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December 29, 2004

The Aviator

Has Martin Scorsese fallen off? It's a valid question. Few would argue that his late era films like Casino, Bringing Out The Dead and Kundun are as good as undisputed classics like Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. Pretty much everyone else from his generation is now a joke, from Brian De Palma (compare Carrie to Snake Eyes) to Steven Spielberg (compare Jaws to The Terminal) to Francis Ford Coppola (compare The Godfather to Jack). But Marty has always been different than those guys, and by "different" I mean "better." When De Palma was making Raising Cain, Scorsese was making The Age Of Innocence. When Spielberg was making Always, Scorsese was making The Last Temptation Of Christ. When Coppola was making Captain EO, Scorsese was making After Hours.

Martin Scorsese is the greatest American filmmaker of all time. He's always good, but when he's at his very best his films are so staggeringly perfect on every level that it feels disrespectful to write anything less than a book about them. GoodFellas, for example, is among the best movies ever made, and everyone from your average weekend moviegoer to a film professor at NYU knows it. That is as it should be, since movies are made for regular people, not professionals who have written shot-for-shot dissertations on Leni Riefenstahl's filmography. But analyzing the film with a cineaste's eye amplifies its genius. In the legendary Copacabana sequence, Scorsese uses an uncut Steadicam shot and the Ronettes' immortal pop gem "Then He Kissed Me" to reflect the power, allure and romanticism of the gangster lifestyle from two different perspectives (and it's only two minutes long!). In the film's final act, he shows us its flipside by employing revolutionary editing techniques to approximate crippling cocaine-induced paranoia. Each scene is given the attention and care of a short film, which then becomes an important piece of a transcendent whole. Every detail – from the color of the walls to the brand of cigarettes that an extra in the background smokes to the width of the pinstripes on a suit – is accounted for. This is a far cry from most movies, which include one or two emotional high points and treat every other scene like a necessary evil. Scorsese loves and respects the art of film, and that dedication and passion seeps into every frame he shoots.

Maybe that's why he was attracted to the story of Howard Hughes, the pilot, inventor, movie director, political lightning rod and boy genius at the center of his newest film, The Aviator. Hughes wore many different hats throughout his life, but he felt compelled to go for broke with whatever he was doing at the time. If he designed a plane, it had to be the biggest, fastest plane ever constructed. If he made a movie, it had to tear the ratings board apart and end censorship. But Hughes wasn't motivated by brazen excess like today's privileged youth (his background wasn't much different than Paris Hilton's). He had an obsession with progression, and his consummate need to push forward was his gift and his curse.

The Aviator has been interpreted as both a leftist critique of capitalism and a right-wing update of The Fountainhead, but its real message is that there's a high price to pay for innovation. Few people can claim to have radically changed movies, commercial aviation, military weaponry and free trade before turning 40. But when Hughes wasn't being victimized by his many enemies he was a victim of his own troubled mind, which was afflicted with a perfect storm of mental illnesses including severe OCD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This isn't exactly a new theme (A Beautiful Mind was about the same thing, except it sucked), but it has never been explored with the rawness and complexity that Scorsese brings to the table. It was the most expensive film of his career, and editing took almost a year to complete. He painstakingly re-created several obsolete color processes to make the film look the way a color film from the early 1940's would look. But this technical wizardry never gets in the way of telling us the story of a man who commanded hundreds of millions of dollars, but was trapped in bathrooms because he couldn't bring himself to touch doorknobs. Like Hughes himself, The Aviator walks the tightrope between epic and intimate, genius and madness. It's the kind of exhilarating, personal masterpiece that seems to flow effortlessly from Scorsese.

Marty's not a young punk from Queens anymore. He's a 62-year-old man. His films aren't as instantly accessible as they used to be, but in many ways they're better. They're more complicated and enigmatic, and take more chances, much like the work of his late friend and mentor Michael Powell. So has he fallen off? Of course not. How can you fall off when you've made the best movie of the year?


  © copyright scott howard