Back in December, I introduced a series here called Iron Director. In the first edition, I compared two directors who I became obsessed with last year- Francois Truffaut and Rainer Werner Wolfcastle, er… Fassbinder. I’m about due for another one of these entries. Lately, the question that’s been bouncing around my skull is “Who is the best director working today?”. It’s not an easy question to answer. There are tons of worthy candidates. The two names (or three, I suppose) that come to my mind instantly are Martin Scorsese and the tag team of Joel and Ethan Coen. If either Scorsese or the Coen Brothers have a movie in the theaters, I’m going to see it. It’s guaranteed. Unlike last time, when there were holes in my viewing experience for the two respective directors, I’ve seen everything the Coens have ever made except for one. The gaps for Scorsese are very minimal. So let’s take a look:
What I’ve watched (Netflix rating, out of 5 stars, in parentheses)
Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (4 stars), Boxcar Bertha (3 stars), Mean Streets (4 stars), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (4 stars), Taxi Driver (4 stars), Raging Bull (4 stars), The King of Comedy (4 stars), After Hours (4 stars), The Color of Money (4 stars), The Last Temptation of Christ (4 stars), Goodfellas (5 stars), Cape Fear (3 stars), The Age of Innocence (3 stars), Casino (4 stars), Kundun (4 stars), Bringing Out the Dead (4 stars), Gangs of New York (3 stars), The Aviator (5 stars), No Direction Home (4 stars), The Departed (5 stars), Shutter Island (4 stars)
About those Netflix ratings- there’s a great deal of my level of enjoyment involved. You’ll never find me questioning the filmmaking brilliance of Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. They just didn’t resonate with me like a lot of other heavy-hitting, AFI Top 100-ish films in terms of enjoyment. In both cases, it was more like a 4.5 and I rounded down.
So what makes Scorsese, SCORSESE!? If you’ve ever heard the man speak, you realize that he has an intense love of cinema, and a profound respect for film history. As such, you find elements of major film movements all over his work. For instance, Italian neo-realism plays a major role in a lot of his films. The majority of the extras in Goodfellas were people from his old neighborhood, friends, friends of friends, or even his own mother. He wanted to show New York, so he used real New Yorkers right out of his own upbringing. The same applies to the wildly underrated After Hours, along with just about every film he’s made in New York. There’s also French New Wave vibe to a lot of his work. His camera started moving some time in the late 60’s and never stopped. Again, I’ll use Goodfellas as my reference point- think of the impossibly long tracking shot as Henry Hill introduces Karen to his world, or the freeze frames. One of the reasons that I enjoyed Shutter Island much more than the average film-goer was the way he paid homage to Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and Kurosawa’s use of the elements to establish tone. The man knows his movies and you can be sure that whatever decisions he’s making, he’s making them from a highly-educated standpoint.
Scorsese’s realism is about more than just the characters. It’s a cliché at this point to refer to the “gritty realism” of his films, but it’s so very true. He was part of a wave of directors that shook up the status quo of old Hollywood by showing the grit and the grime of the streets, of the bars, of the dingy places that people don’t normally want to go. He (along with others) embraced the anti-hero and subsequently altered film history.
There’s also a surprising amount of diversity to his work, most notably in his films from the 80’s and mid 90’s. What you find is a gutsy sequel to The Hustler; two dark comedies, After Hours and The King of Comedy; a Victorian-era period piece, The Age of Innocence; a re-make of a thriller, Cape Fear; and profound views of two religious icons via Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ.
His films are deeply personal. You don’t make introspective films like Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ without putting your own stamp on them. Any one of his New York-based films could be about people he’s known in his lifetime. Roger Ebert’s book, Scorsese, points out that little Henry Hill in the beginning of Goodfellas, may as well have been little Marty Scorsese, peering out the window and mythologizing the people around him. One of the reasons I thought he could do so well with The Aviator is because his own obsession- film- would translate well into Howard Hughes’ OCD themes.
Last but not least, few directors represent Catholicism quite like Scorsese, albeit in his own unique way. The Madonna/Whore complex is on full display in all of his films- characters idolizing women… until they possess them.
Best dish: Goodfellas
Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are right behind Goodfellas. If anyone wanted to tell me I should’ve chosen those two instead, I’d completely understand. For me, Goodfellas is a beautiful and uniquely American film. He’s taken the American experience (his own, by the way), and filtered it through the prism of film history. It’s truly impressive.
Worst dish: Gangs of New York
My first inclination is The Age of Innocence, which simply bored me to tears. But the film itself was well-made. I just didn’t enjoy it. Gangs of New York, on the other hand, felt clunky and forced at times.
Joel and Ethan Coen
What I’ve watched (Netflix rating, out of 5 stars, in parentheses)
Blood Simple (4 stars), Raising Arizona (4 stars), Miller’s Crossing (4 stars), Barton Fink (5 stars), The Hudsucker Proxy (4 stars), Fargo (5 stars), The Big Lebowski (5 stars), O Brother, Where Art Thou (4 stars), The Man Who Wasn’t There (4 stars), The Ladykillers (2 stars), No Country for Old Men (4 stars), Burn After Reading (4 stars), A Serious Man (5 stars), True Grit (4 stars)
The Coens are the kings of the neo-noir. Just about every film they’ve ever made has featured some type of noir element to it. At the heart of their movies, they’re almost all mysteries or heists or thefts. But instead of the familiar dark, shadowy, rainy, cement setting, you get the barren Texas wasteland (Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men; or the harsh, whiteout landscape of Minnesota (Fargo); or Hollywood (The Big Lebowski); or the banal D.C. suburbs (Burn After Reading).
Like Scorsese, the Coens are also uniquely American. The tales they tell can only be found in this country. Barton Fink wouldn’t work anywhere else. O Brother, Where Art Thou is straight-up American Southern Gothic, featuring one grotesque after another; The Hudsucker Proxy works not as a generic send-up of capitalism, but rather the American brand of capitalism. You know, for our kids. Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. The Dude, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, is the epitome of California stoner cool. A Serious Man doesn’t work anywhere but the ennui-filled suburbs of 1950’s and 1960’s America.
Whereas Scorsese has brandished the dark comedy a few times, the Coens have it on constant display. Even in the case of No Country for Old Men, there were several times where you’d chuckle and sort of smirk at the humor. When Brad Pitt got shot in the head in Burn After Reading, not many directors could pose that as a comedic scene. But the Coens did. Lest I lead you astray, it’s not just dark comedy. Their characters are quirky and pop off the screen. Think of the army of goofy Minnesota accents in Fargo, or the goofy and charming simplicity of the hula hoop drawing in Hudsucker, or every single thing about Lebowski. Yes, their films are mostly neo-noir and feature lots of murder and/or theft and/or general illegal mischievousness, but they are never without humor.
As you would expect from filmmakers who make a lot of crime dramas (with humor), there seems to be an infatuation with convicts in the Coens’ work. Buscemi and Stormare’s characters in Fargo are ex-cons and are paired up with Shep Proudfoot. John Goodman’s character in Barton Fink is on the lam. “Hi” McDunnough of Raising Arizona fame is another convict. O Brother, Where Art Thou focuses strictly on convicts who are on the run. I don’t suppose it adds to the quality of their films, inherently, but it’s definitely a characteristic you find in much of their work.
It would appear that they have a solid respect for source literature, with a twist. No Country for Old Men is based off of the novel by Cormac McCarthy. A Serious Man (their most personal film, their equivalent of Goodfellas) nods to the Talmud… and Jefferson Airplane. O Brother, Where Art Thou re-tells Homer’s Odyssey. One of the criticisms I’ve seen for True Grit was how true they remained to the book, and Mattie Ross’ prologue.
Best dish: A Serious Man
That… was not an easy choice to make. I love Lebowski like no other film. And Barton Fink is also an incredible movie. So why A Serious Man? Because it comes from the heart. You don’t have to understand the Jewish underpinnings to enjoy it, though my appreciation for the film skyrocketed once it was explained to me. It comes from the place they grew up, and it (presumably) speaks to their upbringing in the Jewish faith, along with all of the deep exploratory questions that go with it.
Worst dish: The Ladykillers
There really wasn’t much to it beyond the humor, which was lacking for a Coen film.
Who takes it? Whose cinema reigns supreme?
Ultimately, these two are like pizza and tacos. Asking someone to choose only one is completely unfair. Fortunately, we don’t live in some sort of hell where you can only see the films of the Coen Brothers or only the films of Scorsese. It’s just my two cents, but there isn’t a single film from either that would make me say, “Don’t watch that movie!”.
What it really comes down to is this- Scorsese has worked longer, and made a larger volume of movies that were of a high quality. It’s not the Coens fault that they started 15 years after Scorsese. It’s just a fact that Scorsese has made more films without really ever breaking a high level of quality. The Coens have made more films that I’ve truly loved deep down. And that’s what makes this so tough, but I think I’m going to have to say that the winner is Marty Scorsese.