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A film review of THE AVIATOR by Camus

I was introduced to the cinema of a certain Martin Scorsese after hearing a huge cheer from a ragtag collection of film nuts. They'd collectively realised they'd hired an older, un-cut 16mm copy of Taxi Driver for their film society screening. This was in 1979 and V, H and S were just three letters of the alphabet that'd just started flirting with each other. After some nervousness on behalf of Mr. Ferman and Co. at the British Board of Film Classification, the scene of Jody Foster preparing to, ahem, 'service' (with an emphasis on the 'vice') Robert De Niro was subtly cut. The sound of his fly being undone had been dubbed out but not in the 16mm print. Such joy generated by a simple sound.

I knew nothing about this film-maker or his remarkable movies because I was a good boy. My 'movie brats' were clean cut Spielbergs and Lucases. John Milius's pro-gun, right-wing lifestyle unnerved me, De Palma seemed to have carved a career out of 'referencing' Hitchcock (I was more than happy with the real thing) and Scorsese? Well, he made 'dark' movies about nasty people. Not a space ship in sight.

Yes, OK. I can grow up too. Taxi Driver was a revelation to me. It was one of the very first movies I saw which informed me (as in invaded), haunted me for weeks and made me feel its darkness, like wearing a wet overcoat. But it was incredibly exciting too and for many weeks most of us were incessantly quoting De Niro's ad libbed lines and pretending a semi-automatic would suddenly fly from our jacket sleeves. As far as I remember none of us went the whole hog and got the Mohawk (note, neither did De Niro. That’s Dick Smith’s extraordinarily realistic make up).

"Here is…" and here he was, Martin Scorsese, a true outsider geographically from his contemporaries and artistically 'outside' having a talent many levels above the west coast fantasists. Scorsese made movies because, one believed, he was compelled to by some inner demon. His own appearance in Taxi Driver as a vengeful cuckold (the originally cast actor had fallen and cut his head open so was unavailable) is scary to say the least. He comes across as someone who would call Frank from Blue Velvet a drinking buddy and a close, personal friend. One part of his outsider status that he was less than pleased with was his apparent 'working outside the mainstream' tag. Despite Raging Bull being voted the greatest modern film and Scorsese taking on the media-happy sobriquet 'greatest modern director', one got the sense he wanted a big, fat hit (for any number of valid reasons). It came and was the rather shallow Tom Cruise, Paul Newman Color of Money though Spielbergian its success was not. But it rapped on Hollywood's door loudly enough for Scorsese to be considered as a 'team' player, one of 'them'. And then he blew it all for Jesus. As it was for Mel Gibson, The Last Temptation of Christ was a very personal project for Scorsese and let's be honest here. A good Martin Scorsese movie is usually a personal one. Giving him huge movie stars (and budgets) is a little like giving the best carpenter in the business all the metal he could possibly (not) want. Scorsese doesn't suit big budget Hollywood because the expectations are remarkably narrow and the more money down the more the expectation to get a hit (and that narrows art down quite a bit).

But the talented director also became a key to another industry figure who saw Scorsese's unique place in the market place (everyone rates him highly but his movies just don't appeal to children and therefore have limited financial ambition). You can just hear the cogs in Harvey Weinstein's head clicking into place. Scorsese (talent, respect, any star would kill to work with him) plus a huge chunk of change and for insurance, the hottest star du jour in a lead role. Harvey must have been buying 'gold shine' polish for his Best Picture Oscar right there and then. Except… Gangs of New York was… light, fluffy and as inconsequential as a nut pie. Yes, Day Lewis was mesmerizing and Scorsese's directorial tics were out in force but up against a mean street or a taxi driver, Gangs was bloated, the big budget seemed to have bled Scorsese of his urgency. It simply wasn't personal enough.

There were many stories of the post production interference by Harvey to get Marty in line but something must have come out in the wash because folks, they are at it again - same formula too (but a far more charismatic figure front and centre). Harvey gives Marty creative freedom (to a point) and a larger canvas and Marty gets Harvey a little gold plated statuette… And an added bonus for Scorsese - he gets to re-create 40s Hollywood, surely a complete labour of love for a man so steeped in film and film lore. If there is a shoe in come Oscar time, it's Cate Blanchett's uncanny rendition of Kate Hepburn. She walks a fine line between parody, mimicry and eerie reincarnation but walks tall as she does so. It's a performance that gives me faith in what actors are willing and able to do. Galadriel had disappeared. They'd found Hepburn's cloned twin. Extraordinary.

The Aviator is the story of American multi-millionaire Howard Hughes - or more accurately about twelve years of his life, the middle twelve one presumes - as a maverick film producer, an airplane designer and a lover of flight (and part time germ conscious, hallucinating mental patient). Played by Leonardo Di Caprio with gusto and gravitas, Hughes comes across as a can-do will-do entrepreneur with a Hollywood starlet on every arm (yes, all two of 'em). The film (and it is a BIG film) does not have a traditional narrative structure. There is an ending as such but it's a 'Che Guevara swims the river' kind of an ending, to justify its place as a Hollywood movie - "Oh, an ending of accomplishment!" - which has precious little to do with the emotional journey Hughes makes throughout the movie. It's not really necessary as far as the story is concerned because the story is simply 'this is what happened to Howard in these many years…' But it is a heady mix and a fully flavoured entertaining one at that running just under three hours. Despite the fetish with old fashioned flashbulbs, one or two noteworthy cuts by one of the best editors in the business, Thelma Schoonmaker and a fluid visual style, The Aviator is simply not (or simply just does not feel like) a Martin Scorsese picture.

I understand this is my opinion and the real Mr. Scorsese has nothing to do with the previous, rather odd statement but other directors can make good Martin Scorsese movies. I think Motorcycle Diaries is a good Martin Scorsese picture. If I'm turning him into a genre, then it's out of respect, not the pathetic whinge of those who cannot 'move on' from those days when American cinema said stuff worth listening to - like me a few months ago. I got over it. A Martin Scorsese picture is the genre of the personal, the uncompromising, the powerful, the visually daring and the searingly honest (let's not forget his penchant for violence as a form of communication, something he's almost trade marked). So let's turn things around and see The Aviator as a Harvey Weinstein Production and what a terrific production it is. I had no idea that Hughes (whose name is attached to cinema by the finest of threads) was such a mover, so dutifully did I just lump him in with every other multi-millionaire I've never met.

Wait - there is a Martin Scorsese opening and it's the strangest thing in the picture and in some ways the most rewarding. As a signpost to Hughes' later troubles with reality and dirt (they tend to go hand in soap-covered hand), we see a naked boy standing in a shallow tub in a softly and warmly lit, opulent room. In comes a young woman and in close up her hand stretches out - down - towards the boy. Now, if unlike me, you just took that image as just a hand reaching out, then fine but there is an almost illicit danger to this scene (a Scorsese moment). Why is he standing up? We're not to know this is his mother… There is a charged atmosphere with a definable sexual undercurrent. But it's soap in a box that she's reaching for (the same box Howard will carry his soap in for the rest of his life). She gives her boy some maternal advice and then looking at the back of the now fully grown Howard, the Weinstein production begins in earnest.

Di Caprio is an accidental movie star (thank you Titanic) and an exceptional actor and he brings Hughes to glorious, overblown life. Whether it is the inexhaustible supply of money that gives Hughes his 'anything can be done' philosophy or whether it's just the man and the money would have come regardless, Di Caprio's characterisation is huge on entertainment value. Yes, the movie slopes a bit when we focus on Hughes' odd problems with mental health (repetitions of sentences and what seems like a deep phobia of the smallest speck of dirt) but it does allow Kate Beckinsale some touching moments as Ava Gardner cleaning him up after a few months of solitary madness. A note on Beckinsale, an actress whose extraordinarily beautiful face is at once striking and (oddly) forgettable; in The Aviator her face is perfect and by that I mean flawless. She looks like her make up was done by the effects team.

Other notable thespians in this huge film are Alan Alda who plays, against type (one hopes), a really seedy Senator in the political grip of Pan-Am's managing director who's trying to monopolise the air. He is played by Alec Baldwin whose power as a supporting player is not diminished despite the screenplay not being written by David Mamet. I'd love to know what Matt Stone and Trey Parker have against the Baldwins… Alec is a fine actor.

Martin Scorsese. Computer Generated Imagery. Five words that do not belong in the same sentence (so I added a full stop). At least chalk and cheese have 'c' and 'h' in common. Sure, Casino's Vegas strip was augmented with CG buildings etc. but in The Aviator, there are a great deal of effects and they are all good if a little dreamlike towards the end. Planes tend to fly into the camera (effectively) and so you become aware of the artifice but it's good fun, exhilarating even. The bravura sequence that makes you feel almost every one of Di Caprio's injuries as they happen is right smack in the middle of the movie and for someone with a dislike of flying (that would be me), the plane crash is horribly realistic. OK, perhaps the plane parts wrecking the surburbia they land on are moving a tad too slowly but Di Caprio's disintegration is frighteningly staged, the interweaving of practical and digital very well accomplished. If it was that well accomplished (says Mr. Picky), you wouldn't be able to say that as you would have been unable to tell which were which. Let's just say that seeing too many movies has its dis and ad vantages.

The Aviator is well worth a visit. Whether it does what Harvey wants it to do - become an Oscar magnet for those Academy members who feel Marty has been short changed over the years - or not, it's a class piece of entertainment. If not 'a Martin Scorsese movie', it’s a grand Weinstein production. Enjoy.

The Aviator

USA 2004
170 mins
Martin Scorsese
Sandy Climan
Charles Evans Jr.
Graham King
Michael Mann
John Logan
from the novel by
Roald Dahl
Robert Richardson
Thelma Schoonmaker
Howard Shore
production design
Dante Ferretti
Leonardo DiCaprio
Cate Blanchett
Kate Beckinsale
John C. Reilly
Alec Baldwin
Alan Alda
Ian Holm
Danny Huston
Brent Spiner
review posted
20 January 2005

related review
Bringing Out the Dead

See all of Camus's reviews