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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—19 February 2010

Carrying "Marty's" Water: Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island opens in U.S. theaters nationwide today; online, the discussion of the film can be seen to be in danger of being eclipsed by discussions about the discussions of the film. To wit: "I can see right now where the Shutter Island discussion will go," Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells wrote earlier in the week.  "Hip, older urban critics like Marshall Fine will do the usual solidarity thing (i.e., their standard response whenever a reasonably decent film by a venerated director comes out) and pass out "Friends of Marty" buttons at screenings and so on. And that's fine." For a putative gadfly like Wells, such a declaration is a way to put himself ever-so-slightly above it all, to reinforce his supposed independence and tough-mindedness, to say that not only is he not carrying Scorsese's water, but that, in the common and vile parlance, he hasn't drank the "Marty" Kool-Aid either. It's good for the brand...and it helps that he means it. (And he's almost started a trend: The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who is more often than not merely content to be correct himself, cocks a snoot at Wells' "Friends of Marty" in his review, claiming that those who conclude differently from him do so at least partly out of "loyalty to Mr. Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt.") The "civilian" complaints, some of them on Wells' thread, many of them on a thread following my own review of Shutter Island, are something different. Many of them practically seethe with resentment over Scorsese's critical rep, particularly with regard to his last three or four fiction features. It's made them trust critics less, they say. The critics who've said nice things about Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed are "dishonest," "deluded," looking through "rose-tinted" somethings. Do these people want their money back or something? Because, you know, it's not as if there were no negative reviews of those pictures, from "major" reviewers yet. Manohla Dargis was not only a definite Aviator disliker, she also came close to coming right out and saying that with that film Scorsese was pursuing something akin to a charity fuck Academy Award. Richard Corliss and Michael Atkinson were less than impressed as well. David Ansen and J. Hoberman, neither of whom anybody in their right mind would characterize as a hack, came down pretty hard on Gangs of New York. It is peculiar to go to Rotten Tomatoes and see The Departed's 92% "Fresh" rating—I mean, I liked that picture, but not really that much—but again, among the scant "anti" arguments are cogent perspectives from Hoberman and Stanley Kaufmann. So it isn't as if skeptics of the film are completely left out in the critical cold.

But rather than align themselves with those critics and be done with it, some observers are compelled to ask for more. Those who carry Marty's water, apparently, must be schooled. What they must be schooled in varies. In one class, we are instructed on Clint Eastwood's superiority as a filmmaker. In another, we learn that Scorsese's better off doing adaptations of other peoples' material, because it tends to focus him better. Marty's such a child, really, but you know, if you give him a definite goal, he'll really work hard at it!

Again, I think of Orson Welles saying to Peter Bogdanovich, "Why should I upset a strong Fellini man by telling him I think Satyricon was frightened at birth by Vogue magazine?" Was it permissible back in the day to be an unabashed "strong Fellini man?" Is it today? If I say that I actively try to find things to like in Scorsese's films, does that make me a strong Scorsese man, or his patsy, or his water-carrier? I responded very strongly to Shutter Island—but a lot of that had to do with my state of being when I saw the film twenty-two days ago. Is my reaction illegitimate?

P.S.: I attended the New York press junket for Shutter Island a couple of weeks ago (the fruits of my labors in this respect are here). Breakfasting with the cream of the television and online video critic crop, I have to say—in all honesty!—that I did detect a note of obligation in their words as I overheard many of them discuss the film. As if they didn't particularly like it, or "get" it beyond its plot machinations...but that they were going to give it a pass not just because Scorsese's a revered American filmmaker but because Leo's a movie star. I don't, however, detect much of the same thing going on in the print reviews.

And By The Way, What's With This "Marty" Business?: I remember my very first movie press junket like it was yesterday. It was for Married to the Mob. The two things about it I remember best are standing next to Dean Stockwell at the urinal wall of the hotel restroom during a break, and the roundtable with Michelle Pfeiffer in which some clod asked her if she was ever going to play an intelligent character rather than a sexy one and I blurted "The two qualities aren't mutually exclusive," and Pfeiffer looked at me and smiled sweetly and said "Thank you," and then we both climbed on the table and started shagging like feral cats. Okay, the part after "Thank you" I made up. Anyhow, the other thing that made me nearly projectile vomit at that session was the way all these obsequious junketeers kept calling Pfeiffer "MIchelle," and the fake-chummy tone in which they were doing so. I didn't do a whole lot of movie press junkets after that.

Anyway, I imagine you know where I'm going with this. As many times as I've interviewed Martin Scorsese, I've never felt either compelled to or even comfortable with the idea of calling him "Marty," and I don't understand people who don't know him who do. Yes, in interviews all of his collaborators call him "Marty," but the only film journalist I know of who's an active collaborator of Scorsese's is Jay Cocks. (Kent Jones I always think of as a critic rather than a journalist.) My general policy with movie people is to address them as "Mr." or "Ms." until explicitly instructed otherwise. I'm not trying to lord it over anybody with this etiquette tip. I'm just saying that my mother raised me with some fucking manners.

I've always loved the phrase "fucking manners," haven't you?

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Scorsese’s status as a master/living legend has completely perverted the way people view and critique his films. It seems to me that critics are no longer reviewing the film on a sole basis, but rather on Scorsese himself. In essence they just say whether they think Scorsese is good or Scorsese is bad. It’s evident in almost every single Shutter Island review out there. It’s very strange..
To the extent that, much as I’m not inclined to swear much, it’s almost impossible for me to say “have some manners” or any such phrase without inserting “fucking.” Family holidays require the censorship, which is unfortunately the time when it’s most needed. I’ve never been to a press junket, but I get really uncomfortable seeing that same sort of fake familiarity anytime I end up watching the red carpet coverage before the Oscars. Really looking forward to Shutter Island, particularly after your review (or the parts I skimmed anyway…never read the whole thing ‘til I’ve seen the movie). I was sure it was just going to be a genre exercise like The Departed, but there have been enough reactions pitched just so that…well, I’m pissed I gotta wait ’til Monday (on the plus side, one of the things making me wait is a screening of Wild Grass!)
You beat me to the Eastwood parallel. Tony [heh] is like Clint’s freakin’ Gunga Din over here.
In Brazil, it’s common etiquette that everyone refer to a director/artist/musician by their first name — Glauber, Caetano, Gil, Rogério, Nelson, Carlão, etc. To refer to Glauber as Mr. Rocha would be unthinkable. In politics and other social arenas, the etiquette shifts slightly and things tend to get slightly more formal — but not too much. You are pretty much on a first-name basis the first time you meet someone. A couple months ago a Warners publicist here in Chicago informed us that “Clint [was] not available for interviews”… And I thought, does she know him? How about Matt? Or Morgan?
I, too, am a member of the Mr. and Ms. Brigade — you don’t know these people, and it’s presumptuous to think otherwise.
1. As long as one’s honest about the reaction, and interested in checking that experience (ie self examination), of course it’s a legitimate reaction. I think this is why you’ve been a successful critic, GK. 2. “fucking manners” are gone, too, it seems, along with “regular manners.” Or, in the age of the internet, manners seem to be considerably devalued.
Back in my Lower East Side theater days, I amused many people at Todo con Nada by addressing Richard Foreman, that crazed experimental-theater hippie, as “Mr. Foreman”. Even Foreman seemed to find it a little odd. But I just couldn’t break a habit I’d been brought up with so strongly, even when we were discussing just how much nudity you could get away with in a basement theater.
“Water carrier”? In this day and age? Get with the time old man, the preferred nomenclature is “weed carrier”.
When are you going to get your own site Mr. Kenny? By the way your review of The Fountain was one of the greatest reviews I’ve read.
Colin: Mr. Kenny (or Herr Kenny, as he would be called here in Sweden) already has his own site/blog, if that’s what you meant. It’s here, and its very good: somecamerunning.typepad.com
Re-posted with the correct “Thomson” spelling: Pleased you mentioned the “Marty” thing. The first time I remember encountering it was in a glib, awful piece David Thomson did for Film Comment in the early ’80s, written as though he were addressing Scorsese directly and calling him “Marty” throughout. It was the beginning of the end for celebrity fantasist Thomson as a serious critic.
Strange, isn’t it, how the basic formality of Mr. / Ms. when you first meet somebody now seems almost awkward, when in fact it is precisely what one ought to do in polite society, i.e., if one is in possession of fucking manners? Point taken, Gabe, and we could also cite the Thai exception, whereby given-names are the preferred formal address (e.g., “Apichatpong,” “Pen-ek”). You know who’s always surprised when you address them as Mr. or Ms.? Avant-garde filmmakers. Try it and see!
This film is totally concerned with protocol and manners. It’s even concerned with what it means to be a “master,” isn’t it? DiCaprio’s character is obsessed with the imbalanced power relations on Shutter Island. His “role” as a police officer and the various other “roles” of the folks on the island (especially to the extent that they assume that a “role” refers to anything outside its present context) help one, finally, to miss the point.
I’ll occasionally use terms like “Marty” or “Leo” in parts of what I write that might seem a bit ironic or silly and try not to otherwise. At the same time, it’s gotten to the point where first names of famous are frequented used in rather polite ways like the way Gabe Klinger described in Brazil. For example, both Hillary Clinton supporters and detractors were referring to her as “Hillary” during the Democratic primaries — partly because, in her case, just what last name to use is always a slight question so “Hillary” is actually the least problematic choice. But still. In actual working Hollywood, the first name thing is kind of standard for anyone who ever even once met a famous person, or met someone who met someone. It’s even better if you don’t use their last name and assume people will know who you’re talking about it, even if it’s a common first name. As in, “I was talking to Quentin and Uma the other night, and they told me they’d really enjoy working with Tom or Bob, if they ever got the chance.”

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