by Umar Riaz
There was a marked difference between my first and second viewings of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator even though the setting and the season were practically identical.
The first occurred when I returned from college in New York to a furiously hot summer in my hometown of Lahore, Pakistan. Cinemas showing English language films were few at the time, cinemas themselves were becoming fewer, and, I suppose I had a routine typical of a film enthusiast in my city during the holidays: go to a DVD store, pick up a stack of them on the cheap and get through the day watching one after the other, punctuated here and there by aimless wandering, cigarettes and cold lassi.
The Aviator, however, was a different kind of purchase as it had been made with purpose as well as curiosity.
If my father has maintained one near maniacal obsession in his life, it is flying airplanes. He learnt how to fly small, mostly single-propellor airplanes in the eighties and now flies regularly when the weather permits. When it doesn't, he listens to calls made to and by air traffic controllers at the local airport as if they were music.
He has also maintained a curious reverence for eccentricity, particularly when it resides on the same coin as brilliance. I remember hearing many stories about Howard Hughes while growing up, though ones focused on his aviation achievements with untoward personal anecdotes served as condimental amusements.
I brought home The Aviator as a film my father and I could watch together, a seemingly perfect meeting between his prolonged interest in the subject matter and my vivid interest in Mr. Scorsese's work. However, our aging television set was not as charitable toward father-and-son bonding experiences and after the first twenty minutes or so, the speakers sputtered and gave up.
I returned to my room and watched the rest on my computer, alone. What I found was a lush, long and often compelling film, cinematically referential to and personally revering of Hollywood's Golden Era but with a darkness fraying the edges, slowly making its way to the center. Cate Blanchett's uncanny, tour de force embodiment of Katherine Hepburn stood out, a performance for which, I suspect, the film is mostly remembered now. I cannot say that I left the film in the mesmeric daze which had proceeded my viewings of Mr. Scorsese's more iconic works - Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
I do remember being a little uncomfortable with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes at the time. My reservations had little to do with his performance. Rather, I remember thinking he was a little too pretty, too boyish and too high-pitched for a figure like Hughes whom, in my mind, I had enshrined in a vision of old-Hollywood masculinity and intensity, perhaps as a more quick- footed Robert Mitchum but less agile Cary Grant.
The second time I saw the film, I was at my house in Lahore for the summer again and watching films one after the other again. The intermittent rumble of my father playing recordings of traffic control calls were still traveling up to my room like (and often with) the smell of my mother's cooking.
?This time, however, I was returning from film school after a frenetic year making three short films. The first of these was an unmitigated failure for me, not quite the godawful concoction of a hapless novice but something I considered far worse - a remarkably average film prompting rapt indifference from its audience. What had gone wrong? My mind harkened back to Italy where I once lived for a whole year without being able to learn Italian. Cinema was a new language now, humiliatingly alien.
My second short was an observational documentary called The Flight in which my father takes his older friend, once commander of Pakistan's Air Force, flying in a small plane after nearly thirty years. I began to find something of a footing in film grammar and technique, particularly coverage, but, looking back, it felt like achieving fluency in speech without being able to sing. Though the reception at school was encouraging, I left the experience with an interminable thought. Call it a nag, regret or the first sprout of stream but I could not shake what I had felt when flying over my city in a small plane. It was unlike anything I had experienced in an airliner - at once intense and calming, rushed and floaty, like the senses were being painted in both oil paints and watercolors without discrimination.
How could I translate that feeling - or any other between words and worlds - into cinema? I returned to The Aviator and found a very different film to the one I had first seen.
Concurrent with this viewing was the realisation that, in the most effective of Mr. Scorsese's work, beneath the sharp staccato dialogue, beyond the shuffle-and-ballet of the camerawork, behind the rock-n-roll, soul and the Rolling Stones, often lies a strictly and deeply observed character study. An essay on being Human written from someone living at its margins and wondering which way to go. Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Bill The Butcher and more recently, Jordan Belfort. Howard Hughes.
This time, I saw not a biographical period drama but something independent of genre and even historical facts. I saw simply the story of a person who seemingly had everything, who believed he could do anything, but, who could not eclipse the inherent frailty of Being. It's an age-old arc, quite literally the stuff of myth. It's Achilles, Icarus and Prometheus.
There are two things I repeat to myself now, often at my own annoyance, when writing or editing: what is this about and what is it really about. To me, the latter of these is the story, the former is the plot which, often confused for story, is the Trojan Horse which has to be well crafted to be believable but with the real incision being made by what it expresses rather than what it presents.
My appreciation of not only the film but Mr. DiCaprio's performance changed. I had been judging him according to my imagining of a historical character at first but now I was watching a man obsessed, that obsession becoming compulsive and that compulsivity becoming a disorder. His extraordinary dexterity and commitment to conveying that escalation left me convinced that this may be his most undervalued performance.
When writing and, later, acting in my fourth short film, Last Remarks, I faced the daunting prospect of conveying a similar escalation in the central character, though admittedly without Mr. DiCaprio's talent or Mr. Hughes' OCD. My film was an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Tell- Tale Heart' though set at the tumultuous creation of Pakistan from British India in 1947. My character, Arastu Jan, was a young, troubled Indian servant to an elderly British Colonialist. The setting was one of great violence and unrest but when addressing questions of its experience, what became more expressive was the unrest within the psyche rather than the political violence which had set it into motion. Or was it the other way round? The pursuit of that question and that play - what's oil and what's watercolor - is where I really felt I found a steady footing in cinematic language, when a basic fluency in the language began ascending to articulation.
It's a pursuit that leads me down a different path every time, whether I write stories set in Pakistan or the United States. What comes first and when? The plot or the context? The people or the characters? The facts or the fiction? Unsurprisingly, I've found that there is never a blanket approach to communicating experience on screen, to make cinema sing. But I often turn to Mr. Scorsese's pictures for assistance in raising 'what it's about' to 'what it's really about'.
I often recall the The Aviator's final shot. It's a darker cousin to the final shot in Raging Bull where, after the swell of the finale and the arc of a character's journey, Mr. Scorsese simply leaves us alone in the protagonist's company. No music, no extraneous sound, no moving camera and no smart edits...just one character, their words, a mirror and us.
I found the ending to The Aviator unsatisfying on first viewing, chilling on second and unshakably haunting now, ten years after The Aviator was released, when technology has given a new dynamic to entrepreneurship, is more tightly interwound with our personal and professional lives, mediates our interactions, and, is changing and evolving faster than than we can keep up. Where does Mr. Scorsese end the story of Howard Hughes, one of America's greatest entrepreneurs, it's wealthiest men and a man who could, at the best of times, look into the future and make it manifest? Alone after one of his greatest achievements, looking back at himself in a bathroom mirror, talking of the future in an unraveling loop.
Umar Riaz is a Student Academy Award nominated filmmaker, born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan and currently based in New York City. In 2009, he graduated with a degree in English Literature and Cinema Studies from New York University's College of Arts and Science. He then graduated from the Graduate Film Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he was awarded an Ang Lee Scholarship for 'exceptionally talented graduate film students.' His award winning short films have screened at films festivals internationally including at the 65th Locarno Film Festival, the 20th Raindance Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, Cinequest, HBO and BET's Urbanworld Film Festival amongst several others. He is currently in post-production on his first feature film, an experimental documentary on Pakistani literature. He is also Artistic Consultant to director Terrence Malick on his forthcoming projects.