My friend Jeffrey Wells recently ran a link to my review of Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” which I really liked, on his always interesting website, Hollywood Elsewhere. Then he undercut it by referring to me as part of a Scorsese-worshiping cabal, willing to give the director a pass on what Wells obviously thinks of as a lesser film:
“I can see right now where the ‘Shutter Island’ discussion will go. Hip, older urban critics like Marshall Fine will do the usual solidarity thing (i.e., their standard response whenever a reasonably decent film by a venerated director comes out) and pass out ‘Friends of Marty’ buttons at screenings and so on.”
Wells later wrote, “Scorsese occupies a hallowed place in the hearts of the older, brainier, more thoughtful critics, and that it’s usually in keeping with the character of this crowd to cut Marty some slack whenever a new Scorsese film comes out.”
I hate being called older (mostly because it’s increasingly true), I’m flattered to be called brainy, thoughtful and hip (my kids would certainly disagree) – but what I take issue with is the idea that there is something disingenuous about my review.
A.O. Scott picks up the same thread in his resoundingly negative review of “Shutter Island” in the New York Times, saying, “There are, of course, those who will resist this conclusion, in part out of loyalty to Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt.”
I’m not going to get into an online firefight with Jeff Wells or Tony Scott or anyone else who doesn’t like “Shutter Island” about the film itself. They’re entitled to their opinions. The dirty little secret about those of us in the critic game is this: Each of us thinks we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Not only wrong, but misguidedly wrong. Except when they agree with us – but that only means that they’re showing the good sense required to do so.
Still, I take umbrage with the idea that to admire and celebrate “Shutter Island” is to have somehow drunk the Scorsese Kool-Aid. Why imply that there must be an ulterior motive to like Scorsese’s movie?
A critic’s credibility depends on his honesty, his willingness to call them as he sees them, no matter what. So the idea that I somehow had to rationalize my opinion about this film – that I came in determined to like it because it was by Scorsese – is just flat wrong.
Every critic has his own personal pantheon – the directors he loves, whose work he eagerly awaits. They are the filmmakers who make this job worthwhile because they renew your excitement about movies, at a time when fewer and fewer exciting films get released in any given year.
Scorsese is at the top of mine and calling “Shutter Island” a brilliant film is no stretch, in my opinion. It’s imaginative, evocative, haunting, thrilling – everything, in other words, that you want a movie to be.
I love Scorsese’s work – even the lesser work – because I think he’s a master filmmaker. I’m certainly willing to concede that there are films of his that I like less than others. I grew impatient at times with “Kundun,” thought “Casino” was amazing but a rehash of “Goodfellas,” and felt as though “Bringing Out the Dead” seemed like a throwaway.
Yet even lesser Scorsese stands head-and-shoulders above the best of many other directors. I actually got into a discussion at a dinner at the Toronto Film Festival last fall in which I said I thought he’d never made a bad film – that I could defend virtually everything he’s directed. I still believe that.
When he’s at his best, there are few who can come close. I feel that way about only a small group of filmmakers – and each of them has films that I didn’t like or felt were misfires. And when that happens, I’ve said so. A couple of examples:
I have been a huge Coen brothers fan since “Blood Simple” – but I wouldn’t want to watch “Intolerable Cruelty” or “Burn After Reading” or even “O Brother, Where Art Thou” again anytime soon. On the other hand, I could watch “No Country for Old Men” or “Fargo” or “A Serious Man” repeatedly.
I felt the same way about the late Robert Altman. At his best – in films as diverse as “Nashville,” “Gosford Park” and “The Player” – he was a genius at reimagining what a movie could be. But “Pret a Porter”? “Cookie’s Fortune”? “Popeye”? Sorry, even Altman could be awful.
I’m sure there are those who are reading those last couple of paragraphs and shaking their heads, muttering, “But I loved ‘Popeye’ (or fill in the blank).” That’s their prerogative – just as disdaining those films is mine.
The point here is that it’s one thing to dislike a film like “Shutter Island” and to believe I’m wrong to praise it. It’s another to suggest that it’s part of an act of willful blindness in an attempt to support a favored filmmaker.
So feel free to disagree with me about “Shutter Island” or the Scorsese oeuvre in general. But don’t question my integrity in doing so, if you don’t mind.