Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Aviator Puzzle

The Aviator is a big, gorgeous Hollywood movie about a big, messy Hollywood legend. Leonardo DiCaprio does a bravura turn depicting Howard Hughes from 21 into his 40's. Alan Alda plays engagingly as a creepy, sleazy, slimy, jaded, bought-and-paid-for U.S. Senator. We get to watch Cate Blanchett channel Katherine Hepburn. There are huge, handsome machines of many sorts, and a scary plane crash. Martin Scorsese has done it again: it's definitely a good time at the movies.

So why did I leave the theater feeling a bit flat? I've been thinking about that ever since I saw it weeks ago.

I first remember hearing of Howard Hughes in the late 1950's much the way people talk about Bill Gates, only with a more interesting edge: he was the "richest man in the world" and it seemed to my young ears that there was something scandalous about him. By the time I was old enough to follow it, he was a wealthy recluse no one ever saw anymore, a sort of ghost. After his death, there was a rash of sad information in the press about his mental illness: it was sad and weird, and it didn't fit with the glamorous aura that I had heard in the grownups' voices. Howard Hughes was a mystery, a disconnect, a human non sequitur.

I wanted the movie to connect the dots for me: I wanted to understand how the parts of Hughes fit together, how the director of Hell's Angels wound up living naked in a hotel room, terrified of germs. I wanted a sense of his world, a sense of how the pieces fit together for him.

But that's not the movie I saw; it isn't the movie Scorsese made. For DiCaprio's Hughes, the pieces never do really fit together: mental illness and a glamorous, gifted life are at roaring odds from moment One. There is an attempt to put it together (the cakes of black soap, the opening sequence of Mama's lecture about germs), but that "explanation" hit the only false notes in the movie for me. They are pat, neat, tidy, and absolutely germless.

Perhaps for the person who suffers with obsessive-compulsive disorder to such an extreme degree, the parts of the world do not fit together. Perhaps that was the point. All I know is that I had a very good time at the movies, but when the credits rolled, I felt tired and a little depressed, a bit unsatisfied.

It's a fine movie, a good time, go see it. I can't give it a thumb's-down. But I didn't love it, and I didn't learn anything, except perhaps that when I count my blessings, I should put my ability to touch a doorknob on the list.


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