In early November this year, Martin Scorsese lambasted the Marvel Cinematic Universe in an interview about his career leading up to his latest film, The Irishman. “I don’t see them,” he said, of the superhero movies that have dominated the box office in the past decade. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
After the 77 year-old Scorsese elaborated on that comment in a New York Times opinion piece, a generational split opened up, with his contemporaries, 80 year-old Francis Ford Coppola and 83 year-old Ken Loach joining the fray on his side. Coppola turned up the dial on the criticism, saying, “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again, which is the Marvel movies. A thing that has no risk to it… Real cinema brings something, a wonderful gift to society. It doesn’t just take money and make people rich. That’s despicable. So Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema, he didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just said it is.”
Loach, prodded in an interview to comment on superhero films, responded, “I just find them boring. They’re made as commodities like hamburgers, and it’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination”.
A disappointing effort
I can understand where the old-timers are coming from. After the release of Avengers: Endgame, I wrote, “It’s time I got over the fear of missing out and concentrated on subjects that satisfy me most deeply: complex human dramas... No more superheroes or superheroines, witches or wizards, zombies or mutants, robots or monsters, space or time travellers, dinosaurs or avatars, no more sequels or franchises.”
Yet, The Irishman, which is now streaming on Netflix, and which should have been the kind of complex human drama I have resolved to concentrate on, left me as disappointed as the conclusion of Marvel’s Infinity Saga. It has a great things in it that make it worth watching, most of all scenes in which the veterans Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel prove they are still at the top of their game. It many ways it is a fitting end to Scorsese’s dramas of crime, honour, friendship, betrayal and guilt which began with 1973’s Mean Streets featuring Keitel and De Niro.
There are, however, three reasons why I will not place The Irishman high in Scorsese’s oeuvre. For one, the entire movie is a historical lie. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which is obviously a mix of fact and outrageous fiction, Scorsese’s film leads us to believe (SPOILERS AHEAD) that a small-time hoodlum from Philadelphia named Frank Sheeran played a crucial part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, murdered the mob boss Joey Gallo without being hauled up as a suspect, and killed his own best friend, the former Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose disappearance in 1975 has never been resolved. In the words of the trailer, “His story changed history”. This article in Slate provides a good summary of how ludicrous that idea is that Frank Sheeran made any impact on history.
Directors have a right to parlay conspiracy theories, of course, but I can’t help thinking less of a film if it delves into a era that, by its own acknowledgment, is largely forgotten, only to create a myth instead of deepening our understanding of the time. In the age of fake news, I could do with a little less fake history.
Low energy production
Secondly, while the film displays many of the markers of Scorsese’s inimitable style, such as long Steadicam shots moving through corridors and into larger, crowded spaces, these lack the imaginative energy of famous moments from Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, creating a sense that one is watching a slightly exhausted retread. It doesn’t help that the milieu is so familiar, the golden age of the Mafia from the 1940s to the 1970s having been played and played again in gangster films beginning with Coppola’s The Godfather.
The flavour of The Irishman, heavy on the regret, is something of a departure for the film-maker, and the final sequences are moving, but that’s not enough to raise it to the status it has been given by reviewers as one of the year’s very best films.
The third, and most important reason, for my questioning of the quality of The Irishman is its pervasive use of de-aging digital effects. The technology has been employed for a little over a decade, but has a very long way to go before it can create believable human visages. It is relatively easy to make a youngish man convincing in an older form. The 40 year-old De Niro was marvellous playing a slightly stooped sixtysomething David “Noodles” Aaronson in Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America. To make the 76 year-old De Niro a truck driver in his 30s and the 79 year-old Pacino a union boss in his 40s is something else altogether.
To begin with, their bodies are too old to move with the agility of men in their prime, even for a few seconds. It is a sad moment when Pesci introduces De Niro to Pacino as, “That kid I was taking to you about”. The characters are married, and the actors who play their wives are more or less the age of their characters, and need no digital transformation. The contrast between natural and technologically altered age is manifest when both appear in the same frame. Even otherwise, De Niro’s eyes are made too blue, and his changed visage does not retain the muscular flexibility essential to conveying subtle shifts in mood.
All this could have been avoided by simply casting younger actors. Great as the cast of The Irishman is, it isn’t as if Hollywood is so starved of talent that De Niro de-aged to look 40 is better than any 40 year old. Not only was casting such old actors a bad artistic choice, it was also financially disastrous. The de-aging ate up about half the movie’s budget, and as the cost of visual effects kept mounting, the budget burst past its estimates and grew to an incredible $160 million, which is crazy for what is a rather small film in terms of visual scope. It could never have recouped that kind of money, so it was lucky that Netflix opened up its fat wallet.
It was being forced to go to Netflix instead of getting the big-screen play he so values that led Scorsese to grumble about the domination of superhero films. However, if Hollywood’s franchise addiction is lamentable, so is the hubris of self-indulgent auteurs.
My favourite Hollywood film of the year remains Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It is more respectful of history, evokes a past time far more effectively than do the smoky interiors of The Irishman, and sticks to Tarantino’s ideal of pure cinema, which involves using digital effects only as a last resort. For some reason Scorsese has been spared the withering hail of criticism that greeted Tarantino, though his film has an equally non-diverse cast, gives its few female characters little dialogue (Sharon Tate aside, the women in Once Upon a Time… say quite a bit), and can be accused, justifiably or otherwise, of nostalgia for an era when the dominance of white men was unquestioned.
For my money, in the battle between Scorsese and Marvel, Tarantino wins.