The Departed: What is wrong with America today…

Martin Scorcese’s The Departed won best picture, best director in the Academy Awards in 2007.   I saw the film.  It had me on the edge of my seat (actually the edge of my couch; I was in my living room).  My stomach was in knots.  It was suspenseful, riveting.  The beginning was well done, with Jack Nicholson expounding on his gangster philosophy.  The filming was at times artful.  Nevertheless, I believe that The Departed is what is wrong with America today.  I don’t want to pull punches, so let me say it plainly:  Martin Scorsese is what is wrong with America today.  The fact that we are celebrating this piece of crap as art suggests to me that a sickness is sucking away at our national spirit.  It is the sickness of American excess.  Polemical statement, yes.  Allow me to explain.

America’s Achille’s heel is its excess.  We produce too much crap.  And we consume even more crap than we produce.  Hence, the Chinese. We have created a way of life in which everyone wants more, no one is satisfied with what they have.  We all get caught up in this.  The American Dream.  We fought wars to force other nations to adopt this way of life; happily, yes, because other ways of life – fascism, communism – were worse than ours, no argument there.  Now that we’ve convinced the world to adopt liberal capitalism as its model, forced it down everyone’s throat, we watch as we ruin the planet.  You cannot blame 1.3 billion Chinese and 1.1 billion Indians for wanting what everybody in southern California has.  A big car, a big house, and lots of stuff.  Factories manufacturing this stuff spew carbon gases from their smokestacks.  In America, we’ve made it.  The rest of the world wants to make it too.

I was in Los Angeles in February 2007.  It seems everybody there has a Porsche SUV in the garage and a flat screen TV in every room of the house.  I drove through northwestern Connecticut this weekend.  People there are driving Nissans and Subarus, burning wood and wood pellets so they don’t have to pay high oil prices to heat their homes.  Hugo Chavez, the neo-fascist president of Venezuela, is offering home heating subsidies to poor people in this region (with Joe Kennedy, Jr. promoting this on TV).  What a difference from southern California.  In northwestern Connecticut, they’re waiting tables, plowing roads, fixing boilers, cleaning homes.  Meanwhile, people making crappy movies make millions, no, hundreds of millions; people running companies make billions; and, most of America’s leaders are filthy rich.  Talk show hosts like Leno and Letterman joke about how rich they are.  Okay, I know it’s not that simple, but the excess in this country is striking. 

Politicians too.  Bill Clinton bemoans the regressive tax system on the one hand, but points out on the other that somehow he, a lifelong politician, is in the top tier of holders of wealth.  Even our leaders who head or fund movements designed to save the planet, such as Al Gore, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are very, very rich. (These three heroes are responsible for, respectively, An Inconvenient Truth, the Gates Foundation which funds anti-poverty programs, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which seeks to prevent the spread of weapons grade nuclear material.)  How did Al Gore, also a lifelong politician, whose father was a lifelong politician, get rich? Serving on corporate boards such as Occidental Petroleum.  Having a cattle ranch that somehow sits atop a zinc mine in Tennessee.  Joining a hedge fund after losing the presidency.  Whenever it is convenient for him, maybe Al Gore could tell us the inconvenient truth about his millions.

Former Senator Sam Nunn who heads Buffett’s Nuclear Threat Initiative sits on the board of Coca Cola.  I guess that’s not so bad – keeping nukes out the hands of terrorists with one hand, selling sugar water to third world kids with the other.   And, to be Secretary of the Treasury in America, such as Hank Paulson and before him, Bob Rubin, you have to have made hundreds of millions – not millions, hundreds of millions – in the financial markets.

So, what does this have to do with the Scorsese film?  Lots.  Read on.

The Departed suffers from excess.  An excess of violence, blood and creepy people, an oversupply of top movie actors, especially of the hunk variety, an abundance of hype, but, unfortunately, a dearth of character, plot, and good dialogue.  And, to top it all off, a lack of a redeeming message.

What happened to tasteful films, nuanced art, and the critical ingredient to all human creativity, irony?  What happened to stories involving a single violent act that challenges human beings to be heroic or less-than-heroic?  Have they been replaced by the free-for-all, scumbags-shoot-scumbags-for-two-and-a-half-hours piece of celluloid?  Why do we have so many movies about scumbags in America?  What is the fascination?  Why do our best actors make it big playing depraved misogynist killers?  Nicholson, De Niro, Pitt, Damon, DiCaprio, Pacino, Gandalfini.  You mean you have to play a reptilian killer in order to make it in the American cinema? 

Why do we honor Scorsese when he makes such movies?  Why do Americans celebrate violence?  And then wonder why Columbine happens.  Export our violent culture, and then wonder why 9/11 happens.  We censor sex to protect our kids, but allow free reign when it comes to violence.  Films such as The Road to Perdition, Fight Club, Gangs of New York, Goodfellas are all hits?  Why does the Terminator – I’ll be back! – become the Governator of California?   American excess.

Freud explained violence as a result of mankind’s instinct for self-preservation and aggression.  The implication was that we shouldn’t repress this impulse, but rather should channel it into creative or productive endeavors.  Fargo, the Coen Brothers film, is a creative and productive endeavor.  The Departed is not.

George Kennan, the American diplomat who first warned the world about the rise of Soviet Communism in the nineteen forties, said in his second book of memoirs, sitting up there on his perch of East Coast elitism, that nothing good in our culture ever comes out of California.  Only the worst, newest trends do.  I believe he was a bit narrow-minded and reactionary in saying this, but when I see such films as The Departed win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and such Governors as the Governator running that state, I think back to that anti-California chapter that Kennan penned.

Good films depict a violent act or several violent acts and show how good people and not-so-good people are challenged, how they handle the stress.  Again, Fargo comes to mind.  Scorsese should be locked in a room with the Coen Brothers until either they are so disgusted with him that they leave or he learns something.  In Fargo, we see the Frances McDormand-character — simple, capable, good — juxtaposed against a broad array of weaker humans – the Scorsese-esque bleach-blond killer, the spineless evil of William H. Macy.  Fargo is deep, ironic, interesting, a real study in what it means to be human.  Likewise In the Heat of the Night, from 1967, with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, explores hatred and racism in America.  The Poitier and Steiger characters change over the course of the film, they grow. That is the golden rule of fiction, characters must change.  Scorsese’s characters start out as depraved scumbags and die in a pool of blood as depraved scumbags.  Who changed, who developed, who grew in The Departed?  Tell me.  I’d like to learn.  Crash, which won Best Picture in 2006, was another great film.  Thank God the Academy had sense that year.

The characters in The Departed were flat, two-dimensional.  The relationships were contrived.  The plot predictable, deteriorating into about an hour of cell phone calls and text messages.  Is that what movies will be about in the latter part of this decade —  people on cell phones?  Furthermore, juxtapose the female characters in a Scorsese film with those in the ones I mentioned above.  In The Departed you’ve got this psychologist who likes bad boys, tortured violent men.  Can’t keep her pants on around them.  All the dialogue between her and Matt Damon and her and Leonardo was stilted and weird.  Dialogue simply to advance the plot.  I couldn’t write worse dialogue myself and I write pretty poor dialogue.  I think Scorsese must be a little misogynist to create such self-destructive, abuse-seeking female characters.  Compare Scorsese’s psychologist, who says she “believes in public service,” with the Frances McDormand-character in Fargo, who never has to say that because we have rarely seen a character more devoted to public service.  The theme of the female who loves the bad boy was treated better in that Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza tries to play the bad boy to win over a woman who works in Elaine’s office.  That was ironic and funny.

What’s more?  Everybody is in on this film!  It’s a goddamn Hollywood elite lovefest.  Scorsese, Nicholson, Damon, Leonardo, even Brad Pitt is one of the producers.  Martin, please, give me a piece of the action!  You need a little Brad Pitt in on a film like this one to take the violence up a few notches and make another hundred million.  Fight Club redux.

Now, I am not against suspense.  This film was suspenseful, no doubt about that.  But, my primary emotion was disgust.  Whatever happened to Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense?  The suspense of Rear Window.  Of North By Northwest.  Did Raymond Burr kill and cut up his wife?  Who is trying to frame Cary Grant and is Grace Kelly in love with him or is she an evil spy?  In The Departed, the murder that goes on seems more like a documentary about Darfur than art.

Not to minimize Darfur.  In fact, this is what a film such as The Departed does in the end.  It minimizes such reprehensible real-world violence.  I just read The Diary of Anne Frank.  This is the real world of violence and murder.  Here was a precious human being – a smart, precocious, talented, mischievous, loving, headstrong, sweet teenage girl, surviving and plying her art under the difficult conditions of being in hiding.  After you read her wonderful words, a work that reaches the pinnacle of literature if you ask me, you can find out on various web sites what happened to her from August 4, 1944, when she was arrested, until March 1945.  First, overnight in a Gestapo jail in Amsterdam.  Then, a month in a Dutch transit camp, head shaved, starving.  Then, aboard the last train from Holland to Auschwitz.  Three days in a cattle car, no food, nowhere to defecate.  Then, a couple of months in Auschwitz, as a slave laborer, barked at and whipped by female SS troopers of the Third Reich.  Then off to Bergen Belsen with tens of thousands of other women, crowded together in the most unsanitary conditions, only to contract typhus, as did her sister Margot, and die at the age of fifteen.  This precious, brilliant, sensitive, optimistic young girl, loving life and believing in the goodness of people, was killed by animals.  That, Mr. Scorsese, is violence.  That is true human cruelty.  The crap that Scorsese hawks demeans such stories.  Did I need to see that crazy finale of shooting in The Departed?  Absolutely not.

You can claim that Shakespearean tragedy features mass stabbings at the end.  Is this the way Scorsese is aspiring to be a modern-day Shakespeare?  To our modern eyes, Shakespearean killings seem almost comical.  And, each major character goes down with a soliloquy.  In a Scorsese film, they go down with a “fucking cocksucker!” and blood spurting out of their heads. 

America’s excess is at the heart of the success of The Departed. A film such as Volver or Little Miss Sunshine, which explore the nuance and irony of being human, should have won Best Picture this year.  Shame on you, Academy!  America’s excess is its Achille’s heel and is not a good sign for the future.  The irony of America is the fact that it is the promise of riches that drives the lower and middle classes to work hard.  These are the classes that are the engine of America’s renewal, in every age, not the upper classes.  Greater balance is needed in our society. Excess must be reined in.  Perhaps the excess of violence in our culture, in our art, emanates from our freedom, or perhaps it is a result of the frustration of competition – there are always losers – or of the lack of community, or of the veneration of celebrities who make it big playing violent criminals in the movies.

The Departed, to me, is a particularly revolting example of American excess.  It is a movie made by elites, for elites, and judged by elites.  Let us at least start controlling American excess in the cultural sphere, by choosing good art as our winners, such as Volver or Little Miss Sunshine, instead of Scorsese’s colossal crime of excess, The Departed. 

Thank you for indulging me this rant.  I obviously feel strongly about bad art, especially bad art that wins awards.  If you agree with what I’ve said here, please feel free to send this around.  Let’s start a campaign to reverse the Academy’s decision for the first time in history (joke).  But, then again, maybe you liked the movie.

One Response to “The Departed: What is wrong with America today…”

  1. America: bad film from the declining power – the Oscars « Scherblog Says:

    […] by that overrated purveyor of violence, Martin Scorsese, was a travesty when it won Best Picture.  I wrote about that in a blog a while back.  Why can’t more films like Crash win?  That film is the epitome of what I am talking about […]

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