Scorsese Vs. Scorsese

Richard Schickel’s new Vanity Fair piece on the production of Raging Bull coincides with the release of Scorsese’s latest, Shutter Island, but the new film doesn’t rate a single mention. There’s nothing extraordinary in this; the piece is simply mum about its timeliness, but an informal comparison between the two pictures nevertheless becomes inevitable for the reader (sorry Ben, I know you think that’s not fair). Operatic, uniquely bold in structure and theme and born out of a period of tremendous turbulence for its still-30-something director, Raging Bull appears to be everything that Shutter Island is not, and it’s difficult not to read Schickel’s piece as an unintended elegy for the Scorsese that once was.

The story behind Raging Bull is by now fairly well known, especially to readers of Peter Biskind’s popular limning of the movie brats, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, but Schickel’s is a good synthesis just the same. What he (and every one else for that matter) seems to think marked the film more than anything else was Scorsese’s battle with personal demons that preceded his taking the film on. Coming off of what many considered his most flawed work, New York, New York, Scorsese was heavily abusing cocaine at the time and eventually suffered a series of collapses that left him hospitalized. Close friend Robert DeNiro had unsuccessfully tried to sell the director on the story of boxer Jake LaMotta for some time, but it wasn’t until the director bottomed out that the rise and fall of the self-destructive boxer began to make sense to him. So the story goes, this messy chapter in his life enabled Scorsese to identify with LaMotta, and thus create such a compelling portrait.

Shutter Island, of course, is a very different kind of picture. It’s no insult to say that it’s not the equal of Raging Bull, the latter’s reputation being what it is, but many critics and auds alike were nevertheless significantly disappointed this past weekend by Scorsese’s latest offering. Inventorying some of Scorsese’s glory days at the very moment of this disappointment invariably lends Schickel’s piece an air of the wistful “remember whens?” Remember when Scorsese was great? Kind of crazy? Would threaten to take his name off a picture over something as insignificant as a throwaway line of dialogue? Reading about those heady days in the late 70’s, it’s hard to resist the juicy reminiscences and the inevitable then-and-now comparisons they conjur, but as a counterbalance I’d like to propose one of my own. Remember when, just four years ago, The Departed was a masterpiece of kinetic storytelling? If the exact same piece had run then, it would have suggested proof of Scorsese’s sustained mastery rather than a career in artistic decline. Context, as always, is key.

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