The Screening Room

By Pittman, Frank | Family Therapy Networker, January/February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Screening Room


Pittman, Frank, Family Therapy Networker


Married to the Mob A love story that is refreshingly unromantic

MACHISMO DIRECTOR MARTIN SCORSESE AND IRONIC society novelist Edith Wharton might, at first glance, appear to have come not just from different centuries, but from different universes. These two anti-sentimentalists have been among the keenest observers of the mean and inescapable realities of American society. Now, their visions come together in Scorsese's masterful filming of Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

Scorsese has gotten most of his critical acclaim for unflinching films about violence, usually urban and most memorably embodied by actor Robert De Niro: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Cape Fear. These are violent films, but not films that glorify violence as triumphant or glamorous as in the pulp action movies of Stallone or Schwarzenegger. These are serious films about the tortured development of character amidst the ruins of a moral order.

Scorsese's films have won Oscars for De Niro, Paul Newman, Ellen Burstyn and Joe Pesci. Scorsese himself has even received a few nominations, but he's never had a huge box-office success. His view of our world is too disturbing. Even in his musicals {New York, New York), comedies {The King of Comedy) and feminist road trips (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), even when his subject is religion (The Last Temptation of Christ) or sports {The Color of Money), his moral outrage shines through. He keeps us appalled at the effect of this mean world on the people trapped in it.

Scorsese is clearly a tortured moralist. He is obsessed with sin and redemption, he can't turn away, and he won't let us do so either. He makes us identify with horrifying people, like paranoid cabbie Travis Bickell in Taxi Driver, who was so appalled over a 12-year-old prostitute (Jody Foster) that he wanted to assassinate somebody anybody to make it better. But who do you start wiping out and where do you stop? In sadistic bloodbaths like Goodfellas and Cape Fear, Scorsese, like Travis, didn't know where to draw the line. It seemed he had gone out of control and was assaulting his audience.

Now, in a dizzying shift in style and tone, Scorsese has chosen to direct Wharton's elegant and ever-so-civilized story of frustrated love among the privileged classes.

Edith Wharton, no hothouse flower herself, was born (in 1862) and raised as one, in one of the richest and most socially prominent families in New York City. She married correctly if not well and began writing. She was a friend and admirer of Henry James, the American master of social and psychological realism. Like James, she wrote with a sharp eye and sharp tongue about the manners and customs of emerging American society, and like his brother, psychologist William James, she focused on the moral choices people make. Wharton's fiction, like James's, concerns the relationship between free will and societal restraint, and the pacts individuals make with the world around them, Wharton, more than any writer of her generation short of Sigmund Freud, understood the passion being choked and engirdled beneath the calm surface of social propriety.

In 1907, Wharton left her society and her mentally unstable husband, and moved to France for a literary life. Divorce at that time just wasn't done. In 1911, she published Ethan Frome, her most famous work, about a miserable but inescapable marriage. In 1913, she finally divorced. In 1920, she published The Age of Innocence, about a hopeless love affair between two married people unwilling to make the social sacrifice of divorce. For it, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. By the time Wharton died in 1937, however, her work seemed dated, tightly bound in time and place. Now, over half a century later, her two most famous novels have both hit the screen, one with the thud of a sled hitting a tree and the other with the magical unfolding of a rosebud bursting into bloom. …

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