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)

 

The Jewish Guido

Mazel!

Mazel!

If the guys I went to school with were movie characters they would be Jordan Belfort of Wolf of Wall Street and Irving Rosenfeld of American Hustle.  Two smart, charismatic and fast-talking Jewish guys from Queens, NY with morally questionable values, especially where money is concerned.  A stereotype, you say?  Uh, not when you consider how many Jewish male lead characters there have ever been in big major studio movies aside from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  And besides — what major film studio heroes aren’t a bit, um…iconic.  In fact, those of us who are or could have been them prefer the word iconic.  Especially if it means – we’re the LEAD!

The truth is – you gotta start somewhere.

Martin Scorsese has spent half of his career immortalizing similar types of New York Italian guys in the movies but they are usually in the more tough talking form of Manhattan street thugs in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas – men who were certainly charismatic and street-wise but, on the whole, a lot tougher and muscular.  Plus, they could at least duck into Church for confession when things got dicey rather than eat themselves up from the inside out over anxiety.

Those kind of leading men tend to bleed into the aforementioned characters in our current crop of awards contenders.  Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wife-beater clad muscle head in Don Jon; Bradley Cooper’s co-lead detective Richie DiMaso in American Hustle; or even anti-hero Pat Solitano in last year’s Silver Linings Playbook.  Not to mention all the leads in The Godfather and Moonstruck.

There's gotta be an award out there for these curlers...

There’s gotta be an award out there for these curlers…

Which means if you put all the current Italian and Semitic boys from the boroughs together – which often happens in real life, not to mention in my own personal one – they comprise what I think of as a new ethnic stereotype I and my many childhood compadres from Queens have long awaited to be included on in film: The Jewish Guido.

(Note: See I can say that because I am one of them…well, sort of).

Who are we?  We are everything and more of what the major Hollywood studios think of as colorful and morally questionable.  No, we are not a Woody Allen character or Roberto Benigni from Life Is Beautiful.

Nope, not this Guido

Nope, not this Guido

We are a much more down and dirty, messy type of working/middle class person – a little crass, not afraid to speak our minds and, to put it bluntly: pretty good in bed – which is why we’re often a romantic lead who gets the girl at some point even if we can’t keep her.  You might not want to have us at a fancy dinner party or as your permanent spouse (Note: the latter is still in flux and debatable) but you most certainly want to include us if you aspire to learn how to rise up in the ranks of life or enjoy some unbridled, down and dirty fun.  In short, we have dreams and we’re not afraid to go for them in quite unorthodox and entertaining ways – even if there are overwhelming odds of failure or the likelihood that we will not have the best decorating sense once we achieve those dreams and have the cash to acquire whatever nouveau riche items you or we may crave.  Our reasoning:  if we don’t take that chance we’ll be stuck in Queens forever and, as we all know, with the right amount of money we can hire all the Waspy female decorators we want with taste and eventually charm them into at least having an affair with us after they’re done hanging the drapes.

Okay, so I may have exaggerated just a little bit.  But so are our personas.

This all started several weeks ago when I found myself thoroughly enjoying both    WoWS and AH while many of my friends insisted they reeked of disappointment, misguided storytelling and just plain unsympathetic, despicable characters.  Really?  I hadn’t noticed.  Isn’t this sort of the scrappy, exaggerated way Waspy movie characters behave, albeit with less money and more curse words?  No, claimed my Jewish guy friends from upstate New York, southern California and the Midwest.  They’re just awful people in uninvolving movies.   And those Waspy characters you are referring to are usually the villains, not the hero.

Did someone say Wasp?

Did someone say Wasp?

Well, okay.  Still, there is something to be said for seeing a version of you onscreen, even if it is a slightly unpleasant one.  If there is enough humanity and humor in the characterization you can get away with a lot of political incorrectness.  Enough elements of truth can counterbalance harsh generalities about the neighborhood or plot holes that you can drive a Miata through.  In addition, if you give these guys a little bit more of the macho power you craved when you were younger, or even last week, the fantasy is complete.  At least for some of us.

I can’t say I’m particularly proud of two Jewish guys from Queens being portrayed as people who swindled others out of money in order to lift themselves out of the doldrums of their own lower/middle class existences (Note: though if I had a choice I’d take the fictionalized Rosenfeld in American Hustle, who mostly stole from rich bad guys and didn’t kill people or cause them to kill themselves).  But now that Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss are no longer leading men and only act sporadically, not to mention the total lack of movie roles for Steve Guttenberg in the last 20 years, you can’t blame me for binging a little on these types of recent and very public inroads. (Note: Yes there is still Jessie Eisenberg, born in Queens and raised in New Jersey – but c’mon, there is just nothing boroughs about him or any of his characters).

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

I made a movie with Barbra.. does that count?

My notesfromachair co-hort Holly Van Buren suggested to me that the emergence of the Jewish Guido might have something to do with our current economic climate and the fantasy of the everyday working class man with the accent becoming victorious.  Not a bad thought.  It’s the boroughs way and certainly is a fine counterpoint to the seemingly omnipotent top 1%.  I mean, it takes a little bit of the crude and in your face in order to cut through all of that upper crust steeliness, right?

Plus, both Wolf and Hustle are period pieces from the seventies and eighties.  Clearly, enough time has passed where rather than championing a Gordon Gekko kind of financial wizard we can indulge in a more in-your-face punk upstart who beats the elite at their own game by any means necessary using the logic gleaned from a tougher life lived.

Still, there seems an even bigger factor – time.  American society may have grown more polarized these days but certainly its people have overall become far less homogenized.  There is ethnicity everywhere – so much so that is unusual for a day to go by on Fox News or right wing radio where the previously dominant White Male patriarchy, particularly in the south and Midwest, don’t wax nostalgic about the good old days and whine about losing their grip on power and the social and moral traditions (Note: one questions what they consider those were) that once made our Great Country great. This and the fact that same country, which less than two centuries ago legally enslaved all of its African American citizens in more than half of its states, has for the last six years had its first African American president presiding over everyone.

Yep.. and still the President.

Yep.. and still the President.

Those factors of time and ethnicity might also be responsible for the emergence of two other crossover major studio films about the African American community this year – 12 Years A Slave and Lee Daniel’s The Butler.  It is certainly no coincidence that as directors and other artists emerge in a position of power – like Steve McQueen and Mr. Daniels – the more chances there are of movies that reflect the history and/or experiences of their particular ethnic groups.  (Note:  Not that they can’t do anything else – both men have worked on “white” films).  It is also no accident that both of these directors have also earned money and acclaim in their recent past that have enabled them to do larger and more mainstream films with African American characters in the leads.  This is just the way it goes as long you can produce massive income with your often larger than life product.  Decades before Spike Lee had a certain degree of power among the major studios until his movies began underperforming at the box-office and the cache he was given by the powers-that-be to make his type of movies began to shrink. (Note: Mr. Lee also came of age at a time where there were far less non-white leads in films than there are today, making his road somewhat tougher).

Interestingly enough, all four aforementioned major films this year – Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler – are also historical pieces that take place far and very much farther into the past.   There could simply be a certain drama to looking at events from a backwards lens.  Though surely it also provides a special kind of safety that gives the Hollywood community and its studio system a specific type of perfect cover.

the current state of Hollywood

the current state of Hollywood

Which all begs the question – why with all of the many, many male Jewish writers and directors working in the movie industry over the decades – not to mention that the studios themselves were founded by a large group of New York Jewish salesmen – have there statistically been such a lack of Jewish male characters as major studio leads on the big screen. I mean, if the African-American model holds, shouldn’t it follow that….?

Well, I have no provable idea.  But even in accounting for time and some evolution of thought, it is still worth noting that American Hustle’s David O. Russell is half-Jewish while Wolf of Wall Street’s Scorsese is very famously Italian.  So, at least in terms of the Jewish Guido, well — you do the math.

Or, to put my take on the whole thing another way, here is what Woody Allen’s quintessentially non-Guido/very Jewish character of Alvy Singer said when he first met his very ethnic-looking first wife Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) in the 1977 classic, Annie Hall:

Woody-Allen-and-Carol-Kane-620x310

Alvy: You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings…and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper…stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself

Allison: No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

Alvy:  Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.