Jul 24, 2013
When too much is never enough
In Songbook, Nick Hornby recounts hearing the J J Geils band for the first time — “loud, baffling, exotic, cool, wild” — and realizing that the band came from the same place in the American psyche "as Kramer in Seinfeld, and ‘Surfin Bird’, and ‘Papa-OOm-Mow-Mow’, and James Brown being wrapped in a cape and led off stage before bounding back to the microphone and Mohamed Ali’s Boasts, and the insane celebrations when a contestant won a lawnmower on the Price is Right.” I just finished watching Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear for my book on the director and wondering if the same is true of him too. The film, as everyone knows, is excessive — excessively stylish, excessively violent, excessively referential of other movies, with a bonkers finale in which De Niro, speaking in tongues, goes down with the Bowden's boat, while Scorsese swings his camera around like a Thurible during Mass. If only he hadn't done that, was the gist of many of the reviews. I love Scorsese but. Too much is too much. And so on. And then it struck me that this problem wasn't confined to Scorsese. They said the same thing about Spielberg's colorised girl in Schindler's List, and the repeated Zapruder shots of Kennedy's brains in JFK, and Spike Lee's speechifying in Do The Right Thing, and all the quotes from The Wasteland in Apocalypse Now, and countless other examples in which a film director, rather than doing the thing critics were okay with them doing, went too far, showed too much, couldn't shut up and generally splurged in ways that left the tidy bounds of good taste and discernment looking, well, tasteful and tidy. I'm not sure it always used to be the case. Ford and Hitchcock and Hawks rarely got cinematically drunk in public. But starting in the 1970s, something got into the water supply, a tiny sliver of madness, an urge towards excess that is not just very American but something I have grown increasingly fond of, as the years tick by, and sanity seems an ever more elusive commodity. It's something that's come out of writing this Scorsese book, anyway, a grudging respect for the more bonkers films, or sequences, like the firework-lit impalement in Bringing Out The Dead, and the speaking in tongues in Cape Fear, and the freight-train crucifixion in Boxcar Bertha, and all the other miscellaneous jibber-jabber that seems to have burped up from Scorsese's subconscious.