Sunday, 14 March 2010

shutter island (d. scorsese, w. kalogridis)

There must be a million of these type of scripts drifting around Hollywood, waiting to see if it comes up lucky. Scripts which look like they're clever, but turn out not to be as smart as they think they are. Scripts that have ladles of meaning and reference - in this case Dachau; Hitchcock; the Cold War and its debt to the Nazis; psychiatric methodology and more - but have no real coherence; scripts that, the more they protest the existence of their soul, the more you suspect they lack one at all. Welcome to Hollywood: sound and fury signifying nothing.

Sad, therefore, that a director who is still as skilful as Scorsese should find himself lumbered with such a script, based as it is on a book by a highly successful commercial writer. Is this the equivalent of Gershwin writing jingles for toothpaste ads? A great skill applied seemingly exclusively towards a notion of commercial gain?

Presumably the director set out with the notion that he could do something interesting with the material. The film opens with heightened B-Movie colours and music, and a beaten-up looking DeCaprio looking suitably askance. The set-up is not unpromising, and for a while it works. There's the lone star up against the world, there's the wartime reveal, the slow build-up of character. Scorsese goes in for some operatic effects, suggesting he's having fun, even if once again, the notion of Hollywood using the Holocaust to beef up its narratives veers on the distasteful. (Carefully composed piles of bodies; artful violence...) The nods towards Hitchcock seem to come thick and fast - Vertigo and North by Northwest and maybe more. Then, as the second act begins, the script begins to explain itself. Characters start to talk all the time. About what's going on 'on the island'. About the ethics of 'the island'. The more they talk the less we're interested. Finally they've talked themselves out of it, and the film indulges in its de rigeur twist, and we can all file out of the cinema going, 'it went on a bit, didn't it'.

Actually, I left wondering what it would have felt like to walk out of Mean Streets or Raging Bull or even King of Comedy on first release. Few filmmakers have ingrained themselves so comprehensively within our cinematic language and vision. Plenty have analysed Scorsese's gradual fall from grace, so I won't try too hard. In a way it seems as though, having played his part in shattering the idols, and then becoming an idol, Scorsese is now attempting to hark back and pay tribute to the cinema his films out-paced. Hence the fifties, the B-Movie plots, the operatic anti-naturalism. It doesn't seem to do him many favours; but he's lost his stories, and he doesn't know where to turn, so he looks over his shoulder hoping they're lying in the road (or the DVD collection) behind him. When what he really needs is a proper script. Which needs a proper reason for being written.

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