Sunday, October 22, 2006

New Film: The Departed & a Flags of Our Fathers debate with Matt Singer

Martin Scorsese's The Departed seems to have everyone on its side (save for a few important detractors listed below), scoring a box office victory in week one, registering a considerable 93% "fresh" rating among America's critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and placing 48th in IMDb's on-going survey of its reader's favorite all-time films. It is, as the story is seeming to be written, "His most purely enjoyable film in years". So why then did I find The Departed to be a deeply troubling, magnificently flawed foray into pornographic violence? Well, if we keep reading David Ansen's review, that's because "it's not for the faint of heart."

Before we get to the charge that Scorsese's film is "pornographic," which I am strongly convinced it is, let us first consider the picture's visual style. Note the use of visual, and you may already have guessed what I'm up to: The Departed is one of the vaunted director's laziest visual works of art, which is to use that latter term more than generously. There basically is no visual in The Departed, as Scorsese and his cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus) have foregrounded most of their subjects, often keeping one figure out-of-focus in the extreme foreground, while another character interacts with them in the recesses of that same close-in space. Moreover, as film scholar David Bordwell points out on his blog, the average shot length for the over 3200 shots in The Departed is approximately 2.7 seconds a piece -- compared to 7.7 seconds in such superior Scorsese pictures as Mean Streets (1973) and The King of Comedy (1983) -- making it difficult for the viewer to focus upon what little there is in the film's mise-en-scene.

All of this is to say that The Departed could just as well be heard only as it can be seen (as always, Scorsese's film seems to score with respect to its soundtrack). In saying this, one could easily object that scant visualization is by no means a signifier of bad filmmaking, to which I would agree. Then again, as opposed to the paradigmatic cinema of the austere, Robert Bresson's, where the spare visuals call attention to that which exists beneath the surface, namely to the spiritual dimension of life, in Scorsese's film, there is nothing beyond his flat visual. Indeed, what is perhaps most troubling about The Departed is this absence of a moral core, its failure to critique the misanthropy which the film depicts (as critic Armond White argues rather cogently) even as it revels in the carnage on screen. With The Departed, Scorsese seems to have crossed over into postmodernism, while in the process revealing a sensibility and personality that is nothing if not cruel.

Of course, I would be remiss were I not to mention the film's redeeming facet (in the parlance of Jonathan Rosenbaum) which in the case of The Departed I would say is its fine male lead performances by both Leonardo DiCaprio -- who my girlfriend really thinks I look like, which makes me feel good -- and especially Matt Damon. Then again, the film's original, far superior incarnation, Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002), equals if not surpasses Scorsese's on this front as well in its awe-inspiring teaming of Andy Lau and Tony Leung. And at least the Hong Kong version does not have to contend with Jack Nicholson being "Jack Nicholson" for every split-second of the actor's screen time.

Further, the earlier version also does not manifest the insistent psychologizing of the Scorsese version, in part no doubt to that national cinema's tendency toward episodic narratives, and away from the psychological naturalism of the American cinema. (Both Bordwell and another of the picture's high-profile critics, Dave Kehr, make mention of this cloying proclivity.) Similarly, in its usage of more naturalized violence, The Departed attains a degree of the pornographic that the stylization of Infernal Affairs mediates. The Departed is a viscerally experience, to be sure. My only question is how can we endorse such brutal violence at the service of such facile nihilism?

Moving on, I was hoping to construct this piece as a portrait of two directors moving in very opposite qualitative directions, that is of Scorsese becoming less and less a major director with each passing film -- though the first half of The Aviator (2004) showed a great deal of acumen -- while Clint Eastwood further solidifies his standing as America's greatest active director with each passing film. While Eastwood has done nothing to jeopardize this status (so long as he remains the creator of The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), The Gauntlet (1977), Bird (1988), White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), Unforgiven (1992), the sublime A Perfect World (1993), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Space Cowboys (2000), Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) -- all of which are major works of art) he has done nothing to help it either. In fact, I would not hesitate to call his latest, Flags of Our Fathers, the director's weakest film since his thoroughly dispensable Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).

While there is just enough in Flags of Our Fathers to make it an Eastwood film -- and therefore worthy of our attention -- such as the film's rethinking of myth (The Outlaw Josie Wales, Mystic River) the picture's anxiety toward inadequate parenting (True Crime [1999], Million Dollar Baby) or even a visual style marked by both volumetric interiors represented via wide-angle lenses (The Bridges of Madison County) and also strong chiaroscuro (Million Dollar Baby), there isn't enough otherwise to mark this as essential cinema, though it does flirt with summarizing our moment. To this end, if The Outlaw Josie Wales said something profound about America's loss of faith in itself in the years following Vietnam and A Perfect World encapsulated the early 1990s anxiety concerning children raised in single parent households, Flags of Our Fathers should have said something about our contemporary anxiety with respect to Iraq, which again it almost does. As the film frames the issue, war is made palatable by symbols, and particularly photographs, be it the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima that is the focus of the film's narrative, or the execution of the Southeast Asian that made us doubt American's virtuousness during Vietnam. (Is Iraq's image Abu Ghraib, or are we still waiting for that one image that helps us to redouble our will? Eastwood leaves us to speculate.)

Of course, to criticize a film for not summarizing its moment is a bit unfair, even if its director has done this so successfully in the past. The larger flaw of Flags of Our Fathers is in its utilization of a flashback structure, which its narrative would at the same time seem to necessitate. Specifically, there is one sequence wherein we are directly delivered from a close-up of strawberry syrup covering a bowl of ice cream (made to model the film's image-subject) to a placement on the battlefield that cannot help but strike one as a painfully literal. While at least Eastwood does not succumb to producer Steven Spielberg's propensity to connect character subjectivity to incidents beyond their possible range of experience (he does this in his own World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, 1998) this frequent movement between past and present does not seem to serve the director's greatest strengths as a director. At the same time, Eastwood does share Spielberg's bleached-out color schema, as he does his interventionist camera work during battle.

Then again, his direction of battle scenes, in particular, does show his enormous range: as when the black sand explodes in front of the intervening camera producing substantial visceral impact. On this basis alone I hold out hope that Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) can still give the director his great World War II film. If only he hadn't changed the title from "Red Sun, Black Sand," which was in itself a masterpiece.

Matt Singer responds:

So now you look like Leonardo DiCaprio? Is it possible Lisa was taking a piss?

And I think you missed the boat on Flags (haven't seen The Departed yet). You seemed to review a movie that didn't exist -- the movie you wanted to see -- instead of the movie that Clint offered. Plenty of people have tried to make the movie into something about Iraq, and you seem to wish that it was a movie about Iraq. Why can't it be a movie about World War II? I don't understand that.

And I thought the flashback structure was ingenious and, the moment you singled out as too literal, the ice cream sundae, was perhaps my favorite moment of the picture. Granted, Eastwood takes liberty by using the moment as a key into a flashback, but given this is based on true stories, I took this to be based in something that really happened (I haven't read the book -- someone correct me if it doesn't appear in Bradley's book). Is something is too literal if it actually happens?

Comparing this movie, even in passing, to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a really low blow. And you like Clint! How could you do that?!?

Michael J. Anderson replies:

As to your criticisms, I think most are well grounded -- basically I did not make my case well enough, which I will admit. So let me grasp at what I think is Flags fundamental flaw: its flashback structure. If we are to look for a superior treatment of the same motivating theme -- the persistence of trauma -- I would call your attention to Eastwood's Mystic River. In the case of this work, the trauma depicted is in childhood, which coalesces with a key theme from A Perfect World, namely that children are made to grow up too fast -- in the case of the later film, to disastrous results. In both cases, this theme is subsumed by a linear narrative that provides just a hint of circularity with its opening and closing images -- a primary Eastwood trope. Likewise, with Mystic River, where this theme is more explicit, said trauma has implications for the actions and therefore for the plot of the film.

To the contrary, Flags of Our Fathers depicts this element for its own sake, which has a stifling effect on the narrative. Let me make this analogy: say you are driving on an interstate and you slide over onto the shoulder. As you do so, you feel a series of jarring bumps as you have driven over a "rumble strip." I think we could say a similar experience occurs during each instance of shell shock structuring the narrative -- sure it gets the point across; but it lacks in the subtlty that the director often achieves in expressing human psychology through action. I guess my basic critique is that the film lacks the director's characteristic economy, which in the opinion of this writer links the director to Hollywood's finest. (Also, for an Eastwood devotee like myself, this flaw as noted above strikes me as all too similar to the key problem with screenwriter Paul Haggis's monumentally over-determined Crash, 2004; so it's all his fault, in other words.)

Eastwood himself has admitted that he tried to re-construct the narrative without this structure to no success, which I think points to its weakness: that it doesn't lead anywhere other than this most basic point of that enduring trauma flows from wartime experience. Eastwood at his best, i.e. A Perfect World or Mystic River, would have expressed these ideas through action, that is in the subsequent actions of the characters, or even in what we as spectators might (wrongly) think that the actions of the characters were, again as in Mystic River. And from this subsumption of action within the contours of plot, moreover, it would be possible to universalize from the narrative what precisely this trauma signals in our current experience -- as Eastwood has communicated the theft of childhood (endemic to our times) in both, or the mass trauma of 9-11 in Mystic River. No similar conclusion can be drawn here, because again the (literal) image of Iraq is unclear, and we have no entry point through which we can extend the film's critique.

All of this is to explain why Flags of Our Fathers is not Eastwood at his best. I hope my feelings have become more clear.

Matt rebuts:

You have written more, and written far more clearly, but my initial statement stands. You are upset at the movie for not what it is, but for what it's not. Specifically, you are upset that Eastwood's depiction of trauma in Flags differs from his depiction in earlier films like Mystic River and A Perfect World. You give a lengthy and cogent explanation why the earlier model is superior, but I think that's mostly an excuse for your belief, rather than the basis for it. The unspoken (but more genuine) reason you hold for opinion -- in my eyes -- is that you, as a devout auteurist, want Eastwood to depict trauma as one way across all his films, because that strengthens your auteurist reading of his films. By trying something different, he skews from one of the things you've found in his films to link them all together.

I certainly agree that the choice of using the flashbacks throughout instead of as prologue and epilogue is less subtle and more blunt: but in a war film, I don't think subtlety is necessarily a plus. As much as it is about trauma, I took Flags to be about perspective. When the American people see Joe Rosenthal's photograph, they see heroism and triumph. When the men in the photograph see it, they see the horrors they've endured. And because everyone loves that photograph, the men in it can't escape it. And every time they see it, they are confronted with what they'd done. I wrote in one of my reviews of the film that my grandparents, both WWII vets, did not like dwelling on anything from the war except the most frivilous stories — just as Bradley, author of the Flags book, didn't even know his father was in the famous Iwo Jima picture until after he died! The more I've thought about it, I've considered what a great sacrifice those brave men made when they came back home. They smiled and sold those war bonds, and pretended like being atop that mountain in the Pacific was a great accomplishment, not day 5 of a 30 day trek through hell. As good as Mystic River is, I thought Flags was even more moving and poweful.

And it was manly, too. And manliness is awesome.

And now you've gone from comparing Flags to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to Crash?!? Wow.

Michael redoubles:

By Mentioning Crash -- and really, as underwhelming as I think Flags is, it remains light-years ahead of the Haggis picture in terms of its quality -- I meant to step outside my little auteurist framework and ask whether this deviation could be due to a collaborators' contribution... which is another way of me saying, 'why do I think this film is so far inferior to the director's better efforts?' (So yes, you're right in your critique.) But, Midnight in the Garden... is material ill-suited to the director, as is this picture. Hence the comparison. And that it is material shaped by Haggis leads one to the second comparison. I might throw in Spielberg as another check on the film's quality, though a producer's role in shaping a film is far more unclear often times. Then again, perhaps the film's scope can be related to his participation. And if anything, those parts that look and feel like Saving Private Ryan are among the better moments in the film.

Matt retorts:

I concede your cleverness, turning my auteurist argument about you against me. Perhaps the Yale debate team could use your skills.

But I press on nonetheless! Midnight in the Garden is a terrible movie but a remarkable soundtrack: I remain convinced to this day that Eastwood made it mostly so he could put that soundtrack in his CD collection. And I'm glad he did; it's in mine too. If you wanted to make an Eastwood auteurist argument related to jazz and his movies, Midnight in the Garden can be recouped. A little, anyway.

I'll agree that the main Iwo Jima battle resembles Saving Private Ryan with one distinct difference, though I should warn in advance that I haven't seen SPR since 1998 so my recollection isn't perfect. The thing that Flags has that SPR does not is a remarkable number of shots designed to ape what a real war photographer's shots might look like — I'm thinking specifically of the shots of the camera falling into the water as it leaves the transport for the beach, and also of a camera getting covered in dirt as men storm past it — images I took as a credit to the work of men like Joe Rosenthal who were yet more unsung heroes of that battle (you don't see Rosenthal touring America with his subjects, after all). Spielberg's version is a grunt's eye's view, but it is a beautiful, perfect one in its own grisly way. Eastwood's shows the seems a bit more, yet another element that ties into his showing the reality behind a legend, and another perspective to the multitude he shares. I quite prefer Flags to SPR.

You won't find many people who hate Crash more than me. Maybe it helped that I didn't know Haggis co-wrote this movie until I saw his name in the end credits, maybe not. I think even if Flags wasn't based on true lives, it would still feel infinitely more authentic than Crash.


Michael J. Anderson said...

Readers' responses:

The inverse of Matt's predicament, I have not yet seen Flags, so I had
to avoid that part of the blog and Matt and Mike's face off...

But Leo, ahem, I mean Mike, I find it hard to argue against your
assertions regarding THE DEPARTED because they aren't substantiated very well. You call the film pornographic a number of times yet never really build a strong case as to why one should look at it that way. A definition of pornography would help, but I would assume you are taking
it to mean absolute exploitation/
sensationalism with no redeeming
content. Short shot length alone is not going to convince me of that.

Your porno assertion implies the film makes no attempt to investigate any meaningful themes or content. You're welcome to find the film lacking in it's substance, but I find it hard to argue there is no substance at all. Clearly the film is doing the old Melville, John Woo thing (as old as Houston's Asphalt Jungle at least) of the duality of
the crime and the law and asking you to consider how interchangeable
they can at times be.

You can call this scenario trite, but I would find it hard for anyone to deny it isn't explored in the departed, as it is in Infernal Affairs, to a very sophisticated (if at times credibility-stretching) degree.

Your criticism sounds as though you feel only films which problematize violence itself are allowed to use violence viscerally. This film doesn't set out to problematize violence per se, but rather I think it invites you to experience the amorality of this mileu. And yes, it uses
violence to get us there, and even *gasp* titillate us slightly with it as the film is, afterall, a crime thriller.

There is quite a distance between amorality and nihilism, and if you
feel THE DEPARTED exhibits the latter I think you're glossing over the fact that leo's character does exhibit moral certainty. It is tragic and a consequence of the environment depicted in the film that he does not live, but this doesn't negate the force his character represents morally. For all of the film's attempts to blur the line between cop and
criminal and paint them as essentially the same, we still get a sense that the 'gang' representing the law, flawed as it is, is morally 'right', if only comparatively so. Is that consistent with nihilism?

Lastly, don't know why you're so squeamish about this one...I didn't
find it that brutal...but then I'm just a liberal atheist with no
morals. Certainly nothing like the baseball-bat beating in want to see sadistic nihilism (with plenty of misogyny thrown in to boot), you should watch some Italian horror, a la Lucio Fulci...then we'll talk.

- Brad Westcott

As some of you know, I have never agreed with Mike's claim that Clint is "the finest living
american director". Nevertheless, I really enjoyed his last two movies, and by this I mean Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. As I
already discuss with Rob, I have not seen many of his early films, but I do think that Blood Work is very overrated. I really didn't think much of it, to put it simply. At the same time, I did not think much of the Aviator
either. I saw it with Pam when it came out, and I remember enjoying learning about Hughes (as you can
imagine, not a prime cultural icon where I come from), but the movie did not look or feel like any other
Scorsese movie, so I figured the guy was taking a turn in his career. Perhaps a turn that started with the very
underrated Kundun. I really liked The Departed. I did not find it pornographic at all. I found it intriguing, funny as hell, and
entertaining. I found it accurate under many respects in his depiction of small-to-medium-
sizeed mafia organizations. I found some straighforward performances good (Leo/Matt; Daddy Sheen) and some parodic/
over-the-top performances hysterical (Baldwin/Wahlberg). Also, I found some performances
flat (Nicholson) but I did not pout too much over it. Perhaps because the minor variations on an old theme (Boston instead of New
York, Italians AND Irish instead of Italians vs. Irish) sufficed to make the film refreshing but
traditional, different but not revolutionary. I appreciated this quality in it. In this sense, the violence depicted is really minor and not very disturbing to me. Perhaps because, as Brad pointed out, I am de-sensitized by too much
Tarantino, or was in my early years by too much Argento, Fulci, and Bava. And I do NOT want to take a cheap shot on ANYONE,
but I cannot fail to bring to your attention the case of Mr. Gibson, who makes a travesty of ideals, values, and (for fuck sake) MY RELIGION with his idiotic hyperviolent pieces of crap that he dares to call movies. Excuse the
slippage into French. This said, I can see how Mike (who has a refined taste for style and form, and enjoys careful and polished compositions as much as he enjoys longer takes and slower pacing -
correct me if I am wrong) can be put off by the fast editing and the apparently plain mise-en-scene of the film. I did not have a
problem with it. If anything, I like VERY heavy-handed stylistics, so I sort of missed the earlier Scorsese too, but for the opposite treason. Anyways, style evolves, and he could not go back to making Mean Streets (of Age of Innocence, as far as I am concerned) all over again. In this sense, I admire a 64 year old director who can make
movies like a freshman. (Granted, not everyone is born a Manoel De Oliveira....).

I hope this post was not too boring.

-Alberto Zambenedetti

Michael J. Anderson said...

Let me begin with my provocation that the film is "pornographic." To begin, let us remember that all filmic representation implies a set of stylistic options, a series of formal questions, whose aggregated answers define the narrative discourse of the film. One of these questions for THE DEPARTED was how to depict the story's excess of violence. Scorsese's choice was to display said aggression on screen, which we will all concede we have seen before and to greater excesses.

But why is THE DEPARTED the way it is, which is to say 'why do we see numerous heads explode on-screen, etc.'? Perhaps to interrogate this point we can look at am example that is already implicated in our debate: MYSTIC RIVER. Not to ruin it for anyone, but there is one instance of graphic on-screen violence in the Eastwood film: the execution of the Tim Robbins' character. Why does Eastwood do this? Well, to make the violence MORE SERIOUS. After all, MYSTIC RIVER is structured as a critique of the director's own participation in the culture of violence as the vigilante "Dirty Harry" persona. Here, the vigilante violence is turned against itself (as it is mis-directed) in the service of self-reflection.

The same cannot be said for THE DEPARTED. As to why THE DEPARTED repeatedly shows us such moments on-screen, I can think of no account for the graphic character of its depiction other than that it stimulates a strong visceral reaction in us. Moreover, if Brad is any compass, than the reaction it should have provoked, in all its supposed ambiguity, is one of pleasure in the sadism being depicted on screen. Should I have called the film sadistic? Would I have been on a firmer footing? The point is that this excess is being represented for its facility in giving pleasure. I question the value in enjoying graphic violence for its own sake, of watching heads explode.

As to the charge that it is "nihilism": you're quite right that there's a difference between amoralism and the former. I think a picture like the referenced John Woo's THE KILLER crystallizes the distinction -- the cops and the gangsters are truly the same. But let me ask again, does anything matter in THE DEPARTED (and I'm not asking about simply the Leo character, but the film as a whole)? Indeed, what does Leo get for his more certitude? It's interesting that Scorsese refuses to follow the earlier film's narrative, wherein the Damon/Lau character survives. In that film, we have both tragedy and a redemption of sorts (Lau becoming a good cop and surviving). Here we have only tragedy. No one survives. Remember when Scorsese figured redemption? It may have been weak, but it was there. Sure there was a moral ambiguity, but it was in the service of communicating meaning. With that choice -- to kill 'em all -- Scorsese refuses to bite and instead asks us to watch one more heads explode. Perhaps, in the end, I am just rejecting the film's aesthetic as Alberto's astutely describes my own prejudices. But still I wonder what is the point of THE DEPARTED if no more redemption exists. Why should we see the film? I guess to be titillated by exploding heads!

P.L. Kerpius said...

Hi Mike,

Hmm. I shielded myself from crying as I watched The Departed. I'm talking about the effect those gory scenes had on me mostly, but the violence is devastating, no doubt. I think of this film, like a lot of other Scorsese pictures, as an allegory on current society. Taxi Driver is certainly commentary on a post-Vietnam world where politics and human decency is on the verge of destruction. The violence in that movie is not pleasant or fun to watch; it's a product of a corrupt system. When Travis enters the climactic scene shooting off a man's hand, thrusting a pistol into Keitel's gut, blood spilled everywhere, and then more carnage is still yet to come, it is not glorious. Is it a show of stylized violence? Maybe a little, but that's a general misreading of it. It means something that the only thing saving humanity is a dramatic human slaughter. That's all within a different historical context though.

So our film at hand, The Departed. It's not an accident that Martin Sheen's character is thrown off the top of building and splatters to his death. That's the sharpest image that remains in my mind these three weeks after watching the film. 9/11 is the context we have now. Compared to Taxi Driver The Departed is so much different since the former is overt commentary on that time. The Departed is a different story, but it had almost the exact impact on me in respect to the violence. I read the incident with Sheen as a direct representation of people falling out of the twin towers. I'm not making this into an allegory of 9/11 either, but I do think it is one on the overall look and mood of our time now. Did you see DiCaprio's face when he looked down at Sheen? The horror and devastation? He can't speak, he's on the verge of tears, but too mixed up in the surrealism of the violence to even do that. It's a complete emotional jumble. There's something sort of intriguing about the blood, and at the same time it's repulsive. DiCaprio's character can barely look away. This is how the horror film works---"the fascination of the abomination," as a former professor of mine used to quote Joseph Conrad in A Heart of Darkness.

Everything about the violence in The Departed is filthy, and with that line alone, unqualified, I see how you may think it's pornographic, guts for guts' sake. But that's not what I saw when I watched. I saw a flashback to those gritty, hysterical moments of the gore in Taxi Driver. The violence Scorsese gave us is not without consequence, it doesn't glorify it, it's always sick. Remember the severed hand Jack tosses around casually at the lunch table? That's a sick guy, who is not the movie's hero.

I'm leaving it off there for now. But I thought the film was absolutely devastating in its violence, not gratuitously gory.

P.L. Kerpius said...

Also, I haven't read the second half of your post on FLAGS. Not until I straighten out my own thoughts on it can I comment on yours. I'll say this though, it's currently in my #1 slot for 2006 films.

Anonymous said...

Pammy, I love you because like me, you will take every opportunity to talk about TAXI DRIVER. And speaking of, here is a shameless plug for a piece I hope you'll read:

Mike, you're comments are thoughtful as always, and have forced me to be more precise. I did my argument a slight disservice by suggesting the violence in THE DEPARTED 'titillates' as if that were a good thing. Like most movie-goers, I am not a sadist aroused by 'exploding heads'. However, I think what we all likely experience in response to violence perpetrated in a genre from which we EXPECT violence could be characterized as some kind of complex form of pleasure. But by this I mean nothing different from the question of why we choose to subject ourselves to experiences which are viscerally difficult or unnerving such as a roller coaster or a horror film.

Simply put, when I go to see a certain kind of genre film, I make no apologies about wanting to see some movie violence. Yet that is neither the only thing I expect, nor my primary reason for going. Often the only thing that has to 'justify' the violence is that it takes place within a compelling story, well told. I don't believe it has to be morally justified at every turn or I that I have to be convinced of the director's altruistic intentions.

I couldn't disagree more with your assertion that in THE DEPARTED Scorsese is simply exploding heads for the benefit of our most base sense of amusement. First off, I didn't see a single 'EXPLODING head', at least not a la Cronenberg or Romero, filmed in close up or slow motion.

So in MYSTIC RIVER, Eastwood withholds the use of gratuitous violence, saving it for one scene in order to heighten its rhetorical effect. Scorsese is obviously up to something completely different. That project is twofold: to show us both how blasé and commonplace violence is to the characters within the story AND to characterize that violence honestly and unflinchingly. It's the tension between regarding what for most of is a very un-commonplace level of devastation with a commonplace attitude which we find unsettling and enacts an automatic interrogation of the milieu. This is more clearly the central undertaking of GOODFELLAS.

Your main question seems to be, but what is really the point of THE DEPARTED? Again, it's the old symmetry/yin and yang thing...cops and criminals... Again, if you are bored silly but that supposition, or don't think the film handles the theme as well as it could have, that's one thing. But I can't imagine anyone seriously saying the film doesn't investigate those themes quite intricately.

Lastly, do we need redemption here? Does no redemption = nihilism? You are right, it is a tragedy. Everyone dies in Hamlet, too...where is the redemption there? Wahlberg=Horatio?

Michael J. Anderson said...


Why look outside our medium? The Shakespeare of the cinema -- Kenji Mizoguchi -- produced tragedies that similarly eschewed redemption, particularly in his best prewar work, such as THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM (1939; which by the way I recently named one the ten best films of all-time on a post available here:; Brad I would invite you to submit yours and I will add it). Anyway, in this work all options lead to the film's tragic denounement. Similarly, Mizoguchi utilizes long takes/long shots to emphasize the immutable quality of this fate and his or anyone's inability to intervene. Form truly matches content, in other words.

THE DEPARTED's mise-en-scene, on the other hand, says little other than 'such-and-such is talking' or 'this is exciting.' Had Scorsese manipulated his form to match his content on the level that Mizoguchi did, I would be the first to argue for the film's merit. However, when there is only a perfunctory form articulating the picture's content, then I would say the content does need to say more than everybody eventually gets it in the end... because again, what's the point?

With Mizoguchi, not only is the beauty, the magesty and the expressive quality of the mise-en-scene the point, moreover, but so too is the director's understanding of the invisible mechanisms of this world. He maps out the fall of his protagonists with precision, showing us exactly how his characters meet their fates, which again reinforces and is reinforced by his style. Can we truly say of Scorsese that he painstakingly shows us how it all happens? Does he say rather this is 'how it is,' instead of showing us the mechanics as Mizoguchi -- and that guy name Shakespeare -- do.

And closed-circuit to Matt: if you thought my comparison of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS to CRASH was bad, what about THE DEPARTED and HAMLET?

Matt Singer said...

>>And closed-circuit to Matt: if you thought my comparison of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS to CRASH was bad, what about THE DEPARTED and HAMLET?

Dude Hamlet is soooo overrated.

This discussion -- even the lame parts I've contributed -- is the best film writing I've read in ages. Maybe we need to retool one (or all) of our blogs to allow this sort of discussion. It's fun!

P.L. Kerpius said...

A few more things: Go to Seen!

Matt Hauske said...

Anyone with further interest in all this "average shot length" business can go to for an explanation, and anyone interested in the average shot length (ASL) of THE DEPARTED's source material, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, can go here:

The original's ASL was 3.7, so Scorsese definitely packs a lot more shots into the story, which he also expanded by an hour.

As to whether it's pornographic, I didn't see that slimeball from Girls Gone Wild, so my impulse is to say no. But you don't have to be pornographic to be a nihilist.

Matt Singer said...

Well I finally saw The Departed today. Not surprisingly, I side with B-Rad and Pamma Slamma. I'm pooped and I gotta get up early tomorrow, so I don't have time right now, but I'm going to try to post a defense on Termite Art soon, to which I'll expect a stinging repudiation.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Departed and Hamlet? Yes. Costigan spares Sullivans life on the roof why? So he does not get the parade. Hamlet does not kill his Uncle after his prayers why? So he would not go straight to heaven. Costigans Uncle is evil, Dad was a saint ect... But hard to make movie w/o borrowing from the masters

Danish said...

For me great Flags of Our Fathers movies, this is an honest forthright portrayal of an important historical and cultural event. Mystic River garnered a lot of acclaim but I hated the film. While Flags appears choppy as it sets the stage, Eastwood manages to bring the story full circle giving it a sense of closure. This closure is a pleasant surprise in an era of empty Hollywood films. This is a much richer and more powerful movie experience than River or many of the Hollywood issue films.