Monday, March 21, 2005

The Aviator

There is something in the nature of suffering that can only be understood by those who have shared its dark kinship. Many people who see Martin Scorsese's The Aviator will percieve its main character's collapse into madness as little more than an act of triumphant weirdness; the inevitable denoument of a man who has flown so high and therefore has to fall; a modern Icarus who has ventured too close to the sun and must be tragically recompensed for his hubris. For me, as someone who spent most of his childhood in the grip of obsessive compulsive disorder; the film's final hour was nearly unwatchable. I have never seen a more convincingly compassionate and heartbreaking portrayal of the disease. Scorsese is known as an obsessive himself, and no doubt feels his own kinship to this titantic figure who ran an empire even as he could not control his own psychic forces. Of course, it is in the nature of obsessive compulsion that it is a fine subject for a lapsed Catholic such as Scorsese; it is a crucifying disease, a purgatory of sorts; a slow and insidious syndrome which inevitably finds the cracks in one's psychological armor and infects each act and word with ominous terror, until, finally, one ends up, as Hughes does, frozen in place endlessly repeating a single phrase or action, in desperate hope that the right combination of movement or inflection will lift the spell. Most horribly, one knows that the endless repeating, the infinite rituals and fetishes one performs, are irrational; one comprehends, intellectually, that the devil does not exist, and yet this means absolutely nothing. This is a horror incomprehensible to the non-sufferer, the silent and terrible knowledge that one is going mad; and the infinitely more devastating realization that you can do nothing to stop the descent. I think the audience for this film may well be divided between those who have known the demon and those who have not; and I fear those who have not may be incapable of understanding it. For the blessedly uninitiated, this film may merely be a portrayal of an eccentric egomaniac, and they may see his disease as merely another manifestation of his unstoppable interior drives; for the sufferers, it is nothing more than a portrayal of a man's descent into hell itself. I give Scorsese full credit for not blinking in the film's final moments, and despite the saccharine flashback which in lesser hands would be the que for a note of redemption, he leaves us with the image of Hughes at the threshold of the Ninth Circle, murmuring "the way of the future" over and over as a meaningless mantra, which will unlock nothing but his descent into darkness. Scorsese's Hughes has no future but madness. For me, the syndrome passed with the coming of adolescence, though occasional remnants still remain; and modern psychopharmacology has left us with the possibility of recovery which was impossible for Hughes. Knowing this does little to ameliorate one's empathy for such a tragic life as is portrayed in this film. I can only say that, whatever his faults may have been, I have nothing but compassion and sympathy for Howard Hughes; no man, whatever his riches, deserves what he got, and I hope that in those brief moments sealed into the cockpit, where no germ may enter, he may have found some measure of the repose he found impossible when bound to the unforgiving earth.