Sky's the Limit

Martin Scorsese soars with a story of genius in a turbulent

December 24, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If you didn't know that Martin Scorsese made The Aviator, the enthralling new adventure-biography of Howard Hughes, you might think it was the calling card of a neophyte visual genius.

During the movie's daredevil aviation scenes, the combination of digital effects and old-fashioned Hollywood know-how takes audiences to a new Mount Olympus of period moviemaking. When the 21-year-old Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, grabs a camera and helps photograph his production of Hell's Angels (1930) from the cockpit of a soaring biplane, Scorsese makes audiences feel as if they too are flying seat-of-the-pants, right alongside this intrepid boy genius.

But it's the blend of inventive filmmaking with novel subject matter and narrative vitality that makes this movie a mid-career breakthrough for Scorsese, who has sometimes lost his art (the 1991 remake of Cape Fear) or his audience (1995's Casino) working exhaustive and exhausting variations on the themes of violence, chaos and impacted sexuality he orchestrated so indelibly in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).

In a conversation over the phone from New York, Scorsese, now 62, notes that throughout his career he's moved between the European art-film tradition of directors mining their own experiences for gritty comedy and drama and the Los Angeles-studio auteur tradition of directors making an assigned movie their own through the force of their craft and sensibility.

The Aviator, which came his way when producer Michael Mann begged off directing, offered Scorsese his best chance in 30 years to do a Hollywood-style auteur film. Not since he took on Robert Getchell's groundbreaking, hilarious script for the now-classic Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) had he been handed such a juicy property.

"As young people," Scorsese says, "we may have gotten overexcited about the auteur theory. But it reintroduced us to a treasure trove of American cinema. It was about what people like John Ford got to do despite the commercialism of the studios.

"It didn't matter whether John Ford thought he was an artist," says Scorsese. "We in the audience could tell."

Audiences at The Aviator can tell that Scorsese is an artist, too. Once again, he applies his keen eye to the canker of paranoia and the poetry and destructiveness of obsession - subjects he treated in the earthier, more blood-soaked realms of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. "Suddenly you pick up the script," Scorsese says, "and you see elements that you identify with in the story. And even if they're part of a story you told before, you find you want to tell the story again."

Notable difference

Scorsese fans, though, should find The Aviator refreshing and exhilarating precisely because of how different it is from his other movies. The audacity of Scorsese going from Gangs of New York (2002, also starring DiCaprio) to The Aviator resembles a director like Victor Fleming going from Test Pilot to The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind within two years in the late 1930s.

"You know, Steven Spielberg told me 20 years ago that I wanted to be Victor Fleming," Scorsese admits, falling into his trademark staccato delivery. "And I thought, Victor Fleming? Not Victor Fleming, maybe someone else - Victor Fleming, I don't know. But then I saw Fleming's Red Dust again, and Test Pilot. And his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - I watch it all the time, that's the best version. Those are wonderful movies."

What's most memorable and moving about Fleming's films, I suggest, are the uniqueness of their images and characters.

"Absolutely," replies Scorsese. "And The Aviator has to do with Howard Hughes as a unique representative of the human condition. Beyond anything, he's a human being who's been dealt a certain hand of cards. He's blessed with all the benefits of his wealth and genius. He's cursed with his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and maybe blessed there, too - it fuels his perfectionism and creativity and powers of debate before it consumes him.

"He gives us a chance to ask: What is it to be a human being, and to be one of the 20th-century pioneers who were breaking into the skies - the last American frontier - and also creating an industry of dreams in Hollywood, in the West."

Scorsese admits that, in addition to Hughes' character, what attracted him to The Aviator is its melange of art deco, aerodynamics, glamour and boardroom hardball - all set against the hysteria, desperation and world-beating dreams of America in the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression and World War II.

Hughes was one Tinseltown denizen who was always stirring up new dreams with technology, sex and violence.

"In Hell's Angels, nobody else could have achieved what he did at the time in those aerial sequences," Scorsese says. "It was almost all real, and that's why he had to pour so much money into it. He was right on the edge of the technology, and there was loss of life - three or four men died during the making of it."

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