Scorsese, Martin (Vol. 20)
Martin Scorsese 1942–
American director, screenwriter, and actor.
Scorsese's work is considered among the most impressive of the young filmmakers who emerged in the seventies. His bleak, unrelenting vision of life, death, and the struggle for redemption has gained for him a large following. Scorsese's films are personal pieces through which the audience sees the importance on the filmmaker of his Catholic upbringing and his young life in the "Little Italy" area of Manhattan.
At one time, Scorsese considered preparing for the priesthood. Instead, he enrolled at New York University and began making short films. Among these films is The Big Shave, which attracted the attention of a sponsor in Europe. Scorsese then directed commercials for English television, and in 1969 returned to the United States to work as an editor on Woodstock. During this period Scorsese also completed his first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door?, which contains many elements found in his recent work, including Catholic iconography, conflicts between male protagonists, and the determined, self-destructive young hero.
Scorsese's first critical success was Mean Streets, which sets the tone for much of his future work. Perhaps Scorsese's most personal endeavor, the film is full of manic energy, conflict, tension, and street life, and the sympathetic, misguided characters seek redemption in a world in which they are already doomed. These same themes are handled with even less optimism in Taxi Driver, Scorsese's most highly regarded film. Taxi Driver advances the notion that purgation is possible only through death, and the violence of the street-wise hero, Travis Bickle, is felt to be among the most obsessional and disturbing depictions ever put on film.
Scorsese has complemented his true-to-life fiction by filming documentaries. Italianamerican is a thoughtful, loving portrait of Scorsese's parents, who discuss how they have been influenced by their Italian immigrant parents. Similarly, in The Last Waltz, Scorsese intercuts footage of The Band's last concert with interviews concerning the group's sixteen years on the road. In both of these films, while Scorsese recreates a time that seems more innocent, more romantic, he dulls the mythical gloss and shows the difficulties encountered by each group of people.
New York, New York is an attempt to recreate the musicals of the 1940s. It is soft, romantic, and encompasses a vast stage. In comparison, Raging Bull is a biography of boxer Jake La Motta which portrays the violent world of boxing as being indistinct from La Motta's view of society. Raging Bull is hard and constricted, and the camerawork is similar to that in Mean Streets—jarring and bouncy, with the camera seemingly becoming one of the fighters in the ring. The violence, language, and La Motta's attempts to redeem himself also echo Scorsese's earlier work. Although some critics have complained that Scorsese has dealt with these themes too often in his films, most agree that the unexorcised demon within Scorsese has allowed him to create films which are engrossing and meaningful to filmmaker and audience alike.
J. R., the troubled hero of Martin Scorsese's first feature film, "Who's That Knocking at My Door?", is the sort of young man who, in a total confusion of values, can one minute offer to "forgive" the girl he loves for having been forcibly raped, and the next minute accuse her of being a whore. Puritan Roman Catholicism, the kind that bedeviled Stephen Dedalus and Studs Lonigan, is alive and ill and in the movies….
[Scorsese] has composed a fluid, technically proficient movie, more intense and sincere than most commercial releases.
It is apparent that the Italian-American milieu is a first-hand experience, but the vision Scorsese has made from it is detailed in the kind of...
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[Who's That Knocking at My Door? explores] the hermetic environments of working-class post-immigrant American society…. Knocking's Italian-America [is a social structure] in which the isolation of imported nationalism and Roman Catholicism collides with dreary urban or industrial town living to produce characters somewhat dislocated in time and place. [The film doesn't seem] quite up to date…. A world where guys still wear white shirts and grey suits to a party … becomes a world stable enough so that plot premises like … Knocking's Italo-Catholic obsessions with virgin brides become acceptable because no alternative forms of behavior are even suggested. If the results are somewhat...
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Watching "Street Scenes 1970" was a tingling, often riveting experience. This documentary was put together from footage taken during the turbulent demonstrations on Wall Street last May and in other parts of town and finally in Washington at the antiwar rally….
As a fast-flying, naturally piecemeal assemblage of tense events, often exploding violently and shot through with marvelously revealing human vignettes and testimonies, the final picture, supervised by Martin Scorsese, is admirable on two counts, especially.
One is the frightening vitality of actuality as recorded on raw film, especially in the churning chaos of the earlier Wall Street portion. The other is the balanced,...
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Mean Streets, the most original American movie of the year, doesn't just explode—it erupts with volcanic force. It is a shocking, jolting, even pulverizing view of "Desolation Row," the claustrophobic, small-time petty Mafia world that is Martin Scorsese's vision of New York's Little Italy. In this semi-feudal empire, the random and the ritual, sacred and profane, and sane and insane are in perpetual conflict—and Scorsese shows us the turmoil bubbling beneath the society's surfaces just as he knows it, without a trace of Hollywood glamorizing, demystifying Italian criminal life even as he personalizes it….
Scorsese integrates realism, stylized elements, symbolism, surrealism and other...
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Martin Scorsese grew up in New York's Little Italy and has made a film about his home neighborhood. This personal impulse, which would not exactly be hot news in any other art, is so unusual in American film that it has already knocked some people sideways…. [Scorsese] has made a previous feature set in lower Manhattan, Who's That Knocking at My Door? His new picture Mean Streets is very much better—more intense, better integrated. Nevertheless its intensity is often theatrical in the wrong way, it's both lumpy and discursive, and it ends up as only a fairly bright promissory note. (p. 229)
I think we're supposed to feel that the plot is not the point, that the film exists for its...
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[Mean Streets is certainly] a 'little' New York film …, with no stars and not much variety or glamour in the settings—in some respects the movie is the culmination of the lonely-streets-and-sullen-bedrooms style of student films produced in the last decade…. But emotionally, Mean Streets is grandiose and amazingly intense—'operatic' … in the manner of mid-Visconti, yet peculiarly American in its speed, energy, obscenity and humour. And Scorsese is no sweet little talent, but a large, dangerous and deeply flawed talent….
As Scorsese introduces his people in short, character-revealing vignettes, for one dismaying moment you might think he was making a conventional 'wacky'...
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My expectations of [Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More] were based mainly on Scorsese's previous feature, Mean Streets. Though "widely acclaimed," as the ads say, this left me cold. Oh yes, I admired the efficiency of its making. Dark, glinting interiors, edgy dialogue, strategic bursts of action, long takes with the camera immobile or slowly prowling like a hit man waiting to strike—sure, Scorsese knew what he wanted to put on the screen and how to get it there. You can see this ability taking shape in his short student films: the satirical It's Not Just You, Murray skips nimbly through space and time while the simple joke of The Big Shave comes out in a linear crescendo. Scorsese is not...
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Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More is a [slick] Hollywood comedy, taken from [an] artificial, highly structured script by Robert Getchell. However, since it was directed by Martin Scorsese, the talented dynamo who made Mean Streets, the film has a raw energy that shatters some of the script's contrivances…. Alice Graham is a survivor, a woman with an enterprising spirit and a resilient sense of humor. (p. 415)
[But] Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More cannot be taken very seriously as a study of a contemporary woman…. [The] heroine's limited potential radically limits the scope of the film. At first Alice seems determined to make it on her own, but in the end, after a few crummy...
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[Taxi Driver] is, in part, a film about films. But it is unusual in being expressive of, and simultaneously about, a particular kind of film, which might be called "the pornography of violence." Through the windshield of Travis Bickle's cab, the audience sees the repeated image of movie marquees. Through most of the film, these marquees advertise erotic films, displaying titles like "Swedish Marriage Manual" or "Anita Nymphet." But after the film's bloody catharsis, and subsequent apotheosis of Travis, as a vigilante hero, the surrealistic street scene behind the closing credits reveals marquees, which contain the following camera-selected fragments, "Charles Bronson," "Mafia," "Blood," and "Killer." Although...
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Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver has to be one of the most disturbing films ever made. Working with the metaphor of the city as sewer, Scorsese catches the sin-stained sensations of New York's teeming streets, where prostitutes, pimps and pushers parade under the scrutiny of Travis Bickle, the cruising cab driver who is a kind of contemporary Quixote. For Travis …, the city is a pile of filth that someone ought to clean up….
Make no mistake about it: … the extraordinary talent of Scorsese is evident again and again. In the past critics have wondered if the young director's gifts were limited; even though his Mean Streets (1973) was widely acclaimed, this depiction of young hoodlums...
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Taxi Driver is a remarkable achievement, a crazy, excessive, erratic masterpiece, but a masterpiece just the same. Scorsese has always interested me as a director, but he has also always annoyed me with his seeming inability to impose a cohesive structure upon his films. One of his chief weaknesses has been his tendency to play too many scenes at fever pitch. The absence of variation in the tone of Mean Streets and particularly Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore irrevocably undercut the genuine climaxes of both films. In Taxi Driver, confronted with volatile material which would readily lend itself to a similar treatment, Scorsese has wisely chosen the opposite tactic. He builds the film...
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[Calculated] evasion is typical not only of [Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More], but of a disconcerting number of American items in which an alleged social inquest is taking place with sub-social witnesses whom we're supposed to take on trust as reliable emblems of the human lot. Alice is a boring nobody trying to become a boring somebody, with a minimum of qualifications for being anybody, a peculiar addiction to putrid language and, as extra baggage, [a] monstrous little hostage….
What in the name of God constitutes a viable problem in this bogus history? A suburban housewife, unexpectedly widowed at a ripe age, discovers—or in fact does not discover—that she's insufficiently equipped...
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The opening shot of Taxi Driver plays probably the most seductive of trumps in the recent craze for power totems that has overtaken the American screen…. Out of a cloud of steam gushing over a New York street, a yellow cab floats majestically, mysteriously forward, its foreboding trajectory paced to the growling thunder of [the] score, its surface awash with abstract patterns of neon light. The powerful physicality of the image, and the state of extreme dislocation which it conveys, are the key to a kind of muscle-flexing sense of paradox on many levels: the film is about the soul sickness of urban alienation, played out … as a series of extrovert power plays involving American myths of gunmanship and Ideal...
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Scorsese's first feature was premiered at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967 under the title of I Call First. To increase the film's chances of distribution, Scorsese was persuaded to shoot a nude fantasy scene, and with this sequence added, I Call First was released and the title later changed to Who's That Knocking at My Door. Although at first glance this added sequence seems to dovetail quite neatly into the film, it is in fact almost disastrously disruptive for two reasons. First, it suggests that J. R.'s problem is that he wants to screw girls but can't because of his Catholic brainwashing, whereas Scorsese is really making a subtler point about the broads that can be screwed and the virgins...
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[There are ritualized conceits in] "New York, New York," Martin Scorsese's elaborate, ponderous salute to Hollywood movies of the 1940's and early 50's in the form of a backstage musical of the period. (p. 70)
The big-band sounds are right, as are the sets and costumes and especially the movie conventions. "New York, New York" knowingly embraces a narrative line as formal and strict in its way as the shape of a sonnet. Even the sets are meant to look like back-lot sets, not the real world….
Yet, after one has appreciated the scholarship for about an hour or so … one begins to wonder what Mr. Scorsese and his writers are up to. "New York, New York" is not a "parody," but the...
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New York, New York looks at first glance like a tolerably successful pastiche, full of wayward longueurs that perversely assert themselves as being among its major pleasures. On reflection, one realises that Scorsese has simply inverted the basic premises of the musical, a move that requires a certain adjustment in the spectator. The protracted opening sequence (after a brief evocation of the V-J Day celebrations in Times Square), for instance, is entirely concerned with Jimmy Doyle's tortuously ingenious attempts, after seeing his pick-up routine rejected by two other girls, to deny Francine the privilege of saying no. Linguistically and dramatically speaking, it should outstay its welcome; but the peculiar...
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If there is one central paradox to Martin Scorsese's movies, it must be their knack for harnessing a single-minded intensity of purpose to an instinct for charging off in a variety of directions. Such contradictory energy is also what makes his protagonists run; and on his home ground, in a Little Italy suffused with the pain of ruling passions running up blind alleys in Mean Streets, Scorsese is the peerless spokesman for a world where hell-raising is the only escape from some hell-bent obsession of temperament or ambition.
But, as indicated by the hesitant sketch of Who's That Knocking at My Door and the sterile steel trap of Taxi Driver—the before and after of Mean...
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[Given The Last Waltz's] title and subject, and Scorsese's tendency to work in an apocalyptic register, an air of Götterdämmerung hangs over The Last Waltz. This is the end of an era in popular music, one apostrophised finally by [Robbie] Robertson when he marvels that he and The Band have spent sixteen years on the road, quails before the prospect of pushing their luck any further, and then enumerates the performers, from Hank Williams through Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley, who have given their lives to the tradition. But more than this, the film is a collage of two decades of beginnings and endings, a two-hour whistle stop tour across the map of pop music, its sense of the history of its...
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[Italianamerican] is funny and touching. It's richer than a less personal documentary would have been, supplementing well [Scorsese's] hallucinated depiction of the mean streets outside.
In a sense, Italianamerican … is a home movie in reverse, with the grown child turning the camera on parents or parental figures. But Scorsese is fortunate: his progenitors are a delight. Prompted by his jumpy, occasionally bemused, presence at the edge of the frame, they recount their own parents' tales of the old country, show Instamatics … made during a trip back there, and detail their childhoods on the mythic Lower East Side….
The film is interspersed with family photographs...
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The Last Waltz was not just work; it was a special kind of anchor. [Marty Scorsese's] love affair with rock and roll, his commitment to music as a form, is at least as deep and abiding as his love and commitment to film. He has always used music in his films, knowing just what the kid would listen to in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, manipulating the track of Taxi Driver with disc-jockey ease. The cultural conflict in Mean Streets is most directly expressed as a war between two styles of music, Italian and rock….
The Last Waltz was conceived as "an opera."… If Scorsese's fiction films have musical structure, then The Last Waltz, with its...
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None of the new filmmakers has created as strong a public persona as Martin Scorsese. Hunted, haunted, asthmatic, diminutive, darkly bearded, a victim of religious nightmares, a mass of raging anxieties, Scorsese as we know him from interviews and photographs makes Paul Schrader, his only rival in film-noir paranoia, look by comparison like a happily adjusted Midwestern businessman. In fact, Scorsese's real success is to have made films at all. Each new project brings with it a baggage of stories about the director's agonies. The movies—even the ones with relatively pleasant atmospheres—seem rooted in this pain.
Perhaps this suffering need not be in vain: within Scorsese there may lie an...
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The violence in Raging Bull is ghastly and overdone. A nose crunches, broken for us to hear close up; copious amounts of blood gush out of orifices and gashes, drenching the ringside swells. To what purpose? There are, it seems to me, three possible motives for such displays of brutality. First, the obvious one: to exploit the worst in boxing and in us. Second, the reverse: to expose this barbaric exercise, drum up the reformers and hasten its abolition from the 20th century. Or third: as a dramatic device to inform us about the characters.
Alas, in Raging Bull, the spectacle of exaggerated violence is put to no use whatsoever. It is introduced in the same way the director of a skin...
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Seeing Martin Scorsese's [Raging Bull] is like visiting a human zoo. That's certainly not to say that it's dull: good zoos are not dull. But the life we watch is stripped to elemental drives, with just enough décor of complexity—especially the heraldry of Catholicism—to underscore how elemental it basically is.
Scorsese specializes in the primitive aspects of urban life, with an emphasis on the colors and conflicts of Italian-Americans. American films have developed a latter-day line in this vein…. Most Italian-Americans may very understandably be tired of this canted concentration on gutter and crime, but they had better brace themselves: because here it is again and—which may...
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At first, we may think that we're going to find out what makes Jake La Motta's life special and why ["Raging Bull" has been] made about him. But as the picture dives in and out of La Motta's life, with a few minutes of each of his big fights …, it becomes clear that Scorsese isn't concerned with how La Motta got where he did, or what, specifically, happened to him. Scorsese gives us exact details of the Bronx Italian neighborhoods of the forties—everything is sharp, realistic, lived-in. But he doesn't give us specific insights into La Motta….
"Raging Bull" isn't a biographical film about a fighter's rise and fall; it's a biography of the genre of prizefight films. Scorsese loves the visual...
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[Scorsese] does not create narratives that are easily assimilable. The formal structure of his work is never completely at the service of the viewer or of the story it is creating. There is an unashamed self-consciousness in his work and a sense of kinetic energy that sometimes threatens to overtake both viewer and story, but always provides a commentary upon the viewer's experience and prevents him or her from easily slipping into a series of narrative events. (pp. 207-08)
Scorsese is interested in the psychological manifestations of individuals who are representative either of a class or of a certain ideological grouping; he is concerned with their relationships to each other or to an antagonistic...
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Not since the beginnings of [Akira] Kurosawa have we seen such nervous authority. From [Martin Scorsese's] earliest films he started a dialogue with the audience compelling them to take part. Together with Robert De Niro he has invented a new film language. (p. 1)
[Scorsese and De Niro] are using a film language that dares the audience to stay ahead of them. It's the greatest compliment a filmmaker can pay to his audience; and we appreciate it. Half the time we yawn our heads off, as the film director underlines some point we found out for ourselves ten minutes ago. Scorsese-De Niro is a different ball game. Visual and verbal points are made with rapier-like touches. A word creates an image, an image...
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Scorsese, Martin (Vol. 89)
Martin Scorsese 1942–
American filmmaker, screenwriter, and actor.
The following entry provides an overview of Scorsese's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Of the American filmmakers who gained prominence in the early 1970s—notably Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—Scorsese is widely considered the most consistently successful on artistic grounds. Many critics argue that such films as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1981), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990) examine American culture and the nature of masculinity by reworking the conventions of classic film genres. Scorsese's films also reveal an autobiographical concern with religious issues and with his Italian-American ethnic heritage.
Scorsese was born and raised in predominantly Italian neighborhoods in New York City. The early onset of asthma limited the time he could spend with his friends, and the resulting isolation encouraged his introspective temperament and the indulgence of his love for movies. Brought up with strong religious convictions, Scorsese believed for most of his childhood that he would become a priest. He was expelled from a junior seminary, however, and later failed the entrance examination to the divinity school at Fordham College. In 1960 he enrolled at New York University and began his formal study of film. Under the guidance of professor Haig Manoogian, his mentor and the man to whom Raging Bull is dedicated, Scorsese made two award-winning short films, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) and It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964). After graduating with a Master's degree in 1966, Scorsese worked for several years as an editor and director in British and American television. In 1968 he returned to NYU to teach classes in American film history. During this time he extensively reworked one of his undergraduate films, variously known as "Bring On the Dancing Girls" and "I Call First." With the addition of newly filmed scenes, including a nude sex scene demanded by the film's distributor, the new version was commercially released in 1969 as Who's That Knocking at My Door? The film features Harvey Keitel in the lead role and was photographed by Michael Wadleigh, director of the documentary Woodstock (1970), which Scorsese helped to record and edit. After Woodstock he made his own documentary, Street Scenes (1970), and then directed Boxcar Bertha (1972) for independent producer Roger Corman. This quickly-made film about Depression-era bank robbers, based as much on the exploits of actual persons as on Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was a modest commercial and critical success, and it allowed Scorsese to make Mean Streets (1973), a film with themes of greater personal significance to him. Mean Streets is noteworthy both as Scorsese's first major work and as his first featuring Robert De Niro, who has appeared in nearly all of Scorsese's major films. After making a documentary called Italian-American (1974), in which he interviews his parents about their lives as immigrants in New York City, Scorsese was asked by actress Ellen Burstyn to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975); the film was very popular with audiences—Burstyn won an Academy Award for her performance—and Scorsese became known to Hollywood producers as a dependable, "bankable" director. His subsequent career—including the financial failure of his downbeat homage to the musicals of the 1940s entitled New York, New York (1977), the controversy stirred by The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Age of Innocence (1993), his adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel—has been marked by increased critical esteem and much commercial success. Additionally, Scorsese has been an active supporter of efforts to safeguard classic American films, promoting the preservation of old or otherwise deteriorating films by transferring them to stable film stock, and preventing, by official government recognition, the alteration of classic films through colorization, frame-size reduction, and time compression—processes usually associated with the commercial interests of television.
Mean Streets was originally conceived as the third installment in a trilogy of films. The first film, tentatively titled "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," was never made, but elements from it were incorporated into Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets. Mean Streets concerns a young Little Italy hoodlum named Charley, played by Harvey Keitel, who has delusions of saintliness. The fragmentary, digressive narrative presents scenes that convey the essence and rhythm of Charley's life—hanging out with street-corner toughs and small-time mobsters, getting into fights, drinking, picking up "broads," sleeping with his girlfriend Teresa, and confessing his sins in church. The emerging plot involves Charley's attempt to establish a career in the Mafia through his mobster uncle, Giovanni, while he also tries to educate and protect Teresa's cousin Johnny Boy, played by De Niro as a dimwitted, free-spirited, and possibly psychotic loner who repeatedly antagonizes the local loan shark, Michael. The film reflects Scorsese's affection for and sociological fascination with New York—specifically its underworld and the Italian-Americans who live on its periphery—and inaugurates, in his major films, the exploration of his contradictory feelings toward the Catholic Church and his thematic interest in the notion of redemption. Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Schrader expand on this latter theme in Taxi Driver, in which a psychotic cabbie named Travis Bickle, disgusted by all the varieties of crime and pollution he sees, becomes fixated on the redemptive potential of violence. With a hallucinatory, hyper-realistic style—produced by such techniques as the expressionistic use of shadowy low-key lighting saturated with primary colors, unmotivated camera movement, and an eerie musical score—the film follows Travis on his nocturnal journeys through the roughest areas of the city and chronicles the mental disintegration that occurs as he focuses and tries to express his rage. Travis befriends a child prostitute named Iris, and, after an aborted, halfhearted attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate, rescues her—in the film's climactic bloodbath—from her sordid life. Scorsese's next film, New York, New York, features De Niro as an egotistical saxophone player and Liza Minelli as a talented band singer and actress, a character bearing many similarities to Minelli's actual mother, Judy Garland. Portraying the rise and fall of their relationship in the style of a 1940s backstage Hollywood musical, the film, consistent with the genre, includes several elaborate production numbers and many Big Band-era songs. Unlike the films that inspired it, however, New York, New York offers a penetrating study of repressed male violence and a decidedly downbeat ending. Raging Bull elaborates on the theme of male violence and repressed sexuality and, like New York, New York, plays against the expectations of its putative genre. Although it is based on the autobiography of boxer Jake La Motta, the film does not attempt to explain its main character, again played by De Niro. Rather, the film focuses on La Motta's relationship with his wife Vickie, whom he loves but abuses and suspects of infidelity, and with his brother Joey, whom he loves but for whom he also possesses intense feelings he can express only as rage. The film is a portrait of La Motta's primitive emotional life and his need for the violence of the ring, both as an outlet for his inchoate, barely controlled desires and as a means to redeem himself through extreme physical punishment. The King of Comedy has been described as both an essay on the emptiness of pop culture and a Freudian critique of patriarchal society. Rupert Pupkin, an untalented, nebbishy autograph-seeker who dreams of fame as a comedian on late night talk shows, kidnaps Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like host, and blackmails his producers into letting him perform a monologue on the show. Played by De Niro, Pupkin is portrayed as a desperate, delusional, potentially violent character whose only talent is for ignoring those who would dissuade him; Scorsese's critique of pop culture fame lies in the fact that Pupkin ultimately succeeds. Seeing Langford as a symbolic father—with Pupkin and his friend and accomplice Masha as "children" in an oedipal triangle—film scholar Robin Wood has described The King of Comedy as "one of the most rigorous assaults we have on the structures of the patriarchal nuclear family and the impossible desires, fantasies, frustrations, and violence those structures generate." The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, tells the story of Jesus in straight-forward, realistic detail. The film's main variation on the Biblical story is to suggest that, as he died on the cross, Jesus imagined what his life would have been like if he rejected his role as savior; the film presents a dream sequence in which Jesus lives and raises a family with Mary Magdalene. That he is shown to reject this imagined retreat into humanity and to embrace his fate as the son of God did not, in the eyes of many Christian fundamentalists, compensate for the film's presumed irreverence. Goodfellas is based on Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy (1985), which presents the life story of Henry Hill, an Irish-Italian thief and loan shark with close ties to the New York Mafia. The film dramatizes many events from the book, including the notorious "Lufthansa heist" of the late 1970s, during which millions of dollars were stolen from a New York airport. Similar to Mean Streets in its evocation of time, place, and character, Goodfellas has been noted for its innovative use of such techniques as voice-over narration by more than one character, freeze-frames, slow motion, and the use of popular songs.
Scorsese is widely considered one of the most important filmmakers in the United States. Critics argue that in his best films—incisive portraits of modern life that examine the dynamics of intimate, destructive relationships—Scorsese challenges audience expectations by manipulating genre conventions. For example, commentators have noted that while Taxi Driver is realistic in many details, it employs a number of highly stylized elements from familiar Hollywood genres; notably, the film's expressionistic lighting and music, as well as its attempt—through camera movement, set design, and other aspects of the mise-en-scène—to visually manifest the central character's madness, can be seen as influences from 1930s horror movies; similarly, critics have argued that Taxi Driver reworks, somewhat grotesquely, the Western's trademark theme of the loner-hero, adrift in hostile territory, who must save the innocent woman from the clutches of "savages." Robin Wood has written that Scorsese's work involves a "drastic re-thinking of the Hollywood genres, either combining them in such a way as to foreground their contradictions … or disconcertingly reversing the expectations they traditionally arouse." This latter strategy, it is argued, accounts for the uniqueness of such films as New York, New York and Raging Bull, where the former subverts the happy, rags-to-riches formula of the 1940s backstage musical by charting the personal and professional misfortunes of two musicians; and the latter, with its circumspect time frame and lack of biographical information and analysis of motivation, offers a depiction of paranoid physical and emotional violence in place of the standard biopic overview of a life and career. Ironically, these aspects of Scorsese's films have also been used in arguments against the value of his work, with critics suggesting that the clash of genres, or their "incomplete" rendering, is a manifestation of his confusion and misunderstanding of his subject matter. Scorsese has also been accused of lacking a sense of narrative structure; some critics fault such films as Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas for being confusing and blame their digressive, nonlinear, vignette-laden narratives for inhibiting viewer identification. Perhaps the most stinging criticism leveled against Scorsese and his films has to do with a presumed relationship between the views of his characters and his own beliefs. While some critics have faulted Scorsese for glorifying the macho ethos and racist attitudes of many of his characters, most argue that it would be disingenuous to portray such individuals in anything but their full ugliness. Wood concludes that "Scorsese is perhaps the only Hollywood director of consequence who has succeeded in sustaining the radical critique of American culture that developed in the 1970s through the Reagan era of retrenchment and recuperation. Scorsese probes the tensions within and between individuals until they reveal their fundamental, cultural nature."
What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (film) (1963)
It's Not Just You, Murray! [with Mardik Martin] (film) (1964)
The Big Shave (film) (1967)
†Who's That Knocking at My Door? (film) (1969)
Street Scenes (documentary film) (1970)
Boxcar Bertha [with Joyce H. Corrington and John William Corrington; based on the autobiography Sister of the Road by Bertha Thompson and Ben L. Reitman] (film) (1972)
Mean Streets [with Martin] (film) (1973)
Italian-American (documentary film) (1974)
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore [with Robert Getchell] (film) (1975)
Taxi Driver [with Paul...
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SOURCE: A review of Who's That Knocking at My Door?, in The New York Times, September 9, 1969, p. 39.
[Canby, long associated with The New York Times, is one of the most distinguished American film and theater critics. In the following review, a portion of which appeared in CLC-20, he praises Scorsese's eye for realistic detail, but faults him for not displaying a more sophisticated understanding of the world than that possessed by his characters.]
J. R. (Harvey Keitel), a young, essentially decent Italian-American, has grown up in a comfortable New York City apartment that is protected by his mother, lit by holy candles and sanctified by china...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Boxcar Bertha, in The New York Times, August 18, 1972, p. 19.
[In the following excerpt, Thompson suggests that Boxcar Bertha—though a B-movie rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—is a surprisingly good film.]
Of the new circuit doublebill, the one to catch is Boxcar Bertha, emphatically not 1,000 Convicts and a Woman. Yes, Boxcar Bertha, believe it or not. Here is an interesting surprise.
Set in the South and Southwest of the Depression years, with old-time clothes and cars, this is the drama of two derelict criminals and sweet-hearts who finally meet a horrible doom. Does that sound...
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SOURCE: "Season's End," in Commentary, Vol. 57, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 54-8.
[In the following excerpt, Pechter qualifies his praise for Mean Streets by stressing what he considers the limitations of improvisational acting and Scorsese's consequent failure to establish a narrative structure.]
[Mean Streets] begins so beautifully and with such confident control (via a series of vignettes introducing the principal characters) that it establishes a level it cannot itself live up to, and barely ten minutes after it has begun one is aware (during a protracted and at least partly improvised dialogue about some borrowed money which takes place between two of...
(The entire section is 943 words.)
SOURCE: "Heroines and Their Hairdresser," in Commentary, Vol. 59, No. 5, May, 1975, pp. 67-70.
[In the following excerpt, Pechter lauds Scorsese's manipulation of film genre conventions in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.]
I spoke of the Cassavetes influence on Martin Scorsese when I reviewed the latter's Mean Streets [in Commentary, January 1974]. Scorsese's new film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, still shows signs of the influence, chiefly in its excessively lunging, thrusting visual style, and in its use in a supporting role of the actress (Lelia Goldoni) who played the female lead in Cassavetes's first film, Shadows, and who's been...
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SOURCE: "The Power and the Gory," in Film Comment, Vol. 12, No. 3, May-June, 1976, pp. 26-30.
[Farber is an American critic and educator widely esteemed for the unique style and original insights of his film criticism. He is noted for having championed such diverse genres as the American action films of the 1950s, particularly those directed by Sam Fuller; existential, European art films, specifically those of Robert Bresson: and the American avant-garde cinema, as exemplified by the works of Michael Snow. In the following essay, he and Patterson examine Taxi Driver, noting that the film's considerable visual power conceals rather repugnant views of race relations, women, and male...
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SOURCE: "Beauties and the Beast," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 134-39.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he discusses Taxi Driver and Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976), Westerbeck examines the dreamlike qualities and allusions to genre in Scorsese's film.]
There are some movies that are clearly not just movies. They are phenomena. I do not necessarily mean that they are what Variety calls 'Big Boffo', films whose grosses are up in the top fifty of all time. Some of the movies I am talking about—The Exorcist, for instance, or 2001—are 'Big Boffo'; but others, such as Bergman's Scenes...
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SOURCE: A review of New York, New York, in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 20, July 4, 1977, pp. 82-3.
[In addition to being a highly regarded film critic, Gilliatt was an acclaimed novelist, short story writer and screen-writer, best known perhaps for the Academy Award-nominated screenplay Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971). In the following excerpt from a review of New York, New York, she criticizes Scorsese for unsuccessfully remaking a style—the Hollywood musical of the 1940s—which was not amenable to the kind of serious story he wished to tell.]
"New York, New York." Of course, of course. But no, not the famous Bernstein-Comden-Green number from...
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SOURCE: A review of New York, New York, in Cineaste, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 44-5.
[In the following review of New York, New York, the critics praise Scorsese for imbuing a skillful re-creation of 1940s musicals with a fascinating undercurrent of rage and darkness but conclude that the director has failed to fully examine these characteristic themes.]
In Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese's New York is filled with psychopaths and a sense of damnation. In Scorsese's latest film, New York, New York, he has attempted to change direction and nostalgically invoke the New York of 1940's musicals. His characteristic strain of...
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SOURCE: A review of Raging Bull, in Cineaste, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1980–1981, pp. 28-30.
[In the following mainly negative review, Georgakas delineates what he sees as the "dichotomy between technical sophistication and thematic poverty" in Raging Bull.]
Anyone going to see Raging Bull with the expectation of seeing a film about boxing or the career of Jake La Motta will be disappointed. Although the film is in black and white, like the classic fight films of the studio era, and has about ten minutes of boxing action, its relationship to films like Body and Soul, The Set-Up, and Requiem for a Heavyweight is tenuous. The major theme of...
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SOURCE: "Hell Up in the Bronx," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 128-32.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he also discusses the work of John Cassavetes, Combs analyzes Raging Bull, attempting to reconcile the film's power with its marked avoidance of standard narrative techniques.]
To begin with, Raging Bull seems to have been made out of an impatience with all the usual trappings of cinema, with plot, psychology and an explanatory approach to character. A number of early scenes, conversations between Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) about Jake's career, his intransigence, his violent...
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SOURCE: "Grating Comedy," in National Review, New York, Vol. XXXV, No. 9, May 13, 1983, pp. 574-76.
[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born American film and theater critic. In the following review of The King of Comedy, he praises Scorsese's insights into pop culture fame and star worship, but suggests that ultimately the film's major themes are muddled by Scorsese's ambiguous attitude toward the protagonists.]
Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy is on to something important, if only its aim were clearer and its movement more sure-footed. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a 34-year-old messenger boy who desperately wants to be a comedian. Downstairs in his...
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SOURCE: "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1986, pp. 17-28.
[Braudy is an American critic and educator who specializes in film history and film theory. In the following excerpt from an essay in which he compares the works of Italian-American directors Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese with those of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio DeSica, and other Italian neorealists, he examines the ways in which Scorsese reworks genre conventions in order to examine the nature of success and to question his own authority as director.]
"An aesthetic of reality," André Bazin called the Italian...
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SOURCE: "Where Angels Fear to Tread," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 208-09.
[In the following positive review of After Hours, Combs discusses some of the film's primary motifs and asserts that this film signals a change in Scorsese's outlook, from a belief or fascination with redemption to an emphasis on purgatorial limbo and predestination.]
There have been signs recently of something of a religious transformation in Martin Scorsese's work. Not a conversion, exactly; more a change of temper. It may be that some component of his ethnic temper has gone, the Italian Catholic connection (which was still very evident in the WASP Middle...
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SOURCE: "Once a Contender," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1986–1987, pp. 68-9.
[In the following review, Combs discusses the major themes of The Color of Money—a sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler, written and directed by Robert Rossen—and lauds its frequent cinematic brilliance.]
The Color of Money is about halfway through before the Hustler, 'Fast' Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), does anything serious with a pool cue. Martin Scorsese, directing the sequel to a movie that was made when he was still a teenager, signals the moment with a kind of twenty-one-gun salute. Eddie, en route to a tournament in Atlantic City with a young...
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SOURCE: Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, 178 p.
[In the following excerpt, which is drawn from lectures Scorsese delivered in London in 1987, he discusses Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, addressing his intentions and influences in each film as well as the details of their production.]
Brian De Palma introduced me to Paul Schrader. We made a pilgrimage out to see Manny Farber, the critic, in San Diego. [In an endnote Thompson and Christie add: 'Manny Farber coined the phrase "termite art" to cover the unselfconscious action cinema that he valued highly, alongside avant-garde work, as a critic working...
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SOURCE: "Living Cinema—The Passion of Martin Scorsese," in Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. xix-xxviii.
[In the following essay—their introduction to Scorsese on Scorsese—Thompson and Christie examine Scorsese's career in relation to the themes, style, and controversy of The Last Temptation of Christ.]
Two snapshots, separated by twenty years. A round-up of the New York 'Independent Cinema' by Andrew Sarris in late 1966 mentions Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, Warhol's Life of Juanita Castro and, amid such 'underground' company, notes prophetically: 'Martin Scorsese's short films...
(The entire section is 4132 words.)
SOURCE: "Spirit and Flesh," in Jump Cut, No. 35, April, 1990, pp. 108-09.
[In the following positive review of The Last Temptation of Christ, DiCaprio discusses the film's theological aspects as well as the controversy surrounding it.]
Despite its religious detractors, The Last Temptation celebrates Christ's life. It affirms his teachings and sacrifice. In rather traditional terms, director Martin Scorcese depicts Christ's departure from basic tenets of Old Testament Judaism: Jesus' transformation of the angry and even wrathful God of the Israelites into a compassionate and merciful one embracing the entire human race, his condemnation of animal sacrifice...
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SOURCE: A review of Goodfellas, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 43-50.
[Viano is an Italian-American educator and critic. In the following review, he examines Scorsese's principal stylistic and thematic concerns, situates Goodfellas in the director's body of work, and argues that Nicholas Pileggi's book Wise Guy (1985)—upon which the film is based—contains the primary elements of "Scorsese's personal mythology."]
GoodFellas is arguably the apex of Scorsese's most openly ethnic production. Wishing to make a "good commercial picture," Scorsese returned to the Italian/American setting which had already inspired his best...
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SOURCE: "Southern Discomfort," in The New Republic, Vol. 205, No. 24, December 9, 1991, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review of Cape Fear, Kauffmann notes the film's strengths and weaknesses and questions why Scorsese chose to lend his talents to such slight, formulaic material.]
It's not quite right to say that Martin Scorsese has remade Cape Fear. This is no more a mere remake of the 1962 film than John Huston's The Maltese Falcon was a remake of two earlier versions. Scorsese's film is as original as it could be in the circumstances. (Admittedly, I'm comparing out of memory: I don't think I could sit through the J. Lee Thompson version again,...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991, pp. 3-14.
[In the following excerpt, Kelly considers the influence of Scorsese's religious upbringing on his films.]
Every Catholic school child learns the difference between a sign and a symbol. A sacrament is a sign that effects what it signifies. It is not like something else, it is something else. The language which defined the sacraments and mysteries of the faith came from St. Thomas Aquinas, who based his theology, as well as his theories of art, on Aristotelian philosophy. As James Joyce said, the "sensualist" Aquinas won out over more Platonic theologians....
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SOURCE: "Martin Scorsese's America," in USA Today, Vol. 120, No. 2562, March, 1992, p. 69.
[Sharrett is an American critic and educator specializing in film studies. In the following essay, he defends Cape Fear against charges that it is a minor work, arguing that the film's depiction of "moral turbulence" extends Scorsese's examination of "what drives this nation in the post-Vietnam/Watergate epoch."]
Director Martin Scorsese's controversial remake of the 1962 shocker Cape Fear is not, as a few critics have suggested, merely a potboiler to pay back Universal Studios for its support of his beleaguered The Last Temptation of Christ. Cape Fear is a...
(The entire section is 929 words.)
SOURCE: The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese, Birch Lane Press, 1992, 254 p.
[In the following excerpt, Ehrenstein examines Scorsese's career and filmmaking techniques.]
Halfway through Taxi Driver, director Martin Scorsese turns up in an acting role, playing a fare picked up by the film's cabbie hero, Travis Bickle. As the cab comes to a stop at a street corner, Scorsese is seen in the passenger seat—neatly dressed in a dark suit, with carefully groomed beard and mustache. It is very late at night.
"Put the meter back," he orders Travis sharply. "Let the numbers go on. I don't care what I have to pay. I'm not getting...
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SOURCE: A review of The Age of Innocence, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 257, No. 10, October 4, 1993, pp. 364-65.
[In the following excerpt, Klawans complains that after an artful and exciting opening sequence, The Age of Innocence becomes a flat costume drama, directed with none of Scorsese's characteristic flair.]
I wish Martin Scorsese [in his The Age of Innocence] had understood that the characters in Edith Wharton's books are just a bunch of Italians, like the rest of us. Maybe they eat turtle soup at dinner and have their gowns shipped transatlantic from Worth; but hypocrisy is still hypocrisy and illicit passion still elevates the pulse,...
(The entire section is 1274 words.)
SOURCE: "Entrapment: Scorsese Meets Wharton," in Commonweal, Vol. CXX, No. 19, November 5, 1993, pp. 14-17.
[In the following positive review of The Age of Innocence, Alleva praises Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel and his ability to convey the tumultuous emotions that roil beneath his characters' refined, rigidly proper appearances.]
There it is, in the same suburban multiplex that is showing Warlock II: The Armageddon, the John Woo-Jean-Claude Van Damme killfest, Hard Target, and that leftover summer fluff, Sleepless in Seattle. There it is, using its two-hour-plus running time to explore the refined sensibilities of lovers...
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Weiss, Marion. Martin Scorsese: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, 137 p.
Listing of secondary sources written between 1968 and 1985. This book also includes an annotated filmography and two essays on Scorsese's life and works.
Arkush, Allan. "I Remember Film School." Film Comment 19, No. 6 (November-December 1983): 57-9.
Reminiscence on studying film at New York University in the late 1960s. Arkush, the director of such films as Deathsport (1978) and Rock 'n' Roll High School...
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