Artifacts on Display: "The Age of Innocence"

Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, his 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, initiated a new stage for a filmmaker becoming increasingly entrenched in middle age, during which he would contemplate the imagination's faded paradises. The accreting erosion of time lapping up dreams with mechanical indifference followed Scorsese into his life as a film preservation activist. The Age of Innocence fetishizes legions of artifacts, the camera savoring the cracked textures of painted canvases or the heavy smoke hovering in a dark study, fixing on hands reaching out and caressing but remaining unclasped. The passion between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) plays out through a haunted cathedral of clockwork ghosts in a solemn ritual where they are the sacrifices. Physical ornaments of fabric, flowers, food dishes, and jewelry are emotional and ideological vehicles struggling to endure restless historical transition, the opening Saul and Elaine Bass title sequence a gorgeous whirlwind of fabric and flowers dissolving on top of each other, never fully materializing, their phenomenality, like Newland and Ellen’s affair, unconsummated.

 The Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in "The Age of Innocence," photographed by Michael Ballhaus.

The Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in "The Age of Innocence," photographed by Michael Ballhaus.

This is germane to Scorsese’s Catholic fascination of the tenuous relationship between Flesh and Spirit, the sacred transubstantiation between matter and meaning. The film opens at an opera where the audience doubles for the drama, soon reveling in the catharsis a viewer experiences during a sentimental stage melodrama. The glide of Olenska’s fan across an entranced opera crowd is a revelatory brush stroke upsetting a virgin canvas’ neatly arranged black and white vectors where the well-dressed audience statically watches Gounod’s Faust. This is a collision of art and artifact tied to Scorsese the film preservationist’s heart. The Age of Innocence concludes with an aged Newland in Paris, walking away from an encounter with Ellen, whom he has not seen in over 20 years and has since become someone he remembers, Wharton writes, “abstractly, serenely, like an imaginary loved one in a book or picture…the complete vision of all that he had missed.” Newland’s committed to the tabernacle space of a private memory, a “holy of holies” that has since been consecrated and cannot be looked on.

This film does not move like a dramaturgical piece of Acts and Scenes, but flows through interconnected sequences, like musical pieces layered on top of each other. The Bass titles, set to Faust’s prelude, are a motion tapestry of written words and blossoming flowers blooming over fabrics, copulating nature plucked and intelligently designed, assigned symbolism, the agon of which involves the disparity between social meaning and personal meaning. The film’s introductory minutes launch a floral leitmotif, in each case the camera emphasizing faces: a yellow flower within the opera, where Marguerite falls under Faust’s spell and begins to wonder “He loves me, he loves me not” as she plucks the petals; a gardenia on the lapel of an opera-goer, shown to be Newland; pink roses on the back of a head, which turns to reveal the smiling face of his fiancé, May Welland (Winona Ryder), holding a carnation. Meanwhile, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus absorb the minutiae of decoration: watch chains, earrings, pins, gloves, fans, and opera glasses.

 Fifth Avenue in the 1870s.

Fifth Avenue in the 1870s.

Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant), New York’s foremost expert on form (fitting, as the viewer is being overwhelmed with form at this point), takes his opera glasses and spies the audience. Scorsese draws attention to how intensely sight matters here as Lefferts’ searching point-of-view is represented with an innovative technique (dissolving between each set of three frames), ending on the Welland opera box, the prominent blue dress of Ellen sitting next to May and her mother (Geraldine Chaplin). Lefferts hands the opera glasses to Sillerton Jackson (Alec McCowan), the city’s expert on New York’s lurid family histories, and the gossip is set in motion, less by speech than expression. The Faust sequence, with its impressive boom shots and colliding perspectives, concludes with the camera bursting through the actors on stage and resting on the spectators, implying that they are the central players of this scene, the watchers being watched—and so, it’s inferred that we too are participating.

Goodfellas opened with young Henry Hill’s eye looking out his bedroom window, gazing adoringly at wise guys chatting across the street. The details of that sequence anticipates The Age of Innocence’s movement in pattern recognition: the car parking, the wheel dipping as heavyset men leave the vehicle, the alteration of film speed when there’s a cut to the garishly jeweled fingers closing the door, etc., and then back to Henry’s spellbound gaze. Scorsese’s camera savors fractals of objects and movement built around a whole that’s more emotional than tactile. It’s dazzling, but the showmanship, such as we see in Ballhaus’ famous Copacabana shot from the same film, works because it engages us subjectively with the characters’ world, putting us inside a feeling as much as place. In The Age of Innocence, the props don’t simply make the stage prettier; the world represented is a subset of them, microcosm and macrocosm reversed: the paintings, the cigar cutters made of animal tusk, the lapels, the jewelry, the canes, and most notably (as if continuing Goodfellas’ incomparable ability to trigger our salivary glands) the platters of food.

 Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Scorsese’s trademark aggression, carried over from his gangster films, is in the opulence. The abundance of rejection letters to a Mingott party for Ellen, peppered with words like “regret” and “busy,” are understood by Newland to be not merely a snubbing, but an “eradication,” the image cutting to Ellen looking at the camera, the whole picture fading to crimson (much like how Henry Hill’s image goes to sausage sizzling red in Goodfellas when he describes to us how killing a “made guy” would result in “you being the one that got whacked.”) Ballhaus’ tracking shots through impressive drawing rooms unveil the perennial violence from which this privileged world is protected, one painting portraying an Old World duel with the dying loser being dragged away, and, in the house of matriarch Catherine Mingott (Miriam Margoyles), an ascending tracking shot concludes on a painting of a pioneer woman being scalped by a Native American. The pictures within the picture tell stories of an America that is far from paradisal, ferociously tribal. It’s an admonition that the audience see full, unspoken scenarios in the pictures of Scorsese’s stoic players.

Such affinities between the paintings and the people suggests the marriage of artifact and viewer: the transubstantiation of abstractions to matter. In The Age of Innocence, from the cynical motives of Lefferts to the heartfelt repression of Newland, we’re meant to read through the ritual decorum and wonder what’s being said through all the embroidery. The leitmotif of flowers makes us wonder about that unspoken subtext in tokens of adoration, when Newland decides to have some yellow roses delivered (anonymously) to Ellen. And when Newland’s tears at the stage melodrama are stirred by his projection of his infatuation onto fictional characters, we also may find ourselves, like Newland and Ellen, in a dramatically blue theater light, refracting The Age of Innocence onto our own lives. Rituals of adoration (or eradication) communicate that for which words (or, using sacramental-speak, The Word) are insufficient.

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While being the center out of which the new nation is blossoming, New York is imperiously controlled by an elite from Europe, at least culturally. The city is still under construction, as we see the great holes dug around Manson Mingott’s house on Fifth Avenue, “near the inaccessible wilderness of the Central Park,” where human design plops Nature atop the settled firmament. Wharton’s 1870s Manhattan wavers between the Romantic promise of the fertile American frontier and cybernetics of Old World values that inhibit freedom. Scorsese stresses this arguably more than Wharton did, as when Ellen is introduced to Newland and he declines to kiss her hand, instead shaking it as an equal, catching the Countess, fresh from a bad marriage with a European aristocrat, off-guard.  The idea of America is that it is a new world held aloft from the burden of fusty ritual and historical burdens, where marriages aren’t arranged and “everything is good,” as Ellen says. Having an eccentric upbringing, Ellen charms Newland with her deconstructive observations, commenting at a party, “It seems stupid to discover America only to make it a copy of another country.” His interest becomes increasingly mingled with pity when she expresses her yearning to sever herself from her philandering husband, saying, “I want to cast off my old life to become a complete American like everybody else.” He struggles to explain, “Our legislation favors divorce, but our social customs don’t.”

From his earliest features Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets, Scorsese has pointedly observed the looming shadow of Europe over America and the resultant tribes that stand warily opposed on the fresh urban stomping grounds. Conversely, the American “Melting Pot” is less a New Paradise than a hollow Purgatory where the scrumptious Italian dishes in Goodfellas become, as FBI-protected Henry Hill says, “egg noodles and ketchup.” It’s the beige and gray aquarium world of The Departed where the feverish “Gimme Shelter” prologue of racial tribalism becomes a cybernetic totalitarian surveillance rat maze of self-interest with identities and personal photographs evanescently dissolving into faceless social security numbers and generic Ikea paintings. It’s the impersonal and interruptive canon fire of the Union Army, wiping out the storied squabbles of Five Points gangs in Gangs of New York, like producer Harvey Weinstein’s draconian impositions flattening Scorsese’s bizarre carnival epic. And it’s the increasingly gentrified and green-screen illusion generated by money and treachery, as in The Wolf of Wall Street.

 May Welland Archer (Winona Ryder).

May Welland Archer (Winona Ryder).

With Countess Olenska, whose house is “full of wreckage” from the old continent, Newland’s world opens up to new possibilities of freedom outside this perfectly structured world’s machinations and empty symbols. Awaiting Ellen’s arrival there, Newland explores this Old World “wreckage,” fascinated by an extreme wide frame seascape (Scorsese’s joke on his use of the wide-screen format, which at this point he had only otherwise used in 1991’s Cape Fear), and then a pre-Impressionistic painting in which the people don’t have faces, so unlike the plethora of other paintings seen throughout the film. More than the mystery behind Ellen Olenska’s person, which has the stigma of rumored infidelity, her surrounding decor infers something faraway from Newland’s budding fears as a newly engaged man doomed to repetition (“The taste of the ‘usual’ was like cinders in his mouth,” Joanne Woodward’s narration tells us). The Romantic promise of the Frontier has reflected back on itself and points the learned New Yorker to the Far East. This is precipitated in the moment when at her house he observes a small mask, an Asian relic more ancient and distant than the Europe that set up colony here, and delicately brushes his fingers against it. When his obsession with Ellen reaches a boiling point of desperation, his drive to pursue her is expressed through a planned journey to India and Japan—as far from “here” as possible. His private study comes to be decorated with pictures of the ancient world. At a critical meeting with Ellen at the new Central Park museum, Newland lingers on old Egyptian relics, the inscription telling us “Use Unknown.”  His frantic impulse to “get away,” even if it means quitting his law practice, is an irrational embrace of something absolutely foreign and pre-historical, where words like “mistress” and “infidelity” have no meaning. The episode expresses a hunger to go back before history—and language, the museum rejoined with the Muse.

But the projection of myth onto Ellen also shows how unfair this all is for Ellen, ostensibly “free” but circumscribed by the imagination, religiously and carnally. Sex is implicit throughout The Age of Innocence, the absence of its presentation and the hushed innuendo making it more intense, and so Newland’s desperate heart-strain pressingly immediate as he yearns to give Ellen a key to a secret apartment for their sexual consummation. Desire makes him hypersensitive to Ellen’s surroundings, sparking jealousy when he sees the cane of a known philanderer, Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), in her house. Unlike with the naïve and virginal May, sexuality permeates Ellen’s face, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s voice, worn with life and fluttering between warm and cool colors of exasperation and hardness, is an instrument grabbing Newland’s ear and wonder, as Wharton puts it, “what must have gone to the making of her eyes.” It renders Newland childish and pouty, contemptuous and compassionate at once. The Age of Innocence documents a tragic schism between men and women and how women, unlike men, are punished for having sexual agency, whereas men in this time—Beaufort, Lefferts, and yes, Newland—may pursue affairs, Wharton describing how society thought of such erotic ventures as being merely “foolish for the man,” while “criminal for the woman.” There’s an accepted binary in Wharton’s world, of the “women one loved and respected and the women one enjoyed and pitied,” similarly imprinted on young Scorsese by the iconography surrounding him. Under Scorsese’s Catholic lens, the preternatural archetypes projected onto Ellen, her costumes changing from the blue of the Holy Virgin to the red of the Penitent Magdalene.

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Ellen, according to rumor, fled her cruel husband with his secretary (whom, it is implied but never verified, is Monsieur Riviere, the failed writer played by Jonathan Pryce). Coming back to America in shame, she’s a ruined woman, perceived as—though never spoken of as—a harlot. Newland pities her, but when he struggles to articulate the legal foibles sewn up with the perception of her, Scorsese tellingly cuts to a shot of her hands, then arcs to a severe and inscrutable face poised for combat. This lacerating expression, removed from how we see Ellen before and after this instance (so much of its power is indebted to the perfect rhythm of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing), reveals the itching carnal possibilities of Ellen Olenska, and what agitates and intrigues Newland Archer in his tailspin of obsessive fascination and pity. In contrast to “the warm shelter of habit” connected to May, who is kind but will thoughtlessly pass judgment on people, Ellen exudes both the carnal sensuality of a courtesan and the maternal warmth of Holy Mary, her pity exemplified when we hear of her kindness to Beaufort’s disgraced wife Regina (Mary Beth Hurt). She’s the paradoxical embodiment of men’s constructions of femininity with which Scorsese’s young heroes struggle in films like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Bringing Out the Dead.

Scorsese’s complex approach to desire makes the ardor of Newland for Ellen challenging for us. Perhaps May is conventional and even unscrupulous in how she achieves victory, but she’s not malicious and she’s certainly justified in the hushed competition with Ellen. In Florida, she gives Newland a chance to come clean, but he’s unable to walk away from social duty and instead hurries the wedding date. He trips up on his duplicity, to the extent that his love for Ellen becomes perfectly transparent to May. Is he any different from philanderers and hypocrites like Beaufort or Lefferts? Is he worse? In the stuffiness of his marriage, his thoughts drift so far that he secretly wishes May dead.

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The climax of the film is the theatrical confrontation between Newland and May in his office. The scene framed like a stage set, May seated and Newland on the precipice of telling her the truth. He stops short of uttering his forbidden affection, but says that he is going away to India and Japan because of how “terribly tired” he is. May ascends from her chair in a set of four different shots, making her single graceful movement equal to a barrage of violent—and decisive—blows. She stands over Newland and says, “Well, I’m afraid you can’t, dear. Not unless you take me with you.” She’s pregnant. She kneels and nestles her face on the devastated Newland’s lap and says the only other person who knows, besides the doctor, is Ellen. Newland’s defeat complete, May looks up at him, smiling, and Scorsese cuts to a high angle looking down: the inexorable divine ordinance pins him in an ordinary and prosperous life with a devoted family.

As the years pass though, he’s not unhappy. He will even come to mourn May after her death. He’s successfully compartmentalized his inward wanderings, relegating the memory of Ellen to a kind of secretive shrine in the back of his mind (in the book, Wharton tells us that Ellen’s memory is what keeps Newland from thinking about other women during the marriage). This doesn’t mean that he’s not, in some way, “dead,” as a vital element of his character that lost itself in Rosetti’s House of Life poems and wept during theatrical melodramas is shipwrecked in musings of what might have been.  If we would compare him to Scorsese’s Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in The Last Temptation of Christ, is Newland the Jesus who went ahead and lived his life with a wife and children, having “done well” despite some deep regret? Or is he the Christ who suffered and sacrificed the life for which he longed, letting go of happiness to fulfill a greater duty, “giving up what he wanted most,” as his son Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) says?

 Newland Archer looking on, Ellen Olenska in the distance. This image persists with Newland for decades, the lighthouse a transcendent Point-of-Epiphany denoting a character's lost estuary to the cosmos, similar to how Martin Scorsese uses the lighthouse in "Shutter Island" and Beacon Hill in "The Departed."  

Newland Archer looking on, Ellen Olenska in the distance. This image persists with Newland for decades, the lighthouse a transcendent Point-of-Epiphany denoting a character's lost estuary to the cosmos, similar to how Martin Scorsese uses the lighthouse in "Shutter Island" and Beacon Hill in "The Departed."  

Newland Archer moves through time with his dissimulation, noticing how the generation of his son is seemingly more tolerant and open than his own. The elder Archer, talking on the telephone in a brightly illuminated office, remains, in some way, fixed on what he’s lost. When he walks away from a true-life encounter with Ellen, he follows the radiating intimacy of subjective memory over objective presentation. In the concluding chapter of her book, Wharton writes of Newland’s experience of the “modern age” (itself long removed from when Wharton wrote the novel) and how the present cares less for the unpleasant details of one’s past: “Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy—busy with reforms and ‘movements,’ with fads and fetishes and frivolities—to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody’s past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?” Whatever the technological and communicative ingenuity of this new world, it’s empty and devoid of passion, “fallen,” a theme of growing significance in Scorsese’s work as he’s gotten older. Newland Archer still looks up at Countess Olenska’s window with the awnings, the reflecting sun against the glass the flaming sword guarding the gates to Eden. Compelled to close his eyes, he blissfully melds into the ecstasy of lost time, jealously musing on his preserved pictures, rejecting realism, objectivity, and the future for the sake of the precious relics in the museum of his heart, their uses unknown to anyone else.