One of the inevitable consequences of nihilism is that even people of talent, who might have made something worthwhile in a world in which societies were united by beliefs and aspirations of substance, end up producing nothing but clever variations on the prevailing nothingness — not commentaries on that nothingness, or critiques of it, but merely the nothingness itself, disguised in various excesses.
Take the case of Martin Scorsese, the most celebrated American film director of the past fifty years. For all the awards and critical acclaim, the truth, which the future will verify in its typically cold and analytical way, is that Scorsese has never made an artistically important film. He has made some pseudo-serious entertainments which used extreme violence and supposed “street wisdom” as substitutes for a mature, adult sensibility. But his entire filmography, in the end, amounts to nothing of significance. He has changed nothing, influenced nothing, given rise to nothing, beyond the little world of moviemaking itself, and perhaps popular slang. A lifelong career, and no effect on his world greater than people occasionally mimicking a tough guy voice to say, “Are you talking to me?” or “You’re a funny guy.” Now I see that there will be a television series, directed by the man himself, based on the godawful atrocity of a “historical film,” Gangs of New York, which is basically West Side Story set in a nineteenth century New York reimagined as a zombie-superhero video game — but lacking the fun songs and dance numbers, the memorable language, and any relatable feeling of the pitiful cycle of wasted young lives.
I do not pretend to have seen all of Scorsese’s films. In fact, I am pleased to say that I haven’t wasted much time on his work at all. I have seen perhaps half a dozen, and that is more than enough for me. I have searched out Orson Welles’ underfunded and incomplete works, such as Chimes at Midnight and F is for Fake, out of interest to learn what the man who gave us Citizen Kane was hoping to do with the rest of his career, whereas even the most overhyped and polished Scorsese films have little attraction for me. He has a lot of style, but nothing to say. Having somewhat enjoyed the definitive Scorsese film, Goodfellas, as well as the antithetical Age of Innocence, and having suffered respectfully through the youthful pretenses of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and disdainfully through the abysmal self-parody of Gangs of New York, I feel I have enough of a sense of his lack of purpose to assure me that I have nothing to learn here, that he will give me nothing to think about, that he will reveal no new horizons or important questions. He is just an entertainer, perfectly calibrated in his style and sensibility to appeal to those adults who wish to continue to enjoy their mindless cheap thrills while pretending to themselves that they have outgrown their childhood movie fandom. That is why his fame and legacy are most fiercely defended by professional film critics, who epitomize precisely this immature infatuation with “the movies” that wishes to mask itself behind pretenses of adult seriousness. And why are repeated images of men viciously attacking other men with knives for no discernible reason, and “realistically” cutting their dead bodies to pieces, again for no reason, representative of either adulthood or seriousness?
Scorsese’s consistent and obvious lack of serious artistic purpose, combined with his standard reliance on gratuitous violence, drugs, and the rest of the litany of self-indulgent distractions, leaves me cold in the end. I will not watch another of his movies, because I am older now, and I know I will never have another two and a half hours to spend squinting and rolling my eyes through a flashing stream of slickly-produced nothingness.