Is The Irishman why we go to the movies?

After spending three and a half hours seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, financed by Netflix, at a screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, there are lots of thoughts and feelings to be sorted out.

None of these have to do with the future of film exhibition or whether Netflix is justified in its release pattern for the new Scorsese film.  For those who don’t know, that would be only eight theatres in NY and LA this week, followed by additional movie screens in more cities seven days later and, finally, its streaming debut just ten days after that (Nov. 27) for anyone with a Netflix subscription or the ability to hop on to someone else’s account.

Netflix is so needy #validation

Scorsese, who turns 77 years old on Nov. 17, is one of THE best American filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries, or any century.  Yeah, he’s publicly expressed his disinterest in superhero films and sounded the alarm bells about a money guzzling, tent-pole-driven, market-researched-to-death movie industry obsessed with the Marvel/DC Universe at the expense of cinema dealing with humans and the complexity and nuance of their emotions.

But, for the record, he’s right about that.  Most of us would tire of potato chips and chocolate bars if we ate them 75% of the time.  Even if we didn’t, think of the affect it would have not only on our bodies but our souls, assuming it already hasn’t.

Avengers: Age of Gluttony

Point being, Scorsese not only has a good argument about what passes for present-day cinema but has earned the right to grouse.  For Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, New York, New York, The Aviator, Casino and The Departed alone, he can opine from now until the end of time about what displeases him and/or makes him happy about any one group of films or the movie industry in general.

also thank you for this gif

Which makes one wonder if the same goes for his audience.  If you’ve been a Scorsese admirer and mostly loyal fan all these years, do you have the right to be disappointed in the latest entry into the master’s oeuvre that everyone else seems to be calling brilliant?

Well, of course you have the right.  This is still a free(ish) country.  But is it called for, or even worth it to bring up?

Yeah, it is.

Oh there’s more…

Movies by their very nature are a communal experience.  Sure, many of us now too often watch in the confines of our own homes, and too often do it alone.  But the cinema Scorsese makes and presents is shared with others in a dark room where it’s then debated and dissected afterwards.  It’s part of the gift he’s given us for over half a century and to ignore real life discussion of a new Scorsese film would be like negating the very existence of the artist himself.

So here’s the thing…

Is that Ray Romano?

The Irishman is extremely well made, brilliantly acted and doubtless couldn’t be directed better by anyone else on the planet.  But it’s as cold as a tray of ice cubes on a bleak winter’s day and about as revelatory and/or insightful.

Ouch, Chairy!

After 209 minutes it’s difficult to not wonder aloud, Why did I just spend all of this time watching this?  What did this film tell me that I didn’t already know?  In what way was I touched, repelled or even slightly moved by the lives of these “wise guys” and the people around them?  (Note: Not to mention, I already knew the Mob murdered Jimmy Hoffa!!!).

This is especially true if you’ve ever seen a mob film by Scorsese.  Or watched one in that genre by his friend and contemporary, Francis Ford Coppola.  Or even binge watched the HBO series The Sopranos.

Don’t drag me into this! #cuttoblack

It’s unfair to say that with The Irishman Scorsese has made his version of a sequel to a sequel of his latest superhero film.  The Irishman has many flaws (Note: Despite what the critics are saying), but once it reaches the three-hour mark it forges some new ground.  In its last half hour, one begins to realize why the director spent all of these years trying to make this story and why it is likely the final chapter of every mob story he has ever told.

You can trust the Chair

But suffice it to say that dark and foreboding as it might be, that third act ending doesn’t so much surprise as simply…play out.  It takes you down a road you didn’t expect to see onscreen but pretty much could have imagined would have happened exactly that way off screen.

Would you have imagined it, if left to your own devices?  The answer is probably not if you weren’t a contemporary of Scorsese.  So in that sense, it does play in to the director’s own definition of cinema and, in its way, far surpasses anything you will see in the latest Marvel/DC superhero film.   Which is not to say it is Scorsese, or even cinema, at its best.

God, he’s so rich

There are many different reasons why we go to the movies.  Though let’s qualify that to reflect a 2019 reality.  There are many different reasons why we watch movies.

Escape comes to mind.  File this under the category of general entertainment.  We want to laugh and forget or, if we are addicted to catharsis, we want (and need) to cry and commiserate.

I already know I’ll be a disaster during this movie

Perhaps we want to feel superior to a person or class of people being portrayed onscreen.  Taken one step further, we might even joyfully hate watch something we know will be hopelessly dumb, awful or not to our taste just because we can, especially if we’re the type that has no empathy for its own highly overpaid craftspeople boring us.  (Note: Rest assured the latter also includes ALL of its above-the-line talent [nee actors, producers, writers AND directors] despite what they might say or admit to in interviews.  Though this should never, ever include Scorsese or anyone of his caliber).

But mostly, many of us go to and/or watch movies simply because we are true blue fans, Scorsese or otherwise.

… and for the popcorn #arteriesclogging #delicious

We hope for the best, realize we may be disappointed and yet still are pleased that we saw it.  Some but not all of us in that category can usually find something to like in almost anything, even if it’s the good intentions of those who might have let us down.   (Note: See a few paragraphs above). More importantly, there is always a chance we will see something we like, perhaps even love, and be transported.

And for that experience, we will be grateful, perhaps forever grateful.

With so many other ways to spend our time these days there is still nothing quite like sitting in the dark (or semi-dark, or even light) and watching someone else’s idea of life unfold.  For a short time we get to feel something we might have never felt before, or in that particular way

I have a lot of feelings, OK?!?!

There are Scorsese films where we have that for a few fleeting moments, for numerous moments or, sometimes, all the way through.

You (okay, I) want The Irishman to be the latter even though the best you can say about it is that it’s in the former.  But like all great cinema, the movie and its director contain some moments where you feel as if you are in the presence of screen super heroes.

And that says something.  Actually, it says a lot.

Muddy Waters – “Mannish Boy” (from soundtrack for The Irishman)

 

Super Harriet

Harriet Tubman’s face was scheduled to be on the $20 bill next year but the Trump administration put an end to that.  In May it was announced the redesign would be delayed until 2026 due to counterfeiting and… (ahem)…security features.

This means the soonest an image of a Black female can grace our currency for the first time will be when Trump is out of office, that is if he were to win a second term and survive his pending impeachment.

AHHHHH! #methinkingabout2020

It also means the soonest any of us will be able to proudly pull a wad of Tubmans from our wallets instead of our current stack of twenties bearing the likeness of Andrew Jackson, a slave owning, Southern cotton plantation master who forcibly removed two major native American tribes from their homelands in the early 1800s, will also have to wait.   (Note: FYI, Andrew Jackson is Trump’s favorite American president, so much so that a portrait of the former POTUS now hangs in his Oval Office).

Typical

Still, what didn’t wait and what even Trump couldn’t stop was this weekend’s release of Focus Features’ Harriet, a long overdue major studio biopic about one of the most legendary and unexplored historical figures in American history.

One can easily picture Trump reveling in the flat image of Jackson on his wall as he figures out more ways to pit various regions of the country against each other in a new 21st century Civil War.

Can we hire Daniel Day Lewis to recreate this?

But after watching the superbly made screen version of Harriet Tubman emerge as a sort of mainstream cinematic superhero for everything that is just and right about the world, past and present, it’s clear Trump and his favorite predecessor better take cover. A cultural shift of the tides is beginning and it’s being led once again by a petite, very dark-skinned young woman who has no difficulty in speaking truth to White Power, past or present.

It is no accident that the image of Harriet Tubman one walks away from after Harriet is one of our nation’s first female superheroes, a woman who has been historically documented to have helped many hundreds of slaves escape the South, often by using her own amazingly unerring and mystical sense of direction and focus.

Also, good hats!

Tubman herself claimed that God spoke to her and helped guide her and the many people she saved to freedom.  This is literally represented in the film through images of both past trauma and future dangers right around the bend each time certain death rears its ugly head.  These are also shown in other moments in the film as nothing more than possible delusions from minor brain damage she received after a slave master broke her skull when she was 13 years old and she lied comatose for several months.

At a recent screening at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills, Harriet’s director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons addressed a question about Tubman’s real-life and cinematic feats by noting that at the very least she had prefect instincts.  But her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans), who wrote the first draft of the script 25 years ago, decided early on to approach Tubman’s story not so much literally but as an action film…with a superhero.

There is literally a comic book called “Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer” #really #saysitall

Since Howard’s first draft screenplay, a plethora of historical records, including photographs and diaries, have been unearthed and several Tubman biographies have been written.  These all verify Harriet’s seemingly superhuman abilities as an expert guide leading scores of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad as well as what she claimed to be a very specific and deep personal communication with God himself.

Of course, like any great leaders in a particular field of endeavor, especially in the past, it is difficult to know exactly how they do it and why they are able to be so exceptionally successful when the odds, and reality, were and are so severely stacked against them.

Some of us even look at Trump and wonder that very same thing, even as his Wizard of Oz-ish curtain is currently being pulled back for all of us Dorothys to see in real time, if we choose to.

There’s no place like the polls #votehimout #2020comefaster

But at the end of the day what’s important are results, be it a Trump, a Harriet Tubman or any particular major studio film beckoning for box-office receipts or at least a blaze of glory as its launched into the zeitgeist.

We know what Tubman achieved and what Trump did.  Right now, and after just a few days, Harriet has so far managed to land the number two spot at the box-office nationally this weekend — no small achievement for a historical biopic.   Yes, that’s no small feat but one suspects, like it’s namesake, its more impressive achievement will be a slow burn into the cultural conversation of who we are and where we are as a nation.

You know it

This might start with Cynthia Erivo’s riveting film debut and sure bet lead actress Oscar nomination for her lead performance, move towards the clear parallel of Civil War era 1% attitude to those carrying the torch for Trumpism today and then wander off into why the heck it took a century and a half of cinema for Hollywood to finally tell the real life Hollywood story of Harriet Tubman.

Yeah, for real

Of course, we all know why it took so long for Harriet to reach the big screen.  As cowriter Howard so aptly put it, you needed Black Panther to blow the doors wide open.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take as long for the superpowers exhibited by Ms. Tubman in Harriet to blow the doors of the Oval Office open and escort the likes of POTUS’ Trump and Jackson out for good.

Cynthia Erivo – “Stand Up” (From Harriet)