortably in the baggy memory of their predecessor’s personas; the parallels that Scorsese draws here are illuminating. There’s a scene in Dante Ferretti’s opulent, Cecil B. De Mille-worthy Cocoanut Grove nightspot where Hughes meets up with the glib, glossy Errol Flynn, played here by Jude Law, perhaps our most glib, glossy star; he hasn’t been used this smartly since he anchored the otherwise negligible “Talented Mr. Ripley.” As for DiCaprio, amidst a blizzard of post-“Titanic” backlash, Scorsese has been clear-headed enough to see the actor for what he is: a detailed and intent performer with the presence of a modern-day matinee idol — if theaters still had matinees, that is.

“The Aviator” is a long, swollen spectacle of a movie — a movie which highlights a big-name actor feigning insanity, no less — and I know a lot of hipsters will probably brush it off as a prestige package tooling for Academy Awards. It’s certainly easy to peg Scorsese as a truly tasteless filmmaker, an over-indulged hack whose work fulfills every stereotype of tacky Italian-American excess. But I’m not sure that a taste for subtlety could be anything but a liability when you’re dealing with American pop culture and entertainment, and as a film that’s so completely synthesized its setting and subject, “The Aviator” is dead right in eschewing every note of delicacy. There was certainly no hint of refinement to Hughes: watch his production “Jet Pilot” to see how his tampering bulldozed Josef von Sternberg’s sly Continental smoke-and-silk eroticism; when Janet Leigh’s bosom emerges from her flight suit, a plane’s take-off roar stampedes the soundtrack. It’s a monumentally crude moment conflating red-blooded, pin-up sex and Atomic Age aerodynamics, a scene whose spirit infects Scorsese’s film, where Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt’s recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” oversees DiCaprio’s hands gliding, seamlessly, first over a female form and then over the streamlined body of his jet.

This said, I’m willing to ignore no end of glaring flaws in “The Aviator” by virtue of its comprehensive dedication. You could easily write a review that’s a laundry list of the movie’s failings: most of the airborne scenes, with their reliance on wispy, weightless CGI, are strikingly ineffectual, and the wall-to-wall period music is just so much aural furniture. But what’s more difficult to express is the cumulative effect of “The Aviator.” In fact, trying to articulate the sloppy magnificence of Scorsese’s latest American history lesson, I’m forced to turn to a better mind than mine, that of Henry James, writing on Emile Zola: “Taste as he knew it, taste as his own constitution supplied it, proved to have nothing to say on the matter.”

[Nick Pinkerton is a scholar, gentleman, and “Reverse Shot” Staff Writer living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.]

Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Scott, Jude Law, and Cate Blanchett in a scene from “The Aviator” © Copyright Miramax Films.

Take 2
by Jeff Reichert

“The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s return from the wilds, hasn’t tickled my intellect nearly as thoroughly as Jean Luc-Godard‘s similar rebound “Notre Musique,” but then “The Aviator” feels like the kind of film that might kick me in the shins if I said it did. Besides, a good (maybe, just maybe great) film is to be treasured no matter who made it, and I love the idea of this three-hour ogre exposing itself to unsuspecting audiences on thousands of screens come late December. It’s all too easy to contrast the Leo/Scorcese/”Aviator” nexus with this season’s other labor of love biograph-epic, “Alexander,” especially given the resounding success of the former and the abject failure of the latter. Stone’s film is cut from grand proportions and ideals that couldn’t be bothered with the little details. However, when, as a filmmaker, your sole reference to Alexander’s achievements in the civic realm is a single shot of weary Colin Ferrell holding a parchment with “TAX CODE” printed in large letters across the top, you should wonder if you’re not quite covering all the bases.

“The Aviator” is constantly throwing out more, more, more all in effort to keep up with its own main character’s mad dash through cinema, aviation, love, and life. Stone may approach, however tentatively, capturing the vastness of greatest empire there ever was, but Scorsese’s accumulation of details, eccentricities, and inventions provides a more solid foundation upon which to build a portrait of the greatest empire that almost was. While most epic films these days spend all their time prettying themselves up for the party so as to appeal to as many guests as possible, Scorsese, Leo, and “The Aviator” have stumbled in from the back unnoticed, drunk, shirts untucked, and ready to fight. Uncouth, nasty, scrappy, ridiculous, and tragically beautiful all the same, “The Aviator” just might be the life of the party.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of “Reverse Shot.” He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]

Take 3
by Michael Koresky

Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Aviator” © Copyright Miramax Films.

The wild accolades and resounding huzzahs headed Scorsese’s way as the mad dash toward Oscar begins right… around… now (!) will be undoubtedly earned. Favorable comparisons to “Raging Bull” are inevitable, as are not-so-subtle digs at Scorsese’s recent output, i.e., everything after “Goodfellas.” However, “The Aviator”‘s atmosphere of propelled mania, its clipped pacing, its paradoxically omniscient intimacy, would be unthinkable without the director’s remarkably textured Nineties epics, specifically “The Age of Innocence”‘s period drama-cum-anthropological study and the easy-to-dismiss, hard-to-forget “Casino.” While the real-life protagonists of Scorsese’s more standardly defined biopics, “Raging Bull” and “Kundun,” seem to drift like milkpods toward some form of enlightenment through a series of lustrous widescreen tableaux, Leo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes, like “Innocence”‘s Newland Archer and “Casino”‘s Ace Rothstein, is easily the author of his own tragic tale: the more they each try to realize their own outsized dreams, the more the world (and the films’ glittering aesthetic accoutrements) closes in on them.

Like prime Oliver Stone, Scorsese’s approach to bio is a form of simultaneous dethroning and enshrining, pouring out in a cascade of technicolor splendor and raw behavioral verité; call it Metro-Goldwyn-Maysles. Here, Hughes’s firebrand passion and self-immolating ambitions are itching to bust out of the frame itself. Watching “The Aviator” unfold is something like entering a world’s fair at the turn of the century; everything is familiar yet unfamiliar, glittering with promise for the future. Yet once the lights flicker out and the sun comes up, it’s still the same old campground, littered with trash.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of “Reverse Shot,” as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of “Film Comment.” He has also written for Cinemascope, Filmmaker, and Westchester Journal News.]

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