One could argue that the last great film Scorsese directed was back in the late nineties. Financed by Disney, Kundun (1997) performed miserably at the box office due to limited distribution, the absence of any major Hollywood stars and the niche subject matter of the Dalai Lama. Yet in many ways, this was one of the few occasions in which Scorsese found himself in the realms of global cinema, producing some of his purest and poignantly cinematic moments since Goodfellas. Kundun is the one film that shares a similar fate to After Hours, another overlooked Scorsese which is obscured by his masterful eighties work.
The mainstream academic and media literature that surrounds Scorsese has a lot to answer for the way in which we interpret his body of work and situate him as an auteur in the context of American cinema. Of course, a lot has been written on Scorsese and his films but I’m not entirely sure if this has been helpful for his evolution as a film maker. Much of the academic study on Scorsese is fixated with foregrounding masculinity, violence, enclosed communities, and especially his collaborations with De Niro. All of this may seem relevant when attempting to construct a credible argument for Scorsese as an auteur yet it means a tendency to discriminate and isolate certain films at the expense of what is a deceptively wide oeuvre. The over emphasis on his status as an auteur means the quality of his new films are constantly being judged against his prior work and of course such a comparative approach regularly fails to into consideration the role of context, genre and even ideologies in how he goes about constructing meaning and maintaining a dialogue with the spectator.
Released in 2002 the historical gangster epic Gangs of New York is continually referred as a turning point in Scorsese’s evolution as a director as he finally emulated the spectacle of Cecil B. DeMille, transforming himself into a commercially accomplished director of big budget studio financed spectacles. I have found much of the work Scorsese produced in the last decade to be slightly disappointing but watching Shutter Island has made me realise that this is a film maker who has gradually used the medium as a means of paying an extended tribute to all the cinematic influences that have fuelled his creative imagination. It in this context of post-modern homage that Shutter Island should really be appreciated for what it really is; a film about Scorsese’s on going love of cinema. I guess this is why for me he continues to be the one American film maker who shares perhaps the closest affinity with Godard as both have continually reinvented themselves through a self reflexive prism of cinephilia that doesn’t appear crass or even elitist.
Scorsese may have arguably stepped away from using his films as a means of articulating personal anxieties and autobiographical concerns but what remains is a desire to continue reconstituting the language of American cinema for contemporary audiences. Shutter Island is somewhat of a schizophrenic film and whilst one could accuse it of being disjointed, it more than many of Scorsese’s previous films features a litany of obvious and obscure references to horror, film noir, the thriller and war film genres. This is what I really want to focus (without giving away too many spoilers) on in my appreciation of what some critics have dubbed as Scorsese-lite. This is not the first time Alfred Hitchcock has been referred to by Scorsese (Cape Fear) but amongst him we can also include the repeated nods to Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Tourneur and Samuel Fuller.
The ghostly children, the nightmarish blurring of the real and dream world and of course the explicit mentions of the axe, murder and deluge of blood all point to Kubrick’s influential The Shining. There is even a moment in which the bodies of the dead children neatly laid out on the carpet juxtaposed to the bloodied image of Rachel in which she chillingly pleads for help reconstructs the vision of Danny when he sees the dead girls in the Overlook Hotel. Similarly, Scorsese fetishes the island and hospital for the insane in the way Kubrick makes the hotel a key character in Jack’s torment.
Some critics have cited Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor as an influence in terms of the insanity that riddles the mind of our disenchanted US Marshall but in the flashback sequences that take place in the death camps of Dachau, the visual look especially in the framing recalls Fuller’s World War II films including most significantly The Steel Helmet.
The references to Hitchcock are expansive, ranging from Spellbound to Vertigo. One of the most emotive and memorable is DiCaprio’s obsession with the woman he loved proves to be the deadliest of all and throughout the narrative he is constantly attempting to resurrect her image like that of Scottie with Madeline. Spellbound is referenced more obviously in the figure of the duplicitous psychiatrist.
Lewton was a producer at RKO in the 40s and together with directors Mark Robson and Jacques Tourneur made a number of memorable low budget horror films that were minimalist in style and deeply atmospheric. In his critical appraisal of the film, Graham Fuller (in the April issue of Sight & Sound) underlines the influence of three Val Lewton productions; The Seventh Victim, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.
Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) is one of the films Scorsese screened for his cast and crew and it is clear to see how DiCaprio’s character finds the past inescapable and that he is doomed from the outset. Noir and horror are the two most identifiable genres Scorsese integrates into what is a convoluted narrative.
The first shot sees a ferry gradually appear out of the fog as it comes towards us in a ghost like movement. Scorsese cross referencing the opening moments to Taxi Driver makes one wonder if self parody is the greatest indication of the film’s deliberately constructed nature or if this is simply one for the fans.
The self conscious style tends to linger predominately in the Hollywood cinema of the 1940s and 50s with strong political references to the brainwashing of American soldiers by the Korean military, anti-communist sentiments and how the psyche of the American male protagonist was ultimately corrupted after facing the stark realities of the Holocaust. Is Shutter Island a return to form for Scorsese? Though it might just be his best film since Kundun, it is certainly his most ‘cinematic’ in the way Godard continually reconstructed cinema at his peak. On a final note, it also features DiCaprio’s best performance to date in a film directed by Martin Scorsese.