SOURCE: A review of Who's That Knocking at My Door?, in The New York Times, September 9, 1969, p. 39.
[Canby, long associated with The New York Times, is one of the most distinguished American film and theater critics. In the following review, a portion of which appeared in CLC-20, he praises Scorsese's eye for realistic detail, but faults him for not displaying a more sophisticated understanding of the world than that possessed by his characters.]
J. R. (Harvey Keitel), a young, essentially decent Italian-American, has grown up in a comfortable New York City apartment that is protected by his mother, lit by holy candles and sanctified by china figurines of Virgin Marys who wear the wan, distant smiles of tired airline hostesses. J. R. goes to the movies—he cherishes the memory of Rio Bravo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—and he walks under marquees announcing Ulysses. Although out of a job, he doesn't lack funds. He drinks beer with the boys at the neighborhood friendship club and occasionally he sleeps with "broads," as distinguished from "girls," who are the virgins one is supposed to marry.
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.
J. R.'s dense wrong-headedness is real and commonplace but not especially affecting in the film that opened yesterday at the Carnegie Hall Cinema. Scorsese, who is 25 years old and won a number of festival prizes for shorts made while he was a student at New York University, is obviously a competent young filmmaker. Working on what must have been a minuscule budget, he 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 firsthand experience, but the vision Scorsese has 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. There are lots of panning shots across gray, squalid cityscapes and around interiors made easily grotesque with objects of religious adoration. I must say that I like Scorsese's enthusiasm even while wincing at some of the results, as in a love scene in which the camera swoops around a nude couple as if the photographer were a vertiginous Peeping Tom.
Scorsese is effective in isolating the moments of Marty-like boredom that J. R. accepts as concomitants to life—a drunken beer party that almost turns into a gang bang, and a curious visit to the country during which J. R. is made vaguely uncomfortable by all the fresh air and nature. However, the director, who also wrote the original story and screenplay, hasn't succeeded in making a drama that is really much more aware than the characters them-selves. The result is a movie that is as precise—and as small—as a contact print. The performances by Keitel, Zina Bethune (as his girl) and Lennard Kuras and Michael Scala (as his companions) are good and in the same scale as the film.
The experience of watching Who's That Knocking at My Door? was not entirely drab, however. It reminded me of another, supremely wrong-headed character, the young...
(This entire section contains 636 words.)
Sicilian in Pietro Cermi'sSeduced and Abandoned who adamantly refused to marry the girl he had made pregnant because she wasn't a virgin. Good imported Italian social comedy, which once was as common as Gorgonzola here, seems to have become quite rare.
Martin Scorsese 1942–
American filmmaker, screenwriter, and actor.
The following entry provides an overview of Scorsese's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Of the American filmmakers who gained prominence in the early 1970s—notably Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—Scorsese is widely considered the most consistently successful on artistic grounds. Many critics argue that such films as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1981), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990) examine American culture and the nature of masculinity by reworking the conventions of classic film genres. Scorsese's films also reveal an autobiographical concern with religious issues and with his Italian-American ethnic heritage.
Scorsese was born and raised in predominantly Italian neighborhoods in New York City. The early onset of asthma limited the time he could spend with his friends, and the resulting isolation encouraged his introspective temperament and the indulgence of his love for movies. Brought up with strong religious convictions, Scorsese believed for most of his childhood that he would become a priest. He was expelled from a junior seminary, however, and later failed the entrance examination to the divinity school at Fordham College. In 1960 he enrolled at New York University and began his formal study of film. Under the guidance of professor Haig Manoogian, his mentor and the man to whom Raging Bull is dedicated, Scorsese made two award-winning short films, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) and It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964). After graduating with a Master's degree in 1966, Scorsese worked for several years as an editor and director in British and American television. In 1968 he returned to NYU to teach classes in American film history. During this time he extensively reworked one of his undergraduate films, variously known as "Bring On the Dancing Girls" and "I Call First." With the addition of newly filmed scenes, including a nude sex scene demanded by the film's distributor, the new version was commercially released in 1969 as Who's That Knocking at My Door? The film features Harvey Keitel in the lead role and was photographed by Michael Wadleigh, director of the documentary Woodstock (1970), which Scorsese helped to record and edit. After Woodstock he made his own documentary, Street Scenes (1970), and then directed Boxcar Bertha (1972) for independent producer Roger Corman. This quickly-made film about Depression-era bank robbers, based as much on the exploits of actual persons as on Arthur Penn's film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was a modest commercial and critical success, and it allowed Scorsese to make Mean Streets (1973), a film with themes of greater personal significance to him. Mean Streets is noteworthy both as Scorsese's first major work and as his first featuring Robert De Niro, who has appeared in nearly all of Scorsese's major films. After making a documentary called Italian-American (1974), in which he interviews his parents about their lives as immigrants in New York City, Scorsese was asked by actress Ellen Burstyn to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975); the film was very popular with audiences—Burstyn won an Academy Award for her performance—and Scorsese became known to Hollywood producers as a dependable, "bankable" director. His subsequent career—including the financial failure of his downbeat homage to the musicals of the 1940s entitled New York, New York (1977), the controversy stirred by The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and The Age of Innocence (1993), his adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1920 novel—has been marked by increased critical esteem and much commercial success. Additionally, Scorsese has been an active supporter of efforts to safeguard classic American films, promoting the preservation of old or otherwise deteriorating films by transferring them to stable film stock, and preventing, by official government recognition, the alteration of classic films through colorization, frame-size reduction, and time compression—processes usually associated with the commercial interests of television.
Mean Streets was originally conceived as the third installment in a trilogy of films. The first film, tentatively titled "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," was never made, but elements from it were incorporated into Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets. Mean Streets concerns a young Little Italy hoodlum named Charley, played by Harvey Keitel, who has delusions of saintliness. The fragmentary, digressive narrative presents scenes that convey the essence and rhythm of Charley's life—hanging out with street-corner toughs and small-time mobsters, getting into fights, drinking, picking up "broads," sleeping with his girlfriend Teresa, and confessing his sins in church. The emerging plot involves Charley's attempt to establish a career in the Mafia through his mobster uncle, Giovanni, while he also tries to educate and protect Teresa's cousin Johnny Boy, played by De Niro as a dimwitted, free-spirited, and possibly psychotic loner who repeatedly antagonizes the local loan shark, Michael. The film reflects Scorsese's affection for and sociological fascination with New York—specifically its underworld and the Italian-Americans who live on its periphery—and inaugurates, in his major films, the exploration of his contradictory feelings toward the Catholic Church and his thematic interest in the notion of redemption. Scorsese, De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Schrader expand on this latter theme in Taxi Driver, in which a psychotic cabbie named Travis Bickle, disgusted by all the varieties of crime and pollution he sees, becomes fixated on the redemptive potential of violence. With a hallucinatory, hyper-realistic style—produced by such techniques as the expressionistic use of shadowy low-key lighting saturated with primary colors, unmotivated camera movement, and an eerie musical score—the film follows Travis on his nocturnal journeys through the roughest areas of the city and chronicles the mental disintegration that occurs as he focuses and tries to express his rage. Travis befriends a child prostitute named Iris, and, after an aborted, halfhearted attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate, rescues her—in the film's climactic bloodbath—from her sordid life. Scorsese's next film, New York, New York, features De Niro as an egotistical saxophone player and Liza Minelli as a talented band singer and actress, a character bearing many similarities to Minelli's actual mother, Judy Garland. Portraying the rise and fall of their relationship in the style of a 1940s backstage Hollywood musical, the film, consistent with the genre, includes several elaborate production numbers and many Big Band-era songs. Unlike the films that inspired it, however, New York, New York offers a penetrating study of repressed male violence and a decidedly downbeat ending. Raging Bull elaborates on the theme of male violence and repressed sexuality and, like New York, New York, plays against the expectations of its putative genre. Although it is based on the autobiography of boxer Jake La Motta, the film does not attempt to explain its main character, again played by De Niro. Rather, the film focuses on La Motta's relationship with his wife Vickie, whom he loves but abuses and suspects of infidelity, and with his brother Joey, whom he loves but for whom he also possesses intense feelings he can express only as rage. The film is a portrait of La Motta's primitive emotional life and his need for the violence of the ring, both as an outlet for his inchoate, barely controlled desires and as a means to redeem himself through extreme physical punishment. The King of Comedy has been described as both an essay on the emptiness of pop culture and a Freudian critique of patriarchal society. Rupert Pupkin, an untalented, nebbishy autograph-seeker who dreams of fame as a comedian on late night talk shows, kidnaps Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like host, and blackmails his producers into letting him perform a monologue on the show. Played by De Niro, Pupkin is portrayed as a desperate, delusional, potentially violent character whose only talent is for ignoring those who would dissuade him; Scorsese's critique of pop culture fame lies in the fact that Pupkin ultimately succeeds. Seeing Langford as a symbolic father—with Pupkin and his friend and accomplice Masha as "children" in an oedipal triangle—film scholar Robin Wood has described The King of Comedy as "one of the most rigorous assaults we have on the structures of the patriarchal nuclear family and the impossible desires, fantasies, frustrations, and violence those structures generate." The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, tells the story of Jesus in straight-forward, realistic detail. The film's main variation on the Biblical story is to suggest that, as he died on the cross, Jesus imagined what his life would have been like if he rejected his role as savior; the film presents a dream sequence in which Jesus lives and raises a family with Mary Magdalene. That he is shown to reject this imagined retreat into humanity and to embrace his fate as the son of God did not, in the eyes of many Christian fundamentalists, compensate for the film's presumed irreverence. Goodfellas is based on Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy (1985), which presents the life story of Henry Hill, an Irish-Italian thief and loan shark with close ties to the New York Mafia. The film dramatizes many events from the book, including the notorious "Lufthansa heist" of the late 1970s, during which millions of dollars were stolen from a New York airport. Similar to Mean Streets in its evocation of time, place, and character, Goodfellas has been noted for its innovative use of such techniques as voice-over narration by more than one character, freeze-frames, slow motion, and the use of popular songs.
Scorsese is widely considered one of the most important filmmakers in the United States. Critics argue that in his best films—incisive portraits of modern life that examine the dynamics of intimate, destructive relationships—Scorsese challenges audience expectations by manipulating genre conventions. For example, commentators have noted that while Taxi Driver is realistic in many details, it employs a number of highly stylized elements from familiar Hollywood genres; notably, the film's expressionistic lighting and music, as well as its attempt—through camera movement, set design, and other aspects of the mise-en-scène—to visually manifest the central character's madness, can be seen as influences from 1930s horror movies; similarly, critics have argued that Taxi Driver reworks, somewhat grotesquely, the Western's trademark theme of the loner-hero, adrift in hostile territory, who must save the innocent woman from the clutches of "savages." Robin Wood has written that Scorsese's work involves a "drastic re-thinking of the Hollywood genres, either combining them in such a way as to foreground their contradictions … or disconcertingly reversing the expectations they traditionally arouse." This latter strategy, it is argued, accounts for the uniqueness of such films as New York, New York and Raging Bull, where the former subverts the happy, rags-to-riches formula of the 1940s backstage musical by charting the personal and professional misfortunes of two musicians; and the latter, with its circumspect time frame and lack of biographical information and analysis of motivation, offers a depiction of paranoid physical and emotional violence in place of the standard biopic overview of a life and career. Ironically, these aspects of Scorsese's films have also been used in arguments against the value of his work, with critics suggesting that the clash of genres, or their "incomplete" rendering, is a manifestation of his confusion and misunderstanding of his subject matter. Scorsese has also been accused of lacking a sense of narrative structure; some critics fault such films as Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas for being confusing and blame their digressive, nonlinear, vignette-laden narratives for inhibiting viewer identification. Perhaps the most stinging criticism leveled against Scorsese and his films has to do with a presumed relationship between the views of his characters and his own beliefs. While some critics have faulted Scorsese for glorifying the macho ethos and racist attitudes of many of his characters, most argue that it would be disingenuous to portray such individuals in anything but their full ugliness. Wood concludes that "Scorsese is perhaps the only Hollywood director of consequence who has succeeded in sustaining the radical critique of American culture that developed in the 1970s through the Reagan era of retrenchment and recuperation. Scorsese probes the tensions within and between individuals until they reveal their fundamental, cultural nature."
SOURCE: A review of Boxcar Bertha, in The New York Times, August 18, 1972, p. 19.
[In the following excerpt, Thompson suggests that Boxcar Bertha—though a B-movie rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—is a surprisingly good film.]
Of the new circuit doublebill, the one to catch is Boxcar Bertha, emphatically not 1,000 Convicts and a Woman. Yes, Boxcar Bertha, believe it or not. Here is an interesting surprise.
Set in the South and Southwest of the Depression years, with old-time clothes and cars, this is the drama of two derelict criminals and sweet-hearts who finally meet a horrible doom. Does that sound familiar? Well, Bonnie and Clyde still leads the parade.
However, while there is a striking similarity in general content, background, fine color photography and even the use of hillbilly music, the new, more modest film stands curiously on its own.
The main reason is the character of the hero, a kind of stumblebum union organizer, whose battered altruism sharply reflects the labor despair of the era, even as he detours into crime and wars on the railroad bosses. David Carradine is excellent in this role. Matching him, as the childlike boxcar itinerant, is Barbara Hershey. Fine, too, as their confederates, are Barry Primus and Bernie Casey.
The thoughtful, ironic script by Joyce H. Corrington and John William Corrington thins only toward the middle and the whole thing has been beautifully directed by Martin Scorsese, who really comes into his own here….
What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (film) (1963)It's Not Just You, Murray! [with Mardik Martin] (film) (1964)The Big Shave (film) (1967) †Who's That Knocking at My Door? (film) (1969)Street Scenes (documentary film) (1970)Boxcar Bertha [with Joyce H. Corrington and John William Corrington; based on the autobiography Sister of the Road by Bertha Thompson and Ben L. Reitman] (film) (1972)Mean Streets [with Martin] (film) (1973)Italian-American (documentary film) (1974)Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore [with Robert Getchell] (film) (1975)Taxi Driver [with Paul Schrader] (film) (1976)New York, New York [with Earl Mac Rauch and Martin] (film) (1977)American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (documentary film) (1978)The Last Waltz (documentary film) (1978)Raging Bull [with Schrader and Martin; based on the autobiography by Jake La Motta] (film) (1981)The King of Comedy [with Paul Zimmerman] (film) (1983)After Hours [with Joseph Minion] (film) (1985)The Color of Money [with Richard Price; based on the novel by Walter Tevis] (film) (1986)The Last Temptation of Christ [with Schrader; based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis] (film) (1988) ‡Life Lessons [with Price] (film) (1989)Goodfellas [with Nicholas Pileggi; based on Pileggi's nonfiction book Wiseguy] (film) (1990)Cape Fear [with Wesley Strick; based on the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, and on the 1961 film directed by J. Lee Thompson and written by James R. Webb] (film) (1991)The Age of Innocence [with Jay Cocks; based on the novel by Edith Wharton] (film) (1993)
∗Scorsese directed all the films listed here. Bracketed information refers to screenwriting credit.
†The first version of this film, shown in 1965 but not commercially released, bore the title Bring on the Dancing Girls. A second version, exhibited at the New York University film festival in 1967, was titled I Call First. The film was released in Los Angeles in 1970 as J. R.
‡This is one of the three short films that comprise New York Stories. The other two, Oedipus Wrecks and Life without Zoe, were directed by Woody Allen and Francis Coppola, respectively.
SOURCE: "Season's End," in Commentary, Vol. 57, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 54-8.
[In the following excerpt, Pechter qualifies his praise for Mean Streets by stressing what he considers the limitations of improvisational acting and Scorsese's consequent failure to establish a narrative structure.]
[Mean Streets] begins so beautifully and with such confident control (via a series of vignettes introducing the principal characters) that it establishes a level it cannot itself live up to, and barely ten minutes after it has begun one is aware (during a protracted and at least partly improvised dialogue about some borrowed money which takes place between two of the characters in the back room of a bar) of a frittering away of some of its power. And lively and vital as the film continues to be thereafter, one remains from then on aware of the slow but steady leakage of its power, even, one might say, the ceding of its power by the director, in the name of a quest for that air of spontaneity which the film achieves in abundance, but only at a cost.
Basically, the approaches to improvision in films have been drawn between those of early Godard, giving his actors their lines but only at the last minute to prevent them sounding worked over, and John Cassavetes (taken up by Mailer), allowing the actors to invent their lines guided by their psychological interpretatin of the character, in hopes that some higher truth will emerge from the unpredictable chemistry of the actor-characters' interaction; the differences are essentially those between a director's cinema, using the actor's unpreparedness as one more tool in the director's creative control, and a cinema in which the actors hold an equal partnership in the work's creation. When the latter method works, miracles can happen, but rarely, unless the director's partner is an improvising actor with the genius of a Brando, can such miracles be sustained for the duration of the picture. Mean Streets has some moments touched by this miraculous excitement, and other that simply grind to a halt with that slightly dead, faintly embarrassed sense which always seems to attend actors improvising beyond the limits of their artistic capabilities, and waiting for something to happen. (The hallmark of such scenes is protraction and repetition—"What d'ya mean [the last line then repeated]?"—as the actors pass the buck and stall for time, and the characteristic admission of failure comes with the actors going from their discomfort.) The actors in Mean Streets are all good, but none of them, including Robert De Niro (who is to take over the Brando role in Coppola's sequal to The Godfather), seems up to the creative responsibility he's asked to shoulder; though De Niro comes across here as a far more intelligent actor than one might have expected from his work in Bang the Drum Slowly, even he falls back more often than he should on such effectively ingratiating things as his crazy grin, and the "hey-goombah" bits of stage-Italian business.
So finally, for all its sharp intelligence in both acting and direction, Mean Streets amounts to less than it should. Scorsese has a subject (the conflicting claims of church and street on the soul of his protagonist), and a man character (who previously appeared in his first feature film, Who's That Knocking on My Door?, which I haven't seen), and an ethnic milieu which he clearly knows fully and intimately; and he has (as Cassavetes and Mailer basically have not) a director's grasp of the means of his medium. What Mean Streets lacks, whether owing to Scorsese's limitations or to the priority he gives to improvisation, is a formal structure, an organizing action; without it, all the film's life seems to seep to its margins, to lie in its incidentals and details. The film is right on target, but goes nowhere, and by the movie's end its spontaneity, which, compared with the operatic heaviness of The Godfather, seemed at first the byproduct of Scorsese's greater intimacy with his subject matter, seems less telling than The Godfather's measured effects; indeed, apart from its opening, probably the most wholly successful scenes in the Scorsese film are the most conventionally realized ones with Cesare Danova playing a Mafia don. (Perhaps it owes something also to the Scorsese film's reliance on improvisation that such apparent inconsistencies as its religious-guilt-wracked protagonist's blaspheming at a bar have been allowed to stand, and that the impression it conveys of the passage of time is so blurred that one year's St. Anthony's Festival seems to follow on the heels of another.) Given how little sense Mean Streets generates of knowing where it's going, it's hardly surprising that the film doesn't so much conclude as simply stop—with a meaningless burst of violence (violence being for a director what laughs are for an actor: an easy way out; and this director seems already to know a little too well how to whip things up with effective applications of violent action).
All of which may seem unduly harsh on a work as promising as Mean Streets, though my view of Scorsese has been somewhat jaundiced by my having seen his previous film, Boxcar Bertha, and knowing just how panderingly he can lay on the violence when the exigencies of turning a buck demand it. But in part harshness seems called for just because Mean Streets is a work of real promise, with much that is vivid and brilliant in it which the film as a whole fails to live up to. It's just because, at its best, the stakes involved seem so high, that I resent the way Mean Streets finally leaves one with such small change.
SOURCE: "Heroines and Their Hairdresser," in Commentary, Vol. 59, No. 5, May, 1975, pp. 67-70.
[In the following excerpt, Pechter lauds Scorsese's manipulation of film genre conventions in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.]
I spoke of the Cassavetes influence on Martin Scorsese when I reviewed the latter's Mean Streets [in Commentary, January 1974]. Scorsese's new film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, still shows signs of the influence, chiefly in its excessively lunging, thrusting visual style, and in its use in a supporting role of the actress (Lelia Goldoni) who played the female lead in Cassavetes's first film, Shadows, and who's been seen in sufficiently few films since for her appearance here to constitute an act of homage.
Alice gets off to a none-too-promising start with its heroine, Alice Hyatt, as a little girl in Monterey, California, vowing to make it to the top and be better singer than Alice Faye, in a scene redolent of movie-bred fantasy and shot in a facetious recreation of the style of 40's movies, complete with artificial sunset. The film then jumps to the present, with Alice living as a housewife in New Mexico, tyrannized along with her young son by a brutish truck-driver husband, whom she married, we gather, because he promised to take her places and was (as she tells her son) a "good kisser." The husband is killed in a crash, and Alice and her son take to the road across the American Southwest in an attempt to get back to Monterey and resume her aborted career as a singer. She runs out of money and gets a singing job in a cocktail lounge at a stopover along the way, where she takes up with man number two, an assembly-line worker in a ten-gallon hat (nicely played by Harvey Keitel of Mean Streets), who's younger than she and pursues her with ingratiating boyishness, but turns out to be married, a wife-beater, and psychopathically violent. She moves on, but again her money runs out, and she takes another job: this time, as a waitress in a truck stop. There she meets a third man, a rancher (played by Kris Kristofferson at his most mellow), who seems to love her and be "supportive," but who at one point blows up at her son and strikes him. Alice flees in the face of what seems another instance of male bullying, but the man succeeds in persuading her to marry him.
I offer this short, schematic reading of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore only to indicate what it might have been—more female victimization by men and by popular culture—so as better to appreciate what it actually is. For somewhere along the road it travels, the neat message Alice might have contained gets sidetracked, as the movie increasingly opens itself up to the confusion of life around it. And rarely has a movie thrived so well on confusion. At once mocking movie conventions and indebted to them (particularly to the wise-cracking heroine of 30's movies), both respecting what Alice wants from life and subjecting her expectations to scrutiny, the film ends up with more questions than answers, but they're the right questions.
Has Alice judged this third man correctly, or is she making yet another mistake? (Her son, a precocious brat, well warrants discipline, but the implications of the scene in which the rancher strikes him remain ambiguous.) Will the man in fact give up his ranch as he says he will to get Alice to Monterey and enable her to pursue her career as a singer, and, in any case, should he be expected to sacrifice his career for hers any more than she should have once had to sacrifice hers for her husband's? And what of the things Alice wants themselves? Monterey may represent a missed opportunity, the site of a wrong turning and a path not taken, but it's also the place from which she was once apparently glad to get away via marriage. And though to sing better than Alice Faye may be no exalted ambition, it's doubtful, from the wispy singing voice we hear, that Alice has the talent to do even that. Indeed, one is left wondering whether Alice will really either marry or get to Monterey. The film's last shot is of Alice and her son, the rancher nowhere in sight, walking together through the town where she waits on tables toward a hazy horizon crammed with the signs of motels and cocktail lounges, one of which reads, "Monterey."
Probably some of these questions are not so much deliberately posed by the film as they are questions which inadvertently arise from it, some of them challenging the film's own assumptions (and, with them, assumptions that are currently in the air everywhere). One isn't always sure, and I don't think it much matters. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore has an open, unfinished feel which may not bespeak a polished work of art, but which greatly suits it. And it has also, as do few other recent movies, a sense of utter contemporaniety: of being directly plugged in to the way we live now. It's uniquely a product of the movies: a blend of pervasive fantasies and a sometimes surprisingly stinging realism, of old movies and present-day life. Without that slap he gives her son, Alice's rancher would be too good a thing to believe in—another movie happy ending—but the slap takes place, and we feel it.
This isn't to say one can't discriminate between what's good and what isn't in Alice. Some of the film's depiction of Alice's options seems overly loaded: She's just too good for her truck-driver husband (while he's too bad to believe in), and one can't really imagine Alice marrying him; nor, for that matter, is one entirely convinced that even loneliness could account for her taking up with man number two. And the "cleverness" of the opening is unworthy of the film, while some of the cute repartee between mother and son leans too much toward the mechanical routines of a Paper Moon. But the film's sheer liveliness and vitality get it over such humps, and it's kept buoyant, above all, by the delightfully tough-minded and good-humored performance of Ellen Burstyn as Alice (and by the uproarious performance of Diane Ladd as Alice's foulmouthed waitress friend). And though the film may lack the striking surface of a Mean Streets, it seems to me in several ways an even more impressive piece of work by Scorsese, at least part of the credit for which must go to its writer, Robert Getchell. Together they've made a film which lives here, confusedly, with us in the eye of the storm: a film about a single woman trying to make her way which both draws on our popular culture's stock of images of "starting life anew" and adds to them, and which will enter, I think, into the way we now think of such things.
Weiss, Marion. Martin Scorsese: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987, 137 p.
Listing of secondary sources written between 1968 and 1985. This book also includes an annotated filmography and two essays on Scorsese's life and works.
Arkush, Allan. "I Remember Film School." Film Comment 19, No. 6 (November-December 1983): 57-9.
Reminiscence on studying film at New York University in the late 1960s. Arkush, the director of such films as Deathsport (1978) and Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979), says of Scorsese, "I have never seen his equal" as a film teacher.
Bell, Arthur. "Ready When You Are, Paisan." The Village Voice 20, No. 33 (18 August 1975): 104, 69-70.
Reports on the filming of Taxi Driver and discusses the film's main themes.
Bliss, Michael. Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1985, 301 p.
Comparative study of the two fimmakers' careers and films.
Boyd, David. "Prisoner of the Night." Film Heritage 12, No. 2 (Winter 1976–1977): 24-30.
Argues that there are significant thematic similarities between Taxi Driver and John Ford's western The Searchers (1956).
Connelly, Marie Katheryn. Martin Scorsese: An Analysis of His Feature Films, with a Filmography of His Entire Directorial Career. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1993, 180 p.
Contains plot summaries and descriptive analyses of Scorsese's major theatrically released films from Mean Streets through Goodfellas, excluding Boxcar Bertha and his documentaries. This work also includes a detailed filmography and a brief list of secondary sources.
Dickstein, Morris. "Self-Tormentors." Partisan Review LXI, No. 4 (Fall 1994) 658-64.
Recounts and analyzes the plot, themes, and style of Raging Bull, arguing that the film "evokes Dostoevsky's treatment of the lives of spiritual misfits and 'self-tormentors.'"
Haskell, Molly. "Will Odysseus Stay Home and Do Needlepoint While Penelope Wanders Off in Search of Herself and Maybe Gets a Job Singing?" The Village Voice 20, No. 7 (17 February 1975): 67-8.
Examines Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and other contemporary versions of the "road movie" genre of the 1950s and 1960s. Haskell concludes that Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell imbue their lower-middle-class main characters with improbably sophisticated tastes and opinions, thus rendering them pleasingly yet unrealistically and untruthfully "above" their environment.
Hoberman, J. "King of Outsiders." The Village Voice XXVIII, No. 7 (15 February 1983): 1, 38-41, 92.
Discusses the making and main themes of The King of Comedy, with digressive remarks on Scorsese's life and other works.
Horne, Philip. "Henry Hill and Laura Palmer." The London Review of Books 12, No. 24 (20 December 1990): 20-1.
Examines the ironic depiction of violence in Goodfellas, comparing Scorsese's strategies with those of David Lynch in his films Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Hosney, Jim, Wollman, Jacquelyn, and Engdahl, Jesse Ward. "The Passion of St. Charles: Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets." The South Atlantic Quarterly 91, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 409-18.
Examines the religious aspects of the film and its indebtedness to the spirit of literary Romanticism, particularly that of William Blake.
Kolker, Robert Phillip. "Expressions of the Streets: Martin Scorsese." In his A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, pp. 206-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Analyzes Scorsese's main themes and approach to miseen-scène. Kolker's central concern is with "point of view, with how and why a filmmaker allows us entry into the fiction he creates, and, once entered, with where we are permitted to stand and how we are permitted to observe." See the excerpt reprinted in CLC-20.
Lourdeaux, Lee. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990, 288 p.
Examines Scorsese's films in light of his ethnic background. Also discussed are the films of Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Ford.
Miller, William Ian. "'I Can Take a Hint': Social Ineptitude, Embarrassment, and The King of Comedy." Michigan Quarterly Review XXXIII, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 323-44.
Analyzes the ways in which Rupert Pupkin, the main character in The King of Comedy, produces and exploits embarrassment in others by misreading hints and social cues.
Murphy, Kathleen, "Made Men." Film Comment 26, No. 5 (September-October 1990): 25-7.
Impressionistic description and positive review of Goodfellas.
Schrader, Paul. "Paul Schrader on Martin Scorsese." The New Yorker LXX, No. 5 (21 March 1994): 124.
Brief, laudatory reminiscence on his collaboration with Scorsese, particularly on the screenplay for Taxi Driver.
Sidey, Ken. "Last Temptation Boycott Gets Mixed Reviews." Christianity Today 33, No. 7 (21 April 1989): 36-7.
Assesses the efficacy of the protests against The Last Temptation of Christ from the point of view of the protesters.
Taylor, Bella. "Martin Scorsese." In Close-up: The Contemporary Director, edited by Jon Tuska, pp. 293-368. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1981.
Survey of Scorsese's life and career, with extended discussions of his major films through The Last Waltz.
Review of Who's That Knocking at My Door?, written and directed by Martin Scorsese. Time 94, No. 12 (19 September 1969): 95, 97.
Praises Scorsese for enlivening the film's melodramatic plot through uniquely cinematic means, but faults his inattention to narrative continuity.
Wall, James M. "In the Streets with Martin Scorsese." The Christian Century 108, No. 34 (20-27 November 1991): 1083-84.
Editorial commentary in which Wall asserts that a strong Catholic sensibility is evident in Scorsese's films. Prompted by reading Mary Pat Kelly's book Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Wall seeks to "revisit Scorsese's work and perhaps atone a bit for the shabby manner in which Last Temptation was treated by many Christians."
DeCurtis, Anthony. "What the Streets Mean: An Interview with Martin Scorsese." The South Atlantic Quarterly 91, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 427-58.
Wide-ranging discussion of various issues, including Scorsese's ethnic background, his approach to filmmaking, favorite directors, censorship, etc. This is an expanded version of an interview first published in the November 1, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.
Ebert, Roger, and Siskel, Gene. "Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert Interview Martin Scorsese." In their The Future of the Movies, pp. 1-35. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews and McMeel, 1991.
Eclectic discussion of issues in contemporary American commercial filmmaking, including subject matter and financing, screen sizes, video and laser technology, colorization, film restoration, etc.
Kauffman, Helen. "Mr. and Mrs. Scorsese: Our Son the Director." The Los Angeles Times (30 September 1979): 107.
Scorsese's parents on their son's work and their roles in his films.
Kelly, Mary Pat. "Jesus Gets the Beat: An Interview with Martin Scorsese," Commonweal CXV, No. 15 (9 September 1988): 467-70.
Scorsese discusses his views on Catholicism and on "the human side" of Jesus.
Macklin, F. Anthony. "'It's a Personal Thing for Me.'" Film Heritage 10, No. 3 (Spring 1975): 13-28, 36.
Discussion of the making and meaning of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, with briefer comments on Scorsese's previous films.
Smith, Gavin. An interview in Film Comment 26, No. 5 (September-October 1990): 27-30, 69.
Discusses Goodfellas and Scorsese's approach to filmmaking.
Thompson, Richard. "Screenwriter: Taxi Driver's Paul Schrader." Film Comment 12, No. 2 (March-April 1976): 6-19.
Includes a lengthy discussion of Schrader's work on Taxi Driver.
SOURCE: "The Power and the Gory," in Film Comment, Vol. 12, No. 3, May-June, 1976, pp. 26-30.
[Farber is an American critic and educator widely esteemed for the unique style and original insights of his film criticism. He is noted for having championed such diverse genres as the American action films of the 1950s, particularly those directed by Sam Fuller; existential, European art films, specifically those of Robert Bresson: and the American avant-garde cinema, as exemplified by the works of Michael Snow. In the following essay, he and Patterson examine Taxi Driver, noting that the film's considerable visual power conceals rather repugnant views of race relations, women, and male potency.]
Taxi Driver has a lot of negative aspects, but it would be silly to shrug off its baroque visuals and its high-class actor, Robert DeNiro, whose acting range is always underscored by a personal dignity. He's very good at wild manic scenes and better at poignant introversion: a man watching TV in a trance and eating while not looking at his food, or giving the sense of tense repression. Every scene combines the frantic and the still, almost simultaneously. The film has a good sense of modern paralysis, people flailing about energetically but not moving an inch ("twelve hours of driving a taxi and I still can't sleep"). The visuals are almost constantly bold, covering a scene from all angles; a scene like the transaction of guns, even the pimp-cabbie verbal duels (in which Michael Chapman's funky but somewhat slick photography is nearly static), are interesting scenes for the odd way the nearly catatonic cab driver (DeNiro) is at an angle to some juicy spielist. He's hypnotized and puzzled by Harvey Keitel's razzle-dazzle pimp act. The queer oblique positioning of the scene, buzzing with star-turn acting, reveal a subtle insight: when any person feels tipped off-balance by ridicule, it often has a paralyzing effect. DeNiro's uneducated taxi driver freezes on the spot, not quite sure whether Sport, a big smile, is putting him down. He keeps saying "but I'm not a cop" as he gets the nice quality of a literal-minded person not knowing how to react to a hipster.
DeNiro's Travis Bickle, wanting to be "a person like other people"—to be a pair with the wondrous purity of his political campaigner blonde (Cybill Shepherd)—joins Alice Hyatt and Mean Streets' always-repenting Charlie in Martin Scorsese's angst oeuvre. His movies are about youth's dreams squelched by the adult verities, the charismatic fullness of a jungle-cat punk (Keitel, trapped in Sport's coded character), a feisty twelve-year-old whore (Jodie Foster, who has the shiny complexion, hair, and bright eyes of neither lower East Side nor a baby prostitute), a vulgar and good-natured cabbie (Peter Boyle, who like a Thirties character actor, tells Manhattan versions of tall tales to his buddies at the Belmore Cafeteria).
The apprehension about an eager-messy world is transmitted through a saucing technique in which Scorsese's unique effect is the number of optical moves that are made in a tight space, seldom using a character's point of view for his camera position. He has a romantic appreciation for Life which remembers an actor's best moves and generously supplies the time for full-scale exposition. With its nervous-generous hoopla of techniques (including the tic of flicking suddenly to a ceiling shot directly down on a seduction, gun sale, or bloodbath episode), almost every moment of a lumpen figure's hellish career has an assaulting quality, like a gnat banging suicidally against the light fixture.
When sensing danger to their young, small groundbirds with brains go off on a diversionary path, pretending to have a broken wing; in a pure case of bird theater, the female limps away from her nest to divert the attacker from her young; as the stalking fox or coyote gets close, the pretend invalid simply takes off. Just as diversionary to the always-interesting visuals as the pounding, illustrative music which grinds you, are the spike words which stud the Taxi Driver soundtrack. "Pussy" and "fuck" have never been harvested so often; the black race is mauled by verbal inventions spoken with elaborate pizzazz styling, "a regulah fucking Mau Mau land down there."
One showy stopper seems a blue landmark for the R-rated movie. The pimp Sport, who is dressed with more mannerisms and gingerbread than an Xmas tree, is talking about his teen-aged bankbook Iris: "If I wanted to save money, I wouldn't fuck her, man. Because she's only twelve years old. You've never had a pussy like that. You'll be back here all the time. You can do anything with her you want. You can come in her face, you can put it in her ass, she'll get your cock so hard, you won't believe it man." Lots of things in Taxi Driver are diversions keeping the audience's mind from the fact that it's not getting the Promised Land: the inner workings of a repressed, ignorant fantasist, the mind of a baby whore, the experience of being a taxi driver twelve hours a day in the incredible New York street noise and jostle.
The movie starts a lot of material and then abruptly cuts it off, giving the sense that much of Bickle's life, particularly his cab work, is reposing on the editing floor. No other Checker cab seems to be operating at night in Manhattan except DeNiro's cab, which never stalls, needs gas, or runs into the delays and quick decisions which are the cabbie existence norm. New York street noise is replaced by a writhing, intense Bernard Herrmann music track, saxophones and a pulled-taffy Muzak sound that almost buries the visuals. The hero's taxi is mostly seen in abstract effects pulling up or taking off, the windows awash with ingeniously engineered colored lights; in one quick spray of inserts, there is a rhythm series of the same stop light, seen close by a camera crew that must have been stop-light high at midnight with its equipment almost hugging the light fixture. With its nearly abstract shots of the cab slowing moving like the Jaws shark through liquidy situations, the use of lush-soft, often reddish lighting for the effect of New York's street jungle, and a floating camera style that finds funny angles of perception, the movie is filled with a spooky, exploratory beat.
Par for a Scorsese film is the jamming of styles: Fritz Lang expressionism, Bresson's distanced realism, and Corman's low-budget horrifics. After making a quotation, using the refracted light effects that appeared in so many Sixties European films, the movie adds one more shot inside the slick action. DeNiro's cab almost collides with the two child-whores—just as Janet Leigh's fearful Psycho thief nearly overruns the man from whom she's stolen a bundle—but in this film a long tracking shot is added to the gimp effect. When DeNiro stares at his Alka Seltzer glass, there is a tiny sneak zoom into the bubbling water, which adds one more shot to Godard's rapidly-spoken philosophizing in Two or Three Things [I know about Her; Deux on trois chores que je sais d'elle (1967)] in which the camera frames the coffee cup from above.
Basing its tortured hackie hero vaguely on the pasty-faced Arthur Bremer, who, frustrated in his six attempts to kill Nixon, settled on maiming George Wallace for life, Taxi Driver not only waters down the unforgettable (to anyone who's read his diary) Bremer, but goes for traditional plot sentimentality. Bremer, as he comes across in his diaries, was mad every second, in every sentence, whereas the Bickle character goes in and out of normality as the Star System orders. The Number One theme in the Arthur Bremer diary is I Want to Be A Star. Having dropped this obsession as motivation, the movie falls into a lot of motivational problems, displacing the limelight urge into more Freudian areas (like sexual frustration) and into religious theories (like ritual self-purification). The star or celebrity obsession is a Seventies fact—the main thing that drives people these days—compared to the dated springboards in Paul Schrader's script. Instead of Bremer's media dream, getting his name into the New York Times head-lines, this script is set on pulp conventions: a guy turns killer because the girl of his dreams rejects him. The girl of his dreams, a squeaky-clean WASP princess, is yet another cliché assumption: that the outsiders of the world are yearing to connect to the symbols of well-washed middle-class gentility.
Busily trying to turn pulp into myth, the movie runs into all kinds of plot impossibles:
(1) A shy guy converts himself into a brutal killer after scenes in which he is a smart-ass with an FBI agent, a near matinee idol with his Miss Finishing School, and an unsophisticated, normal Lindbergh type with a teen prostitute. The latter girl similarly goes from street-hardened and cynical to open and cheerful, well-nourished and unscarred, in one twelve-hour time interval.
(2) The cabbie, after having readied himself with pushups, chin-ups, burning dead flowers, and many hours of target practice, guns down a black thief in a Spanish deli. The brutality, which is extended by the store-owner golfing the victim's corpse with a crowbar, is never touched by the police.
(3) A taxi driver who's slaughtered three people, been spotted twice by the FBI, and has enough unlicensed artillery strapped to his body to kill a platoon, is hailed as a liberating hero by the New York press.
(4) A Secret Service platoon, grouped around a rather minor campaign speech on Columbus Circle, fails to spot and apprehend a fantastic apparition: a madly grinning young man who is wearing an oversized jacket on a summer day, sunglasses, and has his head shaved like a Mohawk brave, with a strip of carpeting for the remaining hair.
Although Taxi Driver is immeasurably more gritty, acrobatic, and zigzagging than the Jeremiah Johnson mythicizing of mountain men, the two films (one moves blandly forward on snow shoes, the other sets a grueling pace) are remarkably similiar in their linear structure and ideology. Both are odes to Masculine Means in which a mysterious young man appears out of indistinct origins; learns the lore of survival warfare in a hostile land; after a heart-break, lashes out in a murderous rampage; fades into a mythic haze. The lore Jeremiah-Travis learns has to do with manly self-reliance: the first learns to kill a bear, catch a fish barehanded; the "hackie in Hell" becomes a one-man commando unit. Both inhabit a world—an unpeopled wilderness and a callous jungle—where no one can be counted on for help. Women are the spurs to the climactic bloodbath: Jeremiah's Indian wife is murdered, while Travis's efficient blond tease rejects him, confirming him in his conviction that blood is the only solution.
The character of the Loner, which dominates American films from Philip Marlowe to Will Penny to Dirty Harry Callahan, has seldom been given such a double-sell treatment. The intense DeNiro is sold as a misfit psychotic and, at the same time, a charismatic star who centers every shot and is given a prismatic detailing by a director who moves like crazy multiplying the effects of mythic glamour and down-to-earth feistiness in his star.
From Michael Chapman's opening camera shot of DeNiro's almond-shaped dark eyes filling a giant screen with a lizard-like stare, this movie's aim is to turn a supposed nobody that no one sees into a glamorous giant who's bigger than all New York. The presidential candidate, in his scenes with the lonely cabbie, is a vague, tissue-paper figure in the background, playing it safe. The cabbie, full of energy and verbally exhilarated, becomes movie dynamite with a speech about flushing New York down the toilet. While DeNiro is dramatically lit and upshot in a powerful near-closeup, the earnest candidate (Leonard Harris) is pale and wooden in the back, caught off-guard by the verbal passion flooding in from the front seat. With its punching-ahead style, the movie typically explodes another Bickle persona at the spectator. Spreading out his features and smiling, DeNiro suggests a slow-witted hick, which is at complete variance with the lean, intelligent face that he mostly wears as a cabbie. The yokel is really excited: "Everybody who comes in my cab is going to vote for you, Sir."
Though DeNiro rarely changes speed inside a scene, from scene to scene his Bickle figure is a whirligig with his IQ and sophistication shifting and sliding all over the place. At one moment, not knowing the meaning of the word "moonlighting" or how to react to the "how's it hanging" query, at another he uses such words as "venal," "morbid self-attention," and muses to himself: "I cannot continue this hollow empty fight." At one moment, he is indistinguishable from Robert Ryan's truculent Odds Against Tomorrow bigot; at another, he ravishes his blond princess like a new Cary Grant: he spreads his hands debonairly on her desk, looks into her eyes, and says "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." Later, asking the Wizard (Boyle) for advice, he becomes an inarticulate Jimmy Dean mumbler. The point isn't that people don't have many sides to their character, but that the filmmakers, going for hot and heavy scores, bend the material for spiking effects.
This changing hero is a deceptive opportunism hiding the movie's polemics about superman and guns, plus a raft of prejudices that float through the two genres (vigilante and he-man loner) that are blended by the script. Every frame is awash with the prejudices of take-the-law-into-your-hands fare: the idea of sex as transaction, in which all the barely differentiated women are professional manipulators of men; black people as animalistic sinisters who get the sexual goodies and call the sexual shots; the lower class patronized as animals feeding on each other.
What's really disgusting about Taxi Driver is not the multi-faced loner but the endless propaganda about the magic of guns. The movie's pretty damn cunning mise-enscène is a mystical genuflection to The Gun: what a .44 Magnum can do to woman's face and pussy, the continuous way in which male brotherhood is asserted by one man pointing his pistol finger at the other and saying "pow." If the male population isn't exchanging this payoff gesture, they're addressing each other with "Hyah, Killer. How's the killer, today." The film's funky, insinuatingly ripe surface comes from a steady litany of "I'll kill you" shrieks, a collaging of sinister inserts, anal allusions, so many references to the sewer, "wiping the come and sometimes the blood off the seat," a giant lotus of steam enveloping a cab like fumes from Hell. Each item of this mélange is used as metaphor for the destructive blasting of a gun. Even the cab, moving forward with ominous slowness, is felt as either death machine or coffin.
"Isn't that a honey, that'll stop anything that moves" is the repellently glib remark of a traveling salesman, dealing in guns, dope, and Cadillacs. He looks like a choir boy turned bad, and is talking here about a .38 Smith and Wesson nickel-plated, snub-nosed Special in a tour de force scene in which the underground man is sold a $900 arsenal. Our salesman, earlier, on a .44 Magnum: "I could sell this to some jungle bunny in Harlem for $750 today, but I just deal high-quality goods to the right people." This scene opens with a swift lower-case zest, when Bickle is picked up by a cab buddy and taken with the salesman to an anonymous hotel room. As the guns are taken out, one by one, the camera settles into a meticulous interweave that combines some of Vermeer's patience for illuminating smallness (the rich dark handles, the bewitching high-lights of a gun barrel dispayed against soft black cloth) with the salesman's fast talk, Bickle's silent concentration on choosing his weapons, and a textbook of small sneak-moves of the camera going across furniture, shiny guns, and respectful hands.
DeNiro, inscrutably going through a repertoire of gunman stances, seems directed to act a Bresson isolate: disclosing little of his interior, emphasizing the ballet of gestures (like the poacher laying down traps in Mouchette). The movie has entered a new stylized world; the spaces between people are calmer and the black hallucinatory street images have dropped away. The character is in a more methodical world of information and religious ritual; the mood is the one that prevails in Travis's one-room sanctuary: no sheets, TV propped on a wooden crate, a printed admonishment "I Must Get Organazized" tacked to a wall incredibly layered with cheap, cracking enamel paint.
Seldom since John Ford's epics of Joad and Lincoln in the 1939–40 period has there been such oily, over-definition of the lower classes. How colorful these workers are: a one man compendium of champion jazz drummers studied for three minutes ("now Gene Krupa's syncopated style"); or Keitel's incredibly garish pimp, decked out with tight-muscled mannerisms, the weirdest clothing, an appetizing voice that tries to score on every word. One standout example of an over-detailed shtick: a snarling, aggressive guy who hires cabbies and overreacts wildly to Travis's small attempt at a joke with a ferocious "Are you going to break my chops?… If you are, you can take it on the arches right now." Twenty seconds later, he melts with brotherhood and warmth, learning they're both ex-Marines. The spectator is asked to digest a lot, given an excess of muscle and colloquialism, but there is yet another small feistiness out of Breughel going on over the hiring boss's shoulder. Behind him is a window in which two cabbies are gesticulating in another rich slice of street ham, starring Peter Boyle or his domed-forehead brother.
The movie relishes getting blacks off as malevolent debris that proliferates on the streets. Everywhere the cab moves there is a black marker representing the scummiest low point of city life. A muscular black walks through a barely noticing crowd on a narrow sidewalk; he's muttering loudly "I'll kill her, I'll kill that bitch." A gang of black teenagers bursts out of an alley hurling garbage at Travis's Checker. Three little black kids torment a black whore, who, seeming used to such defiling, lashes back with her shoulder bag. There've been tons of media explication about the bigotry and sexism in Travis's head.
The fact is that, unlike the unrelentingly presented worm in Dostoevski's Underground Man, this handsome hackie is set up as lean and independent, an appealing innocent. The extent of his sexism and racism is hedged. While Travis stares at a night world of black pimps and whores, all the racial slurs come from fellow whites. In fact, Travis tries to pick up a mulatto candy seller in an interesting porno-theater scene. He tries to joke with this bored, rather pretty but definitely uninterested popcorn girl who's reading a fan mag, and she calls the manager. DeNiro, giving up quickly and furtively switching to buying candy, creates a telling poetic ambience ($1.87: "gimme some Chuckles … and some Jujus, they last longer … some popcorn and some Coke").
There's dubious indication that the cabbie is a woman-hater, but the film is a barrage of cheapened sex washing over a graceful nobody who is basically a receiver rather than a giver. It's not Travis who talks about blowing a woman's pussy with a .44 Magnum; nor is it Travis who speaks as the patently insincere voice-over in a porno flick ("Ooh, that's a big one, I'd like some of that"); nor is Travis talking about a hot customer, who changed panty hose on the Triboro Bridge.
Taxi Driver is a half-half movie: half of it is a skimpy story line with muddled motivation about the way an undereducated misfit would act, and the other half is a clever, confusing, hypnotic sell. End to end, behind as well as in front of the camera, is the sense of propagandists talking about power, scoring, and territory. The movie's ad campaign (the poster of DeNiro as a looming presence, the interviews with crew members almost before the final mixing, the terrible schlock novel now sold in every supermarket which takes Bremer's diary and Schrader's script to an unbelievably trashy depth) is revelatory of what the filmmakers feel it takes to move, score, and hold your territory in a competitive USA society.
Reconstituting pulp is central to both the movie's writing and filming, always juicing up or multiplying a cliché notion so that the familiar becomes exotically humorous.
A chief mechanism of the script is power: how people either fit or don't fit into the givens of their status, and the power they get from being socially snug. Travis's dream girl has power because she has a certain golden beauty and doesn't question or rebel against her face or her position as political campaigner. Various pimps are shown as editorialized icons of illegal power. The cabbies, more or less at peace with themselves, are glimpsed as a gang not fighting job or status. The movie shows the facts of being in or out. Everyone plays this power game but Travis—he can't figure what kind of game he wants to play. While this misfit moves toward his massacre in a Twelfth Street bordello, the movie's heart is an ensemble of chesty people jockeying to score points. The script sets up a world where people constantly score off each other, releasing petty hostilities. Little Iris's professional command: "You better get to it, Mister, because when that cigarette goes out, your time is up." Some sexual invitation; the guy's just payed $25 for Iris's briskly dispensed time and at least ten smackers for the use of the beads and candle-filled room. The jittery pimp, a big grin, gestures off DeNiro toward his fifteen-minute session: "Go ahead, go on, enjoy yourself, have fun."
The importance of humor is one of the movie's trumps, as well as one of its bad cards. When people try to jokingly tease DeNiro, he can't throw it back. He tries to joke with the cab employer and the guy explodes. Betsy doesn't get his "organazized" joke. This sealed-off guy's problems with humor—his crestfallen, embarrassed, or shamed responses—are always poetically right; and the movie is almost always good when it's dealing with his communicative impotence. Each class here has its own way of trading quips. The slick, TV-influenced razzing between Betsy and Tom (Albert Brooks) is repellently smug; the tall-tale sex stories the taxi drivers trade are more inventive, and Peter Boyle's timing ("Shoot, they don't call me the Wiz for nothing … well, I'm not Bertrand Russell, I'm just a cabbie") is tantalizing.
Through the use of red- or brown-toned darkness and the feeling of closed space (in which, despite the sneak camera moves, down shots, and weird angles, the focus is narrowly on players), the movie is often zeroed in to womb situations. The spectator is focused on some territorial claim. Tom, the indispensable hack, is upset about Travis's entering the campaign quarters, which is his turf. The hiring boss at the cab depot is immediately suspicious, all territorial muscle, when an unknown intrudes. When Bickle squires Betsy to a porno house, she makes it clear the skin place is not her turf, she's a high class girl. A suffocating dance presses home the fact that Iris is Sport's real estate. At times, the movie seems to be about worried landlords protecting their property. Perhaps the movie's central speech is the Wizard's: "You have to find your niche and fit into it. It'll be awkward at first, but you'll get used to it." Travis, seldom relaxed in any territory except his animal-lair room, works his way through a violent landscape which is curiously pluralist in its technique. One frame isn't promoted over another, there is no favored composition (as there is in every Bresson film), there are constant changes of style, pace, and arrangement. The only constant is that the hero, in crowds or alone, in broad daylight or total darkness, appears to be alone in a dense funnel or cave of space.
All the elements in Taxi Driver—from the steam which billows from street openings enveloping the screen to the incredible army of technicians who had to engineer the fortissimo reverse tracking shot through the bordello's bloody hallway—are aggresively self-assertive. Taxi Driver is always asserting the power of playing both sides of the box-office dollar: obeisance to the box-office provens, such as concluding on a ten-minute massacre, a sex motive, good-guys vs. bad-guys violence, and casting the obviously charismatic DeNiro to play a psychotic, racist nobody. (Some nobody—like casting another neurotic-role star, Helmut Berger, to impersonate Kaspar Hauser. "OK Helmut, look as though you had no education at all. Pretend you're not handsome, no social graces at all.") On the other coin side, it's ravishing the auteur box of Sixties best scenes, from Hitchcock's reverse track down a staircase from the Frenzy brutality, through Godard's handwriting gig flashed across the entire screen, to several Mike Snow inventions (the slow Wavelength zoom into a close look at the graphics pinned on a beaten plaster wall, and the reprise of double and triple exposures that ends Back and Forth).
One thing that stands out is that many of the new demons in Hollywood are flourishing inside a Bastardism. They are still deep within the Industry and its Star-Genre hypocrisies, and at the same time they have been indelibly touched by the process-oriented innovations which began with Breathless. The result: a new hybrid film that crosses a mythicized genre film with a mushroomed aestheticism which (while skimping the material of psychosis, prostitution, taxi work, the celebrity urge) shows a new sophistication about pace, camera, and organizing. It's revealing that the Taxi Driver political scenes—from the office comedy between Shepherd and Albert Brooks to the speech in Columbus Circle—are very bland and stock. Why should a movie that is so anti-American go so dull when it hits a glib phony populist running for President? Busy building the old loner character who never asks for anything, NYC as a dead sea of garbage in the Fritz Lang manner, the girl-boy gag charm from the Screwball era, the crew's mind comes up empty on the movie's one area that rises above the working-class milieu, that's free of the city-as-a-sewer metaphor. Empty politics are more of a US tragedy than the lone assassin. Why is all the attention going toward the DeNiro charm as a displaced country boy who is out of his depth, unless the authors are obsessed by Industry staples?
How did they get those colored shapes of light to swim around the nighttime heads of DeNiro and his passengers? Was that overhead shot, of DeNiro's hand and arm sweeping over the blond campaigner's cluttered desk, shot at the same time as their conversation? In the final moments, the furtive panic of Travis, glancing to right and left, washes into a long corridor of multilayered street impressions. When were the decisions made to go for slow motion in this tumultous irresolution that ends Taxi Driver? Did the final track out of the death chamber move under or above the ceiling's paper lantern? And what about DeNiro's succulent scene ("Are you talking to me?… you must be talking to me … I'm the only one in the room") in which the mole usually on his right cheek shows up on the left cheek? The amount of twisting questions that are thrown at a spectator highlights its director's boldness on intricate visuals.
Taxi Driver is yet another glorification of the hood as a glamorous energy force; at least its director has injected a rare lower-case vision (the Godfather movies being upper-case filmmaking) into the threatening congested darkness.
Scorsese is clearly an original force in films. Some of the best things come from the sense that the director and lead actor know what it is "to be poor," to live in a NY walkup, the tormenting lethargy of depression. The overhead shots of DeNiro lying on his grimy cot, fully dressed, totally riddled with discomfort, lap the hollowness of the room that doesn't nourish its owner with Travis's desperation. Taxi Driver is actually a Tale of Two Cities: the old Hollywood and the new Paris of Bresson-Rivette-Godard. More importantly, its immoral posture on the subject of blacks, male supremacy, guns, women, subverts believability at every moment in favor of the crucial decal image that floats around the world—a lean, long-legged loner in cowboy boots who strides down the center of a city street, knowing he cuts a striking figure. This DeNiro image, looming over his vague environment, is voiced everywhere in the script: "Around his eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the dark stains caused by a life of terror, emptiness, and loneliness." The next line is great: "He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold."
SOURCE: "Beauties and the Beast," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 134-39.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he discusses Taxi Driver and Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976), Westerbeck examines the dreamlike qualities and allusions to genre in Scorsese's film.]
There are some movies that are clearly not just movies. They are phenomena. I do not necessarily mean that they are what Variety calls 'Big Boffo', films whose grosses are up in the top fifty of all time. Some of the movies I am talking about—The Exorcist, for instance, or 2001—are 'Big Boffo'; but others, such as Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, are by their nature successful only with a limited audience. It is not the size of the audience that matters here, but the intensity of its reaction. Beyond entertainment, what the three films just mentioned offered their audiences was provocation. They tapped into people's emotions at a deeper level than movies are usually able to reach, and inspired passionate, sometimes even crazed responses. Aside from whether they are good art or bad, movies like these have an effect something like that which jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow once attributed to heroin: they 'turn you every which-a-way but loose.' Not every season produces such movies, but recently two have appeared in New York that seem to qualify, Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. These films first opened next door to each other on a strip of Manhattan's upper east side where the four movie theatres that are the city's most prestigious are located in a single block. From there, each film has spread its influence all over town….
Several days before it opened, Pauline Kael gave [Taxi Driver] so laudatory a review in the New Yorker that the film's publicists immediately ran advertisements reproducing the whole review. The day that the film opened, the New York Times ran a very tantalising background article on its making. Scorsese has now spread out to other theatres too, and Taxi Driver is currently playing in two other midtown locations, besides its original one. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the composition of the crowd that is being attracted to it, ranging from rather tough-looking teenagers to overdressed dowagers, from middle-class couples out on a date to, I would guess, taxi drivers sneaking a few hours away from the job. The audience seems, in point of fact, very much the same wide cross-section of New York's population that appears in the movie itself.
Not all movies that become phenomena of this sort are alike, of course. On the contrary, what gives a movie this appeal is often something fortuitously unique and, to Hollywood's chagrin, inimitable. But in this case, I think the films really are comparable. Their audiences overlap to some extent, and were it not for Seven Beauties' foreignness and subtitles, this overlap would probably be greater. What is more, both films try to spellbind their audience in the same way. After first putting us at case with a human predicament that is laughable, each film sidles gradually, at times almost unnoticeably, towards something far more serious. Each works on us by a kind of synaesthesia, confusing the impressions we get in one situation with the sense we have of another. Mingling sensations until they become indistinguishable, the cause of one seeming to produce the effects of another, these films succeed by playing upon our perceptions until we can no longer tell certain experiences apart….
Taxi Driver begins with a sequence that sets the mood for the entire film…. [It] is not a whole sequence, really, but a single, protracted shot—a shot of a New York taxi cab driving down a street towards the camera through the vapour billowing out of a manhole. On the one hand, the shot just records the event non-committally: nothing happens except the passing of a taxi, and nothing changes in the focus, camera position, etc. On the other hand, though, the shot is done with a telephoto lens and in slow motion. Since such a lens tends to retard our sense of movement, especially in ahead-on shot, it and the slow motion confuse each other's effects until we are not sure what distortion we are seeing, if any. But the distortion is there, and the effect of this shot is to give the cab's approach a bizarrely dreamy effect. It is as if we were somehow detached from the scene; as if the approach of this taxi were, as they say, unhinged.
This opening shot is elaborated in a sequence that occurs a little later. At the beginning, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran with insomnia, gets a night job driving a taxi; and soon, he confides to a journal which he keeps, he is working fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. To convey this total absorption of Travis' life in his job and in the night world of the city, the film becomes for a while merely a montage of his routine. The meter in his cab ticks off the fares one after another, while outside the criss-crossed city streets become an endlessly repeated shot of a red traffic light, a diagonal wipe moving across the screen each time the shot replaces itself. In the sequence that seems specifically to echo the opening shot, we get a whole series of shots of the cab travelling the streets. This time each one is done with the camera mounted on the cab itself, so that we see some part of it—the front bumper, or the New York registration medallion riveted into the bonnet—passing before the cityscape.
Again, the effect is strangely detached and isolated. The close-up detail of the cab and the long shot of the streets float over each other without being in visible contact. We can see no relationship between them, and what the physical disconnection begins to imply is some profound emotional disconnection, some state of alienation, in Travis himself. In effect, Scorsese's film is becoming a documentary of that alienation. The film's attention to quotidian reality is full of peculiarities, like the externally mounted shots of the cab and the diagonal wipes. Another is a lurid saturation of all red light in the film, so that its redness is burned in and bleeds past the edges of the traffic standards, directional signals, neon signs, etc. from which it comes. These peculiarities dislodge the film from the very reality it seems to study and change its subject from Travis' working conditions into his mental condition.
When Travis seeks out a dealer in illegal arms to sell him some pistols, the deterioration of his mind becomes explicit. Yet the process remains gradual, sometimes barely discernible. He undertakes some standard physical conditioning, but then turns from calisthenics to holding his hand over a stove flame. Target-range practice alternates with practice in front of a mirror, drawing his pistols and taking offence at insults from imaginary strangers. A rail from a cabinet drawer he seems to be fixing turns into a mechanism for ejecting a gun from his sleeve into his hand. The transitions are so uncertain that Travis seems scarcely aware of them. The course of events seems aptly described in a scene where he is rocking his television set back and forth with his foot while watching a soap opera. All of a sudden the set falls over backwards and blows itself out, whereupon Travis is even more startled than we are.
Though the gradual slippings of his mind obscure the enormity of what is happening to him, Travis undergoes no less a metamorphosis than Pasqualino does in Seven Beauties. Like Wertmuller's film, Scorsese's advances its plot by a series of trade-offs, by exchanging one set of circumstances and actions for another. Before Travis goes to the gun salesman, the strange documentary of his life as a cabby yields to a more conventional feature film treatment. But as Travis sees the salesman and then goes into training, the documentary reasserts itself: the engine we see him working at now is a gun instead of a car, but the point once again is just the routine of his life. Since Taxi Driver begins with Travis approaching a garage manager for a job, when he similarly approaches the salesman for a gun midway through the film, the event would seem to signal the beginning of some kind of pattern of repetitions. And this is exactly what occurs.
Before Travis buys the guns, he becomes involved with a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), whom he spots entering the campaign headquarters of a presidential candidate. After observing her from a distance for some time, he one day goes into the headquarters to volunteer, and ask her out to a coffee shop on her afternoon break. Though at first amused by his directness, she soon refuses to see him any more. Exasperated, he walks into the headquarters at last to confront her and has to be thrown out by a cop. Having been rejected like this before buying the guns, Travis becomes involved with a second girl, Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage prostitute, just after buying them. Where Betsy is a goddess from the haut monde, Iris is a lost soul from the demi-monde, a demonic reincarnation of the untouchable Betsy, even looking vaguely like her. Buying a fifteen-minute trick with her, Travis in effect gets to know Iris the way he does Betsy, at work. But he soon tempts her out to meet him too at a coffee shop, and there also tells her, as he does Betsy, that he feels he can save her from false friends. In the person of Iris' pimp, there is even a counterpart for the candidate whom Betsy serves with such devotion.
This substitution of one woman for another is accompanied by a substitution of violence for sex. When Travis first notices Betsy, he only sits in his cab watching her through the plate-glass windows of the campaign head-quarters until a colleague comes out to chase him away. After he buys the guns, he begins to stalk the candidate for whom Betsy works; and in one of the scenes establishing this, he sits in his cab around the corner from a street rally to observe him, as he had earlier watched Betsy, through the plate-glass of the building between them. Intent as Travis is on killing the politician, however, when a Secret Service man foils his attempt he simply makes Iris' pimp his target instead.
In the shoot-out at the brothel which provides the film's climax, the parallels play themselves out between Betsy and Iris, sex and violence, sanity and madness. In a scene back at the campaign headquarters, Betsy makes a bit of a fool out of a co-worker by challenging him to light a match with just two fingers—like, she says, a crippled attendant at her news-stand. Now, as Travis enters Iris' tenement, the first random bullet fired at a room clerk blows away all but the same two fingers of his outstretched hand. In a way, a perverse twist of the film's imagery like this only follows from what comes before, carrying over the same explicit but bizarre sense of detail we have seen in the documentary treatment of Travis' life. Yet, in another way, there is something new going on here. Earlier the film shows us Travis' life in a way that proposes the madness and alienation with which he sees reality. Now reality itself seems to possess such madness. As Travis at last acts out his demented fantasies, the world unaccountably begins to accommodate and conform to them.
The extent to which this is so is revealed by the aftermath of the shoot-out. Recovering from his own wounds, Travis becomes, we gather from a magazine article tacked up on his wall, something of a local hero. Then one night, months later, Betsy gets into his taxi. She speaks to him almost as if she had expected him to be the driver—as if she had now purposely sought out his cab. As he drives her home, they chat about her candidate's election chances, and briefly about what she has read of Travis in the papers. When she gets out she stands beside the taxi, seeming to have something more to say, wanting to prolong the conversation but finding herself unsure how to proceed.
Travis simply cuts her off with an easy, knowing smile and drives away. She lingers on the kerb looking after him; her posture suggests something unrequited in her attitude, and when she does finally turn to go in it is with an air of resignation. In its closing sequence, the film reintroduces a shot used frequently in the early sections—a shot of what Travis sees in the rear-vision mirror of his cab. But in this end version of the shot, the image we see in the mirror only seems to reproduce the view of the streets we get through the windscreen behind the mirror. Since the frame of the mirror itself is inside the focal length of the camera, the contours of the mirror are blurred and indistinct. The image in the mirror now merges with the reality outside so that the two are indistinguishable. In essence, this is what happens in that penultimate scene with Betsy: Travis' dreams come true.
Like Seven Beauties, Taxi Driver ends in a way that is crucial for the film as a whole and has almost a retroactive effect on it. After the shooting and the incident with Betsy, the film turns from a taxi trip into a head trip, a fantasy of insane rage and violence that is in the end authorised by the film itself. And the hero who emerges from the ashes here is a traditional one, a figure who has his origins back in the films of the post-war period just as Wertmuller's Pasqualino does. The hero Travis reincarnates is the one found in the American film noir. Actually, there were at first two different heroes around in that genre. One is the good hero, epitomised by the Raymond Chandler detective in films like The Big Sleep. He is a man who, like Travis, knows how to move through the city at night, but he is also a man who knows enough not to get involved with most women; his heroism is both defined and limited by his almost total lack of emotion. The other noir hero, the bad hero, is found in such adaptations of James M. Cain as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. This man has an excess of emotion, and where the other hero's nemesis is usually some gangster, this hero's is always a woman, a blonde bitch goddess like Lana Turner in Postman and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity—or Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver.
We always have the suspicion that the bad hero is at heart the person the good hero would turn into if he ever lost his grip on himself. The one thing the two types share, explicitly in the novels and at least implicitly in the films, is that violence excites them sexually. And in a synthesis that unites the two in the early 1950s, they become someone who is essentially a psychopath. Often a cop who still possesses the capabilities of the good hero, this man is now also driven by his obsession with a woman. Whether his desire is to avenge her, as with Glenn Ford in The Big Heat, or to possess her, as with Cornell Wilde in The Big Combo, does not matter. The character Robert De Niro plays in Taxi Driver is an inheritor of the film noir hero just as surely as Pasqualino is an inheritor of the hero of neo-realism. But like Pasqualino, Travis in Taxi Driver transforms his heritage in critical ways.
Back in the 1950s, that third sort of film noir hero always had to come back to his senses to win out in the end. He must recover from his corruption into the bad hero and become the good hero again. But in Taxi Driver, Travis achieves the moral authority of the good hero not in spite of having been the bad hero, but because of having been him. Far from depriving one of such authority, turning into a psychopath now becomes a way to attain it. In the end, Travis gains what Chandler's detective had all along, the ability to do without another human being, even the bitch goddess; and at the same time, ironically, Betsy responds to him for the first time, his capacity for violence melting her heart where nothing else could. Her new reaction to Travis at the end is proof positive that he has gained authority in the eyes of the world. Who could judge these things better than she, who even knows a future president when she sees one? In Travis, passion and alienation combine with an effectiveness we have never seen before in our movies.
SOURCE: A review of New York, New York, in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 20, July 4, 1977, pp. 82-3.
[In addition to being a highly regarded film critic, Gilliatt was an acclaimed novelist, short story writer and screen-writer, best known perhaps for the Academy Award-nominated screenplay Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971). In the following excerpt from a review of New York, New York, she criticizes Scorsese for unsuccessfully remaking a style—the Hollywood musical of the 1940s—which was not amenable to the kind of serious story he wished to tell.]
"New York, New York." Of course, of course. But no, not the famous Bernstein-Comden-Green number from On the Town but another song, from a Martin Scorsese musical film that has the cheek to pilfer the name. To make a movie called New York, New York with a "New York" number that isn't the one you go into the cinema humming is rather like writing a children's book called Alice in Wonderland which is about another Alice. The producers are Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, one of whom is beloved by me for having said on the phone from Hollywood that So-and-So's choreography was just a pistache of everything he had ever done before. This musical is a pistache if ever there was one. I suppose it could courteously be said to be an hommage to all those musical films of the forties and fifties in which a boy and a girl fell in love, found that, as the ads say, "a love story is like a song … beautiful while it lasts," and then got driven apart by their talent.
The film opens on V-J Day in Times Square, with one of the few shots of the city we're going to get. (A minor idiocy of New York, New York is that it nearly all happens not in New York but on Hollywood back lots and in crowded night clubs that might be anywhere and in band coaches on the road.) Liza Minnelli is a struggling singer, wearing a hat like a maddened gardenia petal pushed forward onto her forehead. Robert De Niro, an equally struggling tenor saxophonist, joins the small-time band of which she is already a member. They fall in love. Well, not in love. De Niro says, "I mean, I didn't say I love you. I like you, I dig you." The film has much overlapping conversation, so as to seem natural, and many "you know"s, for the same reason, used like the commas of slow letter writers resting their pens in mid-sentence to think what to say next. De Niro—Jimmy Doyle—whips off Miss Minnelli—Francine—to be married in what seems to be a nightdress under an overcoat, breaking the glass of the front door of the local justice of the peace. Later, she faints and explains that she is going to have a baby. He doesn't want this baby, he says to her, in a rage. Music is what he cares about. We're told that he blows a barrelful of sax, and that he is keen on major chords. Francine writes him a pacifying song called "New York, New York," which has the repeated "New York" in the lyric. Decca Records grows interested in her, and a Decca highup has a meeting with Francine, accompanied by Jimmy. He squints with jealousy and becomes involved in a night-club brawl, and in the next shot the back seat of a car is loaded with flowers. You wonder if she's had a miscarriage, or maybe the baby, but it's just a checkup. So then there's "Honeysuckle Rose" sung by a girl with a flower behind her ear, aping Billie Holiday—many a piece of faked nostalgia here—and then there's the baby, a boy, whom Jimmy refuses to see. And then Francine becomes a tremendous star, with the child, now fourish, allowed to sleep in the recording studio while Mummy sings, valiantly going her own way. Daddy comes to hear her in a stage performance doing a shameless copy of Miss Minnelli's mother, Judy Garland, and edges his way into Francine's crowded dressing room after she has sighted him in the audience and sung a song by "a friend of mine who is a great believer in major chords." And then after he has rung from the stage door she says she'll meet him downstairs. And then she slips away, lonely in her fur coat, leaving him to push off miserably on the wet street. The last shot is of the tip of his umbrella on the sidewalk and his poor damp shoes.
Well. Martin Scorsese has made some very fine pictures—especially Mean Streets—but this film commits a lot of blunders. There is the initial plagiarism of a title and an era, which I suppose could be excused by the makers as a bow to an age. There is the facetiousness of the dialogue (written by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin, but much of it improvised, which was a mistake), and there is the ersatz nourishment that the story offers film-goers homesick for the movies of thirty years ago. There is the silliness of the movie's plangency: hard to feel soupy about a talented couple giving up their love because of the stardust in their eyes. Francine has such a colossal natural entertainment personality that one doesn't believe she has to struggle a great deal, so the Hollywood chestnut about ruthlessness being necessary to show-biz success doesn't hold good, and there's also not much tragedy about an ending in which two performers, both on their way to glory, choose to break up. The best thing about the film is De Niro's firm, rapid performance. He is a wonderful actor. As a forties sax player finding his way into the fifties and bebop, he convinces the movie audience of a sort of desperation underpinning his talent. The essential weakness of the film is the lack of any apparent sense of character given to the actors by Scorsese, which probably came about because he has undertaken what amounts to a remake of a style that didn't hold much feeling in the first place. Mean Streets was about interesting matters—the glamour to the Puritan soul of sin, a glamour that was slowly burned off by the blowtorch of Scorsese's own Catholic and more fanatic feelings of dingy guilt—but New York, New York is fatally knowing about its secondhand mode, and finds glamour to the end in the paltry hopes and punishments of its mechanical story.
SOURCE: A review of New York, New York, in Cineaste, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 44-5.
[In the following review of New York, New York, the critics praise Scorsese for imbuing a skillful re-creation of 1940s musicals with a fascinating undercurrent of rage and darkness but conclude that the director has failed to fully examine these characteristic themes.]
In Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese's New York is filled with psychopaths and a sense of damnation. In Scorsese's latest film, New York, New York, he has attempted to change direction and nostalgically invoke the New York of 1940's musicals. His characteristic strain of violence, however, has not been expunged. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the film is the tension between the mixed loving and parodistic treatment of the old musicals, and the edge of rage and darkness which permeates the film but is barely explicit and is left undeveloped.
In New York, New York Scorsese reproduces the surfaces of the old musicals. There are big bands, glittery night spots, tense auditions, slimy show biz entrepreneurs, goof-ball comedy, boy meets girl, and the traditional Hollywood success story (self-consciously conjuring up shades of Garland and Mason in A Star Is Born). The film opens with a campy long shot of a V-J Day celebration on Times Square; and then the camera gracefully swoops around the Rainbow Room—the Dorsey band playing, people reveling, and Francine Evans (Lisa Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) meeting. Though the scene is overlong, Scorsese captures the comic ambience of the old musicals, with a manic gum-chewing De Niro bopping through the crowd and trying out various lines and roles on an unwilling Minnelli (who we know will ultimately succumb). Their romance builds from there with sax player De Niro and band singer Minnelli going on the fabled 'road.'
De Niro plays a taciturn, intense and idiosyncratic musician with virtuouso talents and an abrupt, difficult personality. He is totally convincing on all scores. Minnelli does female soothing and mollifying, and her own musical skills are much sweeter and easier. She also manages to beautifully convey a 40's vocal style that synthesizes and recalls, without aping, some of the best female jazz and pop singers of the 40's (Peggy Lee? Judy Garland?). What she doesn't begin to convey is an authentic personhood for her character, nor the kind of ambition and aggressiveness that would drive her to the conventional star status she finally attains. Of course, old Hollywood musicals never went any further. However, Scorsese's direction and De Niro's acting force us to make more complex demands.
De Niro may be straining to exude comic charm, but what he primarily emanates is violence and alienation. He is a solitary, who puts down his fellow musicians and virtually assaults Minnelli when she is in an advanced state of pregnancy. De Niro continually erupts, yet his behavior does not figure as a major part of the artistic equation. The film is full of gratuitously disturbing moments even a strangely long take of Minnelli's eyes in a mirror gives off something sinister without its being connected to anything else in the film. One possible way of looking at De Niro is as the tormented artist, who finds his true metier when he plays sax with avant garde black musicians in Harlem. There is a suggestion that he is infinitely more creative than the white mainstream swing bands that he leads—possibly a bit of autobiographical revelation about the artist trapped in and struggling against a commercial medium. Also, it is clearly De Niro rather than Minnelli toward whom Scorsese is most sympathetic—as if being the romantic artist absolves him (De Niro) from 'bourgeois' responsibilities and decencies. One is never certain, however, what Scorsese is trying to say about the artist. Is he innocently embracing the unselfconscious egoism of the myth? Or is he subtly poking fun at its romantic anguish and solitude?
There is a similar ambiguity about the film's attitude toward the male-female tensions and conflicts it portrays. It touches only lightly on the woman's ambition and drive for success, but it makes very clear the man's need for command and dominance. De Niro's ego is fragile, and he displays both tyrannical rage and sullen vulnerability whenever his will is crossed and Minnelli wants to share in the decision-making, or whenever her success seems to be overshadowing his. In response to his rage, Minnelli can only retreat to traditional female accomodation or tears. Scorsese's camera provides emotional closeups of this behavior without expressing any judgment, criticism, even compassion. It is true that his camera here, as in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, lovingly caresses the woman as performer. But once we move off the stage, the swirl of violent emotions are registered with casual detachment, like so many incidental fish caught up by a net.
In odd ways, the real film is off-camera, happening offstage. Although New York, New York is very much concerned with the subject of success—the old drive to the 'top of the heap,' as the lyrics of the title song have it—the film deals with success only in the most oblique way. Scorsese's interest in the theme no doubt grows not merely out of genre forms, but more intimately from his own recent fame. Though the real struggle to the top is barely delineated, the work theme is given some reality through excellent use of ethnic/New York style actors (Lionel Stander). American cinema is witnessing the emergence of greatly talented Italian-American directors and actors, from Francis Ford Coppola to Al Pacino. Scorsese, apart from the Italian-ness of his two leads, skillfully uses the language, cadences, and hand gestures of New York streets for his band leaders and showbusiness-men. These are more realistically rendered ethnic variations of old musical-comedy types.
The difficulty with New York, New York is that it cannot rest on its ability to recapture cinematic and musical memories—though Scorsese doesn't do at all badly with these. The music (which ranges from old standards like "Taking a Chance on Love" to new songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb like "New York, New York") has great emotional resonance. Music links the two lovers: through it their early passion and playfulness is conveyed, as well as the growing tension and deterioration of the relationship. The stylized settings (gold tinsel snowfalls, claustrophobic reddish interiors, and spotlit, dream-like musical solos) can be evocative and beautiful, though they also often seem too calculated and without purpose. Scorsese is finally incapable of sustaining a film on style and decor alone.
In films like Taxi Driver, Scorsese's emotional energy and visual metaphors often triumphed over the confusion of his vision and narrative. Here that energy is insufficient. Scorsese has made an interesting and at times exciting failure—a film which is too personal to be a mere invocation of genre themes and iconography, and yet not personal enough to make sense out of its underground emotions.
SOURCE: A review of Raging Bull, in Cineaste, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1980–1981, pp. 28-30.
[In the following mainly negative review, Georgakas delineates what he sees as the "dichotomy between technical sophistication and thematic poverty" in Raging Bull.]
Anyone going to see Raging Bull with the expectation of seeing a film about boxing or the career of Jake La Motta will be disappointed. Although the film is in black and white, like the classic fight films of the studio era, and has about ten minutes of boxing action, its relationship to films like Body and Soul, The Set-Up, and Requiem for a Heavyweight is tenuous. The major theme of Raging Bull is sexual jealousy, and the film's major attraction, for better and for worse, is the virtuoso performances of Martin Scorsese, the film's director, and Robert De Niro, its male lead.
Raging Bull opens with a shot of a middle-aged and overweight Jake La Motta sitting in a hotel room rehearsing lines for a public reading which is not explained here or at the film's conclusion when we return to the same moment. A cut takes us back two decades to one of La Motta's earliest fights. This maneuver provides back-to-back shots, not possible elsewhere in the film, of Robert De Niro after he has gained fifty pounds to portray the aging La Motta and De Niro as he looked after having trained for a year with the real La Motta, learning to move and box as the fighter did in his prime. The scene telegraphs the theme of decay which consumes the film, and it's a forthright indication of the director's slap-dash attitude to narrative needs whenever tempted by an opportunity to spotlight De Niro's, or his own, technical flair.
When the film proper gets under way, La Motta is already an established boxer. Nowhere in the film will we ever learn what impelled him to become a prize fighter. Did he have a sadistic nature the sport could legitimatize? Was he racially motivated, as hinted in one scene when he talks about Joe Louis? Or was he just one more tough slum kid who found boxing the easiest path to wealth and glory? Whatever La Motta's motivations, he refuses to deal with organized crime at a time when such a relationship was all but mandated for anyone interested in big-time purses.
This is all the more odd in La Motta's case because his immediate circle of acquaintances includes a specific Mafia family. While personally at odds with some of the lower level hoods, La Motta likes and respects the local don, who is involved with sports. Later, after being the top contender for years but never allowed to fight for the championship, La Motta is informed that unless he throws a particular fight, he will never get a chance for the crown. He agrees to the fix with little visible bitterness or resistance, even though his conduct in the ring will make the fix obvious. Probing La Motta's reaction to organized crime, the dynamic of his career, or his particular style of fighting doesn't seem to interest the filmmakers. This is a bit like doing a film portrait of a famous general without being particularly interested in warfare or military hierarchy.
What does interest the filmmakers is La Motta's sexual behavior, particularly his jealousy. After losing for the first time, La Motta picks a fight with his wife in which they swear at each other, throw food and furniture around, and have a physical confrontation. Shortly thereafter he becomes infatuated with a fifteen-year old, Vicki, who will eventually become his second wife. From the start he is obsessed with whether or not she has slept with other men. After their marriage, his insecurity grows worse. Vicki cannot be out of his sight without accounting for every moment. As she begins to rebel against the constant pressure, Joey, Jake's brother and manager, assures her things will be better once Jake is champion. But, after winning the title, La Motta's jealousy escalates. He even suspects his brother of adultery and gives him a fearful beating: the episode ends their relationship.
Scorsese is relentless in his exposition of La Motta's jealousy. If Vicki kisses the Mafia don on the cheek, Jake thinks it signifies something more intimate. If she comments on a fighter's good looks, Jake is compelled to disfigure the man during their fight. All of this might be an accurate portrayal, but Scorsese never gets below the spectacular surface and glitter of La Motta's emotions. What are the roots of his incredible jealousy? And, if he is so obsessed, how does he keep tabs on Vicki when he and Joey are at a training camp (none are ever shown) or at a gym? Why does Vicki endure his paranoia for so long?
The superficiality of the La Motta portrait is most evident in the Bronx scenes. Early in their relationship, La Motta tries to impress Vicki by showing her the house he has bought for his father, but his father never appears in the film. In a home movie sequence, which is an effective and economical way of showing the passage of time and recording various rituals in the life of the couple, various friends and relatives are shown, but, aside from Joey and his wife, the La Mottas are without acquaintances, friends, parents, or relatives in the talking scenes. The paucity of supporting players would normally indicate the restrictions of a tight budget, but, in Raging Bull, the paucity appears to be in the conceptualization of the major characters.
The staging of specific fights provides a key to the director's real interest. As exhibitions of boxing, or as elements of a story, they are ineffective; as exhibitions of cutting room skills, they are lessons from a master. Each bout is set up as a separate entity, like a two-minute vignette or miniature one-acter, complete with titles to indicate time, place, and opponents. Realism gives way to expressionism. Close-up punching shots are punctuated by flashing ringside cameras or cuts to the crowd. As fighters fall, the canvas tilts. The sound is hyped up, and slow motion allows us to view a nose collapsing under a punch, or blood splurting like a geothermic eruption. The spectacle of the ringside environment and the punishment taken by the fighters is emphasized, but the analysis is extremely cold and technical. There is little feeling for the men involved, no sense of different fighting styles, and scant appreciation of La Motta's special stature. Jake is the Bronx Bull, the people's choice, only because we are so told. We don't really see or feel it before, during, or after the fights.
The shallowness of the portrait is further manifested in the dialogue. Scene after scene is either a shouting match with lots of profanity, or a moment in which violence or insanity threatens to move from the potential to the actual. Even when well done, such as the scene in the Copacabana when Joey beats up a mob flunky, we are focused on the grubbiest aspects of human behavior. It is as if the scenes were written for acting class, rather than for incorporation into a narrative structure. They allow the actors to shout and weep and move dramatically as often as possible. De Niro is superlative at this kind of acting, but the brilliant pieces do not add up to a coherent whole.
As the film proceeds to its conclusion, the already thin narrative disintegrates. Upon retiring from the ring, Jake opens a night club in Florida where he is the host and house comic. He gains about fifty pounds, stays at the club long after closing time, and finally loses Vicki. Eventually he is charged with serving liquor to a fourteen year-old and introducing her to men for illicit purposes. The evidence shown on the screen indicates his innocence; yet the key scene in this episode shows La Motta physically manhandled at a jail and thrown into an isolation cell, where he literally bangs his head and fists against the cement wall as he mumbles, "I am not an animal. I am not an animal." With no indication of how the affair ends, we next see La Motta in New York, where he is a host at a strip bar. After putting a new girlfriend into a cab, he happens to see his brother in the street and he tries, with little success, to patch up the quarrel he initiated long ago.
Another cut takes us to the scene which opened the film. La Motta is starting at a mirror, repeating the famous I-could-have-been-somebody scene from On The Waterfront. It's a precious moment. De Niro is playing La Motta, who has to come close to sounding like Brando—but not too close, for it is La Motta, not De Niro, who is trying to mimic Brando. This moment unintentionally reveals the vacuous nature of Raging Bull. The quoted scene is crucial to On the Waterfront: it is the moment when Brando realizes that he has been betrayed by his brother, and by the code he has lived with. In Raging Bull, the moment is just homage to another film. La Motta has been somebody, and Joey has been a helpful and loyal brother. Or perhaps we are to understand that this is a mirror instance of the other, that it is the fighter who has betrayed his brother. If that is so, what has happened to the animal La Motta used to be? And how is it that he is suddenly giving a reading from classic and contemporary authors? Before this scene, we would have been surprised to know the man could read.
Despite the many inadequacies of the narrative and characterizations, Raging Bull almost succeeds. The reason is Robert De Niro's performance. One has to be impressed by an actor who would put on fifty pounds in order to feel and look like a corpulent ex-champion. Before that, he trained so hard with the real La Motta that La Motta thought the actor had attained the skills of a ranking middleweight contender. One might argue, however, that the whole challenge of acting is not to become a fighter or a slob in order to play such characters, but to convey illusions. De Niro's literal approach to particular aspects of La Motta's personality might have caused him to lose sight of the man's overall complexity. In this regard, the less flamboyant performance of Joe Pesci as Joey is noteworthy. Whenever Joey is on screen, one feels that he is a credible, multidimensional human being.
From start to finish, Raging Bull exhibits a dichotomy between technical sophistication and thematic poverty. There are numerous quotes within the film, and some framing devices usually associated with Fassbinder. The boxing tableaus, while failures as depictions of championship boxing, are effective protests against the brutality of the sport. Period details, slow motion, and period music are handled extremely well. Ultimately, one becomes aware of viewing a film that is anxious to make the viewer aware that, while it is supposed to look like a film made in the late Forties or Fifties, it could only have been made decades later. This kind of conceit and the devices used to elaborate it will either annoy or engage viewers, depending on their esthetic inclinations. In either case, they have little to do with boxing, human pyschology, or even a good story.
SOURCE: "Hell Up in the Bronx," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 128-32.
[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he also discusses the work of John Cassavetes, Combs analyzes Raging Bull, attempting to reconcile the film's power with its marked avoidance of standard narrative techniques.]
To begin with, Raging Bull seems to have been made out of an impatience with all the usual trappings of cinema, with plot, psychology and an explanatory approach to character. A number of early scenes, conversations between Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) about Jake's career, his intransigence, his violent behaviour outside the ring, even about a neighbourhood girl, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), sitting beside a pool, have an intensity but a woolliness, an emotional fervour but a roundabout, elliptical, barely heard inconsequentiality that seem to frustrate any narrative function. They are also the first indication, in the linking of intimacy with casual obscenity, that the language of violence and the violence of language is itself going to be the binding element of the film.
In place of the narrative traps being sprung within the first few minutes of Taxi Driver, characters here appear to be finding themselves in their own time, or in real time, à la Cassavetes. It's an impression which Scorsese has strengthened by obscuring as far as possible the traces of the period film. La Motta's life from 1941, through his decade or so of success as a fighter, to the humiliations of the 50s and his end as an entertainer, the showman of his own notoriety, is recreated with a minimum of props, very few scenes outside the venues of home and ring, and none of the self-conscious artifice of New York, New York. Though spanning some of the same period, Raging Bull couldn't be further in style from Scorsese's last dramatic feature. For much of the time, Raging Bull is an unadorned window on the world, and even a shot which stirs memories of New York, New York—an overhead, from the point of view of an organist trying to restore order with a spirited rendition of the national anthem, as the ring disappears in a mêlée of flying chairs and bodies after an early decision goes against La Motta—has been reproduced directly from La Motta's autobiography.
Further neutralising the narrative, Scorsese has peopled it, De Niro apart, with unknowns—faces that are richly suggestive of time and place but don't seem to belong to actors, they stand for nothing other than themselves…. Which is not to say that the elements of the drama to come, the hooks, aren't being planted from the very beginning. A long track follows Joey as he argues with Salvy (Frank Vincent), errand boy of the local godfather, about Jake's refusal to sell out to the gangsters who control the fight game, which will eventually endanger his chances of reaching the middleweight championship; Joey's subsequent conversation with Jake leads from the latter's confessions of inadequacy (he has 'girl's hands', he'll never be big enough to fight Joe Louis) to his goading Joey into punching him until the blood starts from recent boxing cuts.
But the point of this drama will remain strictly interior, just as the violence—explosive as it is in the continual round of domestic quarrels paired with the more brutal but disciplined, aggressive but stylised exchanges in the ring—always seems to be imploding into significance. It is keyed to the dominant feature of La Motta's personality and his boxing style: his tendency, his need, to overcome simply by absorbing as much punishment as his opponent can dish out. La Motta flings himself against the wall of his fate: refusing to give in to the Mob, until he is forced to throw a fight in order to get his shot at the middle-weight title, almost sacrificing his career and his reputation in the process; losing his last fight with 'Sugar' Ray Robinson, but refusing to 'lose' by refusing to go down, instead just soaking up the other man's punches.
There is in this something not dissimilar to Harvey Keitel testing himself, his hand in the devotional flame, in Mean Streets. Except that, although the icons are present, the religious dimension of La Motta's struggle is not articulated. In a way, it has been assumed, absorbed into the film. It is there according to Scorsese: 'He works on an almost primitive level, almost an animal level. And therefore he must think in a different way, he must be aware of certain things spiritually that we aren't, because our minds are too cluttered with intellectual ideas, and too much emotionalism. And because he's on that animalistic level, he may be closer to pure spirit' (Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: The First Decade). The animal is evident, in the caged images of La Motta in cramped tenements, in a netting-enclosed swimming pool, and in the prison 'hole' in Florida where he winds up at the nadir of his fortunes. The spirit it is only evident in its absence, in Scorsese's rigorously realistic black and white images, which refuse to pollute the concrete with the spiritual (or vice versa). Despite Taxi Driver's pretensions to the title, Raging Bull may be his most Bressonian film.
What also disappears into that scheme is any psychological, dramatic, or even narrative framework to La Motta's story. This, actually, is supplied in abundance by the boxer's autobiography, on which the film is loosely based. There La Motta explains his feelings of guilt and inadequacy, his sense that he didn't deserve good fortune and that Fate would one day be waiting with the bill, in terms of his religious upbringing and the notions of sin and redemption that permeated his early life of crime (not mentioned by the film). He hangs great psychological and spiritual consequences by one incident in particular: how he thought for many years that he had murdered a man, a bookie, in the course of a mugging for which he was never brought to account. One can imagine how Scorsese might have adapted such a story … into another Mean Streets. Instead, it is as if he had purified all the elements of that tyro film, stripping them of their melodramatic or operatic function so that Raging Bull could be a transparent vessel for La Motta's passion, which is also his violence, self and other-directed.
Simulated home movie footage, for instance, serves at the beginning of Mean Streets to complicate the film's impact and to suggest, perhaps, a multi-layered investigation to come. Here it has the opposite effect, interspersed with brief glimpses of La Motta's flghts in the mid-40s, and rendering the characters' lives down into their most banal, generalised terms: fooling by the pool; Jake and Vickie getting married; Joey and his wife getting married; playing with the kids. Given that this footage is in 'amateurish' colour, the rough, unstable textures of a world already slipping into memory—as opposed to the surrounding, crystalline black and white—it inevitably has a poignance. But it not only serves to summarise, it frustrates the biopic interest: these are areas that are unknowable.
Similarly, Scorsese never dramatises—at least, not in the usual way—the rise and fall of La Motta's career. The story is told in simple chronological units, starting with a fight La Motta loses in 1941, with most of the succeeding ring scenes anchored in his recurring bouts with Robinson (also lost in the main), and the montage of fights that interrupts the home movies mostly just a few 'frozen' moments, with titles giving names and dates. Again, what is lost is the exterior drama. La Motta's struggle to become champion (achieved in 1949 against Marcel Cerdan) is displaced into a struggle with interior demons—'interior' in this context, however, having to do with more than one individual.
Jake's relationship with Joey suggests an identification, a symbiosis, that goes beyond the fraternal. It is an intensification of Charlie's love-hate affair with Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, and in its closeness subsumes a sadomasochistic violence that also has a cultural and social dimension. There is an inevitable progression here: Jake, out of paranoid jealousy, asking Joey to keep an eye on Vickie to make sure she is not fooling around; Joey becoming enraged on Jake's behalf when he sees Vickie out with some of the local hoods, and viciously beating up Salvy; Jake then later assuming that if anybody has betrayed him with Vickie, it is Joey. He bursts into the latter's home, furiously assaulting him without a word, just as Joey is correcting one of his children's table manners by threatening him with a knife.
The roots of that jealousy and that violence are presumably locked in the sense of guilt and unworthiness that La Motta is at pains to explain in his book. Scorsese never attempts to explain them, but has set himself the more difficult task of making them manifest. What is most remarkable about the new rigour of Raging Bull is that it tells La Motta's story with both complete realism (the places, the circumstances, the events) and total subjectivity. In a way that leaves them difficult to disentangle and analyse, each is even made to seem a function of the other. The sequence of La Motta's fights has a kind of documentary flatness, but each bout is treated with visual and aural distortions to become a mini-Armageddon. Instead of shooting the fights with many cameras, Scorsese has said, he used only one, working in close enough to become a third antagonist. Even the fact that La Motta fought many engagements with Robinson has a different, internal truth: in his book, La Motta refers to Robinson as his 'nemesis'; here he comments, after losing their third match, 'Who knows, I'm a jinx maybe.' Scorsese's most persistent distortion, slow motion, used at times so briefly and infinitesimally as to make one doubt it really happened, renders La Motta's internal violence concrete by focusing on the confused objects of his adoration and aggression—Vickie, often dressed in white, as in their first, dreamlike excursion, and the invariably dark-clad gangster-businessmen who would take over his life—the constituent elements of his heaven and hell.
At the beginning of his autobiography, Jake La Motta recollects his tenement childhood and wild youth.
I feel like I'm looking at an old black-and-white movie of myself … jerky, with gaps in it, a string of poorly lit sequences, some of them with no beginning and some with no end. No musical score, just sometimes the sound of a police siren or a pistol shot. And almost all of it happens at night, as if I lived my whole life at night.
It might be tempting to apply this to the way Scorsese has filmed Raging Bull. Except that what La Motta is recalling seems more like the kind of B movie that Scorsese built on to make Mean Streets. On the other hand, there is in that description a generalised sense of the movie-in-all-our-minds—an equation of the excitements of the archetypal Hollywood movie with a romantic life beyond the law, an equation forcefully operating in the environment in which the La Mottas and the Scorseses grew up. Romantically, the options facing the young Scorsese have been summed up as: priest or mafloso. Instead, he made movies, sublimating the other two. Raging Bull then becomes the sublimation of a sublimation. It evokes that generalised movie mainly because, in purifying his technique, Scorsese has stripped away his references, reducing them to some essential experience.
Mainly this is to record how La Motta himself sublimated his history, his background, to become a boxer, then sublimated that self to become an entertainer (another stage, that of film actor, is not recorded here). The boxing ring, it turns out, was not that far from the streets, from the mafloso option. La Motta must fall in with the Mob to get his chance at the title; as fight succeeds fight, the flashbulbs going off in the arena sound more and more like gunshots; and as he sits in Miami with Vickie and his children in 1956, having just given up boxing and before embarking on his ill-fated night-club venture, a photographer's equipment is shown in action as if it were an assassin's rifle. The film both begins and ends with La Motta in New York in 1964, his boxing glory and his family gone, rehearsing his stand-up routine in a night-club dressing room. 'Give me a stage where this bull here can rage. And although I can fight, I'd much rather recite … that's entertainment.'
La Motta, alone at the end with his make-up and his mirror, conjures Cosmo Vittelli once more. But where the latter is mysteriously released, by an act of the director's will, La Motta apparently defies Scorsese's conception of him as a man who lost everything and was then redeemed, remaining locked in his failures, identifying with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: 'I could have been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am.' Unless, in Scorsese's religiously denuded new scheme, redemption, like the presence of the spirit, cannot be made visible—although it might be guessed at in the harshly contrasting tones of black and white in which the hero frequently seems immolated. What has also been immolated, purged, is Scorsese's own past: the genre cinema out of which he made Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York.
SOURCE: "Grating Comedy," in National Review, New York, Vol. XXXV, No. 9, May 13, 1983, pp. 574-76.
[Simon is a Yugoslavian-born American film and theater critic. In the following review of The King of Comedy, he praises Scorsese's insights into pop culture fame and star worship, but suggests that ultimately the film's major themes are muddled by Scorsese's ambiguous attitude toward the protagonists.]
Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy is on to something important, if only its aim were clearer and its movement more sure-footed. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is a 34-year-old messenger boy who desperately wants to be a comedian. Downstairs in his mother's apartment, where he lives, he has created a mockup of the Jerry Langford (read: Johnny Carson) Show, where, between life-size cutouts of Liza Minnelli and his hero and model, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), he practices his comic routines and talk-show blather. By helping Jerry out of the mauling clutches of rabid fans one night, then insinuating himself into the star's limousine, Rupert starts what he takes for a professional and personal relationship, and Langford for a mere mauvais quart d'heure. Not meaning it, Jerry asks for samples of Rupert's work; presently Pupkin is hanging around the Langford office's waiting room, sending in tapes, sticking around some more for results, and getting ever firmer, less polite, brush-offs from the staff.
Pupkin pursues his quarry—and his own goals—with the ineluctable doggedness that is an amalgam of uncritical self-esteem, total insensitivity to rebuffs, and a low-grade savvy that partakes less of intelligence than of marathon stupidity. With Rita, a girl he loved from afar in high school and who now works as a bartender, he goes for a weekend to Jerry's Long Island mansion, pretending to his date that he was invited. Thrown out conclusively, he plots, with someone even crazier than he is—Masha, a rich, weird-looking Langford worshipper and stage-door Johnny—the kidnapping of their common idol. It works, and Rupert demands as ransom a ten-minute monologue in the first segment of the Langford Show. And Masha? She tries bizarrely to seduce Jerry, whom they have taped as completely as a mummy into a chair in her absent parents' Park Avenue town house. By a series of comicsinister, clumsy-shrewd maneuvers, Rupert gets on the show, is a smash hit with his fairly awful monologue, goes to jail (a six-year term, of which he serves less than half), and comes out to become the dreamed-of King of Comedy. Jerry escapes from Masha, who pursues him through the Upper East Side in bra and panties like some ghastly Maid-enform Girl; Rupert isn't shown winning Rita, either; but, with his new celebrity, he ought to do all right.
The film, with a script by Paul D. Zimmerman, a former Newsweek film critic, is unsure of what it wants to do. Obviously, it attacks the power of the obscure and benighted, if not demented, over the stars they worship, emulate, and tyrannize in the attempt to become stars themselves. But Scorsese and Zimmerman seem uncertain in their attitude toward the Ruperts and Mashas of this world. Are they monstrously aberrant, or fairly typical, or even emblematic of universal stupidity and madness? Are we to shudder at them first in comic, then in real, horror, or are we to pity them for the perfunctorily thrown-in but undeniable implications of parental bullying or neglect they have suffered? Yet though there is a pathetic strain traversing Rupert's insuperable cockiness (he can sincerely deny his manifest ejection from a building to an eyewitness), and though there is a woefully lonely, infatuated girl in the homely and derangedly violent Masha, these characters lack the variety of detail to make us accept their contradictions as part of human complexity; rather, they remain grotesque caricatures (well-drawn, to be sure) on which we are jarringly asked to expend full-bodied compassion.
Still, these caricatures talk a good game. "Didn't anyone ever tell you you are a moron?" the exasperated Jerry blurts out in his country house as the butler is about to call the police and the apologetic Rita is summoning Rupert away, but the impermeable pest still refuses to leave. "I can take a hint," he finally concedes without budging, and adds, "So I made a mistake." "So did Hitler," snaps Jerry. Whereupon Rupert, with much-delayed hurt dignity: "So this is the way you guys are when you reach the top…. I'll work fifty times harder, and I'll be fifty times more funny than you." To which Jerry: "Then you'll have idiots like you plaguing your life." This dialogue has the proper ludicrousness and bite, but it is equally effective when Rupert is smarmy, dumb, or pitiful: "I see the awful, terrible things in my life and turn it [sic] into something funny." He is only mouthing a cliché, but, sad to say, there is the ache of truth in it; his comic monologue, which fractures the Langford Show audience, is partly based, we surmise, on genuine childhood traumas.
This is where things become particularly muddled. The monologue strikes me as only slightly less funny than most such monologues, which I don't find very funny either. Are the film-makers saying that Pupkin's comedy is junk, but that on the Langford Show, introduced by Tony Randall, it enchants an audience of Pavlovian fools? Or are they saying that Pupkin does have that minimal talent needed to make anybody's success in this abysmal business? Is the film about weirdos cannibalizing their betters, or are there no betters, and are large numbers of—if not, indeed, all—Americans a breed of imbeciles? Is the satire specific or all-inclusive?
If the latter, why doesn't the film prepare us for it? There are hints, but they are few and fuzzy. True, a middle-aged harridan talking on a street phone recognizes the passing Jerry Langford and, without letting go of the receiver, flatters him abjectly, extorts his autograph, but then, when he refuses to talk to her nephew over the phone, hideously wheels on the star: "You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!" Rita, mortally embarrassed at having been inveigled into invading Jerry's country house, nevertheless stuffs a bibelot from a side table into her pocketbook. Is this a pathetic attempt to recoup a little dignity, to have something to show for this unmerited humiliation; or is it, after all, simply a piece of thievery, giving even the seemingly decent Rita her dram of vileness? And why does Jerry have only office staff, domestics, and a lapdog, but no trace of family or friends? Is that the proverbial loneliness at the top, or is he, too, merely a Pupkin on a pedestal? He does appear to be self-contained yet seething with something within, but what: frustration, repressed arrogance, or a nagging sense of unearned success?
Occasionally, there are lapses from credibility in an otherwise laudable attempt to emphasize reality in some of its more surreal aspects, but reality nevertheless. Though I have seen the film twice, I still miss a proper explanation of Masha's having the family town house to herself on abduction night. No parents, no servants; only this unhinged girl, scarcely to be entrusted with the safety of so palatial a domain. Again, if Langford is so wildly popular as to be mobbed nightly at the studio exit, would he quite so regularly walk alone through New York's threatening streets? And what about Rupert's job and financial status? He can take endless time off his messenger work and, although he complains of insolvency, is a flashy dresser (his outfits sometimes clumsily aping Jerry's), owns fancy sound equipment, and seems wanting for nothing. The gag whereby we only hear his always offscreen mother hectoring him does not clarify his presumable economic dependency.
Yet despite vacillations, there are respects in which The King of Comedy displays more assurance than any previous Scorsese film. The intermingling of Rupert's daydreams of glory with his shabby reality is strikingly managed; Rupert's psychology, language, and demeanor are presented with accuracy and the appropriate discomfiting humor, somewhere between laughter and wincing; and De Niro's performance perfectly captures the manic persistence of the idiot savant. When Langford tells him that he cannot begin at the top—the Langford Show—but must start at the bottom, catch De Niro's delivery of the reply, "That's where I am, at the bottom"; he is magisterially both ridiculous and chilling in proffering a confession of failure as a badge of honor and qualification. As Masha, Sandra Bernhard succeeds in being both frighteningly derailed and childishly pitiable; as Rita, Diahnne Abbott plays a once-popular high-school cheerleader defeated by life with touching reserve. And Jerry Lewis's Langford—always wary, prickly, his face pulled in with uneasy self-control, like a waistline constricted by a Draconian belt—makes us squirmily aware of the constraints of fame. Minor roles are well taken, whether by celebrities playing themselves, little-known actors (notably the stunning Shelley Hack as Langford's cool secretary), or sundry members of the Scorsese family.
There is excellent production design by Boris Leven, the interiors of Jerry's two residences being particularly impressive in their expensively unlived-in-looking frigidity. Scorsese's handling of the camera, ably seconded by Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, is equally compelling in the vividly orchestrated sequence of Pupkin being chased through the Langford offices by the security staff and in the patiently searching closeups in which De Niro deploys Rupert's bestial blatancy with disarming innocence. Rumor has it that there was studio interference obliging the filmmakers to make the humor less black; but even if The King of Comedy is often closer to Mel Brooks than to Evelyn Waugh, it still says more than most current American films.
SOURCE: "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1986, pp. 17-28.
[Braudy is an American critic and educator who specializes in film history and film theory. In the following excerpt from an essay in which he compares the works of Italian-American directors Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese with those of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio DeSica, and other Italian neorealists, he examines the ways in which Scorsese reworks genre conventions in order to examine the nature of success and to question his own authority as director.]
"An aesthetic of reality," André Bazin called the Italian neorealist films of the immediate postwar period, and the description has stuck. Whatever the changes in style and approach that directors like Rossellini, DeSica, Antonioni, and Fellini made later in their careers, there is still a critical tendency to root them in a film-making that stayed close to the stuff of everyday life. By respecting the integrity of the actors and objects within its gaze, it sought not to turn them into something thematic or symbolic, but to maintain their separateness and their unalloyed reality—if we take "reality" to mean that which is constantly evading our final interpretation and our subordination of it to our interpretive systems.
The now-aging younger generation of Italian-American film-makers—in which I include Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese—at first glance could be hardly more different from the generation of neorealists in their style and preoccupations. Most striking is their commitment to genre formats in plot and style, an indication of their rootedness in an American rather than an European tradition of film-making. Genre has always been the prime seedbed of American films. The neorealists and the European school in general, with the great exceptions of the early works of the French New Wave and the more recent New German cinema, have usually treated the individual film as a work situated in the history of art, or in the eternity of nature, while even in the most ambitious as well as the most perfunctory American films it is the pressure of the history of film displayed in genre form that has been the most crucial factor. Neorealism particularly, at least in Bazin's account of it, is explicitly presented as a statement of freedom against the stylization associated with expressionist film (as part of an attack on German politics and Nazism as well). This kind of film, Bazin virtually argues, exhibits the "true" aesthetic of the medium, while the stylized sets, directorial control, broad-gesture acting, and melodramatic plots of film expressionism are a falsification of its essential nature.
In such an argument, the films of Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese, with exceptions …, almost entirely wind up on the side of the tradition that Bazin believes neorealism is attacking. They are fascinated with artifice—with genre plots, characters, and motifs that delve into the roots of popular forms—as well as with stylized sets, lighting, and an expressionist use of color that convey the emotions of the characters and the situations rather than the "reality" of the objects. In contrast to the neorealist and Soviet use of nonprofessional actors to energize the film with a "realistic" sense of character, these directors focus on both the self-stylized character and the character whose psyche film and popular culture has taken over—characters for whom all experience must be mediated by the shapes of film artifice. Instead of imitating the dynamic reticence of the ideal neorealist director, who lets reality unfold before his camera, these directors are drawn to the implications of directional imposition and tyranny: the director as aesthetic master of his material, shaping it to his will. Rather than Renoir or Rossellini, Antonioni or DeSica, their heroes are the great independent stylists: Welles for Coppola, Hitchcock for DePalma, while Scorsese invokes the eccentric combination of Michael Powell and Sam Fuller….
[My] purpose here is … to explore the different ways Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese adapt to the special situation of the American film what I would like metaphorically to call a Catholic way of regarding the visible world. In varying biographical degrees, they come to film, I would argue, with a specially honed sense of (1) the importance of ritual narratives, (2) the significance of ritual objects, and (3) the conferral of ritual status. Unlike the Protestant (and often Jewish) denigration of visual materiality in favor of verbal mystery, such directors mine the transcendental potential within the visual world. Objećts, people, places, and stories are irradiated by the meaning from within, which as directors they seek to unlock. Sometimes the meaning, as in the work of another Catholic director, Hitchcock, is beyond the visual. But it is still linked to an effort to make visual style a mode of moral exploration, an almost priestly urge to reeducate the audience in the timelessness of ritual stories, along with the attitudes necessary for their reinterpretations.
This process takes place, as I have said, within an American film context that has always stressed the armature of genre and of film history as the presupposition of every film. It is an aesthetic approach enhanced of course by the long-lived existence of a studio system. But even with the end of the studio system (or especially with its end), we find professed anti-Hollywoodians like Coppola and DePalma seeking to set up their own version of Hollywood and in essence beating Hollywood at its own genre game. All three of them, along with most other American film-makers of their generation, received their technical training at the same time that the auteur theory of film was a force of radical upending of the official system of value. "No more European films of the grand style and no more Hollywood films of pretension" was the battlecry. The great American director would be defined instead as a man of personal style and vision, often working in the lowliest ranks of the studio, turning out masterpieces of tension between studio demands and personal urge. "Art" here was not the grand assertion of the European artist with his tradition of craft and guild connection on the one side and masterpieces and originality on the other. Auteur "art" came instead from a subversive use of the paraphernalia of studio complacency to articulate a personal vision.
All three of these directors did some or a good deal of their journeyman work with that institutionalized representative of the Hollywood anti-system, Roger Corman, whose stock in trade was taking marginal film genres like horror or the biker films and mixing them into an almost surreal concoction of flash and action. In the midst of Hollywood, Corman represented a knowing "bad taste" that simultaneously mocked Hollywood's own upscale liberal pieties even while it studiously learned all its techniques. Corman produced Coppola's first film Dementia 13, Scorsese's first substantial feature, Box Car Bertha, and released DePalma's Sisters; he also offered a place where talented film-school graduates like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Jonathan Demme could learn their craft at low pay. The previous Hollywood generations of directors had come from live television (Lumet, Frankenheimer, Penn) or filmed television (Altman, Pollack) with its symbiotic relation to New York theater (especially in the days of the blacklist). This new generation came out of the film schools—USC, UCLA, and NYU. If the California contingent of Lucas, Spielberg, and Coppola were more oriented to Hollywood genres and studio expertise, it came in part naturally from the prejudices of their instruction, which stressed the need to fit in, if not with the Hollywood system, then with the Hollywood way of doing things—melodramatic plots and technically advanced visual style. If the New York contingent of DePalma and Scorsese was more dubious about the ultimate uses of technical expertise and often included a questioning of their own precedures, it came naturally from their nurturing in the cinéma vérité documentary world of New York in the fifties and sixties, with its constant arguments over the nature of cinematic truth and its New Wave city-film ambience of street-theater strutting.
But I must return from this entire generation of new directors to Coppola, DePalma, and Scorsese in particular because I believe their Catholic upbringing, literally or metaphorically, makes them the most salient film-makers of that group, heightening a self-consciousness about all aspects of film-making that is already inherent in the historical-aesthetic moment in which these young directors began to work. Each of the three emphasizes a different aspect of film self-consciousness as his own….
Scorsese's sense of film relies on film history and especially on the ways the film version of reality warps the consciousness of those without sufficient detachment. Saintlike in their self-sufficient isolation from the normal world, characters like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Rupert Pupkin of King of Comedy dictate their own actions and responses by a world of film melodrama. They are enlarged versions of the uncle in Mean Streets, who is watching Fritz Lang's The Big Heat almost for hints on how to be a gangster, while Johnny Boy, the DeNiro character, is outside being shot. Less willing even than Rossellini to separate the natural world from his perception of it, Scorsese places his characters at the center of his films, and the look of the film radiates out from them, just as their moral conceptions of reality and their self-constructions come from the films they have already seen. Like Rossellini, Scorsese is interested in the figure of the saint as a character who moves beyond "realistic" norms, transfiguring his marginality into a kind of transcendence. The extraordinary calm of the Franciscan emissary in The Little Flowers of St. Francis while he is being brutalized by the bandits embodies a divine spirituality that can subsume earthly violence. In the much more pervasively violent films of Scorsese (who first wanted to be a priest because his asthma prevented him from being a gangster), the stylization of the visual form becomes a kind of skin over the eruptions within, as if to demonstrate how much chaos the rituals of seeing and story-telling can actually subdue. In a certain sense, one can thus place Scorsese in a European line that stretches from Sade to Pasolini, in which the stories of violence and death paradoxically point to the patterns of the form that contains them and the rituals by which they are distanced and turned into meaning. Like the Neapolitan paintings of Caravaggio and others, with their incessant heads of John the Baptist and Holofernes, their pin-cushion Sebastians, and their massacred Innocents, such works disrupt in order to reestablish, breach in order to heal and re-authorize.
But Scorsese, more than Coppola or DePalma (or Sade and Pasolini, I would say), considers the formal self-questioning of his own authority and complicity to be part of the story he tells. Perhaps, in delivering the sacrament, the individual priest has been made eternal in his role. But Scorsese, with a modern's sense of the ersatz sainthood conferred by the media, cannot stop there. In contrast with DePalma and Coppola, and even more sharply with the blithe, control-celebrating Lucas and the director-worshipping Spielberg, Scorsese continually characterizes himself in his films as an inciting force. In Mean Streets he is the killer who shoots DeNiro at the end; in Taxi Driver he is the murderous misogynist whose appearance triggers off Travis Bickle's breakdown; in Raging Bull he is the barely offscreen make-up man who is preparing Jake LaMotta for his stage appearance reading Shakespeare; and in King of Comedy, he is the a. d. who mockingly tells Rupert to ask the director if he really wants to know what's going on.
Interestingly enough, in the successive interplay between Scorsese and DeNiro, there is also a gradual emptying of the main character's moral pretensions and physical courage. With each step he turns more and more into a media figure, hungering for his place in the public eye. In the contemplation of the Italian-American director, there is some irony to be mined from the fact that in the year of Taxi Driver, Sylvester Stallone appeared in Rocky. Stallone/Travolta are an intriguing contrast with Scorsese/DeNiro: the main stream vs. the outsider Italians, the middlebrow vs. the highbrow film-makers. The most relevant contrast to draw here is the unproblematic quality both of Stallone's thematizing of success and his celebration of winning through the self-conscious creation of a great body. True, Stallone admits that success has its pit-falls, and bodies age. But somehow those problems will be overcome. Scorsese's vision of both fame and physical fitness is much darker. In each of his films there is a progressive defacement of DeNiro—the mohawk haircut in Taxi Driver, the bloated weight-gaining to play La Motta in Raging Bull, and the odd shot of hands wiping across a window-reflected face in King of Comedy, the implied and actual mutilations in After Hours—introducing a film that explores the tangle of recognition and personal identity. Raging Bull particularly seems to be a direct response to Rocky, similarly contemplating the boxer as a figure in working-class and lower-middle-class Italian-American culture. In contrast to the sweet color melodrama of Rocky, it is shot in a lusciously harsh black-and-white neorealist documentary style. Unlike Stallone, Scorsese does not blandly approve the benediction of visible success. In the figures of Bickle, La Motta, and Pupkin there resides instead a sense of the gaping uncertainties of public appearance and the desire for personal fame, along with a raging iconoclasm toward the performer—as if Scorsese wanted to undermine his own inclination to trust too much in the substantiality of images.
All such characters in Scorsese's films are saints of a sort, but saints as heroes manqués. In a way they are reminiscent of Rossellini's false General della Rovere, the common man who becomes a hero because others think he is. But Scorsese's saints have an urge to be different and to make a difference that has been totally warped by the culture of visual media in which they try to find themselves.
In Rupert Pupkin's fantasy wedding, television has become the church. As Scorsese has said of Travis Bickle's more malevolent version of this urge, he's "somewhere between Charles Manson and Saint Paul…. He's going to help people so much he's going to kill them." Scorsese's exploration of such upside-down spirituality is part of his own particular inclination toward the performer as the key to a social and cinematic vision. But it is the performer not in the sense of Coppola's ritually murdered Brando, but the performer as the lightning rod for all the crazy pressures on the effort to construct a self in America today. Johnny Boy and Jake La Motta are specifically Italian; Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin are not. But all four, like Alice in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, as well as many minor characters in Scorsese's films, are infused with the desire to be somebody. That desire, as perhaps it must be in film, is predicated specifically on being seen and paid attention to by an audience. Johnny Boy dies among friends. But Jake La Motta leaves the film to greet a waiting audience, his career now revived, while Travis Bickle's insane shooting spree is turned by the newspapers into a heroic vendetta, and Rupert Pupkin emerges from prison for kidnapping the talkshow host to discover that he has become a celebrity, and Paul Hackett in After Hours is finally turned into an absurd art object himself. In Taxi Driver and King of Comedy especially, such endings are presented as part real, part fantasy, like the ending of Murnau's The Last Laugh, the director's salvation of characters he has otherwise presented as doomed by their own obsessive despairs. The transcendences in Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, though, are specifically examples of a media grace, as false and as true as the spotlight for which the protagonists in such different ways always longed. In Taxi Driver the saint has become the scourge; in King of Comedy he is a stand-in for all those in the audience who want to be celebrated merely for being themselves.
What I have been arguing here may perhaps be extended and deepened by a consideration of the role of actual ethnicity in the works of these directors. But I'm not sure. In many of these films the ideology is not ethnicity or religion per se so much as it is the way in which those social and psychological forces are mediated by and even subordinated to visual style. The crucial issue is not ethnicity but the representation of ethnicity by members of minority groups whose particular angle on the world has been nurtured by the world of films that they now choose to influence in their turn. In a sense, these directors and their films may therefore signal some final stage of actual ethnicity in the interplay between a specifically Italian-Catholic sensibility and the general cultural system of American film history.
SOURCE: "Where Angels Fear to Tread," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 208-09.
[In the following positive review of After Hours, Combs discusses some of the film's primary motifs and asserts that this film signals a change in Scorsese's outlook, from a belief or fascination with redemption to an emphasis on purgatorial limbo and predestination.]
There have been signs recently of something of a religious transformation in Martin Scorsese's work. Not a conversion, exactly; more a change of temper. It may be that some component of his ethnic temper has gone, the Italian Catholic connection (which was still very evident in the WASP Middle America of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore or the echt movie fantasy of New York, New York). It may be that his theology—and his sense of life in Manhattan—has shifted from its first scorching premise (go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not receive redemption) to include some cooler, more indeterminate state: instead of burning in hell, the protagonists of his two most recent films look as if they are stalled in purgatory. Or it may be the influence of his sometime screenwriter Paul Schrader: since their last collaboration, on Raging Bull, the Catholic Scorsese seems to have partly become the Calvinist Schrader, with despairingly comic storylines locked in predestined patterns. Or it may be that the collapse of his plans to film Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation has put Scorsese's own religious project into limbo, artistic purgatory.
Certainly, both The King of Comedy and After Hours might be described as comedies of frustration. If all Scorsese's heroes are driven and obsessive, overreachers hell-bent for success in the Mafia, show-business or life, they've never seemed less likely to make it than in these two films. Or rather, success has begun to look just as limiting and defeating as failure: Rupert Pupkin, would-be 'personality' in The King of Comedy, is so sealed in self-delusion that one can't even tell how real or imaginary the film intends his final success to be. Once the lyricist of big-city alienation and paranoia, and of his characters' desperate leaps of faith to transcend them, Scorsese has become the threnodist of frustration. One notices how muted (often literally, in terms of the sound level) his films have become, how much like circles in a void his characteristic camera movements seem.
In one way, this makes them the most brilliant, original comedies since middle-to-late Billy Wilder (say, Kiss Me, Stupid and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), mainly because they seem too despairing even to be comedies. In another, their strangely frozen, suspended subjects make them susceptible to being read, by default, as social satires. The King of Comedy was widely taken to be a critique, a la Day of the Locust, of show-business success, of the psychotic envy the not-famous are made to feel for those who are. And After Hours could be taken as a satire on a New York demi-monde, on the freakishness, pretension and tribal hostility an uptown boy encounters when he travels one night to the loft-divided reaches of SoHo in search of sexual adventure. The mood here is ostensibly lighter, more pixillated. The camera that scuds at boot level through the streets of neon and drifting steam intimates magic rather than the menace of Taxi Driver, which is confirmed by the waiter who glosses the meaning of the film's title: 'Different rules apply when it gets to be this late.' But magic can be mean, too: when things begin to go wrong, the hero's money acquires a life of its own, and subway fares rise at midnight, it can turn into a nightmare of frustrated flight.
On the surface, the hero, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a self-effacing word processor operator by day, is the kind of hopeful innocent one might expect if this were a Neil Simon comedy about the rigors of urban life (think of The Out-of-Towners). The way Scorsese shoots Paul's early scenes, however—his mind drifting away amid the high-tech hum of the office; his hesitant movements at home, as if the prowling camera had caught him invading his own living space—suggests someone several degrees more dislocated, as remote from himself as the Jerry Lewis character in The King of Comedy. Paul is actually a modest mix of that film's two lead characters—more modestly alienated than Lewis' Jerry Langford, more modestly ambitious than De Niro's Rupert Pupkin. It's the latter that gets him into SoHo: reading The Tropic of Cancer in a diner one night, he attracts the interest of a girl, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), who invites him to the loft where she is staying with her sculptress friend, Kiki (Linda Fiorentino). The assignation turns out weirder than he expects, and by the end he's fleeing the attentions of a vigilante mob, two art thieves and various women. He's finally landed by luck (or predestination) back outside his office, where he returns to the reassuring hum.
With perfect, impossible, dreamlike logic, everything that happens to Paul this night originates with himself, asserts an independent existence from him, then returns to haunt him. The twenty-dollar bill blown from his hand during his demonic taxi ride downtown turns up on Kiki's papiermâché sculpture of a pensive/distressed Rodin-like figure; when Paul later reclaims the money, it leads him into further trouble. The scantily clad Kiki seems to promise an erotic sidetrack from the temporarily absent Marcy, except that she falls asleep while Paul is telling a story about how he was put in the burn ward when he had his tonsils out as a child, and had to be blindfolded from the horrors around him. He subsequently finds an illustrated book of such horrors, and glimpses a similar wound on Marcy, only to have it later turn into something else, a little top-hatted death's head tattoo, which he 'picks up', as an association, from a key ring.
Keys, like money, drift magically through this supercharged atmosphere, teasing talismans. What really proves Paul's undoing, however, are other people's expectations which, innocently, he excites. The plot of The King of Comedy is neatly resumed in the episode of Paul's encounter with a waitress (Teri Garr), who leaves a message ('Help. I hate this job') on the back of his bill, takes him to her apartment and makes him a gift of a sculpted cream-cheese bagel paperweight (perhaps something of Kiki's), then repays his 'desertion' by plastering the neighbourhood with notices accusing him of being a burglar. She's a fair artist herself, having sketched his likeness for this wanted poster. Which suggests a view of art as the final presumption/projection on to someone else, and the final alienation of oneself. Paul only escapes the vigilantes when another obliging sculptress, June (Verna Bloom), covers him with papier-mâché. He is then mistaken for the 'real' thing by two thieves (Cheech and Chong) and stolen—only his eyes visibly 'alive' in their sockets, an image shockingly fit for Poe, or the Corman who made the art as murder joke in A Bucket of Blood.
It's the genuine horror of that premature burial which suggests why After Hours is not just social satire (it could be to the current art scene what A Bucket of Blood was to the Beats of the 50s), and more like a trip to the void. That's an area between life and death that might be called art, or cinema: it's at a 'conceptual art' party, after all, that Paul meets June, who will immortalise him in papiermâché, when his ambitions have sunk to their most modest, or risen to their most grandiose: 'I just want to live'. It follows that After Hours throughout works best as a comedy when it is closest to this and other terrors: a wonderful first half, when events in Kiki's loft, far from being just bohemian comedy, suggest that something quite nasty could happen at any moment. Pixillated horror is not an easy note to sustain, as the film occasionally demonstrates when it slips into something else: a Bogdanovich screwball comedy when Paul teams up with a girl in a Mr Softee ice-cream van, or something Neil Simonish when he sinks to his knees in the street, looking up: 'What do you want from me? What have I done? I'm just a word processor, for Christ's sake.' As the only moment in the film, though, which indicates that the deity is watching over this turf, it suggests the state of suspension, the limbo, in which Scorsese himself is now working.
SOURCE: "Once a Contender," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1986–1987, pp. 68-9.
[In the following review, Combs discusses the major themes of The Color of Money—a sequel to the 1961 film The Hustler, written and directed by Robert Rossen—and lauds its frequent cinematic brilliance.]
The Color of Money is about halfway through before the Hustler, 'Fast' Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), does anything serious with a pool cue. Martin Scorsese, directing the sequel to a movie that was made when he was still a teenager, signals the moment with a kind of twenty-one-gun salute. Eddie, en route to a tournament in Atlantic City with a young protégé, Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), stops off at a seedy Midwest pool hall of his past acquaintance to show Vince how to set up a little hustle with the local talent. Starting a game to catch the other players' eye, Eddie approaches the pool table for the first time in the movie as something other than an observer, a 'stakehorse', a wheeler dealer, and as he breaks the rack, Scorsese makes the shot resound like a thunderclap, a fusillade. It signals Eddie's return to the arena, but it also sounds like a declaration of war—against his opponents and against the enemy within himself, who ruled himself out of the game twenty-five years ago when he refused to allow his gangster-connected manager (George C. Scott in The Hustler) to take half his winnings. So the shot resounds on more than just a physical level. As Scorsese has put it: 'The movie is about a deception and then a clarity, a perversion and then a purity.'
Both the sound effect and the theme are instantly reminiscent of Raging Bull, where punches thrown in the ring, and even flash bulbs going off in between bouts, had a thunderous wallop. What Scorsese did in his boxing biopic he does here, finding ways to express the anger, the frustration, the hunger of his contenders rather than just charting the state of play. When Eddie, unexpectedly but inevitably, has to face Vince at the tables in Atlantic City, the game becomes not the sequence of cliffhanging shots a conventional sports movie might go for but a ballet of colliding projectiles, in which one doesn't follow the match but experiences the play of shot (in both the pool and film senses) against shot. The dazzling energy of the sequence, as of all Scorsese's film-making, leads at the same time straight to an ambivalence—to two-way declarations of war, asserting while denying the self; to the physicality / spirituality split, asserting needs or wishes which are simultaneously repressed, punished or purified. It may be so powerful because it is such a fundamental movie impulse, having to do with the business of watching movies, with 'vision' as both active projection and passive reception, as both physical act and spiritual metaphor.
It's a natural impulse, anyway, to be dramatised by movies about spectator sports. Raging Bull's Jake La Motta is purified when his 'impure' gaze is turned from others—his opponents in the ring, the obscure objects of his sexual desire and jealousy—and on to himself, rehearsing his 'act' before a mirror at the end, finding peace by losing himself in the reflection. It may be a perverse redemption, being led from the darkness of blind instinct into the light of a purely projected self, a sublimated self; it is redemption by an act of cinematic will. Eddie is doing all his projecting on to others at the beginning of The Color of Money. He characterises himself as 'a student of human moves' when he first picks up Vince, seeing in him a remarkable talent which can't be left to define itself. 'Pool excellence is not about excellent pool,' says Eddie. 'It's about being someone.' The someone he sets about turning Vince into is another image of the success he has become since he gave up pool to become a liquor salesman and stakehorse for other players, someone whose success is calculated for its effect on others. 'He'll be watching you and he'll come to you,' as Eddie tells Vince, instructing him how to set up the local champion they intend to hustle in that Midwest pool hall.
It's a corrupt projection of the self Eddie once was, or of the self he once 'saw'. Talking to his girlfriend after first meeting Vince, Eddie muses, 'That kid tonight—it was like watching home movies.' In both Raging Bull and Mean Streets, 'home movies were part of the story, irreducible evidence of some authentic condition, all the more authentic, in a way, because the evidence gives away so little; it all depends on how you look at those flickering images. Eddie's rediscovery of an authentic self then becomes linked, like La Motta's passage into the light, with the humiliation of making a spectacle of himself. Eventually tempted into a game himself, Eddie is taken by a jovial hustler and loses ignominiously in front of Vince ('I showed you my arse in there'). After which he abandons the boy to find his own way to Atlantic City while he sets about the regeneration of himself and his game. The change in Eddie is signalled by two shots, one during a crucial game of Vince's and one during his own semi-final in the tournament, in which his impassive expression is surrounded by a kaleidoscopic image, dissolves of the match in progress or the swirling background created by a ceaselessly circling camera. Eddie is no longer watching but meditating, as one character puts it. He is no longer projecting on to others; he has withdrawn into his own home movie.
The outcome, then, is a happier one for Eddie than for Jake La Motta, in that he both finds redemption and gets back into the game. Which means that the act of cinematic will this time has the air less of spiritual perversity than of commercial deliberation. One can see why Scorsese and his scriptwriter Richard Price virtually abandoned Walter Tevis' original novel, with its discursive, picaresque account of Eddie coming back from enforced retirement, a man out of his time (like Newman's Butch Cassidy) in his attachment to straight pool when all the young hot-shots are playing nine-ball (and even eight-ball). But their own version has become discursive in its turn, with the cross-country trip and the ambiguities of the father-son relationship having less to do with the fraternal angst of Mean Streets or Raging Bull than the films, say, of Arthur Penn (Newman again in The Left-Handed Gun). The Color of Money is an exciting, brilliantly filmed coda to The Hustler, but also something of a dream resolution to the earlier film—which may, in fact, have been the more perfect Scorsese film. There Eddie Felson was already less than pure in his practice of his art, and his redemption—sublimating himself by turning away from the game—may, like Jake La Motta's, have had more spiritual rigour.
SOURCE: Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, 178 p.
[In the following excerpt, which is drawn from lectures Scorsese delivered in London in 1987, he discusses Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, addressing his intentions and influences in each film as well as the details of their production.]
Brian De Palma introduced me to Paul Schrader. We made a pilgrimage out to see Manny Farber, the critic, in San Diego. [In an endnote Thompson and Christie add: 'Manny Farber coined the phrase "termite art" to cover the unselfconscious action cinema that he valued highly, alongside avant-garde work, as a critic working against the grain of respectability. One of the first to celebrate Fuller among other genre- and B-movie-specialists, he is also a painter and teacher and has latterly given up writing criticism in favour of allusive "movie paintings".'] I wanted Paul to do a script of The Gambler by Dostoevsky for me. But Brian took Paul out for dinner, and they contrived it so that I couldn't find them. By the time I tracked them down, three hours later, they'd cooked up the idea of Obsession. But Brian told me that Paul had this script, Taxi Driver, that he didn't want to do or couldn't do at that time, and wondered if I'd be interested in reading it. So I read it and my friend read it and she said it was fantastic: we agreed that this was the kind of picture we should be making.
That year, 1974, De Niro was about to win the Academy Award for The Godfather Part II, Ellen Burstyn won the Award for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Paul had sold The Yakuza to Warner Brothers, so it was all coming together. Michael and Julia Phillips, who owned the script, had won an Award for The Sting and figured there was enough power to get the film made, though in the end we barely raised the very low budget of $1.3 million. In fact, for a while we even thought of doing it on black and white videotape! Certainly we felt it would be a labour of love rather than any kind of commercial success—shoot very quickly in New York, finish it in Los Angeles, release it and then bounce back into New York, New York, on which we'd already begun pre-production. De Niro's schedule had to be rearranged anyway, because he was due to film 1900 with Bertolucci.
Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope. And the shock of walking out of the theatre into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me—that sense of being almost awake. There's a shot in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle is talking on the phone to Betsy and the camera tracks away from him down the long hallway and there's nobody there. That was the first shot I thought of in the film, and it was the last I filmed. I like it because I sensed that it added to the loneliness of the whole thing, but I guess you can see the hand behind the camera there.
The whole film is very much based on the impressions I have as a result of growing up in New York and living in the city. There's a shot where the camera is mounted on the hood of the taxi and it drives past the sign 'Fascination', which is just down from my office. It's that idea of being fascinated, of this avenging angel floating through the streets of the city, that represents all cities for me. Because of the low budget, the whole film was drawn out on storyboards, even down to medium close-ups of people talking, so that everything would connect. I had to create this dream-like quality in those drawings. Sometimes the character himself is on a dolly, so that we look over his shoulder as he moves towards another character, and for a split second the audience would wonder what was happening. The overall idea was to make it like a cross between a Gothic horror and the New York Daily News.
There is something about the summertime in New York that is extraordinary. We shot the film during a very hot summer and there's an atmosphere at night that's like a seeping kind of virus. You can smell it in the air and taste it in your mouth. It reminds me of the scene in The Ten Commandments portraying the killing of the first-born, where a cloud of green smoke seeps along the palace floor and touches the foot of a first-born son, who falls dead. That's almost what it's like: a strange disease creeps along the streets of the city and, while we were shooting the film, we would slide along after it. Many times people threatened us and we had to take off quickly. One night, while we were shooting in the garment district, my father came out of work and walked by the set. The press of bodies on the pavement was so thick that, in the moment I turned away from the camera to talk to him, it was impossible to get back. That was typical.
As in my other films, there was some improvisation in Taxi Driver. The scene between De Niro and Cybill Shepherd in the coffee-shop is a good example. I didn't want the dialogue as it appeared in the script, so we improvised for about twelve minutes, then wrote it down and shot it. It was about three minutes in the end. Many of the best scenes, like the one in which De Niro says, 'Suck on this,' and blasts Keitel, were designed to be shot in one take. Although every shot in the picture had been drawn before-hand, with the difficulties we encountered, including losing four days of shooting because of rain, a lot of the stuff taken from the car had to be shot as documentary.
We looked at Hitchcock's The Wrong Man for the moves when Henry Fonda goes into the insurance office and the shifting points of view of the people behind the counter. [In an endnote, Thompson and Christie add that 'Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) has a rare documentary-style quality and sense of real New York locations amid his more flamboyantly theatrical works and is also one of his most overtly Catholic. An innocent man (Fonda) falsely accused of homicide is eventually vindicated after a religious experience in prison.'] That was the kind of paranoia that I wanted to employ. And the way Francesco Rosi used black and white in Salvatore Giuliano was the way I wanted Taxi Driver to look in colour. We also studied Jack Hazan's A Bigger Splash for the head-on framing, such as the shot of the grocery store before Travis Bickle shoots the black guy [In an endnote, Thompson and Christie add that 'Jack Hazan's A Bigger Splash (1975) took its title from the painting by its subject, David Hockney. A kind of fantasy documentary on Hockney, his work and his life, the film's lush colour photography and precise, clean framing reflected the artworks which, on occasion, it reproduced exactly.'] Each sequence begins with a shot like that, so before any moves you're presented with an image like a painting.
I don't think there is any difference between fantasy and reality in the way these should be approached in a film. Of course, if you live that way you are clinically insane. But I can ignore the boundary on film. In Taxi Driver Travis Bickle lives it out, he goes right to the edge and explodes. When I read Paul's script, I realized that was exactly the way I felt, that we all have those feelings, so this was a way of embracing and admitting them, while saying I wasn't happy about them. When you live in a city, there's a constant sense that the buildings are getting old, things are breaking down, the bridges and the subway need repairing. At the same time society is in a state of decay; the police force are not doing their job in allowing prostitution on the streets, and who knows if they're feeding off and making money out of it. So that sense of frustration goes in swings of the pendulum, only Travis thinks it's not going to swing back unless he does something about it. It was a way of exorcizing those feelings, and I have the impression that De Niro felt that too.
I never read any of Paul's source materials—I believe one was Arthur Bremer's diary. But I had read Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground some years before and I'd wanted to make a film of it; and Taxi Driver was the closest thing to it I'd come across. De Niro had tried his hand at scriptwriting on the subject of a political assassin, and he'd told me the story. We weren't very close at this time, I'd just worked with him on Mean Streets, but he read the script and said it was very similar to his idea, which he therefore might as well drop. So we all connected with this subject.
Travis really has the best of intentions; he believes he's doing right, just like St Paul. He wants to clean up life, clean up the mind, clean up the soul. He is very spiritual, but in a sense Charles Manson was spiritual, which doesn't mean that it's good. It's the power of the spirit on the wrong road. The key to the picture is the idea of being brave enough to admit having these feelings, and then act them out. I instinctively showed that the acting out was not the way to go, and this created even more ironic twists to what was going on.
It was crucial to Travis Bickle's character that he had experienced life and death around him every second he was in south-east Asia. That way it becomes more heightened when he comes back; the image of the street at night reflected in the dirty gutter becomes more threatening. I think that's something a guy going through a war, any war, would experience when he comes back to what is supposedly 'civilization'. He'd be more paranoid. I'll never forget a story my father told me about one of my uncles coming back from the Second World War and walking in the street. A car backfired and the guy just instinctively ran two blocks! So Travis Bickle was affected by Vietnam: it's held in him and then it explodes. And although at the end of the film he seems to be in control again, we give the impression that any second the time bomb might go off again.
It wasn't easy getting Bernard Herrmann [who had written the scores for many of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films, including Psycho] to compose the music for Taxi Driver. He was a marvellous, but crotchety old man. I remember the first time I called him to do the picture. He said it was impossible, he was very busy, and then asked what it was called. I told him and he said, 'Oh, no, that's not my kind of picture title. No, no, no.' I said, 'Well, maybe we can meet and talk about it.' He said, 'No, I can't. What's it about?' So I described it and he said, 'No, no, no. I can't. Who's in it?' So I told him and he said, 'No, no, no. Well, I suppose we could have a quick talk.' Working with him was so satisfying that when he died, the night he had finished the score, on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, I said there was no one who could come near him. You get to know what you like if you see enough films, and I thought his music would create the perfect atmosphere for Taxi Driver.
I was shocked by the way audiences took the violence. Previously I'd been surprised by audience reaction to The Wild Bunch, which I first saw in a Warner Brothers screening room with a friend and loved. But a week later I took some friends to see it in a theatre and it was as if the violence became an extension of the audience and vice versa. I don't think it was all approval, some of it must have been revulsion. I saw Taxi Driver once in a theatre, on the opening night, I think, and everyone was yelling and screaming at the shoot-out. When I made it, I didn't intend to have the audience react with that feeling, 'Yes, do it! Let's go out and kill.' The idea was to create a violent catharsis, so that they'd find themselves saying, 'Yes, kill'; and then afterwards realize, 'My God, no'—like some strange Californian therapy session. That was the instinct I went with, but it's scary to hear what happens with the audience.
All around the world people have told me this, even in China. I was there for a three-week seminar and there was a young Mongolian student who spoke some English following me around Peking; and he would talk about Taxi Driver all the time. He said, 'You know, I'm very lonely,' and I'd say, 'Yes, basically we all are.' Then he said, 'You dealt with loneliness very well,' and I thanked him. Then he'd come round again and ask me, 'What do I do with the loneliness?' He wasn't just weird, he was a film student who was really interested. I said, 'Very often I try to put it into the work.' So a few days later he came back and said, 'I tried putting it into the work, but it doesn't go away.' I replied, 'No, it doesn't go away, there's no magic cure.'
People related to the film very strongly in terms of loneliness. I never realized what that image on the poster did for the film—a shot of De Niro walking down the street with the line, 'In every city there's one man.' And we had thought that audiences would reject the film, feeling that it was too unpleasant and no one would want to see it!
I wanted the violence at the end to be as if Travis had to keep killing all these people in order to stop them once and for all. Paul saw it as a kind of Samurai 'death with honour'—that's why De Niro attempts suicide—and he felt that if he'd directed the scene, there would have been tons of blood all over the walls, a more surrealistic effect. What I wanted was a Daily News situation, the sort you read about every day: 'Three men killed by lone man who saves young girl from them'. Bickle chooses to drive his taxi anywhere in the city, even the worst places, because it feeds his hate.
I was thinking about the John Wayne character in The Searchers. He doesn't say much, except 'That'll be the day' (from which Buddy Holly did the song). He doesn't belong anywhere, since he's just fought in a war he believed in and lost, but he has a great love within him that's been stamped out. He gets carried away, so that during the long search for the young girl, he kills more buffalo than necessary because it's less food for the Comanche—but, throughout, he's determined that they'll find her, as he says, 'as sure as the turning of the Earth'.
Paul was also very influenced by Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. I admire his films greatly, but I find them difficult to watch. In Pickpocket there's a wonderful sequence of the pickpockets removing wallets with their hands, a lot of movement in and out, and it's the same with Travis, alone in the room practising with his guns. I felt he should talk to himself while doing this, and it was one of the last things we shot, in a disused building in one of the roughest and noisiest areas of New York. I didn't want it to be like other mirror sequences we'd seen, so while Bob kept saying, 'Are you talking to me?' I just kept telling him, 'Say it again.' I was on the floor wearing headphones and I could hear a lot of street noise, so I thought we wouldn't get anything, but the track came out just fine.
I was also very much influenced by a film called Murder by Contract (1958), directed by Irving Lerner, who worked on New York, New York as an editor and to whom the film was dedicated following his death. I saw Murder by Contract on the bottom half of a double bill with The Journey, and the neighbourhood guys constantly talked about it. It had a piece of music that was like a theme, patterned rather like The Third Man, which came round and round again. But above all, it gave us an inside look into the mind of a man who kills for a living, and it was pretty frightening. I had even wanted to put a clip of it into Mean Streets, the sequence in a car when the main character describes what different sizes of bullet do to people, but the point had really been made. Of course, you find that scene done by me in Taxi Driver.
When I was doing Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, De Niro gave me the book Raging Bull. The book isn't really an autobiography; it was written by Jake La Motta, with Pete Savage and a guy named Joseph Carter. We never met Carter and for a while we didn't believe he existed, though somebody got the money! But Pete was a good friend of Jake's, and Jake's brother Joey and Pete were combined together in the script. Pete also became one of the co-producers of the film. In the book, they tried to give a reason for everything Jake did in his life, for his guilt and for his violence. It was very bad. But there were incidents in the book that were extremely interesting and we said we would make the film on that basis.
Right after New York, New York, during those two-and-a-half years from 1976 to 1978, I went through a lot of problems. The film was not successful, and I was very depressed. I finally came out of it when I was in hospital on Labor Day weekend in 1978, and De Niro came to visit me and he said, 'You know, we can make this picture.' There were three or four scripts which had been written in the meantime, and they had all been rejected. I didn't like any of them and didn't pay much attention, because I was in pretty bad shape. And Bob said, 'Listen, we could really do a great job on this film. Do you want to make it?' I found myself saying, 'Yeah.' I understood then what Jake was, but only after having gone through a similar experience. I was just lucky that there happened to be a project there ready for me to express this. The decision to make the film was made then.
I was fascinated by the self-destructive side of Jake La Motta's character, his very basic emotions. What could be more basic than making a living by hitting another person on the head until one of you falls or stops? Bob and I then decided to take Paul Schrader's script, with Paul's blessing, to an island—which is hard for me, because as far as I'm concerned there's only one island, Manhattan. But Bob got me through it, he'd wake me up in the morning and make me coffee, and we spent two-and-a-half weeks there rewriting everything. We combined characters and in fact rewrote the entire picture, including the dialogue. When we got back we showed it to Paul, who didn't care for it all that much but, as he wrote in his telegram to us when we began shooting, 'Jake did it his way. I did it my way, you do it your way.'
I put everything I knew and felt into that film and I thought it would be the end of my career. It was what I call a kamikaze way of making movies: pour everything in, then forget all about it and go find another way of life.
We had a version of Paul's script in which the 'Evening with Jake La Motta' came at the beginning and the end, making the whole film circular. Jake recited bits of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, a speech from On the Waterfront; and I thought it would be interesting if he did a scene from Richard III. You can still see the billboard in the film which lists this whole string of authors. Anyway, we had already shown the script to Michael Powell and his reaction was that it would be wrong. 'You can't have him doing that, whether he did it in reality or not, for this film it's just wrong.' So on the island Bob and I were looking at each other, and he said that On the Waterfront was our iconography, not Shakespeare, so why don't we use it?
I pointed out that this would mean De Niro playing Jake La Motta playing Marlon Brando playing Terry Malloy! The only way to do it was to make it so cold that you concentrate on the words and you feel him finally coming to some sort of peace with himself in front of that mirror. And that's the way we did it, in nineteen takes. Sometimes Jake himself would really act it out in a very strong way which was quite heartbreaking, and Bobby did it that way three times. It was the last day of shooting, and I think we used take 13 in the end. One reviewer in America wrote that it's the most violent scene in the film. When he says in the mirror, 'It was you, Charlie,' is he playing his brother, or putting the blame on himself? It's certainly very disturbing for me.
Bob got to know Jake well and he worked with him a great deal just to be with him. I think he actually took care of Jake. When we shot the boxing scenes we had Jake there for ten weeks. After they were completed, Bob looked at him and Jake said, 'Yeah, I know, goodbye.' Bob said, 'That's right.' The dramatic scenes bear little relation to what actually happened. Mardik Martin's original script had various versions of the truth, rather like Rashomon, from which Bob and I extracted what was the essence of these characters, what made them interesting to us. Jake wasn't around for the filming of those scenes.
I always find the antagonist more interesting than the protagonist in drama, the villain more interesting than the good guy. Then there's what I guess is a decidedly Christian point of view: 'who are we to judge, to point out the speck in our brother's eye, while we have a beam in our own eye?' Jake La Motta acted much tougher in real life than he appeared in the film. The script originally showed much worse things about him, but I felt it was impossible to show them—you could over twenty years, but in the space of two hours there is a risk of forcing them out of context. Nevertheless, I find these characters fascinating. Obviously, I find elements of myself in them and I hope people in the audience do too, and can maybe learn from them and find some sort of peace.
Force of Evil was a great influence on me, because of the relationship between the brothers, showing what happened in the course of betrayal, and that strange dialogue written in verse [In an endnote, Thompson and Christie add: 'Force of Evil (1948) was screenwriter Abraham Polonsky's first film as a director (he had written the boxing movie Body and Soul for Robert Rossen the year before), but he soon fell foul of the McCarthy witch hunt, was blacklisted and did not work again in Hollywood under his own name until 1968, when he wrote Madigan for Don Siegel. In 1970 he directed Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. Force of Evil, now widely regarded as one of the greatest post-war American films, deals with the web of corruption surrounding the numbers racket and has stylized dialogue which dispenses with punctuation and plays upon repetition.'] I showed Bob Body and Soul on 16 mm during our preparation for Raging Bull, then he looked at Force of Evil and said that he found it more interesting. The numbers racket, which is the basis of the story, was going on around us all the time and here was a film which dealt with it honestly and openly and had a crooked lawyer with whom we could identify.
Kiss of Death I found fascinating for the wonderful look of the film—Twentieth Century-Fox under the Italian Neo-Realist influence—and, of course, Richard Widmark being so hysterical and totally uncontrolled. [In an endnote, Thompson and Christie add: 'Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947) was one of the late-forties wave of crime films, based on actual cases and filmed on location, of which the most famous was probably the same director's Call Northside 777 (1948). Richard Widmark made his screen début in Kiss of Death with a memorable performance as a giggling psychopath, while Victor Mature played the informer Nick Bianco. Psychoanalytic perspectives on the criminal personality were another influence, alongside the gritty authenticity of Italian "Neo-Realist" films, on the post-war American crime movie.'] But it was told from the 'law side', with Victor Mature becoming an informer—well, where I grew up, the worst thing you could be was an informer, so I couldn't really sympathize with that character. The tough guys downtown really liked Cagney in The Public Enemy and White Heat. Certainly, I loved White Heat, although I don't particularly care for the Edmund O'Brien character. [In an endnote, Thompson and Christie add: 'William Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) launched Cagney as a star and linked him permanently with the new tough gangster genre: it contains the famous scene in which he smashes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh in 1949, marked the explosive climax of the Warners' gangster cycle, with Cagney as the mentally ill Cody Jarrett. Edmond O'Brien plays the undercover agent Hank Fallon who has infiltrated Cody's gang as "Vic Pardo", pretending to be his friend.']
There were a number of boxing movies coming out at that time: Rocky II, which was a blockbuster movie in bright colours, strong reds and blues; The Main Event, The Champ and even one about a boxing kangaroo called Matilda! All naturally in colour. But the one use of colour in a fight sequence that had really impressed me was the flashback in John Ford's The Quiet Man, when Wayne looks down and realizes he's killed his opponent, and I'll never forget the vibrance of his emerald green trunks.
During preparations for Raging Bull, we shot some 8 mm while Bobby was training in a gym and I remember we were looking at this, projected on the back of a door in my apartment on 57th Street, and Michael Powell was sitting on the floor watching it with us. Suddenly Michael said, 'There's something wrong: the gloves shouldn't be red.' Back in 1975, he'd written to me after first seeing Mean Streets to say that he liked it, but I used too much red—this from the man who had red all over his own films, which was where I'd got it from in the first place! But he was right about the boxing footage, and our cinematographer Michael Chapman also pointed out how colour was detracting from the images. A man named Gene Kirkwood, who worked with Chartoff-Winkler at the time and was associate producer on Rocky, used to walk into our offices and he talked about how much The Sweet Smell of Success and Night and the City, both in black and white, had to do with Mean Streets. We said, no, it's too pretentious to use black and white now. But then it clicked in my mind that colour wasn't going to last anyway—the film stock was subject to rapid fading.
There were so many boxing pictures being made in the seventies that I dreaded that moment in the future when I wouldn't be able to sleep and the only thing on TV would be the poorest of them and nothing else, and I'd be forced to look at it! A real nightmare. I was never a fight fan. I saw two fights at Madison Sqaure Gardens for research and the first image I drew was the bloody sponge. Then the second time I went, I was in the fifth row from the front, and I saw the blood coming off the rope. As the next bout was announced, no one took any notice of it. In Raging Bull, the camera almost always stays in the ring with Jake. When I'd seen boxing matches between double features on Saturday afternoons as a kid, it was always from the same angle, and that's why I became so bored. The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies for me was Buster Keaton. [In an endnote, Thompson, and Christie add: 'Probably Scorsese is thinking of Battling Butler (1926), Keaton's seventh feature, in which he plays a spoilt young man who pretends to be a champion boxer to impress the girl of his dreams, and receives a brutal beating for his deception.']
I felt that Jake used everybody to punish himself, especially in the ring. When he fights 'Sugar' Ray Robinson, why does he really take that beating for fifteen rounds? Jake himself said that he was playing possum. Well, that may be Jake in reality, but Jake on the screen is something else. He takes the punishment for what he feels he's done wrong. And when he's thrown in jail, he's just faced with a wall, and so with the real enemy for the first time—himself. Jonathan Demme gave me a portrait of Jake made by a folk artist and around the edge of this piece of slate was carved, 'Jake fought like he didn't deserve to live.' Exactly, I made a whole movie and this guy did it in one picture!
The sound on Raging Bull was particularly difficult because each punch, each camera click and each flashbulb was different. The sound-effects were done by Frank Warner, who had worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Taxi Driver. He used rifle shots and melons breaking, but he wouldn't tell us what many of the effects were; he became very possessive and even burnt them afterwards so nobody else could use them. The fight scenes were done in Dolby stereo, but the dialogue was recorded normally, and that caused us something of a problem. We anticipated about eight weeks of mixing and I think it took sixteen weeks. It was murder, mainly because each time we had a fight scene, it had to have a different aura.
One of the best things we did, though, was to drop the sound out completely at certain moments. Silence, then suddenly the punch goes flying—whack! It became like scoring music and that took the extra period of time. For the actual music heard in the film, I was able to use the songs that I grew up with and draw on my own collection of 78s. Each scene is set at a certain date and there's not a song in the background of the film that wouldn't have been played on the radio at that time. In the mix, I could also slip lyrics that I liked in between dialogue.
Bob is a very generous actor and he will be even stronger when the other guy's in close-up. Often I steal lines from the speeches we film over his shoulder, because some of them are so good. And he really gets other actors to act in his scenes. For example, when Jake asks Joey, 'Did you fuck my wife?' I had written a seven-page scene, the only full-length dialogue scene in the film. When he asks the question, you see Joey asking him back, 'What, how could you say that?' I told Bob I wasn't getting enough reaction from Joe Pesci. He told me to roll the camera again, and then said, 'Did you fuck your mother?' When you see the film again, look at Joe's reaction! I like that kind of help. You have to throw your ego out of the door: you can't take it into the rehearsal room and you can't take it on the set.
Bob and I would work together in our own way. One morning we would rehearse, then the rest of the day would be spent looking at clothes. Or else I'd be checking out locations and he'd rest, or be writing a scene. De Niro's not really a student of any particular method of acting. He took what he liked best from different teachers, from Stella Adler to Lee Strasberg and others. Actors scare you by going off into a corner to get into a scene and then beginning to scream. But I don't see Bob doing those kinds of things, except of course in a physically demanding role like Jake La Motta. In the fight scenes we would have a punch bag in the middle of the ring. Off-camera you would hear him punching at this thing, then he'd come flying into the frame, all sweated up and ready to kill. When I acted in Round Midnight, I found it a humiliating experience, but it has to be done to understand what the actor goes through. Even though I have a good time with it, I find it humiliating because I don't like the way I look or sound. Even though people might appreciate the performance, I still find it personally disturbing.
Raging Bull took a long time because Bobby wanted to put on all that weight. [In an endnote, Thompson and Christie explain that in order to 'appear convincing as the older, shockingly overweight La Motta, De Niro forsook the fakery of prosthetics and put on an additional 55 pounds himself.'] We had to shut down and pay the entire crew for about four months while he ate his way around Northern Italy and France. He said it was hard to get up in the morning and force yourself to have breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. After a while it became really uncomfortable for him. In the meantime Thelma Schoonmaker and I cut the whole film except, of course, for the fat scenes. We had to shoot those around Christmas 1979.
SOURCE: "Living Cinema—The Passion of Martin Scorsese," in Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Faber and Faber, 1989, pp. xix-xxviii.
[In the following essay—their introduction to Scorsese on Scorsese—Thompson and Christie examine Scorsese's career in relation to the themes, style, and controversy of The Last Temptation of Christ.]
Two snapshots, separated by twenty years. A round-up of the New York 'Independent Cinema' by Andrew Sarris in late 1966 mentions Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, Warhol's Life of Juanita Castro and, amid such 'underground' company, notes prophetically: 'Martin Scorsese's short films reveal a wit capable of talking features.' Flash forward to Edinburgh, January 1987: Scorsese is touring, ostensibly to promote The Color of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, but also to discuss his whole career. 'Has the director of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull sold out to Hollywood?' ask true believers.
On the contrary, argues Scorsese, The Color of Money rehabilitated him with the men who controlled film-making in America. Like 'Fast' Eddie in the film, he has come back from exile—from the attempt to crush his spirit that the débâcle of The Last Temptation of Christ represented—and has yet again proved himself a player, if not exactly a winner. But is he not really a sophisticated East Coast film-maker, doomed to humiliation or compromise among the fleshpots of Hollywood? Back comes the emphatic answer: 'I am an American director, which means I am a Hollywood director.'
The fascination of Scorsese's career, as well as his films, is that of a parable of cinema itself after the Golden Age. Scorsese emerged too late to belong to the great post-war European movements of Italian Neo-Realism or the French New Wave, much less the Hollywood studio system which had nurtured his home-grown heroes. But he was fortunate to find himself part of the first American generation of film-school students who were inspired equally by what they studied and by what was happening around them in the early sixties.
He witnessed American daily life etched for the first time on American screens in unsanitized, ethnically diverse images by the New American Cinema documentarists. He experienced the excitement of the European 'art cinema' explosion—Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Resnais, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman—as it burst on to no-nonsense American screens. And he belonged, briefly, to the resulting vanguard: to the radical Newsreel movement, and to the international independent cinema, winning a prize at one of its most eclectic festivals, Knokke. It was a baptism which now seems as remarkable as anything in the cinema's legendary past; and it left a permanent trace on his ambition.
As the example of John Cassavetes had shown him, and in particular the extraordinary impact of Shadows in 1960, film-making must be personal, and this most of all when it commands the greatest technical and industrial resources. Only with this insistence on coherent authorship will it be authentic, demanding that the film-maker test every gesture and line-reading against personal experience and emotion. Its techniques must be, above all, expressive, bending the spectator's eye and emotion to the film-maker's vision, however bizarre or removed from normal experience. And the resulting beauty will follow the Surrealist André Breton's definition: it will be convulsive, or it will not be.
But, unlike his European contemporaries—and heroes, like the Bertolucci of Before the Revolution—for him, there was also Hollywood. Not merely as a nostalgic mythology, or a source of eclectic influences, but as a living, bustling reality—the 'Mecca of cinema', as the French poet Blaise Cendrars called it. Mecca, Babylon, Burbank, the Dream Factory—whichever frame of reference, it drew the young Scorsese towards his destiny: to be a Hollywood film-maker. He would enter it through the last available apprenticeship scheme, making exploitation movies for Roger Corman, and would find in this latter-day atelier the freedom to test his radical, aesthetic ambitions against the discipline of genre imperatives and audience reaction.
And throughout the first triumphant decade of his career, spanning the seventies, he succeeded better than any other American director of his generation in combining the personal and the mythic, the visceral and the classic. The great trajectory that runs from Who's That Knocking at My Door? to Raging Bull is simultaneously a journey through the Italian-American psyche, through the founding myths of America, and through the previous forty years of cinema. The cost, in personal and professional terms, was enormous; and there were many inclined to regard Scorsese as a spent or compromised force in the aftermath of the early eighties.
But he fought back, remaining true to first principles. And now it's clear how important The Last Temptation of Christ was to that survival. Not only did the Gospel story evoke some of his most potent childhood experiences, oscillating between the magical poles of church and cinema, but it represented a challenge: to his own imagination and resource, and to the industry which wanted to tame him. The story of his long struggle to make the film is as dramatic and revealing as its eventual reception was explosive.
The controversy that raged around The Last Temptation of Christ began with the first attempts to make the film with Paramount in 1983…. But the concerted campaign to stop the film took wing again five years later, when it was being produced jointly by Universal Pictures and Cineplex Odeon. Fundamentalists were armed with two early versions of the script by Paul Schrader—obtained, Scorsese suspects, from actors who had access to copies for auditions in 1983. This screenplay was of course some way removed from the final version by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, and notorious lines such as Jesus saying to Mary Magdalene, 'God sleeps between your legs', had been taken out at an early stage. But the fundamentalists objected to the portrayal of Jesus as a weak and indecisive man, and in particular to the scene in the 'last temptation' dream sequence, in which Jesus makes love to Mary while being watched by an angel.
In January 1988, Universal, wary of the problems encountered by Paramount, had appointed Tim Penland, born-again Christian and head of a marketing company specializing in fundamentalist interests, to be a consultant on the film. But in June he resigned, complaining that Universal had reneged on their promise to screen an early cut of the film to fundamentalists by this time. Universal countered that Scorsese was simply behind schedule, and that they themselves expected to see the film in July.
By mid-July, Christian groups had decided to go to the top, and attacked Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA (Universal's parent company), for discrediting the Jewish faith by supporting the film. On 15 July, evangelist Bill Bright offered to reimburse the cost of the film if the studio would hand it over for destruction. Although both Scorsese and Schrader, with Universal's support, had preferred to remain silent up to this point, Scorsese now released a statement:
My film was made with deep religious feeling. I have been working on this film for fifteen years; it is more than just another film project for me. I believe it is a religious film about suffering and the struggle to find God. It was made with conviction and love and so I believe it is an affirmation of faith, not a denial. Further, I feel strongly that people everywhere will be able to identify with the human side of Jesus as well as his divine side.
Universal issued a supportive statement, to the effect that 'Universal Pictures and Cineplex Odeon Films stand behind the principle of freedom of expression and hope that the American public will give the film and the film-maker a fair chance.'
On 16 July, nearly 200 members of the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles, led by Reverend R. L. Hymers, picketed Universal Studios, carrying banners saying, 'Universal Are Like Judas Iscariot', 'The Greatest Story Ever Distorted', and 'Wasserman Endangers Israel', as well as staging a mock crucifixion. Protests were also made outside Wasserman's Beverly Hills home, and in the sky a plane circled trailing a banner saying, 'Wasserman fans Jewish hatred with Last Temptation.' On a wider scale, the American Family Association (who had engineered much of the campaign against the film in 1983) were contacting some 170,000 pastors throughout the USA in their bid to stop the film [from] being released.
At this stage, the planned release date was 23 September. Although considered for the opening night film of the New York Film Festival, it was now hoped that it would play somewhere else in the programme. Inevitably, comparisons were drawn with the showing in the 1985 festival of Jean-Luc Godard's Je Vous Salue, Marie (Hail, Mary), which had been the occasion of disruptive protests. Indeed, the antagonism towards Godard's film among hardline Catholics in France was one of the contributory factors in the collapse of a possible French production of The Last Temptation of Christ.
On 12 July, the same day as an early cut of Scorsese's film was shown to invited religious leaders in New York, on the West Coast Penland held a press conference with four Californian fundamentalists, attacking the film and rejecting any need actually to see it for themselves. Among the film's sympathetic viewers was Reverend William Fore of the National Council of Churches, who said on television that The Last Temptation of Christ was 'just an idea which should be debated openly'. But while the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, said after the screening that he saw 'nothing blasphemous about it', his counterpart in Los Angeles, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, said that from what he understood about the film he would probably rate it as 'morally offensive' and recommend it be avoided.
On 25 July, Scorsese finally appeared on national television to say he would not make any changes to The Last Temptation of Christ, and stressed that it was a work of fiction, not a version of the Gospels. But two days later, on a discussion programme about the film, Mother Angelica, head of The Eternal Word TV Network, described it as 'the most satanic movie ever made' and declared that it 'will destroy Christianity'. In response to this Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA (the US movie ratings board), wondered how a single film could wreck someone's faith.
The controversy spread to Europe when Guglielmo Biraghi, director of the Venice Film Festival, said he would screen The Last Temptation of Christ out of competition, describing it as 'a very Catholic film'. Franco Zeffirelli, whose new film, Young Toscanini, was also to be shown in the festival, joined the campaign of many Catholics to bar the film, and was quoted as making anti-Semitic remarks, which he later denied in a full-page letter printed in Variety. In Britain, seasoned campaigner Mary Whitehouse expressed her concern to the British Board of Film Classification, threatening to invoke the law of blasphemy if necessary (she had previously brought a successful prosecution against Gay News in 1977 for publishing a poem that gave a homosexual interpretation to the crucifixion). Cardinal Basil Hume, on the advice of others, announced that the Catholic community should not see the film, because parts of it would shock and outrage believers.
Then Universal made the sudden decision to release the film on 12 August. Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA's motion picture group, issued a statement that 'the best thing that can be done for The Last Temptation of Christ is to make it available to the American people and allow them to draw their own conclusions based on fact, not fallacy.' Universal and Cineplex Odeon said they would both 'support Martin Scorsese's right to express his personal, artistic and religious visions, and the right of individuals to decide what they will see and think'. In response to this, the Reverend R. L. Hymers repeated that Universal should expect violent forms of protest if the film were to be released with the much talked-about sex scene. Further cries of damnation came from evangelists Bill Bright, Jerry Fallwell and Donald Wildman, who even called for a boycott on voting for the Democrats on the grounds that the party had connections with MCA! The US Catholic Conference further declared that its 40 million followers should not see the film. On 11 August, some 25,000 protesters marched before Universal Studios in a last vain hope of stopping the film.
With this deluge of free publicity, The Last Temptation of Christ opened on nine screens in the USA on 12 August, accompanied by strong words of support from film-makers (Clint Eastwood—'Freedom of expression is the American way') and a pledge of solidarity from the Directors' Guild of America. In New York, The Last Temptation of Christ was shown at the Cineplex Odeon Ziegfeld Theater (1,141 seats), with extra security and 100 policemen in attendance. Nearly 1,000 protesters assembled outside, the area was closed to traffic, and members of the audience had their bags searched after threats were issued to slash or spray-paint screens. Similar scenes of protest, accompanied by sell-out houses, occurred in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Seattle and Toronto. In three days, the film had taken $400,000. But four major circuits in the USA, amounting to some 2,000 screens, were promising not to show it. On 26 August, a screen was slashed and a print of the film stolen from the Cineplex Odeon Theater in Salt Lake City, and 1,000 people turned out in Atlanta to protest at its opening.
With the film finally released, Scorsese spoke out more in its defence, explaining how the Schrader script had been substantially altered. He emphasized again how the 'last temptation is not for Christ to have sex, but to get married, make love to his wife and have children like an ordinary man'. He also said that he had shown his film to his mother before its release, and 'she thought it was fine'.
In London, the British Board of Film Classification granted The Last Temptation of Christ an '18' certificate (adults only), quoting legal opinion that no British jury would find the film blasphemous. Mary Whitehouse, evidently aggrieved by this decision, said she would campaign for local councils to ban the film. In Venice, a local judge viewed the film before its screening on 7 September could go ahead, an event still strongly opposed by the Christian Democrat faction. Two days later it opened in London, with minor protests outside cinemas, and a ban on the poster by London Transport. Scorsese gave a press conference which was, in the main, greeted with respect.
When I read Kazantzakis's book [The Last Temptation of Christ, upon which the film is based], I didn't have the feeling that it would be deeply offensive to anyone, especially because I knew my own intent. But by 1987 I was well aware that there would be controversy on its release. One of the reasons it was made so cheaply in the end was the risk that we might not be able to release it. Among the boys who I knew when I was in the seminary, one is now the head of an order in Chicago called the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and happens to be a great fan of Kazantzakis's book. And I know that the book is used in seminaries as a parable to make the Gospel story fresh and alive, a subject to argue about and discuss. This is how I hoped the film would be received. I must say it's the only one of my films that I like to watch.
My feeling is that if you were to take yourself to the point where there are no churches, just you alone with God, that's the plane on which I wanted to make the film. To get down to what the message of Jesus really is. Not just a plastic model on a car dashboard, but someone who gave us the most important message for us to survive as a species on Earth. In Mean Streets, the main character Charlie tries to live a Christian life; he goes to church, does confession, listens to all the philosophy within the edifice of the church. But outside in the street, life is ruled by the gun. So how does one live a good Christian life in a world of this kind? All these themes have been churning inside me for years, and have finally reached a special combination in The Last Temptation of Christ.
When I was a child, I remember the church had on display lists of films, in categories A, B and C. C meant it was condemned by the Legion of Decency—if you walked into a theatre showing that film and had a heart attack, you're in Hell! If you went to see a Max Ophuls film, you were finished. When I was about eighteen or nineteen, I saw The Seventh Seal, which was a wonderful religious experience for me. But when I wanted to see it again, it was playing with Smiles of a Summer Night—a condemned film! So I went immediately to confession, and said to my parish priest, a sweet man who's now dead, that because I was studying film at New York University I had to see Smiles of a Summer Night. I explained that I hadn't really understood the sexual aspects anyway. He replied that I could see the film for my work, but that they had to keep these things from the masses. I think there is that double standard, but I wouldn't want a twelve-year-old going to see The Last Temptation of Christ and thinking it was an accurate life of Jesus.
A black minister wrote a letter to the New York Daily News, saying he loved the film, was going to use it as a study guide in discussion groups, and that he felt most of the people talking about the film had not seen it. He said they adhered very much to the word of the Gospel, but not to the spirit. Certainly in the middle part of America a lot of people have hard lives; there's drink, drugs, prostitution, wife-beating and murder. Then some guy comes on television, and through him this sinner, so to speak, embraces Jesus. I think that's a pretty good thing if someone then decides to give life a value. And I think they have a great fear of anything that threatens their idea of Jesus, because deep down they feel very frightened they might revert to their original behaviour. So I would say to them, if they really feel they might be offended, stay away, but please allow others to see the film. Some fundamentalist ministers felt they had done themselves a disservice in the end by raising the box-office of the picture, because people who wouldn't normally go to see my films went to see this one. They polled audiences coming out of the theatre, and in the first week 85-90 per cent of them liked the film and said they would tell their friends to go and see it.
Outside the USA and Britain, The Last Temptation of Christ did not always find such an apparently reasonable response. On 28 September, the film opened in Paris to violent demonstrations—there was a riot in the foyer of the UGC Odéon, Molotov cocktails where thrown, and thirteen policemen were injured. Tear gas was sprayed at another cinema. Similar incidents were to occur in Avignon, Besançon and Marseilles. On 22 October, fire gutted the Cinéma St Michel, injuring thirteen people. This violence was condemned publicly by Jack Lang, Minister of Culture, and the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustiger, but it effectively meant distribution of the film in France was rapidly curtailed.
The Last Temptation of Christ was banned in Israel—the country that had once welcomed Scorsese to use its landscapes as locations for the film—because of its being 'offensive to Christians'. The film opened in Greece (where the Orthodox Church had placed Kazantzakis's novel on its index of forbidden books in 1955), but was banned a month later. The opening in Brazil met with more violence. On the other hand, in West Germany the film was given an 'especially outstanding' category by the classification board, and it was passed in Ireland for over-eighteens, provided that no one be admitted after the film had begun, so as not to miss the opening statement that it was based on a work of fiction, and not the Gospels.
By the end of October, Universal had grossed about $8 million in the USA, and felt they were likely to make a modest profit on the film. However, fundamentalists proceeded to proclaim their victory over Scorsese and his backers, though a move to boycott sales of MCA's video release of E.T. clearly foundered completely. In May 1989, MCA announced a low-key video release of The Last Temptation of Christ, which provoked further threats of retaliation.
Controversy has flared up frequently in Scorsese's career. One instance was of his own making: in 1981 he led a campaign to awaken an uncaring industry to the problem of fading colour film, an act of aggression that led to Eastman Kodak eventually producing a more permanent film stock, as well as raising the whole question of methods of preservation. But in the same year, one John Hinckley Jr claimed that seeing Taxi Driver fifteen times had been the source of his obsession with Jodie Foster, and the inspiration behind his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. In the trial, the film was shown to the jury, who subsequently acquitted Hinckley on the grounds of insanity.
The extreme 'realism' that some critics had reacted against in Scorsese's films had apparently come full circle. Scorsese's answer, conscious or not, came in the supremely satirical The King of Comedy, in which the world of obsessive fans crossed over into the protected unreality of superstardom, and both were found wanting. But Scorsese's is a thoroughly modern conception of 'realism', one that combines total authenticity and expressivity. The visual and aural realization of this deeper authenticity encompasses an eclecticism that is rarely self-advertising, but applied with a singular passion. Michael Powell once said in an interview with Bertrand Tavernier, 'I am not a film director with a personal style, I am cinema.' What was true for Powell seems also to be true of Scorsese….
The life of a Scorsese protagonist is essentially expressed through emotion, be it the experience of growing up in a Mafia-dominated society (Mean Streets), the psychosis induced by urban loneliness (Taxi Driver), the despair of a man who lives only through violence (Raging Bull), or the confusion of one who feels a special calling (The Last Temptation of Christ). Frequently Scorsese deals with people in severe crisis, men and women in the grip of ambition, and his portraits of human relationships only occasionally suggest that fulfilment also brings happiness. More likely, his characters will emerge, as they say, sadder but wiser—an everyday redemption. Scorsese's own life has known its share of vicissitudes (more than one critic has sought to interpret his films through the maker's turbulent career), and the autobiographical element in the early features came back into focus when he finally realized his youthful ambition to film a life of Christ. One journalist at the London press conference for The Last Temptation of Christ was even so bold as to suggest that Scorsese himself would have been best suited to the lead role!
The narratives in Scorsese's films have rarely satisfied the Hollywood norm—a musical that was more film noir than MGM gloss, a life in boxing without a grand climactic bout—because he has held on to the inspiration of those formative years of the sixties, when dreams of a personal cinema could come true. The struggle is now with an industry wary of the large budgets and long schedules possible in the seventies. But whether it be a major, spiritually and physically demanding undertaking like shooting The Last Temptation of Christ in Morocco, or the movie-in-miniature of an Armani commercial shot in an Italian studio, everything Scorsese creates still comes from a strong sense of individual motivation. The paradoxical fusion of the entirely personal with a wide range of aesthetic references is what makes Scorsese in many ways the most daring and international of contemporary American directors. There could be no greater testament to this than The Last Temptation of Christ, with its combination of naturalistic American acting and dialogue, a European liberty in the filming style, authentic locations little changed since biblical times, and a conscious but assimilated reference to centuries of religious art—not to mention a subject which most present-day directors would fight shy of.
None of this would have ever happened, of course, without those first steps taken into the pleasure dome.
SOURCE: "Spirit and Flesh," in Jump Cut, No. 35, April, 1990, pp. 108-09.
[In the following positive review of The Last Temptation of Christ, DiCaprio discusses the film's theological aspects as well as the controversy surrounding it.]
Despite its religious detractors, The Last Temptation celebrates Christ's life. It affirms his teachings and sacrifice. In rather traditional terms, director Martin Scorcese depicts Christ's departure from basic tenets of Old Testament Judaism: Jesus' transformation of the angry and even wrathful God of the Israelites into a compassionate and merciful one embracing the entire human race, his condemnation of animal sacrifice and the money changers in the temple, and his opposition to open revolt as the only solution to the Roman domination of Israel. Instead, Jesus argues with Judas (Harvey Keitel) that love must replace hatred: "The circle of sin must be broken or else it will only be repeated." The soul, argues Jesus, is the foundation of the body—not the reverse, as Judas maintains.
For Scorsese, a Catholic, this film derives from his preoccupation with exploring the issues of sin and redemption in modern life, first exemplified in Mean Streets. So why all the furor? The Last Temptation has received official condemnation from the Catholic Church, full-page ads in the New York Times by fundamentalist groups detailing "blasphemous" scenes in the film, and widespread protests, some aimed at stopping its production by Universal Pictures. In many ways, this protest replays (in a magnified way) the reaction which met the Greek publication of the Kazantzakis novel on which the screenplay is based. At that time, the Greek Orthodox Church attempted to excommunicate Kazantzakis, and in April of 1954, the Pope placed The Last Temptation on the Index of censored works.
What is new in The Last Temptation cinematic version of the Christ story—and that which fundamentalists find most objectionable—is the process by which Christ finally accepts his role as redeemer of the human race. At the film's outset, we see a passage from the Prologue to the novel in which Kazantazakis states that all his life Christ has been consumed by the "incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh." This battle is at the center of The Last Temptation and it is portrayed in fully human terms, including a dream sequence in which Christ (about to die on the cross) imagines himself being as the husband of Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) and the father of several children, rather than being crucified on the cross.
This probing into Christ's personal life has received special attack. A protest leaflet handed out in front of New York's Ziegfeld Theater condemns the film as an "indecent, audacious, insolent, arrogant and improper inquiry into the private, sacred life of Jesus." The private life of Jesus, however, is precisely what The Last Temptation aims to explore, rather than repeat the sanitized version of Christ presented in such Biblical epics as last year's television special, Jesus of Nazareth.
In his introduction to one of Kazantzakis' earlier works, The Saviors of God (1927), Kimon Friar writes that Kazantzakis "had brooded long on the ultimate spiritual significance and martyrdom of Christ stripped of dogmatic and ceremonious ritual …" It is just such a Christ which we encounter in The Last Temptation—one who is indecisive, fearful of dying, followed by shadows, and without a clear understanding of the mission assigned to him by God. "I am a liar, I am a hypocrite, I am afraid of everything. Lucifer is inside of men," states Jesus at a particularly anguished moment. He is even shown experiencing sexual fantasies about Mary Magdalene—considered a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
By contrast, the film depicts Judas as sure of himself—a Zealot who criticizes Christ for making the crosses on which the Romans will crucify Jews accused of sedition. And Christ regards Judas as the strongest of all his disciples the one on whom Christ must rely to betray him: "We're bringing God and man together. Without that there will be no redemption. You have to kill me."
Despite its reversing the traditional relationship between Christ and Judas, the film does not portray Christ simply as a weakling. Instead, Willem Dafoe (much acclaimed for his Christ-like performance as Sargeant—in Platoon) brings to Scorcese's Christ just the proper combination of divine inspiration and human weakness which the film demands. However, the portrayal of such weakness strikes at the very heart of the most enduring resolution of the paradox of Christ as both human and divine: the Augustinian view that Christ represented humanity in its perfected, rather than actual form.
Did Christ suffer as man or as God? Did he have "two natures" or one? How was the union of man and God in Christ to be interpreted? These questions the Church confronted in the first few centuries of its existence, as it consolidated itself ideologically and organizationally. In his recent study, Jesus Through the Centuries, historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan shows how the solution offered by St. Augustine was an idealization of Christ as man. Grappling with issues related to the fall of humanity, St. Augustine not only came up with the doctrine of original sin, but he also determined that "Jesus was, then, not only the image of divinity, but the image of humanity as it had originally been intended to be and as through him it could now become; he was in this sense the 'ideal man." Christ, according to Augustine, was human insofar as he was the Word made flesh, but his humanity reflected the future perfection of "man." In The Last Temptation, the tables are turned on this concept of Christ one traditionally associated with Christianity. Instead, the film portrays Christ in two dimensions: as humanity is in its "fallen condition" and as humans can become through their belief in God. And the struggle between the spirit and the flesh—otherwise reserved for mere mortals—thereby become transferred to the figure of Christ himself.
Myths, as Joseph Campbell emphasized, need constant updating or they can lose their meaning. As the film shows, this mythologizing began with the apostles themselves. In the film, for example, Paul confronts a living Christ who has renounced his mission, that Christ calls Paul's description of his crucifixion a lie: "I live like a man now. For the first time I enjoy it." Paul replies that the only hope for Christ's believers lies in the resurrected Jesus: "You started all this. Now you can't stop it. You don't know how much people need God. My Jesus is much more important and powerful than you."
In The Last Temptation, the myth of Christ takes on a new and contemporary shape. The film depicts Christ almost as an anti-hero, whose final sacrifice is all the more meaningful because it comes as the product of intense personal struggle. As Christ finally acknowledges that the "guardian angel" who promised him life was really Satan in disguise, Christ asks for and receives a second chance. "It is accomplished," are Christ's final words when that moment arrives. Despite all previous vacillation, he dies as Christos Rex—Christ triumphant. In that moment, the narrative conclusion depends on a decidedly Christian ideal of sacrifice and spiritual transcendence which Scorcese's right-wing critics are unable (or unwilling) to appreciate.
Unfortunately, some of the film's power is diminished by its technical and conceptual weaknesses. At times the dialogue seems stilted and even undermines its own seriousness by playing on historical hindsight, as when the other apostles refer to Peter as "solid as a rock." On a visual level, the film degenerates into Hollywood extravaganza as it aims to capture certain Biblical highlights. Dafoe's distinctly Aryan features also detract from the film's faithfulness to time and place, although in this instance Scorcese is only following a long-standing artistic precedent of representing Christ through the blinders of Western white culture.
Overall, however, The Last Temptation may very well represent the crowing of Scorcese's career. The film for the most part succeeds in challenging certain tenets of Christianity in order to capture what Scorcese considers to be Christianity's essence. Even non-believers and/or those raised outside of the Christian tradition stand to gain much from viewing the film. Although we may not share Kazantzakis' particular obsession with the mind/body split, we can all appreciate the desire to transform out ordinary existence—with all its material requirements—into something more meaningful than its own maintenance or reproduction. This, then, may be the real (Catholic as Universal) lessons of Christ's Passion which The Last Temptation aims to convey: the desire and ability of each of us (as mortals) to transform that which decays and dies into something permanent, the mundane into the spiritual—the ordinary into the extraordinary. [In a footnote, DiCaprio concludes: "Coincidentally with the release of The Last Temptation new historical evidence indicates that Kazantzakis' rendition of a Christ who maintains an ascetic existence in order to fulfill his Christian mission (rather than out of any view that sexuality is sinful) may very well be close to historical reality. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels concludes that the concept of original sin (and all that it entails) overturned views held by early Christians on the relationship between sexuality and moral freedom. Pagels contends that prior to Augustine, 'Christians regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1-3 (the story of Adam and Eve)—freedom in its many forms, including free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self-mastery as the source of such freedom.' Later, with Augustine, self-mastery as a basis for moral freedom was destroyed as 'Adam's sin … corrupted our experience of sexuality (which Augustine tended to identify with original sin), and made us incapable of genuine political freedom.' If Pagels is correct, The Last Temptation may represent a rather brilliant example of art imitating life."]
SOURCE: A review of Goodfellas, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 43-50.
[Viano is an Italian-American educator and critic. In the following review, he examines Scorsese's principal stylistic and thematic concerns, situates Goodfellas in the director's body of work, and argues that Nicholas Pileggi's book Wise Guy (1985)—upon which the film is based—contains the primary elements of "Scorsese's personal mythology."]
GoodFellas is arguably the apex of Scorsese's most openly ethnic production. Wishing to make a "good commercial picture," Scorsese returned to the Italian/American setting which had already inspired his best films (except Taxi Driver). [In an endnote, Viano adds: "After the stress of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Scorsese declared (American Film, March 1989, pp. 46-51) that he wanted 'to make some good commercial pictures' before getting involved in anything serious. In the same interview, however, talking about GoodFellas, he said: 'I hope it will infuriate the audience.' This apparent contradiction between being 'commercial' and 'infuriating' explains much of his cinema, his talent for working in the mainstream and yet maintaining a certain edge." Viano also points out: "I am using Italian/American instead of Italian-American as a sign of support of Tamburri's suggestion that the hyphen 'initially represented the dominant group's reluctance to accept the newcomer' and is a graphic translation of the distance at which ethnic groups should be kept. 'The slash instead of the hyphen involves not removing but, more precisely turning it on its side by forty-five' in order to actually bridge the gap between the two terms. See Anthony Tamburri, 'To Hyphenate or not to Hyphenate,' Italian-Journal, vol. III, n. 5, 1990, pp. 37-42."] Scorsese's first feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1969), portrayed and examined sexism and masculinity in the character of J. R. (Harvey Keitel), a young Italian/American in crisis over his Catholic faith. This promising debut revealed Scorsese's inspirational sources (the American cinema of Ford and Hawks, and the French New Wave) and it also contained the seeds of a cinematic style capable of both accepting and bending narrative conventions. Scorsese again returned to ethnic concerns with Mean Streets (1973), a film which artfully blended documentary reality with subjective fiction in the portrayal of four young men on the fringes of society in New York's Little Italy. In 1975, Scorsese turned to documentary with Italianamerican, in which he interviewed his own family. Italianamerican also confirmed Scorsese's tendency to use his personal environment for his cinema. This tendency to personalize the set and make it into a family emerges clearly in his long-standing collaboration with such actors as Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. In 1980, Scorsese and De Niro returned to the Italian/American milieu with the highly acclaimed Raging Bull, a film in which violence and masculinity are at once celebrated and ruthlessly exposed.
Even at a cursory glance Scorsese's ethnic films appear to share a common attitude, an intensely contradictory ambivalence. It is a love/hate relationship which is best summarized in the song at the end of GoodFellas, Sid Vicious's version of Sinatra's My Way. Scorsese is drawn to tradition but he also questions it with the brutal aplomb of a punk. This transgressive celebration results in cognitive fury. Italian/American culture is the reality of his personal as well as cinematic formative years, and it remains the reality he can best re-create viscerally. It is no accident that the most blatantly documentary qualities of his films (voice-overs, intertitles, Super-8 snippets inserted in the narrative) all appear in his ethnic films. In fact, it is mainly to re-create the truth of ethnic situations and concerns that Scorsese has perfected his own brand of expressionistic realism. GoodFellas contributes to, enhances, and explains that realism.
The mob film, a subcategory of the gangster film, is currently enjoying a popular revival (e.g., Coppola's Godfather III and the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing). As well as being a smart commercial move, Scorsese's choice of material allowed him to test the possibility of introducing some realism into a fictional genre which, vacillating between the epic grandeur of The Godfathers and the epic idiocy of De Palma's Wise Guys, had known little of it.
Before GoodFellas, Scorsese had never tackled the Mob directly, but rather portrayed its impact on the lives and imagination of his ethnic group. The mob had been a menacing horizon, a limit which forced the characters to some kind of adjustment. In Who's That Knocking at My Door?, J. R. enjoys playing with a gun at an all-male party in a drunken mockery of the hitman's bravado. In Mean Streets, Charlie at once resents and exploits his connections with the mob: an emblem of Scorsesian contradictory characters, he seeks independence but pursues it in a self-defeating way through his connection with a Mafia uncle. And Jake La Motta's boxing career is defined by the mob, which he resists while becoming its metaphor: Jake becomes one of the stars in the American firmament produced by the desperate violence of the Italian/Americans. In 1985, Scorsese discovered the right material for a film on the mob: an ex-wiseguy's memories as told to and retold by Nick Pileggi, a New York journalist and Mafia expert.
Pileggi's Wise Guy (1985) chronicles the life of Henry Hill, half-Irish and half-Sicilian, who became a wiseguy thanks to his "bid for gangsterdom" and an adolescence fortuitously spent under the wind of the Mafia boss Paul Vario (Paulie Cicero in the film, played by Paul Sorvino). With the exception of four years of "golden" imprisonment in a state penitentiary (1970–74), the period 1963–80 brought nothing but splendor and excitement to Henry (Ray Liotta): he was protected and respected; made money by the bundles and counted it by the wad; married Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco, Harvey Keitel's wife) and kept an official lover; had two children and a place in the large Vario family. In the company of Jimmy Burke (Jimmy Conway in the film, played by Robert De Niro), Henry accomplished the biggest heist in the history of American crime; six million dollars in cash and jewels stolen from a Lufthansa cargo. Later, however, when he was arrested for dealing drugs, Henry lost Vario's backing and realized that he was as good as dead. He thus enrolled in the Federal Witness Protection Program and became an instrument to the conviction of Paul Vario and Jimmy Burke.
Indeed, the book had all the elements which engaged Scorsese's personal mythology—a man who struggled to emerge and ended up in loneliness—and fulfilled his desire for a view of the mob from below. Significantly, Pileggi's book does not portray a godfather nor an untouchable but a wiseguy. Although associated with the Mafia, the wiseguy is not the type that sits at home pulling the strings: wiseguys rob, extort, kill if necessary, break all sorts of rules on their way to success. And they risk their lives in the mean streets where, as Charlie Civello said in the film's first shot, "you make up for your sins" (rather than in church).
By birth, certainly, they were not prepared in any way to achieve their desires. They were not the smartest kids in the neighborhood. They were not born the richest. They weren't even the toughest. In fact, they lacked almost all the necessary talents that might have helped them satisfy the appetites of their dreams, except one—their talent for violence.
[Nicholas Pileggi, Wise Guy, 1985]
The wiseguys are the picaresque element in the mob, that unpredictable element which constantly threatens its order.
Wise Guy offered a view of the mob that pulsated with the feeling of unembellished truth. Scorsese reports "really enjoying it [Pileggi's book] because of the free-flowing style" and thinking that "it would make a fascinating film if you just make it what it is—literally as close to the truth as a fiction film, a dramatization, could get" [from an interview with Scorsese by Gavin Smith, Film Comment, September-October, 1990]. For him and for the millions of readers who established the book as a best seller it is the "feeling of truth" which permeates this kind of book that actually counts. Hairsplitting theorists know that there is no such thing as the Truth. In the case of Wise Guy, however, the "feeling of truth" is obviously heightened by the objective conditions of the book's origin: a real person in hiding. If realism is the uncovering of what lies hidden, then Pileggi's book stages the realist assumption in its very making.
The adaptation of the book is extremely faithful, and if the book is a piece of documentary journalism, GoodFellas is a piece of documentary film fiction, a docudrama of sorts. It provides on-screen factual information (dates and places; what happened to the characters in real life) as well as historical allusions making the viewer feel that, by the end of the film, s/he has gained knowledge about the world depicted. Henry's voice-over provides contextual and narrative connections for us, so that most scenes require no beginning and no ending but merely a few illustrative, emblematic shots. This documentary adherence to the facts is at once complemented and countered by Scorsese's ebullient style. At first his restless camera and jump-cuts seem to recreate the improvisational style typical of documentaries. On a couple of occasions, Scorsese even utilizes the nonfictional device of having characters address the camera—a long tracking shot in a dimly lit bar room, with Henry's voice identifying the wiseguys who say hello to the camera. As the film proceeds, however, the camerawork increasingly defeats the supposed objectivity of a documentary style. The close-ups of such details as food and shoes, the freeze-frames, the rhythmic editing are constant reminders of authorial expression. However short the shots, the camera is incessantly zooming or tracking, signaling a strong subjectivity behind the lens. The seamless, smooth editing does not efface the director's production of meaning. On the contrary, one is always aware of Scorsese behind the camera.
Scorsese's camerawork ends up giving an expressionist touch to his realistic portrayal of the wiseguys, the kind of expressionist touch which he emphasizes through his use of the sound track. Joseph Mankiewicz once remarked that he wrote his scripts "essentially for audiences who come to listen to a film as well as to look at it" [quoted in "Putting on the Style," by Derek Conrad, Films and Filming 6, No. 4]. The same thing could be said for Scorsese and his memorable use of music. Scorsese's recognition of the importance of music has led him to anticipate the visceral pleasure of music videos in his own films. Scorsese is among other things a director of aural pleasure in narrative cinema, and his talent for image/sound montage should be proverbial. For example, Who's That Knocking at My Door? introduces J. R.'s oneiric fantasy of sexual guilt by attaching the initial notes of the Doors' The End onto the high-contrast close-up of Harvey Keitel in bed. It was a stunningly beautiful audio-visual composition which Coppola, in a moment of Italian/American intertextuality, quoted for the equally stunning beginning of Apocalypse Now. Camerawork and music make the redglowing, bar room scenes in Mean Streets or the initial fast-tracking shot of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore fragments of unforgettable cinema for anybody who enjoys music as a sound track to one's own life.
GoodFellas is truly magisterial in this respect, in part because Scorsese now has the means to buy the rights to songs deeply carved in our collective Imaginary. Nobody knowing the pop-sociological value of Eric Clapton's Layla can remain indifferent at Scorsese's use of the song's piano exit in the last portion of his film. We first see a group of street children interrupting their ball game and stare at something we do not see. We then cut—and the haunting piano starts—to what they see, a slow, highangle tracking shot over the pink Cadillac with a dressedup couple in rigor mortis and dry blood. Cut to Frenchy's body rolling in the garbage truck's compactor and then to another slow track in the refrigerator truck, at the end of which we see Frankie Carbone's frozen body: a hyperrealist nightmare. Layla is an emblem-song of a period forever gone, a period for which Scorsese has occasional spurts of nostalgia. His use of this song over the dead bodies of Jimmy's once-partners enriches the factual information (Jimmy is whacking these people) with expressionistic overtones (Scorsese sees the song as the best accompaniment for images of ungrateful death).
Scorsese then uses camerawork and music to impose his own subjectivity onto the story. The third means adopted in GoodFellas to alter Pileggi's book to Scorsese's expressive needs is to be found in the small but significant variations from the text. Scorsese's film blows up and virtually creates the character of Tommy De Simone (Tommy De Vito in the film, played by Joe Pesci) who is not well developed in Pileggi's text. The book hints at Tommy's psychopathic violence but in no way alludes to his social or private life. In GoodFellas not only does Tommy (rather than Jimmy) dominate the group scenes, but he endows the film with its dramatically effective mixture of registers: comic and scary, pleasurable and repulsive. GoodFellas's comic side allows the audience to let their guard down and thus sets them up to be all the more affected by the film's brutal scenes.
Conversely, GoodFellas's violent side gives the film an edge that it otherwise would not have and leaves the audience unresolved as to whether it should be having a good time. This dual effect, which redeems the film by keeping it from being a bit too safe, is mostly accomplished through Tommy. For instance, the sequence at the beginning of Henry's adult life is wonderfully emblematic of Tommy's function in the film. He is recounting one of his colorful tales to a bunch of wiseguys in a crowded restaurant. No sooner does Henry compliment Tommy, "You're funny," than Tommy's jovial expression vanishes. "What do you mean I'm funny?" The tension rises as Henry stutters, trying to extricate himself from Tommy's unfolding anger. "What's so fucking funny about me?" insists Tommy. The narration threatens to move from laughter to violence, from pleasure to pain. At the peak of the suspense, however, Henry realizes that Tommy was putting him on. "Almost had you there!" says Tommy. The laughter resumes, Henry is one of the guys—and the violence is deflected outward, onto the restaurant's owner. Tommy's presence is a guarantee of pleasure and yet constantly threatens the film with going out of control. The already disturbing effect of combining violence and laughter in the same film is thus magnified. We resent laughing at a character who is also so unequivocally despicable. Can pleasure be so amoral?
To enhance the complexity of Tommy's character, Scorsese gives him a mother, played by no less than his own mother Catherine. This may suggest the film-maker's identification with Tommy, a character who is the locus of a dangerously unpredictable ambivalence. Indeed, most of Scorsese's films have some character with Tommy's unresolvable edge. Moreover, in stressing the mother-son relationship so strongly, Scorsese makes the point that retarded childhood is after all the problem with the tough games played by the wiseguys. Men just do not grow up, and GoodFellas shows the gangsters as kids; but it also casts the spectators into the role of kids, forcing them to feel the contradictory pleasure of liking the bad guys.
Pileggi's book ended with an image of a happy and successful Henry, thus providing an implicit moral closure to the story: "Thanks to the government for which he works, Henry Hill has turned out to be the ultimate wiseguy." The film's ending, however, gives quite a different feeling. We first see Henry get up from the witness stand in the tribunal and walk towards a retreating camera, all the while looking at and talking to it. His words recollect how good his life as a gangster was. We then cut to a developing suburban residential area. The camera starts a lateral track on a row of houses and stops on Henry picking up the paper from his porch, while his voice-over says that now he has to resign himself to living "like every shmuck." There is no sign of moral growth. The story has not produced an awakening in the character, but only unashamed nostalgia for a child's fantasy. As if this were not enough, Henry's final look into the camera does not even provide a narrative closure, for it is rapidly followed by an unexpected medium close-up of Tommy (who had already died in the film) unloading his gun at the audience. He wears an old hat and is grinning, while the sound track starts Sid Vicious's My Way. It is a funny (what do you mean funny?) shot for an ending, something like an ending for children's comics. It is as if the text itself were now saying to the audience: "Do not forget how much fun all this was."
Scorsese does not judge his characters in the way Pileggi surreptitiously does. Scorsese's operation on the book is nicely encapsulated by the initial sequence, whose importance is magnified by its position in the middle of the credits and by the fact that it will be repeated later in the film. Henry is at the wheel of his Pontiac, with Jimmy dozing next to him and Tommy in the back. Strange thumping sounds catch their attention. They pull over, walk to the back of the car and stare at the trunk. Backlit by a red glow, the three men hesitate and then open the trunk, exposing the sight of a man's body wrapped in bloodsoaked tablecloths. Quite graphically, Tommy stabs his butcher knife into the body several times and Jimmy unloads his gun on it to make sure it is really dead. Scorsese then cuts to Henry closing the trunk and zooms in on his perplexed face; freeze. Henry's voice-over says, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." In the book, Henry actually says something quite similar—"at the age of twelve my ambition was to be a gangster"—but he does so in a paragraph which depicts the glamor of the gangster lifestyle and which thus justifies Henry's wish. Scorsese took Henry's retrospective remark and attached it to a scene of something happening much later in the book (the murder of Billy Batts). As a result, in the film Henry's words are contradicted by the image. In fact, they make no sense unless we turn to a rhetorical figure which is entirely absent from the book: irony.
Scorsese attempts to unmask the myth of the Mafia by means of visual irony, by staging a self-conscious observer in the person of Henry who, thanks to Ray Liotta's performance, turns out to be a somewhat passive protagonist, detached from the events although implicated in them. The first shot after the credits is a close-up of 12-year-old Henry's eyes looking at Paulie's cabstand through the windowpanes of his bedroom. In a sense, GoodFellas can be seen as the daydream of a male child who wants what the most successful members in his community have. Eventually, the film will show that the things Henry covets are nothing but the things which most men are after, power and money. Not everyone has the guts nor the opportunity to be a gangster, but the myth of success is the very stuff of the American Dream. Believers in the dream cannot criticize the wise guy for what he does, because after all he is just refusing to play straight in a game which is certainly not known for its fairness.
Hence, GoodFellas is characterized by a particular type of irony which leads to honest acceptance rather than critical judgment, conscious involvement rather than mere disdain. Perhaps, such an irony is best described as realistic self-awareness. Scorsese sees through the myth of the wiseguy and denounces its fixation in childhood; at the same time he knows that he too likes the same things as the wiseguys; success and stardom attract everybody. In a sense, then, Scorsese exposes himself together with the wiseguys, revealing the common element which moralists prefer to overlook.
The same holds true for Scorsese's portrayal of masculinity. As an Italian man watching GoodFellas, I felt constantly implicated in what the film was exposing, an all-male world, where the boys do the talking and set the rules. GoodFellas touches a raw nerve in the male Imaginary by making us feel the intense power and the "wonderful arrogance" of the wiseguys. [In an endnote, Viano adds: "The expression 'wonderful arrogance,' referring to Henry Hill's memoirs, is Scorsese's" See the Gavin Smith interview in Film Comment, September-October, 1990.]
On the subject of irony and masculinity, Scorsese must be credited with an interesting move. At the time when Henry starts dating Karen—roughly half an hour into the film—GoodFellas surprises us by inserting her voice-over. [In an endnote Viano adds: "The use of multiple intradiegetic narrators (e.g., Mankiewicz's All About Eve, 1950) is not very common in the history of narrative cinema and to the best of my knowledge only Truffaut's L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977) uses a female and a male voice as narrators with a slight hint of gender opposition."] She thus challenges Henry's authority as the first-person narrator and provides an alternative point of view. She sees Henry and the Italian/American milieu with the eye of an outsider (she comes from a respectable Jewish family). There is even a point at which the narrative is totally hers, during the wedding scene. It is fascinating to speculate on how the film might have been reshaped if Scorsese had gone further with the dual voice-over. Instead, GoodFellas bears witness to an old-fashioned, ethnic mode of masculinity.
Is GoodFellas just a virtuoso piece with no substance? Is Scorsese indulging in a trip of macho bella figura? In effect, the film's formal extravagance often parallels and enhances the content. For example, to impress Karen on his first date Henry takes her to the Copacabana. They leave the car key to a valet and enter through the back door, thus avoiding the line at the entrance. The camera follows them through a maze of steaming stoves, into the crowded club where two waiters promptly place a table for them where no one had been allowed before, front and center. It is undoubtedly a virtuoso piece, one of the most tortuous tracking shots in the history of cinema. Yet, it has a formal justification, suggesting the drive towards the center which motivates the search for success. The pleasure of occupying a central position and of being looked at finds here a spatial and visual translation.
GoodFellas is yet another proof of how Scorsese works within a realist tradition which he modifies significantly, thus enabling it to withstand the recent attacks on representation. It is as if Scorsese knew that reality is never objective because there is always a subject experiencing it. Experience, moreover, is never a passive reception of stimuli but an activity—an activity that Scorsese mirrors in his films. He is adamant about making us see what he sees. There is no Bazinian freedom for the viewer of his films. Spectators cannot sit back and choose from the reality that Scorsese puts on the screen. Scorsese's stylistic ebullience is the mark of an extreme subjectivity which could not be further removed from the objective rendering of reality associated with realism. While offering us his obsessions, however, Scorsese's ethnic films do give us a strong sense of reality; we are certainly more likely to say "this is how it must be" with GoodFellas than with any other mob film. This is partly due to Scorsese's adoption of cinematic conventions associated with realism (repulsive material, factual information and seemingly unstructured narrative). But there is something more, something which is hard to define and which I tend to associate with the intensity of expression.
It comes as no surprise that the best term to describe the dominant stylistic feature of GoodFellas was coined by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian director who most reworked the neorealist tradition. In his article "The Cinema of Poetry," Pasolini theorized the free indirect POV, a type of shot which is both subjective (what and how a character sees) and objective (the look at the camera). According to Pasolini, this Janus-like perspective allows the director to express his vision through the pretext of the character's vision. GoodFellas abounds with shots which bears witness to both the point of view of the characters and that of the director. In fact, most of Scorsese's films make extensive use of this shot. As Robert Kolker observed,
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.
[Robert Phillip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, 1980]
This dialectic between the objective and subjective results in his frequent use of the free indirect POV, the stylistic hallmark of a self-conscious realism.
GoodFellas calls attention to several strong parallels between Scorsese and Pasolini. Both filmmakers use violence and social pathology as a way to redeem their vision and their films. Both are firmly rooted within the Catholic religion and yet against its institutionality, so much so that both felt the need to make a film on Christ. They both are entrenched in an all-male world, where homosocial desire may or may not erupt into openly homosexual (sub)texts. Both directors personalize their film-making via life-long collaborations with selected actors (Davoli/Citti and De Niro/Keitel). Both are fond of using their mothers in their films. And both are interested in the portrayal of marginality and deviance. But the thing that most justifies a comparison between Scorsese and Pasolini is their innovative, self-conscious work within the realist canon in an age when film theory has labelled any realist pursuit naive and all reality a simulacrum. In an interview on GoodFellas, Scorsese remarked:
I find that documentaries are so moving, especially if it is the old cinéma-vérité style. It is something about the way people are captured. The sense of truth is what gets me. And I always regret that we can never get as close as that when we're working with actors. You re-create those moments and sometimes you do get that certain reality.
[Peter Keough, "Street Smarts," The Boston Phoenix, 21 September 1990]
Asked to define his relationship with neorealism, Pasolini once answered in similar terms by saying that compared with the cinema of De Sica and Rossellini, his own films had introduced "a certain realism" [quoted by Oswald Stack in Pasolini, 1969]. Both directors had recourse to the word "certain" to indicate that, however ultimately undefinable, realism and reality are useful words, as statements of intent and practical signals. There may be no objective reality (nor realism), but reality can nonetheless be represented (and realism achieved) subjectively, precariously, in a certain way, "my way."
SOURCE: "Southern Discomfort," in The New Republic, Vol. 205, No. 24, December 9, 1991, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review of Cape Fear, Kauffmann notes the film's strengths and weaknesses and questions why Scorsese chose to lend his talents to such slight, formulaic material.]
It's not quite right to say that Martin Scorsese has remade Cape Fear. This is no more a mere remake of the 1962 film than John Huston's The Maltese Falcon was a remake of two earlier versions. Scorsese's film is as original as it could be in the circumstances. (Admittedly, I'm comparing out of memory: I don't think I could sit through the J. Lee Thompson version again, especially after this new one.)
Scorsese hasn't been notable for his radical subject matter, but his career certainly isn't a series of pigeonholes. Then why, just as he is arching out in reputation and power, did he choose to make a genre thriller? The buzz in the film world is that he was paying a debt to Universal. He was planning, and will now do, a film of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, an especially tantalizing idea since the book is so far from the usual haunts of this vivid and (in two senses) vulgar director. But Universal had backed a project that was dear to him, The Last Temptation of Christ, so when the studio proposed this remake, he felt obliged. Well, at least this thriller gives us some conventional fare to munch on while the gourmet dish is being prepared.
The new screenplay—based on the earlier one by James R. Webb and the novel by John D. MacDonald—was written by Wesley Strick, author of the neat thriller True Believer a few years back. With Scorsese's help, Strick has recast the characters, trying to dump the stodge and add some glints of verity.
The setting is the South; Cape Fear is the name of a river in North Carolina. The basic drive is a convict's quest for vengeance, after his release, on the person he holds responsible for his fourteen-year prison term. The convict is a psychopathic rapist-batterer. He wants revenge on the lawyer—now a successful man with a wife and 15-year-old daughter—who was once his defender. (Not the prosecutor.) The Strick-Scorsese twist is that this lawyer is not the Joe Honesty he was in the 1962 version. At the trial the lawyer deliberately withheld evidence that would have helped his client because he thought the man ought to be convicted. The con has subsequently found that out. After his release, he also finds out that the lawyer is fooling around with another woman.
The ex-con is a Georgia cracker, his torso tattooed with Bible quotations and a huge cross. Robert De Niro plays—inhabits—the role, and after Glimpse One, we know that we are in for an actor's holiday. This is not remotely to say that he is less than good: but it's the kind of part that, for any actor of talent, let alone De Niro's talent, almost acts itself. Everything in the film is slanted to make De Niro's performance stand out, and it does. It's like Anthony Hopkins's homicidal genius in The Silence of the Lambs gone hillbilly and Pentecostal.
The ex-con begins slow. He does nothing illegal. He just makes his presence known to the lawyer, constantly. The lawyer—Nick Nolte, bespectacled and serious—applies for a restraining order. This doesn't help. We share Nolte's frustration and rising panic. We know things are going to get worse. Bloody. We can't wait.
Strick's script, adequately written throughout, peaks in a quasi-seduction scene between De Niro and the lawyer's young daughter. (Reminiscent of the long scene between Treat Williams and Laura Dern in Smooth Talk.) But like virtually all thriller scripts, this one uses realism only as a launchpad into the incredible. Let's concede that De Niro, absolutely illiterate when he went to prison, could come out conversant with law, Nietzsche, and Henry Miller. But Nolte blurts out threats to De Niro that all of us except Nolte—a lawyer!—know are being recorded. There are encounters in Nolte's home and on a houseboat that have nothing to do with believability. By that time we are at the place where a thriller says, "OK, we've been realistic up to now, to get your attention. Now all aboard for Movieland."
Jessica Lange plays Nolte's wife and does fairly well with a part that is doomed to some dullness. No matter how she and Scorsese and Strick try to alter the role, she ends up as one more wide-eyed female victim waiting for male rescue. The best performance after De Niro's, in the meatiest role after his, comes from Juliette Lewis as the daughter. Plenty of children and adolescents can mimic well; a few can act. Lewis, who has done films and TV, is one of them. No doubt Scorsese had a considerable hand in leading her through her experience and imagination to the troubled, subtly shaded candor of her performance; but she made it. Lewis's discoveries of self in the role are exceptional.
Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Martin Balsam, all of whom were prominent in the first Cape Fear, play minor roles here. Pleasant souvenirs. The original score by Bernard Herrmann has been reworked by Elmer Bernstein and does its job well, especially in keeping the film suspenseful during quieter moments.
But the film is Scorsese, more and less. With Freddie Francis (who did Glory) as cinematographer, Scorsese uses Panavision for the first time and is thoroughly easy with it, exploiting its reach, never straining to fill the frame. With his customary editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese slams the picture into action and keeps it there. He finds ways to jog the expected shot into freshness. When the girl gets a cajoling call from the excon, we cut to De Niro, who, instead of snuggling cozily on the phone, is hanging upside down on an exercise bar, flexing his leg muscles as he phones. At bottom Scorsese keeps scenes boiling by intensifying pressure on his actors; but camera sharpness and knife-edge editing carry the pressure through.
Some of his devices obtrude, even as they work. Several times he has a character walk right into the camera to black out a shot, as a way of cutting to the next shot. Very often he begins a new scene with a loud sound. (Something like the way he used pop songs in GoodFellas.) A few devices not only obtrude but don't work, like the use of X-ray shots. Possibly they're meant to suggest hidden fear that is then fleshed; but they're only distracting.
What it all comes to is that Scorsese has spent his considerable talent trying to make a Scorsese film out of a formula. (The Desperate Hours, The Petrified Forest … a long, long line of plays and films about ordinary folks at the mercy of criminals.) He doesn't quite succeed: the formulaic load is too heavy. Next, however, Edith Wharton. With Wharton, perhaps, he'll make us change our idea of what a Scorsese film is.
SOURCE: An introduction to Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991, pp. 3-14.
[In the following excerpt, Kelly considers the influence of Scorsese's religious upbringing on his films.]
Every Catholic school child learns the difference between a sign and a symbol. A sacrament is a sign that effects what it signifies. It is not like something else, it is something else. The language which defined the sacraments and mysteries of the faith came from St. Thomas Aquinas, who based his theology, as well as his theories of art, on Aristotelian philosophy. As James Joyce said, the "sensualist" Aquinas won out over more Platonic theologians. Christ's presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist was not symbolic; it was real. The Church held onto this doctrine against attacks from every direction. The bread and wine were not props in some reenactment of the Last Supper meant to remind the congregation of Jesus. Jesus was not thought into being. He was there. Nor did his presence depend on the worthiness of the priest. If the priest was ordained and the words, actions, and elements were there licitly, Christ really became present and offered himself as food. At his first communion, Scorsese received the host and Jesus became part of him. A sense of wonder and mystery marked the child who took religion seriously.
At a very early age, he imbibed a sacramental view of the world. He believed that transcendent moments could be reached through material means—the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the waters of baptism, and the oils used in the ordination of priests.
Another reality surrounded and permeated the world of the senses. That supernatural reality could be reached through the things of nature. Jesus, in whom the union of the natural and supernatural reached perfection, was himself "the Sacrament of the Encounter with God." As a child, Scorsese saw the sacraments as the way to this deeper, more profound, truer world of the spirit. He began to see the artist as one called to a similar task—to arrange the elements of experience until they became signs, effecting what they signified.
The transformation that happened in the Eucharist was called transubstantiation. Scorsese would have learned this word by the third grade. It meant that when the correct form—in this case the words of consecration said by the priest—combined with the proper matter, bread and wine, the substance changed. The objects might remain the same—the bread and wine looked like bread and wine—but the essence was transformed; it was made radiant.
The priests of the imagination—Joyce in his writing, Scorsese in his films—can also be agents of transformation. They create moments of epiphany by finding the visual arrangement of parts that reveal an objects's potential significance, its radiance. And that, too, is a kind of transubstantiation. The image of a yellow taxi emerging from the swirling smoke at the start of Taxi Driver comes immediately to mind. But the Joycean quality of Scorsese's work goes beyond such individual images. Scorsese finds his stories and characters in limited, confined worlds—Little Italy, Forty-second Street, a fight ring, a bandstand—close to his own background, just as Joyce's Dublin provided material enough for a lifetime. Scorsese chooses, as Joyce did, to explore this material on a level beyond the rational. He seeks to signify rather than to explain, to create moods and moments rather than to build from conventional plots and structure. This approach requires the audience to respond from the soul as well as the mind, and accept the diffuse and emotional quality of such a response. The effect of Joyce's language cannot be pinned down through analysis. Neither can Scorsese's images be summed up in verbal equivalents. In a sense, both men want their works experienced on a spiritual level.
For a Catholic schoolchild in the 1950s, every soul was a cosmic battleground on which the forces of God and the devil contend. It did not matter whether that soul belonged to you or to a failed hood, a street-corner kid, a driven musician, a prizefighter, housewife, prostitute, or taxi driver; in the drama of salvation each one was as important as the Pope himself. When Scorsese says Jake La Motta's story in Raging Bull is about redemption, he speaks in a way that is second nature to him. If Scorsese's characters concern themselves with the existence of God, guilt and expiation, and man's ultimate end, that is because Martin Scorsese grew up discussing these things with friends over Chinese food.
Scorsese's characters define and seek redemption in different ways. But all want to go beyond the narrow role that a materialist society assigns them. Murray finds transcendence by "living good"; for J.R. in Who's That Knocking, salvation lies in a "pure love"; and Charlie, a later development of the same character in Mean Streets, wants to be saved by saving Johnny Boy, who would be happy just to exist. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver thinks that if he sweeps away the garbage, he will be cleansed. Music and the road seem the way of redemption for the members of The Band in The Last Waltz, for Alice in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and for Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York. Women like Francine Evans (New York, New York) and Teresa (Mean Streets) will be saved if they can love without destroying themselves. Jake La Motta in Raging Bull tells himself that if he can stand up to all the punches, his redemption will be assured. Rupert Pupkin wants simply to be the "King of Comedy," Eddie Felson (The Color of Money) wants to recapture his pool-playing excellence, and Paul Hackett (After Hours) just wants to get uptown.
Temptation comes from the fallen world outside and from the passions within. Somehow lust and pride and jealousy are more palpable than grace. But in Scorsese's films his characters do steal sacramental moments—Johnny Boy and Charlie in the Russian Orthodox graveyard, Francine and Jimmy in the snow, Iris and Travis at breakfast.
Raging Bull closes with a parable from the New Testament. Jesus cures a blind man, but the Pharisees tell the man that he has been cured by a sinner. The formerly blind man says, "I don't know if he is a sinner or not a sinner. All I know is I was blind and now I see." This same cure figures prominently in The Last Temptation of Christ. The story comes from a very long description in the Gospel of St. John. There are dialogues between Jesus and the people, Jesus and the blind man, the Pharisees and the blind man's parents, the Pharisees and the blind man, that start to sound like a comedy routine. One point of debate is, Why is he blind? Who sinned? Was it the man or his parents? Neither, Jesus says, and proceeds to cure him. Offended by the miracle, the Pharisees castigate the parents. "Don't bother us," the parents say. "Talk to him. He's of age." Finally the man has enough. "I was blind," he says, "and now I see." Obviously there's more going on here than simply a story about physical sight.
Scorsese follows this passage from St. John at the end of Raging Bull with "Thanks Haig," a tribute to his N.Y.U. teacher. Haig Manoogian, as Scorsese says, made him "see value in my own experiences." This "seeing" allowed Scorsese to comprehend and ultimately to make a sacrament of experience—a sign that affects what it signifies. Matter is mysterious. Under the right circumstances it can even become the body of Christ.
Scorsese's Italian-American background did not encourage introspection the way Joyce's Dublin, full of the "agen bite of inwit," did. But the theological concepts he learned from the Irish nuns and Italian priests at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral stretched his mind, challenged his imagination.
None of this is to deny the negatives of Catholic education, especially pre-Vatican II. Certain failures of both the system and of individuals, especially with regard to sexuality, the dignity of women, and social justice, are undeniable. But I am speaking of early days, when the imagination is pliant, the nuns like you, the priests are friendly, and your parish is a place like Old St. Pat's, proud of its history.
Every Scorsese film yields moments of transcendence, but the viewer must be open, must take part. If Scorsese had presented a merely symbolic Jesus—so neutral that any interpretation could apply—there would have been no controversy. But the Jesus on the screen in the crucifixion scene of The Last Temptation of Christ is graphically present. We see the blood. We hear the pounding of the nails. The world tilts, the suffering of Jesus becomes so palpable that we must experience it in and of itself. The pain is too immediate to be a symbol or concept. A man is dying and he is Jesus. Scorsese had said at the Venice Film Festival press conference, "I wanted him to be a character you cared about when he died."
Scorsese, with his sacramental background, could not portray Jesus, or any of the characters in his movies, as projections of his own mind. He looks to reality. He arranges the material hoping for that moment of transcendence. The accidents remain the same, but the essence changes, and we go through the flickering image to the soul of another person. Why else do artists struggle but to make present reality, to bring us a step closer to unapproachable light?
But the sacraments are meant to create and affirm the community. Scorsese takes the matter of images, music, performance, and imposes a form on it. He adjusts the elements. The image attains its radiance. We apprehend its truth. A Scorsese movie grips us, pulls us beyond ourselves and enlarges our view, and somehow brings us closer together.
The question arises, Why does Scorsese expend such energy on prodigals? Why Jake La Motta, Johnny Boy, Eddie Felson, Lionel Dobie, and Henry Hill? One answer may be found in the parables (which also have a prominent place in The Last Temptation of Christ). "What shepherd, having a hundred sheep, would not leave the ninety-nine to search for one that is lost? What woman, having ten pieces of silver, and losing one, does not light the lamp and sweep the floor to find it?," Jesus asks. He goes on to tell the story of a dissolute son who disgraces and leaves his family. When he returns out of desperation, willing to become a servant in his father's house, his father instead embraces him and orders a great feast. This annoys the more conventionally good older brother. "But he was lost," the father says, "and now he's found." Scorsese films reveal a similar sort of compassion….
Scorsese's films are made for those described by Isaiah, who in burning sands search for the Holy Way. Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, The Last Temptation of Christ—indeed, all of Scorsese's movies—are for those with a journey to make.
SOURCE: "Martin Scorsese's America," in USA Today, Vol. 120, No. 2562, March, 1992, p. 69.
[Sharrett is an American critic and educator specializing in film studies. In the following essay, he defends Cape Fear against charges that it is a minor work, arguing that the film's depiction of "moral turbulence" extends Scorsese's examination of "what drives this nation in the post-Vietnam/Watergate epoch."]
Director Martin Scorsese's controversial remake of the 1962 shocker Cape Fear is not, as a few critics have suggested, merely a potboiler to pay back Universal Studios for its support of his beleaguered The Last Temptation of Christ. Cape Fear is a logical extension of an explanation of the American soul and national identity taken on by the country's finest filmmaker of the last quarter-century. By placing it in the context of his earlier work, we can see a sustained attempt at understanding what drives this nation in the post-Vietnam/Watergate epoch.
Scorsese's breakthrough effort, Mean Streets (1973), established the death-and-redemption theme that would appear in all of his work. The film presented his credentials as a lapsed Catholic, an Italian-American, and a street-wise New Yorker, elements absolutely central to the director's ethos. However, it was Taxi Driver (1976), an American masterpiece and one of the genuine classics of the postwar period, that made Scorsese a force to reckon with. In rethinking the image of the loner, the returning warrior who can not reintegrate properly into the community and must justify himself with a bloody "last stand," Scorsese comments on major assumptions of American myth and folklore. After the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, the pro-censorship faction raged on about John Hinckley's fascination with this film; instead of understanding the brilliance of Scorsese's meditation on violence, the artist was blamed for raising the issue. It also proved unfortunate that The King of Comedy (1983) was associated with the murder of John Lennon and the increased harassment of public figures, but once again Scorsese's entrapment by controversy came simply from his clear, sometimes prescient, sense of changing social dynamics. In King of Comedy, the focus is on the replacement of social discourse by the media image, and the shift of hero worship (with all its attendant dangers) to electronic phantoms of movies and television.
Raging Bull (1980) is an elegy to American machismo, but also a caustic essay on the ways that male violence (channeled, quite legitimately for the mass audience, into sports) is a compensation and cover for paranoia, guilt, and sexual insecurity. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), one of the most pious films imaginable at a time when Biblical epics hardly are in vogue, probably is less interesting as an essay on Jesus than as a cultural document, a representation of the reaction and intolerance of the 1980s in the overwrought reception the film had from fundamentalists of various stripes. The real irony is that the U.S. couldn't produce a more spiritual director than Martin Scorsese.
Goodfellas (1990) is his great anti-epic, a rebuke of the operatic romanticism of the Godfather cycle and similar grand-scale crime films that use the genre as a metaphor for the tragedy of the American dream. For Scorsese, the underworld is banal and without a shred of conscience because America is banal and conscienceless. There are no disclaimers about the Mafia being a marginal group, no brooding dons lost in Rembrandt shadows pondering their entrapment by fate. Scorsese's hijackers and kneecap-busters have the same bad taste and provincial habits as many middle- to lower-middle-class citizens. Like the Godfather films, Goodfellas has broad resonations, but there is nothing tragic or pathetic about them.
Cape Fear, as many commentators already have belabored to a fault, turns the original film upside-down—not just to rethink a classic thriller, but to perform a typical Scorsese gesture of rethinking America. Nick Nolte's Sam Bowden is not Gregory Peck's image (in the first film) of upright, late 1950s puritanism, the absolute moral center of the nuclear family. In Nolte's characterization, he is a compromised and compromising attorney, a symbol of the moral turbulence of the uncertain 1990s. He is set upon by the deranged ex-convict Max Cady not because of Bowden's act of good citizenship that sent the rapist to jail (as in the original), but because he made himself judge and jury—concealing a police report on Cady's victim—in order to ensure his client's conviction. In Scorsese's version, Cady is not simply a sadistic thug, but a demonic force, a return-of-the-repressed avenger who represents a kind of Southern libido unchained, and a Mephistopheles who offers forbidden knowledge to Bowden, his unhappy wife, and precocious daughter. Cady also seems an incarnation of over-the-top religious fundamentalism representing the unreason that bedeviled Scorsese on Last Temptation. The final clash between Bowden and Cady is epic—recalling Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—as Scorsese pulls out all the stops in another fable of redemption-through-purgation.
The difficulty with this film, for all its moral complexity, is that it finally may convey the most one-dimensional and conservative message. In Cady's destruction, the film seems to be suggesting that Bowden was correct in replacing ethics with morality, and that his purgative ritual is about getting his mind right on the subject so that normality can be restored.
This interpretation is immediate and no doubt simplistic, and few Scorsese films admit of such gloss. While he may be getting closer to his Catholic origins and offering a stricter moral evaluation of society, his sense of what makes America tick at any given moment makes Scorsese one of our greatest visionary chroniclers.
SOURCE: The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese, Birch Lane Press, 1992, 254 p.
[In the following excerpt, Ehrenstein examines Scorsese's career and filmmaking techniques.]
Halfway through Taxi Driver, director Martin Scorsese turns up in an acting role, playing a fare picked up by the film's cabbie hero, Travis Bickle. As the cab comes to a stop at a street corner, Scorsese is seen in the passenger seat—neatly dressed in a dark suit, with carefully groomed beard and mustache. It is very late at night.
"Put the meter back," he orders Travis sharply. "Let the numbers go on. I don't care what I have to pay. I'm not getting out. Pull over to the curb. We're gonna sit here." Closing his eyes, he sits calmly for a moment, then continues his speech: "You see that light up there? The woman on the second floor? See the woman in the window? That's my wife. But that's not my apartment."
He smiles broadly and chuckles to himself, almost gloating.
He continues, "You know who lives there? A nigger lives there. Now what d'you think of that? Don't answer. You don't have to answer everything. I'm gonna kill her with a .44 Magnum pistol. Did you ever see what a .44 Magnum could do to a woman's face? Just fuckin' destroy it. Blow it right apart."
Leaning forward in a slightly conspiratorial manner, he says, "Now, did you ever see what it could do to a woman's pussy? That you should see!"
He again pauses briefly and smiles broadly.
"You must think I'm pretty sick or something," he says to the silent cabbie. "Do you think I'm sick?"
We get no answer; the scene is over. Neither the man nor the woman he claims to be his wife nor the "nigger" with whom she's allegedly committing adultery are ever seen or heard from again. We don't need to see them because the scene has served its purpose. It has cast over the film a pall of sexual violence that is almost palpable.
To say the scene is disturbing doesn't begin to describe the effect. Within that disturbance lies a shock of recognition of the terrible truths the scene discloses about racism, sexism, misogyny, and violence in modern American culture. It is a shock of recognition absent from almost any other American film one could name….
Martin Scorsese is the American commercial cinema's most controversial director. Critics and audiences are deeply divided in their feelings about his work. For every movie lover who passionately supports Scorsese, there's another just as angered by him. Often as not, violence is the principal objection.
The fantasy shoot-'em-ups of Stallone and Schwarzenegger may sport a higher body count, but the violence in Scorsese's films disturbs audiences as no other director's work has since Sam Peckinpah. But Taxi Driver, with its famous blood-splattered finale, may be among Scorsese's least disturbing films. In that study of the gradual mental disintegration of a lonely New Yorker, viewers are at least granted a form of catharsis. But while Raging Bull has a zero mortality rate, there's no escaping the physical brutality that runs throughout. And in The King of Comedy, where no punches land, the threat of violence is such a constant that the character's ostensibly humorous antics are unrelievedly tense.
In 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's existential version of the New Testament, inspired worldwide protests. Without having seen the film, leaders of the radical religious right claimed grave spiritual offense and mounted a campaign to ban Last Temptation. In spite of well-organized demonstrations and several incidents of violence (there were fire-bombings at European theaters playing the film), the protests did not stop the film from being shown. However, the controversy led to Hollywood's increasing turn toward "inoffensive" movie subjects.
Making a controversial film is one thing; changing the course of history is another. Some observers feel Scorsese came frighteningly close to doing just that in March 1981. John W. Hinckley, Jr., the black sheep son of an upper-middle-class Republican family, attempted the assassination of President Ronald Reagan—seriously injuring Reagan press secretary James Brady in the process. Hinckley was obsessed with Taxi Driver and its star, Jodie Foster. Could it be that Scorsese pictures weren't simply contentious, but downright dangerous as well?
In 1989, polls conducted by Premiere and American Film magazines, disclosed that, by an overwhelming margin, film critics here and abroad considered Raging Bull to be the best motion picture of the decade. In light of the mixed-to-hostile notices the film received on its 1980 release, this was a remarkable critical turnaround. More striking still was the fact that, in the American Film poll, The King of Comedy, a 1982 box office disaster that opened to some of the most scathing notices of Scorsese's career, made the Top Ten of the decade's best.
These poll results underscore the most important thing about the films of Martin Scorsese—the lasting effect. The same critics who initially found the works disturbing, later discovered that they couldn't get them out of their minds. Scorsese's imagery was too powerful, his examination of character too deep, his storytelling methods too rich. They discovered that Martin Scorsese made pictures that last….
"Is it a great movie? I don't think so," said critic Pauline Kael about GoodFellas. "The filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. All you want to talk about is the glorious whizzing camera, the freeze-frames and jumpcuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Martin Scorsese's work: they don't just respond to his films, they want to be him."
Considering the quality of much current filmmaking—plodding and unimaginative, slapdash and sloppy—it's odd to see a director criticized both for his technical prowess and for inspiring others to follow his example. Still, Kael can't be blamed for being taken aback by Scorsese's intoxication with the visual possibilities of the medium: The boxing sequences of Raging Bull, with its subjective shots that pull you into the ring; the camera's slow-motion prowling through nighttime New York streets in Taxi Driver; the bravura Steadicam take through the Copacabana night club in GoodFellas, one of the longest and most complicated and emotionally exhilarating tracking shots in movie history. To suggest that this technical flash is at the expense of other equally important filmmaking qualities isn't unreasonable. But it is unreasonable to imply, as Kael does, that there's a simple way to separate Scorsese's style from his film's content.
Generations of American critics of all artistic pursuits have found the word technique to be unprintable unless it's preceded by the adjective mere. In Scorsese's case, this prejudice has a special edge, inasmuch as he's never been interested in exploring uplifting themes of the Gandhi or Chariots of Fire variety. Neither has he been drawn to social themes for their own sake. His films may touch on "hot-button issues," such as feminism (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), organized crime (GoodFellas), wife-beating (New York, New York, Raging Bull), mental illness (Taxi Driver), and vigilante justice (Cape Fear), but they do so within the context of specific characters and unique circumstances. More important, the creative choices in Scorsese films aren't made to supplement the actors' performances or express a "message" that exists solely on a literary level. Scorsese's messages are inextricably tied to the means by which he conveys them. His methods are his message.
SCORSESE: I've always believed all the arts culminate in film. Camera movement is dance, lighting is painting. Camera movement is also a lot like painting—and like music. I feel it's always a combination of lighting, camera movement, the use of music and the impact of the actors on the screen. The way the actors move into the light and relate—or not relate as in The King of Comedy—is very important. In The King of Comedy it's all a series of frozen frames. The characters never penetrate each other's areas. They just can't get in.
The King of Comedy isn't the first work mentioned in discussions of Scorsese's technical mastery. Camera movements in the film are few and simply executed. In the precredit sequence there is a very brief bit of slow motion. But with the camera placed firmly in the middle distance, calmly observing the action, Scorsese would appear to be making a work in polar opposition to the pyrotechnics of Raging Bull. Yet because of this very simplicity—more apparent than real—The King of Comedy is central to any discussion of the methods and purposes of Scorsese's work.One of the key scenes takes place in a Chinese restaurant where Rupert Pupkin, autograph hound and would-be stand-up comic, takes his date Rita, a barmaid. Rupert tries to impress Rita, first by showing her his autograph book, then by telling her that his signature will have greater value than any of the others in his collection, because he's going to make his television debut on the "Jerry Langford Show." With Rupert's overconfidence squared off against Rita's cynical bemusement, a basic comic conflict unfolds. Scorsese's method of filming the scene is equally straightforward. He uses a standard reverse-angle shot setup: a medium shot of Rupert, with part of Rita's head and shoulder on the right of the screen, alternating with a medium shot of Rita with part of Rupert's head and shoulder on the left of the screen. While three additional medium shots of the two of them facing one another in the booth (Rupert on the left, Rita on the right) are integrated into the editing of the sequence, the primary shot alternation is between two talking-head images in isolation.
In his book, The Filmmaker's Art, Haig Manoogian [Scorsese's professor and mentor at New York University] notes that, while the reverse angle is a valuable filmmaking tool, it must be used with care:
The technique of reverse angles has always been popular with filmmakers, because crosscuts in which fairly close shots are taken are an expedient method. Once characters are in a reverse-angle setup, there is a tremendous conservation of shots as the camera concentrates first on one, then on the other. But to conserve shots does not appear to be the objective so much as to maneuver the characters into set positions so they can talk, talk, talk. Reverse angles have been used so often in the manner described that they have become a visual cliché. It is often overlooked that staging and dialogue are not half so important as the action and reaction on which the reverse angles should be based.
In the Chinese restaurant scene, Scorsese takes his former teacher's lesson very much to heart. Instead of using the reverse angle setup to simply convey information through dialogue ("talk, talk, talk"), Scorsese draws our attention to the curiously tense atmosphere surrounding their conversation. The contrast between Rupert's self-conscious body language—rocking back and forth like a waterbird toy—and Rita's poised, relaxed demeanor plays a part in this tension. But the most important factor is Scorsese's awareness of the dramatic impact of editing.
A director working in the "talk, talk, talk" mode that Manoogian disdains would concentrate on Rupert speaking, and cut to Rita only when she replies. Scorsese nervously cuts back and forth between the characters at points not cued by anything specifically stated in the dialogue.
Behind Rupert, a man sitting at another table (Chuck Low) mimics the would-be superstar's every gesture. Does this man's appearance mean the scene, like several others in the film, is a fantasy? If it's "really happening," how does it relate to the rest of the story? Scorsese doesn't supply an answer. The man in the other booth is there precisely to create such a disturbance. Where Taxi Driver and Raging Bull brought us into its protagonist's view through subjective camera positions, The King of Comedy delineates Rupert's character through a deliberate avoidance of subjectivity. The flat effect of the screen is the mirror image of the flat effect of the face Rupert shows to the world. In underscoring this fact through a reverse-shot sequence, Scorsese uses Rupert's character not only to undermine assumptions about fame, show business, and romance, but the very nature of the way these ideas have been represented through techniques like reverse-angle setups. Scorsese makes The King of Comedy more than a simple piece of social criticism; it questions the nature of film narrative itself.
Martin Scorsese is hardly the first director to examine the nature of the medium. But over the past two decades few directors have been disposed to question the filmmaking process. What sets Scorsese apart from the run of the Hollywood movie mill, is best indicated by his preferred credit: "A Martin Scorsese Picture." Not "a film by Martin Scorsese," not a "Martin Scorsese film," or even a "Martin Scorsese Production." "Picture" emphasizes something quite different. For, while Scorsese is dependent on the talents of other artists and technicians to bring his films to life, his controlling vision of the film is the ultimate force that shapes it into a "picture" of a very particular kind.
SCORSESE: With Hollywood in the old days, being a director was like, "So-and-so has a project and you have so many days and you devise the shots and work out the themes in the script." That's being an interpretive artist. Well, I do interpret material to a degree, but it's not the same sort of thing. I can never bring myself to be just "the director." For example, The King of Comedy was an assignment, in a way, because it was a film that Bob De Niro wanted to do. I had to find something coming from myself—personally—in the film, in order to do it. I found it during the shooting, which is why the film took as long as it did. But I had to find it. It couldn't be any other way.
Though Scorsese has officially taken screenwriting credit only for GoodFellas (cowritten with Nicholas Pileggi), he has had a hand, to some degree in the screenplay of every film he has directed. Raging Bull, credited to Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, was almost entirely rewritten by Scorsese and Robert De Niro before production began to accommodate their evolving vision of the film. Even when he's less involved with the actual writing process, his influence predominates, as in After Hours, where his rewrite requests to screenwriter Joseph Minion resulted in the alteration of several important scenes. On Cape Fear, Scorsese collaborated with screenwriter Wesley Strick in a way that was new to him.
SCORSESE: Wesley Strick was with me on the shooting of Cape Fear. It was the first time I ever had a writer on the set. He just had the right personality. Universal wanted the film made as quickly as possible, so I made a calculated risk of getting the script up to, say, the fifteenth draft, and then working through it scene by scene with the actors as they came aboard. Wesley was so sensitive to what was happening with the whole production that I actually had him standing right by the video monitor on the set to see everything that was going on.
Beyond traditional notions of the written, there is a "visual writing" that Scorsese executes on every film, translating words into meticulous storyboards of each and every sequence. Alfred Hitchcock used the same method, making his visual signature unmistakable despite a range of script collaborators. Hitchcock aimed to produce specific effects of suspense. Scorsese's visual signature is applied for a very different purpose. Rather than simply producing emotional responses, his films question the emotions they arouse. The sequence in Vertigo in which James Stewart stares at Kim Novak as she slowly walks through a restaurant toward him, establishes a feeling of romantic longing that Hitchcock wants us to share. By contrast, a similar sequence in Life Lessons [Scorsese's part of the three-film New York Stories—the other two parts were directed by Woody Allen and Francis Coppola], in which Nick Nolte watches Rosanna Arquette disembark from a plane, places the character's sense of romantic longing under a critical eye. Carefully constructed shots of Nolte's face, of the cigarette in his hand, and Arquette moving in slow motion as Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" is heard on the sound track, are offered as material to be carefully analyzed, not simple scenes to be passively consumed.
Life Lessons was written by Richard Price, a well-established novelist (Ladies Man, The Wanderers) when he came to work with Scorsese. Paul Schrader also has enjoyed an independent career as a writer-director (Blue Collar, Mishima, Patty Hearst). Joseph Minion's brilliant screenplay for Robert Bierman's film Vampire's Kiss indicates he's developing a satirical vision of upscale New York life that is only hinted at in After Hours, Despite the independent talents of these writers, King of Comedy screenwriter Paul D. Zimmerman, said that seeing the finished product was "like having a baby that looks like Martin Scorsese."
Over the years, Scorsese has come to depend on a cadre of collaborators: editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, musician Robbie Robertson, assistant director Joe Reidy, and, until his death in 1988, production designer Boris Leven, who designed the sets for The Silver Chalice. But Scorsese's work with Leven had little to do with film-buff nostalgia. Besides Chalice, Leven had executed remarkable designs for such diverse films as The Shanghai Gesture, Anatomy of a Murder, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music. When Scorsese needed to recreate the glamour of the set-bound films of the studio era for New York, New York, Leven was the obvious choice. Scorsese also used Leven on such unusual projects as the music documentary The Last Waltz (Leven created the sets for the concert sequences and the musical numbers shot, like New York, New York, on the sound stages of MGM), and The King of Comedy. Leven designed the sets for Scorsese's 1983 attempt at The Last Temptation of Christ. Because the 1988 version was a scaled-down production, Leven's designs had to be abandoned in favor of those by John Beard.
Scorsese's work with Leven highlights his interest in maintaining a continuity between the cinema's past and present, in forging a moviemaking tradition from which he can draw and learn. It's not surprising that he worked on Cape Fear with cinematographer Freddie Francis (Room at the Top, The Innocents, Sons and Lovers, and The Elephant Man) veteran production designer Henry Bumstead (The Sting, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Vertigo), and composer Elmer Bernstein, who adapted the late Bernard Herrmann's score of the first version of Cape Fear. Herrmann's last score was for Taxi Driver.
The artist who has had the greatest influence on shaping Scorsese's notion of film as a living tradition is Michael Powell. The British director whose most famous work, The Red Shoes, first opened Scorsese's eyes to the medium's possibilities, remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of the cinema. Powell first made a name for himself in the 1930s and 1940s, when he collaborated with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger to create a dazzling series of dramatically rich, visually stunning Technicolor films. In addition to The Red Shoes, these include The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven). Working against the British tradition of well-mannered realism, Powell strove to create a cinema of imagination and emotion. Most of his films met with audience approval, but they won few critical allies at the time they were made.
In 1960, Powell released his most daring film, Peeping Tom. Like Psycho, which debuted the same year, it featured a sympathetic murderer as a protagonist. However, Powell's antihero was also an amateur filmmaker. Using the filmmaking process to underscore the intimate relationship between films and their viewers, Peeping Tom drove Powell's critics into an unprecedented rage. One of them suggested that "the only satisfactory way to deal with it" would be to "shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." Labeled a filmmaking pariah, Powell was forced to direct episodes of television series like Espionage and The Defenders. He emigrated to Australia and resumed filmmaking in the mid-1960s with the charming comedy Age of Consent. But by the 1970s Powell's career, by and large, was over.
In 1973 Michael Powell saw Mean Streets, and was so impressed by it that he wrote to Scorsese. Several letters were exchanged and, shortly after the completion of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the two met. The result was both a friendship and a unique intellectual partnership of mentor and student that lasted until Powell's death in 1990.
SCORSESE: Michael became such a part of my life over the years it's difficult to talk about him. I remember our becoming especially close right after Raging Bull. He gave us some very important advice on that film. For example, originally we were going to end it with Jake reading something from Shakespeare's Richard III. It was a speech he actually read in his night club act. Michael said it would be wrong to have a literary reference of that kind come at the end in that way—that we'd really be criticized for it. So we changed it to a quote from On the Waterfront, and that worked perfectly. He did the same thing on After Hours. We weren't satisfied with the ending we originally had, where the hero, Paul, was just taken away encased in plaster. He kept pushing me to find a solution. It was his idea that Paul should somehow end the film back where he started, and that's how we came up with the ending we finally used.
Scorsese returned Powell's favor. In 1979 he sponsored the American rerelease of the long-unseen Peeping Tom, which spurred a revived interest in Powell's work. He helped in any way he could to put Powell back behind the cameras. Scorsese lent his acting talents to Pavlova, the Soviet-produced drama about the ballerina, for which Powell was hired to supervise an English-language version. In 1987, Cannon Pictures announced it would back a Powell-directed film of Philip Glass's opera The Fall of the House of Usher, but the production never materialized. However, Powell happily continued to serve as Scorsese's most important advisor, virtually marrying into the director's "family" when he wed Thelma Schoonmaker in 1982.
SCORSESE: Michael was a very direct man. He would tell you exactly what he thought about something. That's part of the reason why he found it increasingly difficult to work. He couldn't handle the diplomacy involved. I remember a dinner, right before the shooting of Raging Bull, when we'd just met. We all went out to eat with him—Thelma, Bob, and several of our other friends. Halfway through dinner, Michael turns to me and says, "When is Mr. De Niro arriving?" Bob was sitting right next to him. Now you must understand, this didn't have anything to do with any shortcoming of Michael's faculties. It's just that Bob, when he's not on screen, is so reserved that you wouldn't know him! In a social situation he's a completely different person, and that's one of his most endearing qualities.
The Scorsese/De Niro partnership is one of the most productive in film history. It has fascinated critics because of the high quality of their films and the air of mystery surrounding their work habits. Notoriously nonverbal, De Niro has had little to say about how and why he and Scorsese work so well together. Scorsese also finds it difficult to explain their working method, which has developed into an instinctual rapport.
It's become common to speak of De Niro as Scorsese's alter ego, but a closer look at the films doesn't bear this out. In Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel, who resembles Scorsese in physical stature, vocal intonation, and low-key demeanor is far closer to an alter ego. In Mean Streets, De Niro's first appearance for Scorsese, the actor is cast as Johnny Boy, whose emotional volatility is contrasted with the moral uncertainty of Keitel's Charlie. De Niro's subsequent work for Scorsese proceeds directly from this mold—not playing Scorsese's direct reflection, but a nightmare image of the worst side of himself.
Being the prime mover behind the decision to film Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, as well as the center of both films, De Niro qualifies as a kind of codirector. Scorsese concedes to the idea. At the same time, the differences that separate his goals and De Niro's are equally plain—signaled by the actor's establishment of his own film production facility in New York.
SCORSESE: It's the old story. One has to be very careful about such a strong collaboration, because at a certain point in time, one of the collaborators will begin to get more satisfaction out of it than the other. And that's when it's time to make changes.
The change is apparent in GoodFellas, where De Niro does not take the lead role, but plays what Scorsese has described as "a major cameo."
SCORSESE: On The King of Comedy Jerry Lewis was all there by the sixth take. It was great, because in a way he was Jerry Langford. But Bob was playing all these different levels of Rupert—seeing how far he could go with the aggressiveness, how far he could go "over the top." Like when he said to Sandra, "I gave you my spot! I live in a hovel and you live in a town house!" We shot that scene for three days. I saw Bob do that scene once in rehearsal and it was so funny that I had to get it into the film. But we had chosen the worst street in New York to shoot on, and when we finally started doing the scene it was five o'clock and the light was going. The shots had to match so we had to shoot the rest of the scene at five each day. Today I wouldn't do that. I would rehearse more and be ready to shoot a scene like that before lunch. But it was important because I think that it's one of Bob's greatest performances.
The only thing I have going with actors is to try as best I can to create an atmosphere on the set where they're as free and relaxed as possible. I've gotten to know a lot of them personally, especially over the past few years, and they know that with me they have to do their best work.
Scorsese's attentiveness to actors is the cornerstone of his Hollywood esteem. Ellen Burstyn and Paul Newman have won Oscars with his help. Other performers, including Nick Nolte (Life Lessons, Cape Fear), Rosanna Arquette (After Hours, Life Lessons), Barbara Hershey (Boxcar Bertha, The Last Temptation of Christ), and Sandra Bernhard (The King of Comedy), have turned major corners in their careers through Scorsese films. Despite his apparent ease with the various aspects of the filmmaking process today, Scorsese feels his shaky beginnings didn't suggest the director he would become.
SCORSESE: In some ways I don't particularly like my first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? because of all the problems we had making it. I know what I wanted to do when I started the film, but I couldn't do it with the amount of money I had. I was trying to learn about 35mm cameras. I should have shot the whole thing in 16mm and blown it up to 35. I made a lot of errors, which came about because of the very process of making a feature in a non-commercial manner. I didn't have access to the equipment on a daily basis. The crew was constantly blowing out the fuses in people's buildings. It was all stopping and starting. You start shooting a scene, then two months later, when you want to reshoot, the actors have cut their hair, or have other jobs and can't work. It's a nightmare.
Bad as this experience was, it prepared Scorsese for Boxcar Bertha, Roger Corman's low-budget variation on Bonnie and Clyde. Believing cost cutting to be the key to creativity, Corman gave Scorsese on-the-job training, but little else. It took the more professional production contexts of Mean Streets and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore to give Scorsese the sense of control he needed, and the freedom to let go in certain areas of his work.
SCORSESE: On Taxi Driver we had two or three editors, but basically it was supervised by Marcia Lucas. Tom Rolfe was one of them, and he was the person responsible for the "Are you talking to me?" scene. We had tons of footage of Bob playing around in front of the mirror, but I liked those "Are you talking to me?" takes and asked Tom to try to edit it. It was the first time I ever worked the old way with an editor—just leave the room and let him cut it himself. I wouldn't touch it. It was beautiful. But in another part of that sequence I added a little jump cut at the end where Travis says, "Listen, you screwheads," and seems to pop suddenly into the frame. Tom disowned that cut. He said, "I had nothing to do with it." But he is a great professional editor.
Scorsese enjoys the editing room more than the set, except on New York, New York. The most improvisational piece of filmmaking Scorsese has ever attempted, this musical drama of the unhappy marriage of a band singer and a jazz musician was shot on some of the most elaborate studio sets ever devised. It was a madly inspired attempt at wedding the irreconcilable extremes of a Vincente Minnellistyle fantasy with a Cassavetes drama. Unfortunately, the result was a mass of interesting footage, almost impossible to edit into a unified whole.
In the end, Scorsese's troubles come down to whether the should keep "Happy Endings," in the film. An elaborate production number designed to be placed at New York, New York's climax, "Happy Endings" was, on a narrative level, a means of underscoring the show business success of the film's heroine, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). It wasn't crucial to the story, but on a thematic level "Happy Endings" was very important. Both a parody and a homage to the production numbers from the golden era of Hollywood musicals, it symbolized everything connected to Scorsese's desire to make New York, New York in the first place.
SCORSESE: "Happy Endings" was the first thing we shot. It was beautiful—a little movie all to itself. Shooting it was the happiest time I had on the picture. But by the time we were into the rest of the film, everything changed. When it was all over, we had a very difficult time editing. It seemed that every week we had a different cut of the thing. It was a long film and, in some places, slow. We wanted to speed it up somehow. So sometimes "Happy Endings" was in, and sometimes it was out.
Toward the end of the shoot I was having personal problems, and a bout with drugs. One of my friends said, "Marty, you're thinking about this thing too personally." I said, "No, no, no. Next version, we'll cut it!" So we did, and the film moved faster. But was it better? No. "Happy Endings" made the film. It gave the audience the happy ending that it otherwise didn't get. "Happy Endings" made one side of the film complete and whole—the part connected to all the old Hollywood musicals that I adored. The real ending made complete the other side of the film—the Cassavetes-like story about creative people in romantic relationships. It was a bad experience, but thank God it happened, because after New York, New York I knew what not to do.
Scorsese felt he had failed with New York, New York because he'd let his imagination run riot. He also blames his own lack of discipline for the problems that plagued much of the shooting of The King of Comedy. His return to low-budget filmmaking with After Hours was a deliberate attempt to regain control. This lesson in cost-conscious film-making paid off on The Last Temptation of Christ when he was forced to film only three takes of any shot. In addition, the film's remote location forced him to shoot Last Temptation "blind." He couldn't see the daily rushes and had to rely on one telephone call per day to Thelma Schoonmaker in New York to find out if the shots were usable.
SCORSESE: I can't make every picture the way I made After Hours and Last Temptation, where it's all planned down to the smallest detail. But sometimes you're forced into those kinds of situations. Planning is always the hardest part of the writing of a film—figuring out what shots you're going to use. Sometimes it's so frustrating to try to figure shots out. I sit here with my dog, Zoe, and I end up turning to her and saying, "Come on, contribute!" The truth is, I'm lazy.
It's doubtful that Scorsese really is lazy. There are enough films now in the planning stages to keep him busy past the turn of the century; he appears to work at a feverish pace. The question is, "Why?" The answer can be found in one of Scorsese's most graceful films, Life Lessons.
Paulette, a frustrated young artist who has become the unwilling mistress of famous painter Lionel Dobie, asks him whether she has talent, or should give up painting entirely. Dobie is madly in love with her and fearful of driving her away, so he hedges his reply. Telling Paulette that she's the only one who can decide whether or not she's an artist, he adds that art is something "you do because you have to."
Nobody needs as much to make films as Martin Scorsese does. The carefully composed individual shots of The Last Temptation of Christ, the complex texture of sound effects in Raging Bull, the unusual camera angles of Life Lessons, the dynamic editing of The King of Comedy—none of it is needed by an industry that demands that directors produce simple, commercial, product. Martin Scorsese can't do that. He does what he does because he has to.
SOURCE: A review of The Age of Innocence, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 257, No. 10, October 4, 1993, pp. 364-65.
[In the following excerpt, Klawans complains that after an artful and exciting opening sequence, The Age of Innocence becomes a flat costume drama, directed with none of Scorsese's characteristic flair.]
I wish Martin Scorsese [in his The Age of Innocence] had understood that the characters in Edith Wharton's books are just a bunch of Italians, like the rest of us. Maybe they eat turtle soup at dinner and have their gowns shipped transatlantic from Worth; but hypocrisy is still hypocrisy and illicit passion still elevates the pulse, even for those living in The Age of Innocence. Wharton, who knew from experience about hypocrisy and its effect on the adrenal gland, wrote that book at least partly as revenge, mocking those upright old New Yorkers who once had kept her trapped in the padded cells of their drawing rooms. If you go to see the film version—and of course you will, if you care at all about the state of American culture—you will get the full effect only when Joanne Woodward reads excerpts of Wharton's prose on the soundtrack. She doesn't adopt the plummy tones and English stage manner that usually go with such recitations; her vowels are flat and twangy and emphatically American, her timbre dry. She guides you expertly through all the twists and turns of Wharton's periods, making you feel the rasp at the end of this phrase, the stinging laugh at the end of another. She roughs up the characters, just talking about them. But Scorsese? He's almost deferential, as if those stiffs from Fifth Avenue were somehow better than a boy from Elizabeth Street.
Actually, Scorsese kicks off the film in his best form, perhaps because he's pretending, just for a few minutes, that the story is about Italians after all. The scene is the Academy of Music on the season's opening night. Gounod's Faust is being played onstage; in the stalls and boxes, intrigue is afoot. The camera roams everywhere. Faust and Marguerite dizzily change places with Wharton's characters, as Scorsese leads your eye up and around the soprano, out over the audience, back into the corridor of the opera house, around to the box where May Welland (Winona Ryder) sits with her notorious cousin, Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). As the operatic and social performances merge, you might recall having seen such a sequence before—in the beginning of Luchino Visconti's Senso. There's a similar spirit in the director's lush reconstruction of nineteenth-century peacockery, in the exuberant fluidity of his camera movement and editing, in the whiff of something corrupt and futile hidden behind all that busy spectacle. An ingenious conceit, and one that's admirably suited to Scorsese's talents: In order to portray Wharton's New York of the 1870s, start by thinking of Visconti's Venice of the 1860s.
Unfortunately, that's only the start. As the plot takes hold, in a version redacted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, the film settles into a sedate rhythm of shot/countershot dialogue; of prettified, long-shot vistas alternating with close-ups of stuffy interiors; of restrained, discreet tracking shots broken up by fussy little montage essays on the lighting of a cigar or the laying out of a dinner service. The style becomes as repressed as the characters themselves and is then capped by a further repression of the lead actors. It's true that Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) are both doomed to suffer nobly; but they couldn't do it if they had to spend the whole day sighing, like Scorsese's hapless performers.
Archer, after all, demands that his fiancée, May Welland, marry him now, because he can feel he's going to take somebody to bed, and if it isn't his proper little intended, it surely will be the improper Madame Olenska. What troubled seas of testosterone must be rising in him, the skies above them sulfurously illuminated by flashes of nervous rage! And yet society decrees that his skin must be a cold, taut membrane, holding back the storm without a hint of strain. Even his eyes aren't supposed to betray the lightning within. Day-Lewis could play all that. He could play it as readily as Scorsese could direct four guys in a bar in Little Italy. I assume, then, that Day-Lewis goes through the movie murmuring and making soft, uncertain gestures because Scorsese told him to. It's the only plausible explanation—which also may account for the way this keenly intelligent actor recites his lines as if they'd been learned by rote in a foreign language.
As Ellen Olenska, the woman who has lived in sin-ridden Europe and now dares to dream of getting a divorce, Michelle Pfeiffer has never seemed more candid or vulnerable. Scorsese and his great cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, make the most of her big moist eyes, set in that open expanse of pale and infinitely fragile skin; you'd almost think the surface of her face was a photographic emulsion, ready to capture even the subtlest emotions with a flicker of light. You look at her and marvel at the delicacy of this creation; and yet Olenska is "used to a little higher seasoning," as someone says of another of Wharton's heroines. She's had a pretty high time of it in Europe and is being portrayed by an actress who can handle Catwoman. Here, not a meow. The only visible hint of wildness that Scorsese allows her is an advanced collection of paintings. It's as if this most expressive of contemporary American directors had knowingly committed the fault that critics impute (often wrongly) to James Ivory: letting the production designer do the actors' work.
None of this means that The Age of Innocence is a failure. In a sense, Scorsese has reached the stage at which there can be no complete failures, since everything he makes has relevance to his career. But just because he's so central to American filmmaking today, Scorsese ought to set off some alarms with this picture. Why should he have treated Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska as if they were porcelain dolls, when before he wasn't afraid to put his hands even on Jesus? What made Scorsese hold back?
The answer, I suppose, is that he's following the first law of show business: Give the people what they want. The pretty-sunset era has returned, and so Scorsese (no doubt gritting his teeth) will give us pretty sunsets, may we enjoy them forever in hell. During the 1980s, Reaganoid optimism seemed to engender a countervailing grotesquerie in the arts, especially among painters and filmmakers and writers who were themselves Reaganoids. (Think of David Lynch and Tom Wolfe.) The results were not necessarily good art, but they served as good cover for someone like Scorsese, with his sense of sin and creatural obsessions. Today, though, Scorsese stands exposed in a landscape of pitiless, unrelenting niceness. He makes Cape Fear—ostensibly a commercial project—and it turns out to be art. Worse still, it's the wrong kind of art. The audience wants Howard's End (at best) or Like Water for Chocolate (I withhold comment). Can we blame him, then, for making his next picture so decorous, so dreamy, so dull?
I hope Scorsese makes a fortune on The Age of Innocence and wins fifteen Academy Awards. And then, I hope, he'll sit down and think once more about the book. Like much of the best American literature of its era, The Age of Innocence suggests that it might not be such a bad thing to follow your instincts. May Scorsese go back to following his.
SOURCE: "Entrapment: Scorsese Meets Wharton," in Commonweal, Vol. CXX, No. 19, November 5, 1993, pp. 14-17.
[In the following positive review of The Age of Innocence, Alleva praises Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel and his ability to convey the tumultuous emotions that roil beneath his characters' refined, rigidly proper appearances.]
There it is, in the same suburban multiplex that is showing Warlock II: The Armageddon, the John Woo-Jean-Claude Van Damme killfest, Hard Target, and that leftover summer fluff, Sleepless in Seattle. There it is, using its two-hour-plus running time to explore the refined sensibilities of lovers stifled by the rigorous social code of upper-class New York in the 1870s, while in the adjoining theaters, behind walls so thin you can hear the gunfire and the shrieks and the thuds, Stallone and Van Damme and Bruce Willis pound their enemies to pulp.
"It," of course, is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, as brought to the screen by Martin Scorsese and (in an excess of courage or insanity) given mass release by Columbia. My fear was that Scorsese would justify the wide distribution all too handily. He is the greatest living American film director, but it's only the quality of his work that sets it apart from that of most of his peers, not its essential nature. For, like his peers, Scorsese is a filmmaker of sensation, not sensibility. Wouldn't Scorsese, however much craft he put into this project, coarsen this novel's texture?
The first fifteen minutes [of The Age of Innocence] threatened to justify my fears. Setting the scene, Scorsese's camera seems to wallow in the luxury of Wharton's bon ton: the quantity of food, the elegance of the place settings, and the vastness of the brownstone interiors. Now, it's true that milieu must be defined by physical detail and Wharton's people are certainly the slaves of their own accessories. But wasn't Scorsese overdoing it? Didn't his hyperthyroid cinematics distance us from the settings and characters instead of making us intimate with them? When would this travelogue into the past cease and the drama begin?
And then it did begin. And continued with a sort of murmuring boldness that was amazing after its blaring beginning.
For me, the ignition was a snub to the heroine. The Countess Ellen Olenska, born and bred a New Yorker, but married into the Polish nobility, has fled Europe and her disastrous marriage and taken shelter with her relatives. Her family tries to give a welcoming dinner party for her, but—the gentry disapproving in advance of her contemplated divorce—each invitation is returned with regrets. Scorsese composes a close-up of Ellen, looking like a slapped child, and then reddens the shot until she is obliterated. It's a bold yet complicated stroke. We may associate red with anger or at least passion, but Ellen is not given to rage nor is the expression on her face anything but stricken. Yet the color is right, for it expresses not Ellen's emotions but the vicious societal animosity underlying the cold societal snub. And the cinematic erasure corroborates what the narrator (Joanne Woodward) tells us about this society's rejections serving to obliterate individuals who do not conform. Here, and throughout the rest of the movie, Scorsese's accomplishment is to use the resources of his medium to depict the currents under surface events.
Those events constitute a very simple plot about two very complicated people inching toward a love affair that never takes place. Newland Archer, who has never questioned his society's ethos, finds himself attracted to Ellen Olenska just when he has announced his engagement to May Welland, a seemingly docile product of that society. The first half of the story dramatizes his increasing attachment to this instinctive and stylish nonconformist until his fiancée inadvertently calls his honor to account. Since he cannot conceive of himself hurting May, and since the countess herself declares that she can love him only if he remains the sort of man who does not hurt the May Wellands of the world, he breaks with Ellen and marries his betrothed. The narrative's second half shows Archer struggling desperately against his persisting love for the countess, finally reaching the point where he must leave his wife and affront, even break from, his New York matrix. But then May intervenes again, this time deliberately and even (under her placid exterior) ruthlessly to keep her man beside her, and their place in society intact.
Scorsese and his scriptwriter, Jay Cocks, lay out this story faithfully and, for the most part, lucidly. Their few alterations are for the sake of momentum, not inflation. For instance, by lifting Olenska's disparaging remarks about American high society aping European manners from the novel's last half and inserting them into her first encounter with Archer, the adaptors prepare us for Ellen's later difficulties. The one major fault of the script occurs near mid-point, when May expresses suspicion of Newland's previous involvement with "a married woman." In the book, this old flame was identified by name and clearly placed in relation to Archer's past, but since she's never shown or even named on screen, audience members who haven't read the book may assume that May is being jealous of Ellen. And so one of Wharton's best ironies is lost. This problem could have been avoided by a quick flash-back. My only other criticism is that the screenplay's concentration on the book's lyricism is at the expense of its wit. Otherwise, the adaptation is a model for what it includes and excludes.
But, good as the script is, a routine director might have turned it into a sluggish, though literate, movie. Scorsese's staging probes and illuminates, but in a very different manner from that of his earlier films. In them, there was always an abundance of pungent dialogue and good acting but everything was swept along by Scorsese's visual rhetoric. In The Age of Innocence, the balance between what is seen and how the camera sees it is adjusted in favor of the actor.
In a box at the theater, Newland joins the countess and her companions. He has been profoundly moved by the play; it has fueled his romantic feelings and he wants to share his rapture with this woman he desires. At first, they neither speak nor look at each other, and the chit chat of their friends prevails. Then Scorsese abruptly shuts off the surrounding sound, including the bustle in the orchestra seats below. A spotlight illuminates the two lovers. And into this sudden silence the countess speaks, while the whole world is hushed so that Archer may savor her words. It's a coup de théâtre, yet, as executed here, intimate and unforced.
Scorsese can take a perfectly ordinary sight, logs burning in a fireplace, and transform it into a motif that certifies what an actor is expressing. Early in the story, when the countess yields to Archer's counsel that she remain in her loveless marriage, the director cuts to the fireplace as a semiconsumed log collapses into the blaze. Later, when Ellen shows Newland why he must give her up and marry May, the shot of the burning wood is repeated: now it's his turn to submit. Near the conclusion, when Archer is about to ask his wife for a divorce, she thwarts him with a startling announcement. Once again, a log collapses but this time May goes to the fireplace and pushes the wood into the center of the fire so that it may be consumed even more rapidly. Despite her simpering exterior, May knows exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it.
The problem for the three leads was to keep the audience aware that under polite surfaces storms are raging but never to let the audience dismiss those surfaces as mere hypocrisy. All three performances succeed brilliantly.
Michelle Pfeiffer, in a sense, had the easiest task since the countess is the one character in this story to whom modern audiences can relate easily: the proto-liberated woman in revolt. On the other hand, Olenska is also the most ambiguous character. She expresses a need to be alone and yet is eagerly social; seems to lead Archer on, yet sternly reminds him of his obligations to others; desires to be protected by her lover yet can find a way out of a desperate situation without his help. Pfeiffer's triumph lies not in rationalizing Olenska. The whole woman is there: the attractive physicality (Pfeiffer knows the trick of making cigarette smoking look chic), the nonchalance of a Europeéanized American who knows the falsities that prevail on both sides of the ocean, the desperation of a woman who sees an abyss of poverty and friendlessness opening before her. Pfeiffer understands that Ellen is a maddening complexity even to herself.
Daniel Day-Lewis fooled me again. As in My Beautiful Laundrette and The Last of the Mohicans, here he seems to spend the first fifteen minutes skating on the surface of his role as if being comfortable with one's costume and hair style were all there is to acting. I listened and watched very carefully, wondering when the performance was going to begin. After a time, I realized that I was regarding Newland Archer as if he were a childhood friend, as if I were privy to his deepest secrets (as, of course, I was, thanks to Wharton). Day-Lewis's acting had been going on since his first moment on camera, but it is the sort of acting that has no bravura "points" and flourishes. (Day-Lewis can do the bravura stuff, too, as witness A Room with a View and My Left Foot.) James Agee once described a performance of Teresa Wright's as showing "a novelist's perceptiveness behind the [acting] talent." Same goes for this latest gem from Day-Lewis.
Even critics who have liked this movie have had reservations about Winona Ryder's depiction of May as being too "modern." I found it to be a beautiful piece of work, always in character and in period, and revelatory of both American turn-of-the-century innocence and a hard pragmatism that could coexist with that innocence.
In retrospect, I now wonder that I doubted Scorsese to be the right adaptor for Edith Wharton. Yes, his art is violent and coruscating, but Wharton's is robust and highly dramatic. When the defeated Archer finds himself seated at a farewell dinner for his never-to-be-mistress, Scorsese's climactic long shot is as highly evocative of entrapment as Wharton's language. Archer's adored one is at his elbow while his wife is separated from him by the length of the table. Yet the countess is now unreachable while May has him in a bear trap. The socialites seated on either side of the table have primed that trap to perfection. And the serving men, at attention behind the seated guests, stand as strong as sentries, as merciless as prison guards. It's a trap of obligations that Jean-Claude Van Damme couldn't slug his way out of, against which even Clint Eastwood's six-shooters couldn't prevail.
Edith Wharton and Martin Scorsese are perfectly congenial because both of them understand the uses of force.