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“They Are Touching Things!” The Aviator, and the Yearning for Human Contact…

I was thrilled to get back invited on The Movie Palace with Carl Sweeney to talk about Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. It’s a film that I hadn’t watched in quite a while, and which had a much stronger impact on me than I expected. You should listen to the whole podcast conversation, but I had some thoughts I wanted to more properly articulate.

Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E…

The Aviator is about many things.

Most obviously, it is about famous Hollywood director and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes. Hollywood had been trying for decades to bring Hughes’ life to screen. Directors like Christopher Nolan and Warren Beatty had failed to get their Hughes-related projects off the ground. Indeed, The Aviator almost feels like a work-for-hire project from Scorsese, who replaced Michael Mann as the director of this project at the behest of lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Having previously collaborated on Gangs of New York, The Aviator cemented Scorsese and DiCaprio’s partnership.

However, despite his late arrival on the project, The Aviator feels very much like a Martin Scorsese film. After all, the second half of the film is given over to an impassioned creator dragged out into the limelight and forced to justify a spectacular and costly failure while arguing for his exacting creative vision. This aspect of the film would undoubtedly have resonated with Scorsese, who had just come on to the project fresh from the debacle of Gangs of New York, which involving fighting with Harvey Weinstein over the cut of a movie “whose box office returns weren’t overwhelming.”

Still, there’s one aspect of The Aviator that feels much more pointed and resonant in the current context of global lockdowns and self-isolation. In a very fundamental way, The Aviator is a story about the paradox of touch. It is a story of a man who longs for human connection, but whose neuroses make that sort of connection impossible. The Aviator tells the tale of a man who locks himself away from the world, but must eventually find the strength to put himself back in it.

Of course, any film about Howard Hughes has to explore his famous psychology. The Aviator steers clear of some of the more sordid imagery associated with Hughes’ psychological degeneration. There is no exploration of his time in Las Vegas, for example. However, the film is quite candid about the director’s anxiety over the spread of germs and disease, the creeping escalation of the obsessive compulsive disorder that would come to define so much of his existence.

To be fair to Scorsese and DiCaprio, they worked relatively hard to ensure that the depiction of Hughes’ mental illness was accurate. DiCaprio worked with Doctor Jeffrey M. Schwartz to avoid playing into crass stereotypes about Hughes’ pathology. However, there is a sense of abstraction at work in the film. The Aviator isn’t designed to be an entirely accurate historical or psychological accounting of Howard Hughes.

Even outside of his later self-exile to Las Vegas, The Aviator glosses over large portions of its subject’s life. While it depicts Hughes as manipulative and controlling, it avoids delving too far into his closet. The film completely ignores the death of pedestrian Gabriel S. Meyer, who was killed when he was struck by Hughes’ car. His racism is glossed over, his disregard of women somewhat downplayed. His battle with syphilis is also omitted.

None of this is a problem. Scorsese doesn’t seem to aspire towards a literal accounting of his subject’s life and times. The Aviator eschews a lot of the conventions of the traditional biopic, from the seemingly obligatory framing device to the hand cliff notes that play before the closing title. More to the point, Scorsese constantly reminds audiences of the unreality of what they are watching. The colour correction in The Aviator is designed to evoke the two eras of Hollywood in which Hughes operated. Scorsese even plays certain scenes like contemporaneous screwball comedies.

The result is to suggest that The Aviator should not be taken as a literal accounting of the life and times of Howard Hughes. It is a film. It is a story. As such, it is an extended metaphor or meditation, a waking dream rather than a simple accounting. “Movies are movies, Howard,” Katherine Hepburn advises the magnate during one early encounter. “Not life.” Later on, Katherine’s mother argues for the value of impressionism. “What’s the point in painting something real when you can just take a picture?” she asks. What’s the point in making a film if you can read a book?

As a result, it’s safe to read Hughes’ obsessions and pathology as something more than an attempt to accurately convey the experience of obsessive compulsive behaviour on screen. Instead, it seems to hint at something broader and something more interesting. It brings to the fore one of the core themes of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. The Aviator stands as Scorsese’s most affecting and profound meditation on the idea of community and communion.

It is no big revelation to suggest that Scorsese is a director obsessed with masculine identity. This theme runs through his filmography, through many of his classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman. Scorsese’s approach to masculinity changes from one film to the next, bringing different aspects to the fore. However, time and again, Scorsese returns to the theme of men who have cut themselves off from the rest of the world.

Taxi Driver is perhaps the most obvious example, a bleak study of an isolated loner who loses any sense of reality through isolation. The characters in The King of Comedy exist within worlds of their own, to the point that the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the audience has joined Robert Pupkin in his own warped fantasia. Sometimes these men disconnect for more seemingly noble reasons, like the priests in Silence who long for some connection to the divine.

Sometimes this isolation is more abstract. Scorsese’s male characters frequently close themselves off from others, especially those who might help them. Raging Bull is the sad story of a man who is unable to forge meaningful connections with either his brother or the woman he loves. The criminals of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street create a climate where they cannot trust one another, making betrayal inevitable. Frank Sheehan’s ultimate punishment in The Irishman seems to be eternal isolate, separated from his family, living alone and waiting to die.

It is easy to understand why this theme of connection is important to Scorsese. As a young man, Scorsese considered joining the priesthood, but he ultimately chose otherwise. There are several reasons for this, but Scorsese has acknowledged that one of those reasons was tied to the isolation he felt as a child unable to play sports with other kids due to his asthma. He confessed, “[I]t was going to be about cutting myself off from the world, not being a participant in it.”

The Aviator approaches this theme of connection more directly than a lot of Scorsese’s films, which makes sense given the subject matter. There is naturally a conflict between Howard’s desire to cut himself off from the world and his need to participate in this. It seems reasonable to draw a connection between Hughes and Scorsese. It’s no coincidence that Hughes’ desire to be apart from the film is often filtered through his career as a film director – an observer rather than a participant.

At the climax of the film, Hughes’ screening room becomes a private shelter from the chaos of the outside world. He locks himself in there. His only company is the projectionist, separated by a wall and voiced by Martin Scorsese. There’s something very evocative in that image, and it’s difficult not to draw a straight line between that depiction of Hughes and Scorsese’s own confessions about his own sense of self-isolation and loneliness.

“And ultimately it’s been since then really locking myself away reading a great deal,” Scorsese reflected when asked about any similarities between himself and Hughes. “I go to my editing room, I have a little screening room, and stay alone pretty much.” He continued, “I usually like to lock myself in the screening room and just screen. That’s maybe the only similarity I see.” Given how pivotal that screening room sequence is, it’s a strong similarity of itself.

Throughout The Aviator, there is a recurring sense of Hughes as a man who is afraid of the risks that come with human contact. The opening scene establishes as much, flashing back to his childhood, in which his mother instilled in him the dangers of viral infection. Hughes is introduced spelling out the word “quarantine”, and the film returns to that sequence during its closing scene. No matter how far Hughes travels, he cannot escape the lesson that was instilled in him.

It’s notable throughout that Hughes’ degeneration is often rooted in clear emotional stresses. It is suggested that at least some of his obsession with hygiene might have stemmed from his love affair with Katherine Hepburn – during their meet-cute, Hepburn jokes about how often she showers, perhaps something that Hughes himself internalises. The film goes out of its way to stress that Hughes’ obsessive compulsive behaviour heightens in response to stressers around Hepburn.

Hughes freaks out after Errol Flynn steals a pea from his dinner plate, but while watching Flynn and Hepburn casually kiss and touch one another. Hughes has to retreat to the bathroom after watching Hepburn literally glad-hand Lewis B. Meyer. Hughes almost has a panic attack when invited to dine with the Hepburn family, struggling to make himself heard above the cacophony at the table. When Hepburn leaves, he burns the contents of their shared wardrobe. While that might be his germophobia, the subtext of the sequence is clear.

The Aviator is very much about sublimation and repression. His press agent boasts about Hughes’ ambitious plans for his next film, a western named The Outlaw. The audience is assured, “It’s about S-E-X.” This is the only other time that a word is spelled out rather than articulated in the script, drawing a clear line of connection between “Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E” and “S-E-X.” For Hughes, the two concepts are interchangeable and inescapable, but buried beneath a much more respectable veneer.

The Aviator repeatedly suggests that Hughes channels both his desires and frustrations in other directions. “We’re not getting enough production out of Jane Russell’s breasts,” he warns his executives at one point, as if trying to figure out the best way to assure profitable returns. “Who doesn’t like titties?” Ever an inventor and entrepreneur, Hughes invents a new brassière on the fly. It’s at this same meeting that Hughes first proposes the impressive aviation accomplishment “the Hercules.” He draws the brassière and the plane with the same pencil.

Scorsese consciously leans into this. The best cut in The Aviator – and one of the best cuts in Scorsese’s entire filmography – arrives as Hughes is making love with Hepburn. His hand pushes slowly down her exposed back, and then Scorsese cuts to Hughes’ hand moving down the smooth surface of a new airplane design. Naturally, Hughes wants the design to be smoother. He justifies it by arguing over wind resistance, but the transition into the scene suggests that Hughes is really thinking about something else.

Over the course of the film, Hughes comes to rely a surprising amount of Professor Fitz, a meteorologist that he hires out of UCLA to held him find the cloud cover necessary to shout Hell’s Angels. Fitz suggests that Hughes is looking for clouds “that look like… giant breasts full of milk”, which is certainly an interesting analogy to use. Later on, Fitz is drafted in as an expert on cleavage in a meeting with MPAA. He applies the same rigourous scientific standards to that field as he does to his study of the weather.

It’s possible to tie all of this back into the self-awareness at the heart of The Aviator. After all, Scorsese has constructed a film that is very cognisant about the fact that it is a movie. It is shot in a style that evokes the period in which it is set, and Scorsese even leans into the tropes of popular contemporary genres in how he plays certain scenes. Perhaps this sublimation is part of that larger aesthetic, reflecting the way in which the Hollywood of the era was unable to fully articulate these most basic human desires and needs.

There’s a sense that nobody in The Aviator talks about what is actually bothering or haunting them. “What is really bothering you Kate?” Hughes asks during an argument that begins with Hughes’ decision to bring dates to premieres and ends with a blow-out over ice-cream. Characters talk around what is important to them, rather than embracing it head on. Later on, in the screening room, the ominous red lighting suggests that Hughes is haunted by the loss of Hepburn, even before she returns to make one last plea to help him.

In their final conversation, Howard confesses, “I hear you, Katie. I could always hear you. Even in the cockpit with the engines on.” He is obviously talking literally, about the flights that they together during their courtship. However, the abstract imagery and the use of metaphor invites the audience to wonder whether he is talking more poetically. Was Hughes’ obsession with flying just a way of maintaining his connection to Hepburn, a way of constantly reminding himself of the joy that they shared together?

Scorsese repeatedly underscores this idea by emphasising the importance of touch. Even early in the film, Scorsese uses insert shots to remind the audience of the importance of tactile connection. Watching the first screening of Hell’s Angels with Jean Harlow, Hughes desperately clutches her hand for emotional support. As Hughes watches Meyer touching and kissing Hepburn, his own hand fidgets awkwardly against the leg of his tuxedo. In the screening room, he holds up his hands, as if trying to catch the images in his palm.

Hughes’ inability to touch objects is just an expression of that difficulty connecting with people The Aviator ultimately comes back to the necessity of human contact. Scorsese treats the screening room as a literally sacred space. Hughes is given a halo but the projector, and gets lost in footage of the desert. “I like the desert,” he admits. “It’s hot there in the desert, but it’s clean. It’s clean.” In some ways, the screening room sequence plays as a companion to The Last Temptation of Christ, casting Hepburn as Mary Magdalane and Juan Trippe as Satan, both trying to lure Hughes out.

As comfortable as Scorsese and Hughes might be in a screening room, The Aviator makes it clear that they cannot stay there. Hughes loses any sense of time or self in that space. It’s a religious experience, but it is also horrifying. Hughes is only brought back to reality by human contact. Ava Gardner takes Hughes home. She cares for him. She tends to him. She teaches him the importance of putting himself out there in the world, of being a part of it.

Of course, the tragedy of The Aviator is that the audience knows this cannot last. The final scene makes it clear that Hughes has a long and difficult life ahead of him. Hughes might have found the strength to put himself out there again, managing to fend off congress and get the Hercules to fly, but that fear of contact and that desire to withdraw into himself will always be a part of him. It’s a profoundly affecting ending, particular at the moment.

The Aviator is a beautiful and ambitious film, but it’s also a very humanist and very spiritual one. It has a lot of things to say about its subject and its director, but it also works as an ode to the necessity of human connection.

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