Thursday, March 20, 2008

Minor Scorsese? We Think Not

Two fantastic films---definitely my favorites by Martin Scorsese---are ones which the press continually and callously refer to as "flops", solely based on box-office receipts. Yet, taken on their own terms, each of these films reveals itself to be a meticulous masterpiece with profound emotional impact.

The Age of Innocence (1993), based on the Edith Wharton novel, is much more than the Merchant-Ivory wannabe its detractors would have one believe. Beautifully filmed, the flowers and gowns, ballrooms and dinner tables gleam with a sensual delight that belies the repressed individuals who people this film and its social milieu. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a subtle, mannered, yet ultimately heartbreaking performance. Winona Ryder, still in the bloom of youth and finding her footing as an actress, is used to her best advantage. And Michelle Pfeiffer reminds the world that she is not only a great beauty, but an actress, and a wonderful one at that. The most amazing aspect of this movie is that, for its entire length, not a single person says what they actually mean. It's that which is unsaid that speaks volumes, and in the end it's devastating.

Kundun (1997), obviously made more for personal reasons than to please studio honchos, is just as obviously a labor of love. Telling the tale of Tenzin Gyatso, known to the world as the 14th Dalai Lama, this film, more than most by Scorsese, relies heavily upon imagery to get its point across. The cast, largely of actual Tibetan refugees, most of whom are non-actors, provides an aura of authenticity to the entire project. Warm and majestic cinematography blends seamlessly with the Philip Glass score, to the extent that it's hard to imagine one without the other. (This was also a labor of love for Glass, and the result is some of his finest work.) The final fifteen minutes of the film are virtually wordless; pure sound and vision propel the viewer to its very moving conclusion. And that is what cinema is all about.

28 comments:

Hayden said...

The Age of Innocence is sheer brilliance. It might be my favorite Scorsese.

Anonymous said...

I think these films will stand the test of time a lot better than some of his others.

ryansumera said...

the opening credits in the age of innocence is breathtaking.

Rural Juror said...

Yah . . . I actually think The Age of Innocence is kind of bad.

Winona Ryder didn't convince me at all.

thombeau said...

That's OK, honey.

Aaron said...

These are my two favorite Scorsese pictures.

...and now I'll invalidate my opinion by saying I really like Gangs of New York, too.

Alison Flynn said...

I love these two films, especially The Age of Innocence. It's an absolutely gorgeous film. Not only is it one of my favorite Scorsese films, it's also one of my favorite Daniel Day-Lewis performances.

jk said...

the scene in Age of Innocence, with Michelle on the dock looking out at the water while Day Lewis watches her from afar is my favorite in the whole film, such gorgeous cinematography. It still pains me that Michael Ballhaus was not even nominated by AMPAS, best cinematography of that year, hands down!

Kamikaze Camel said...

I looove Age of Innocence, but I haven't seen Kundun. Age is definitely in my top three Scorsese flicks. It's a shame that Day-lewis also had In the Name of the Father that year, or else he'd have another nomination to his name, surely.

thombeau said...

Of course, he was phenomenal in In the Name of the Father! The man just goes there!

Anonymous said...

Come on. Very good movies, very good indeed, but far from Raging Bull league. F A R. Scorsese has kind of, at least, 5 better movies than these two: RB, TD, Last Temptation, Goodfellas and King of Comedy. And I'm leaving out After Hours, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Mean Streets.

- cal roth

thombeau said...

Cal, the movies you mentioned are great and no one is arguing with that! We're just giving proper due to some under-appreciated gems. Everyone has their favorites, it's not a matter of one being "better" than another. That's a judgement call, anyway. "Kundun" and "Raging Bull" are cinematic apples and oranges, there's little point in comparing them. They key is to enjoy something for what it is, not disparage it for what it's not. But you know that!

mrripley said...

a lost classic imo,better than the departed,gangs of newyork,the aviator & cape fear.

Anonymous said...

THE AGE OF THE INNOCENCE is not a Merchant-Ivory wannabe, for the simple reason it's way, way better than a Merchant-Ivory film.
If ever, it reminds Wyler's or Powell's films. It's an exquisite picture, with great direction and superb acting.
By the way: how can happen that Michelle Pfeiffer could receive an Oscar nomination for her perf in average film such as Love Fields and then being overlooked for one of her finest in a much better picture? Really hard to explain...

Mirko S.

NATHANIEL R said...

mirko the explanation for Pfeiffer's absence can be found in the overall response to the film. Notice it's lack of the big ticket oscar nominations ---save for Winona who really was peaking as a celebrity at the time and also inexplicably netted all the praise at the time --the reviews were beyond obsessed with her ... with polite praise for Pfeiffer and DDL and polite praise won't win you Oscar nominations unless your name is Winslet, Blanchett, or Streep)

But I disagree that it's superior to the best of Merchant/Ivory. They always get such a bad rap but they are masters of this particular form. I mean: Howard's End and A Room With a View? Come on. Those are masterpieces.

jk I don't get AMPAS's relationship with Ballhaus. I mean he didn't win for Fabulous Baker Boys (unforgiveable) and he got nominated for Broadcast News and Gangs of New York but NOT dracula, the departed, goodfellas or any of the Fassbinder collaborations.

SusanP said...

I definitely need to take another look at The Age of Innocence, but I remember being very affected by it.

As for Kundun, I've never seen it--time to change that (and looking at the current choices in the theaters, this does seem to be the best time of year to work through my Netflix queue).

Michael said...

KUNDUN is one of my favourite film, and by some distance my favourite Scorsese film. (AGE OF INNOCENCE would also be in the top 3-4.) It felt like he was doing more interesting films in the 90s - even the episodic BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is more honest than his last three, strong though AVIATOR and DEPARTED are in style.

-Opinionated Australian

mrripley said...

so nat was pfeiffer on your 93 actress lsit what does it look like i know hunter & bassett will be other.

Michael said...

Btw, it's somewhat inaccurate to label the final fifteen minutes of KUNDUN 'wordless'. There's quite a bit of voice-over in it, not to mention a lot of short bursts of dialogue.

- Opinionated Australian

gabrieloak said...

Has anyone seen the gorgeous companion book that came out when The Age of Innocence was released? Scorsese and Cocks discuss the making of the film and there are stills not only from the movie but from all the period films that Scorsese watched before making the film, including The Leopard, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Two English Girls & Jules and Jim, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Innocents, etc. This film was such a labor of love for Scorsese and it was shameless that it was so ill treated by the critics.

As far as Kundun goes, I adore this film in part because of my interest in Buddhism most of life. It is visual poetry throughout. I have no idea why the film isn't as more respected.

The other flop movie I really like by Scorsese is New York, New York.
I wish Scorsese had been able to make that musical biopic of Gershwin.

thombeau said...

Gabriel---New York, New York! How could I have forgotten? But that's another story completely!

thombeau said...

Btw, it's somewhat inaccurate to say I labeled the final fifteen minutes of KUNDUN 'wordless', as I actually wrote "virtually wordless". There are some voice-over quotes of the dharma, and a few lines of exchanged dialogue---never more than a sentence or two. But the compelling visuals and the very moving music are where the cinematic power lies.

gabrieloak said...

I have to add to Nathaniel's brave defense of Merchant-Ivory. They did make a few stodgy costume dramas, but others are quite moving. Besides A Room with a View and Howard's End, I find The Remains of the Day and Maurice two very moving films. I've been taking another look at Heat and Dust recently and that is certainly underrated. How did they manage to get such wonderful actors in their tightly-budgeted productions? Julie Christie and Greta Scacchi in the same film--inspired casting. I found parts of The White Countess also powerful. The Golden Bowl, on the other hand, was hard to sit through, despite the interesting cast.

Matthew Lucas said...

I love love LOVE "Kundun." Glad to see it get some love. You're right, the last 15 minutes are some of the most gorgeous and transcendent ever committed to celluloid.

Michael said...

Correct you are sir, 'virtually' somehow bypassed my ocular observation ports. ;)

Probably the only things that don't work well in KUNDUN, which have only occurred to me with time:
(i) Mao comes off a bit awry. Also I once watched the film with a Chinese-speaking audience, and in that company it suddenly occurred to me how truly bizarre it must seem to anyone from Tibet or the PRC to see Mao talking in English and with such self-conscious evil in his manner.
(ii) 'They have taken away our silence.' Ironically, Phillip Glass of all people took away their silence long before the Chinese came, and this is just about the first serious scene where his music DOESN'T appear. I love Glass's music, but the composer himself has said in interview that Scorsese and Schoonmaker put in more than he was comfortable with. We needed a bit more of the authentic sound of Tibet.

thombeau said...

Good call, Michael!

To see the film with a Chinese audience must have been surreal indeed!

A footnote: the first time I saw the Dalai Lama speak in Chicago (about ten years ago, I think), Philip Glass came onstage before him and played some solo piano pieces. As a Glass fan, it was a moment I'll never forget.

Michael said...

I think the piece you would have heard at the Chicago event was 'Wichita Sutra Vortex' or 'Mad Rush'. Both are beautiful.

- The Opinionated Australian

The Liz said...

Kundun is a downright masterpiece. It's lush and gorgeously shot. The end always makes me cry. The Dalai Lama's pain and the pain of his people is palpable. I saw this in high school and again a few months ago. It's really an amazing film.