The Movie Man: Martin Scorsese

4 February 2012

Martin Scorsese

There are few filmmakers who rival Martin Scorsese’s contribution to cinema. The 69-year-old New Yorker is part of the passionate and highly film-literate moviemakers (including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) that started their careers in the 1970s during the New Hollywood era. These directors created the modern blockbuster and came to define American cinema.

Whether making gangster films, period films or biopics, Scorsese explores aspects of masculinity, identity and violence. His protagonists are often loners in a chaotic world trying to make sense of the madness around them, grappling with issues of guilt, penance and spiritual enlightenment. Nostalgia plays a big part in Scorsese’s films, but so do regret and loss. Many of his films end ambiguously, with a sense of irony or with the main character on the decline. Frequently working with the same crew, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker on almost every film, and the same actors (such as Robert De Niro and, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio), Scorsese is one of the few American auteurs, as his films can be regarded as a personal expression of his author-like direction.

Many of Scorsese’s early films reflected his childhood as the son of Catholic Italian immigrants living in New York. While attending film school in the 1960s he made a handful of short films before making his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). It starred his then-preferred leading actor, Harvey Keitel, as a typically Scorsesesque troubled man. The film contained some hallmarks of his later films with its focus on Italian-American communities, life-on-the-street feel, and a rock soundtrack. Following Boxcar Bertha (1972), which he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, Scorsese made Mean Streets (1973). This film announced his arrival as a filmmaker of note, and was the first time Scorsese worked with De Niro, capturing the stories, characters and atmosphere of Little Italy in New York City, where Scorsese grew up.

After his under-appreciated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a rare Scorsese film with a leading female protagonist (played by Ellen Burstyn), he made his masterpiece. Taxi Driver (1976) featured De Niro as an insomniac Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle, who descends into violent madness. The film coined the phrase ‘are you talkin’ to me’, inspired the 1981 assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan and remains one of the greatest cinematic portrayals of paranoid psychosis. More importantly, Taxi Driver established Scorsese’s favourite techniques of using slow motion and fluid tracking shots to convey the subjective experience of his protagonists.

Reflecting his love of different cinematic movements from all over the world, a Scorsese film will often blend cinema-vérité techniques with the dreamlike imagery of avant-garde films. These elements were stunningly combined in Scorsese’s 1980 biopic, Raging Bull, with De Niro as the turbulent boxer Jake LaMotta. This black-and-white epic portrays masculinity at its most violent, reprehensible, pitiful and tragic. Taxi Driver might be the masterpiece, but Raging Bull is the definitive Scorsese film.

Between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull Scorsese made the homage to Hollywood musicals, New York, New York (1977) and a concert film of The Band, The Last Waltz (1978).

Throughout his career, Scorsese’s love of music is expressed on his soundtracks, which alternate between original scores by composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Philip Glass and Peter Gabriel, and eclectic pop and rock compilations. He also produced the 2003 documentary series, The Blues, and has made documentaries about Bob Dylan (No Direction Home; 2005), the Rolling Stones (Shine a Light; 2008) and most recently George Harrison (Living in the Material World; 2011). He even directed the ‘Bad’ music video for Michael Jackson in 1987.

Scorsese’s 1980s films were slightly left-of-field ventures. And, with the forgettable exception of The Color of Money (1986; a sequel to the Paul Newman classic of 1961, The Hustler), they are fascinating. The King of Comedy (1983) cast De Niro as a struggling comedian trying to get the attention of a famous talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis. It’s Taxi Driver as a critique of showbiz. After Hours (1985) was a low-budget surreal comedy about a man in New York trying to get home one night. Of most interest was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a highly controversial film that depicted what Christ’s life may have been like if he didn’t die on the cross and lived as a mortal man. Despite accusations of blasphemy, the film remains an extraordinary examination of spirituality and faith.

In 1990, Scorsese made the gangster masterpiece Goodfellas. It’s classic Scorsese: violent, focused on the Italian-American mob, ending with a whimper rather than a bang, featuring De Niro among others, and full of iconic music and visual flourishes. Following his 1991 remake of the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, with De Niro playing the vengeful former convict Max Cady, Scorsese made Casino (1995), which functioned as a sort of unofficial but far more violent follow-up to Goodfellas. The final ‘conventional’ Scorsese film of the 1990s was Bringing out the Dead (1999), where he teamed up with writer (and also director) Paul Schrader for the forth and final time after previously collaborating on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation. Dead was an almost black comic retelling of Taxi Driver, this time featuring an exhausted paramedic played by Nicolas Cage.

After Goodfellas, the two standout 1990s films for Scorsese were the less obvious The Age of Innocence (1993) and Kundun (1997). An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel, Innocence did not seem like a typical Scorsese film, but its New York setting and melancholic male protagonist, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), were Scorsese hallmarks. Likewise, a film about the 14th Dalai Lama initially seemed an odd choice, but Kundun displayed Scorsese’s command of using film style to convey the experience of a male protagonist in a world he struggles to comprehend. Just as Scorsese’s other religiously themed film, Last Temptation, attracted controversy, so did Kundun – this time from the Chinese Government, which wasn’t pleased about a film depicting the exiled Tibetan leader sympathetically.

The past decade has seen Scorsese repeatedly collaborate with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, starting with the disappointing period crime drama, Gangs of New York (2002). The director–actor partnership with DiCaprio picked up in 2004 with the impressive biopic, The Aviator, about the notoriously reclusive film producer and aviation pioneer, Howard Hughes. In 2010 the pair worked together on Shutter Island, one of Scorsese’s most misunderstood films (the complex, subjective film style used to signal the true nature of DiCaprio’s US Marshal character was mistaken for giving away the ‘twist’ ending, which was in fact not a twist at all).

Scorsese’s 2000s peak came in 2006 with The Departed, a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama, Infernal Affairs. Once more full of Scorsese’s trademark crime violence and psychopathic male characters, The Departed was a complex film about identity and loyalty. Some audiences were annoyed that Scorsese had remade a recent and much loved Hong Kong film, while others preferred Scorsese’s less melodramatic and more straightforward version. The Departed finally earned Scorsese an Academy Award for Best Director (he had previously been nominated five times).

The importance of what Scorsese has done for cinema cannot be understated. Not only has he made numerous American classics, he has also long campaigned for the need to preserve older films. He has made documentaries about American and Italian cinema, and is endlessly championing films from all over the world. He co-created the Film Foundation in 1990, and the World Cinema Foundation in 2007 (both organisations are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of films).

The man loves cinema, which is what is so beautifully expressed in his latest 3D family film, Hugo (2011). Not only does Hugo celebrate the wonders of films from a previous era, it introduces a whole new generation to the joys of cinema. Unlike his many protagonists, Scorsese is not about to fade into obscurity. Indeed, he is making films that are as remarkable, inspirational and unpredictable as anything else he has done during his extraordinary career.

The Big Issue, issue 398Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 398, 2012

Thomas Caldwell, 2012
Advertisements

Top Ten Films of 2010

31 December 2010

Top ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia in 2010

Inception

Inception

1. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
This almost clinical and mechanical representation of the human subconscious facilitated an extraordinary exploration of cinematic space in order to deliver an intriguing heist story with wonderfully thrilling action sequences. This year’s masterpiece.

2. Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
This mesmerising assault on the senses by the director of Irréversible was a strange, brilliant and audacious first-person head-trip into drugs, death, sex and the neon lit metropolis of Tokyo.

3. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Martin Scorsese’s latest film was a typically brilliant example of subjective filmmaking, but where the point-of-view belongs to an unreliable protagonist. A sophisticated exercise in film style dressed up as a pulp thriller. So much more than a spot-the-twist film.

4. Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010)
The Australian film to receive the most hype this year was also the most deserving. The low-key filmmaking resulted in a tense, gritty and at times horrifying crime drama.

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3

5. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
The combination of tight writing, powerful sentiment, humour and characters with so much heart delivered one of the greatest animated films ever made. Possibly the most perfect resolution to a trilogy too. Not a dry eye in the house.

6. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
An extraordinarily empathetic film about the everyday and commonplace tragedy that love doesn’t always prevail. Contains the year’s strongest performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling.

7. The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009)
The surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, this Argentinean murder mystery/romance contains hidden depth. A thrilling and intriguing genre film in its own right but also a moving representation of Argentina’s history of political turmoil.

8. The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)
To reduce this to merely a generic hit man film ignores how immaculately crafted Corbijn’s second film is. The rich use of style and homage offers multiple rewards for a visually literate audience.

9. The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)
Another great example of subjective filmmaking where the film gets increasingly deranged as its psychopathic protagonist increasingly loses his grip on reality. A superb adaptation of Jim Thompson’s hardboiled novel featuring some incredibly upsetting acts of violence.

10. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)
It wasn’t an old-school David Cronenberg film but the glorious blend of science-fiction, horror, melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller made it feel like one. Transgressive wicked fun.

Honourable mentions

11. The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
12. Boy (Taika Waititi, 2010)
13. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
14. Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)
15. Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009)
16. The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)
17. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
18. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
19. A Prophet (Un prophète, Jacques Audiard, 2009)
20. Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

Top ten unreleased films

Son of Babylon

Son of Babylon

(Films with either very short seasons or only festival screenings, and to the best of my knowledge aren’t scheduled for a general release in 2011).

1. Son of Babylon (Mohamed Al Daradji, 2009)
2. I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)
3. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2010)
4. The Illusionist (L’illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
5. Poetry (Shi, Lee Chang-dong, 2010)
6. Nobody’s Perfect (Niko von Glasow, 2008)
7. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler, 2009)
8. When You’re Strange (Tom DiCillo, 2009)
9. World’s Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009)
10. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crime, Robert Guédiguian, 2009)

Other

Tim Burton: The Exhibition

Tim Burton: The Exhibition

1. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948) at the Astor Theatre.
2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) with a live orchestra at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
3. Tim Burton: The Exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
4. The Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Jacques Demy seasons plus the Max Ophuls and Tod Browning nights at the Melbourne Cinémathèque.
5. The experience of seeing The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003) as part of the on-going Cult Cravings program at Cinema Nova.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema.

An earlier (and since revised) version of the top ten film list originally appeared in the December 2010 edition of the Triple R magazine The Trip (online here).

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010


Film review – Shutter Island (2010)

16 February 2010

Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Shutter Island (by Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone author Dennis Lehane) is a film that operates on a heightened level that almost makes a traditional narrative analysis redundant. While the core story of two US Marshals in 1954 investigating the seemingly impossible disappearance of an escapee from an island based prison for the criminally insane is compelling, the film’s ultimate achievement is its manipulation of perception on a filmic level. Even elements that may trick the untrained eye and ear into thinking that they are experiencing a flawed film are deliberately calculated stylistic and narrative elements that only fully make sense after the final dénouement.

Scorsese has often displayed a subjective flair in his filmmaking particularly in early films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In Shutter Island he pushes this one step further by representing Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane as an almost other worldly place designed to snare and foil US Marshal Teddy Daniels. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his strongest performances to-date, Daniels is a classic melancholic masculine Scorsese protagonist. Daniels is haunted by the death of his wife and his experiences as a soldier liberating the Dachau concentration camp. He is unpredictable, volatile and easily provoked. Yet he also possesses aspects of Twin Peaks’s memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper character in that he has a brilliant investigative mind, he is intuitive and he seems to receive information about the case from his dreams.

Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley), Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio)

While there are elements of Shutter Island that would not feel out of place in a David Lynch film, Scorsese’s real point-of-reference must surely be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Scorsese may have even read Geoffrey Cocks’s book The Wolf at the Door where Cocks argues that the subtext of The Shining was the Holocaust. Not only does Scorsese use a lot of music by the Kubrick favoured composer György Ligeti but the use of sound, tracking shots and production design distinctively presents the Ashecliffe Hospital in a similar way to The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Both are buildings filled with labyrinthine spaces that threaten to consume their occupants.

Shutter Island is the work of a true master who is completely accomplished in the art of filmmaking. It is apparent from almost the beginning of Shutter Island that there is something strange going on and the enjoyment is in the experience of watching it all unfold. Shutter Island is a film that leaves you feeling satisfied but during the end credits your brain will start to churn. As the film’s impact sinks deeper and deeper into your mind you will start to truly appreciate how ingenious it is on so many levels. An hour later you will be making plans to see it again.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Bookmark and Share

Read more reviews at MRQE