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BAFTA David Lean Lecture 2019: Martin Scorsese

BAFTA Fellowship 2012
BAFTA/Ian Derry

Martin Scorsese can teach you everything you need to know about cinema. Whether it’s A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, deep diving into the heart of Western moviemaking or the abundant words of wisdom scattered in video clips across the internet, covering every facet of filmmaking, from lenses to montage to the importance of preservation, Scorsese is a one-man film school. But, fittingly for a discipline centred on the maxim “show, don’t tell”, the best way to understand what he knows about cinema is to watch his movies.


A febrile web of faith, family, Americana, masculinity, rock‘n’roll and violence, intertwined with the cinema of De Sica, Kurosawa, Rossellini, Ray, Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Powell and Pressburger, and more, Scorsese’s point of view is manifestly cinematic. A true auteur akin to Hitchcock, Scorsese’s cine-literate camera is active, a character with agency. It shows you what he wants you to see, the way he wants you to see it.

Technique is pronounced but wedded to emotional intent. Top to bottom – mise en scene, montage, performance, framing, movement, music – everything in the frame is an intricate mechanism to channel your attention, challenge your perspective and bring you into someone else’s life. How else do we readily identify with hedonist banker Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013) as he descends into Quaaludes-induced delirium? Or Mob enforcer Henry Hill (Goodfellas, 1990) exploding into cocaine-fuelled paranoia? Or unhinged loner Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) preparing to enact bloody fantasies: “Are you talking to me?”

Scorsese describes his filmmaking as the act of “forcing [the audience] to see things the way I see them.” We’re just lucky that he sees things in such compelling, challenging and entertaining ways, set to the sound of some of the best music of the last 70 years.


With an already enviable filmic vocabulary – confident using freeze frames, slow-motion, long single-take tracking shots, sublimely controlled zollies – Scorsese continues to evolve his point of view, embracing new tools and modes of distribution that elude many of his contemporaries.

Hugo (2011) was a 3D adventure merged with a love letter to one of the fathers of cinema, French fabulist Georges Méliès (played by Sir Ben Kingsley). A giddy nod to one master of innovative techniques through utilising emerging technology himself, Scorsese’s wizardry never undermines the central tale of an orphan living in a 1930s’ Parisian train station.

At time of writing, we’re readying ourselves for The Irishman (2019) to drop on Netflix. Even brushing past the much-discussed innovation of ‘de-aging’ digital effects, reuniting Scorsese with past muses Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (plus fellow 1970s’ icon Al Pacino for the first time) as decades-spanning gangsters, it marks one of the biggest filmmakers so far to work within the digital distribution model. It’s a classically personal yet sweeping Scorsese story, told utilising envelope-pushing craft at the frontline of film consumption. His art is a living, changing beast, like film itself.


Scorsese’s films make us do two things – think and flinch. A reflection of the push-and-pull of Church and Street that exemplified his mid-20th century second-generation SicilianAmerican upbringing in Manhattan’s Little Italy, the dominant backdrop of Scorsese’s most prolific work has been organised crime, predominantly the foot soldier, the working man with a crowbar and a gun. From 1972’s Boxcar Bertha to The Irishman, Scorsese’s signature themes of aggressive masculinity, existential crisis and the consequences of explosive violence are offset by the structures and rivalries of both blood and adopted ‘families’, vying for dominance in his antiheroes’ lives.

Outside the ranks of the Made Men, Scorsese’s deconstruction of the scarred American male bleeds onto the streets of his beloved New York City (often a character in and of itself) – Taxi Driver’s Bickle prowling its neon-steeped underbelly; Raging Bull’s (1980) belligerent Jake LaMotta peacocking around the Bronx; Nicolas Cage’s necrotised ambulance driver, Frank, ghosting Manhattan in Bringing Out the Dead (1999).

These preoccupations have exploded into dark comedies (The King of Comedy, 1982; After Hours, 1985), psychological thrillers (Shutter Island, 2010; Cape Fear, 1991) and sweeping biopics (The Aviator, 2004). Even the late 19th century gentry of The Age of Innocence (1993) bristle with repressed emotion, transforming gestures into acts of emotional violence. And all of this is infused with spirituality. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) courted controversy by painting his Catholic Jesus in starkly realistic light (including a dying fantasy of an ‘ordinary life’); Kundun (1997) extolled the beauty and strength of Buddhism through the tribulations of the 14th Dalai Lama; and Silence (2016) showed the price of devotion for 17th century Portuguese missionaries in feudal Japan. Family, religion, ambition – all bring pain for Scorsese. Only film, perhaps, brings catharsis.


Paralleling the recurring theme of family, Scorsese’s offscreen success is shared by trusted collaborators. Onscreen partners are wellknown – De Niro, DiCaprio, Keitel, Pesci – but his offscreen cohorts are unparalleled. Master cutter Thelma Schoonmaker (prolifically from Raging Bull onwards); cinematographers such as Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Robert Richardson (Casino, The Aviator) and Michael Ballhaus (The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas); and writers including Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Jay Cocks (Silence, The Age of Innocence) and Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino) have played an integral role in Scorsese’s filmography, but all within what are clearly Martin Scorsese pictures. His beats, his themes, his style dominates; as director, he harnesses the gifts of others in slave to his vision.

Today, film is most often a vehicle for entertainment, the triumph of commercial craft over film art, but every aspect of Scorsese’s work is driven by his art, by its transformative power, fuelled by thousands of old movies and dozens of past masters. His camera never moves simply to get a cool shot; no shot is ever lit just to look pleasing; no cut is made purely to reduce running time; no character speaks without purpose; no voiceover is just exposition. Kinetic, propulsive, invigorating, thought-provoking and beautiful –a Martin Scorsese picture is pure cinema. There is no better teacher.