With commonplace ageism and generational vituperation, the Old Guard of American filmmakers are using the thing used to dismiss them as a reason to listen: their age
Words by Patrick Preziosi / @PatrickPreziosi
In a time of such increased artistic uncertainty, the idea of what it means to age and subsequently, finality, has never been so indeterminate, with the new constantly being shuffled in, and the rug being repeatedly pulled out from what came before. Contested streaming rights, circuitous discourse, the intervention of large corporations; the playing field for the oldest sect of longest, still-working American directors is now a swamp of concessions and sometimes near-invisibility. Films from the names behind some of the works that have thoroughly wormed their way into the cultural consciousness (for better or for worse) are now sheepishly smuggled out in the early January dead zone, in half-hearted studio attempts to dodge total flop status. Even the grander statements, the ones with Netflix and international film festivals in their corner, are victim to a queasy unknowing; specifically, is this is the last film of its kind, both from its creator and in terms of content and execution?
That isn’t to say that the most recent 2019 films by Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese are entirely and solely going gangbusters to create a new cinematic language that the general public can’t seem to latch onto, but are rather redefining well worn tics to signal the inevitable end to lives spent making movies.
Of course, Zemeckis, Eastwood and Scorsese — when at their most universally recognised — are frequently boiled down to a grab-bag of vapid descriptors. Thusly, one can unfortunately pinpoint the moment in any of their films in which a more general audience will feel less catered to, or worse, will ultimately dismiss the title on the merit of it not stacking up to past work, as if a comparison to Goodfellas (1990), Back to the Future (1985) or Unforgiven (1992) is a genuinely worthwhile criticism to keep in one’s back pocket.
Hindsight, when coupled with such a rich back catalogue, also renders it nigh impossible to think of any of these directors’ newest as a wholly independent vessel, especially as all three have made a career out of parsing the same fertile ideas, abetted by perpetual newness.
Martin Scorsese on the set of 'Silence' (2016)
Using hindsight, and tracking a filmography through all a filmmaker’s working life, age adds a fascinating new wrinkle to such movies. Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen, Eastwood’s The Mule and Scorsese’s The Irishman all come prepackaged with a varying level of public scrutiny, and can be initially perceived as projects that feel hermetic, somewhat inexclusive from their own directors. In their more stylistic elements, they’re overwhelmingly generous; thematically, in reflecting the ages of their directors, they’re deeply personal, perhaps to the point of indulgence or even selfishness. That, however, is something to be grateful for, especially when a continuing artistic life is less and less guaranteed with each passing year. The Irishman runs at a mammoth though fleet-footed 209 minutes, Welcome to Marwen is a digital wonderland for Zemeckis to root through, and The Mule is an arguably overdue letter of apology, but its melancholy (and sense of humour!) is unshakeable.
Hindsight, when coupled with such a rich back catalogue, also renders it nigh impossible to think of any of these directors’ newest as a wholly independent vessel, especially as all three have made a career out of parsing the same fertile ideas, abetted by perpetual newness; new techniques, new actors, new music, etc. Time adds new grooves, and in 2019, all three directors are as strikingly reflective of such, possibly more than they’ve ever been.
Welcome to Marwen would be the most explicit example of a filmmaker struggling to reconcile their own age with commercial expectations (which are then unfortunately inextricable from past successes), and the resources at their disposal. Ostensibly the narrative feature counterpart to Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol, Marwen identifies more with the trauma suffered by Kingston, NY native Mark Hogancamp — beaten into a coma after remarking on his propensity for occasionally donning women’s shoes outside a bar in 2000 — more than it does straightforwardly chronicle it. Hogancamp, once an illustrator but now with the necessary motor skills beaten out of him, disappeared into his photographic work of a fictional WWII town in Belgium, rendered in intrinsic diorama with the use of both action figures and the surrounding natural world.
In grafting such “adult” themes onto filmmaking techniques often reserved for a younger audience, Zemeckis seems to be laying bare intertwining reservations on exactly what it means to be a director of his age working with such duelling subject matter and execution.
Steve Carell (back) & Robert Zemeckis (front) on the set of 'Welcome to Marwen' (2019)
Zemeckis’ film anchors itself to Mark (played by Steve Carell) and his own interiority, as his flights of fantasy — sometimes playfully innocent, sometimes regressive and sometimes used as a coping mechanism — are achieved through sudden divergences into uncanny valley territory. Carrell will suddenly be rendered into the animated Hogie, surrounded by his fellow figurines (mostly female, unless they’re the enemy Nazis), all of whom have real life analogues in Mark’s own life. These moments mostly play out as breathless, even tragic, action, as the residents of Marwencol fend off the perpetually encroaching Nazis who, when killed, are brought back to life by the evil witch Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), who seems intent on never leaving Hogie, and therefore Mark, alone.
It’s a heady mix of expert CGI work and the opaque converging points of borderline-rancid masculine ideals and trauma, but it’s in its more meta-cinematic flourishes that it inspires most rewarding rumination. In a wildly convoluted (and all the better for it) action sequence near the end, Mark’s new senseless preoccupation with time travel manifests itself in what seems to be the final battle for Marwen, with Deja whirling around the firefight in a slapdash-toybox version of the Delorean itself, trying to coax Hoagie to travel back with her. This visual reference to Zemeckis’ own Back to the Future acknowledges the fictitious and even anxious undergirding of the film, and its director’s own creative life: how to pinpoint the virtues of the past, now potentially even more romantic at age 67, and somewhat cast adrift in an unfamiliar studio system, while still pushing towards the future of the medium as determinedly as possible. In grafting such “adult” themes onto filmmaking techniques often reserved for a younger audience, Zemeckis seems to be laying bare intertwining reservations on exactly what it means to be a director of his age working with such duelling subject matter and execution.
The way that Zemeckis’ own age and past spills effectively into someone else’s story also makes it quite the companion to Eastwood’s and Scorsese’s respective films. Zemeckis’ gestures to his body of work comes delivered in recognisable proclivities (the self-actualisation of a somehow inhibited man; an embrace of new technology; a slew of old AM hits), and Eastwood does the same in The Mule, but pushes past Zemeckis in anchoring much of the film to his very self. His filmography is rife with examples of being both narrative centre and director — as well as others; his presence practically guarantees star status regardless of who’s behind the camera — though The Mule was the first since Gran Torino (2008). However, his foregoing of a surrogate for such a resoundingly personal film isn’t a move of egotism, but of necessity. His line-worn, weathered face feels practically symbiotic with the story of 90 year old Earl Stone, a horticulturist who turns to drug running with the cartel to try and make monetary amends with a family he’s effectively remained oblivious of.
Beyond just the physical lines of ageing etched into his own body, Eastwood seems to be trying to untangle the whole unguaranteed progression of such a process itself, and when and how it’ll have ramifications upon one’s emotional state, their mental wellbeing, their memory, and even their sex drive.
Clint Eastwood (left) in 'The Mule' (2019)
What can read as clickbait headline fodder on paper is oddly touching on paper, plays out in peculiarly touching fits throughout The Mule, a scintillatingly imperfect film that nevertheless carries weight for it being Eastwood’s own admission to prioritising — and perhaps even preferring — work over family. The subsequent, inherent tension of giving oneself over to The Mule is then even more apparent, that in a naked display of age, we’re left wondering about the timeliness of such a project, and if it’s even overdue. The 89 year-old shows no signs of slowing as a director, but The Mule stands at an interesting point in his career as both director and star; though not exactly worse for wear, his shuffled gait when coupled with a paltry voice makes us wonder if this will be the last of such Eastwood roles.
Beyond just the physical lines of ageing etched into his own body, Eastwood seems to be trying to untangle the whole unguaranteed progression of such a process itself, and when and how it’ll have ramifications upon one’s emotional state, their mental wellbeing, their memory, and even their sex drive (though two sequences prove that’s of no worry to Eastwood). Wittily enough, Earl Stone, like many of a certain generation, is completely bewildered by the internet and smartphones; however, still quite the eligible bachelor, he seems to have no problems in the bedroom!
But it’s in the moments that feel directly transmitted from Earl’s own time as a drug courier that Eastwood retains his own singular authorial stamp. His cross-country drives provide ample time to beam in the more minute tokens of an ageing man’s everyday, and as they aid in the contextualisation of Earl’s character, they also bear such an earthbound simplicity that Eastwood’s own affinity for such is undeniable (pulled pork sandwiches, Dean Martin, polka music). A subtly generous document of the director’s own here and now, The Mule’s own moments of course correction — his conservative micro-agressions are consistently and reasonably rebutted throughout — when coupled with such attention to sensory pleasures, as well as the casting of Eastwood’s own family, don’t play out as ingratiating concessions but true-to-life reconciliations.
Moments intermesh with Scorsese’s own cognisance of the tension of ageing, of indulging the memories that are at risk of being eclipsed by fact.
Robert De Niro in 'The Irishman' (2019)
In Scorsese’s The Irishman, history is treated as a subjective entity similar to the way in which Eastwood treats it as liberal one, mining it for potent moments of universality. Scorsese operates from a more disparate remove than Zemeckis and Eastwood, not providing an onscreen stand-in like Earl Stone or Mark Hogancamp. The Irishman’s own storyline is presented as a nested one, told by Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), introduced à la documentary-talking-head style in a nursing home, musing on a roadtrip him and close friend Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci) took to the latter’s cousin’s daughter’s wedding; the trip itself then broaches Russel and Frank’s own relationship, stricken years earlier, and which has since seen everything from a high body count to a working friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) himself.
Frank’s dictated autobiography is one that can easily be contested; he isn’t looking back through a rose-tinted lens, but his swift condensing of a near lifetime of violence and fraternity gives way to more assumatory nuggets of information. The Irishman is essentially a story from a singular perspective, but throughout it appears Frank is conjuring up the dialogue of conversations he wasn’t a part of, or imagining another character’s thought processes when he was in no way privy to such. Scorsese has turned such quasi-omniscient narration into a trademark, but unlike Goodfellas or Casino (1995), the spinning of the yarn doesn’t end at a point of adroitly handled irony — i.e., Henry Hill entering witness protection, Ace Rothstein returning to small time bookkeeping — but patiently lulls past the point of an otherwise anticipated conclusion. In offering such an explicit image of age as a lonesome Frank Sheeran in a nursing home, Scorsese also undermines the platitudes of the gangster/mob film.
As Scorsese poignantly indulges in Frank’s own construed reminiscences, he seems to be bowing to the inherent human trait of bending memory to fit more snugly within liberal sentiment. The usual thwack of Thelma Schoonkmaker’s editing — conveying its subjects’ delusion by crashing moments of idealistic excess and depraved violence into one another — is traded out for onscreen obits that flash by in freeze frame, informing us of a character’s grizzly (or perhaps entirely natural) death. These moments feel like facts interceding into the film’s borderline narcissistic memory play. The artifice of the period design, the CGI de-ageing, Frank’s imagining of scenarios he himself did not personally witness (such as Jo Hoffa herself imagining a car bomb Frank planted going off when she fears for the same, though the two events are entirely unrelated), and a bizarrely lip-synced cameo by Steven Van Zandt as Jerry Vale seal the fantasy of the work. Thusly, these moments intermesh with Scorsese’s own cognisance of the tension of ageing, of indulging the memories that are at risk of being eclipsed by fact.
Such prickly facets of storytelling don’t only speak to Scorsese’s place in film history, but Zemeckis and Eastwood too. All three have effectively spent a lifetime making films, and subsequently aged through the entire process as well. There’s the unfortunate parallel in how Frank seems to be staving off the inevitable with how all three directors are nobly rebuffing the downward trajectory of popular cinema, priding idiosyncrasies over accessibility. The Irishman, The Mule, and Welcome to Marwen are besotted with characters who can’t seem to accept the potentially dangerous misgivings of their respective circumstances — comparatively, Scorsese, Zemeckis and Eastwood have easily identified the pitfalls of their medium, and have ratcheted up their filmmaking to make potent statements of not just age, but also perseverance. To grow old is one thing, but to understand the historical, cultural and artistic implications is another.
Patrick Preziosi is a writer for Electric Ghost Magazine based in Brooklyn, New York. He has written for Little White Lies, Metrograph Edition, Photogénie and more.