Media Review - The Aviator
Despite Martin Scorsese's status as the Dean of the Hollywood renaissance filmmakers (I'm sure Coppolla, Spielberg and the like could be given other titles from academic administration) I've not been much interested in his films since the early 90s. I haven't really enjoyed a Scorsese picture since Goodfellas and didn't even see Gangs of New York. Worse, I'm never inclined to watch the films of his I recall liking anymore.
I guess I never saw Gangs because it looked to me like another of the overstuffed prestige pictures that Scorsese is inexplicably drawn to. Whether I was right about that one or not, The Aviator is just one of those pictures. Curiously, Scorsese is not especially interested in aviation, despite the title of the film. Aviation is dealt with in two ways in the movie: as an excuse for gigantic setpieces and aerial photography (in which case, he should have just remade Hell's Angels) and as a device for Hughes' "innovativeness." Hughes is depicted as captivated by aeronautics, but Scorsese treats it as a distraction, something Hughes is called upon to deal with occasionally in order to acquire the means for his more interesting pursuits. To Scorsese, those pursuits are Hollywood starlets and moviemaking, things that Scorsese himself is interested in. Even though writers and filmmakers are often advised to focus on what they know and love in their work, the blinkered focus on writing and filmmaking that it produces in a lot of gaseous products like this demonstrate the limits of that advice.
Critics seem quite taken with The Aviator, but they too are more interested in movies than the average moviegoer. As for me, I left the theater wondering why I should care about the figures and events chronicled in this three hour movie. In Goodfellas, Scorsese allows the Henry Hill character to show to an audience the attraction of gangsterism along with the tremendous risks that attended that life. There's no insight into the entrepreneur, tycoon or engineer that Hughes might have represented; he has no colleagues and the qualities of his successes and failures are depicted as singularly his own. We also don't get any of the institutional insights, the look into how collective expectations shape people's lives, that made Casino bearable. The embarrassing childhood episode that passes for a psychological explanation of Hughes' OCD is nothing more than a pointless and wrongheaded allusion to Citizen Kane.
We might take away several "lessons" from The Aviator, but all of them are superficial and many are drawn from other movies. The obvious analogue is Citizen Kane, but even as references to Kane mount, Scorsese demonstrates no appreciation for that film's insights. Hughes' struggles with OCD blatantly evoke the psychotic episodes of the John Nash character in A Beautiful Mind (another movie that didn't have enough respect for its main character to pay any attention to what he cared about.) Good reviews describe the movie as entertaining, and maybe a movie can be entertaining without having any worthwhile substantive content. OK, but in order to be entertaining a film should engage, and the only thing engaged in The Aviator is its director's continued quest for cinematic pedigree and exactitude. In perhaps an unintendedly autobiographical scene, Scorsese shows the first and only flight of the Spruce Goose, which he depicts as a success. Of course, in reality the plane flew once accidentally during a taxiing run and traveled about a mile. The flight and the plane itself were entirely impractical, much like The Aviator, but the gadget itself is vast and impressive.