Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Collection Project: Rats

There's an internet "meme" that's been floating around since 2008 which takes what some apparently believe to be a sharp shot to the ribs of Martin Scorsese's The Departed, specifically the shot at the end of the rat skittering across the railing. The meme's joke comes from an episode of The Simpsons that I haven't seen, and it goes like this: "The rat symbolizes obviousness!"
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I remember when Scorsese's film came out, and that particular moment was frequently singled out by critics as being a bit of symbolism that was beneath the filmmaker, and as such it made them roll their eyes, gnash their teeth, rend their garments. The problem is that the actual physical rat is no more or less symbolic of Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) than the repeated use of the word "rat" to refer to the kind of person who poses as a member of one group as a means of hurting or destroying that group. "Rat" is in the lexicon with that definition, and actual rats are conjured in our minds every time we use or hear the word in that context, because words have a tendency to do that.
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So, when people saw the rat scurrying by at the end of The Departed and said "Oh, I know what that means instantly, without even having to think about it! How dumb!" they were actually sort of missing the point a little bit. Because Scorsese wasn't trying to be "symbolic", as we often think of the word, which is to say he wasn't using coded imagery to depict a nebulous idea that would otherwise resist physical representation. No, what Scorsese was doing was this: he was making a joke.
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A dark joke, one that, in effect, takes a swift kick at Sullivan's corpse. It's an insult, a mockery of this awful human being: even in death, we'll never forget what you are, and you're still nothing. The guy's just been shot in the face, and the world is still giving him shit. That's what the rat on the rail is. It's not a rat that symbolizes a metaphorical rat; it's a rat that's laughing at Colin Sullivan's body. Nasty, dark, brutal -- in other words, completely in tone with the rest of the film.

15 comments:

Roderick Heath said...

Whilst I don't think it's an especially good joke, I've always thought the rat was most definitely nonetheless a joke. An aspect I seriously disliked of The Departed's last third, where Scorsese seemed all too aware that the plot, like that of the film it's based on, jumps the shark, the whole begins to take on a self-satirizing quality: this guy gets shot in the head by that guy gets shot in the head by that guy...Anyway, as I said in my own commentary on the film: "It’s a symbolic joke that sums up the film itself—gritty, cynical, and funny, but also facile and broad." I still think that.

bill r. said...

Broad, yes. Facile, I'm not sure I agree with, but either way I can't disagree with you too strenuously. It's absolutely a flawed film, one that I nevertheless enjoy immensely.

Still, though, all those guys getting shot in the head, outside and in the elevator: I found that to be just brutal stuff that makes me cringe every time. I don't want it to happen, but it always does.

Damon getting shot in the face, though, is something I look forward to.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thank you, Bill. Why the fuck does THE DEPARTED get shit on all the time? I believe if it hadn't even been nominated for the Oscars it won, the same writers that dump on it would be calling it "one of Scorsese's underrated gems."

No one is saying it's one of his major works. But it sure is entertaining. And as I always insist, these potboilers illuminate the style of an auteur much more than their challenging films do.

And I love the Wahlberg/Sheen or Wahlberg/Baldwin dynamic. Shit, I just love Wahlberg: "Blow me, all right? But not literally, though. Unfortunately, there's no promotion involved for you."

WalkerP said...

I quite enjoyed The Departed, though I found Infernal Affairs to be tighter and better plotted after going back and re-watching it. I didn't take the rat as a joke, but at the same time, who cares if the symbolism is obvious? It's kind of a North American insecure reflex to laught at things that seem obvious. I've never really understood that. The rat was cool and kind of dark, just like the movie.

bill r. said...

Tony - The short answer for why THE DEPARTED gets shit on is that it was popular and won the Oscar. And it has the audacity to not only be incredibly entertaining, but to have that as its primary goal.

I thought Sheen was a blank, but I loved Wahlberg. That's a really great character actor performance.

WalkerP - However you see the rat -- symbol or joke -- there's nothing awful about that image. When I heard, before seeing it, that it ended with a groaner fo a shot, I was concerned. Then I saw what they were referring to, I thought "Well...that's actually an effective and appropriate shot. Why is that bad?"

INFERNAL AFFAIRS has a lot going for it. Both films are terrific, as far as I'm concerned, and although my tastes generally take me towards the kind of conclusion offered in THE DEPARTED, I really appreciated the more optimistic and heartfelt direction INFERNAL AFFAIRS took, which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't seen it. Suffice it to say, INFERNAL AFFAIRS and THE DEPARTED are very similar in a lot of ways, but they diverge in one very important detail.

Also, I liked Anthony Wong Chau-Sing (yes, I just looked that up) as the police superintendent. He's really wonderful, which highlights Sheen's nothing of a performance.

Tony Dayoub said...

I dunno. Given the scenery chewing Sheen has been prone to in his later years, I actually thought it a plus that he played straight man to all the all of the outrageous events and performances surrounding him in this one. The film's operatic; Nicholson, Damon, DiCaprio, Wahlberg, and Baldwin's performances all go with that flow. But Sheen really keeps it grounded by keeping it low-key.

bill r. said...

I guess my problem is that I haven't seen a hell of a lot of latter-day Martin Sheen movies. He stopped caring a while ago, and most of what he's done just hasn't interested me. So in THE DEPARTED, I thought he pulled back to just about nothing. I thought Damon struck a just-about-perfect middle ground in his performance. I really thought he was outstanding.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Damon is just about always great in everything, though, from Talented Mr. Ripley on. And there, as in The Departed, he shows a great knack for playing breezy, charming, world-on-a-string guys who are full of scorpions inside. Unfortunately for The Departed, though, I still can't buy DiCaprio as a poor kid---hard as he and Scorsese try, he still looks like a dude who never missed a meal or a gym appointment. Hence the only Scorsese movie I really liked him in was The Aviator, for which his awkward softness was perfect.

Bryce Wilson said...

Tony - The short answer for why THE DEPARTED gets shit on is that it was popular and won the Oscar. And it has the audacity to not only be incredibly entertaining, but to have that as its primary goal.

To this and the article I say amen.

As for Sheen, he was solid, if a little blank. But he's also responsible for my favorite line in the film ("What are we following Queenan for? To learn about the good Catholic life?") so I can't hold it against him.

Neil Sarver said...

Meh. I can't imagine the circumstances under which I'd call this one an "underrated gem". I suppose that winning an Oscar and such shone a light on it, and I shouldn't have watched it in close proximity to Infernal Affairs, but seriously, it really is bloated. I could believe I really would've liked it at something closer to Infernal Affairs 101 minute run time. Everything added to the remake is lesser than the original.

Shane013a said...

Fuzzy B. gets my vote on "Damon explained" with the caveat that the shtick is getting worn on me. As for Oscars I couldn't care less. These awards have long ago been proof positive that the Academy members let their maids, children or pooches fill in the blanks. What I do like is good acting between people who create a story that's believable for me. Not just the story but their roles in it. If everybody who claimed to be at Woodstock really was it would have been twice the size it really was. These guys just didn't convince me they were there. After trying to enjoy it several times I can only say that whatever should click for me didn't. Unlike Goodfellas there wasn't a gap filler for me here it was like each persons "bubble" excluded even the reason for caring for one another. I think for that reason this was just an assembly rather than a cast. Because of that I could not be convinced any of this was real. Which I believe is what storytelling should be about.

bill r. said...

Fuzzy -

And there, as in The Departed, he shows a great knack for playing breezy, charming, world-on-a-string guys who are full of scorpions inside.

That's a great way of putting it. He does have a knack for being loathsome, but it's also true that he's good in pretty much everything. He's an excellent actor.

As for this:

hard as he and Scorsese try, he still looks like a dude who never missed a meal or a gym appointment.

Well...it doesn't cost much to exercise, and besides that, at least in THE DEPARTED, they do make a point of showing that he spent a good amount of time working out while in prison. I've never really understood this rap against DiCaprio, at least as it pertains to his work with Scorsese (TITANIC, yes). For one thing, he's only supposed to be actually poor in two of the films (Howard Hughes wasn't poor, I don't think), and in THE DEPARTED he's really only formally poor. Not that he's rich, but we only know him once he's in the police academy, at which point it's fair to assume he's learned to feed himself.

Bryce - I may be too hard on Sheen, but I remember the equivalent role in INFERNAL AFFAIRS well enough to think about what could have been.

Neil - The thing is, I think most of the fat on THE DEPARTED comes from its ensemble cast, and I don't know who I'd want to lose. For the sake of streamlining things, you COULD lose any number of people, but I wouldn't want to. Baldwin? Nicholson's crew? Hell, you don't NEED Wahlberg, but I'll be damned if I'd like the movie nearly as much without him.

Shane - I don't care about the Oscars either. I was only saying that a certain amount of the backlash against THE DEPARTED comes from its Oscar success.

I also don't agree that storytelling needs to be "real". Kubrick said "Real is good. Interesting is better." THE DEPARTED may not convince me that something very like what I'm seeing on screen happened or is happening right now in Boston, but it kept me interested, and entertained, and I believed in the world it created, and the story it told in that world. That's what storytelling is about.

Will Pfeifer said...

I thought I'd heard somewhere that this was Scorsese's tribute to the pre-Code gangster movie he loved, and that rat was just the sort of touch you might've found in those old movies.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Bill-

I've never forgiven DiCaprio for nearly ruining Gangs of New York, a movie that I love whenever he isn't on screen. DiCaprio's not even such a bad actor; what I find so frustrating is the mismatch between the kind of roles he wants to play and the kind of parts he's good. He's very good as cossetted charmers (like Hughes), and terribly unconvincing as a ward of the streets, but he seems determined to play the latter roles. It's one of those times when I long for the studio system, when actors didn't need to show off their range (an overrated concept) or demand the kind of masturbatory cool that every James Dean worshiper wants.

All that said, I actually enjoyed The Depahhhhted (he *must* have chosen that title for exactly that joke!). Like Gangs, I think it succeeds by making its lead less relevant than its ensemble, and I don't think anything in it is quite as good as the first fifteen minutes promise, but it's tremendously watchable.

bill r. said...

He was miscast in GANGS. I can't deny that. I WOULD deny that he was miscast because he can't project a rough, street-bred demeanor, but rather that he has a hard time doing that in a period setting. He's too modern, and can't shake that. Which isn't such a bad thing -- I agree with you that range is overrated -- but it does mean he should probably steer clear of those roles.

But, like you, I love GANGS despite those missteps, of which DiCaprio isn't even the most egregious.

I would also agree that THE DEPARTED works best as an ensemble film, but, unlike you, I obviously don't see DiCaprio as the weak link. Even so, Wahlberg, Damon and Baldwin all make a greater impression.

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