BOOK TITLE N OT E S O N A M E R I C A’ S G R E AT E S T F I L M M A K E R
INTRODUCTION “Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.” Martin Scorsese
M ARTIN S CORSESE . F ILM MAKER , FILM LOVER , FILM SAINT . Born a sickly child to a New York immigrant family, the young “Marty” sought solace in the picture houses of Queens and the surrounding districts. Prevented by a debilitating asthma from participating in the usual childhood activities, instead Scorsese sought shelter in the air-conditioned vistas of the movie houses, with respite granted with the flow of moving pictures. Over the course of a career spanning over five decades Scorsese has bounced from fresh young talent, through to bona-fide cinematic institution unto himself, with an outstanding body of work complimented by a second career as one of the loudest voices in the plight for protecting the legacy of the medium itself. On the release of The Wolf Of Wall Street, Scorsese’s 23rd feature-film, join us as we take a look back at the most illustrious of careers, which spans as diverse a group of locales as Tibet and turn of the century Paris, and charts 150 years on the mean streets of New York.
MARTIN SCORSESE 1976
Please note; The following article discusses plot details for Taxi Driver. Much has been written of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film that is very much a part of Hollywood canon, in spite of the rebellious streak with which the filmmaker brought the work to fruition. As a part of , the opportunity for re-evaluating this landmark work has arisen. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) embodies the America of Post-World War 2. Born in 1950, the character is very much a product of the baby-boom, with his experiences in Vietnam a formidable influence upon his development into adulthood. Scorsese’s film is effectively a love story of two halves, with the opening chapter involving Bickle’s infatuation with all-American Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) countered by the second act reversal of his protective attitude towards Iris, a 12 year old prostitute (Jodie Foster). On either side of the women stand male figures, each symbolically acting as obstructions, theoretical distractions for Bickle to fall back on and blame when his own inadequacies let him down. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader are renowned for their use of faith on screen, with Taxi Driver perhaps their religio-magnum opus. Biblical on as broad a scale as any work in the American cinema, the vision of Hell presented on-screen is as definitive as it is Orphic. As Travis crosses the boundaries of New York, in to the supposed no-go areas that over driver’s fear to tread, we are presented with an environment coated in Senator Palantine campaign posters, creating a mirror image to the “real” New York of the daylight scenes. Harvey Keitel’s Matthew alludes to the apostle, while rejected romantic offerings become tokens of sacrifice.
Taxi Driver stands as the point during which Scorsese really began to subvert filmmaking technique. As the camera whizzes around during the scene in which Scorsese interrogates Iris, the visceral and aggressive nature by which would become the filmmakers calling card can be seen being born, with the jump-cut heavy portrayal of a shooting gallery defining the manner in which the filmmaker would edit much of his work that followed. Stylistically the film reaches its apex with the dreamlike journey around the murder scene, ultimately giving credence to Roger Ebert’s reading of the film’s epilogue as a vision of heaven. It’s notable that this recalls the fantastical nature of the work of Powell and Pressburger, given Scorsese’s admiration for the pair. Alas, to accept Ebert’s reading is to do a great disservice to Scorsese and Schrader’s intended climax. While Scorsese has in the past acknowledged a like for Ebert’s interpretation, his original aim remains the core reading, and with that comes a poetic and biting final scene. That Travis is rewarded and made a hero out of the murder of three bad guys (Matt, the punter and the owner of the hotel), themselves direct analogues of the three intended political enemies (Palantine, Tom and the secret service agent), is clearly satirical in tone, and brings with it an anapestic spin to the films closing moments.
MARTIN SCORSESE 2010
To celebrate Martin Scorsese’s greatest ode to the silver screen, the highly lauded Hugo, join us as we take the opportunity to take a look at some of the other films and events referred to and explored in the Scorsese movie.
Georges Méliès What better place to begin an exploration of the cinema of Hugo than with George Méliès himself? The tragedy of a once-great man forced in to a life behind the counter of a toy stand is based upon fact, with Scorsese turning tragedy in to something akin to myth. Today the work of Méliès is very much celebrated, with the filmmaker celebrated for being the true pioneer that he was. Rene Tabard A clear analogue for Henri Langlois, a French film historian whose centenary is celebrated in 2014. Scorsese makes a hero out of the people who strive to protect film. Tabard is named for the character in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, one of the great films about childhood, and a work that would go on to inspire the likes of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue, films which, in turn, the footprints of can be seen in Hugo. Interestingly, the character of René Tabard was an invention of Brian Selznick, the author of The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, and not, as many have suspected, Martin Scorsese.
Safety Last! Of the three key silent comedians Scorsese chooses to focus upon Harold Lloyd over the slightly more obvious Chaplin or Keaton (the presence of a clock in a key plot point of Safety Last! is logical for Hugo too). Lloyd’s work in Safety Last! is amongst the most iconic, not to mention dangerous, of the early cinema. In Brian Selznick’s original novel Hugo and Isabelle actually take in a screening of Rene Clair’s Le Million, a 1931 French comedy of circumstance and chance, ground firmly in the traditions of that country’s cinema of the time. The Automaton The most obvious nod here would be towards Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with that films Maria one of the most iconic robots in all of the cinema. It was actually another French magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and not Méliès who was best known for his use of automatons, with Robert-Houdin something of a pioneer of the form. The use of the automaton in Hugo is clearly intended as a humanistically infused representation of the cinema, a mechanical art. Other such works to feature some form of automaton (which doesn’t strictly refer to a mechanical entity) include Carl Boese and Paul Wegener’s The Golem, and of course Victor Fleming’s The Wizard Of Oz. Melies bought Robert-Houdin’s theatre, inheriting the “Ethereal Suspension” trick seen in Scorsese’s film from the magician.
The Derailment at Gare Montparnasse The famous photograph of the train that failed to stop is remained as a nightmare sequence in Scorseseâ€™s film. The derailment at the station occurred just two months before the invention of the cinema, in October 1895, and somewhat miraculously, caused only one death (a passer by on the street below).
Louis and Auguste Lumière The grandfathers of the projected image make a number of appearances in Scorsese’s film, most notably in the chapter of the film detailing Georges Méliès, discovery of the medium of cinema. Méliès was indeed present at the very first Lumière screening on December 28th, 1895 in a Parisian cafe, witnessing such films as La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory) and l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) for the very first time. The Lumière Brothers were by no means the lone inventors of film, although they were the first to display it communally, via projection, and therefore the ones that had reached the proverbial Holy Grail first. The Great Train Robbery What celebration of the early cinema would be complete without an insert from Porter’s hyper-iconic to-camera shot of a bandit facing his audience? The shot itself has been mimicked and homaged countless times, most notably perhaps by Scorsese himself with the closing shot of his own Goodfellas.
MARTIN SCORSESE 1980
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), written by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, is the semi-biographical story of the rise and fall of the “Bronx Bull” - middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta. La Motta (played by De Niro) grew up in the slums of New York’s Italian-American neighborhoods to become champion, only to lose his belt to Sugar Ray Robinson. The violence that overflows from the ring into his domestic life puts strains on his personal relationships, including his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother Joey (Joe Pesci). It is within this simple narrative, framed at the beginning and the end by a bloated, older La Motta’s reflections in a dressing-room mirror, that Scorsese addresses issues of masculine identities and violence as they relate to La Motta’s version of the “American dream” success story. The film is full of inarticulate rage and violence, with dialogue as rough and uncouth as imaginable - but is tenderly and poetically filmed, in much the same way as Luchino Visconti's Rocco and his Brothers (1960). La Motta is so unpleasant it always strikes me that Raging Bull is a bit like writing a Shakespearean sonnet about a rock. There is something strangely appealing about that in itself; about taking the vulgar and ugly and creating something of lasting merit out of it, set to the elegiac strains of Mascagni's haunting score. To understand Scorsese’s interrogation of the American success story, we must understand the legacy of the boxing sub-genre from the days of classical Hollywood. He certainly borrows from the tradition of films such as The Set Up (1949) and Body and Soul (1947), where the fighter is drawn in to local vice and organised crime. But Raging Bull eschews the rags-to-riches narrative pattern of many genre pictures, and Scorsese’s style of shooting the fighting bouts differs each time, the ring growing larger or smaller depending on how well La Motta is faring. In a strangely poetic but brutal stylization, the fighters move in slow-motion, sweat and blood flying from the men's brows. There are extreme close-ups, unusual point of view shots, flashing camera bulbs, and a cutting style reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein. The soundtrack, when not mixing the sound of animals fighting, often found silence profoundly useful, and frequently broke into this silence with startling force. This formal experimentation is reminiscent of European art film, residing in a genre which is very specifically of the American tradition. La Motta’s violent outbursts are made acceptable in the form of his pugilism, a manner in which he can act out his aggression and Catholic guilt. The boxing ring, like any arena, offers a simplistic alternative to the confusion of the real world. Thus, La Motta uses the ring as an antidote to his anxieties around masculinity, and to prove himself a winner and a warrior in terms of the ring, since he cannot seem to do so outside of it. The contrast is 11
nicely summed up as such: “La Motta was champion of the world, but he’s one of the world’s champion losers” (Scott 137). Raging Bull is concerned with the first-generation children of ethnic immigrants, still living in urban slums, and firmly working-class: the characters have all the initiative and ambition to succeed, but none of the resources. What we have is a grittier alternate to the 1950's America so popular in cinematic representations; the striving for success but not the succeeding. Where Goodfellas provides us a vision of the American Dream at its most lurid, ugly excesses, Raging Bull provides us a vision of the “dream” as unattainable; scuppered from the start, the false promises and pitfalls of which are just as dangerous as the success it may provide. There's a dutiful pity we feel toward such a pathetically self-deluded character, but the film also ponders something more enigmatic about the human condition, and about what it means to be a man. It speaks of Scorsese's inability to shy away from the dark corners of American society, and in La Motta's case, the even-darker corners of the American soul.
Christina Newland. Excerpts originally published with Film Matters Magazine Vol. 4.1
SYMPHONY FOR THE DEVIL SCORSESE’S MUSIC
A N O F T - R E P E AT E D C R I T I C A L T R U I S M C A N F R E Q U E N T LY H AV E T H E P E RV E R S E E F F E C T OF MUTING DISCOURSE ON A SUBJECT T H AT S T I L L D E M A N D S I T. A S TAT E M E N T N OT I N G T H E B R I L L I A N C E O F M A R T I N S C O R S E S E ’ S U S E O F M U S I C I N A PA R T I C U L A R F I L M I S N OW B OT H A N E X P E C TAT I O N A N D A S U P E R F LU I T Y. O U R R E C O G N I T I O N OF HIS SKILL ON THIS FRONT HAS BEC O M E S O H A S T I LY I N S T I N C T I V E T H AT W E C A N O F T E N FA I L TO T R U LY U N D E R S TA N D I T A N D OV E R LO O K I T S R I C H VA R I E T I E S . T H E M A E S T R O ’ S R E L AT I O N SHIP WITH HIS SOUNDS IS MORE COMP L E X T H AT W E M AY R E A L I S E , O R E V E N C A R E TO R E M E M B E R . H E I S A R E V E R E N T , C O M PA S S I O N AT E A N D , S O M E T I M E S , CEREBRAL LISTENER. THE SONGS AND P I E C E S I N H I S F I L M S A R E A S C R E AT I V E A N D A S M A L L E A B L E A S H I S V I S UA L PA L E T T E . S C O R S E S E I S T H E C O N D U C TO R , A N D H E C A N U N L E A S H A N D R E S T R A I N AT WILL. THESE ARE THE 5 MUSICAL MOM E N T S T H AT D E F I N E H I M . C R A I G W I L L I A M S 14
1. Born in a Crossfire Hurricane - The Illicit Thrill of Mean Streets "Layla" in Goodfellas, "Werewolves of London" in The Colour of Money and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in Mean Streets; they are the types of musical moments that Scorsese is known for. The colossal rock and roll hits colliding with the director's extraordinary visual flourish; there's simply no other celluloid high like it. It's the magical combination that makes hearts pound and hair stand on end. Johnny Boy's entrance into the bar in Mean Streets is a great moment of cinema because it's a piece of pure evocation. Keith Richards' chords kick in, the red light hangs low and De Niro moves in slow motion. We are witnessing the swagger of a master in every sense. Scorsese would use the conceit throughout his career and the response would always be the same.Â 2. Straight to Your Heart, Like a Cannonball - Van Morrisonâ€™s Kick in The Last Waltz 15
It’s a small, seemingly spontaneous moment that conveys so much. Towards the end of a barnstorming rendition of “Caravan” – a song about the irrefutable power of the pop record – Van Morrison begins to kick the air in time with the music drop. It’s a jolt of jubilation; an expression of pure ecstasy caught on film. Scorsese didn’t just shoot great bands, he captured what made them great. The Last Waltz is about these subtle but indelible moments; the fleeting glances, the surges of emotion and the shared giggles. Through the dialectic power of the edit, the director demonstrates an innate understanding of The Band; he shows viewers how the crack session group became an unstoppable force within their own right. The Last Waltz was the final time The Band would perform together, and we can feel the sense of occasion; the warmth of the past, the celebration of the present and the anxiety of the future. 3. Broadway Melody of 1977 - For the Love of City and Cinema in New York, New York It is the moment Scorsese finally got to channel Howard Hawks. Taking the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the template - Liza Minnelli even mugs like Marilyn - the director utilises the performance of "New York, New York" as both a tribute and a springboard. Though intentionally recalling a specific cinematic moment, it also takes stock of what the Hollywood musical meant 30 years after its heyday. Cinephile Scorsese has always referenced the canon, but he also weaves the references with very modern cinematic notions. New York, New York has the musical numbers of the early MGM blockbusters, but they are combined with some bracing New Hollywood sensibilities. There's implicit violence and desolation at the picture's core; Scorsese understands that New York is defined by the weary line between success and failure, and he manages to convey that in an impassioned musical number.
4. Blues After Midnight – The Repeated Motifs of Bringing Out the Dead Scorsese is no stranger to the operatic form. Van Morrison's "TB Sheets" is used throughout Bringing Out the Dead as a recurring motif; it's a bleak overture for a dark night of the soul. A song rooted in blues tradition, its structural repetition mirrors the pattern of Nicholas Cage's Frank's night shifts as a paramedic. In the song, a girl lies in a hospital bed surrounded by death and disease. In the film, death stalks the streets, and it's corroding Frank's soul. The song is as pervasive as the horrors around him. The motif structure was used to similar effect in Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead's spiritual predecessor. Bernard Herrmann's sinister surge of sound draws Robert De Niro's Travis into the same hellish New York night as Frank 20 years later. In fact, "TB Sheets" was originally intended to be included in Taxi Driver. How typical of Scorsese that a sociopathic murderer and paramedic can, in many ways, be the same person. The taxi and the ambulance are, of course, the TB sheets. 5. I'm a Sailor Peg - An Immigrant Song in The Departed Scorsese is the definitive New York filmmaker, and his music choices have always reflected that. But when his cinematic gaze moved to Boston for The Departed, he still strove to conjure a sense of place for the film. The cultural appropriation inevitably follows broad strokes, but it is admirably full-blooded. The use of The Dropkick Murphys "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" is arguably the moment it comes together. An Irish folk number played like a punk record, it bridges time and tradition and it propels the events of The Departed while also sitting comfortably with the picture's central thesis. The Mamet-esque dialogue of the film is defined by anger and regret; "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" channels it and projects it against the city's narratives. It's an immigrant song for a director who was a stranger to the city.