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...
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made from it is detailed in the kind of self-limiting drama and dialogue that Paddy Cheyefsky abandoned some time ago, and in images that look very much like film school poetry…. I must say that I like Scorsese's enthusiasm even while wincing at some of the results…. (p. 71)
Scorsese is effective in isolating the moments of "Marty"-like boredom that J. R. accepts as concomitants to life…. However, the director … hasn't succeeded in making a drama that is really much more aware than the characters themselves. The result is a movie that is as precise—and as small—as a contact print. (pp. 71-2)
Vincent Canby, "Scorsese's 'Who's That Knocking at My Door'," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1969 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969–1970, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, pp. 71-2).
[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 synthetic and theatrical, they also have an admirable austerity and containment lacking in the wilder, so-called swinging movies so currently prevalent.
Synthetic and theatrical, too, are much of the [picture's] acting and dialogue. Lines seem lifted off the typewritten script-page and thrust into the mouths of the actors in desperate attempts to sound realistic. But all of the false starts, digressions, sputterings and silences of real conversation, while continually aped, become, in the attempt, all the more conspicuously affected and artificial under the camera-eye's glare…. Scorsese may not approve of his characters, or even like them, and he may handle them awkwardly at times, but at least he respects their humanity, which puts him far closer to early De Sica, or, more recently, Olmi, than any of Hollywood's aborted attempts of the fifties … Who's That Knocking at My Door? [is] ultimately most reminiscent of the old, somewhat over-written, T.V. "Playhouse 90" genre. It is as if that very genre which spawned Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer and so many others who were later to develop far more complex styles in film were now being nostalgically called-upon by young film-makers working in a style which, with its small frame, formal black and white, and comparatively low depth of field, is oddly similar to the old television image.
George Lellis, "'Who's That Knocking at My Door?'" in Take One (copyright © 1969 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 2, No. 4, December 30, 1969, p. 20.
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, accumulative tone of utterances, from all sides, directed at the candid camera.
Original though it may be, the final chapter, when the young moviemakers sprawl around a Washington hotel room and take personal political inventory, is entirely redundant….
Obviously, Mr. Scorsese and his team care deeply about vital issues. In their picture, so do many others.
Howard Thompson, "'Street Scenes 1970'," in The New York Times (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1970 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969–1970, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, p. 215).
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 nonlinear modes of exposition as part of a continuing struggle to relate method to meaning.
The film is suffused with an extraordinary realism. Scorsese's camera moves around like a tiger on the prowl, hand-held and lurking in forbidden places one moment, stationary, coolly observing the unexpected in the next. The often improvised, largely comic, always overlapping dialogue provides a perfect aural equivalent, while the acting virtually leaps off the screen….
Nearly every location contributes to the film's claustrophobic atmosphere. Scorsese shot the movie during the San Gennaro Festival so that the streets are crawling with people, imprisoning each character on his native turf. The incessant music …—rock in the bars and cars, Italian standards in the restaurants, street music as part of the festival—provides a continual and numbing din that generates its own form of claustrophobia.
The stylization naturally spills forth into a network of symbols that some may find heavy-handed but which I found exhilarating because each is distilled from the natural objects and appearances of the community. Scorsese brazenly contrasts church icons with street icons: the cross versus the gun, the sensuous surface of a church statue versus the sensuous surface of a black bar dancer bathed in rhinestones; Giovanni's pictures of the Kennedys and Mussolini resting alongside one of the Pope….
Scorsese's most difficult task was to find a way of representing Charlie's inner conflicts. He finally hit upon a combination of voice-over monologues and elaborate fire symbolism….
If fire is one side of Scorsese's explosive visuals, his physical and verbal depictions of violence provide another. The random fighting in Mean Streets breaks out without warning or explanation. We either learn the reason for it after the fact or not at all. And in almost every case Scorsese extends the action beyond existing conventions, so that he not only generates shock but anxiety….
Scorsese uses each technique to depict both the dynamics of community life and Charlie's isolation from them. During a dance to "Pledging My Love" (the ultimate rock & roll death song) he stays on Charlie's enigmatic face for as long as he stays on the fighting, until we can no longer avoid his sense of loneliness, confusion, guilt and pain. He is trapped by the camera as surely as he is by the streets….
Mean Streets is autobiographical without being sentimental or cynical. It penetrates so deeply into a particular way of life that it may alienate those for whom it is impossible to make the basic connections. But Scorsese has refused any compromises. He offers no explicit explanations, leaves the loose ends untied, and refuses to kill Charlie off at the end (it would have been too easy), so that we leave the theater not with a sense of catharsis, but with an unbearable anxiety about what can possibly become of him.
[If Scorsese had less faith in his audience he] … might have risked breaking up the realism of the soundtrack to offer a definitive clue to Mean Streets' meaning, by copping a line from Dylan's best music, "… to live outside the law you must be honest." To which [he] could have added, "It's all right Ma, it's life and life only." For if Mean Streets, a brilliant title, for a brilliant film, by a brilliant artist, means anything at all, it is most certainly that—and it is more than enough.
Jon Landau, "Films: 'Mean Streets'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 147, November 8, 1973, p. 80.
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 milieu and texture, but it doesn't come out that way. So much of the script gets mired in the tropes of gangster melodrama that plottiness intrudes; and, conversely, some scenes limp, so the very plottiness is bilked. As for texture the editing is jumpy and irresolute…. The color is garish and flashy in barroom scenes, in the esthetic fallacy of trying to look like what it's about, but abandoning this idea elsewhere…. Scorsese simply hasn't found the objective correlative in his … method…. (pp. 229-30)
The incompleteness of every inner motion affects the film as a whole. When it's over we want to know what it was about. To tell us what life is like today in Little Italy? A twenty-minute documentary could have made the (implicit) point that these former slums have changed inwardly, if not outwardly, into middle-class centers. And is this all there is to life in Little Italy? Is he telling us that everyone there is like this, that there is no escape? If so, just to name one instance, how did Scorsese come out of it? The film gives us no hint. (p. 230)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Mean Streets" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 169, No. 17, October 27, 1973), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kauffmann), Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975, pp. 229-31.
[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' caper picture about bumblers who want to be gangsters, or possibly an American Big Deal on Madonna Street. But it turns out that he doesn't need satire to ingratiate his characters with the audience; Scorsese, who grew up in Little Italy and obviously knows the scene, discovers the humour in the life itself and in the characters' naturally obscene idiom. And because he doesn't see these bums as 'little' people, but rather as very familiar friends who got bogged down, his film has none of the patronising, sentimental tone of bourgeois American movies about the working class (e.g. Marty). Pursuing his friends relentlessly in and out of bars, bedrooms and restaurants, up and down streets, stairways and hallways, he creates a life of crazy restlessness that we soon realise is totally satisfying to the characters, even though it's oppressively enclosed, barely touching on the world outside….
Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Mardik Martin are weak on narrative construction, but they have a preternatural instinct for the psychology of dependent relationships. For once, the male friendship theme is developed with enough psychological richness to explain the emotions it generates; this time no one will suspect something embarrassing has been left out…. (p. 48)
As [the four main characters] bounce off one another—enraged, derisive, hilarious, sentimental—it becomes clear that their energy has no goal or purpose, certainly not love or career or even style…. Scorsese is celebrating emotional verve as a moral quality in itself, and this is something new in American movies and takes some getting used to…. The punks of Mean Streets … will never shape up; if they survive, they'll simply become ageing punks…. Scorsese's Mean Streets is remarkable, I think, for its moral realism—realism without cynicism. (p. 49)
[Scorsese's] film is bursting with noise, colour, movement, and the mood is consciously over-ripe—what shall we call the style, operatic naturalism? His characters don't perceive the city as dull and grey; yes, the neighbourhood may be crummy, but up on the roofs the ever-astonishing skyscrapers of New York twinkle on all sides, incredibly beautiful and powerful at night, and the local bars, admittedly lousy and stale, give off a satisfying glow. The film opens during the Feast of San Gennaro, a yearly outdoor confluence of grease, fragrance and overpowering crowds. Scorsese's point, I think, is that Little Italy has this suffocating, sweetness-of-hell atmosphere all the time…. Scorsese, while never suggesting that the city is a benign place, puncturcs the liberal view of the city as an unrelieved nightmare for poor ethnic groups. His city is hypnotic, irresistible, and for us to pretend that some people aren't drawn to the rottenness is sheer cant. (pp. 49-50)
Scorsese counts on our familiarity with improvisation and our approval of it as a method, and I feel he uses it better than anyone in American movies so far….
[He] stays back from his people, letting them move around in their own space, which he respects, allowing them to draw strength from the streets, the music, their friends; and since these working-class characters don't repress much to begin with, there's no need for laceration or emotional striptease. Thus Scorsese's improvisation becomes a fast, explosively funny way of extending the actors' expressiveness. The near-musical texture of obscenity, for instance, would be impossible without improvisation; no one could possibly get down on paper the lunatic obsessiveness of the swearing, with its infinite variety of meanings conveyed through minute variations in rhythm and inflection. The mood of the dialogue is almost ecstatically high-pitched; Scorsese uses improvisation to make his people sound as free as possible…. But when he has an actor who can't pull it off he's in trouble….
Scorsese is already a master of film texture and expressive atmosphere and directing actors, but as I said earlier, his narrative sense is weak. Once he sets up his relationships and moods, he's incapable of developing them. The endless quarrels and fist-fights don't lead anywhere; the Charlie-Johnny Boy dependency doesn't accumulate new meanings as the movie goes on, it's simply stated over and over with increasing vehemence. For a while, in the middle, you don't think the story is ever going to move forward again, and a terrible depression sets in; afterwards it seems as though the middle sequences could be shifted around without damage and some of them dropped altogether. The tension never sags, but since the actors rather than the narrative supply all the urgency, we get tired of being worked up emotionally only to learn what we already know. It's as if we were starting at the beginning each time, as if Scorsese didn't trust the audience to absorb or learn anything; he wants to recapitulate the movie in every scene, like a mad composer who can't relinquish a good melody.
We come out grateful for this experience but also feeling a bit mauled. Don't Italian-Americans ever communicate without slapping and shoving and brawling? Aren't there any quieter forms of intensity? Scorsese knows how to reach an audience in the gut, but some of his demands are obtuse….
[His mistakes] are so forgivable because they emerge out of the same violent sincerity that makes the film exciting: Scorsese's impulse to express all he feels about life in every scene … and thus to wrench the audience upwards into a state of consciousness with one prolonged and devastating gesture, infinitely hurting and infinitely tender. Mean Streets comes close enough to this feverish ideal to warrant our love and much of our respect. (p. 50)
David Denby, "'Mean Streets': The Sweetness of Hell," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1974 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 48-50.
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 only efficient but versatile, matching different means to different ends. But what was the end in Mean Streets?
It seemed to be little more than high-class melodrama—a display of hyped-up situations and attitudes. (pp. 55-6)
Scorsese told interviewers that the film distilled youthful memories of New York City's Little Italy—it really was like that, he said, referring to the general atmosphere of the film rather than to specific events. If so, I could give Mean Streets the benefit of the doubt and assume a cultural gap due to my own English background.
But with Scorsese's short documentary on his parents, Italian-american …, the presumed cultural gap failed to show. The film was accessible and enjoyable. Of course, it gives an objectified view of the New York Italian experience, quite unlike the subjective dramatization of Mean Streets. All the same, the parents' speech and gestures embody the culture that is being discussed and, having a spontaneity that goes beyond any of the improvisation in Mean Streets, plays an important part in shaping the film as a whole. In short, Scorsese's directorial hand rests on this film much more lightly than on Mean Streets. So the cultural gap is probably not at issue, and my case against the melodrama of Mean Streets must remain open….
Now comes Alice, which marks a big break with Scorsese's recent film-making…. With the leap from studio-made thirties to real seventies Scorsese is symbolically detaching himself from his own remembered past. He is turning from New York City to the desert states; from an exclusive and specific Italian milieu to a generalized Anglo-Saxon Protestantism …; and from a predominantly male view of the world to the experience of a woman. (p. 56)
Scorsese spent a long time with Ellen Burstyn and writer Robert Getchell in working out the final details of Alice's character and experiences. In addition to its obvious advantages, this kind of collaboration involves risks—a possible loss of focus, a compromise rather than a reinforcement of creative ideas. Such weaknesses do seem to emerge toward the end of the film. David remains a curiously thin character: the viewer learns very little about his outlook on life, or for that matter his way of life (his ranching appears to be only a hobby). Yet he marks the culmination of Alice's odyssey: when last seen, she has given up another slice of her independence for this indefinite man. This editing looks like a retreat from sharper alternatives.
In other words, after trying to find fault with Alice for being too neat, I'm now suggesting that it isn't quite neat enough. But here, too, a shift of angle is possible. This isn't meant to be a conventional happy ending, with Alice finally in the arms of Mr. Right. It may be just a tentative halt in her odyssey. David remains "thin" because Alice herself doesn't know him yet, though she likes him well enough to find out more….
The last scene of the film includes more than Alice, David, and the Monterey Motel. Taken with a telephoto lens, it also brings a distant mountain looming over the casual activities of the street—a confrontation of the permanent and the transient, of solidity and disorder, of Alice's dream and the reality she is learning to cope with. (p. 58)
Like the opening leap from past to present, this final image can also be applied to the film itself. The vigor of Alice arises in large part from a similar confrontation—between the elements loosely described … as "too neat" and "not neat enough." I am referring here not to the simple oppositions between studio and location, planning and improvisation (since Mean Streets, which incorporated all of these, lacked the particular quality of Alice), but to a flexibility or unexpectedness in the matching of form and content…. It is the continual shifting of modality between the schematic and the diffuse which stimulates the viewer to adjust his/her mental focus, and thus discover fresh implications in Alice's odyssey. (pp. 58-9)
William Johnson, "'Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1975 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. 28, No. 3, Spring, 1975, pp. 55-9.
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 jobs as a barroom singer and waitress, she decides to settle down with Kris Kristofferson, a tranquil, warm-hearted Arizona rancher. Although she plans to continue with her singing career, she gives up her dream of returning to Monterey, the town where she started out as a singer. Some women have criticized the ending as a copout, but that misses the point; the whole movie is a copout because Alice's career ambitions are so unrealistic to begin with. She has no real singing talent; her obsession with singing springs from a childhood infatuation with Alice Faye, and she refuses to grow up.
The film might have been more interesting if Alice had come to realize the absurdity of her singing career, and then readjusted her aspirations and set out to find a career that would make use of her real strengths. But the film poses only two alternatives for Alice—pursuing a hopeless singing career, or settling down with a good man. The choice is an artificial one, unfairly restricted. The last shot is pure Hollywood schmaltz: As Alice tells her son that they will not be moving to Monterey, they pass a bar called "Monterey"; her dream is closer to home than she knew. The movie begins with a parody of The Wizard of Oz, but ends by reaffirming the same cloying message; Alice is like a grown-up Dorothy discovering that the land of Oz is right in her own back yard. The film-makers are patting Alice on the head and telling her not to expect too much; their condescension insults women with more complicated aspiration. (pp. 415-16)
Stephen Farber, "The Hausfrau, the Ugly Duckling, and the Funny Lady," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1975, pp. 413-20.∗
[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 the cathartic scene of Taxi Driver includes the bloody killing of a "mafioso," the effect of the film is far different from that of other vigilante films, such as the Bronson vehicle, Death Wish. Scorsese [and coscreenwriter Paul Schrader] … present a protagonist with whom the audience will initially identify, but from whom they will unexpectedly be jolted into alienation. The alienation effect differentiates the film from the Violence genre, upon which it comments, and is achieved through the metamorphosis of Travis from a figure of naturalistic film fantasy to a horrifyingly familiar image of media "reality." After his brief incarnation as a political assassin, Travis returns in the final scene to the conventional hero image, which the audience is unexpectedly and uncomfortably forced to reject.
In this alternation between fantasy, truth, and fantasy, the film makes certain "connections," (one of its recurrent terms) between subjective aspects of contemporary culture and specific events of recent history. The overt externalizing of fantasy differentiates a psychotic person from a normal person. (pp. 109-10)
In Taxi Driver, however, the hero is only "partly fiction."… When Travis crosses the line from fiction to truth, he also traverses the line from hero to villain. Early in the film Travis has an innocent twelve-year old boy look, as he observes Manhattan corruption through his cab windshield. When Travis courts Betsy, this boyish sweetness blends with the manly toughness of the conventional, "realistic," film hero. (p. 110)
But at a political rally for a Presidential candidate, Travis appears with a literally new face. After seeing the cab door open, the camera follows the recognizable blue jeaned legs of the hero for a few steps before it stops. The camera then moves slowly upward to the familiar marine jacket with the "We are the People" button, before it dramatically reveals Travis transformed into a sort of Charles Manson-Mr. Hyde, complete with Mohawk haircut and uncharacteristic sunglasses. When Travis moves through the crowd toward the senator, the audience is in a familiar visual territory, but not one they are accustomed to seeing on a large screen. The grin on Travis's face comes from television or magazine images, rather than cinematic convention, especially in its resemblance to the halloween mask expression of [George] Wallace-assailant, Arthur Bremer. (p. 111)
In Taxi Driver, the usual Manichean pitting of good guy against bad guy is replaced by a quasi-religious sense of the inadequacy of all moral definition. We do not know how to receive Travis at the end of the film. The protagonists of most popular violent films resemble the vigilante hero that the newspapers have made of Travis. Moral definition is provided by the media. The television and movie screens have replaced the church in satisfying our simultaneous needs for limitless transcendence and secure moral definition. Taxi Driver breaks through these moral limits, and their reinforcing aesthetic convention by allowing Travis to assume, simultaneously, the roles of the conventional hero and the ultimate modern villain; in Travis, the cowboy and the terrorist are cubistically fused.
A sense of surrealistic fantasy and moral indefiniteness is communicated in the continual movement of the New York street scenes. There is a basic "disparity" between the symbolic atmosphere of these scenes and the naturalistic tone of the scenes, which include dialogue. This disparity helps to create the alienation effect which differentiates Taxi Driver from the genre films it obliquely reflects…. The film is a fantasy looking-glass, which most of us will not go through. But it is about a man who begins as a viewer of life, through the "screen" of his cab window, and who then goes through the looking glass to become an "actor" in a personal fantasy, where he paradoxically achieves that more vital reality, which the film "viewer" theoretically craves. Before the actual film begins in the cab dispatcher's office, the last scene on the titles discloses a reddish, surrealistic scene of endless lines of traffic and pedestrians, an overwhelming, anonymous monotony, which the color scheme identifies as a hell, containing sufferers groaning for redemption. (pp. 113-14)
The various fantasies are expressed against a New York background, which virtually necessitates escapism, in an atmosphere of imminent apocalypse, like the Los Angeles of [John Schlesinger's] Day of the Locust. Rushing columns of pedestrians and automobile traffic become oppressively repetitious. Certain images accentuate this effect: rain and wet streets, the motion of windshield wipers, the clicking of the taxi meter, the dancing of red, green, and blue lights on the cab windshield. The sameness, the nightmarish blending of colors and forms, stimulates a yearning for transcendental singularity and order. (p. 116)
Travis's vague physical ailments are never defined, and his spiritual malaise is not realistically motivated. As far as we know, Travis is simply unable to accept the lesser satisfactions that might be available to him. His refusal to accept the imperfections of life-as-it-is, expresses a universal and timeless discontent. (p. 117)
Redemption from [the] "mass" becomes Travis's obsession. When he cannot redeem himself, through Betsy as his savior, Travis attempts to integrate the redeemer into himself by saving the twelve-year old prostitute, Iris, from "the life."… Travis wishes to redeem his humanity from the mechanization that civilized life imposes. Iris represents, to Travis, the complete identification of a person with his job, to which Wizard had earlier referred, "a man takes a job … that job becomes what he is." She is no more than a depersonalized sexual machine, just as the driver is only an extension of his taxi. In fastening on the pimps, Travis has found a symbolic target for his rage against the restrictions on individual development, which civilization requires. Everyone in the film, except Travis, is a recognizable urban "type." The temporary selection of Senator Palantine as a target, helps to suggest that Travis's rage represents the eternal attack on civilization by its discontents, the individual striving for completion, against the conformity-requiring authority of the superego. The word, "palatine," means "chief minister of the empire." Travis is angry at the depersonalizing quality of civilization itself.
The hero, who is almost martyred for us in Taxi Driver, is a scapegoat for our own rage, and the film suggests that our real-life criminals serve much the same purpose. (pp. 118-19)
Travis hears the unconsciously hypocritical Senator tell a TV interviewer that he wants to "let the people rule," that the people are already "beginning to rule" and that this grass roots emergence "will rise to an unprecedented swell." Travis's aspiration to individual "rule" will also reach an unprecedented swell, to be released in the orgasmic shootout with the enslaving forces, who possess Iris. Although Travis's violence is a result of sexual repression, this sexual deprivation is a metaphor for a spiritual deprivation in modern life, which intensifies the pressure for transcendental "rule." Even if their physical needs are satisfied, the people can never quite "rule," because of reduced individual expression, in an increasingly complex civilization. And the more structured a civilization becomes, the greater will be the risk of apocalyptic violence, under the appropriate name of "liberation." Travis's past as a Vietnam combat veteran has an obvious thematic correspondence to his crusade to liberate Iris, who makes it very clear that she does not want to be liberated. During their breakfast together, Iris says that her Pimp, Sport … may have a few faults, but he has never beaten her, and she is quite happy in "the life." Travis cannot accept this; he tells her what a girl-her-age should be doing and is adamant in refusing to see Sport as anything less than the worst "sucking scum." This corresponds to America's refusal to see that a different style of living, or system of government, is not necessarily evil, and that the people who live under this system do not necessarily feel oppressed. But the film suggests that Americans, who "feel" oppressed, simply by living in a populous, mechanically structured civilization, are likely to be stirred by the cause of "freedom," although the freedom they crave is psychological or even spiritual, rather than social and political.
At the end of the climactic shootout, the palpitating music, the overhead view of the sprawled bodies in Iris's slowly revolving room, the statue-like stance of the policemen with guns drawn, and the gradual descent down the apartment stairway transforms the dominant naturalistic tone of the film into an unexpectedly complete surrealism. The emphasis on the amount of blood glistening on the walls, accompanied by the music, and the slow motion camera movement, makes the blood symbolic. A purifying "liberation" has occurred. (pp. 119-20)
Julian C. Rice, "Transcendental Pornography and 'Taxi Driver'," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1976 by Michael T. Marsden and John G. Nachbar), Vol. V, No. 2, 1976, pp. 109-23.
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 in Little Italy was similar in locale and characterization to Scorsese's earlier Who's That Knocking at My Door? But then the critical reception accorded Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) confirmed that Scorsese could handle a wider world. His flexible talent is most evident if one contrasts Taxi Driver with the best film he has yet made, Italianamerican. That the same man could have made both films is amazing. In Taxi Driver the sophisticated use of lighting, color, camera angle and editing make the city streets so real that a viewer can feel fear even before violence occurs; in the documentary Italianamerican, Scorsese tenderly turns his camera on his own parents for 45 minutes and allows them to talk to and about one another, their family, their neighborhood, and Mrs. Scorsese's homemade meatball sauce. Though initially I found them hilarious, by the end of Italianamerican I had fallen in love with Scorsese's parents—and the magical talent of their 33-year-old son did it all.
Building to the climactic bloodbath, the vision of evil in Taxi Driver is almost overwhelming. (p. 467)
Scorsese's treatment of the material allows us to attribute the film's vision of evil to him as well. Taxi Driver's fetid world is a Sartrian hell from which there is no exit. And, as with Sartre's play, this film overstates its case—the total absence of good mars the depiction of evil….
Travis emerges as a contemporary redeemer, a modern mad messiah. Schrader and Scorsese seem to be saying that the contemporary city is so fouled up that the only Christ it deserves is a psychopath.
Its epilogue makes Taxi Driver a flawed film….
The epilogue doesn't work on two levels: as a realistic ending to a story and as a thematic underlining of a vision of contemporary life. The epilogue doesn't work at the end of a supposedly realistic narrative because we are asked to believe too much. (p. 468)
The epilogue fails thematically because Schrader and Scorsese—by making Travis a contemporary savior—engage in cinematic overkill. Moreover, by depicting the pervasiveness of evil as it does, the epilogue weakens the film's earlier images of evil.
To put the problem another way, if everything is evil, then nothing is evil. Complete absence of good makes the depiction of the bad unreal. With his exceptional talent Scorsese can jolt us, scare us, depress us: but he can't convince us. (p. 469)
Robert E. Lauder, "Hell on Wheels," in The Christian Century (copyright 1976 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the May 12, 1976 issue of The Christian Century), Vol. 93, No. 17, May 12, 1976, pp. 467-69.
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 slowly, quietly, creating a mood of anxiety and imminent violence so that when the explosions finally occur within Travis Bickle's twisted psyche, the effect is all the more harrowing.
A positive side effect of this increased sense of formal structure is the marvelous way Scorsese continually surprises us throughout the film. Just when we feel certain the movie is going to go one way, he pulls the ground from under our feet and aims the material in another direction….
With Taxi Driver, a thematic consistency becomes clear throughout Scorsese's work. The contradictions in Travis Bickle between a Puritan ethic and the need to find an outlet for his inarticulate rage and repression haunt [Charlie] in Mean Streets and the headstrong [Alice] in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The resolution of these contradictions that Travis settles upon gives this film its profoundly disturbing edge. There are all sorts of social and religious implications hovering around the edges of [the] script (lots of Bressonian overtones for instance), but the most unnerving one is the realization that there is a bit of Travis Bickle in all of us, a realization that is heightened by the subjective style of the film. This is what ultimately lifts Taxi Driver to a scale approaching modern tragedy. The pity and terror with which we view Travis' deterioration and the pathetic irony of his redemption reflect back upon ourselves, haunting the memory long after the last image has faded from the screen. (p. 66)
George Morris, "The Fever Breaks," in Take One (copyright © 1976 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 5, No. 2, May 21, 1976, pp. 65-6.
[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 to be anything more useful than a waitress, while clinging to the illusion that she's a talented singer because once in her salad days she placed in an amateur contest. So a waitress she becomes and this is supposed to pass as a spectacle of human waste or of the Female Search for Identity—yet all we're viewing is a dislocated mediocrity with a false notion of her own value and a knack for getting sympathy by weeping into her cocktail when she has "walked her feet off all afternoon" … and the crummy world hasn't given her instantly a crummy, well-paid job. (p. 260)
Vernon Young, "Nobody Lives Here Any More," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Summer, 1976, pp. 259-64.∗
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 Womanhood; its mood is one of determinist doom, feverishly embraced …; and, following from this, its method is to construct a series of steel traps for its hero, all of which have firmly shut before the film is half over, though Scorsese's grandstanding style and Schrader's Bressonian pretensions continue to push for moments of religious transcendence. What is locked tightest into the contradiction, and most disturbingly into the film, is a confusion between objective and subjective viewpoints…. [A] strong streak of misogyny and racist sentiment (women are principally identified by Travis with betrayal; blacks with the irredeemable otherness and corruption of the city) often seems to be floating through the film, unattached to the protagonist. In one sequence, however, the two viewpoints are neatly crystallised as subjective effect flows from objective (not to say ironically distanced) scene-setting. Immediately after he makes his stormy break with Betsy, Travis is seen stopping with a passenger at an address, where the latter (played by Scorsese himself) proceeds to rant about his wife and the black man she is with in an upstairs window, insisting that Travis look, while the camera almost reluctantly pans up the building until it locks on to the window where the two icons of the hero's paranoid imaginings are shadowily visible. But for the most part, the subjective portions of the film remain pyrotechnical effects, Scorsese playing true to the purgatory of his character's mind by painting New York as a garish, otherworldly landscape, while objectively little is said about Travis' mental state…. One can sense Scorsese trying to forge a connection between … disparate episodes, to create a context like the vicious circles of family, religion and criminal code in Mean Streets, or the emotional entanglements of Alice which would sustain his characters. But Travis remains a rather desperately willed figure, and various iconography (the candles that blaze devotionally in Iris' room during her first conversation with Travis), parallels (between Betsy and Iris), and continuities (the Bressonian play with hands) stay persistently on the surface. Most crippling is the ending, in which the macho movie cliché of the heroine who returns to the hero once his capacity for purgative violence has been revealed is crossed with the film's vaguest gesture of empathy with Travis. Now at peace with his most destructive instincts, he simply disappears into another hallucinogenic light and colour painting of the New York streets. (p. 201)
Richard Combs, "'Taxi Driver'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1976), Vol. 43, No. 512, September, 1976, pp. 200-01.
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 that can be married. Now coming immediately after the nude sequence's interpolated implications of erotic frustration, the marvellously tender and absurd scene where J. R. toils upward through a pale and wintry forest, finally to stand like Cortez on the crest of the hill discovering undreamed-of vistas of unspoiled nature beyond, has acquired Freudian connotations which obscure the original point: tender in his aspiration, absurd in its magniloquent naiveté, it is an exact parallel to the doomed ingenuousness of his confident quest for an ideal purity. Secondly, by adding pointless complication, this interpolation of an undoubted fantasy in a film which is already playing tentatively with time and memory, raises totally unnecessary doubts and hesitations as one watches the film…. In point of fact, Who's That Knocking at My Door is a disarmingly straightforward film: a rough draft for Mean Streets in which Scorsese spells out his guidelines, his symbols and his meanings without ever quite welding them into an imaginative whole…. The main problem with the film, despite its frequent brilliance (Scorsese's talent is abundantly in evidence already) is that it really has two heroes—incipient hoodlum and aspiring saint. Not until Mean Street … was Scorsese able to bring the two together in the image of a man thirsting for purity as he burned in hell.
Tom Milne, "'Who's That Knocking at My Door'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1976), Vol. 43, No. 512, September, 1976, p. 203.
[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 original genre is really not interesting enough to have had all of this attention to detail spent on it. It's not that the movie runs out of steam long before it has gone on for two hours and 33 minutes, but that we have figured it out and become increasingly dumbfounded. Why should a man of Mr. Scorsese's talent … be giving us what amounts to no more than a film buff's essay on a pop-film form that was never, at any point in film history, of the first freshness?
Even more disturbing is the movie's lack of feeling for the genuine feelings that those old movies were meant to inspire….
"New York, New York" is not a disaster of the order of Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love." … Yet, "New York, New York" is a somehow more painful movie, being nervy and smug. (p. 71)
Vincent Canby, "Nostalgic Doings," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1977 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1977-1978, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1979, pp. 70-1).
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 pleasure of the sequence is that, being structured musically in a sort of rondo form (theme, variation, return), it assumes the role that would normally be played by a ballad in stating the hero's initial attraction to … the heroine…. Several other dramatic (i.e. non-musical) scenes emerge, in an analogous sense, as musical numbers, formally choreographed rather than dramatically staged…. In consciously quoting the Hollywood musical, these scenes have a little fun with its clichés: in making his last-minute dash for the train, Jimmy leaves it a little too late, and is last seen on the platform, forlornly trying to hold back the already departing train; and when he knocks up the J.P., he inadvertently breaks a pane of glass in the door, starting the proceedings off on a distinctly ominous note. The effect, rather than comic, is strangely moving; as though these hapless misquotations acknowledged that a whole world of simplicity and security could never be recaptured. Contrariwise, the musical numbers in the film are used to carry its entire burden of plot, characterisation and conflict. Almost invariably seen fragmented in rehearsal, or as snatches of performance staged without the usual production values or choreographic embellishments …, they are neither elaborate enough nor inventive enough to claim status as 'numbers'; their function is rather to elucidate the character tensions between the protagonists …, and to chart their inevitable progress to marital breakdown. Struggling, typically of a Scorsese hero, to escape a private hell, Jimmy Doyle is also typically unable to articulate the resentments he is only obscurely aware of and which thereby reinforce the vicious circle in which he is trapped: it is the music they want to make and the music they have to make which defines the exact nature of the rift between Jimmy and Francine. It is unfortunate that, in perhaps the one real weakness of the film, this dramatic role played by the music is undercut by the fact that the jazz (or bebop) Jimmy plays by choice is louder but otherwise only barely distinguishable from the sweeter swing he despises. On the other hand, this lapse may possibly be intentional, since the film is on the one hand about little romantic heartbreaks rather than grand tragic passions, and on the other about artistic trends that find their fulfilment in success rather than about creative discoveries that endure. The final reconciliation, at all events, is effected with magnificent appropriateness through the final "New York, New York" number…. [It] not only brings the hitherto disparate musical and dramatic elements together for the first time, it not only rings out as the "major chord" Jimmy talks about (a reconciliation in which the important things in life assume their proper order and relation to each other), it also brings a new note to the film: the unmistakable, triumphant call of the Broadway musical which might be said (trend-wise, at least) to have driven, with Oklahoma!, one of the first nails into the coffin of the Big Band sound. (p. 195)
Tom Milne, "'New York, New York'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1977), Vol. 44, No. 524, September, 1977, pp. 194-95.
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 Streets—Scorsese may be a director with only one 'personal' movie to make and, on the other hand, too much talent and too little control to play the Hollywood genre game….
With New York, New York … Scorsese has, if anything, taken on a slice of Hollywood—the showbiz musical—even more insulated by tradition and upholstery, and has turned out a craftier pastiche and something quite brilliant in the way of recreation…. Scorsese has made over a Hollywood staple in a wholly original way, not so much adapting the musical as invading it like some long-abandoned relic, turning many of its salient features inside out and generally confounding audience expectations with every second scene.
In story and character, New York, New York is an efficient blend of old-style Hollywood and street-smart Scorsese….
Situated in fantasy, Jimmy Doyle … becomes uniquely blessed among Scorsese heroes—he is allowed to achieve his ambition, the fulfilment of what he calls the 'major chord', when you have everything in life that you want. But Scorsese plays the figure not as fantasy but as a character streaked by the same self-destructive fanaticism, unwavering drive and crippling ambivalence as any of his street punks on the make—and compresses the psychology of the character not into the predictable narrative of breakdown and break-up, but most tightly into the scenes where one most expects relaxation, i.e. the musical numbers. There is, for the first two-thirds of the film, very little sense of 'performance' about these numbers and considerable emphasis on the emotional tensions they submerge, diffuse or expose….
It is the narrative sections between [the] numbers, handled somewhat elliptically and often as simple montage, that now have the quality of interludes, of 'shticks' for playing out variations on themes established elsewhere….
In similar spirit, the pastiches of other musicals never acquire their expected weight, but serve simply to indicate where Scorsese has situated his film in relation to the musical tradition. If the overall theme has to do with the disappearance of the Big Band sound of the 40s and the emergence of 50s 'bebop', then Scorsese seems to be indicating that even more, for the 70s, the musicals of the 40s and 50s are gone beyond recall. (p. 252)
With its finale, New York, New York comes slam up to date, in spirit at least, when the quality of performance comes flooding back in Francine's rendition of the title number, and the film gives birth, as it were, to the style of grandstanding, biographical, star-is-made musical…. The passing of the old-fashioned, communal, let's-put-on-a-show type of musical … in favour of such individualistic celebrations is most cynically indicated, perhaps, in a remark by Jimmy, when he returns to playing in Harlem jazz clubs and is asked why he had slipped from sight for so long, and he replies that he had just been playing with bad musicians.
Scorsese delivers all this, both celebration and critique, in fine, airy style—his camera frequently serving the function of the bouncing ball that used to appear with on-screen song lyrics, indicating exactly where the emphasis should go. Crane shots float breezily above the big bands performing at the opening victory ball, while the scattered, broken scenes of Jimmy and Francine in rehearsal and on stage are filmed with a close-up intensity. Most rewardingly, the film seems to have effected a kind of opening-out—allowing Scorsese to tackle 'given' material more experimentally than in, and to pursue characteristic extremes of emotion without the over determined mechanisms of Taxi Driver. (pp. 252-53)
Richard Combs, "Film Reviews: 'New York, New York'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1977 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 46, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 252-53.
[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 subject peculiarly internalised so that, in Scorsese's words, 'there's connective sense, but not really in terms of one thing leading to another; it makes spiritual sense.'
Such a notion of order, of course, is largely a matter of imposing private meanings on the public event. And this is the paradox on which The Last Waltz turns, in more than one direction. The emotional significance of the music for Scorsese, the selection of numbers he has made from the seven-hour concert featuring not only The Band but a galaxy of guests, the progression through the varieties of country, blues and rock'n'roll music, establish this as one of his most personal films. Consequently—yet unexpectedly, given the cinéma vérité tradition of concert films from [Michael Wadleigh's] Woodstock through [D. A. Pennebaker's] Monterey Pop to its most consciously meditated and manipulated form in [Albert and David Maysles's] Gimme Shelter—the style he has chosen seems almost deliberately to remove the concert from the public domain and treat it as original feature material….
In addition, three numbers were recorded after the event inside a studio. The florid camera movement bestowed on 'Evangeline' serves to underline its more lyrical quality and also perhaps its folk pedigree in the descent of rock music. The concluding number, 'The Last Waltz', a tribute to The Band, caps the rococo setting of the Winterland with further artifice as the camera, in one long caressing movement, pulls away from the group on their darkened sound stage and retreats down a lane of lights….
Further distinguishing it from other film testaments to the rock culture of the 60s and early 70s, The Last Waltz has little room for its audience, except as a dimly perceived, surging mass in one or two shots. Scorsese's picture of a generation and its changes is concentrated entirely on the style of its performers, and in this respect is the most powerful, musically intense of all the concert record films. That the developments related in the course of The Last Waltz—cued by some intercut discussions between Scorsese and the members of The Band—all seem to occur at flashpoints of personal, musical and political history, fully expressed only in the exploding performances on stage, is, finally, both its strength and its weakness. The snatches of reminiscence from The Band…. At other times, a little augmentation might have prevented the historical moments being might have prevented the historical moments being swamped by their emotional associations: 'on the road' in itself is such a culturally specific concept that it seems rather skimped here in The Band's brief anecdotes about their hard first eight years and the presence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading a parody version of the Lord's Prayer.
But at its best the style of The Last Waltz, at once kaleidoscopic and concentrated, discursive and fixated, distils more about its subject and its times (and about its maker and his obsessions) than the impressionism of cinéma vérité. Before the credits, the film opens on an isolated sequence of a group of individuals playing pool: the game, says one, is called cut-throat, and the object is to keep your balls on the table while knocking everyone else's off. And this odd recall of the setting, ambience and social mechanisms of Mean Streets is later obliquely 'placed' by one of the concert guests who reads what she calls a one-line poem from the 50s, 'Get your cut throat off my knife.' When Scorsese cuts from Muddy Waters and the blues song 'Mannish Boy' to a sleek performance from Eric Clapton, the connection is pointed by a previous discussion with Levon Helm, who talks of the area around Memphis as the home of country, blues and blue grass performers, and in reply to the question, 'What's killed them?' says 'Rock 'n' roll'….
[It] is only towards the end, when The Band becomes once more a backing group for Bob Dylan—who is summoned, like some demon presence, by a camera panning down from the lights and decorations on to a huge close-up of his illuminated hat—that one has a proper sense of the film (so smooth yet electrifyingly integrated is Scorsese's coverage) as the record of a live event. For the first time, the on-stage hesitations and consultations between numbers are included before the climactic, communal rendition of 'I Shall Be Released' and Robertson's final, voice-over observations on the road. The real ending, however, seems to have come a little before, in a conversation recorded between Scorsese and The Band in their retreat, an ex-bordello called The Shangri-la. Here, amid a decor congruent both with the decadent trimmings of the Winterland and an archetypal Scorsese setting, the director obtains an answer, if not to his first question then to the one that might have followed it, when one of the group sums up what he is doing now 'The Last Waltz' is over: 'Just making music, man, trying to stay busy.'
Richard Combs, "'The Last Waltz'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, p. 125.
[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 and street footage of 50 or 60 years ago, but an equally evocative visual element is the living room where most of the interview takes place….
Scorsese intercuts this "only in America" setting with his mother's running commentary on her special sauce as she prepares it in the kitchen. For the most part, the elder Scorseses' enjoyment of the limelight is equaled by their son's pride in being able to give it to them. Through editing or will power, he's able to keep the conversation from focusing on their prize joint creation—himself….
Although the pleasure that the family takes in each other's company is truly infectious, Scorsese ends the film on a slightly darker note. As the crew starts breaking down the lights, Mrs. Scorsese expresses a (how long suppressed?) desire to start vacuuming and get her apartment back in order. "Is he still taking this?" she asks in mock annoyance with a gesture toward the camera. "I'll murder you, you won't get out of this house alive!" It's a thought one suspects that also may have crossed Scorsese's mind while growing up there.
J. Hoberman, "There's No Place Like Home Movies" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 17, April 24, 1978, p. 48.∗
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 meticulous script and preplanned camera angles, was constructed in the same manner as his narratives.
Unlike most rock-concert pictures, The Last Waltz is an extremely formal film. Coming off New York, New York, Marty shot the movie with the same dark, totally interior look. This is a movie in which daylight is never seen, in which the world is totally artificial, limited to stages and studios….
The result is a movie that is about music and musicians, about living the life of rock and roll. In addition to the concert footage, Marty interspersed three studio-shot numbers, which gave him a chance to practice his pyrotechnics, as well as his own interviews with members of the Band, which give the film its rough balance. (p. 41)
Marty, who may be right when he calls himself "the world's worst interviewer," functions best as a documentarian when dealing with subjects he knows intimately.
It is not just that Scorsese knew where his cameras could go but he was not embarrassed to let unkind moments intrude upon the general celebration…. At the same time, while this is ostensibly a film about the Band, Scorsese's editing makes no bones about how much a Dylan event it becomes the moment the singer walks on stage. Everything else disappears behind his presence, and Scorsese, despite his friendships and commitments, does nothing to hide or minimalize this effect. It is not merely the best rock-concert movie ever made; it is as intensely personal as anything Scorsese has done.
Late in the film's editing,… Scorsese placed the footage of the Band's last song—… "Don't Do It"—at the beginning of the film. The concert thus becomes a flashback, while the interviews and studio shots are a meditation on the half-life of collective efforts and the weariness 16 years of road life can bring. Marty says the entire movie is about "Stage Fright," but a more appropriate metaphor is suggested when the Band, obviously stoned, attempts "Give Me That Old Time Religion." The improvised version is at once completely a Band song in its modalities, harmonics, and instrumental breaks, and a lethargic failure, falling apart before anyone can finish. "It's not like it used to be," someone says, and that seems to be the point of the film. Having become the Band, the members are, at the point of breaking apart, undefined by their success. They are no longer able to produce the work that sustained them. (p. 43)
Terry Curtis Fox, "Martin Scorsese's Elegy for a Big-Time Band" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIII, No. 22, May 29, 1978, pp. 41, 43.
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 Italian-American Bergman waiting for the right moment to show himself. Bergman himself made a dozen unremarkable films before he found the necessary key of objectivity to turn his own nightmares into art. Scorsese may, too. He's already shown evidence that he can in Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets. But right now, he remains the most brilliant of the New Hollywood's disappointments, seemingly torn between two recurrent, obsessive dreams: his own childhood in New York's Little Italy, whose basic components were a malevolent Church and a (to him) frightening ethic of machismo, and the opiates that Hollywood offered as an alternative to that disturbing reality. When he sticks to the earlier set of compulsions, he produces brilliant, if slightly muddled, images of a complex reality. When he shifts to the later set, as he seems increasingly to feel it necessary to do, the results are at best disappointing. (pp. 150-51)
When it was released, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was hailed as a feminist classic by a number of major critics…. This film about women was designed to be very far removed from the macho world of Mean Streets. Its failure is that it really isn't. It's a hip Doris Day film. In fact, Alice actually has less freedom, fewer opportunities, and a markedly weaker character than her professional-virgin predecessor had in the fifties. She makes no conscious decision to hit the road, she's forced into it when her husband dies…. [The director and screenwriter] never allow her any success on the road. They do let her have a few interesting friendships with women, which form the heart of the film, but it's inevitable that she will sink back down into a complacent marriage before the film ends. The most dramatic sequences involve the macho character of Ben …, not the women's relationships. Alice is after all a klutz. It's rather charming in an old-fashioned way that she actually thinks to have a career of her own, such as it is, and it's interesting that she has a buddy-buddy relationship with her son, but after all she's really a dependent woman.
The filmmakers seem to think that they actually made a feminist film. They may have started out to do so. But Alice is more regressively chauvinist than a Russ Meyer softcore B simply because it pretends to be something it's not. (pp. 155-56)
Taxi Driver (1976) fails in similar ways. It was considered, like Alice, a great gamble…. Within the cramped Hollywood context of the seventies, perhaps it was. But it turned out to be an even greater critical and financial success than Alice. (p. 157)
Taxi Driver is a perfect match of the paranoid talents of writer Paul Schrader and director Scorsese…. It's an attempt to make a late-forties film noir more than twenty-five years later. At least on the film-buff level, it succeeds in recapturing that atmosphere…. Once again, Scorsese gets great performances from his cast…. He knows this mood, and has practiced with it in Mean Streets, so he's able to bathe the film in an effective wash of red and black fear.
The problem, and it is insurmountable, is that it is not 1948 anymore. It hasn't been for quite a while. So what's a film noir doing at a time like this? Mainly turning back the clock politically and artistically…. Scorsese's naked city is almost a joke: at best it's quaint…. Travis Bickle is certainly a magnificent construction within the crooked context of the film, but Scorsese and Schrader don't give us a point of view from which to get a handle on him. (pp. 157-58)
[Despite] the inherent interest in The Last Waltz—the music, the memories of the sixties …—and despite the admirable technical quality, there's a certain pretension to the film we wish weren't there. Scorsese himself does not come across as a star and his interview questions are rather beside the point; the studio numbers are superfluous, they break the rhythm of the concert. Once again, Scorsese's reach has exceeded his grasp, but only by a thin margin this time. Boiled down to pure concert performance, The Last Waltz would be a perfectly cut gem of a film.
There's no doubt Martin Scorsese is an exceptionally interesting and imaginative director, but for more than five years now he's been setting self-destructive traps for himself, then stepping smartly right into them. He's capable of a great deal more, one surmises. In 1974 he shot a forty-eight-minute essay … called Italianamerican. Basically a documentary visit with his parents, it had many of the qualities missing from the feature films he has made since Mean Streets. The people weren't characters, they were people. The film wasn't a self-conscious parody of movies dead and gone, but honest and straightforward. Scorsese spoke for himself rather than hiding behind the pretentiously anxious film-noir mask. Italianamerican was relaxed, broadly humorous, not excessively ambitious, direct.
Marty should return to his roots and come home. (p. 161)
James Monaco, "The Whiz Kids," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 by James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York), Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pp. 139-84.∗
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 flick every so often tosses in another bedroom adventure just because it's a skin flick. To me, that is asexual, just as Raging Bull is, ultimately, a-athletic, and amoral as well. This is the story of a boxer, Jake LaMotta—but what is he to boxing or boxing to him? About all the film tells us about LaMotta the middleweight is that, given his druthers, he would rather not give up sex and food before a fight. LaMotta might just as well be a bus driver.
As a man, he is revealed as scum…. But then, none of the characters around him possesses redeeming qualities, either. As a consequence, nothing changes and the film—like a lopsided fight—could be stopped at any point without altering the outcome.
Yet what an extraordinary piece of work is Raging Bull. Has any movie ever so utterly lacked soul and yet been so rewarding? The texture of the script … is never creased. The language is so uncannily correct that no matter how filthy the dialogue, it's never profane in spirit….
Why Scorsese wanted to saddle himself with a film portraying a despicable human is all the more baffling because the director's other instincts are so correct. Scorsese's touches are everywhere. What this man does with kitchens! There was an America that existed in kitchens, that dealt with life from out of kitchens. Scorsese has that down pat, and he doesn't need authentic costumes and oldies-but-goodies playing in the background to pull it off. He also has grasped the precise pecking order of that world: how people confronted one another, how they talked, when they backed off, where they stood.
It is no mean accomplishment to capture interrelationships of a lost subculture, but unfortunately, Jake the person never gets off the dime. So while Scorsese's film is an achievement, it could've been much more. Understand, Raging Bull doesn't lose. It just never gets the shot it deserves at the champeenship. It remains a glorious contender.
Frank Deford, "Raging Bull': Almost a Champeen," in Sports Illustrated (© 1980 Time Inc.), Vol. 53, No. 23, December 1, 1980, p. 87.
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 irritate them further—done better than ever, done excellently. Scorsese has filmed the life of the boxer Jake La Motta, his rises and falls and eventual retirement, and this time Scorsese's work is purged of heavy symbolism, of film-school display, of facile portent. His directing is imaginative but controlled; egregious mannerisms have coalesced and evolved into a strong style. Some of Raging Bull is shocking, but all of it is irresistible. (p. 26)
[Most] cheering is Scorsese's growth. Little Italy, the ceaseless conflict between the support and the restrictions of Catholicism, the alliances and counteralliances of family and of the Mafia are still his home ground. He tells us in the sequence under the opening credits that he is dealing with provenance and struggle: while La Motta—in slow motion—prances around a ring in a robe, warming up, the sound-track lays on the "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria Rusticana. It's a splendid fixing of the film.
Contradictorily Scorsese has both purged and complicated his filmmaking. Taxi Driver was better made than Mean Streets … and Raging Bull is a huge leap. He is still avid to move film all the time, eager to energize his screen, but instead of his former frantic cutting from long shots to closeups and back, with some reverse shots thrown in, he now more subtly cuts to shots in which the camera is already moving forward slowly. In the fight sequences, he sometimes creates the effect of putting the camera in a glove, inside a battered head, and he always keeps prime the feeling of complete physical collision….
He has solved the visual problem of showing many fights; sometimes he varies with slow motion, sometimes with a series of stills, sometimes with isolated successive frames like the ones of astronauts on the moon. Never does he let us anticipate wearily that there are more fights to come; he never lets the matter get near tedium, and he never uses trickery that distracts. These sequences are legitimate and interesting variations, like a good composer's variations on a theme.
There are some bumps in the story line, and they may be connected with Scorsese's filmmaking process rather than the script…. Scorsese fell so in love with the making of this film, I think, with the actual shooting of scenes and sequences … that he found himself with more of a jigsaw to assemble in the editing room than do most directors. What holds this picture together more than its story line is its stylistic consistency, and style here means more than cinematic syntax, it means fire and personality….
[One] laurel that must rest on Scorsese's head alone is praise for the acting—that is, for the casting and for the guidance of the actors. Many scenes are played in a very low key, not as patent Paul-Muni preparations for outbursts but to draw us into privacies, to take us beneath the skin….
Some verses from John IX, 24-26, are appended at the end, but I don't grasp their relevance. More, I think it may be misguided to try to crystallize what the film is "about." Attempts have already been made to explain La Motta's character as reactive to the Italian-American atmosphere, but the script wouldn't have to be much different fundamentally if the protagonist were a black or an Irish Catholic or a Jew. La Motta is to be taken as given, a chunk of temperament like a character in a medieval morality play.
Finally Raging Bull is "about" what we see and hear, elevating its rather familiar materials, through conviction and the gush of life. After the socio-psychological explanations have limped on, this film, like some … good art works, is finally "about" the fact that it incontrovertibly exists and, by existing, moves us.
Stanley Kauffmann, "Look Back in Anger" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1980 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 183, No. 23, December 6, 1980, pp. 26-7.
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 effects and the powerful melodramatic moments of movies such as [Renée Daalder's] "Body and Soul," [Robert Wise's] "The Set-Up," and [Rouben Mamoulian's] "Golden Boy." He makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another….
Scorsese appears to be trying to purify the characters of forties movies to universalize them. Vickie is an icon—a big, lacquered virgin-doll of the forties…. Sitting at the edge of a swimming pool,… Vickie is a Life cover girl of the war years. (p. 217)
Scorsese is also trying to purify forties style by using the conventions in new ways. If you look at forties movies now, the clichés … may seem like fun, and it's easy to see why Scorsese is drawn to them. But when he reproduces them, he reproduces the mechanical quality they once had, and the fun goes out of them. The cardinal rule of forties-studio style was that the scenes had to be shaped to pay off. Scorsese isn't interested in payoffs; it's something else—a modernist effect that's like a gray-out…. Scorsese's continuity with forties movies is in the texture—the studio artificiality that he makes sensuous, thick, viscous; there are layers of rage and animosity in almost every sequence.
"Raging Bull" isn't just a biography of a genre; it's also about movies and about violence, it's about gritty visual rhythm,… it's about the two "Godfather" pictures…. (p. 219)
The picture seems to be saying that in order to become champ, Jake La Motta had to be mean, obsessive, crazy. But you can't be sure, and the way the story is told Jake's life pattern doesn't make much sense. (p. 220)
At the end, before going onstage for his public reading, Jake recites [Marlon] Brando's back-of-the-taxi speech from "On the Waterfront" while looking in his dressing-room mirror. Scorsese is trying to outdo everything great, even the scene of [Travis] talking to himself in the mirror in "Taxi Driver." What does it mean to have La Motta deliver this lament that he could have been a contender instead of a bum when it's perfectly clear that La Motta is both a champ and a bum?… The whole picture has been made looking in a mirror, self-consciously. It takes a while to grasp that La Motta is being used as the fighter, a representative tormented man in a killer's body…. It's all metaphors: the animal man attempting to escape his destiny. When Jake, in jail on a morals charge, bangs his head and his fists against the stone walls of his cell and, sobbing in frustration, cries out, "Why? Why? Why? It's so f—king stupid! I'm not an animal!," it's the ultimate metaphor for the whole film.
The tragedy in Scorsese's struggles with the material in both "New York, New York" and "Raging Bull" is that he is a great director when he doesn't press so hard at it, when he doesn't suffer so much. He's got moviemaking and the Church mixed up together; he's trying to be the saint of cinema. And he turns Jake's life into a ritual of suffering. (pp. 220-22)
Scorsese likes movies that aren't covered in sentimental frosting—that put the surliness and killing and meanness right up front. But "Raging Bull" has the air of saying something important…. By making a movie that is all guilty pleasures, he has forged a new sentimentality. "Raging Bull" is about a character he loves too much; it's about everything he loves too much. It's the kind of movie that many men must fantasize about: their macho worst-dream movie.
Scorsese is saying that he accepts totally, that he makes no moral judgment…. Scorsese doesn't care about the rhythm and balance of fighters' bodies. There's no dancing for these fighters, and very little boxing. What Scorsese concentrates on is punishment given and received. He turns the lowdown effects he likes into highbrow flash reeking of religious symbolism.
You're aware of the camera positions and of the images held for admiration; you're conscious of the pop and hiss of the newsmen's cameras and the amplified sound of the blows—the sound of pain. Scorsese wants his B-movie seaminess and spiritual meaning, too. He wants a disreputable, low-life protagonist; then he suggests that this man is close to God, because he is God's animal.
By removing the specifics or blurring them, Scorsese doesn't produce universals—he produces banality. What we get is full of capitals: A Man Fights, A Man Loses Everything, A Man Bangs His Head Against the Wall. Scorsese is putting his unmediated obsessions on the screen, trying to turn raw, pulp power into art by removing it from the particulars of observation and narrative. He loses the low-life entertainment values of prizefight films; he aestheticizes pulp and kills it. "Raging Bull" is tabloid grand opera. (pp. 222, 225)
Pauline Kael, "Religious Pulp, or the Incredible Hulk," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 42, December 8, 1980, pp. 217-18, 220, 222, 225.
[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 environment. Scorsese's films involve antagonism and struggle, and constant movement, even if that movement is within a tightly circumscribed area that has no exit…. [There] is no triumph for his characters. With the notable exception of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore all of his characters lose to their isolation or their antagonism…. [His] work shows a degree of stylization which eschews, for the most part, the sixties conventions of realism, defined primarily by location shooting and natural acting styles. In New York, New York he moves indoors entirely, depending on studio sets to achieve an expressive artificiality. But even in the preceding films, where locations are used, there is a sense that the place inhabited by the characters is structured by their perceptions and by the way we see and understand their perceptions. (p. 208)
[Scorsese's mise-en-scène] is never accommodating; his characters do not have homes that reflect comfort or security. The places they inhabit are places of transition, of momentary situation…. The Manhattan of Taxi Driver, the Little Italy of Mean Streets, even the Southwest of Alice are perfectly recognizable, almost too much so. The mise-en-scène of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver represent more than New York, a place of tough people, crowded streets, fights and whores. They represent, to borrow a notion of Roland Barthes', a New York-ness, a shared image of New York which has little to do with the city itself, but rather expresses what everyone, including many who live there, have decided New York should look like. At the same time … the New York of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver is reflective of the energy of the characters, in the former, and of the anomie of Travis Bickle, in the latter, and these qualities are communicated to us by means of the ways we are made to see the mise-en-scène. Our own perceptions and preconceptions merge with the filmmaker's within the narrative and are then filtered through a third point of view, that of the character or characters created by the narrative, resulting in a rather complex perspective.
The complexity is heightened by the fact that, up until New York, New York, and beginning again in The Last Waltz, Scorsese's films create a tension between two opposing cinematic forms: the documentary and the fictional. The documentary aspect offers the possibility of a seemingly objective observation of characters, places, and events; the other demands a subjectivity of point of view which in Scorsese's work is so severe that the world becomes expressionistic, a reflection of a particular state of mind. Scorsese is close to Godard in understanding the arbitrary nature of these conventions, and he freely mixes them. There is the sense in most of his work of capturing a "reality" of places and events that might exist even without his presence. Until Taxi Driver, he employs the hand-held camera and the rapid, oblique editing which have become associated with a "documentary" and improvisational style. His actors (particularly Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel) create their characters with an off-handedness and an immediacy that gives the impression of unpremeditated existence…. When these qualities are interwoven with the subjective impressions of the world communicated to us by the ways the characters see their environment and themselves, and when Scorsese modifies the location shooting we have come to take for granted in contemporary film with artificial sets and stylized lighting, a complex perceptual structure is created that demands careful examination.
Scorsese started his commercial career with a film strongly influenced by the New Wave. Who's That Knocking at My Door?—a finger exercise for Mean Streets—is inscribed in the hand-held, jumpcut, non-transitional style that many filmmakers took from the surface of the French films of the early sixties. Its mise-en-scène is partly neo-realist, partly documentary, mixed with the subjectivity of perception and allusiveness that marks [Godard's] Breathless and [Truffaut's] The Four Hundred Blows. Who's That Knocking? is an "experimental" film in all senses: formally, it begins trying out the camera strategies, the restless, foreboding movement, that will become one of Scorsese's major formal devices. Contextually, it prepares the way for Mean Streets, J. R. … being an early version of Charlie in the later film—more of an oppressed Catholic than his later incarnation, less rooted in his environment, standing over and against New York rather than being enclosed within it as Charlie is. (pp. 209-11)
Boxcar Bertha, a film totally different from Who's That Knocking? and Mean Streets, still sets itself up as a link between them, if only by smoothing out the stylistic quirks apparent in the former and preparing for the consistent and assured approach of the latter. A violent film, situated in the seventies, late—Bonnie and Clyde mode of period evocation, it is a short, direct narrative which does little more than prepare for an enormous shoot-out at the end…. What Scorsese adds to the film is a further indication of his talent with the moving camera…. Boxcar Bertha is an important work not so much by Scorsese as for him; it permits him to work within the basic patterns of early-seventies film, its violence and its urgency, and to understand how those patterns can be worked together with the looser, more self-conscious and subjective elements of Who's That Knocking?
The integration occurs in Mean Streets, a film which can be seen as a "documentary" in the form of a carefully structured narrative fiction of four young men growing up on the fringes of society in New York's Little Italy, or as a subjective fiction of incomplete lives and sporadic violence in the form of a documentary of four young men in New York's Little Italy…. Scorsese investigates the almost incoherent street ramblings of disenfranchised men whose lives are defined by disorder, threatened by their own impulses, and, though confined by narrow geographical boundaries, paradoxically liberated by the turmoil of the bars, tenements, and streets that make up their confines. (pp. 211-13)
[None] of the characters in the film, with the possible exception of Tony, the barkeeper, has the center or sense of direction that we have come to expect from characters in conventional film fictions, and it is the purpose of the film to observe them in their randomness and as part of an unpredictable flow of events. When we see Charlie on the streets, no matter how central he may be to the narrative moment, he is composed in the frame as one figure among many, standing off-center, next to a building, other people moving by him…. Little violences, sporadic shootings, and fistfights punctuate the film as if they were parts of ongoing events, or as if they were moving toward some greater violence, which in fact they do. The end of the film is an explosion of gunfire and blood. (pp. 213-14)
It is difficult to accept or to understand a film that does not have emotional turmoil as its subject but merely as a referent, and chooses instead to make its own action its subject. Mean Streets is not about what motivates Charlie and Johnny Boy, not about what they think and feel (although these are present), but about how they see, how Charlie perceives his world and Johnny Boy reacts to it. In none of his films will Scorsese opt for the psychological realism of explained actions, defined motivations, or identifiable characters…. The world they inhabit is violent in the extreme, but it is a violence that is created by the characters' very attempts to make peace with it. From the point of view of the characters in Mean Streets, their world is perfectly ordinary, and Scorsese reflects this through the documentary nature of many of the images. But at the same time, we perceive a heightened sense of reality, a stylized, expressive presence most evident in the bar sequences, in the restless, moving camera, in the fragmentary, off-center editing.
Vitality and tension are apparent not only in the images, but in the dialogue … as well. Everyone in Mean Streets is a compulsive talker …, using words as an extension of themselves, a sign of their vitality. Their language is rooted in New York working-class usage, profoundly obscene and charged with movement. (pp. 217-18)
Scorsese, his co-writer [Mardik Martin], and his actors take the forms of the everyday language of a particular ethnic group, concentrate it and make it artificial, the artificiality creating the effect of the overheard and the immediate. The language of Mean Streets becomes a means of self- and group-definition, speaking of an unrooted life yet at the same time attempting to root that life in a community of shared rhythms and expressions. (p. 221)
Mean Streets does not, finally, define itself as any one thing. Although it depicts the activities of a group of disenfranchised urban ethnics, it does not attempt to comment on a social and economic class. A film about volatile emotions, it seems uninterested in analyzing emotions or baring souls. Although it deals with gangsters, it does not reflect upon or examine the generic tensions of the gangster film…. What it does reflect is Scorsese's (and hopefully our) delight in the film's capacity to capture a moment of communication, of interaction, and out of a series of such moments to fashion a sense of place and movement, energy and violence. It reflects Scorsese's growing control of point of view, his ability to shift from objective to subjective observation, often intermingling the two, until, in Taxi Driver, it is difficult to tell them apart. (pp. 221-22)
Taxi Driver is the inverted extension of Mean Streets. Where that film examines a small, isolated urban sub-community, Taxi Driver focuses on one isolated urban sub-individual. Where Mean Streets presents its characters in tenuous control of their environment, at home in their surroundings, Taxi Driver presents its character trapped by it, swallowed and imprisoned. More accurately, the objective-subjective points of view of Mean Streets that allow us to look both at and with the characters is replaced by a subjective point of view that forces us continually to see as the character sees, creating a mise-en-scène that expresses, above all, the obsessive vision of a madman. Finally, where Mean Streets celebrates urban life in its violence and its community …, Taxi Driver rigorously structures a path to violence that is separate from community, separate from the exigencies of any "normal" life, separate from any rational comprehension, but only the explosion of an individual attempting to escape from a self-made prison, an individual who, in his madness, attempts to act the role of a movie hero.
One further connection exists between the two films. Mean Streets is a diffuse film noir. Its dark, enclosed, violent urban world recalls many of the noir conventions. But, despite its violent end, it escapes the total bleakness of noir precisely because of its sense of community. Even though its characters are trapped, they do not evidence the loneliness, dread, and anxiety manifested in film noir. Again, despite the cruelty that ends the film, the bulk of it emphasizes a friendship—albeit unstable—among its characters. Taxi Driver, however, renders the conventions of film noir in an immediate, frightening manner. Its central character lives completely enclosed in a city of dreadful night; he is so removed and alone that everything he sees becomes a reflection of his own distorted perceptions. Travis Bickle … is the last noir man in the ultimate noir world: closed and dark, a paranoid universe of perversion, obsession, and violence. In the creation of this world, Scorsese goes to the roots of film noir, to certain tenets of German Expressionism that call for "a selective and creative distortion" of the world by means of which the creator of a work can represent "the complexity of the psyche" through a visual style that exposes the "object's internal life, the expression of its 'soul.'" Scorsese does want to "expose" the inner life of his character, but not to explain it. The internal life of Travis Bickle remains an enigma throughout the film. It cannot be explained, even through the most dreadful violence, and a major concern of the film is to frustrate our attempts at understanding that mind. But Scorsese is very interested in communicating to us the way a world looks as it is perceived by such a mind, and he uses "a selective and creative distortion" of perception in extraordinary ways. (pp. 223-24)
Taxi Driver is aware of its own formal identity…. The film defines its central character not in terms of social problems nor by any a priori ideas of noble suffering and transcendent madness, but by the ways we see the character and the way he sees himself and his surroundings. He is the climactic noir figure, much more isolated and very much madder than his forebears. No cause is given for him, no understanding allowed; he stands formed by his own loneliness and trapped by his own isolation, his actions and reactions explicable only through those actions and reactions. (p. 227)
[There is] no analysis of, nor reasons given for, his behavior—none, at least, that make a great deal of rational sense. He can, perhaps, be viewed as a radically alienated urban castoff, a mutant produced by the incalculable dehumanization of our postindustrial society…. But the film withholds any political, social, or even psychological analysis…. However, after saying this, I must point out that the film does not neglect an analysis of the cultural aberrations that afflict Travis, and our-selves. Scorsese quietly, even hilariously, suggests one possible motivation for, or result of, Travis's psychosis. The more deeply he withdraws, the more he comes to believe in the American movie myths of purity and heroism, love and selflessness, and to actuate them as the grotesque parodies of human behavior they are. Travis Bickle is the legitimate child of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic; each the obverse of the other; each equally dangerous. Together they create a persona so out of touch with ordinary human experience that the world he inhabits and perceives becomes an expressionist noir nightmare: an airless and dark trap that its inhabitant escapes only by drawing everything into it with him. The final irony occurs when Travis's act of slaughter, which he believes is an act of liberation and purification, is taken as such by everyone else, and we discover that we have been trapped by the same aberrations as he, that the double perspective we are offered by the film fuses, and we momentarily accept the lunatic as hero. (pp. 235-36)
[Consideration of] Travis's killing of the robber in the delicatessen and the manic preparations and rituals he puts himself through, should make the [violence at the end of the film] less surprising and perhaps less gratuitous than it first appears. Unfortunately, no matter how much is revealed by such analysis, it remains an excrescence, a moment of grotesque excess in an otherwise controlled work. It damages the film, permitting it to be rejected as only one more entry in the list of violent exploitations rampant in the mid-seventies. But even so damaged, the film is less cynical than many of its relatives, and no matter how much it may pander to the lowest expectations of an audience, it also holds back, tricks those expectations, and, save for those few minutes in which control is lost, remains a coherent, subtle work. (p. 245)
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which precedes Taxi Driver, is a film so completely its opposite that it might be by another hand. And although it has great formal energy, it is more important for its subject than its execution.
Alice is a film of light, concerned with realizing personal energies and impressing those energies onto the world in a non-destructive way. It is one of the rare films of the late sixties and early seventies that offers a notion of optimism, "a small step forward," as Diane Jacobs says [in her Hollywood Renaissance], out of the hatred and murder, passivity and manipulation that have informed most of our recent films. But it remains only a step, and we seem more likely to retreat from it—as does Scorsese—than to follow it through. In the context of Scorsese's work, Alice stands apart, almost as a dialectic to the dark violence of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, almost offering the possibility that the violence can be contained and subdued. The violent character of … Ben is seen in the film partially as an intrusion, partially as a mode of behavior that exists and must be attended to. It is not allowed, as is similar behavior in the other films, to encompass and diminish everything else. But it does exist, and there is a sense of brooding and nervousness in the camera movements throughout the film that seems to portend something other than what these movements are covering and that relates the film to the essential concerns of Scorsese's other works: threat always exists; energies are always ready to be expended. Here the threats are overcome and the energies directed joyfully. (p. 251)
It is rare that a film, particularly when it takes the form of a journey, a road movie, leaves both us and its characters alone, without indicating momentous events and major change. Except for the event that sets Alice out (which is underplayed) and the violence of Ben (which Scorsese cannot avoid), Alice is content to observe possibilities of change and freedom, however limited, without forcing its characters to pay a price. No one dies (with the exception of Alice's husband), no one gets emotionally or physically hurt or scarred…. Coming, as it does, between Mean Streets, in which the community is dark and volatile, finally destructive, and Taxi Driver, where there is no community and the isolated man explodes into madness, Alice indicates that the dialectic is not dead and that American film could, conceivably, survive with its characters talking to each other, listening, and responding. It stands, with all its flaws, as an important entry into that recent group of American films that attempts to come to terms with women in a way other than the conventional modes of melodrama. (pp. 259-60)
New York, New York contains no location shots. With the help of production designer Boris Leven and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, Scorsese builds an artificial world. The result is odd, and I am not certain that what we perceive is what was intended. The opening titles of the film, the painted city skyline, immediately refer us to a pastel evocation of the forties and early-fifties studio musical. But as the film proceeds, this intended evocation begins to disappear and be replaced by a consciousness of the methods of evocation. The forties interiors and the strange, almost abstract suggestiveness of the exteriors develop their own attraction; the control of the mise-en-scène seems to become more important than why that control is being exercised, so that form threatens to refer only to itself. The viewer becomes aware not of why the studio sets are there (to evoke the atmosphere of the studio musical), only that they are there. Not that they are not fascinating in themselves…. But they are only fascinating as aspects of design. And they are inconsistent. Most of the interiors, with the exception of an oddly lit motel room and a nightclub lit entirely in red neon, are conventionally "real." They look like interiors evocative of the forties, whereas the exteriors evoke not a time but the idea of studio sets.
Scorsese has confused two levels of realism: illusionary realism, in which the cinematic space and its articulations create the illusion of a "real world," and a realism of form, in which the cinematic space points to its own existence, prevents the viewer from passing through the form into an illusion of reality, and uses that obstacle to create other levels of awareness…. If Scorsese was consciously attempting to correct the phenomenon of "evocation" films that followed upon [Arthur Penn's] Bonnie and Clyde in the late sixties and early seventies by demonstrating that the evocation of the past in film is only the evocation of the ways film evokes the past, the inconsistency of exterior artificiality and interior "realism" compromises his attempt.
There is also an extraordinary mixture of genres in the film. It is primarily a romantic musical in the post-Cabaret style, in which the musical numbers occur as part of the narrative, as an actual stage performance—or, in one sequence, a film performance—rather than expanding out of the narrative and into another spatial plane…. But here again Scorsese denies the tradition he apparently wants to celebrate, mixing a reflexivity that forces us to view the film as a self-conscious recreation not of a period but of a film of a period with a realism of quite recent origin. A film like Bob Fosse's Cabaret … attempts to turn the musical into a "realistic" genre, a melodrama with music. New York, New York continues that attempt, but at the same time undoes it by attempting to evoke older musicals that had no pretense to that kind of realism and flaunting the unreality of its appearance. If that were not complicated enough, exteriors are so lit and photographed as to appear similar to the mise-en-scène of Taxi Driver, so that a claustrophobic, barren, and occasionally foreboding effect is achieved that saturates the film with the aura of film noir. This in itself is not novel…. But it is not clear what the darkness of New York, New York is reflecting, since the temporal overlays are so uncertain. The occasional despair about "putting on the show" or about personal and financial security that manifested itself in some thirties musicals grew out of the Depression, the time in which the films were made and the time they reflected. New York, New York made in the seventies, is about the forties, and it is difficult to determine whether the noir elements of the film are merely part of the evocation of the forties noir style, an experiment in genre-mixing, or an attempt to create a setting for a romance that has its dark and anxiety-ridden moments. (pp. 261-63)
In his approach to the inarticulateness of the characters and to the somberness of their situation and surroundings, Scorsese avoids some of the glibness (but also the brightness) of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and replaces its nervous energy with a slow, sometimes ponderous rhythm of emotional liberation emerging with considerable pain and uncertainty. But like Alice, this film does its best to avoid the melodrama and sentiment inherent in its subject, denying the emotional glut that might easily have been built up. Those sequences in which Francine begins to move on her own and in which Jimmy's separation from her is made complete are among the best indicators of Scorsese's control over the narrative movement. (p. 265)
It is difficult for American film to create a narrative that speaks to the immediate realities of people who do not and never will experience overwhelming insights and emotions, and to speak to these realities in a form that makes us understand them in a full social and political context. Cinema can do it: the films of Godard and Rohmer, of Alain Tanner and Rainer Werner Fassbinder prove that the cinematic imagination is more than able to work within valid emotional limits and a clear understanding of how people function in a world without heroism and emotional sacrifice. This is, of course, not within the American film tradition, and we must be content to observe and comment upon those films that at least question the tradition and offer other possibilities. Scorsese is rather unique among recent filmmakers in his ability to cover a full range of narrative possibilities, imitating, questioning, mocking them, sometimes all at the same time. If New York, New York fails to cohere because it attempts to do too much, its failure points to an ever greater success: the success of an active imagination, constantly probing and questioning, demanding that the forms of its art reveal and account for themselves. (pp. 268-69)
Robert Phillip Kolker, "Expressions of the Streets: Martin Scorsese," in his A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman (copyright © 1980 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, New York, 1980, pp. 206-69.
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 begets a sequence, a one-line joke ends it, a reaction is long in coming and then explodes with unexpected violence, emotions are concealed, nothing is predictable, a sudden word, a face caught at the moment of truth, bring tears to our eyes. This is the world of Martin Scorsese. (pp. 1, 3)
I have heard people whine about the violence in Mean Streets, the violence in Taxi Driver. Scorsese is an artist. Pick up a copy of The Disasters of War. See that naked, maimed figure of a man, impaled on a stake? See those tumbled women, raped and murdered? See that priest hanged from a tree? Do you think that Goya was trying to get a cheap thrill out of these horrors? No more is Martin Scorsese. He has an eye that misses nothing, that looks on beauty and terror with the same dispassionate eye, with the same love and compassion. He cannot tell anything but the truth.
I wish we had a dozen more Scorseses. But it is not likely to happen. If we get one in every decade we'll be lucky. I'll settle for that. (p. 3)
Michael Powell, in his introduction to Martin Scorsese: The First Decade by Mary Pat Kelly (copyright © 1980 by Mary Pat Kelly), Redgrave Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 1, 3.