Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 20, 2004 6:36 pm 
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Crazy about flight

What's the point of a biopic, anyway? Is it meant to be a sort of crude cloning, like a waxworks effigy at Madame Tussaud's but with moving images? Or is it meant to delve into the secrets, show us the real man or woman behind the public mask? In the case of Howard Hughes, we already know all about the weirdness. What Martin Scorsese means to do is to show that Hughes was also a heroic figure in the history of aviation, and a playboy who had a great deal of fun. That may be a bit of a stretch: Hughes's story is full of epic foul-ups, spectacular wastes of money and time and lives to satisfy his mistaken whims, not to mention morally dubious actions; but nonetheless Scorsese's new movie, which focuses on Hughes’s early, triumphant decades, is fun to watch. It soars and sparkles. As for the man behind the mask, it shows us some of that, obsessively chronicling the obsessive-compulsive behavior to a degree the average viewer can hardly take; but the gaiety and pizzazz and boldness we'd forgotten about are what the movie wants to play around with. One of Hughes's best moments illustrated in The Aviator is the time he protected Spenser Tracy and Hughes's old flame Kate Hepburn from the scandal-mongers. She gave Hughes the gate, but he remained loyal. He did a lot of other bad stuff; but the finale of the early life of Hughes as seen by Scorsese is his standing up triumphantly to the sleazy politician, Senator Owen Brewster. Even when he descends into repetitive madness in the movie's last scene, the phrase he's repeating makes Hughes sound like a pioneer: it's "THE WAY OF THE FUTURE...THE WAY OF THE FUTURE...THE WAY OF THE FUTURE...." And the memory the movie leaves us with is of flashy clothes, daring-do, and pretty women.

This is where Leonardo DiCaprio comes in. Did Scorsese just choose DiCaprio to get a big budget for his aviation epic? I don't think so. There's more logic in it than that. Yes, Leo is too young-looking and reedy-voiced, but the movie in many if not all respects works anyway, and so does DiCaprio's performance. It's fun seeing the fine clothes and high life. DiCaprio looks great all duded up: his face and body fit quite well with 20-'s-30's-40's styles, and he's equally believable as party boy and ladies' man.

Scorsese's version of Katherine Hepburn -- who turns out to be one of the linchpins of the movie -- isn't too far off. At least her story gibes with the way the actress herself tells it in her memoir, About Me, which explains how her ex-husband's presence and her family's snobbish, clubby ways put Hughes off, how she discovered he was hard of hearing but tried to hide it, how they were too much alike to stay paired off for more than a couple of years. Cate Blanchett as Hepburn however not only doesn't look at all like her (she isn't as sharp and stylish), any more than Leo looks like Hughes; despite her obvious mimicry of the voice, she also doesn't really deliver her lines with the clarity, the rhythm, and the panache that Hepburn unfailingly had. But hers is essential as the liveliest female presence and so very much needed in this macho story about a boy and his toys.

The Aviator isn't too long if you accept that it's an epic. But can you do that? It's a colorful and unique story, but beyond that it doesn't quite know what it is, a clinical case history, a piece of hero-worship, an epic, a tragedy, or a comedy, and so it self-destructs, almost, toward the end, when the fun ends and the craziness increasingly begins to take over. We can certainly be glad it wasn't cast in the form of a solemn tragedy. It could have been made a comedy throughout. Hughes's obsessive-compulsive/paranoid meltdowns are tragi-comic. They're also rather catching. As soon as the movie ended I went to the Mens' and gave my hands a very thorough washing -- everything is so dirty! Yech! -- and the handwashing-scenes are pivotal -- epic in their intensity. Yes, Scorsese does do the obsessive-compulsive thing tellingly well, even if it seems more suited to a smaller, less flashy movie, something more on the order of Requiem for a Dream, or The Machinist, or the wonderful opening sequence of Jonathan Demme's almost forgotten Melvin and Howard, which captures the feel of the late Hughes persona splendidly, and sympathetically.

The aviation sequences are so amazing you wonder how they did them. One simple answer is, by spending lots of money. They must have cost as much as Hughes's extravagant projects. Again, this aspect of the movie is a bit of a whitewash, because DiCaprio makes crashing planes look heroic rather than foolhardy.

People have commented on the "clever" (actually too obvious) way breasts and clouds are connected, and how Hughes's fondling of a woman segues into his feeling of a new plane's shell for perfectly flush rivets. What's clever is how DiCaprio's face as he "flies" is both rapt and manic. Aviation comes to life as a higher calling, perhaps one of the great ones of the twentieth century, but technological progress as a kind of madness, a Luddite's "I told you so."

Leonardo is not so good as a crazy man. Growing a beard only makes his face look younger. We can believe him as a wild spender. It's harder to believe him as a recluse. (He's more often seen walking around buck naked than cowering in a corner.) But whatever you say, this movie's fun. At least it is till the craziness takes over. And even then it's fun, because Hughes is seen rallying from his longest crazy spell to triumph before the Congressional committee, stomping out to general applause. And DiCaprio works because he has the power to dominate the scene. What is best about DiCaprio is his exuberance -- always -- and his boldness, and those are the aspects of Howard Hughes Scorsese is playing with.

All the way through Leo does that wrinkled-brow charming-eyes look Orson Welles used to do, and you think of Citizen Kane. The Aviator may not be Scorsese's Citizen Kane but it's a fascinating movie and much more successful than the ill starred and lugubrious Gangs of New York. There are numerous splendid spectacles in The Aviator and they all have a glitzy glamour about them and are perfect for the wide screen in a big Cineplex. But is this what made the Scorsese of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas great? No. He's been seduced, not by money, but by movie grandeur, and he's moved far away from his noirish New York roots. In that he somewhat resembles Zhang Yimou, who's also moved toward pure spectacle, and with even better results -- not, of course, doing the biography of a modern figure.

The question remains: why do directors do biopics? Is Scorsese really looking for himself in the mad failed movie director, the obsessive compulsive recluse, as Oliver Stone is said to see himself in the megalomaniac Alexander obsessed by his mother? That may be a better answer than it seems.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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