SO! We went to see The Aviator last night. The 10:15 showing, because I hate listening to those puny-but-noisy firecrackers going off in the field across the street for hours on end. At least this way we missed the peak hours. And I thought The Aviator looked like a sparkly frothy thing to celebrate midnight with; the cinematic equivalent of a glass of Champagne. Excuse me, I mean sparkling wine. Je suis desolee.
Damn, talk about a depressing goddamn movie. I've read some reviews that say this is a return to form after Gangs of New York. Not by my lights. For one thing, I thought that Gangs was pretty good, once I finally got around to seeing it after being scared off by the reviews. Aviator doesn't measure up. There's nothing spectacularly wrong with it--the parts just don't add up to anything more than a biopic, albeit an entertaining and visually pleasing one. There're no lingering ideas, no insight. I'm not one to insist that a movie has to be anything more than a good story, but this story is so incomplete.
There are some bravura sequences--the XF-11 smashup in Beverly Hills was almost unbearably intense and visceral; I felt as though I were being flung about like a ragdoll and desperately wanted it to end at the same time I was awed. The visit to a men's room was a study of inarticulate fear, ultimately moving and deeply sad. (I read a comment that Hughes' tics were played for light laughs. I don't agree.) I think it's brilliant to convey that after flying experimental aircraft and taking on both the studio system and an airline monopoly, the most courageous thing Hughes could do was drink from a glass with a visible fingerprint on it.
But that's not enough, not in a movie of this length and purported scope. Your heart breaks for the man's torment, but do we really know so little about the causes behind it? The skimpy flashback scenes were rather--holy shit, that anvil almost hit me. And there are, after all, factual details that would explain a lot. Hughes was an orphan by the age of 18. He was paralyzed briefly as a child by an illness. He was married (fer chrissake!) until 1929, when his wife divorced him while he was trying to get Hell's Angels finished. Before the crash shown in the movie, he had crashed three times, once while scouting for Hell's Angels, scarring his face and crushing his cheekbone. Two people were killed in another crash. They compressed this into one spectacular crash (and one harmless crash landing) for the movie, but wouldn't it have been more interesting, not to mention enlightening, if he had been squiring beautiful actresses around with those scars . . . and that money?
It's not fair to talk about a movie that wasn't made rather than the movie on the screen. In this case, though, the problem is what isn't there. Everything that's left in is hollowed out as a result. And there was plenty that could have been cut to make room for more substance. We didn't need all those ritual hand-washing scenes (Trust your audience, Marty! We got it the first time!) and constant close-ups of DiCaprio's furrowed brow and pale, watery eyes.
Some annoyances and things that super-picky killjoys like me would notice: The first singer at the Coconut grove. As soon as I heard him I thought, "That's Rufus Wainwright." I don't want to be jarred out of an otherwise gorgeous set piece by listening to an anachronistic version of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," thank you very much, Marty (or Howard Shore, if this was your idea). If you wanted to prove how hip you are at the expense of maintaining the period mood, well, screw that shit. Wainwright's phrasing was all wrong for the era. Paul Whiteman's version, Louis Jourdan's version--there's no shortage of examples they could have used. I know that whoever put the song list together knew better. Throughout the movie I heard some lovely definitive versions of songs like "Marie" (I think they used the Tommy Dorsey version--that's the one where the band sings a raucous call-and-response behind Jack Leonard's smooth, oh-so-romantic lead vocal, winding up with "Livin' in a great big way! MAMA!" behind his oblivious croon) and "Moonglow" (the Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall version). Why couldn't that have been good enough? I suppose I should be grateful that they didn't let Gwen Stefani sing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" or some such banana oil, and to be fair I have to admit that the other Wainwrights (Loudon and Martha) did a fine job.
Editing! There were at least two times that cut-aways returned to the original shot and it was obvious that it was a pickup filmed six months later. Something would be off--positioning, lighting, something. That surprises me in a Scorcese movie. Maybe I haven't been paying attention and that's the norm for him but jeez. Lose the shot if you can't get a better edit than that.
Gwen Stefani was the ugliest-ass Jean Harlow I have ever seen. Kate Beckinsale has none of Ava Gardner's fire or depth. I did like Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn a lot more than I expected to. Did Kate (not Cate) really act the same way off-screen that she acted on-screen? All the time? I mean, I can believe it, but that must have been exhausting. Although I suppose you could get so used to it that it became your true habit.
I would still recommend it--for one thing, it needs to be seen on the big screen. That's where all the fun is. And you know, maybe this is as good as a picture about Howard Hughes could be (not counting Melvin and Howard, because that was about Melvin, not Howard). And jogging the collective pop-culture consciousness into remembering that Hughes was an aviator, engineer, producer, and actual human in addition to being a yellow-taloned, pathetic, Nixon-loving freak crippled by OCD and paranoia is a worthwhile undertaking. So yeah, sure, go see it why not! There it is, a ringing endorsement.
HA! I just answered the phone and heard "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" I replied "Happy New Year to you, too," and paused, unsure, running through my vocal-pattern memory bank, and the woman spoke again but I was still trying to recognize the voice and blurted out, "Who is this?"
"Who is THIS?" she countered.
"This is Lauri. I--who are you trying to call?"
"I was on my cell phone and thought I was calling Danielle! Well, Lauren, happy New Year to you, too!"
She had a laughing voice, and she sounded down to earth. As good a way to hear your first "Happy New Year" of the new year as any.
* "Tournament of Roses" puts me in mind of flowers, fierce little pansies like the ones in Alice in Wonderland, maybe, atop tiny horses, running at one another with lances and blood-curdling cries.
** "Turned the channel"--can you tell I grew up when televisions had knobs?
*** Sometimes I miss the days of the Southwest Conference, when the Cotton Bowl was OUR bowl, not this SBC-sponsored bullshit.
**** Everyone makes resolutions for the New Year. Even the people who claim they don't do it because it's stupid and self-defeating. Especially those people.