Friday, December 20, 2019

The Uncanny Valley Of Crime

The Irishman(2019)
Directed by Martin Scorcese 
"The Irishman" is one of Scorcese's most repetitive and least original films to date. If you have seen his other gangster/crime films "Mean Streets", "Goodfellas", "Casino", "The Departed", "Wolf Of Wall Street", or other genre staples "The Godfather Trilogy", or "Scarface", or  "The Sopranos" or  "Boardwalk Empire" or "Breaking Bad",  you have already seen "The Irishman". To quote Scorsese "What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes."
These films are about a decent guy who slowly gets caught up in a life of crime, and enjoys some moments at the top, until a friend or a vice or a friend with a vice starts dragging him down, and/or a rival appears and he either goes out in a blaze of glory or ends up tragically alone. What was most ironic about Scrocese's "not cinema" comments is that many of the same of criticisms of the super-hero genre can be made of his beloved gangster films. True crime novels are Scorcese's comic books.

The protagonists of these films are always no-nonsense middle aged white guys, usually living on the east coast, mostly in New York. Sometimes they are based on actual real-life accounts but the lives still manage to conform to the same story structure regardless of the individual details. All the same things could be said of super-heroes who are also routinely clustered in New York. Super-heroes are are the opposite end of the same spectrum of hero worship that includes gangsters, substituting delusions of granduer with fatalism. 
 Gangsters and super-heroes are both products of the early 20th century American culture and both emerge from immigrant communities (gangsters from the 20's and superheroes from the late 30's). Like super-heroes and pulp sci-fi, gangster and crime films are primarily power fantasies split down ethical lines of hero and anti-hero. The hero is required to remain within certain ethical parameters while the limits of the possible explained(the laws of reality), while the anti-hero is allowed to transgress while the limits of the possible contract (the reality of law). 

Gangsters will lose as often and as predictably as super-heroes will be victorious. Neither character is implicitly better than the other, as both exist within pre-defined limits to "satisfy a specific set of demands". 
Does "The Irishman" have to be original or unique to its genre be a good movie? No, not necessarily.  The film does need to be novel and interesting if it wants to hold our attention for its excessive run-time. It has to be new to hold a new audience (not the audiences of or in their 70's). The film struggles right away from its historical fatalism, we know Shereen will kill Hoffa, so nothing that happens between the two has any element of surprise.
Our god-like view of the events, creates an emotional distance between the characters and the audiences and this is accented by the non-linear storytelling and the for-knowledge that certain background characters will also die (causes of death often appearing over character's heads like score-cards). When everyone is doomed, no-one feels real. The films best asset is this razor sharp deadpan dark comedy, showcased in scenes like "the other whispers" and "it smells fishy in here", but more often than not these scenes go on too long and become tedious like Pesci's "it is what it is" lines.
A tragedy requires a little greatness to begin with, and though voice over insists Hoffa is bigger than the Beatles and Elvis, this is never backed up or explained by anything in the film. Who are the teamsters and what do they do? Who is Hoffa and what does he do? Frank's daughter gives a general overview of some of the labour movement's accomplishments, but we don't get an understanding of Hoffas specific contributions. The union continues while he is in prison, and we don't get a sense of the union ending or changing after his death, so we don't understand Hoofa's relevance. The film fails to communicate why Hoffa is so vital. He insists it's his union, but this never means anything beyond egotism. The film has time to flesh this out, but doesn't. 
These are questions the film assumes we don't need or already know, but without this context Hoffa becomes just another gangster with a big mouth who doesn't know when to read the room. Hoffa's death is rendered meaningless, and by extension Shereen's entire story, which in the film is never corroborated. Why should the audience believe any of a lonely old man's big-fish stories about the time he supplied the bay of pigs, and the time he found out who killed JFK, and the time he killed that famous guy who disappeared? How is this movie any different from "Confessions of a dangerous mind", where the creator of "The Gong Show" and "The Dating Game" claimed he was also a secret CIA assassin.
There is a film coming out called "Three Christs", about three men in an insane asylum each claiming to be Jesus. "The Irishman" does not mention that other criminals have also confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa, leaving us with Shereen's story as it's gospel. This shoddy storytelling at best and unethical film-making at worst. 
 For Frank to be an unreliable narrator the audience should have some sense of discrepancy (the only reason I know this about Shereen's story comes from outside research and not anything within the text of the film). Like "Zero Dark Thirty" this film is just going for the most exciting version of events with no real interest in history or films responsibility to it. It is the film makers who are not reliable not the narrator. So let's dismiss the historical aspects of the film and the genre elements and just talk about its main character and only POV Frank Shereen.
In "Casino" one of Scrocese's best films, the thinly developed caricatures of "boss", "enforcer", and "gold-digger", are fleshed out through alternating voice overs. This device is successful because before we can get bored with one pov we are moved to another, and each shift makes us consider how each POV reveals, enforces, and comments on the other. In "The Irishman" we have only one POV, which I would argue is not a reliable one, and furthermore not an important, sympathetic, interesting, or enjoyable one. A character doesn't have to be all of these things, but to be the soul POV of a film this long, the character should have some appeal. "Man Bites Dog" and "Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer" are bearable because they are short, adding three more hours to these films would effect their quality and potency. The Irishman might have worked as a longer film tv-series where each of the main characters could have their own episodes, or shorter story focusing on mostly Hoffa, but what we get is too much of the least interesting character.
Frank's daughter Peggy is supposed to be his anchor to the real world, and his deteriorating relationship with her a point of sympathy, but because we learn nothing about any of Frank's other relationships (he has a wife and three other children who I don't think even receive names) this sub-plot goes nowhere. It doesn't matter that Peggy stopped talking to Frank because the film only gives her one line of dialogue to begin with. You can't miss something that was never there. His family is supposed to be reason he is murdering people, but they essentially don't exist for most of the film (and as Frank says about his victims "I didn't know them or their families so I didn't think about them"). Franks family are just masculine props for the human suit he is obliged to wear, but they fail to humanize him because they aren't fleshed out as humans. They are not dissimilar from the gold watch or the ring he receives, they are symbols of his success as a man. "See how strong I made you. Now nobody can fuck with you."
We also get almost no insight into who Frank is as a person. He was in the war and then drove trucks and then got into  crime. Did he have a childhood, family, friends? We know about Hoffa's pet peeves for lateness, but we know nothing of Frank's internal life or motivations. He talks shop about hits, how to drop a gun, how to avoid being followed, but nothing else. We know he works as an organizer but we never see him outside of his hitman context. The film has time for this, if nothing else the film has time we never learn anything human about Shereen. Frank floats through his own life like the Forest Gump of crime, always adjacent to major historical events but never really impacting them directly. Even the crime for which he is most famous isn't really his, as Pesci explains the Hoffa hit was going to happen regardless of Frank's involvement. Frank doesn't make any real choices in the movie, he just goes along with the plan, and we are dragged from one blind alley to the next.
Frank is not an enjoyable person to watch onscreen he isn't funny or charismatic like the leads of "Casino" or "The Wolf of Wallstreet". He doesn't feel any kind of regret or remorse or even self-awareness like "Raging Bull", and so we are left with a sociopathic goon really desperate to impress other sociopaths. Unpleasant characters are nothing new (especially for Scorcese who has more unlikable leads than otherwise) and can be fascinating, but sticking with them for this amount of time is something new, and when the ending is an especially forgone conclusion (the death of Hoffa and fall of Frank) in the gangster genre where the fall from grace is always a forgone conclusion, it goes from a challenging experience to an unpleasant chore. This is also because Frank lacks agency as a character. 
In other Scorcese films we see mob bosses, snitches, and undercover agents, all men who have life or death hanging on their every decisions. This can be exciting cinema when done right. Frank Shereen follows orders in every instance, often lacking any context or knowledge of why he is doing what he is doing. The audience does not invest in him because he doesn't invest in himself. He doesn't make any choices. Joe Pesci and Jimmy Hoffa make decisions and Frank is just the middle man, and not a very good one, which is why when those other characters are on screen the movie becomes interesting.
I have yet to hear any critic say Deniro is better than Pesci or Pacino, and this is because Deniro doesn't have the same level of material to work with. He has a scowl...that's pretty much it. He isn't even a good friend to Jimmy, seemingly too afraid to tell him the truth of how much danger he is in, because Jimmy makes him feel important. It becomes embarrassing like if "Entourage" had gone on into the characters 70's. Frank becomes a sad hanger-on who doesn't want to leave the limelight. He keeps hoping everything will just work out, until it doesn't. The audiences shrugs it all off, because its what our main character has done with his whole life. We understand where this movie is going long before it get's there, and then there is another hour. Like Peggy we just start to tune it all out.
The editing is at times brilliant and at others confusing (especially when jumping to different time periods), and this is not helped by the abominable CGI which like almost all attempts at de-aging thus far have created monster-men from the uncanny valley. This CGI problem is the same from "Captain Marvel" and "Gemini Man" (the latter has maybe the best use of the technology) in that peoples heads and faces change shape as they age as does skin tone and pigment, but the tech never takes this into account. De-aging never makes actors look as they did when they were their IRL age, instead it makes them look like vampires who have fallen behind on their feeding and begun decaying into waxy mummies. 

"The Irishman" compounds this because its elderly actors now hunched and paunched by time, do not change their physical movements to match their younger selves, and so we again have old men walking around in the flesh-masks of their younger selves and doing so awkwardly. Casting younger actors might have given some spark to this film and connected it to modern audiences and younger viewers but instead we got unsympathetic old men and their grotesque unwatchable younger selves. Tell me Deniro's face doesn't look glued on below.
Scorcese can keep pretending that its Marvel's fault or Harry Potter's fault that no one wants to see this film or why those who did watch it, but didn't enjoy it feel some type of way, but there are multiple problems with this movie that can be found in the text of the film and not the surrounding film culture. Some may genuinely love this movie but I imagine others are defending it out love, loyalty, and dare I say it, fandom for Scorcese and what he now represents as self appointed defender of the autuers. Scorcese's Stans will ignore any evidence that modern audiences just aren't that into mediocre mafiosos anymore.
Movie fans who are honest with themselves won't be able to overlook the flaws or the ways his prior films have worn the same themes better. I would hope these same cinephiles (who appreciate criticism) wouldn't wave away the critique about the lack of women in Scorcese's films because this is as MS has agreed "been an issue since the 70s", and one that is especially salient considering how minimal Anna Paquin's role in the Irishman was. Scrorcese has said that he doesn't put women into stories where they don't belong, but doesn't mention he is the one selecting which stories to depict. He cant say the studio tied his hands, he is an autuer, and so if something is or isn't in his films its his choice as "soul artististic voice".As far as women in his movies go, its been a long time since "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", "Age Of Innocence" is actually about a man, and Sharon Stone in "Casino" is great performance but its also a classical hysterical gold-digging prostitute who literally can't make decisions outside of her pimp. Scorcese is about as interested in women as he is in people who aren't white, which is to say he made a movie about some once ("Kundun"/"Alice"), so he should never have to answer public questions about this aspect of his filmography or of cinema as a whole. The cinematic equivalent of "but some of my best friends are...."
When white gangsters and criminals tell their stories through film they are celebrated as the highest possible cinematic art e.i. "the godfather"/"citizen kane". When non-white gangsters and criminals first told their stories through music it lead to the immediate creation of parental advisory labels and obscenity lawsuits. In American media, white gangsters and criminals are perceived as tragic wastes of potential, while POC gangsters are treated as standard issue and disposable. South American cartels have a much bigger effect on the world of today than Italian mobsters, but there are no Hollywood films celebrating them or focusing on them as character studies. The most famous Latino gangster in cinema is Al Pacino in brown face. Even stories about Hong Kong triads like "The Departed' are filtered through Scorcese's white-Americana lense. It's hard to ignore this disparity and cheer at the same time. The hole just keeps getting deeper or in Scorcese's words "And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing."
There is no sincere desire in Scorcesse's crime filmography to explore the notion of crime, its consequences, or the diverse human beings affected by it around the world, because the point of mob movies is anti-hero-worship wearing the skin of self-reflection. These are not cautionary tales, they are grown man cosplay. Fantasy football for crime.
"The Scarface" posters in college dorm rooms aren't there because those young men really love cautionary tales, there symbols of power like a "Superman S", but for bad-boys. Martin Scorcese revisits the gangster genre the way a serial killer revisits the locations of their murders, with a fetishistic glee that reveals unconscious fascinations.
Terrance Nance's astonishing first season of  "Random Acts Of Fylness" has a segment where he discusses the "white savior/white devil" trope as, “The function of the persistence of the white angel archetype (the same as white saviour) in film is to mythologize and romanticize whiteness throughout a history in which it had no (heroic) part,”....
He goes on to explain how the archetype soothes white guilt while also consolidating economic and social power.

White devils, according to Nance, are the Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos – antiheroes who reassert white (usually male) dominance, but as criminals.
…He argues that when the former (white saviors) feels outmoded, Hollywood flocks to the latter as an alternative way to re-center whiteness.
The fascinating thing is that white devil narratives seek out exceptional white criminals in the same way that white saviour narratives look for an exceptional Black man to warm the bigoted heart of both a lead character and the audience.
“I would argue that white male supremacy already exists not because “white people are the best at everything,” as Nance, playing devil’s advocate, puts it, but because society must ensure they succeed at everything – in movies or real life."
In Nance's video essay this critique begins with "Birth Of A Nation" and extends through "Breaking Bad" and the election of Donald Trump. Damon Lindelof's Watchmen series has also been brilliantly exploring these same connections between white supremacy and hero worship in American media. It's the first piece of american media to depict "the tulsa massacre" of 1921, connecting America's forgotten past to its current concerns and phobias, using the super-hero mask as metaphor for hidden history. 
I'm really hoping Scorcess'es next project "Killers Of The Flower Moon" about a series of murders amidst the Osage native american community in the 1920s, will be something more than a white savior film focusing Leonardo Dicaprio and again Robert Deniro, but...."it is what is is".
"I Heard You Paint Houses" is a perfect film title as it was for the book it was based on, so why is it called "The Irishman", if not as a dog whistle. There is nothing particularly Irish about Frank's character just as there was nothing particularly Jewish about Deniro's character in "Casino", both characters are not Italian but are subsumed into the world of Italian mob cliches and make no effort to distinguish themselves. In Scorcesse's melting pot everybody becomes a white guy from New york, even Jesus.
Films like "25th Hour" explore the consequences of criminal life without glamorizing it, while "The Laundromat" finds a way to explore the complex of modern cyber-crime and political corruption by de-centralizing its storytelling and focusing on the victims. "The Irishman" tries to celebrate the mobs importance to American history its impact on labor unions, wars, and assassinations, and uses its sad old man card to distance itself from accusations of outwardly celebrating murders. There was some argument when "Wolf Of Wall Street" came out about whether it was satire or celebration. I think its clear now that it was the former. Follow the money. 
If I had to pick a mafia trading card, I would have much rather have watched a "Crazy Joe" movie about him kidnapping his own bossess (cus that's a dramatic/cinematic scenario I've never seen before), but instead we get anti-climatic point blank shoot-outs, old men talking shit, and the most overused scene of Scorcesse's career, someone afraid to turn the on ignition to their car for fear of a car-bomb.
 Scorcesse like Speilberg once had a talent for walking the line between historical drama Oscar bait and popcorn genre flick. This was a recognition that within the world of cinema there are different audiences, and that knowing how to appeal to different groups was a strength not a weakness. Not everyone wants to sit on Joe Pesci's and hear stories about "wise guys".
Unlike Spielberg, Scorcesse has come to insist that the same audience should be watching all of his films, or they don't really understand cinema. There aren't different kinds of movies for different folks in different moods, there is just the great art he makes and the garbage the rest of the world consumes. "It's my union and once you see it that way it's really very simple". 
Martin Scrocese has become Adam Driver's character from his own film, "The Silence"(spoiler alert) a catholic missionary in feudal Japan, who comes to realize the villagers he has been preaching to and who have been martyring themselves based on his teachings, do not see any distinction between "son of god" and "god of sun", and are outcast both to Japan and the Catholic Church. This is the position of the alienated cinephile, who insists to contemporary movie audiences, that cinema peaked in 1960's(Hollywood's golden age) or during the Silent Era or before the introduction of Color. For the cinephile the movie theater is church, but for the general audience/pagans there is no recongizable distinction between cinema and movies (or big screen and little screen for that matter). It all ends up on streaming in the end.
The tragedy of "The Silence" is that the priests cannot imagine a world outside of themselves, a world where their God was not all encompassing for everyone. Scorcese cannot imagine a world where the movie theater is not the center of American culture. It's not though, the device your reading this on is. Audiences haven't turned away from Scorcese's mob movies not because we don't understand them, like Peggy we know them all to well, and we are simply tired of the listening to the same old bullshit.
Cinema like Christmas does not need saving. Character drama isn't dead, its just moved to a different platform where it has more time to explore its characters in depth (streaming and tv). Every cinema fan wants more original art, but cinema is different than other arts because it costs huge sums of money and requires dozens of individual artisans, so unlike other mediums that come down to "the unifying vision of an individual artist", the audience is always a consideration when there are millions of dollars involved. Money is as much a filmmakers tool as paint is to a painter. How can someone whose made so many crime movies be this naive about how American capitalism really works. "It is what it isd
General audiences don't want to spend money on cinema that costs more than a month of streaming per ticket (and will be on said service in a few months) if that movie doesn't have immediate and immersive cinematic values they can't get at home (Imax,3d,4d). Netflix isn't competing with Disney they are competing with video games like Fortnite (directors Guillermo Del Toro and Nicholas Refn both portray characters in new PS4 game "Death Stranding"). 
Arguing about what constitutes cinema in a changing media landscape is an effort to maintain a purity that does not exist. Samuel R. Delany once wrote, "Worrying about purity of genre is like worrying about purity of the races" and it becomes truer every year. Changes in how audiences consume movies (most are not even shot  on "film" anymore) is not the death of a medium it is just the seasonal changing of technology, but aging artists often equate their own impending mortality with the death of culture. I suspect these are what the lingering hospital shots are supposed to evoke, the end of the era.
Scorcese is right to compare Marvel to a theme park, because people have to leave their houses to visit a theme park. Theme parks are also places that change as you age. The body reacts more positively to extreme movement and motion as a young person than as an adult, but this isn't because the roller coasters aren't sophisticated enough now that your older, its because your body has become more sensitive, fragile, and delicate. As we get older our tastes change, and this is fine, but if we cling too much to nostalgia and loyalties to things that no longer exist, like Frank we cease to grow. 
In Jonathan Rosenbaum's prophetic review of Ace Ventura he tries to figure out why an audience liked a movie he didn't care about. He considers the difference in his age and the intended age of the audience "....made me start speculating about how much one’s age and the correspondingly different relationship with one’s own body tend to affect one’s responses to physical comedy. Adolescents, whose bodily changes induce a perpetual feeling of awkwardness, may laugh in recognition at the same gag that to adults serves only as a reminder of their former anguish."
Rosenbaum then accepts the differences in technology will create generation differences in viewing audiences. “All right we are two nations,” wrote John Dos Passos in U.S.A., a trilogy that came out during the Depression: the two nations the novelist had in mind were different social classes. Obviously the same divisions exist today, but access to technology more and more defines the experiences of the two classes; and within each class generational differences concerning that technology may be becoming just as divisive. Earlier generations were linked primarily by wars and social movements, but a recent movie like Reality Bites suggests that the members of “Generation X” — a concept manufactured by TV — are linked only by their experience of 70s TV shows. This suggests that if you’re in that age group and you weren’t watching TV back then, poor sap, you don’t belong to any generation at all. Even worse, it suggests that wars and social movements — present and future — may be only TV shows or video games to begin with. (It’s easy to imagine that “Generation Y” will be defined by the video games they played, and “Generation Z” by their software programs.). 
The theme park that is cinema now has longer lines for its roller coasters than its vintage haunted houses, but its nothing to fear. The technology has changed, and the older classical attractions haven't quite caught up, but rather than de-aging themselves in a sad bid to remain relevant they should make use of younger actors (and maybe marginalized peoples) to provide fresh perspectives. This kind of changing of the guard used to be challenge to film-makers to re-examine themselves and their relationship to the zietgiest, but increasingly artists like politicians are just doubling down on their old ideas instead of coming up with new ones.

Scorcesse tried to experiment with the CGI tech in "the Irishman", just as he tried 3d with "Hugo", but it may be too little too late. Technology will always change and this will inevitably effect art for better and worse in ways we can't always predict. Compared to Holy Herndon's excellent Twitter essay on the future of AI in music, debating about which movies are "real art" feels like fighting the last war. 
Marvel studios experimented with applying the idea of stacked programming from prime time television to cinema, using each of their films as lead ins for the next, and it worked commercially and critically more often than not. A mediocre film could be bolsted by a success that came before, or is expected to arrive after and that gives these films an extra advantage.

Their experiment has been successful, but they also had the advantage of a fan base going back to the 1940s. Their idea was not new either, as Orson Welles originally tried make a live action version of "The Shadow" radio-play which he also voiced, and eventually gave up to make "Citizen Kane".
Welles realized the cross-over potential and new media appeal of adapting a pre-existing hero from one medium to another when cinema was still in its infancy. As with many things he was a man ahead of his time. Somewhere in the multiverse is a world where all the techniques of Kane went into "The Shadow", and the entire history of cinema is different.
In this world Scorcesse probably directed "Batman" instead of Burton (probably a gritty version of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns with old man Wayne also played by Deniro), because he would have "grown up" idolizing masked vigilantes instead of wise-guys. Somewhere there is a world where audiences waited in line at midnight to see "The Irishman" cosplaying as Robert Deniro and Joe Pesci in freshly 3d printed masks and no one has ever heard of an avenger. We are not in those universes.
Let's review. "The Irishman" was not risky or unique to its genre or its director's filmography. it fails to establish the context necessary to make itself historically or politically relevant.  It has little value as historical document, due to its unreliable narrator. There is little pleasure or excitement to be had from inhabiting the lives of its solemn pityless characters (outside of dark comedy about who got shot in the face and who didn't). It is visually difficult to look at the poor CGI, which is over-relied on to demarcate shifts in time, making editing and chronology difficult to parse.

 It highlights Scorcesse's lack of interest in nonwhite male characters, particularly women (to the detriment of the films emotional core). It fails to live up to the shoddy criterion Scorcesse just laid out in his own Op Ed about what qualifies as cinema, lacking risk, lacking human emotions (like remorse, love, or joy), or characters who grow and change in any discernable way. The film is as Scorcesse described super-hero films another in series of "variations on a finite number of themes.". Usually a genre is fully formalized once it's codiefed enough for a successful parody, which puts the gangster genre's death date in 1995's "Mafia!"? 
Scorcesse is a great film-maker, "you can see the talent up there on the screen", but simply being an artist is not a guarantee of creating great art. This movie is an example of a talented artist resting on their laurels and doing what comes easily to them. 
There is a good film buried somewhere in here but it should have been edited, and earlier in Scorcesse's career it would have been. As it is this is a Scorcesse B-Side. If your a crime fiction fan there are plenty of Marvel style Ester eggs to follow, but for your average film goer, there is very little fresh material to make the run time worth the investment. Danny Devito and David Mammet already made a movie called "Hoffa" in the early 1990's and this mostly covers the same ground (including the "revelatory" Kennedy stuff). 
I've yet to read any positive review more substantial than "Isn't getting old sad?". I think that question depends on the quality of live you've lead. I cared more about the dead old man at the center of "Knives Out" from his few minutes on screen than I cared about Frank who I spent hours with. Frank Sheereen is just not interesting enough of a character to warrant this much celluloid and neither are his "alternate facts". "The Irishman" is the same old gangster shit with a sloughing CGI make-over, and chances are if you've seen one car bomb you've seen em all.