Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Auteur: Martin Scorsese

In honor of my cinematic hero, auteur filmmaker Martin Scorsese, I am posting a lengthy essay I wrote about Scorsese, his magnificent films and his influence on me. The paper was written specifically for a Visual Media class I took my junior year of high school. No, today isn't his birthday, but it is the day after Paramount Pictures announced that his latest project, Shutter Island, is being pushed back from an October 2nd release date to next February. Not only does this move my most anticipated film of the year back four months, it also knocks Shutter Island out of this year's Oscar race. Alas, I am very saddened by this news.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese is the greatest living American director. I won’t hide the fact that I absolutely worship Scorsese and his repertoire of timeless American cinema - the flurry of images, whiplash editing spiraling onscreen from the great Thelma Schoonmaker, his incessantly giddy use of popular music, the intensity with which each shot is prepared and executed - this man is filmmaking.

Above all, the man reveals truths about the human condition that both appall and fascinate me – I could not initially understand why I identified with Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) or Jake La Motta (Raging Bull, 1980) but I was nevertheless awestruck by his wizardry in creating sympathy for so many violent and self-loathing characters. Scorsese could easily be called the savior of the antihero; indeed, his films often feature lead protagonists balancing the line between sanity and insanity.

When I think of Scorsese, I think of the great moments that make up his films: Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) punching the prison walls and beating his head against the stone in agony near the end of Raging Bull; Travis Bickle (De Niro), soaked in blood, staring at New York police officers while pathetically placing his index finger against his head pulling an imaginary trigger in Taxi Driver; Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) staring at his tortured image in the mirror as his obsessiveness leads to his demise in The Aviator (2004); the slow-motion, drenched-red entrance of Johnny Boy (De Niro) to Jumpin’ Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones in Mean Streets (1973); and, most recently, the shocking elevator confrontation between Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed (2006).

Scorsese has crafted a superb cinematic niche involving conflicted, alienated lead characters who often resort to shocking violence as a means of being ‘accepted’ into a certain society. The morality of these characters is another recurring Scorsese thematic idea; originally interested in joining the Catholic priesthood, Scorsese uses religious undertones and motifs throughout his works, often unintentionally. Note the Christ-like poses that Frank Costello in The Departed and La Motta in Raging Bull emulate upon their ultimate defeat, not to mention the obvious symbolism in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Scorsese’s first masterpiece, Mean Streets (1973), is the story of conflicted New York hoodlum Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and his Catholic guilt as a sinner doomed for Hell. His penance comes in the symbolic representation of Johnny Boy, his dimwitted cousin who owes money all over town. Ultimately, Charlie’s attempts to escape this immoral world are undermined by the chaos caused by Johnny Boy.

Especially interesting in the film is Charlie’s repeated use of flames to burn his finger – as if he were testing the fires of Hell to assure himself that he will be ready for his judgment day. The opening lines of Mean Streets – "You don’t pay for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." – allude to the eventual penance that Charlie must face in the form of Johnny Boy. Scorsese also prominently features one of his most infamous camera angles – the so-called Priests-Eye View, which is not quite a Birds-Eye View shot but, rather, the angle at which a priest would look down upon his sinners.

The visual aura of 1970s New York City – the filth, the scum, the crime – serves as a microcosm for the hell in which many of Scorsese’s antiheroes find themselves spiritually. Certainly used as a visual imprisonment for the hustlers and hoods of Mean Streets, New York City is even more central in the narrative of Taxi Driver (1976), where disillusioned Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle becomes obsessed with the idea of saving angelic women from the evil scum of New York. The whores, junkies, pimps and hustlers all serve as symbols of filth to Travis, and as his nights become lonelier and lonelier, his obsession grows deeper with rescuing women who don’t necessarily want to be rescued - a thematic ode by Scorsese to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956).

Taxi Driver is astounding because the film disturbingly depicts the alienation and social ineptitude of the post-Vietnam generation. When Travis goes too far – shooting down a whorehouse in an attempt to save prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) – we are shocked not only because he went there, but most importantly because we went there with him. His delusions of heroism become our delusions.

The film was only the beginning of Scorsese’s obsession with social misfits. After the release of Raging Bull, audiences complained that the antiheroes of Scorsese films were often too violent and brutal for audiences to sympathize with them. His response? The brilliant, under-seen The King of Comedy (1983), where pathetically fame-hungry Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) kidnaps late-night comedy show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). The picture is one of the darkest comedies ever made, as Pupkin's disastrous behavior is eerily similar to the anti-social quirks of Travis Bickle. The King of Comedy doesn't have any explicit violence, but it retains Scorsese's mark - the story of an outsider desperate to be a part of a particular society.

Raging Bull may be Scorsese’s greatest achievement. His idea of placing the camera inside the boxing ring – a technique thought absurd by generic boxing pictures such as Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen) – added an intensity and personal brutality that locks the audience within the blood, sweat and tears of Jake La Motta. From the astounding editing by Schoonmaker to the 1940s soundtrack of Italian favorites, this picture is widely considered one of the ten best films ever made. The ending sequence – as La Motta recites Marlon Brando’s lines from On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan) in a pathetic attempt to bring Shakespearean tragedy to his misery – is as powerful an ending as any motion picture in history.

Scorsese, however, was still generalized as a ‘male-picture’ director who could only work within the confines of an extremely violent piece of material. The antithesis to this argument was presented very early in Scorsese’s career, with his masterful Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975), which won a Best Actress Academy Award for star Ellen Burstyn. The film opens with a beautifully tinted color stock intended as an homage to the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz (1939), and features fine supporting performances from the male costars, including Kris Kristofferson and the brilliant Harvey Keitel.

The personal life of Martin Scorsese sheds a great deal of light onto his cinematic career. Diagnosed with severe asthma as a child, Scorsese was unable to participate in any athletic activities, leaving him with two sanctuaries: the Catholic Church and the local movie theater. Growing up in Little Italy, Scorsese was inspired predominantly by the Neo-Realist Italian filmmakers of the 1960s, endlessly influential in his early works as a film major at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His first feature film after countless short movies, Who’s That Knocking at my Door? (1969), was a semi-autobiographical feature on growing up in Little Italy. The film also marked Scorsese’s first collaboration with Harvey Keitel, who would later serve as Scorsese’s cinematic alter ego in Mean Streets.

After the fall of the Hollywood studio giants in the 1960s, independent-spirited renegade filmmakers like Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet revolutionized cinema in an unprecedented fashion. Because of the emergence of the American auteur, 1970s cinema remains unparalleled in the complexity and brilliance of it's films. Scorsese especially astounded audiences with his deeply personal sagas of alienated New Yorkers.

But his experimental work in the 1980s was equally compelling, dabbling in the mainstream with The Color of Money (1986), infuriating right-wing Christians with the highly controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and further exploring the mean streets of New York with After Hours (1985).

Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ presents Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) as conflicted and subject to temptation. Despite being a clear work of fiction by a devout Catholic, the film was banned in many regions for presenting Christ as human and flawed. I’d personally like to think of the film as a companion piece to Scorsese’s earlier efforts. There is an undeniable connection between characters as varied as Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta and Jesus Christ – they all fit into the imperfect antihero mold.

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese does some of his best work. The film earned him a second Best Director Academy Award nomination (his first being in 1981 for Raging Bull) and is as epically scoped as any Scorsese picture. Every gorgeous frame begging for attention and packed with imagery and symbolism (take special notice of the birds), this picture may very well be Scorsese’s best-looking film. The parallels between Judas (Harvey Keitel) and Joey La Motta (Joe Pesci) in Raging Bull are unmissable. Keitel, by the way, is riveting as Judas.

But the journey of the tortured New York soul is best defined in After Hours, where Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) has a rather existential late night in New York City. Never before had Scorsese portrayed New York in a such a bizarre fashion – Paul’s entire experience seems a bit exaggerated and hallucinatory, but that is exactly the intention. Whether viewed as a black comedy or a visually stunning nightmare, After Hours represented a slight departure from the gritty realism of other Scorsese films.

I suppose attention must be paid towards Scorsese’s brilliant, career-defining use of music in his films; no director before him had ever so brilliantly infused popular music as a sort of omnipresent narrator. Mean Streets offers many songs by The Rolling Stones (who, upon viewing Mean Streets, told Scorsese he could use their music free-of-charge for any of his future work) and The Ronettes, whose bubbly Be My Baby is the haunting opening anthem for the street epic. Raging Bull has a classically nuanced soundtrack overseen by Robbie Robertson of The Band (the subject of Scorsese’s incredible 1978 documentary The Last Waltz).

But the crowning champion of Scorsese’s musical madness is Goodfellas (1990); using over forty-two songs throughout the movie (some more than once), Scorsese keeps the tunes coming fast and furiously, most noticeably in the cocaine-fueled final day of freedom for gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), where we feel the high with echoes of Jump into the Fire by Harry Nilsson, Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters, Memo from Turner and Monkey Man by the Stones and What is Life? by George Harrison. The charged camerawork led by the rapidly-changing discography serves as a unique contrast to an earlier scene in the film, perhaps the most powerful, when Scorsese pulls off an infamous tracking shot of Henry leading Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) through the backdoors of the Copacabana, set to the tune of Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals. As the world of the underworld nightlife unfolds right before Henry’s eyes, Scorsese pumps up the volume of the music, and what results is perhaps the best scene in any Scorsese film.

I am often asked what my personal favorite Scorsese film is, and I cannot help but heap the most praise upon Goodfellas. Some claim the film is not as deeply personal as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver; in a sense, they are correct, because Goodfellas is about the gangster lifestyle more than the human psyche. But the need to be accepted into a particular society – a theme circulating throughout all of Scorsese’s work – is the dominant subject of Goodfellas; the Italian mafia takes young Henry Hill under their wing and thirty years later spits him out as an aging Mafioso. There is something very shocking about Henry’s betrayal in Goodfellas when he sells out all of his wiseguy buddies to the Witness Protection Program, but also present is a lamentation on having to leave the very circle that raised him. Scorsese comes back to this idea in The Departed, where young Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is fathered by notorious gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and yet, in a Shakespearean act of irony, assumes his identity as a moral police officer and kills Costello by the film's end.

Casino (1995) is a brilliant film, as well. Betrayal comes in the form of wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) and best friend Nicky (Pesci) for casino manager Sam Rothstein (De Niro) in another piece oddly reminiscent of Shakespeare and the Bible. Even in Scorsese’s most ambitious epics (like Casino or Goodfellas), the focus is on the personal tragedy. Take, for instance, The Aviator, which can be interpreted as either a big-budget, glamorous Hollywood homage or as a personal odyssey of self-destruction and insanity. Knowing Scorsese, I think it’s easy to finger point which one is the correct interpretation.

Critics cite the off-putting violence in Goodfellas and Casino as the detracting factor of the respective films, and yet nobody seems to acknowledge that Scorsese is merely presenting things as he sees them. In the interview Scorsese on Taxi Driver and Herrmann by Carmie Amata, Scorsese says the following: “I hate violence, I’ve never ever been in a fight, although I grew up in a very volatile area. That, by the way, is what I tried to get into Mean Streets. But as much as I hate violence, I know that it’s in me, in you, in everyone and I want to explore it. That means the small violences, too. There are a lot of small violences, too. In Taxi Driver they come through in a lot of the dialogue, like when Bobby [De Niro] and Harvey [Keitel] are talking in the doorway for the first time. They’re playing with each other when Bobby asks him about the young prostitute [Jodie Foster], but there’s a very violent undertone when they talk about doing it with girls. There’s such a degrading violence about the way those two human beings are talking about each other and about other human beings.”

Further on in the Amata interview, Scorsese states the following: “No matter what you’ve learned in terms of dramatic structure and all, you ultimately make a film on your own. No school can teach you how to make a film. In other words, you have to know who you are, or you can’t really have your film mean anything to you, or to anyone else. Knowing who you are is a major necessity, and once you’ve fulfilled that requirement, you’ve got to make a picture the best way you know how and you can’t really think in terms of how to make it palatable for everyone.”

Such a quote is an attribution to the level of personal filmmaking that Scorsese exemplifies. In an age of impersonal direction controlled by money-hungry studios, this interview harkens back to the age in which Scorsese, Coppola and Altman were in charge of the system and created profoundly moving works that worked on meaningful levels. The above quote is in specific reference to Taxi Driver, but Scorsese might
as well have been talking about his 1999 feature Bringing Out The Dead, scripted by Paul Schrader and starring Nicolas Cage in a performance that echoes De Niro’s work as Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. Appropriately, the picture is about a wanderer in the nighttime streets of New York City, EMS ambulance driver Frank (Cage) who is haunted by the ghosts of the souls he couldn’t save. Frank, a failed savior of the night, struggles to stay awake and make connections with living people. He is more successful socially than, say, Travis Bickle, but just barely. Loneliness is never better depicted than in a Scorsese-Schrader collaboration, and the triumvirate of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Bringing Out The Dead are direct proof.

Scorsese never fails to bring an added dimension to his films. Even when remaking a seemingly conventional horror film like Cape Fear (1991), he drifts into a flawed character-study analysis that is nothing short of fascinating. In Cape Fear particularly, notice the dimensions he adds to the Nick Nolte character. Who is truly the bad guy in the film? Maybe Max Cady (Robert De Niro), maybe Nolte.

I fear perhaps his most misunderstood film is his 2006 triumph The Departed, which deservedly earned Scorsese his first Best Director Academy Award after countless nominations. Yes, the picture is startling and thrilling within the terms of an engrossing thriller, but more than anything The Departed is a film about two men literally hiding themselves within false personas. It is a film about identity and the very thin line between cops and criminals, and therapists, for that matter. On a side note, the movie is second only to Goodfellas as the fastest 150 minutes ever captured on film.

Perhaps through referencing so many of his films, I can provide an answer as to why I am obsessed with Scorsese and how emotionally attached I feel to his work as an auteur. Certainly, his physical limitations and obsession with expressing oneself through film appeal to my similar case, but even more so, here is a man who talks endlessly about his ideas and seems as unconfident about his work and lifestyle today as he was in 1983.

In the appropriately titled interview Martin Scorsese: Who the Hell Wants to Make Other Pictures If You Can’t Have a Relationship with a Woman? by Roger Ebert, I find myself smiling but also nodding. “The amount of rejection in this film [The King of Comedy] is horrifying,” Scorsese says in the article. “There are scenes I almost can’t look at. There’s a scene where De Niro is told, I hate you! and he nods and responds, Oh, I see, right, you don’t want to see me again! I made the movie during a very painful period in my life. I was going through the Poor Me routine. And I’m still very lonely. Another relationship has broken up. I’m spending a lot of time by myself now. I go home and watch movies on video and stay up all night and sleep all day. If I didn’t have to work I’d sleep all the time. I’ve never had such a long period when I’ve been alone.”

Ebert asserts that Scorsese’s remark “gives an additional dimension to The King of Comedy, a movie about a man so desperately isolated that even his goals do not include a relationship with another human being.” Ebert does, however, come to the consolation that “out of his pain, however, [Scorsese] has directed some of the best films ever made about loneliness and frustration.”

Since that 1983 interview, of course, Scorsese has found further pain and further rejection, but also success and love and children. I admire the man, though, because throughout even his lowest periods he has created artwork out of his tragedy. And his tragedy has been our cinematic reward. As an aspiring artist and active social misfit, I can only hope to accomplish something beautiful out of my personal failures. Because when you combine Howard Hughes minus the aviation, Jake La Motta minus the boxing and Travis Bickle minus the homicidal vengeance, you get something like Martin Scorsese. You also get me.

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