There was some disappointment at this year’s Venice Film Festival when it emerged that Martin Scorsese’s new work wouldn’t be ready in time. Yet the work in question – 15-minute short made to promote a casino resort in Macau – to me seems sadly symptomatic of a directorial career that’s increasingly looking in need of fresh inspiration. Where did it all go wrong?
The answer is 1990, the year he gave us his undisputed masterpiece GoodFellas. An unforgettable portrait of one mobster’s journey from crook to schnook, it marked not just a perfect synthesis of content and technique but also the crowning glory of a 25-year purple period that saw him churn out one American classic after another. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull: these were the films of a hungry, angry auteur, an ambitious talent exorcising unquiet demons. Even the movies that didn’t sear the screen – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for example, or 1985’s After Hours – possessed a restless, questing energy that makes them ripe for reappraisal, for all their flaws, longueurs and tonal inconsistencies.
Compare Scorsese’s first quarter-century as a filmmaker to his second and the drop-off in quality and audacity is inescapable. Cape Fear was the first warning sign, a trashily commercial remake of lurid misjudgements. Then came The Age Of Innocence, a yawningly dull stab at arthouse respectability that made Merchant Ivory look animated in contrast. Casino, a cynical attempt to relive former gangster glories, was full of flab. And then the rot really set in: Kundun, Bringing Out The Dead and the risible Gangs Of New York showed a helmer in total creative freefall.
Where the Marty of yesteryear took pains to innovate, the Scorsese of today merely imitates. What is Hugo if not a facsimile of Spielbergian whimsy, or The Wolf Of Wall Street besides an appropriation of Oliver Stone’s mojo? Shutter Island is Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor in everything but name; The Aviator a winsome love letter to a Hollywood long gone. And then there are the films that have next to no personality at all, like Shine A Light: a Rolling Stones concert that any hack-for-hire could’ve knocked out in a lunch hour.
Which brings me to The Departed, the film that won Scorsese his Oscar… 16 years too late. A textbook example of the Academy’s habit of honouring their own for the wrong darn movie, this bloated rehash of a far superior original is everything that is wrong with Scorsese. Would the Marty of old have tolerated Jack Nicholson’s grandstanding, or DiCaprio’s Bah-staan accent? When Scorsese jokingly asked on Oscar night that they “check the envelope”, he was unwittingly speaking for everybody who could not believe it was this – a virtual parody – he was finally being honoured for. Only a mook could argue his best days aren’t behind him. Or is it just me?