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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poets of Faith III: Kierkegaard and Scorsese - The Eye in the Sky

III. The Eye in the Sky

The Debt of Sin in Cape Fear and Casino

For Kierkegaard, “Sin” separates Christianity from "pagan" religion. Sin binds the individual in a private discourse with God. Scorsese's characters, concerned with sin and its inescapability (as Jesus notes, in trying to walk away from lust, he is only giving birth to his pride) and the needed sacrifice to atone oneself with the eternal, are tormented by sin’s guilt. Many of his films focus on bourgeois worlds that cannot be thought of as being distinct from Kierkegaard's portrait of Christendom, wherein characters are surrounded by Christ, but living aesthetic lives not aligned with any sense of sin, or where sin's reality is like death's reality (the wages of sin, biblically, is death). Still many of these characters in their defiant lives of despair (whether they are ignorant philistines or defiant) can escape God – for a while. The distractions of day-to-day life usually keep this eternal reality at bay, though it is surely always present in their minds. As Jake LaMotta notes after losing a boxing match in Raging Bull, "I don't know, I've been doin' a lot of bad things lately, maybe it's comin' back to me," to which his brother Joey remarks, as if dismissing voodoo, "Forget that shit." "By unconsciousness the despairing man is in a way secured (but to his own destruction) against becoming aware – that is, he is securely in the power of despair," according to Kierkegaard. This is a human-wide condition of sickness that Scorsese portrays in the dens of Soho of After Hours, the gangster world of GoodFellas, but most interestingly in two acquired projects Scorsese did for-hire (the penance he had to pay Universal Pictures for getting The Last Temptation of Christ financed), Casino and Cape Fear.

After Hours (1985), Scorsese's Kafkaesque depiction of a man's hellish night in Soho after he pursues pleasure out of boredom, is about a character in despair, a working man (a "word processor", aligning him with being some sort of machine), Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), who is a completely self-absorbed – if kind – man. Meeting a woman (Rosanna Arquette) who likes the same books he does (particularly Henry Miller, indicating some sort of hedonistic possibility in a future relationship), Paul goes to Soho hoping to score a one-night stand. What he receives in return is punishment. With no money to pay his cabbie (it flew out the taxi window), and unable to return home via subway (the fares went up 50 cents that night – and so he is 27 cents short), he discovers the woman is emotionally unstable, rejects her, and discovers that she has killed herself. He is mistaken for two burglars (played by Cheech and Chong) running rampant through the neighborhood. Unable to do anything besides objectify other people, he is unjustly accused of cruelty, callousness, and ingratitude, and so finds himself overwhelmed with guilt. Chased by the neighborhood inhabitants like a mob chasing the Frankenstein monster, he finally kneels and lifts his arms to God: "Why? Why are you doing this to me? Do you want me to suffer?" Scorsese, in his own commentary on the film, answers, "Yes!" Paul resembles Travis Bickle in his inability to merge into any kind of community, but his lifestyle (he's not a hedonist – but he'd probably like to be one) demands a penance that he cannot be prepared to give. Living a life of "bad faith" (being polite, or being a 'word processor,' he is incessantly dishonest), we either only see Paul running from his demons in New York City, or trapped at work. Appropriately, the film ends with him falling out of Cheech and Chong's van in front of his office building, just as day is breaking.

In Cape Fear (1991), Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is more readily identifiable than many of Scorsese's other heroes, being that he's a legitimate lawyer, married with a teenage daughter, and not a criminal. He is living a "normal life," or seemingly normal. We learn gradually that Sam is shallow, and has a tense marriage based on his wife Leigh's (Jessica Lange) depression and his past infidelities. The "God" element in the film is personified by the villain, Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a former client of Bowden who was found guilty of rape 14 years earlier. It turns out that Bowden, trying to be moral (though contrary to the ethics of the Law), buried a report on the rape victim's promiscuity, leading to Cady's incarceration.

Bowden’s success has afforded him a stability based on being sometimes dishonest to keep an even keel (an issue further discussed in The Departed). We see him playing racquetball with a firm co-worker, Lori (Ileanna Douglas), with whom he may be acting too freely. His conscience grasps this, and he suggests that they see less of each other, because he's married. "Is marriage synonymous with deception?" she asks. Leigh knows absolutely nothing about Sam's personal life outside of the home, and he admits with a wry smile, "It's best if my wife doesn't know you exist.” Scorsese quickly cuts to outside the health club with Sam walking Lori to her car, contradicting himself and suggesting they play again tomorrow. At home, it is inferred that Sam has had other affairs and is neglectful of his family, which mirrors his work life as a successful lawyer. In his work, Leigh jokingly says, "Fighting dirty is what Sam does for a living."

After leaving Lori, Sam goes to his car and is confronted by Max Cady, who says something important. "Free as a bird apparently. You go everywhere you want, with whomever. That much freedom could get a fella into trouble." Cady is an inscrutable, almost superhuman character; he is cited as reading Nietzsche often, namely Thus Spake Zarathustra, and loudly quotes the 17th century mystic Silesius, who said, "I am like God and God like me. I am as large as God! He is as small as I! He cannot above me nor I beneath Him be!" It has been suggested that Cady is Scorsese getting a personal vengeance fulfilled on the fundamentalist Christians who attacked The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, leading to the director having bodyguards for years following. Yet looking at Sam’s carefree life, and his resistance in fulfilling his duties as a good husband and father, we may see Cady as something different and ethereal, or supernatural. Cady is God's messenger reminding Sam of the reality of sin and death, a personification of the struggle that Sam is able to resist in his comfortable life. Max tells Sam that life is "struggle," and that Sam does not understand struggle. "Every man has to go through hell to reach his Paradise," he says. In prison for 14 years, Cady lost contact with his wife and children, was sodomized, and worked through struggle to transform himself. From a perverse angle, Cady is not so much in Sam's life to enact vengeance, but rather to save Sam. Though Cady is surely a villain, he is also exceptionally perceptive. In a restaurant he offhandedly mentions, "These young people – they're not very happy. They're committed to their professions and their ambitions, but not to each other." Cady is also describing Sam and his family: full of materials and empty objects, permeated with shallow vanities indicative of despair and a wide margin from the eternal. We should note Leigh, after making love with Sam and believing that her husband is asleep, goes to the mirror and vainly applies makeup, staring at her reflection.

That Cady should be so perceptive about the empty lives surrounding him while personifying a terrifying villain is one of the challenging elements in the architecture of what is otherwise probably Scorsese's most conventional film. Sam, like the people "committed to their professions and ambitions while not committed to each other," is a surrogate for the audience that will flock to the movie, adults saturated in their "freedom" and comfort, much like the Bowdens going to see the John Ritter comedy Problem Child, which Cady interrupts with his cantankerous laughter and cigar smoke. The Scorsese character Bowden perhaps most resembles is the other embarrassing surrogate, Paul Hackett in After Hours, who is also being punished for trying to live a "normal" life. When Cady tells Bowden that he doesn't know what suffering is, he is right. "Have you suffered so many things in vain?" he asks Bowden, quoting Galatians 3. Later, Cady recommends to Bowden reading the book between Esther and the Psalms (Job) – further indicating that the suffering Bowden is about to undergo is related to his salvation and spiritual development.

Cady's resemblances to God (and his God complex), his eerily omniscient ability to surveil the Bowdens, his superhuman determination, and acutely perceptive memory, call to mind Kierkegaard's thoughts on the unchangeableness of God, and how we should not take our frivolities lightly. Frivolity "comes to feel itself secure,” leading to forgetfulness and a dismissal of one thing – the eternally unchangeable witness (God). "If…your will is not in harmony with His will, consider that you will never be able to evade Him." This frivolous individual, whom for Kierkegaard may well be the bulk of Christendom, resembles Jesus in the last temptation sequence, and Bowden, both who have grown forgetful about the eternal and God. Cady, meanwhile, resembles Kierkegaard’s silent man who does not forget, with an "unchanged remembrance." Just as Cady becomes always present for Bowden, reminding him of his sins and inadequacies, Kierkegaard's God is always present in our lives, not discriminating between the significant and insignificant – always there, knocking on the door. Using the help of a private investigator, Kersek (Joe Don Baker), the Bowdens try to set a trap for Cady. "I'll be able to know if the Holy Ghost is sneaking in," Kersek notes on his techniques of securing the Bowdens’ house. He is, of course, wrong, and foiled by his pride. Cady is indeed akin to the "Holy Ghost" and does get in, killing Kersek and leaving him to bleed on the kitchen floor. The blood soon envelops Sam, a visual metaphor for the sin on his hands.

For both Sam and the audience, the climax of the film is terrible to watch, and if it is a cleansing, it is a torrential one. Cady terrorizes the family in their houseboat, tying Sam up and preparing to rape both Leigh and the daughter, Danny (Juliette Lewis). But this also feels like a ritualized act, as Sam drops out of his dutiful obligations as lawyer (an important hearing), using the excuse of force majeure, "an unforeseeable act of God" that cancels out promises and obligations. Subtextually, Bowden is more right than he knows. In the boat, as Cady notes how his grandfather handled snakes in church while his grandmother would drink strychnine, a black mass begins. Cady tells Leigh, "Ready to be born again, Mrs. Bowden? A few moments with me and you'll be speaking in tongues." Sam, in his struggle and determination, frees himself and stops Cady, but not before Cady judges him, sentencing Sam to his own personal hell, "The ninth circle!" he yells at Bowden, a gun pressed against Bowden's head. "The circle of traitors! Traitors to GOD!" Only after Sam here confesses his guilt (in throwing away the report that would have saved Cady 14 years), is he able to enact his role as Hollywood hero, handcuffing Cady's ankle to the boat as it begins to sink in the tempest of the Cape Fear River. Sam looks on from the river's edge as Cady speaks in tongues and sings religious psalms, sinking into the water.

Trembling, Bowden looks at his hands and sees the stigmata – hands covered in blood, Christ-like, proposing the question of his forgiveness. He shudders upon seeing them and washes them immediately in the water, wrought with anxiety. He opens his hands again. They're clean. That the hands should be shot from two distinct angles is also of interest. Sam, awake to his nature and despair, sees the stigmata hands with blood on them with his own eyes, the image photographed from his point of view. Washed clean, his hands are photographed from an alternate angle – whether it is the point of view of "the objective world," which doesn't see the frivolities of the aesthete's sinful nature, or God, the ultimate Other Who has forgiven Sam, is open to interpretation. What is certain is that this man has changed and is now aware of his most insignificant actions.

Casino (1995) does not overtly address religious issues at all. It captures the den of vice and sin that Scorsese vividly captured in GoodFellas five years previous, which also led to a certain ambivalence concerning the reaction of its audience. That confusion on the part of the audience pertained to the fact they were expecting GoodFellas all over again, and when they were disappointed, they paradoxically blamed the film for simply being GoodFellas once more. However, as contextually similar as the films are, their differences are legion and primarily has to do with the filmic language with which they unspool. The later film is imbued with a religious subtext.

GoodFellas was shot by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would apply similar color patterns of grey, beige, and unsaturated blues to another film of moral confusion, The Departed. Those films carry the sense of God’s absence. Casino, on the other hand, is supremely religious in its presentation, almost Baroque, as indicated by the use of Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion" over the opening credits as Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro) burns in Hell. Scorsese is here collaborating with cinematographer Robert Richardson, noted for his use of hot key-lighting from above, showering shafts of light as if from heaven, raining down on the characters below (this integration of the real and the cosmic is featured in Richardson and Scorsese's two subsequent collaborations, Bringing Out the Dead and The Aviator). The use of these hot lights contrasting with black spaces in the wide canvas of the screen (Casino was shot with 2.35:1 ratio, whereas GoodFellas was presented in 1.85:1), make for a far more surreal affair, overtly ecclesiastical in its expressionism.

What Casino is addressing through its subtext is Sin, or a notion of the absence of Sin that nevertheless is in hot pursuit of its purveyors. In his opening voiceover, Ace tells us that he was given “Paradise on Earth,” the Tangiers Hotel and Casino, to run as he saw fit. Las Vegas, this Sodom and Gomorrah that Scorsese is painting (the Bach music at the beginning, along with the stretches of desert, indicates that this is a biblical epic of sorts), is described as "a morality car-wash," as the city literally "washes away your sins." Things that are vice elsewhere – gambling, prostitution, etc – are given a pass to Ace and his Chicago/Kansas City gangster friends. This is a new creation – a counter religion. The Big Bang that creates the film (Ace's car blowing up – sending him hurtling through Hell) gives birth to this "Paradise on Earth" of neon lights. In his commentary on the film, Gavin Smith of Film Comment notes, "It's materialism that's this tribe's religion, and money, the root of all evil, its God." For Kierkegaard, money is "the world's god," as he notes in Works of Love, in his search for earnestness. The Casino is the holy place, the count-room being identified, much like the Jewish tabernacle, as the "Holy of Holies." Smith notes, "To index his characters' proximity to imminent damnation, Scorsese plays off cinematographer Robert Richardson's signature burned-out highlights and hotspots against the garish neon of Vegas and, in certain scenes, purifying shafts of white light and spectral luminosity." Smith points to a scene where Ace's friend Nicky (Joe Pesci) brutally beats a man that has insulted Ace. The lights become horizontal, and the cigarette smoke in the foreground gives the atmosphere of hellfire, the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" on the soundtrack linking this world to the "insatiable search for gratification," linked to "disproportionate violence."

Ace has assumed the proud role of "God," obsessed with surveillance and watching everyone like an android control freak. But no character, not even Ace (as we learn), is able to be above the world of men and be free of surveillance and judgment. In the fascinating documentary-like exposition, wherein the mechanics of Vegas are laid out in voiceover by Ace, we see this system. Presented in a stunning sequence of swish-pans, dealers watch players, box-men watch dealers, pit bosses watch the box-men, floor-bosses watch the pit-bosses, the casino manager (Don Rickles, a cheeky and effective casting selection) watches the pit-posses, Ace watches the casino manager, and the "Eye in the Sky" (camera swishes up to a black ball on the ceiling) is "watching us all."

The FBI is also watching, as are political and civic leaders, in addition to the bosses "back home," who are introduced to the film as hotly lit men at a table, the composition resembling Leonardo's Last Supper. No matter how these characters may try to escape their transgressions against one of these entities, they are found, and sins are atoned, usually in blood. This is an entire world of aesthetes looking for escape from boredom in an excess of stimulation that Scorsese ecstatically presents. Utilizing every cinematic trick up his sleeve, Scorsese over-stimulates us to the point of numbness. Serving this simmering dish of stimulation to appease our own search for "satisfaction," we become as exhausted and wasted as Ace's junkie wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone). The characters in the film, held captive in their despair, do not grow beyond two dimensions, though the objects they surround themselves with grow increasingly loud. During the film's second and final act, when incidents double for events in the first act, the excess of the early 1980s is parodied as the Stones' "Satisfaction" becomes DEVO's whacked-out New Wave synthesized cover. At the conclusion, Ace is still alive, but he is a hollow shell, unchanged, back where he started. The world of this constant stimulation is a world of despair and emptiness.

Casino is a picture of lost souls held apart from God and the religious, stuck in a void of spiritless materialism and countless objects. People are fleeing their existential debts, their guilt. "[The] decisive mark of the religious person," according to John Mullen, "is a sense of total guilt," which for Kierkegaard meant "debt." There is a debt owed to the eternal – the meaning of life aligned with a relation to God. "To be a sinner," Mullen continues, "is to choose to sever one's bond to the Eternal. It is to intentionally turn away from the proper absolute concern of one life. It is thus to alter radically – meaning at the root, fundamentally – the nature of one's self." The men and women in Casino bathe in their sin, simultaneously assuming they have some kind of control over their fates. Having a clear concept of sin, according to Mullen, is to understand the "difference between man and the Eternal." Ace, for instance, is marked by his defiant pride and belief in his ability to control other people, much like his Scorsesean successor, Howard Hughes in The Aviator, which proves to be a fatal flaw. In this "morality car-wash," sins are ignored expediently. Thus, no character can recognize that they are sinners, and are hence closed off from salvation (unlike Charlie in Mean Streets, Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, or Andrew Laeddis in Shutter Island). Ginger is a metaphor for the rampant materialism at play in the picture, devoted to stimulation and satisfaction, but far from faith, commitment, love, and the eternal. Her death mirrors the imagery at the beginning of Casino, the carpet beneath her drug addled corpse resembling the flames of hell. The characters in Casino are pleasure-oriented automatons. To quote Kierkegaard, "By unconsciousness the despairing man is in a way secured (but to his own destruction) against becoming aware – that is, he is securely in the power of despair."

Character is impossible to fully develop in Scorsese's despair-ridden worlds. The next, and final, batch of films to be examined focus on the Godless world and its mechanizations, and how there are a few lonely, solitary, sacrificial characters attempting to hold onto themselves, and occasionally giving themselves over to the eternal in their own spiritual journeys.

1 comment:

  1. I love your writing. I had some of the same ideas re-watching Casino now. I had seen it first some years back and I thought your analysis was pretty compelling. Great job! I'm signing up for the blog :-)