Of ‘The Departed’ and the delayed Oscar…

Posted on March 11, 2007


Picture courtesy: blogdecine.com


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Why is Martin Scorsese’s at-last Oscar for ‘The Departed’ being viewed as a consolation prize?

MAR 11, 2007 – FIVE MONTHS AFTER ITS RELEASE IN THE UNITED STATES, three months after its release around the rest of the country, and a fortnight after its release on DVD, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed finally crawled into Chennai theatres last week. A local newspaper gave us this reason, that the powers behind this decision – in their infinite wisdom – decided to wait until after the Oscars to release the movie, apparently secure in their belief that the mere fact that this is the work of one of our greatest living directors wouldn’t be reason enough to run to the multiplexes, but now that it’s bagged all those awards, there may be something to it after all. But why blame them? Their thinking is right on the lines of the borderline-embarrassed tack many people have taken with regard to this film, the general consensus being something like, “We’re happy he finally won… but for this?â€? It makes you imagine a father at his son’s Sports Day celebrations, watching his boy lose out in the 100 metres and the high jump and the pole vault and finally winning the gold in the sack race. It’s a reason for celebration, but…

The Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote, “But The Departed didn’t only win because… it faced a field that was not overwhelmingly strong. [It] was the film that benefited most by the best picture shutout of Dreamgirls. For that exclusion left The Departed as the only film out of five that was a true big studio picture, cast with major stars, made with an eye toward success yet with enough artistic cachet, courtesy of the long-neglected Martin Scorsese, to pass muster with the voters.â€? All fine theories, but what about the fact that it’s just, um, a damn good movie? What about the fact that, among Scorsese’s recent output – Bringing out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator – this is the film that feels the most intricately constructed and yet the least fussed over? What about the fact that it talks to a general audience even as it services a particular vision? In that regard, The Departed is the alpha-male successor to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, another popular-yet-personal work that rarely gets mentioned in discussions about the director. That had all the potential to become just another you-go-girl chick flick, but Scorsese shaped it into a ragged-edge emancipation drama where the woman lands her dream man, and yet the last shot shows her with her kid, as if to say that that’s the only relationship she’ll hang on to forever.

I enjoyed The Departed. The first time I saw it, I had great fun with scenes like the one where the gangster-boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) takes his hoods to a meeting with some “Chinamenâ€? who are selling microprocessors, and we’re asked to revel in the familiar thriller elements. (Ooh, will undercover cop Billy Costigan – the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio – get caught for using his cell phone to rat on his mob mates? That sort of thing.) But subsequent viewings reveal how connected in spirit – and in flesh and blood – The Departed is to Scorsese’s earlier work. This isn’t some quirky one-off in a vacuum; it’s very much part of the oeuvre. There’s the sickening violence (the exploding cars, the blood-spurting bodies), the religious anchors (Costello’s girlfriend coaches a church choir even as he mocks his neighbourhood priests as pederasts), the twinning, joined-at-the-hip male figures (in the tradition of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, De Niro and Joe Pesci in Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, De Niro and Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, even Tom Cruise and Paul Newman in The Color of Money)… And the on-screen balance between Costigan and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is so skillfully attained – one moves to a new house, the other moves into prison; one has an encounter with a woman while on a date, the other has an encounter with a woman as he glumly watches her, a nurse, bandage his hand – that only when you stand back and look at the film with screenwriting eyes do you see the one-for-you-one-for-me rationing in the mirror-image structure, perhaps best reflected in the poster art that splits the title and shows us that it begins with “DEâ€? and ends with “EDâ€?.

Then there’s the way the music – Scorsese’s familiar playlist of pop/rock classics – has been used, right from the very beginning when the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter grabs you by the collar and leads you to the scene where Costello takes the young Sullivan under his wing. (The dialogue here is redundant, what with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards having already described the kid’s situation: “If I don’t get some shelter / Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.â€?) A little after, the Allman Brothers’ One Way Out plays as Costigan – looking for an in (One Way In?) into Costello’s gang – takes an attention-getting swing at someone who mocks him in a bar. But the real beauty of a defining number is the one Costigan gets much later. He’s seeing a therapist and spilling about how his “heart rate is jackedâ€? thanks to the killers he works with. He’s popping narcotic pills a bunch at a time. He’s having panic attacks, causing a showdown with his shrink when she refuses to prescribe Valium for him. After all this, when he falls into the arms of the woman who anesthetises his agony, the track we get is a live version of Comfortably Numb. We’ve heard these words a thousand times – “There is no pain, you are receding / A distant ship’s smoke on the horizonâ€? – and yet it’s as if we’re listening to them for the first time.

This is a masterly marriage of sound and image, and maybe The Departed would have gotten itself a little more respect had Scorsese himself not gone around advertising it as some sort of homage to the early Warner Bros. gangster flicks. Because that oh-so-cleanly slots this film into a genre, and everyone knows genre outings get no respect – great entertainment being antithetical to great art, and all that. But even that considered, I’m happy that Scorsese won his Oscar for The Departed, because it’s with this film that he’s finally gotten anywhere close to a true genre piece. He went after the musical in New York New York, the biopic in The Aviator, the thriller in Cape Fear – but in each of these, you got a whiff of a sense of shame, as if Scorsese was sheepishly admitting that the movies were beneath him. That’s probably why there was so much psychological bloat in them – Nick Nolte’s marriage falling apart in Cape Fear versus no such thing in the older, leaner, Gregory Peck version – almost as if to camouflage the basic (and base) material. But The Departed, for all its layers and for all its allusions to Joyce and Hawthorne, feels remarkably light and streamlined. It feels like the work of someone who wanted to make just a good film, and not an Oscar-baiting great one. It knows what it is, it commits itself fully to that end, it works wonderfully on those terms – and faithfulness to purpose is as good a reason for a Best Director Oscar as any. “Could you double-check the envelope?â€? Scorsese joked when he collected his statuette. Maybe it’s time to double-check his film.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: English