Sunday, October 08, 2006

Scorsese and Cronenberg - What the Hell Happened?

I just finished watching the DVD of HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, the last David Cronenberg movie. And despite my deep love of Mr. Cronenberg's works, this one had me really scratching my head.

It also had me thinking of the parallels between Cronenberg and Martin Scorsese. Think about it.
- Both were astounding, groundbreaking directors in the 1970s
- Both moved into more sophisticated fare in the 1980s
- Both turned to recycled, half-assed self-imitations in the 1990s

Okay, maybe I am being over-critical, but really... Since NAKED LUNCH, Cronenberg has not been at the top of his game. XISTENZ was a warmed-over VIDEODROME. SPIDER was a lot of cheap psychobabble (albeit with some great acting). And HISTORY OF VIOLENCE?

Okay, it was neat seeing Cronenbery trying to film normal life for the first half of the movie -- I think it was the first time he ever tackled such mundanity. Totally a round-peg, square-hole kind of thing, but it was great to see him try. But once he moved to the more action-ish second half, the film became totally cartoony. Especially the climax at William Hurt's mansion, where Joey/Tom goes all Jason-Bourne on the gangsters. Ugh.

(Loved the sex scenes, though, especially the contrast between the innocent fooling around in the beginning and the harsh stairwell romp later on.)

I find it incredibly interesting watching how non-Hollywood-mainstream directors put together their films. I find that a lot of alternative directors don't do Hollywood as much out of inability as choice. Don't get me wrong... often I enjoy that visual cacophony. But I think it is clear that these different styles are not only about choice.

Similar to Cronenberg's recent mediocrities, look at Scorsese since GOODFELLAS (or AGE OF INNOCENSE or KUNDUN, depending on how you would like to measure such things). BRINGING OUT THE DEAD was a total joke... A director wallowing in technique at the complete expense of the story. GANGS OF NEW YORK was so close to excellence, but ended up being so dull. And the less said about THE AVIATOR the better.

I think Cronenberg and Scorsese are not the only directors guilty of sliding into mediocrity in their later years. Terry Gilliam has been pretty unimpressive for some time. There are plenty more. And all of them have accomplished far more than I ever will. But, still, the decline in their work is disappointing. Failure is one thing, but torpid is much worse.


On a somewhat different note, I am interested to read the Scorsese is next going to tackle SILENCE, Endo Shusaku's book about Portuguese missionaries to Japan in the 17th century. I had heard plenty of rumors about various Japanese projects Scorsese allegedly wanted to do (including a biopic of Rikidozan and some random thing about Japanese gangsters), but this sounds a lot more interesting and organic.

A Japanese friend of mine who has helped out on this project a little tells me that Scorsese intends to follow up on the themes he explored in LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (my favorite book) and KUNDUN (also underrated), which pleases me immensely.


On a completely different note, I think Sam Mendes' JARHEAD was really underrated. Yes, most of the film was dull and/or derivative. But once the war starts, it was just one amazing shot after another. A total "holy shit" kind of movie. A problematic film, but the best of it was brilliant.


Carter Page said...

Outside of the context of Cronenberg's other works, I thought History of Violence was good. It had some remarkable subtleties, particularly the effective non-verbal communication of complex emotions from the repressed characters.

Granted it doesn't add to Cronenberg's canon of the surreal, but despite the fact that no one turns into alien creatures or sucks VHS cassettes into their chest cavity the film was still enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Mark Russell said...

Congratulations on adding the first comment to the blog. I am just waiting for the day I have to turn off the comment section for all the trolls and crud.

Anyhow, if I may retort, at first, that is what I expected of History of Violence, too. Subtle, insightful, interesting. Nice to see Cronenberg working with the real world and real people.

But as the second half unfolded, it really lost me. From the small things (William Hurt and Viggo Mortenson sounded nothing like brothers) to the big (Viggo turning into the unstoppable killing machine... which was so fantastic to be on the level of carnivorous VHS cassettes and mugwhumps). I would have been interested in a real exploration of what it means for a big-time, nasty guy who tried to remake his life to get drawn back into his old life. But HISTORY OF VIOLENCE was not that film.

All imho, of course.