This is good.
During the cold open of an early episode of the sitcom Cheers, a timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra enters the hostelry for a slaking ale as he awaits his part in the evening’s performance, which is happening concurrently. As he drinks, he counts beats, for he knows, with mathematical precision, when he has to be back, to add his percussive flourish. His sonic applecart, as such, is upended, when the bartender, Coach, tries to figure out how much change he is owed, computing the sums aloud. Our man slams down his mug, storming into the night—better to be back early than to louse up his gig.
It’s a good joke, if not an especially wieldy one—it’s further from Symphony Hall to Beacon Hill than the show makes us think, but we get the gist, which is why this seemingly innocuous TV moment was on my mind when I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. One of the reasons that untrained, English white kids like the eventual members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones took to rock and roll was because if you could count, you could figure out a lot of it, and, more importantly, how to begin writing it. A given section would have eight bars, another twelve, and you’d slot them together; you knew when to stop, when to end.
Martin Scorsese has long made his films this way, but now he has a dancing partner which will reward his work with greater approbation the more rote and devoted to its standard-setting of autopilot it becomes. Which is to say, the success of a picture such as this one has less than ever to do with the work’s qualities, and often occurs despite its shortcomings. Even it’s absolute ineptitude. It’s sexism. The manner in which it insults your intelligence, if you let it. And, given the passivity of our age, there’s a reasonable chance we’re up for playing ball, and slinging the ol’ passivity spheroid around until something else comes along to distract us, give us cause to chase the tail yet again, round and round, a pack of dizzy dogs.
Scorsese fancies himself both gatekeeper, archivist, and artistic soldier-in-the-field, upholding what he professes to be cinematic art, world cinema, as the term used to be, with its place at the table besides pictures by those directors whom Scorsese revers: Murnau, Renoir, Passolini, Truffaut, Ophuls, Ford, Hawks, Vigo, the down and dirty noir boys—and Ida Lupino—of the 1940s and 1950s. His place is important to him, just as the idea of this table is crucial in the first instance, a functioning artifact with perpetual utility, albeit, as Scorsese would maintain, diminishing degrees; hence his push-back against superhero films, which landed him in a Twitter stew when he opined that they didn’t constitute cinema.
I understood why he felt that way—they’re garish and cheesy and obvious, but so was 1958’s The Blob, which I could see Scorsese liking. But they do have something that The Irishman does not: and that’s an arc. In a superhero film, there will be elements of change with the characters, minimal though they may be. Some of the bread in the pan will rise, if only in vaguely perceptible amounts. You know what you are getting with The Irishman and it takes mere seconds of a trundling camera; you know the very beats of the film itself, as if you were a vatic master, before the beats occur; as easy as counting, so long as a bartender figuring out how much change we are owed keeps his math to himself.
We enjoy, some might say, having our nostalgia button pressed, but I liken this to have another hit of the opium pipe, in those dens that Sherlock Holmes sometimes had to venture into in his sleuthing days to wrestle info from a Lascar. You don’t have to take the hit on the pipe; you might be surprised what fresh air will offer you, allowing, that is, if we can find fresh air, which becomes harder and harder in a time period when gatekeepers, so simple, so unaware of how they map their own demise, run from freshness and innovation. I had an editor who used to say the nostalgia button thing, and he’d sign up writers to draft obvious, simple pieces, meant to tamp down this well-thumbed button, yet again, in search of clicks, which, as one might guess, helped put the magazine out of business.
We often overestimate ourselves—our character, intelligence, the value of of our so-called precious (and yet, regularly-wasted) time—and just as often underestimate the abilities of an audience. Scorsese doesn’t give a fig for an audience; not because he’s a maverick, Man Ray in 1927 unleashing Emak Bakia; rather, his technique and skills are limited, and his form of autopilot is a form of autosexuality, which is rewarded with the aid of a post-art, post-entertainment culture, where a work’s success has next to nothing to do with what the work truly offers us.
A work is what exists in a given box. Have you seen those so-called unboxing videos on YouTube where some sonic boffin happily opens up the packaging of his deluxe Sgt. Pepper set? He’s stoked, but what he is showing you are the accoutrements of the box, not the stuff of the box, which is Lennon’s vocal on take 1 of “A Day in the Life,” to use but one example. Call it the nitty-gritty of the box. Box contents.
In our age, the contents of the box border on the irrelevant; what is going to matter are the satellite boxes—the cubes and bijous—and traps—that hover around the box we are meant to be talking about, responding to, though we so rarely, if ever, are. Satellite boxes might be, let us say, the latest agenda-driven—or ill-gotten gains-driven—farrago of skin color, gender, political hair pulling. No one actually focuses on the writings, for example, of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but rather the satellite boxes. We could assemble a colloquy of ten people, 100 people, however many you like, and go through his sentences, each of us writing down on a piece of paper what we think they actually say, and no two of us are going to be seen to have close to the same sense of what any given sentence means. They’re not relevant, they are held to no standard, they need not be clear, function, impart, succeed, compel. If there is a human form of checks and balances, that human would be blitzed at the bar, AWOL, because he or she ain’t here. From the satellites comes everything, even if, ultimately, they are meaningless over anything but the shortest of hauls, as evanescent as that sneeze which you have been holding back.
The Irishman opens with a dolly shot, the camera moving down the hallway of a nursing home or a hospital—we’re not exactly sure which at first. You see this same shot utilized many times in the sitcom Scrubs, not a playbook from which an auteur should be filching. We’re not talking Orson Welles and Russell Metty and the opening of Touch of Evil here. We’re talking fists of ham, and then we pull up to Robert De Niro, and we know exactly what De Niro is going to do. What we don’t know is why he’s doing this now, in terms of who he is talking to—though not because of a surprise factor this film is beginning to earn early on, but rather entitlement. Laziness. The expectation that what is going to be done will be good enough; further, lauded and lionized. Why? We will come to that. But for now, De Niro is going to begin to tell a story that will be peppered with colloquialisms from what is tantamount to a sect we are not a member of.
Every Scorsese film employs this form of language-scrip. It’s the currency of the land. An actor like De Niro narrates, drops in the scrip, scattering it about like he’s Hansel and Gretel hoping daws don’t put the kibosh on their best-laid trails, and this is meant to be creative, because it’s not the stuff of your day in, day out purlieu. But it is the stuff of every Scorsese film. And if you’ve seen a bunch, it has become some of your stuff, too, when you sit down to have this experience.