Scorsese's Always Worth a Look


I don’t get it. In both reviews and Facebook comments I’ve come across, at least part of the zeitgeist seems to have recently decided that Martin Scorsese has suffered a downturn in talent and results onscreen. Even as he leapt back to fine form with The Wolf of Wall Street, the chorus of doubters remains skeptical.

Wolf is a companion piece to Goodfellas, just swap out pasta sauce and blood for cocaine and champagne. It chugs along at a brisk pace following not a gangster but a penny-stock grifter from the working class, Jordan Belfort, who builds his brokerage – on Long Island and not in the fabled Lower Manhattan financial district as the title implies – into the big-time and equally large financial shenanigans. And along the way revels in the high life of conspicuous consumption.

Some accused the film of glorifying Belcourt’s trajectory into wretched excess, but that’s just silly. Like every Scorsese film and any movie worth a damn, it has a moral center to anyone perceptive to that issue.

It’s a chance yet again to savor his delicious visual and shot sense in full bloom. And the way he enables actors to shine. (Jonah Hill? Who knew? Not me, but now I’d cast him in a wink.) Leonardo plays Belfort – a real-life figure – with brisk brio and a deliciously wicked streak. And knock me silly with a feather, Matthew McConaughey?! Dallas Buyers Club. True Detective. And now just a few scenes in Wolf, all nailed down with hard and luminescent performances.

Scorsese had woven music brilliantly into his magnificent visual storytelling since Mean Streets, and in Wolf he brilliantly uses key snatches of great songs as a simultaneous Greek chorus at critical junctures. Some people decry it as maybe half an hour too long, but with a filmmaker like Scorsese I say just enjoy the richness of the ride (and didn’t find its pacing at all slack).

Of course no creative talent is immune from criticism. But I can think of no other contemporary American director with an equivalent catalog of superior if not landmark films. Much as I am loath to invoke the comparison game of quantifying and declare him our best or greatest filmmaker alive today, it’s not like the honor doesn’t fit.

But some point to recent movies like The Departed and Shutter Island (his highest-grossing release to date) as signs of some kind of slide, but I don’t see it, and enjoyed both immensely. I can’t help but see this as the Internet-engendered tendency in our popular culture to knock down icons and revel in the sport, even if it there’s no reason to do so. True greatness is never perfect because it is always reaching for something even greater. But there isn’t a single Scorsese moving I wouldn’t watch again – and there are some I’ve already seen multiple times – because his gifts are so resonant.

And we should be thankful that we have a prominent filmmaker who is so grounded and knowledgable in cinematic traditions at a time when far too much moviemaking is low brow to say the least. Scorsese’s films as well as his writings and discussions of the art are like a graduate-level primer in the very finest aspects of the art and craft of film.

Esteem should always be tempered with honest and critical observations. And I don’t sweep such aside when it comes to Martin Scorsese. But I challenge anyone to cite a filmmaker whose accomplishments are greater and more distinguished, distinctive and entertaining. And now “Wolf of Wall Street” heartily reassures me that he has many more treasures to come.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2014

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