Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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Flying Home

I just got back from a late-night viewing of The Aviator. It's probably better that I saw it after the Oscars, because I would have been even more annoyed with the event than I already was. While not Martin Scorcese's best work, it came closer to that lofty standard than I thought it would. The fault that some critics discerned, its episodic, damn-the-transitions structure actually strikes me as more effective, because it calls to mind Citizen Kane, the picture that The Aviator most closely resembles in story arc. Both films are biopics that go out of their way to show that the greatness of their protagonists is founded on a refusal to play by the rules that easily devolves into self-destructive behavior. To be sure, the faux documentary dimension to Citizen Kane gives it a complexity that The Aviator lacks. But the comparison is not as one-sided as you might think.

Leonardo DiCaprio's performance took me by surprise. Although I find the characters he plays "likeable" in that Mel Gibson/Will Smith sort of way, DiCaprio has never impressed me as an actor. In The Aviator, though, he gives a nuanced characterization of Howard Hughes, imparting equal measures of charm, idealism, bullheadedness, and fear to the role. Cate Blanchett, whom Kim felt a little too mannered as Katherine Hepburn, also surprised me. Maybe it's because I went in expecting to be annoyed the way I was by Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, but Blanchett won me over. I'm a huge Hepburn fan too, so that's saying something.

There were plenty of details for the cinephile too. The palette was exquisite, evoking the late 1920s, mid-1930s, and World War II years in succession by the principle off subtraction. By taking away certain hues in each section of the film, Scorcese's crew managed to give a better sense of history than they could have with a consistent look throughout. Some of this had to do with the use of different kinds of film stock, a detail that Kim and I always remark with particular delight.

Although the scenes where Hughes, verging on total breakdown, writhes around naked in his private screening room verged on excess, I actually liked the bits where portions of different films were projected on his body. Naturally, the scene with the saguaros was a favorite, reminding me what a big part Hughes's company, now dissolved into Raytheon, played in the history of Tucson. Indeed, all the deliberately surreal moments in the film worked for me, even though they marked a pretty strong stylistic shift from the "straight" story.

What I liked best about The Aviator, though, was what it had to say about the relationship between genius and foolishness, will and madness. As the parent of a very smart six-year-old who has recently started manifesting various behavioral tics, reminding me of my own latency period more vividly than I'd like, I really identified with the way DiCaprio's Hughes was always struggling to pull it together in spite of his eccentricity. There was something very compelling about watching him try to get a grip on his compulsions, not least because I recognize that pattern in my own life. While it might sound presumptuous to keep thinking, "That's me!," as I watched a film about a super-rich CEO, I have to admit that I did precisely that. His relation to projects -- always having to supervise the details, insisting on doing the most dangerous work himself, wishing he could just do things by himself -- really resonated with me. Like some of my readers, I expend an enormous amount of energy keeping my stranger qualities at bay. Now if only I had that capital to invest. . .
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