Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer
The Aviator: Cinema’s Most Underrated Director’s Most Underrated Film
Nothing pains me greater than The Aviator’s haters, and there are many of these people. The impression I routinely get from these miscreants falls into one of three categories: the film is too slow, the story is too confusing, or Scorsese has done better work. Please, allow me to dispel each and every of these notions one at a time in the least offensive way possible.
But first, a disclaimer…
While I personally believe that anyone who doesn’t like this movie has no clue about film history, film theory, or film in general, I will admit that opinions are like assholes in that everyone’s got one.
That being said …
If you don’t love the glorious masterpiece that is The Aviator, don’t fret, it wasn’t made for you. Movies that were made for you include: 2 Fast 2 Furious, Timeline, Varsity Blues, The Skulls , and last, but not least, anything directed by Michael Bay. The Aviator was made for a selective audience of filmgoers who appreciate art, literature, a fine wine, and most of all, history. The film pulls zero punches and doesn’t care if you like it. Scorsese is an auteur, a genius, a magician; he is not an entertainer. If you ever felt entertained by one of his films, this was purely coincidental. He doesn’t care if you enjoy his work. In fact, he doesn’t care if go see his films at all. His sole purpose as a filmmaker is to keep himself busy. He’s a reckless director, much like Woody Allen, but I would argue until I made myself blue in the face that Scorsese is the most conscious director working in film today. The Aviator is his masterpiece, as fine a film as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.
Exhibit A: Howard Hughes’ life
Since Howard Hughes defied convention, expectations, society, reality, and all of human kind inclusive, his life itself proves to be anything but slow. In packing 20 years’ worth of material into a 3 hour film, and thus focusing solely on the most interesting and relevant periods, instances, occurrences, and happenings in the extraordinary life of Mr. Hughes, Scorsese has thus proven his film incapable of the type of drag associated with other failed biopics, including, but not limited to, Alexander, Capote1, The Pianist2, et al. Not to mention the fact that Howard Hughes bedded practically every starlet that worked in Hollywood, and even designed the bustier seen above that so perfectly propped up Jane Russell’s tits.
The Aviator contains some of, if not the finest cinematography ever committed to film. As performed by Robert Richardson, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time3, the camera doesn’t just show the actors doing their thing, it examines the characters, the time period, and the causality of their actions. Each frame, subsequently, is a painting. Scorsese used the exact colors for his film that would have been available during each time period The Aviator features4. When the golf course scene looks blue, that’s on purpose. When the opening looks grainy and washed-out, that’s on purpose. I cannot think of a film with more attention to its camera work than The Aviator. If such a film exists, it was probably shot by Robert Richardson. In sum, there is something to look at even if the actors don’t provide enough entertainment for your ADHD…
Likewise, The Aviator’s costume design, created by Sandy Powell5, is second to none and consistently gave Robert Richardson something gorgeous to shoot. Consequently, the film comes to life and blends perfectly with the time period it represents. From the dress Gwen Stefani wears as Jean Harlow, to Alan Alda’s spectacular rendering of Senator Brewster, the costumes allow the actors to inhabit their characters’ lives seamlessly.
In the interest of keeping my defense of The Aviator’s merit, entertainment-wise, brief, let’s just say that even if a person hates the topic and all of the actors, it is impossible not to at least appreciate the lengths that Scorsese and co. went to in order to bring the past to life. Plus, its writing was nominated for a slew of awards and received a couple, so take that as you will.
How can one find this film confusing when it progresses linearly, has just a handful of characters, and a simple plot, i.e. Howard Hughes versus the world/himself. The only explanation I can fathom is that the film is confusing to people that are fucking stupid. Once again, in the interest of brevity, I prefer to close this claim right now in order to focus on:
No film gathers Scorsese’s multiple obsessions quite like The Aviator. In Howard Hughes we have Travis Bickle meets Ace Rothstein, a fractured genius on the brink of self-destruction. Yet, just as much as Scorsese gathers his talents together, he also transcends his résumé. His back-catalogue might be impressive and it might contain certain seminal films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, but whereas all of those films features characters close to Scorsese’s heart—i.e. Italians or New Yorkers—The Aviator is different, less intimate and more severe.
Scorsese is a man whose prior films include, almost without exception , period pieces6. Lucky for audiences, the years from the 1920’s to the 1940’s represent the most glamorous, vibrant, and incomparable period in American and world history. In picking Howard Hughes, Scorsese chose one of the most dynamic figures from this period, a man of unsurpassed vision and ability with a captivating Achilles ’ heel to boot.
Of course, any student of even the most restrained literature class knows that while this film is about Howard Hughes on the surface, deep down, it is actually a celebration of all things American, from pioneering industrialists to the fabulously wealthy and beautiful women they banged. And we all love an underdog story, so it makes sense that of any privileged visionaries, Howard Hughes would have to be the one guy who everyone discounted as a kook and a failure.
Yet, Scorsese took a fairly straightforward story and tackled it head-on, giving Hughes’ complexities equal treatment, warts and all. Juxtaposed with the heart racing aviation scenes themselves, Hughes’ OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder for those of you who live in caves—highlights the two sides of every genius: mania and madness. The binary at work can be stacked up there with any of literature’s truly classic tragic figures, from Oedipus—vision and blindness—to Muhammad Ali—athleticism/the gift to gab meets Parkinson’s, his kryptonite.
Artistic significance aside, Scorsese’s actual directing of this film brings Howard Hughes’ struggles to life in unique fashion. One particularly powerful scene features the opening of Hughes’ own film, Hell’s Angels. DiCaprio portrays Hughes’ as a man wrapped with grief and stress—indeed, the very success or failure of his life depended on Hell’s Angels receiving warm reviews. As Howard walks down the red carpet, he steps on discarded flashbulbs and shrinks before the cameras, flinching painfully all the way, before muttering incomprehensible and inappropriate statements in front of the world’s earliest paparazzi. This powerful scene represents the earliest of numerous examples of Howard’s OCD and social phobias. Of course, it is by no means the last.
Throughout the film—using echoes of Fellini’s famous line shots7—Scorsese bombards the audience with irrefutable evidence of both Howard’s madness and genius. We see him in the context of his own editing room throughout, as he delves deeply into paranoia and mental illness, and among his greatest love, aviation, where he defied critics and pundits alike, breaking world records and rewriting aeronautics in the process. We see bottle after bottle filled with urine in long, tight shots. Intentional artistry emphasizes Howard’s isolation, most obvious in the breathtaking shot, just after Ava Gardner cleans him up for his Senate hearing, and the background fades to black, leaving Hughes figure alone to fill the screen.
None of Scorsese’s work in any film is necessary. He didn’t have to use one long take in Goodfellas following Henry Hill through the kitchen and into the club. But can you imagine the film without that signature move? Likewise, The Aviator is filled with glorious shots, classic lines, poignant, real emotions, and uncomfortable situations. Who can argue that the payoff of hearing Howard put Kathryn Hepburn’s family in their place was not only worth the wait, but also a brilliant stroke of directing? Who can deny that the look on Howard’s face when Errol Flynn disrupts his row of peas is priceless and totally without affectation? The acting is superb, the casting perfect, the sound, the sets, the design, the scope, the writing, the subject, all are perfectly rendered and without flaw. If Hughes disturbs the audience at times with his OCD, well, I hate to say it, but that’s the point. There is no part of the film that compromises, no scene needlessly incorporated into this hulking giant of a film. Like The Hercules, Hughes’ most famous plane, not only does The Aviator fly, it challenges notions of what a film should be. It has a Terminator 2 budget with an educated audience in mind; it contains action and numerous special effects for the purpose of art, not spectacle. Face it if you haven’t already, the film shines.
In the hands of a lesser director, The Aviator would have never been made, but in the hands of Scorsese, not only was a period flick about a largely unknown industrialist made, but it became art, it turned into gold. Howard Hughes would be proud.
1. Yes, I’m aware of this film’s accolades; however, I am one of the few people who has also seen it, so I am also aware of its shortcomings.
3. This is not an opinion, but a fact. His credits include Kill Bill 1 & 2, Natural Born Killers, Platoon, Wall Street, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Hire: Powder Keg, The Four Feathers etc. He is probably the most in-demand cinematographer currently working and is the go-to for both Oliver Stone and Scorsese. It should also be noted that he missed Alexander. He won Oscar for The Aviator.
4 Pretty cool, huh?
5 Shakespeare in Love, Interview with the Vampire, etc. She took home Oscar for The Aviator. For a complete list of the film’s awards, Click Here.
6 I know, I know, there are exceptions, but not many.
7 Scorsese has an obsession with Fellini and other Italian directors of high esteem. Click Here for a tiny indication.