Mild SPOILERS for Silence to follow.
It is safe to say that Martin Scorsese is widely regarded not just as one of the best filmmakers of all-time, but also one of the best filmmakers still working today. He is a film historian. A preservationist. A curious tinkerer. And a teacher.
He is a titan.
But none of that really matters, does it? Because cinema itself is far more powerful than any director behind it. His stature and value in society compares little against the work itself and the impressions and meanings that can be drawn from it. Such is the nature of artistry. Especially as he, like anyone, is capable of making a bad movie just as much as a good one. It is with this understanding that we also acknowledge there have long been debates over Scorsese's particular approach to cinema, mostly in regard to his portrayal of the darker undercurrents of society. While the criticism of his work has always been colored by both respect and contentiousness, it always finds itself in an interesting nexus. Especially today, where his films seem to be thrown headlong into our more modern expectations, both political and moral. And while I actually understand those criticisms very much, I can't help but find his approach to be brilliant.
For Scorsese is the master of the un-guiding hand.
A few years ago, Scorsese unleashed Wolf of Wall Street upon a semi-unsuspecting public. It was a three-hour escapade of raucous, unhinged, bacchanalian hilarity about raucous, unhinged, bacchanalian people. I'd argue it not only features Dicaprio's best performance (I never knew he had that in him), I'd also say it's one of Scorsese's best movies. For there is no film more honest about the gluttonous madness that was '90s capitalism gone awry (though it could be true of any era, really). But the film's genius lies not in its hilarious portrayal of the allure of these jerks, but how it similarly does not shy away from their monstrosity. It's all there. Every callous, horrific, abusive action from Belfort, as well as every terrible tactic to screw over other human beings. These guys don't care. To them, this is all "funny," but the film is honest that their not-caring is funny, along with the fact it is plain-faced, sober and true. For we are a society that celebrates guys like Belfort. We offer no reward to the diligent Agents who spend their lives catching white collar scumbags, and we give those same scumbags a slap on the wrist for their crimes. This is what we do. And the ultimate point rests in the film's coda, in which Dicaprio stands before a crowd that has paid to see this felon teach them how to be successful. "Sell me this pen," he asks. The camera gracefully pans over an audience full of people watching on, eager, wide-eyed, and hungry. There we are. An eager audience watching an eager audience. The point could not be more clear: we are culpable for this. And we must reflect in our tacit approval. I cannot think of a more brilliant commentary of the way we remain enamored of such awful people.
And of course, the movie made some people piiiiiissed.
I remember one interaction I had in particular that seemed to go on and on. The person I talked with felt like the movie was completely reckless. That the movie did not punish Jordan Belfort for his actions. That it did not make it clear enough that he was bad. That it did not make it clear that the FBI Agent did a great service and that he should be happy (he should have smiled on the subway). That the film essentially glorified sex and money and greed and let everyone off the hook. He was incensed that, as a moral person, I could like this movie. That I must simply be deferring to Scorsese being a master and wasn't even thinking about it. Sometimes I worry that this is how a lot of people think, that depiction means endorsement. But I don't have to, because the movie handles it for me: it's all right up there on screen. This is how we remain enamored of awful people. This is what it looks like. Which just highlights the greatest irony of all (and also the true power of storytelling): we won't ever face the ugly truth in ourselves...
We want our movies to punish people so we don't actually have to.
And with Scorsese, this is not a new debate.
I remember the discussion happening when Goodfellas came out.
For the film tapped right into the growing popularization of America's fascination with Italian gangsters - something that would actually reach a fever pitch in the following decade (or at least seem to with the endless array of Scarface posters on frat house walls). This popular criticism was that Scorsese was just ultimately making alluring, fun movies that added to this fever pitch. Hell, they could practically be recruitment tools. And yet, for the most part, the movie was lauded as one of the best films of the year. Is it because even the most high-minded of us all secretly want to be gangsters? And just want something that allows us to indulge? Are we being amoral? Are we being seduced? Is it all that simple?
The thing about Goodfellas is that you can't tackle seduction itself without being honest about how we are seduced. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," says Henry Hill, the half-Irish, half-Italian who so badly wants the romantic view of this life. Likewise, so much of the film is seen through the eyes of Lorraine Bracco, a Jewish outsider coming into the glitz and glamor of the gangster world and it all slowly becoming normal to her. And that's the whole key, isn't it? As brilliantly put in Roger Ebert's famous review of the film, it captures "the feeling that the mob world is the real world." And thus it absolutely shows the entire process of how we blind ourselves by allure, and end up in a darker place because we kept moving the goal posts. And in order to do that, it has to be depicted and part of our experience in watching.
Truthfully, it's a little like Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat-method, where you basically need to egg people into being comfortable so they expose their worst selves. I believe we have to do this with movies too, before it all contextualizes into something else. And contrary to what some argue, I believe there is no denying that Scorsese's movies very much do so. He never pulls a punch. We always see where all this allure goes. We see Tommy be a complete psychopath and especially get his comeuppance. We see the family that has been built get torn apart. We even see the wrist-slapping, for the greatest indignity that Henry has to face is eating "egg noodles and ketchup" and worse, being just like you. Perhaps that basic reveal of life's unfairness is what irks us so much. We want to live in a world where this isn't so, but we just end up facing our own truth.
We are seduced by gangsters because they are seductive.
We are fascinated by them because they are fascinating. They are powerful and cool and we have to be honest about this. If we're not honest about that, there's no point. As Tina Fey said about writing, "everything good comes from honesty" and she's right. To deny this element of seduction, to not depict it, to admonish the instinct to have it before it even starts is tantamount to a simplistic moralizing command along the lines of the "just say no" campaign. So yeah, Martin Scorsese makes movies about the allure within our collective dark streak.
But there's nobody most honest about the subject.
Silence is one of the most complex movies I've seen in ages.
Though I admit that going in, even I was worried about some matters of depiction. There's been so much bad "white savior" cinema over the years, particularly with regards to Asian culture. Heck, our overall treatment and depiction of Asian culture tends to be pretty horrible on the whole. But even the film's choice of European cast seemed worrisome in that you had Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson playing Portuguese missionaries. So I couldn't help but fret, "oh god is this the film where Scorsese finally shows his age and datedness?"
Turns out I shouldn't have worried. At least not in that particular way. For the film eschews most of these concerns through its fascination with the larger complexities of faith, along with its deeply meditative thoughts on the grander purpose and consequence of religious devotion. In doing that, it puts the problematic inclination of white savior-ism to the test - in that such pitfalls are the very subject matter of the film. It also has a weird way of sidelining concerns in that the English actors don't even try for Portuguese accents, they just kind of just pick a dated affectation and go with it. And the performances under those affectations are genuinely great (particularly Garfield, who subtly plays Rodrigues with such a scope of humanity while never once feeling out of character). It turns out, most of the criticisms lie within the deeper nuances of the depiction and putting them into a grander historical context.
The hands-down best piece on the matter comes from the brilliant Jen Yamato, which is absolutely worth reading for the background, deeper understanding of the novel (which I've never read), and the number of thoughtful observations she makes on the problems with Scorsese's limited scope of view. Chiefly, is the fact that by concentrating the entire film on Rodrigues' question of faith against the horrors/stories of those suffering around him, as well as the historical violence of Portuguese colonialism, it serves to undermine the story's depth of the complexity. It just makes it all about Garfield. I cannot disagree with Yamato's approach, nor with the conclusions she draws from them. I merely disagree with some of the readings of what is depicted in the scenes themselves. But I'd argue this is precisely what makes for a good critical dialogue. This is not about viewpoint, nor casting baseless aspersions with regard to motive (people have to stop doing that), but literal interpretation, which always comes with the plain acceptance I may be wrong (as I often say "all I have is an argument"). And the key matter of disagreement comes in the manner of depiction with regards to the following idea, wherein Yamato writes: "It’s not the plight of the Japanese that Scorsese is interested in, nor is that what the prideful Rodrigues worries over, as he longs to serve his righteous way to the Lord or die a glorious martyr’s death."
Because I think that is very much the plight the film and Rodrigues is concerned about, 100%. His concern for them is everything, and what he wrestles with is how the specific nature of his predicament makes this concern crash upon the rocks of impossibility within his own Christian doctrine - thus highlighting the inherent catch 22 that comes with it. Yes, it takes him the entire film to work through this, but undoing the dogmatic nature of one's strict devotion is no easy task. Rodrigues spends so much of the film making pleas for a desperate end to such cruelty and throwing it back at the oppressors who create it. But everyone is stuck in a system of what they must do, even him. As an unstoppable force and a unmovable object, his desperation and anguish must go on. And yes, there are so many ways the film could effectively "answer" these concerns or get into the hypocrisy of Rodrigues by engaging in the larger historical context in some way. Yamato goes on to write, "Endō may have written a Western male protagonist and plopped him smack dab in the middle of a tumultuous time in Japan, but he also kept enough distance from his priest to illuminate his flaws against the bigger picture. Those nuances are seeded throughout Endō’s novel, which he himself co-adapted into a 1971 film and later, an opera. The author, both a conflicted Japanese and a conflicted Catholic, painted a portrait of a bygone Japan in flux, where missionaries found themselves in the position of reconciling their own strict doctrine with a culture they did not understand."
I deeply understand the point, but what I think this disagreement secretly gets into is the larger idea of how much films should and should not be contextualizing certain answers to the audience. To go into the beginning, or any point really, and provide the notion of how the Catholic inquisition is just as guilty of these crimes elsewhere, to point to Rodriques' inherent hypocrisy, gives the audience the answer immediately, along with a sense of distance from the character. This is undeniably "right." But by staying in Rodrigues's head, by telling the story from his perspective, you can get to the same ultimate place in a much different way. For Rodrigues does not undo his strict devotion through understanding historical relevancy, nor does he see the atrocities of his own colonialism. It is undone through the driving central question at the heart of the Catholic emphasis on suffering and strict devotion to itself. Meaning, it is undone by the very thing that defines it.
That's the point. And I think it is the most universal and powerful point that can be made on the subject. Because when those who are the most devoutly religious have such blinders on, they ignore their own crimes. They see their world in black and white of the one true way. So they must follow the logic of what they are most passionate about to the ends of their existence - and then learn that simple truth. And thus, along the way Scorsese is not giving us the obvious answers and context up front. He is not safe guarding the idea. In fact, he is presenting the best possible case for Rodrigues' faith and message in the face of tyranny, all en route to the greater realization. Is this an irresponsible way to tell a story?
Believe it or not, I would argue the exact opposite.
I talk about this all the time, but what I'm fascinated by what actually convinces people to change their minds. I look at a culture wrapped in dead-lock. I spend much of my time writing arguments. I often look inward at myself. And what always seems most effective is when people make the best possible argument for the opposition and then still have it crash upon the rocks of a greater truth. People often discuss "what is the most important movie ever made?" and when it comes to actual impact, my answer is always Kieslowski's masterpiece A Short Film about Killing (the extension of "thou shalt not kill" from The Decalogue). The film is about capital punishment within the justice system, and there are so many arguments that can be levied at faults of that system, from the fact that we've killed innocent people, to how we treat the mentally ill, to even the punishment of crimes of passion. But instead of taking any of those tactics, instead of pointing at all the obvious problems with the system, the film depicts capital punishment at its most justified. There's a murder at the hands of a true psychopath. The kind of guy who throws rocks onto passing cars. He murders a cab driver for no reason. He is simply driven to do it. He is arrested for it. He admits what he has done. He is very aware of what he has done. No good will come from him existing. In other words, he is everything the death penalty advocates. But he's also a human being. He is a human being in the simplest, most organic ways that all human beings are. He has his own personal cares, even if warped, and a history behind him. And so his lawyer draws the basic parallel, that to add to any act of murder with more murder is to engage in the same basic act of cruelty. There is no deeper reason for it. It is always undeserved in its severity. But as stirring as his argument is, the lawyer's pleas do not work. The system says it is so. And so this young man is hung in a sequence so simple and obvious in its inhumanity, that even the loss of this unrepentant murderer feels like just that, a loss... and so it shakes us to our core. Thus the film's argument rests not in the obvious injustices, but in how it made the best possible case for a man who deserved to die. But shouldn't have... This is everything for a viewer. When there's no deeper place to go, that's when we finally turn inward and examine ourselves. As such, it is not only one of the most powerful films I've ever seen, it was actually instrumental in getting the death penalty overturned in Poland. The effect was undeniable. This is what convinces us.
I didn't even realize the connection when I chose to reference it, but in looking up the film's effect I discovered it is one of Scorsese's favorite films and part of his polish cinema collection. I don't think this is an accident. To which I will say this, I think Scorsese is interested in undoing Rodrigues's strict devotion to his faith more than anything else in the world. Precisely because he believes that devotion is at the heart of all suffering between all sides (in an earlier argument with the inquisitor he essentially makes the "there is no coin" speech from No Country for Old Men). Binding yourself in a system of compassion where you are not allowed to express such compassion for fear of breaking rules is nothing short of lunacy. But in order to truly undo Rodrigues's point of view, Scorsese must do everything he can to uphold it. The film gives him every reason to be noble in the face of adversity, to see the good his Christianity does, to preserve such faith in the system of evil and cruelty above him. It gives him every reason to believe that he is right. Every reason to ignore the grander reflexive realities of the world around him (just as so many who are devout ignore them). The film has to take him to the furthest possible point of maintaining his faith. For it is there, just like in the horror of murdering even a truly guilty man, that you get at the most single fundamental and undeniable flaw of your ideology. It is there you finally crash upon the rocks of the greater truth: to allow any suffering because of one's own pride or devotion to rules is the deepest of wrongs.
It's just that in order to make that most convincing of arguments, Scorsese will let "himself" be wrong first (and for much of the run-time). But in doing so, I actually think he made one of the most convincing arguments against dogmatic faith in our modern time. Just as I think he makes an argument for the good that can come through devotion, too. And I think it is not just because of this aforementioned tactic of argumentation, but precisely because he explores the subject through a personal lens of someone who is actually fighting that struggle, not merely looking from outside and judging it for its obvious errors.
Make no mistake, I do not come from the same frame of reference as Scorsese. He is religious, but has talked about struggling with his faith throughout most of his life. If you have never seen his masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, do so immediately. And even though I grew up in the same East coast Catholicism, it was a different time and from an early age I leaned atheist. But while I have no patience for dogmatic religion and am far more interested in the truths within cultural relativism, I don't think movies should have to come at it directly from that same place of understanding. Quite frankly, I'm more interested in his own examination of faith that my own. For him, for anyone in the grips of faith, these questions are not easy. I'm not religious and so they seem simple, but it is through Scorsese's journey that I found the film deeply moving. I could see both its thoughtfulness and its humanity, especially as it makes arguments for a quieter faith, much within the notion of smuggling ideas vs. going to war over them. We have to realize that there are many Christians in this country dealing with this very idea. They exist between the bullshit Hallmarkism of many faith-based movies and the eye-rolling secular admonishments of their faith that come from the other side. There is a deeper story that needs to be told here and it's being told in Silence. To ignore it, to chastise it, is to ignore and chastise them. And to this entire goal, I think what is so remarkable about Scorsese is he's so much more interested in priests/the faithful as they are, not as they should be. But this is what Scorsese does. What he has always done. He makes the best possible argument for being a gangster, then we see the honest answer of where it all goes. He makes the best possible argument for being a greedy capitalist, then we see the honest answer of where it all goes. And in making the best possible argument for religious devotion against evil persecution, he then gives us the most honest answer of where it all goes.
He just trusts us to draw the parallels ourselves. Which brings us to the thing I most love about Scorsese movies - I feel like I can explore them. For the proverbial Angel is always in the details, but the Devil is in ignoring them. Take for instance the strange, almost surreal moment in Silence where god actually breaks his titular silence and speaks to Rodrigues. It may seem a strange choice to have this other worldly moment... Except for the fact that the voice of "God" is none other than Ciaran Hinds, his old father and head of his church back in Portugal. It's a detail that makes a brilliant statement, both about Rodrigues's sincere belief in hearing god and yet backing up the notion that it is not a moment of otherworldliness at all (it's just his reference point). It's such a small detail that opens up another world of interpretation and yet you could miss it so easily. But to me it's a perfect representation of Scorsese. He doesn't hand it to you. He doesn't guide you. If you don't see it, you miss it. Which seems so remarkable in a day and age where we want everything spelled out.
The most daring thing about Scorsese is he will let you be wrong.
Martin Scorsese recently wondered if cinema is dead.
We've been having this argument forever, but what I think he was getting at is the notion that a kind of cultural cinema is dying. A kind of cinema that, like his own, isn't often made anymore. And that is films with a complexity of message. We saw films like this all the time in the American Cinema of the '70s. Sure, I see lots of muddled vague independent films these days, but none of them as weirdly on-point as the reverse manifest destiny journey of Two Lane Blacktop. Or have stories as functional but batshit crazy as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Or feature a piece as madcap a feminist anarchy-laden screed as Daises. Yes, there are examples out there you could draw parallels to, but this is about how we engage the larger conversation around them. For we have more nuanced, brilliant commentary this era, but I also worry we want our films' messaging to be clearer than ever.
I worry about this because I think we keep looking at cinema not in terms of what challenges us, but what we assume will challenge other people. Like, if I am being honest I thought Hidden Figures was great, especially as it exposes a side of history little know about... but it does not challenge my assumptions. I'm just left to assume it will teach others "the way" through a historical parallel. They will watch the movie and feel like they are the Kevin Costners knocking the sign down, not the Big Bang Theory guy giving her shit. In even more complicated terms, one of my favorite films of the year is the beautiful, moving story of Moonlight. It absolutely moved me to tears. But again, it doesn't challenge my assumptions. I am left to presume its social value is in changing the way other people will see it. Again, this is not an argument against these films in any way, shape or form. They are vital to the universal fabric of storytelling. The latter in particular is a masterpiece of storytelling. And both films acknowledge that movies are political, deeply and irrevocably so. Most importantly, both have real power in speaking to one's own experiences and making someone out there feel less alone. In other words, we need more of these movies. Not less. But when I think of movies that convinced me and challenged my mind? I still can't help but drift back to the tactics of Spike Lee's seminal Do The Right Thing, whose brilliance lies in how much it gets its white audience to try and agree with and empathize with Sal, all en route to crashing that empathy against the rocks. It's all a bigger part of a more complex truth. Even the beautiful ending statement illuminated me to the war within the black person's soul when it comes to wanting to be both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as both are true human instincts that I can take for granted and an individual. Again, this isn't meant to compare the quality of all of these movies. They are all truly great to their own purposes. This is a question about "what is convincing?" And in that realm, I have problems any time our fundamental starting point in discussing a movie is....
"Is this in line with what I already think?"
Because my favorite films are the ones that really break apart my notion of how to think. So in the end I'm just making a desperate plea for Scorsese's complex brand of cinema to really count. I haven't seen a film of his since college, but I keep having endless thoughts about the work of Ozu. I think about the complexity of female sexuality in Catherine Breillat's Romance. I still think about the incredible razor wire walk of meaning and what is really true in Abbas Kiarostammi's Certified Copy. And, of course, I think about the great Stanley Kubrick who is considered one of the best filmmakers ever, and I think it's no accident he was also the master of "letting you be wrong." His movies feel endless in the ways they can be interpreted. Which is part of why the exploration in Room 237 goes to the ends of reason. For it is in this complex search that you find the most moving answers and meaning. So whenever I sit down with Kubrick I can't help but think "let's go exploring."
To that, I've spent the last month thinking about how hard I've been on Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. A film that might be, probably, almost, surely, maybe saying some very complicated things about what makes for genius. I felt it said X and have been arguing pretty fervently about how I think it says that X for some time. But recently I noticed a funny thing. I'm still discussing what the film is saying about genius with people, and most of us have a different take. I even acknowledged at the time it was the "best movie conversation of the year" and what I didn't realize was how truly important that was. For its power came not in me checking off some box of agreement, but in the fact that I'm still debating with people. Which means it has probably contributed more to the collective understanding than my instinct would have assumed... This is art. This is everything. And as Scorsese worries about the future of this kind of cinema, I'm desperately looking for the people who will keep it going. It's part of the reason I won't shut up about Julia Decournau or the Daniels' willingness to engage creepiness while operating in absurdity.
But please know I understand the hesitation, too.
We live in dangerous times. An age where the threat of propaganda feels all too real. We know the damage of Leni Riefenstahl. And thus it is so easy to feel terrified that someone could watch a film and think the wrong thing. But I just have to stick to the larger issue, because I tend to espouse morality in our humanity, not be a moralist of art itself. I mean, fuck, I'm the guy who defends Matthew Vaughn. But even writing a few tweets online about Silence I got a tweet from our own BMD reader @drmathochist who said, "you have more confidence in most audiences than I do. Most in my screening seemed to miss huge parts of the point." Believe me, I get the concern. And I don't think I have any more faith than anyone else. So it puts us square into the question of what having faith in audiences even means. Should we trust complexity? Should we make it clear? What gets perverted anyway? This debate is not only old as hell, it will come seemingly about everything. Like a group of hatemongers who have recently co-opted the Carpenter film They Live. Carpenter even felt compelled to tweet about it, saying, "THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie." The film couldn't be more clear about this, but how can you stop such gross misappropriation? Heck, Citizen Kane could not be clearer to its point but watch some rich asshole stumble through his explanation of it, and you see him miss the point entirely. He almost gets to thinking "yeah, but who gives a fuck about a sled?" So we are left to ask, what is in our control? How much do we trust? What is our responsibility to clarity?
Again, the problem is the stakes always feel huge. Obama had faith in America and it got the rich asshole elected. But it was also Obama's faith in America that got him elected in the first place. Trust in audience is the eternal yin-yang concern of the communicator. But this is the world as it has always been. And it is precarious because of course it is. We even ask now "Did Russia hack us?" Yes. But that's not the answer that matters. It's the how and why that matters to the deeper result. For the real answers always lie in complexity. And if that's true, then we have to go to a scary place and I must ask a question...
Have you ever talked to high school student recently? I feel like most people don't spend that much time around any but their own, if that. And yes, oh god teens are such silly nincumpoops in so many ways. But all of them, at every level, are much smarter than you think. Especially the so-called "low-level" ones who tend to have more awareness of the given of societal complexity than all the grade-grubbing honors kids put together. If you sit there and actually explain to them something that is complex, but do so clearly... guess what? They actually get it. The challenge is in getting them listen in the first place. Even more so to ask questions when they do not understand. But the reason it is a challenge is because most have been talked down to their entire lives. They can absolutely feel it when you think they won't understand it. And so we make the explanation simple so they "will get it." Which just means that all the while, we end up ignoring the most important truth of all... that when you give someone a simple black and white answer they will therefore think simply and in black and white.
So there is nothing more damaging than ignoring complexity.
As hard as it may seem, consider this the desperate plea for that very thing. If there's anything we need in this world, it's more of complexity, not less. Especially in cinema, which is already complex enough to parse through. But it's always been complex. And as much as we think we're figuring it out now, we've been trying to figure it out for over the last century. Such is the pursuit. And while I feel I understand more aspects of it than I ever have, I feel I know less the limits of what cinema "is" than ever. Same goes for life itself. So all I really know when I watch the messaging of Scorsese and any number of brilliant filmmakers is that... this is complex cinema.
And I love it so.
Let's go exploring.