Dear Bytowne Cinema,
We go back, you and me. You used to supply the staff of the independent video store I worked at with monthly free passes, and in return we’d throw your staff free rentals. In fact, all of us old independents were on good terms with one another. We shared clients, a love of film, and there was enough for everyone to make a decent haul. We weren’t on the same team, but we were playing the same game.
Those were the glory days.
My video store couldn’t survive streaming, but it clung by its fingernails to the bitter end. You have managed to maintain your stellar reputation as a home for films which live outside the mainstream by providing Ottawa with one of the few places an audience can enjoy a niche cinematic experience. So I guess it makes sense that you are the only theatre (in a region with a population of 1M), to be showing Martin Scorsese’s scrappy little $159M indie film, The Irishman.
We live in crazy times when one of the most successful and revered filmmakers of the last fifty years has to cut a deal with a streaming network to make a gangster film starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Now it’s an expensively ambitious risk for a studio to take, but ten years ago, it would have shown in every major theatre in North America. Hell, just three years ago Scorsese’s passion project, the moody monk drama, Silence, was released on over 1500 screens.
Blame Netflix, blame illegal block booking, blame a theatrical business model averse to streaming platform demands, or scream at clouds, but the fact that Scorsese’s latest mob elegy finds it’s theatrical release in places that don’t end in PLEX, is an example of how even rich, old, white men must now compromise to get their work seen.
Thankfully, independent theatres like you have always been there to offer audiences an alternative to corporate, blockbuster monotony. My video store offered that alternative once too, before we were edged out of relevance. But we don’t make the rules, we just play by them.
The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicles the life and crimes of mob bodyguard and hitman Frank Sheeran. Brandt spent several years coaxing Sheeran’s story out of him at the extended care facility where he was released after prison. This is where we meet Sheeran, after a sweeping meander through the facility set to the Five Satins ballad In the Still of the Night. This is no Copa Shot. No cocksure Liotta, no giddy Bracco, no front row table. Instead, we move past nurses, wheelchairs, and institutional furniture to rest on the face of a man resigned to his choices, who knows he will never feel forgiveness or redemption.
Scorsese is not interested in romanticizing this sordid history, and yet The Irishman is surprisingly sentimental. More Italian opera than gangster picture. And like an opera it is long, and it is tragic. Full of villains and regrets. This is where the genius of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is on full display. She builds the pace from movement to movement, cutting a rhythm of thrilling montages, lingering conversations, and wordless glances. Scorsese throws text on the screen identifying certain characters, and their time and manner of death. There is nothing glamorous about this world we inhabit for three and a half hours, but every minute is a gift.
Sheeran’s existence is hardscrabble from the get-go. From street fighting in Depression-era Philly, to the European theatre of the Second World War where he saw over 400 days of combat, Sheeran’s low-level post-war grifting seems almost quaint. Then, by absolute dumb-luck chance, he runs into Russell Bufalino, head of the northeast Pennsylvania crime family, a coincidence which changes the course of his life. Sheeran finds himself a witness of, and often a party to, some of the most influential political and criminal events of the mid-20th century. Kennedy, Cuba, another Kennedy, Joe Gallo, and Nixon all feature in Sheeran’s tale. But it was his relationship with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa which was the most significant and proved to be the making and undoing of both men.
Robert DeNiro, playing another outsider on the inside, is in comfortable, blood-stained territory with Frank Sheeran. He is guilty of a lot, but most of all for caring about his family too late, when his transgressions were too big to take back. Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, like the man himself, is larger than life. Garrulous and greedy, charming and self-aggrandizing, he wears Hoffa like a gifted gold watch and commands the screen so thoroughly you half-expect to hear him say “Hoo-wah”. But it is the softer performances which resonate. Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino is a career highlight, played with restraint and subtle power, a reminder of how much we’ve missed him on screen. Anna Paquin as Jimmy’s adult daughter Peggy barely speaks a word and doesn’t need to. The difference in her body language towards her murderous father, and towards Jimmy Hoffa with whom she shared a close bond, tells us all we need to know, and it breaks our hearts.
The Irishman is reflective without being maudlin. Scorsese’s opus glides effortlessly through recent history, contextualizing an era in which criminal and political enterprise were woven together by selfish men for whom violence was a practical means to an end, and consequences were an unfortunate afterthought. In this world, the last man standing doesn’t win. The emotional cost of hubris is paid in loneliness. Heartstrings aren’t plucked but grazed by hands who have done things best left in the past.
Eventually we all become relics, worn by our misdeeds, sharpened by our regrets, and left to reckon with what remains. But until then we soldier on, and as time and progress sweep over us we barely acknowledge the change in ourselves and our world. This is why art matters. It forces us to look at who we are, who we were, and who we might become. And this is why you, and places like you, are so vital. You offer an alternative to the conventional. A place for people to bear witness to lives and places real or imagined, which exist outside quotidian tastes.
Whether one prefers to spend three plus hours watching shiny, diverse, CGI superheroes, or three plus hours watching flawed, mortal, CGI super-villains isn’t the argument. Having the ability to choose a theatrical experience is. And for now, luckily, we still have choices.
Choices are everything.