Youthification without Youth

I really really like THE IRISHMAN and want to see it again.

Consider the trilogy, now — GOODFELLAS (youth); CASINO (middle age); THE IRISHMAN (old age).

Consider the peculiar mix of brilliance and craziness in Scorsese’s use of the de-aging technology, or what he calls “youthification,” and its effects.

It certainly wouldn’t be the same film with a younger actor wearing old-age make-up for the older scenes. First, there’s the history of De Niro on the screen and our relationship with his image, and his relationship with Scorsese and our memories of their previous collaborations.

Casting an older actor and making him younger tells us what the film’s priorities are: having a 100% real old De Niro is more important than having a 100% real young De Niro.

After half an hour I stopped paying attention to what they had done digitally to the leads. I was always slightly conscious of it, I suppose, but it in no sense distracted me. One of the advantages of having a long film.

Since this tech is evolving, I wondered if this pioneering example will come to look embarrassing in a few years. I sort of suspect that even if we see more perfect de-agings in future, our reactions to this one will be fairly consistent… we’ll notice that something has been done, and then we’ll get used to it as the film goes on.

They haven’t recreated the young DeNiro of TAXI DRIVER or even GOODFELLAS. They have removed some lines from De Niro’s big, twenty-tens face, creating a whole different appearance. I guess they wanted him to look as much like his current self as possible, only a good bit younger. Our noses and ears grow as we age, De Niro has put on some weight, gravity has pulled at that weight. The effects people don’t mess with any of that, they just remove the obvious marks of aging. I *think* that’s a less distracting choice than recreating a specific De Niro or set of De Niro’s from the past. If we suddenly saw Travis Bickle or James Conway or Max Cady’s face, I think it would be startling, distracting, TOO MUCH of a callback to the actor and filmmaker’s shared history.

And certainly this is an amazing advance comparing it to the Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher fails in ROGUE ONE and most of the other stuff I’ve seen which attempts comparable tricks. And De Niro can act through it.

Some have pointed out that they can’t make De Niro move like a young man. Apparently, they had a movement coach on set all the time to help with that. But a guy in his seventies doesn’t move that way out of choice, it comes naturally. Some people retain youthful movement, some do not, and I would think it’s a very hard thing to assume once it’s gone. But, though De Niro’s walk does not put you in mind of a younger man, it didn’t seem to me impossible that a forty-year-old or whatever might walk like that. The guy’s a truck driver, I’m not expecting Fred Astaire. So I noted it for what it was and didn’t let it bother me.

So, what’s been done with De Niro and Pesci (magnificent), then, makes complete sense, allowing us most access to them, with least visual interference, when they’re old.

In a way, what’s been done with Al Pacino makes no sense at all. And yet I can’t complain.

Pacino never plays Jimmy Hoffa in his seventies — the man disappeared (and we learn a convincing version of what may have happened to him) in his early sixties.

Of course Pacino isn’t Hoffa’s German/Irish-American mix any more than De Niro is an Irishman. And they haven’t tried to digitally make Pacino look like Hoffa. The lines in the movie about how Hoffa isn’t really remembered too much anymore are the filmmakers’ “out” letting them ignore the character’s historical appearance. Again, he’s a de-aged version of the actor who doesn’t look like Pacino did in his forties, fifties or sixties.

While we may bemoan the supposition that Scorsese could only get this movie made via Netflix, it’s a remarkable testimony to his influence that he could get ANYONE to sign off on this extremely expensive and untested approach whereby an actor who is too old for the part will be altered to fit, when casting a younger man would self-evidently be easier, cheaper, more natural, safer, and more likely to assure commercial success (though of course the combo of Pacino + Scorsese + De Niro is more marketable than Pacino is by himself). It’s a piece of casting that flies in the face of everything — and Pacino is the most entertaining actor in the film (with Stephen Graham as his main foil a close second) and you wouldn’t ever want to see anyone else in the part.

In fact, just as Pacino brings a blast of energy into the film when he arrives (and his tendency to explode if very well used here, no complaints about overacting from me), the effect of his departure is equally striking — a lot of the life goes out of the film, De Niro gets even more muted — his phone call to the widow is one of the greatest things he’s ever done — and there’s nothing left but the slow, inexorable slide towards senescence and death.

Catherine Scorsese to her son from her hospital bed: “Well, we were put here to suffer.”

40 Responses to “Youthification without Youth”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I think far too much has been made of the digital “Youthification.” it’s really like make-up in the end. What’s important is the actors. DeNiro is cucumber cool next to a red-hot Al Pacino. I’m old enough to remember when Hoffa was at his height and in the news 2/7. Pacino’s ferocious embrace of Hoffa’s over-the-top-nes is enthrallingly hilarious.

    As for Mrs. Scorsese, her devoted son made sure her suffering was minimal. She had a wonderful life and the best part of it was his inclusion of her in several of his best films. He didn’t give her any lines. She could improvise faster than DeNiro.

  2. yes yes yes and I too would like to see it again. Off to see if I can scape up a viewing today. Today was a good day the day after I star in my own version of Being Mary Gordon I discover a friend of mine’s ex husband had dinner with Marty a few weeks ago. This is better than being ‘the girl that danced with the man who danced with the girl that danced with The Prince of Wales’

  3. Wow!

    I was introduced to him once and of course totally failed to come up with anything to say.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    Excellent points all around. I tend to be very critical of CGI effects, but I don’t believe those in The Irishman will age badly. I would also note that most of the film is in flashback mode, with Sheeran remembering his younger days. He’s looking back from the vantage of a sinful old age, so it makes sense that in his flashbacks the protagonists look a older and more hardened than they “should.” The present infects the past. Sheeran cannot restore his less sullied youth through flashbacks; he’s too far gone for that.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    I recall reading that Barbara Streisand’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces” was intended to include a digital nose job as part of her character’s transformation. It didn’t happen.

    After one of the X-Men films included a scene of a digitally younger Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, McKellen — maybe tongue in cheek, maybe not — gleefully speculated that it was possible for he and Maggie Smith to film “Romeo and Juliet”.

    I can easily see a day when motion capture goes from creating impossible creatures to visually replacing stars with younger, fitter avatars of themselves — first when they have to strip down or do a stunt; eventually for entire films so they can age and thicken and break training and still play youthful leads. In time it may be like doing voices for animation. Actors might shoot their individual bits alone or even at home, the way some musicians and voice artists record in home studios. These performances are combined to simulate interaction in a wholly digital environment. What’s now a flashy stunt will turn up in nominally realistic movies as the tech improves and the price goes down. Drawing a line between an animated film and a live action film will hinge on which one the makers choose it to be.

    Some years back in the comic strip “Doonesbury”, onetime starlet Boopsie related how she had herself digitally scanned when her figure was peaking. Now she collects royalties when parts of her are CGI’d onto stars in movies (“Every time Julia Roberts leans forward I get a nickel”). Cute, but any less absurd than CGI-ing all of James Dean?

  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Speaking of Youth for many of us Part of it has just died

  7. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    This article for cinefil by Toshi Fujiwara is interesting.

    It’s in Japanese but even in Google English it’s pretty illuminating.

    The personal details with Frank and his daughter apparently echo stuff n Scorsese’s current Life rather than an earlier period with Frank becoming s as kind of Scorsese stand in with his issues about his work and what it might have cost him in family terms. He points out that in earlier mob movies Scorsese focused on relationships with wives whereas Irishman focuses on relationship with the daughter which echoes Scorsese who has three daughters (a number familiar from King Lear).

  8. I expected to get hung up on youthification, but very quickly forgot it. Here’s what I posted on my FB page.

    THE IRISHMAN is the Scorsese film I’ve waited 45 years for, ever since I saw MEAN STREETS. Those who know me well know the effect that had on me and how I always name it as my favourite film. A story about small time Italian/American wise guys in NY wasn’t something I could easily relate to but, stylistically, I was bowled over by the music, the colours, the editing, the sheer energy. I know now how Scorsese had borrowed from other filmmakers but at the time it had ‘the electric impact of novelty’ (to borrow from someone else). So on I went, seeing everything he made, through thick (RAGING BULL) and thin (GANGS OF NEW YORK), hoping for the same experience, admiring the exuberance and confidence, but growing increasingly uneasy about the moral ambivalence, of films that followed the wise guys’ story like GOODFELLAS and CASINO. Were they celebrating or condemning machismo and criminal behaviour? THE IRISHMAN finally answers that question unequivocally by following their lives through to their sad, lonely, sometimes violent ends. This is a work of maturity, by people – director, writer, designers and actors – who know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it.

  9. Well said!

    *Might* go again on Monday but I kind of want to re-watch Casino first. Already did Goodfellas. I see them as an informal trilogy, but there’s a strong case for calling it a quadrilogy with Mean Streets as episode one.

  10. ehrenstein47 Says:

  11. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I saw Irishman over the weekend. And it’s really something interesting. I think the main thing is the repetitive nature of that life. Either gangsters get shot and die, or they live old and get arthritis after a stint in prison or in a retirement home. To me the most haunting bit is that brief cutaway to Old Joseph Kennedy at Hyannis Port in 1969 after both his sons are dead…that cut is a kind of gesture and foreshadowing about where all these lives lead, and also about legacy and so on.

    Irishman is a prequel to CASINO. Since the Teamsters’ Pension Fund built the casinoes which we see in that movie. And if you keep that in mind, the sense of waste and pointlessness at the end, where there’s already a sense that the entire gangster thing was meaningless to start with…but even robbing the casinoes and the skimming failed in the end.

    This is also Joe Pesci’s best performance. That prison scene between Pesci and Deniro at the end is unforgettable.

  12. The Joe Kennedy shot also reminded me of Pacino at the end of The Godfather III…

    In a film where we also meet the guy Joe Pesci played in JFK.

    Agree with Pesci. Well, he’s generally been amusing, but this is something new, whereas one complaint with Casino was that he was repeating past glories.

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It’s basically a movie about death where everyone ends up like Jed Leland rather than Kane.

    Scorsese said he was inspired by European crime movies for Irishman:he mentioned Becker and Melville but the melancholy sensibility also reminds one of Stavisky… with Hoffa as the Stavisky figure. I also saw Lucky Luciano by Francesco Rosi recently and that’s also a movie about an aging gangster who ends up as a lonely old man who dies pathetically of a heart attack in a airport. Another reference is Lattuada’s Mafioso which has the assassination of Anastasio that the movie featured early (the one in the barbershop).

    But there’s definitely a lot of self reference with the history of the actors, the movies they made (like with Deniro you also need to think of Leone’s last movie where Pesci has a single scene as a mob don) with and without Scorsese. Like Al Pacino’s dance with Anna Paquin at the union recalls Scent of a Woman even and also The Godfather.

  14. Some of the connections are surely chance, but we have so much history with these actors that the sight of Pacino dancing or De Niro and Pesci eating has resonance.

    Lattuada’s Mafioso got namedropped the other day in a bookstore — evidently it’s signalling to me.

  15. Watching “The Irishman”. It’s puzzling garbage. I’m having fun because M and I painted a diptych and a guy on a motorized bike nearly ran me down when I stepped in front of him (my fault): “Light’s green, bro,” he said in his calm Indian accent — speeding off silently with oven mitts protecting his hands. It’s cold out. Having great Turkish take-out as we watch “Marty’s” steaming cine-poop. Am I supposed to believe de Niro in this role? Time for vodka, pumpkin pie — and weed if I’m going to keep listening to Pacino scream.

  16. Ok, I finished this bottle of expired sleeping pills. It’s not Scorsese’s fault that his audience likes to be zonked out on the pornification (fuck the “youthification”) of his own work. There’s zero emotion in this “film” — more like a highlights reel of 80-year-old male athletes reenacting past glory, minus a single meaningful woman’s role. To be fair, I think I saw an entire black person, after a few obscured views of black extras. The Irishman’s pointless made-for-television trip down memory lane is apparently to explore white homoeroticism in some neglige for corpses — necro-frippery as cinematography. Tomb porn. The only concern Scorsese seemed to have was cramming as many “names” into his somber trek down the hauls of his endless columbarium.

  17. Well, we liked it.

    Had forgotten that “columbarium” was a word.

    The idea that characters need to have dialogue to be worthwhile is an odd one: Paquin’s role couldn’t be more “meaningful.”

    It’s a very male and very white story. Of course, we need other stories that are not. But THIS story isn’t missing vital female or black elements. They’re absent but not missing. (Apart from the silent condemnation of Paquin and that spoken by her sister. And the smoking wives. Etc.)

  18. Agnes Varda put “columbarium” in a movie. Joe Pesci was good, mainly because he played everything with such funny, creepy, gnome-like gentleness. Never exploding. I wish Scorsese would make an entire film about Pesci playing bocci in his prison wheelchair — so many squandered opportunities in this slog-fest.

  19. On a serious note about Pesci: his character is written to deemphasize physicality. The guy used to make audiences believe he could kill mesomorphs with his knuckles, despite his size. When Method Man, on the other hand, is supposed to be young (stumbling like an arthritic of his actual age), an unintended horror sets in. When did Pacino’s knuckles (speaking of knuckles) reach the ground? He looks and sounds like he’s in Dick Tracy. Sorry, scroll up for more complaints.

  20. At what point does a director stand accused of abusing his auteur status to dream about an epic past that shuts out most of the world? “Marty” is another Ayn Rand shitting out Atlas Shrugged, set in the future with no black people in it. You do the math.

  21. Marty decided to make his own Marvel Movie, except with less backstory and compelling psychological motivation.

  22. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    At no point. It’s not the job of every filmmaker, every writer, every painter, to tell every kind of story and every kind of image.

    Likewise Ayn Rand has a philosophy antithetical to the notion of criminals being human beings and union politics as a subject for tragedy.

    To David Cairns,
    I think Silence de la Mer is interesting to compare Peggy’s presence in the movie with. That’s a movie where silence is an act of resistance. So it is here. Buffalino and Sheeran are charming and affective just like that German but to no avail.

  23. The art for art’s sake response. Gee. Isn’t that’ how Woody Allen got away with it. Maybe cinephiles are sociopaths.

  24. Paquin’s so-called “role” involves 6.8 seconds of screen time. She emotes one note. And her arc is to disappear (after she’s done “acting” and taking “Marty’s profound directorial guidance: “Oh YOU again? Go over there and look glum… CUT!”

  25. The Irishman: Gangster Cosplay — a comedian playing Crazy Joe Gallo? And everyone’s wearing rugs. Or the rugs wear the actors. Sorry, the computer-generated holograms assigned star power, I meant to say. Oo-FAH!

  26. The violence in Scorsese’s films is downright boring. Pastiches drained of emotion. Maybe he thinks that’s “pure cinema.” When Paquin’s “big moment” finally arrives — she actually gets to utter a sentence!! — we’ve seen it coming for hours (“The daughter will know”). Don’t get excited. She’s just providing a segue… Method Man stuttering on the telephone… YAY! The violence is predictable, and so are these moralizing comeuppances.

  27. Paquin’s silence is infinitely more effective than Cameron Diaz’s dialogue in Gangs of New York, where she has to become a bore, asking the hero to stay out of trouble.

    Are we really counting lines in late 2019? Like that’s how screen characters make an impact felt, with sheer weight of syllables.

    The connection to Woody Allen seems tenuous, to say the least. Whose children is Scorsese accused of abusing?

  28. You’re reaching. “Her silence is effective.” No, it’s indicative of the general boredom and stasis. And you mean “Whose children did Scorsese abuse?” — nix “accused of,” please.

  29. Woody Allen made a decent movie every ten years or so after his heyday. Scorsese never recovered from the death of the 70s. The failures they produced form a giant slag heap. Allen parodies his real-life predator role in both his behavior on set and in the stories he tells on screen. His fans share the received sociopathy of “art for art’s…” OH HUSH! Scorsese (since you mention Gangs of New York’s implicit misogyny) imagines the world as a place for men to prove they aren’t gay via closeted violence. I thought the dialogue in The Departed was legitimately homophobic — again, cue his fans with ears of tin whining about his “faithfulness to the character.” These are tedious sentiments and tedious hacks. But you’re right. Scorsese never molested his own daughter. Allen did. And his fans dote on him.

  30. Paquin’s fate seems to be playing the same role on tv and in the movies. See her in THE AFFAIR?

  31. In one pivotal scene, Al Pacino, playing German/Irish, utters an anti-Italian slur. You heard right: the nation’s most identifiable Wop hates Italians. But it gets weirder: The actor playing Italian in this scene is Irish. Robert De Niro’s refereeing here as The Irishman. (Well, he IS half Irish.)

  32. Ray Liotta in Goodfellas: “It was real wop stuff.”

    This is AMUSING, maybe, but it seems the wrong stuff to focus on. If you liked the film, you wouldn’t care about this. So far all you’ve said is that you didn’t like the film and then you’ve listed details that CAN’T be at the root of your response.

  33. Correct. I’m just riffing around the edges. In fact, I had the same thought, in nearly your words, last night: “If I liked the film, none of this other stuff would matter to me.” I recall liking the first few shots. Not sure when I lost interest. So I’ll just say that 70s Scorsese had meaning for this working-class wop — his characters were anachronistic to hippie values. Suddenly the Ronettes were REBORN (and this hit me like a ton of bricks, even though I first saw MEAN STREETs in 1984). Now, Scorsese Inc. packages bulk star power and trademark music… It means zero to me. I’m watching self-conscious “art” (in this case, all the contradictions I’ve mentioned are a result of commercial choices dressed up as “great cinema” — the klutziness is there for all the wrongest, stupidest reasons.)

  34. Well, one difference is, we saw The Irishman in the cinema. It forces a certain concentration, and the audience was utterly silent.
    Now, it’s true that Scorsese has made films that work fine on the smal screen, and maybe work fine for a lightly stoned audience. But if this one doesn’t, that doesn’t invalidate it.

  35. I’ll add that Scorsese has grown increasingly sentimental with age; and his sentimentality has invaded the visual conception of his “gritty” subject matter (Gangs of New York looks kind of Jacob Riis meets Walt Disney). You label De Niro’s telephone call to the widow “great” — the acting is pretty terrific, granted. But the only reason we can identify with this sociopath is that he’s wrapped in the same aura of comic-book nostalgia as every stick of furniture Scorsese shoots. In this gooey context one can legitimately ask (I do): “What’s the point here? Is Scorsese, like Woody Allen, spinning mainstream fantasies for white audiences to escape history — even as the film promises to tell historically important stories?”

  36. Tarantino’s latest would not mean the same thing on the small screen. So I take your point.

  37. A friend just called GF, Casino and TI… The Jerry Vale Trilogy. Too bad Vale is no longer with us and therefore could not appear in person. Thank heaven The Boss’s accompanist was available to stand in.

  38. micahcarey Says:

    “Any more than De Niro is an Irishman” DeNiro is a quarter Irish as well as a quarter Irish. Do you do any research?

  39. micahcarey Says:

    I meant DeNiro is a quarter Irish and a quarter Italian.

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