Thursday, May 13, 2010

Just When You Thought I'd Have Nothing More To Say On Scorsese...

Note: The following piece is an essay I wrote for my fifth and final progression paper for my class Writing the Essay: Art and the World at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Thank you to my terrific professor, Ms. Olivia Birdsall.

In the climatic bloodbath of the film Taxi Driver (1976), deranged taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) enters a Manhattan whorehouse and murders three men in his attempt to save the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). After first murdering the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) on the steps of the apartment building, Travis ascends upstairs into the hellish apartment building and simultaneously descends into madness. The color in the frame is desaturated, lending a sickening, ethereal nature to the whorehouse. The rooms appear so grimy and filthy that the audience actually wants Travis to clean up the mess, despite the fact that Travis is acting on his own delusions. As an armed man shoots Travis from behind, our experience of the violence is heightened by extreme slow motion; we see the violence the same way Travis sees it. Finally, as Travis busts into the room where Iris is entertaining a client, Travis murders the client and exhaustedly collapses on the couch in the room. He puts his gun to his neck and pulls the trigger, but there aren’t any bullets left. As Travis drops the gun and lies back on the couch, bloodied and wounded and drenched in blood, the camera looks down upon him using the Priest’s Eye View angle – a camera angle more or less invented by director Martin Scorsese, the angle at which a priest would look down upon his congregation – and takes pity on Travis, a fallen antihero, in a scene that is very similar to boxer Jake La Motta’s Christ crucifixion pose upon his defeat in the boxing ring in Raging Bull (1980).

This oddly empathetic ending to Taxi Driver (1976), a film that many have deemed a dangerous and demented picture, defines the personal cinema of director Martin Scorsese, who sees deranged Vietnam veteran and New York City taxi driver Bickle not as a villain necessarily, but as a misunderstood antihero. Traditional Hollywood movies would have Travis die at the film’s end (although surely no traditional Hollywood filmmaker would tackle this subject matter). But Scorsese instead gives Travis a relatively happy ending – after the bloodbath, Travis is finally crowned as a ‘hero cabbie,’ a man who stood up against the filth and scum of the New York streets. Scorsese ends the film with a reconciliation between Travis and Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the woman that he loves but from whom he has completely alienated himself (although it should be noted that many critics and theorists debate whether the ending represents Travis’ delusions of grandeur as he lays dying or whether the ending is meant to be taken literally).

The juxtaposition of religious imagery with the scum of New York City street life should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Scorsese’s youth; raised by working-class parents in the Bowery, Scorsese was surrounded as a child by Catholicism and, before deciding to enter film school at New York University, he considered becoming a priest in the Catholic Church. His encounters with both the church and the mean street life lends itself especially well to stories of guilt-ridden antiheroes paying penance for their behavior in an urban setting. In the case of Taxi Driver, Scorsese broke completely new ground with his story of a non-traditional antihero who walks a fine line between sanity and insanity because, unlike other filmmakers, Scorsese demanded that the viewer empathize and understand things from the antihero’s point-of-view. Many filmmakers before Scorsese had made films about psychotic human beings (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho comes to mind), but no director had ever followed a delusional character so intimately and intensely as Scorsese. Scorsese’s cinema is a cinema of isolation and loneliness, films preoccupied with the mindset and behavior of God’s lonely man, as Travis Bickle refers to himself. There is nothing particularly heroic about Scorsese’s antiheroes other than that they are human beings and suffer from the human condition.

Scorsese’s preoccupations and values come through in wildly different films in very different ways. In Bringing out the Dead (1999), the story of frazzled, sleep-deprived EMS driver Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), Scorsese uses the red cross of the hospital ambulances as symbolism for a holy cross that brings a religious weight to the roles of the paramedics, and therefore every time Pierce loses a patient in the back of his ambulance, he has failed to save his fellow man. Scorsese’s breakout feature, the semi-autobiographical film Mean Streets (1973), is the story of a young hoodlum, Charlie (Keitel) in Little Italy who struggles between his loyalties to the mob and the Catholic Church. Guilt and penance play similar roles in this film as in Bringing out the Dead, as Charlie repeatedly holds his hand over open flames as punishment for his sins – he must test the fires of Hell in order to make sure that he is ready to suffer when the appropriate time comes. Other films, such as The King of Comedy (1983) and the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are primarily concerned with deranged loners and their inability to make a lasting connection, particularly with women. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Scorsese’s works are intensely autobiographical in one sense or another. In the article “You’ve Got to Love Something Enough to Kill It: The Art of Noncompromise” by Chris Hodenfield, Hodenfield remarks that “Scorsese doesn’t mind putting his personal life up on the screen,” evident from the very early stages of his career, as “his first feature, an enhanced student project called Who’s That Knocking at my Door? (1968), was about an intensely religious guy and his struggle with a more worldly girlfriend” (48). Only fifteen years after Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, Scorsese directed the unsettling feature The King of Comedy, a film billed as a dark comedy, but in many ways actually a commentary on Scorsese’s failed relationships with people in general. In the 1983 interview “Martin Scorsese: Who the Hell Wants to Make Other Pictures If You Can’t Have a Relationship with a Woman?” by Roger Ebert, Scorsese observes that “the amount of rejection in [The King of Comedy] is horrifying” and that the movie was made “during a very painful period in [his] life” (56). Scorsese elaborates that “[he] was going through the Poor Me routine” while shooting the movie and now, upon its completion, “there are scenes [he] almost can’t look at” because of their extremely personal nature (56). 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,” an observation that holds equally true for Taxi Driver.

But Scorsese is a not merely a unique filmmaker because his movies are often preoccupied with his personal demons (guilt, loneliness, isolation and religious penance); rather, his aesthetic innovations that allow his films to resemble the landscape of the human mind are his most noteworthy achievement. Scorsese has an innate ability to approach tough subject matter and off-putting characters that most traditional filmmakers would villainize and, rather than taking the easy way out, grant his audience an unique perspective and understanding into the minds of his morally reprehensible characters through deliberate camera techniques and aesthetic decisions.

There is a scene in Raging Bull that reveals more about both Jake La Motta and Scorsese than any other scene in the film. La Motta (De Niro), on a losing streak, enters the boxing ring for his final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson (Scorsese refers to this scene as the most horrifying scene in the movie). At this point in the film, his state of mind is in a downward spiral of jealousy – he is convinced that his wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), is cheating on him, and his animalistic behavior has alienated him from everyone he knows, including his best friend and brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Scorsese sets the match in a much larger boxing ring than many of the previous fights, in order to indicate the anxiety and anguish of our antihero and his inability to take control of his destiny. Smoke spreads across the ring, clouding La Motta’s vision and creating a foggy and uncertain atmosphere. La Motta knows, and we know, that he is going down in this fight. And as La Motta is brutally beaten and pummeled in the fight, Scorsese uses several sound cues to heighten the scene’s intensity (and I’m not just talking about the use of melons cracking substituting for the sound of actual punches). At one point in the fight, there are actual sounds of elephants and wild animals roaring and snarling at each other in order to accentuate the raw, animalistic qualities of the boxing. In the background, flashes of light bulbs recall the sound of machine-gun fire, further wounding our antihero in his last major fight.

But most importantly, Scorsese uses disturbing visual imagery late in the scene as Sugar Ray is pummeling La Motta repeatedly. Never falling down, La Motta hangs onto the ropes of the ring, his position recalling the image of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross. Scorsese’s obsession with Catholic repentance is apparent as we see Jake paying penance for his sins, not necessarily because he knows he has destroyed every meaningful relationship in his life, but rather because his self-hatred has consumed him. As he hangs from the ropes, defeated and broken, he shouts at Sugar Ray, “You never got me down, Ray.” Blood pouring from every pore of his face, La Motta is still standing, defiantly and pathetically, consumed by self-hatred but refusing to admit defeat. Scorsese looks down at him from his famous Priests-Eye View, and asks us not to like, but perhaps pity and even understand this violent, raging human being.

Scorsese uses these innovative aesthetic techniques to literally get inside the head of his leading characters because the ‘heroes’ of his films are so conflicted, flawed or sometimes outright unlikable (Raging Bull) or psychotic (Taxi Driver) that without literally putting the audience inside the mind of the character, we might not otherwise be willing to watch this particular antihero. Watching any of these men from afar would be extremely painful, but by placing the audience inside their heads, we understand the psychology behind why they do what they do, even if we end up disagreeing morally with their behavior. That is the key to Scorsese’s films – he doesn’t ask us to like Jake La Motta or Travis Bickle, but he does put the audience in a position where we can see how their mind works.

However, Scorsese is sometimes forced to provide some outside commentary on these semi-deranged characters, as a film completely from their point-of-view would somewhat limit the impact of their socially unacceptable actions. One of the most fascinating stylistic choices in Taxi Driver is Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader’s decision to frame the entire movie within the mind and perspective of Travis, with the exception of two very important scenes. That the actors loosely improvised the two scenes that do not feature Travis points to the fact that it was Scorsese, not Schrader, who wished to show scenes taking place outside of Travis’ mind. The first scene involves Betsy and Tom (Albert Brooks) flirting and chatting in Charles Palantine’s campaign office. The second scene shows twelve year-old prostitute Iris and her pimp Sport slow dancing and enjoying each other’s company in the whorehouse. These two scenes focus on the interaction, more or less, between normal couples, or at the very least couples that are comfortable with one another. This interaction is sharply contrasted by Travis’ awkward and socially unacceptable behavior that results in his inability to form a lasting connection with anybody. With this in mind, it seems that Scorsese somewhat concedes his vision of living inside Travis Bickle’s mind. By giving the audience an outside view of normal, functioning men and women (to some degree, anyway), Scorsese is asking us to contrast Travis’ interactions with Betsy and Iris with their interaction with other males. This is an example of Scorsese as storyteller providing the audience with a necessary juxtaposition that might not be apparent if the story were only to take place from Travis’ point-of-view. Although Scorsese is first and foremost determined to give the audience the experience of living inside Travis Bickle’s head, he sometimes has to step back and give in to standard narrative storytelling in order for us to understand the outside implications of Travis’ behavior.

Given that Scorsese’s films are so immensely personal and raw, it is important to consider his more commercial efforts and their relationship to the rest of the Scorsese canon. Although Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are two of the better-known Scorsese films (the movies that are most closely associated with the name Martin Scorsese), these films were not massive commercial successes at the box-office when first released. Scorsese has reached box-office and populist gold, however, with his “genre” films – the movies he has made with large budgets for major studios that, for the most part, speak to a larger audience than Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. These pictures include Cape Fear (1991), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010), each of which was marketed successfully into a specific genre category – thriller, biopic, gangster and horror. Because Scorsese’s more personal films are not immediately as popular as these “genre” films, the question begs, does Scorsese compromise his artistic vision for these significantly more commercial films?

In order to properly answer this question, I will look at Scorsese’s latest film, the immensely popular Shutter Island. The movie opens in 1954 as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) steadily approaches an island off the coast of Massachusetts known as Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Once on the island, Daniels investigates the disappearance of one of the island’s patients while simultaneously attempting to uncover the mystery behind the menacing institution itself. On paper, the material sounds generic enough; however, the ‘twist’ of Shutter Island is that Teddy himself is actually a patient on the island, and, rather than reckon with the fact that he murdered his wife after she drowned their three children, he spins elaborate detective mysteries in his head as a means of avoiding guilt. With this in mind, Shutter Island is actually an incredibly appropriate entry in the Scorsese canon – it’s a film about an alienated, insane man haunted by his past and an exploration of an emotionally disturbed human psyche, deceptively disguised as a run-of-the-mill horror film. In this sense, Scorsese does not compromise his vision at all for the sake of mainstream audiences – he simply uses the guise of a popular genre to further explore his obsessions and preoccupations. Shutter Island is an unlikely companion piece, then, to Raging Bull and Mean Streets, as all three films revolve around men who, unable to cope with an overwhelming guilt, force themselves into ritualistic behavior that frees them from their guilt but also traps them in a heightened state of insanity.

That Scorsese’s obsessions consume any work that he creates – be it a genre movie intended for the masses or an intensely personal and autobiographical story – indicates that Scorsese has a need to creatively manifest his inner demons into his work, almost as a means of emotional survival. As Hodenfield observes in his article, Scorsese’s immediate aesthetic goal in any particular scene is to “create an intensity on screen that matches what he perceives/ suffers in real life” (48). The implication in this article is that Scorsese can only communicate through film, as his communicative and social skills, while perhaps not as brazenly unacceptable as the behavior of Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, are not sufficient means through which he can express himself and, most importantly, allow other people to understand him. As Ebert notes, Scorsese oftentimes finds himself so desperately alone and unable to make a lasting connection with another human being that he retreats to his studio and pours his loneliness into the only friend that has consistently comforted him from the very beginning – the medium of film. Scorsese’s movies, then, can be viewed as stories about men who aren’t lucky enough to have the medium of film at their immediate disposal through which they can channel their isolation and torment, instead of resorting to animalistic behavior.

The artistic process is commonly referred to as a form of therapy for the artist and creator, but for Scorsese, it’s something even more intense. In fact, his artistic process is not that much different from the ritualistic behavior of Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island. You’d think that after forty years of making movies, Scorsese would allow himself to take a break every once in a while, but, as Shutter Island proves, he is still out there, obsessively retelling his story in new and different ways, furiously searching for an answer that may only exist in the films themselves.

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