December 18, 2019

Living With “The Irishman” — Movies at Home vs. Movies in the Theatre

By Stuart Mitchner

Stopped in at the Gallery of the Adelphi Theatre, Strand — horribly hot & crowded — good piece though — in bed by ten o’clock.” That’s from the journal Herman Melville kept in November 1849, the year before he embarked on Moby Dick (1851).

“At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in your life.” In case you really want to know, that’s from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher on the Rye (1951), the chapter where Holden Caulfield takes Sally to the theatre.

I’m quoting from Melville and Salinger because this may be my last chance in 2019 to observe their respective bicentennial and  centennial years, but mainly because I’ve been thinking about why I chose to watch Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour-long epic The Irishman at home on Netflix rather than seeing it with my wife at Princeton’s Garden Theatre, where Ethan Hawke has been known to show up onscreen to remind patrons to turn off their phones and refrain from talking. The fact that movie houses everywhere need to screen these reminders indicates why some people prefer to watch at home rather than deal with various potential distractions and irritants of sharing the experience with less than thoughtful fellow moviegoers. You never know when someone behind you has a cough that won’t stop or a laugh that breaks the sound barrier.

Then there’s always the possibility that some proud parents will bring their four-year-old along rather than trust the precious creature to a babysitter. I speak from experience, not as the parent but as the creature who allegedly yelled “Don’t go up there again, you silly man!” when Joe E. Brown kept climbing a ladder to court a fair maiden (possibly Martha Raye) who kept dropping flower pots on his head. Joe E. Brown is best known today as Osgood Fielding III, the smitten suitor in Some Like It Hot who unhesitatingly says “Nobody’s perfect!” to Jack Lemmon’s Daphne when Jack rips off his wig and shouts “I’m a man!” The communal roar of laughter greeting that iconic closing line is a reminder of the pleasure of sharing sheer unmitigated amusement with a theatre full of people who at that moment are on the same wavelength whatever their political party or social status. The sound of uninhibited response to a public performance echoes through the ages from Shakespeare’s Globe to New York movie audiences delighting in the Beatles A Hard Day’s Night in the summer of 1964 when I was in the habit of taking Beatle-resistant friends to the show for the fun of watching their euphoric responses.

The Comfort Zone

As for the more banal earthly reasons for watching The Irishman at home, it’s not just about being able to take a break for tea or a snack or to stretch your legs or cuddle the cat purring or gently, lovably snoring beside you. No, the primary advantage of at-home viewing relates to an urgent physical need acknowledged in the voiceover when the title character, hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), stresses the importance of casing the Men’s Room prior to terminating Joey Gallo in Umberto’s Clam House. Those in the audience calculating how many of the film’s 210 minutes it will take them to get to the lobby conveniences will be alert to Sheeran’s advice, to be sure to “go to the bathroom. You don’t want to be uncomfortable.”

It’s hard to believe this is a hired killer talking — so understated, so polite, so conscious of decorum. Perhaps only in the comfort zone of home could viewers devoting the better part of an afternoon to Scorsese’s epic relish the juxtaposition of that thoughtful aside with the ensuing chaos of gunshots and screams as Frank almost botches the job and has to deliver the coup de gras on the street. Here, you’re reminded that the story’s being told by a old man in a nursing home, which is where it begins and where it ends and why The Irishman has prompted reviewers to contrast its measured pace and subdued tone to the all-out headlong in-your-face violence of Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas. The effect is enhanced by the way the slowed-down speech patterns of a vulnerable old man form a kind of counerpoint with the coded nuances of the language Sheeran used in his prime, tropes of menace like “it is what it is” or the hit man’s code in which an assignment to kill is phrased, either “to do” or “not to do that.” The balance between coded speech and euphemism is not surprising in a screenplay adapted from a book titled I Heard You Paint Houses, the gangster’s password for a business proposal where paint is blood and “carpentry” means disposing of the remains.

Political Realities

More than three decades ago, when Robert DeNiro played a Jewish-American gangster in Sergio Leone’s, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), he was interviewed by Pete Hamill for a long cover article in American Film magazine. Discussing how he dealt with the fact that his character ages almost 50 years, DeNiro, then 40, said “It took so long to put the makeup on—four to six hours—that I was so tired I had to look old.”

Today DeNiro’s 76, playing an Irish-American hit man and telling David Marchese in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that now that the makeup changes are produced digitally to “youth-ify” him, he finds “it’s harder to act younger than the other way around.”

The political realities of the day enter the conversation when DeNiro is asked how he manages to infuse “all these vicious characters with something approaching soul.” After noting that the rule in acting is “you never make a judgment about your character,” he points out that Frank has problems anyone can relate to: “I never thought of him as being amoral or immoral. He lives in a world where the penalties are harsh if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do …. I don’t like to go to Trump, but he is a person who, to me, has no morals, no ethics, no sense of right and wrong.” As for finding his way into the character of the president, “I wouldn’t want to play him …. There’s nothing redeemable about him, and I never say that about any character.” 

“Instant Karma”

It’s time to admit that like Ahab, I’ve been heaped. The moral is don’t attempt to do justice to a massively long film two days after you’ve seen it and before you’ve had time to absorb the experience. I’ll admit being distracted by what’s going on in Washington. One of my original intentions had been to quote, not for the first time, John Lennon’s song, “Gimme Some Truth” or maybe something hopeful like “Imagine.” But then one of the best songs he ever wrote is “Instant Karma,” with its chorus, “We all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun.”