Scorsese: The Wisest Guy in the Room

Readers of this blog are probably aware that I’m not a big horror film fan, while my son is; in the service of striving to be my best Self as a parent I’ve cringed, shuddered and jumped out of my seat through I am Legend, Zombie Land, The Book of Eli, Paranormal Activity and this week… Shutter Island.

From the first glimpse of the terrifying trailer months ago, my kid had gotten me to promise to take him to Shutter Island, and I went with a measure of trepidation.  Not only is Scorsese a brilliant filmmaker, arguably our best living and working American master, but if he wants to scare, he knows how to scare.  In fact Cape Fear has to be one of the scariest films I’ve seen.

However, if you were thinking to skip Shutter Island because you don’t care for horror films, my vote is to strongly consider checking it out as a work of haunting art.

When it comes to intelligence there is knowledge and there is wisdom.  Scorsese has both:  he has the knowledge of cinema history (and is one of the champions of film preservation, understanding the importance of our cultural legacy), but he also has wisdom, intuitive knowing and seeing that gives him a touch of magic with actors, with mood and atmosphere, with themes and emotional tones—with how and when to move the camera, a gift for mise en scene… in a time of big iconic franchises based on comic books where the word “auteur” is laughable, Scorsese is an auteur.

A good friend of mine’s dad was the cinematographer on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and King of Comedy and I would hear how Scorsese might have De Niro do fifty takes of a scene, looking for something ineffable when no one else had any idea of what it could be they were going for.  In my view Scorsese is a shaman, an artist who dreams with eyes open.  What he is looking for is what most of us tend to miss until it’s dreamed for us:  Shutter Island is just such a work of visionary seeing—looking back to an imagined 1950s to show us the way forward.

Shutter Island tackles a very interesting theme:  who are we?  In exploring the modern, alienated psyche that he plumbed in Taxi Driver and the wise-guy nature of violence sprawled across Goodfellas (and Gangs of New York) Scorsese moves into the psychology of compassion with Shutter Island.

To avoid spoiling the story, I’ll restrict my comments to the general themes, but these do relate to parenting as I view it—the caring for our world.

Shutter Island references how the treatment of mental illness changed in the 50’s with the introduction of psychotropic drugs; but it also explores how madness is to a large extent culturally determined, forcing us to confront the notion that it is not just the Other who perpetrates unspeakable violence, but the self (at the personal and the collective level).

Rather than give away plot, I would encourage you to consider the following map of potential symbols as a grid in which to enrich the experience of watching this lucid dream of a film.

The Island could be seen as symbol of the psyche itself.  A ship carries us to the island, evocative of both the ferry crossing to the land of the dead and perhaps an oblique cultural reference to the narcissistic and grandiose ship as symbol of a debauched modernism which DiCaprio rides in Titanic; Shutter Island’s ship is first seen emerging out of the fog of unconsciousness.

DiCaprio’s partner is also the idea of twinship, the one who understands and mirrors us in our psychological development.  The head doctor (as in leader and doctor of the head) is symbol of the intellect, the father, the superior aspect (in both positive and Shadow aspects).  Warden is the tough and pragmatic “parent” the one who alternately sets limits or confines us, but with a much less intellectual bent.

The wife/Mother is both the Anima/life-giver that completes the male psyche, having birthed it in the first place; but it can also have its shadow element as life-taker and heart breaker.

Woman in the cave is a symbol of the witch or wise old woman who can be dark or light.

Water (which makes the hero sick) is a symbol of the mother, the unconscious and the emotional realm.  Fire, which illuminates also burns and reduces everything to ash.

The lighthouse is a symbol for that which protects the ship of the ego self from “breaking up” on the rocks of the total Self.  No man is an island; yet every man and woman is, in a way, an island of many opposites.

Children here are the children within ourselves, the innocent and often traumatized aspect whose pain we must confront if we are to break from the cycle of alienation, wounding and destruction.

Shutter Island is about the fragmenting of the psyche in the face of modern alienation, and it is also about the attempt to reintegrate the pieces.

Scorsese sagely quotes Hitchcock, as heir apparent to the master of suspense; his magical use of dream and memory weave us into a world both less and more real that so-called reality.

Although ostensibly a popcorn thriller, Shutter Island is a deep work, one that cleverly analogizes the atrocities of the Other—the monster, the villain, the murderer and the Nazi, with the Shadow of the Self.  The Anima and the Mother who kills her children, madwoman and femme fatale are introduced and re-visioned with emotion, heart and depth.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is nuanced and layered with pain, grit, pathos and tenderness, inviting us into his world-view, his own delusions and his higher reason by way of deep empathy.

Generally if a film shows children who come to harm, my personal standard is that it better damn well be about something and not just cheap exploitation.  In my view this is a very high bar and Scorsese clears it in Shutter Island.

When it comes to individuation, as well as to parenting as our best Selves, I cannot over-emphasize the tremendous importance of recognizing and integrating the Shadow (both within us and between us at a societal level), if we hope to wake up and stop the violence that we unconsciously perpetrate through denial, ignorance, materialism, insatiable hunger and the projection of the Shadow, which then manifests to us as all that we fear (from poverty to terrorists).

On a personal note, I have an extra warm spot for Scorsese because when I was on my honeymoon in Paris, we were staying on the Isle St. Louis (a place that once housed Christ’s crown of thorns, bought by King Louis at outrageous price, and long-since pillaged and disappeared) and Andy and I were strolling with our Bertillon ice creams through a soft September evening across the bridge to the Isle de la Cité when we came upon horse-drawn carriages on the cobble street… and a camera crew.  The director of Last Temptation of Christ was in Paris filming Age of Innocence.  Having met at a Fellini screening complete with Fellini, it seemed a good omen to run into Scorsese himself on our Lune de Miel.  Years later, Andy would work with Scorsese and his company to help preserve classic films for the UCLA archive.  While we can’t all be geniuses like Scorsese, we can realize that he carries something of the spirit of the group—that for all his violent and disturbing films, he is incredibly soft-spoken, gracious and kind in person (acknowledging the Shadow, personal and collective on the screen of our collective dream and memory, perhaps so that it need not be acted out on our mean streets and terror-stricken battle fields).

Shutter Island comes from, and contributes to, a deep and collective consciousness, asking us, in the guise of a fantastically and carefully crafted collective vision (which Scorsese dreams and then paints) that lights the way for us as we enter into the territory and terrain of our own human darkness.  When we realize that, when it comes to madness, violence and the darkest deeds, none of us are above, or immune from it, then we are prepared to leap into the void of what we do not yet understand, passing through the fog of fear and desire… into what I surely do not know—but hopefully done bravely and with love, getting to the lighthouse of a more conscious world—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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5 Responses to “Scorsese: The Wisest Guy in the Room”

  1. Helen Slater Says:

    OK…I just told Rob I’ll go with him. My plan is to cover both of my eyes and peak through a small tiny opening at the bottom right hand corner of the screen. Should it be deafening at times (which I’m planning on) I will deftly cover my ears AND close my eyes, bury my head in Rob’s steady shoulder until I can stomach watching the shadow realized in this dark fantasy.


  2. Linda Says:

    That’s an incredible analysis, yet somehow I’m sure my two guys will come home and say, “Cool movie.” No analysis, just blank stares.

  3. Helen Slater Says:

    Saw it last night. i thought it was fantastic and I”m so happy you encouraged me to see it. I agree that Scorcese is illuminating this period in (American) history for all of us. It really did make me think how the atrocities of WW2, and DiCaprio’s own role in alienating his wife, and (in his mind) contributing to the death of his children, brought on his eventual mental break. Lots of food for thought. Rob and I disagreed about the meaning of the last line of the movie. Can’t wait to talk with you about that!

  4. Zombie Love: Relinquishing Fear… one horror movie at a time « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] Alcatraz) of all the world’s religious texts… and a west coast counter point to Shutter Island solemnly resting in the Atlantic of our disintegration, a film also evoking the holocaust, madness […]

  5. Inception on the couch — interpreting collective dreams « Privilegeofparenting’s Blog Says:

    […] Marty, our nation’s preeminent auteur, turned to questions of reality he made Shutter Island, which, ironically, is essentially the same movie as Inception—starring the exact same man and […]

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