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
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Film review – Taxi Driver (1976)

4 July 2011

Taxi DriverIn 1983 director David Cronenberg curated a science fiction retrospective for the Toronto Film Festival and his provocative selections included Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. In the program notes Cronenberg explained this choice by describing Taxi Driver as:

[A] better Blade Runner than Blade Runner. New York is a nightmare LA/Tokyo of the future. De Niro is a sleepless alien who does a poor job as passing himself off as an earthling. He can’t really figure out human sexuality but he wants to get involved anyway. It doesn’t work.

It’s as good a reading of Taxi Driver as any since it captures the extent to which Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character is something of an impressionable outsider in the urban jungle of New York. A Vietnam vet working long hours as a taxi driver due to his insomnia, Travis is a product, victim and observer of late 1970s America, but also a terrifying force of violence, determined to ‘wash all this scum off the streets’. Scorsese’s subjective camera follows Travis and his taxi through the streets of New York as he searches for a human connection, fails and then takes the role of a very confused avenging moral crusader, culminating in the film’s still shockingly violent ending.

Travis is locked in an infantile state that is suggested throughout Taxi Driver in his speech, limited comprehension and xenophobic curiosity/paranoia towards African Americans. Like so many soldiers trained to fight in Vietnam, as depicted over ten years later in Full Metal Jacket, he seems to have had his personality stripped away, leaving him as a blank slate with a simmering, barely repressed rage. In later scenes when he does give himself a purpose beyond mere existence, the ticking clock sound on the soundtrack is accentuated to mimic the sound of a time bomb.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)

As the opening chords of Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant (and sadly final) score crescendo over the soundtrack during the opening of the film, we see Travis’s taxi emerge into the cinema frame out of a cloud of steam as if it is being born into the world of the film. Throughout the film Scorsese shoots both Travis and his yellow taxicab from every angle possible, ensuring all components of the man and the machine get their own close-up at least once. They are one and the same; cruising the less desirable parts of New York like a predatory animal and slowly being changed by the city. The taxi picks up dents from hurled objects and stains from the passengers in the back seat, Travis picks ups some disturbingly peculiar ideas about women.

Without any family of his own Travis searches for substitutes. Turning to the senior taxi driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) for some kind of fatherly advice turns out to be futile as all he gets is an almost comically useless pep talk. Travis projects purity upon Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), seeing her as a perfect woman who may be his lover and in Oedipal terms his substitute mother. Not long after the scene where Betsy spurns him Travis encounters a passenger (played by Scorsese) who delights in telling him about his intent to murder his cheating wife. Ever impressionable, Travis channels this misogynist fury into his feelings of rejection from Betsy and plans to hurt her by assassinating the politician (and alternate father figure) she is campaigning for. Finally, Travis encounters child-prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and this time takes on the role of protective father/potential lover towards her, which involves confronting her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), another father figure.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)And what of the peculiar ending? Is it a cynical joke by Scorsese about how cinema celebrates the use of violence to restore order or is it a sort of delusion dream sequence where Travis imagines an idyllic outcome that vindicates his actions? The camera filming the haunting aerial shot over the room where Travis’s rampage ends then seems to float down the stairs of the building and out into the night as if his soul is departing. It’s a deliberately ambiguous ending, but the outcome is that the film ends with the audience in Travis’s world. A montage of shots of the city streets at night evoke his collapsed reality and the final sudden glare he gives to the camera suggests that wherever he is – in the physical or imagined world – he could snap at any moment.

An urban fusion of themes and images from the western, film noir and, if you agree with Cronenberg, science fiction, Taxi Driver is a brilliant study of alienation, obsession, paranoia and perverse desire.  There’s an undeniable power and grittiness that very few films have come close to capturing since. Perhaps it’s the dangerous vicarious and visceral thrills that Travis’s actions provide. Scorsese shows us the world through Travis’s eyes and like with Alex in A Clockwork Orange we rationally condemn such an unhinged individual who is all too ready to respond to the aggressive stimuli around him. However, once we’ve seen the world the way Travis sees it, on a purely emotive level there is something disturbingly seductive about God’s lonely man and his deranged crusade. In this regard Taxi Driver is dangerous cinema and it’s all the better for it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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DVD review – Kundun (1997), Region 4, Roadshow

14 March 2006

Released in 1997, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun never received the audience that it deserved. The producing studio’s parent company Disney barely promoted it due to economic pressures from the Chinese government. Hardly surprising since Kundun depicts the 14th Dalai Lama’s bewildering childhood and subsequent conflict with Communist China that resulted in him fleeing to India.

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