If you didn't know that Martin Scorsese made The Aviator, the enthralling new adventure-biography of Howard Hughes, you might think it was the calling card of a neophyte visual genius.
During the movie's daredevil aviation scenes, the combination of digital effects and old-fashioned Hollywood know-how takes audiences to a new Mount Olympus of period moviemaking. When the 21-year-old Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, grabs a camera and helps photograph his production of Hell's Angels (1930) from the cockpit of a soaring biplane, Scorsese makes audiences feel as if they too are flying seat-of-the-pants, right alongside this intrepid boy genius.
But it's the blend of inventive filmmaking with novel subject matter and narrative vitality that makes this movie a mid-career breakthrough for Scorsese, who has sometimes lost his art (the 1991 remake of Cape Fear) or his audience (1995's Casino) working exhaustive and exhausting variations on the themes of violence, chaos and impacted sexuality he orchestrated so indelibly in Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).
In a conversation over the phone from New York, Scorsese, now 62, notes that throughout his career he's moved between the European art-film tradition of directors mining their own experiences for gritty comedy and drama and the Los Angeles-studio auteur tradition of directors making an assigned movie their own through the force of their craft and sensibility.
The Aviator, which came his way when producer Michael Mann begged off directing, offered Scorsese his best chance in 30 years to do a Hollywood-style auteur film. Not since he took on Robert Getchell's groundbreaking, hilarious script for the now-classic Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) had he been handed such a juicy property.
"As young people," Scorsese says, "we may have gotten overexcited about the auteur theory. But it reintroduced us to a treasure trove of American cinema. It was about what people like John Ford got to do despite the commercialism of the studios.
"It didn't matter whether John Ford thought he was an artist," says Scorsese. "We in the audience could tell."
Audiences at The Aviator can tell that Scorsese is an artist, too. Once again, he applies his keen eye to the canker of paranoia and the poetry and destructiveness of obsession - subjects he treated in the earthier, more blood-soaked realms of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. "Suddenly you pick up the script," Scorsese says, "and you see elements that you identify with in the story. And even if they're part of a story you told before, you find you want to tell the story again."
Scorsese fans, though, should find The Aviator refreshing and exhilarating precisely because of how different it is from his other movies. The audacity of Scorsese going from Gangs of New York (2002, also starring DiCaprio) to The Aviator resembles a director like Victor Fleming going from Test Pilot to The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind within two years in the late 1930s.
"You know, Steven Spielberg told me 20 years ago that I wanted to be Victor Fleming," Scorsese admits, falling into his trademark staccato delivery. "And I thought, Victor Fleming? Not Victor Fleming, maybe someone else - Victor Fleming, I don't know. But then I saw Fleming's Red Dust again, and Test Pilot. And his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - I watch it all the time, that's the best version. Those are wonderful movies."
What's most memorable and moving about Fleming's films, I suggest, are the uniqueness of their images and characters.
"Absolutely," replies Scorsese. "And The Aviator has to do with Howard Hughes as a unique representative of the human condition. Beyond anything, he's a human being who's been dealt a certain hand of cards. He's blessed with all the benefits of his wealth and genius. He's cursed with his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and maybe blessed there, too - it fuels his perfectionism and creativity and powers of debate before it consumes him.
"He gives us a chance to ask: What is it to be a human being, and to be one of the 20th-century pioneers who were breaking into the skies - the last American frontier - and also creating an industry of dreams in Hollywood, in the West."
Scorsese admits that, in addition to Hughes' character, what attracted him to The Aviator is its melange of art deco, aerodynamics, glamour and boardroom hardball - all set against the hysteria, desperation and world-beating dreams of America in the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression and World War II.
Hughes was one Tinseltown denizen who was always stirring up new dreams with technology, sex and violence.
"In Hell's Angels, nobody else could have achieved what he did at the time in those aerial sequences," Scorsese says. "It was almost all real, and that's why he had to pour so much money into it. He was right on the edge of the technology, and there was loss of life - three or four men died during the making of it."
The bloody, "elegant, elegant, elegant" Scarface - produced by Hughes but directed by Howard Hawks two years later - did more to put teeth into the motion picture production code than any movie to that point, Scorsese notes.
"And of course," he points out, "eight years after that, Hughes pushed the edge of the envelope and provoked the censors again when he produced and directed his Western, The Outlaw," notorious for its focus on what Hughes and the MPA rating board call his star Jane Russell's "mammaries."
"I don't think it's his strongest film, but I love the raciness of the whole idea: When Howard Hughes zeroes in on Jane Russell's breasts, he's just rubbing people's noses in the outrageousness of it, being the provocateur and the outlaw of Hollywood."
With all his movie-loving fervor, Scorsese adds, "It reminds me of that short Fellini film from Boccacio '70, 'The Temptation of Dr. Antonio': That's the one where a censor becomes obsessed with the buxom actress Anita Ekberg when he sees her on a huge billboard for milk."
In Scorsese's hands, Hughes proves to be a vibrant enough character to anchor this turbulent pageant. In DiCaprio's dynamic interpretation, he becomes Icarus and Daedalus rolled into one. His relationship with Cate Blanchett's seductive, prickly Katharine Hepburn grows torturous and poignant. The coils of his obsessive-compulsive disorder tighten. And the antagonism of enemies like rival airline operator Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) erupts into outright war. When all this achieves full weight on screen, you know there's a seasoned pro and humanist behind the camera.
Scorsese is, famously, a bred-in-the-bone New Yorker, a product of the Lower East Side. Hughes was a quintessential Westerner - after leaving his childhood home in Houston, he made himself a legend in Los Angeles, and later, of course, became a recluse in Las Vegas.
"When we talk about Hughes we're talking about the end of the expansion of the continent and of the American empire," Scorsese says. "And that brings to mind the negative side of conquest, too. What some call acquisitiveness, some would just call greed. Hughes goes up against it and embodies the chaos and waste of it himself."
But Hughes also represents a then-new breed of national celebrities introducing Gotham-like cosmopolitanism to the masses. To Scorsese, high-fliers like Hughes won renown partly for bringing the speed, hedonism and skyscraping hubris of 1920s New York into the Depression and beyond.
Hughes did it not just as an aviation pioneer but also as a producer-director. The Aviator wittily demonstrates the continuity between Hughes exploring cutting-edge aeronautics and engineering Jane Russell's bra for maximum impact in The Outlaw. "He's really thinking about how to get the most production value out of her breasts. He's saying, 'It really is about what she's wearing, guys. Let's get serious about this.'"
The emotional heart of the movie is Hughes' love for Hepburn. In the first of two acutely telling and prophetic scenes, Hepburn advises him, "Howard, we're not like everyone else. Too many sharp angles. Too many eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in or they'll make us into freaks."
Later, in a powerful, soul-rending two minutes, Hepburn tries to lure Hughes out of his makeshift screening-room retreat. "Please take me flying again," she pleads. "I can take the wheel." On the other side of the door, we hear Hughes, in a heartbreaking sound, slide to the floor. Then he waits for her to leave.
What made Hughes succumb to an obsessive-compulsive disorder? Scorsese starts the film by presenting Hughes' mother as a sanitation freak teaching him how to spell "quarantine." Should this be taken as a skeleton key to Hughes' character, like "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane?
"No, no, no, no," says Scorsese. "For one thing, it comes at the beginning of the film. For Howard, spelling quarantine represents security. For the audience, I hope it evokes mystery and foreboding. After all, obsessive-compulsive disorder is in the genes. It's not something his mother did to him."
On the other hand, starting the movie with his mother does introduce the influence of Sigmund Freud, who was a seminal figure in the mind-set of the 1920s.
"Yes, but even if you buy all of Freud, applying his theories doesn't answer the mysteries of character. I was re-reading Oedipus at Colonus, and look at him - Oedipus doesn't know the man he kills is his father. Afterward, all he can ask is 'Why me?'
"That's what makes Howard Hughes tragic, when he knows he's growing ill. Those are the questions you know that he's asking inside, the questions all of us ask: 'Why me?' - and 'Why here?'"