All That Heaven Allows
By my count, The Aviator is the fourth Martin Scorsese picture in a decade that ends with its protagonist being forced to observe what he loves most from a tragic distance. If what Scorsese himself loves most is movies (and nearly everything the man has said or done in the last 40 years would suggest that's the case), then it doesn't really seem rational to read this quartet of melancholy finales in autobiographical terms: The most devoted (and privileged) cineaste this country has ever produced is nothing if not immersed in images. But even he knows they're just images; much as they glow, much as they mean, much as they give, they can never quite deliver on a level equivalent to the lived experience (or so the more well-balanced in his tight circle must tell him).
In other words, when the white-haired Newland Archer sits on a park bench straining for a glimpse of the woman he has craved for years and cannot have (The Age of Innocence), or bookie Sam "Ace" Rothstein peers through thick bifocals at a bank of televisions scanning the playground of which he once was king (Casino), or His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama gazes through a telescope at his own lost world (Kundun), I dare say we're in the presence of Marty and all his longing. Or as near as we're apt to get to him, anyway: Living-legend status, fuck-you money, and a work ethic like Jake La Motta's haven't really done much to draw the cinephile out of his own private theater.
Yet Cape Fear (still Scorsese's biggest hit in relation to cost) isn't what has made this man an island unto himself. As anyone with a passing interest in the director knows, the frail and asthmatic young Marty grew up surveying the mean streets of Little Italy from his upper-floor bedroom window; as a child, he did visit the old country--courtesy of a black-and-white set on which, in the wee hours, he could sometimes find an Open City or Paisan to keep him company. Distance--bordering on isolation--is familiar, even comforting to Marty. But he pays a price for it. Some would say that price has been a decade of increasingly odd, remote, inaccessible movies; most of those same people would say it has also cost him the Academy Award that he seems to desire even more than the real Rosebud. (His buddy Spielberg has both.)
So Scorsese's fourth portrait (and product) of distance in a decade is expressly designed to bring him closer than the other three did to the Oscar podium--closer, too, than Gangs of New York or GoodFellas did. I don't say that cynically or out of disappointment. This filmmaking movie-lover has almost always worked in genre, whether it's the musical in New York, New York, the "women's picture" in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, or the Western in Taxi Driver. (What--you don't see that cab as a yellow horse with an extra saddle?) In The Aviator, Scorsese is playing self-consciously by the rules of the Overlong, Oscar-Seeking Period Bio-Pic with an All-Star Cast--and bending them, too. A Beautiful Mind may have made this genre safe for mental illness. But the aviator's particular affliction--we recognize it today as obsessive-compulsive disorder (or maybe just the good fortune to be "eccentric")--goes as undiagnosed in the film, at least in the clinical sense, as it would have gone in the '40s and '50s.
These, of course, were the years in which the high-flying Howard Hughes was grounded in his study with the shades drawn and the door locked, reliving his old adventures in 35mm, growing his fingernails, peeing in milk jars. Citizen Kane was a bit of a weirdo, too, near the end. But is this degree of perversity really permitted in the Oscar-Seeking Bio-Pic?
The Aviator, more than anything, is a movie about Martin Scorsese and OCD. Never mind the star of the show (Leonardo DiCaprio) or the head of the studio (Harvey Weinstein): I'd be remiss as a Marty completist if I didn't say it's his second movie in a row that begins with a parent giving somber guidance to a kid who'll be haunted and very possibly cursed by it. (The director's youngest child was conceived during Gangs of New York's own long gestation.) Three screenings of Gangs, and I still can't say exactly what "The blood stays on the blade" means. (Is it that dumb advice is as slow to dissipate as our traces of the dead?) But there's no mistaking the message of Mrs. Hughes's private spelling bee with young Howard (quarantine is the operative word); her warning that rarified types such as he are vulnerable among the unwashed masses (there's a racial element to this that the movie curiously neglects); her gift of a pocket-sized soap container that'll serve as his security blanket, his token of Mother's affection, his Rosebud.
If the description of this tenderly lit primal scene suggests that the soapbox is Marty's and that he's standing on it, I wouldn't object. The Aviator's mystery simply (and unsurprisingly) pales beside Citizen Kane's; matter of fact, it's not even a mystery at all--and neither is the source of any obsessive's anxiety when you come right down to it. (Just ask any shrink whether it takes more than a single session to locate the client's injury. What takes time is healing the wound.) Hughes may have been a consummate recluse, but he was hardly enigmatic; his tragedy, if it even was a tragedy (we'll get to that later), owed at least in part to the transparent nature of his seclusion. In more ways than one, it's the money that afforded the aviator what he desired even more than planes per se: protection, the unlimited means to keep him from dealing at ground level with the wreckage of his life, with the people his parents taught him to fear (i.e., everyone). That cockpit, complete with cellophane on the steering wheel, is as much of a shell for Hughes as the cab is for Travis Bickle (or the penthouse screening room is for Scorsese); the difference is that it allows the millionaire to avoid the streets (and their "scum") altogether.
Acute anxiety over the relatively minor things in one's life generally functions as a shield against the ones that are more pressing, more difficult, less socially acceptable. The women whom Hughes invited to share his cockpit--most notably Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in the film) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale)--would no doubt report that the aviator never had a problem with expressing lust. (This is probably the time to mention that Scorsese has been married five times.) Anger is another story: Say what you will about Jake LaMotta and his social skills, but the raging bull had a clear outlet for his aggression. (Don't ask me how Jesus Christ or the Dalai Lama fits in here.) Hughes, an aristocrat, was left to wash his hands--again and again--of unclean thoughts and feelings. Whether or not he saw the airplane as a way of getting closer to God, flight suited him better than a fight by far. Still, when challenged by the courts to state his defense of entrepreneurial autonomy (not to be confused with that of a more recent Texas millionaire), the aviator rose to the occasion. On some level the trial actually played to his strengths: The fear of making a rare public appearance--particularly after two plane crashes and years of hair and cuticle growth--inspired the formerly fastidious Hughes to clean up his act once again.
DiCaprio's skin-deep appeal serves him well here, perversely, as it did in Gangs: Scorsese may have worked overtime to curry favor with the young star in trade for the gigantic budgets he believes he needs--but don't think for a moment he isn't fully aware of what his matinee idol conveys (or doesn't convey) and how to use it. Like its subject, The Aviator has damn near everything at its disposal: gorgeous cinematography (combining CGI and old-fashioned grain), at least three or four indelible supporting turns, and a more subjective view of aberrant psychology than in any Scorsese movie since The King of Comedy. Like Hughes's own Hell's Angels, The Aviator is built to peak late with a spectacular action scene--defying not just gravity but narrative chronology in order to push itself closer to the exit. It's the definitive Hughes bio, Marty's Citizen Kane, and probably even an Oscar winner. Better still: It's a privileged tour of Martin Scorsese's inner sanctum and all its riches, all its restrictions. This uncommonly personal epic will likely be the one to get Scorsese to the podium--but not, I hope, to the general audience. The auteur, as much as the aviator, demands his privacy.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.