We begin by giving thanks to the local publicist who was swell enough to arrange a press preview of The Irishman in an auditorium to my liking. (Reading Cinemas Grossmont #5.) That said, it angers me to no end that I will be one of just a few thousand Americans afforded a shot at seeing a film directed by Marvel-denier and ruler of the cinematic universe, Martin Scorsese, in the way it was intended. Or was it?
Martin Scorsese shot Raging Bull in black-and-white to protest what he understood to be a crisis in unstable color film stock. He was also the first to decry the multiplexing of American single screens in the name of staggered showtimes. Knowing that greater numbers of viewers were watching films on home video, he waited until 1991 — when TV screens were big enough and viewers finally tolerant enough to deal with a letterboxed image — to at last shoot a picture in Panavision. No one in my lifetime has done more to preserve film and encourage the theatrical life cycle of motion pictures than Scorsese. So what the fuck is he doing in bed with Netflix?
Netflix is to theatrical distribution what Trump is to detente. It is a television channel, and as such, its goal is to keep people at home microwaving corn, not purchasing it freshly popped at a concession stand. During the last gasp of 35mm exhibition, indie films would play the Gaslamp for a week or two in advance of their VOD release. These last minute bookings functioned more as commercial reminders for films coming soon to a home theatre (or Red Box) near you than actual incentives to leave the living room. Netflix will release certain titles to theatres only to remind people to subscribe to their streaming service or to qualify the pics for prizes. Note that for its New York and Los Angeles releases, the studio, looking to suck up to voting members, booked The Irishman in a pair of single-screen palaces.
Isn’t it ironic that a man who rightfully dubbed effects-driven Marvel Movies “theme park rides” and “not cinema” had every studio gate slammed in his face when he insisted The Irishman could not be made without costly de-aging VFX? I will concede that the technology was as essential as it was effective, seamlessly souping up credibility in a manner that leaves latex and Max Factor in the dust. But that’s not enough to cover for Scorsese. He knew all along that the majority of viewers would come to the film on television, so he shot accordingly. A betting man would wager that well over half the picture was composed in TV-safe closeups and reverse angle shots of well-paid actors talking, the impact of which would not be lost on a flatscreen. I liked it better when Scorsese, not the medium, dictated shot size.
The film is not without its flashes of brilliance, many of which involve Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. With his advancing hairline, Hoffa goes and gets his Irish up over a little matter at a union meeting. In no time, you’re laughing harder than when watching Rob “Mad Max” Reiner field a call during The Equalizer. And why let news of the death of J.F.K. come between a covetous butcher and his ice cream sundae? Having never before worked with Scorsese, Pacino’s fresh take on an old teamster elevates the film above its small screen trappings. Of the old guard, only Harvey Keitel is left with precious little to do.
One might have hoped that a post-#MeToo Scorsese might have carved out some space in his picture for the womenfolk. Alas, women are not a part of Scorsese’s lexicography, never have been. The wives are a pair of cigarette puffing props who are not allowed to smoke on the car trip that provides the film its structure. (Didn’t Marty see Linda Cardellini’s Dolores in Green Book? He could have learned a lot from a Farrelly brother.) The other woman, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina aging into Anna Paquin) observes at a very early age the type of monster her old man is. His attempt to be a good father by roughing up her boss was better played with Henry’s dad and the pizza oven in Goodfellas. Screenwriter Steve Zailian affords Peggy but one line of dialogue, as if seething silence alone were commentary enough to build and sustain a character. (What can you expect from a man who couldn’t figure out any other way of getting a little girl to stand out in a 195 minute black-and-white Holocaust drama than by putting her in a colorized red dress?)
Some are saying the film’s curtain shot is the most powerful in Scorsese’s career, but I’m not buying it. Casino is ostensibly a wall-to-wall rollick until it reaches the point of it ain’t funny no more. The whacking and subsequent desert deposition of Nicky and Frank updates the time-honored “crime doesn’t pay” dictum with the force of an unglamorized attention-grabbing twist of the neck. Powerful moment #2 can be found in The Irishman. A flashback to WWII finds Lt. Sheeran forcing a pair of Nazis to dig a hole that, in the time it takes to fire off a few rounds, becomes their eternal resting place. Little did the soldier know at the time, but this “follow orders and you’re rewarded” mentality was preparing him for a career in the mob. But when it comes to a resounding moment of curtain-ringing restitution, nothing in The Irishman comes close to touching Henry’s comeuppance in Goodfellas. The punishment there is twofold: first, he can sin no more; and second, his jail cell is a traditional single-family suburban home of the white-picket fence, two-car garage variety, aka the American dream.
So what exactly is it about The Irishman that left a stain of betrayal? Sheeran comes closer to granite-headed Jake LaMotta than any of Marty’s previous mobsters. The key to both men’s success was their inability to feel. I’ve felt enough. It didn’t take a genius to see that television was finally poised to win the war against movies. I just didn’t expect my teacher to be leading the charge against theatrical exhibition. For enjoyable entertainment, you could do a lot worse. You could revisit The Departed. This time, the director’s biggest triumph was picking up a hefty paycheck for what is for all intents and purposes a $200 million TV movie. And the Emmy goes to...