05 July, 2009


Watching films with others is... OK. The actual act itself is somewhere between acceptable and infuriating. The payoff is the walk home, where everything you thought in the past 90-180 minutes must be spewed back out again, in any order while still maintaining the pretence of dialogue. And sometimes listening - but film fans are snobbish, so this is entirely situational. There was a time when I went to see A Very Long Engagement, without having seen Amelie*, and in the company of afficionados - damn right I was listening. You never know what you might have to blag at some later date.

Silence is golden; well, it has little value in or of itself, but it does create more jabbering later on. Anything you thought about the flashing lights on the screen must echo and amplify inside your head, until you are convinced of its meaningfulness to nearly spiritual proportions. It has been odd lately, one of my major cinema-companions actually lived about 3 doors down from our local cinema, and there has been an element of surrogacy as we take the walk home to the living room (It helps that these are often blockbusters - there is little to discuss and we are not skilled at subtext).

A brief outline of the sequence of things: i) I first saw The Departed in the Savoy cinema, when it had been out in the UK for about a month, so about November 2006 (interestingly, this being my first year in Nottingham, it was maybe the first such visit with my filmgoing companions of that time, both heavy and naive with expectancy - these walks home can be the most intoxicating and tremulous, can be the most sour and quarrelsome). ii) January 2007 - I rented Infernal Affairs from "The Hollywood Movie Store" in Beeston, which had a good selection of foreign (and especially asian) film. iii) Early 2008 - a friend bought the Infernal Affairs DVD from a website somewhere and a group of us watch it. On completion, howls of appreciation and enthusiasm sound out around the room. iv) I watch The Departed for a second time with my father**, the date is the 3rd of July, 2009. Bang! we are in the present.

The Departed is a 2006 film by Martin Scorsese (who vowed it would be his last gangster flick) about a policeman (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltrating a Boston gang leader's inner circle (Jack Nicholson) while a gangland mole (Matt Damon) ascends to the police unit investigating his boss. Intrigue, violence and multiple usages of the C word follow. The cast is strong and Nicholson appears to be having a lot of fun, as ever. On first viewing I was entertained and satisfied, but not impressed - so, similar to Gangs of New York, then. But I was shocked when it won both the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards***, it had seemed to be little more than a proficient thriller. And all this was before realising that The Departed had been copying someone else's notes.

I'm not sure what I knew, but I certainly did not fully realise that The Departed was a re-make until I followed the hype and rented Infernal Affairs, jointly directed by Alan Mak and Andy Lau, who also takes one of the starring roles alongside Tony Leung****, who has long been a favourite of mine. The story is essentially the same, taking place in Hong Kong. Infernal Affairs is a great film, a near-perfect exposition of the crime/intrigue motif and a totally exhilarating thriller. Excuse me while I gush. There is a genuine feeling of schizophrenia running through it, creating what is almost a split-screen effect in the mind of the viewer. Frame by frame, the compositions of shape and colour are stunning.

Contrast with The Departed, which I felt was good looking because it couldn't help it. Made by a major studio with great director and cinematographers, with the best equipment. The colour balance on screen was fine, totally professional. But sit the one down side-by-side with its predecessor, and it's clear. Infernal Affairs is flooded with vibrancy*****, kinetic energy, a vigour that is apparent throughout. Its Hollywood re-make is strong, but past its peak and ambling towards the retirement home. The law of diminishing returns holds firm, and this is even apparent if you see the mimic first.

Before I watched Scorsese's re-make a second time, I derided it as a scene-for-scene plagiarism, but that's not true. Scorsese does attempt to make the story his own. Mark Wahlberg's character is added, an unnecessarily foul-mouthed sergeant that yields the most watchable performance in the film, is also totally out of place. Wahlberg's appearance on screen signals something like an ad-break, ruining the flow of the story. Is this really where the film stands out from the original? 'Your mom' jokes? Anthony Wong's superintendent character gets split in half, supplying the amiable buffoon Alec Baldwin and pensively paternal Martin Sheen. The female character, who becomes unwittingly sandwiched between the two leads, is much more subtly involved in matters in Hong Kong, but in Boston her nuance is lost and a love triangle appears. And Scorsese's thematic centrepiece, the confusion and metamorphosis that the two moles' dissimulation causes, is actually much more apparent in the original, which doesn't make a big deal of it.

Finally, Scorsese's alterations to the plot facilitate a nice, neat wrapping-up of events, just as you'd expect from a

Ultimately, The Departed attempts to fine-tune its predecessor in some regards and break with it in others. On paper, the effect of the changes should be to make a more palatable movie for a western audience, but it ends up marooned; too much of a re-hash, it sags with the weight of nostalgia for its source, but no more than when it strays from the path. Scorsese simply couldn't win.

I used to charge these remakes with a cultural imperialism that I now think is a bit silly - this is a moneygrabbing maneuver first and foremost (although a scene involving some Chinese triads does offer an opportunity for Nicholson to spew a few epithets). I think this says less about the film-makers themselves than their audience, or possibly more about their level of respect for their audience. Maybe I just naively think first-is-best, which is a common enough delusion after all, not just in film. It may be that originality forms an overriding meta-aesthetic (metaesthetic? measthetic?) by which I judge film. This is, of course, the personal, situational approach to film that generates limitless perspective and confounds our attempt to evaluate absolutely. A superior remake would make for a more interesting study on this subject.

And so, the walk home, wrenching up from the sofa, creaking up the stairs, switching off lights. The end was neat, meaningless, perfectly OK. There is nothing to say about The Departed.


*Being English means never having to pronounce correctly or add foreign punctuation.
** Film-watching is an important shared activity for us, but he is overly fond of Steven Segal and does not care for subtitles, so consequently I leap at anything respectable. Furthermore, our loose alliance is the only thing banishing terrible US teen-rom-coms from the living room. It is a battle for resources.
***With hindsight, this was the point at which I should have stopped caring about the Oscars - much though Scorsese deserves a lifetime achievement award, much though The Departed did a credible impression of a top-notch film, it's astonishing really. Little Miss Sunshine was more enjoyable, Letters From Iwo Jima more consistent, Babel more 'worthy,' and United 93 undoubtedly more interesting to watch (and clearly better directed, provided you can put up with Greengrass' shaky-cam)
**** Or, Mak Siu-Fai, Lau Wai-Keung and Leung Chiu-Wai. I think I got those half-right. Yes, it is funny that someone would choose such vanilla names to make themselves more glamorous/saleable.
***** It is of course, obligatory for Western reviewers to use this word at least once when discussing foreign cinema. Indeed, for British people to use this to describe anything foreign (unless one wishes to demonstrate xenophobia; here the appropriate word is 'smelly').

1 comment:

sarah expletive said...

thanks for vindicating my refusal to see the departed, although - as you may well know or have gathered - i do believe it is possible to be original with an adapatation. (i might watch it one day to bitch about it though).