1 July 2008

The Films of Martin Scorsese

In 2007, when arguably the greatest living American film maker Martin Scorsese finally accepted the Oscar for directing the middle of the road crime epic, ‘The Departed’, many felt it was a moment that not only should have happened a long time ago but many times over. ‘The Departed’, a remake of the classic cat and mouse Hong Kong thriller, ‘Infernal Affairs’, was widely praised as a return to form but some like myself felt this was Scorsese pleasing the audiences and studio by doing what he does best; examining under a microscope what makes enclosed male communities so violent and fatalistic. Scorsese’s Oscar seemed almost like an apology from the Hollywood community who had repeatedly sought to overlook his contribution to American cinema by choosing to celebrate matinee movie idols turned film makers; Robert Redford and Kevin Costner come to mind.

‘The Departed’ like much of the work Scorsese has produced since 2000 has been disappointing for his inability to break free of the techniques and kind of storytelling he brilliantly helped to establish with his 1990 gangster masterpiece, ‘Goodfellas’, a film that is perhaps the seminal Scorsese film in terms the influence it had on the new wave of Hollywood film makers like Spike Lee, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Andersen. Personally, for me, his last great film was ‘Kundun’ (1995), a beautifully poetic insight into an alien culture and depiction of the Dalia Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and an international icon of peace. The refreshing aspect of ‘Kundun’ was that everything about the film starting with the subject matter was so untypical of Scorsese as a filmmaker who rarely ventured outside the urban sphere of working class districts. Accompanied by a breathtaking score by Philip Glass and shot perfectly by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, ‘Kundun’ is an extraordinarily cathartic film that builds towards a tremendously moving finale depicting the escape of the Dalia Lama. The same cannot be said for ‘The Departed’, a film that revisits material familiar to Scorsese but fails to do anything different other than being just another crime/gangster genre film that enjoys working through the many tired conventions.

Everybody has a favourite Scorsese film and out of all the films he has directed, ‘Taxi Driver’ is the one film that has become a real audience and critics favourite, regularly appearing in many lists, polls and canons. ‘Taxi Driver’ is a true modern American classic and is one of the few genuinely disturbing and powerful pieces of cinema to have come out of the tumultuous 70’s era. The body of work Scorsese produced in the 1980s is just as adventurous and daring as his early work, but after ‘Goodfellas’, Scorsese seemed to go into auto pilot mode, making flawed films such as ‘Casino’, ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘Bringing out the Dead’.

Many critics have argued that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese is simply making the same film over and over again. Though this maybe a crude generalisation, it does seem to offer a valid explanation about his status as an auteur, a position that surely must be reassessed considering his long term collaboration with the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Whatever Scorsese does today will always be judged against the greatness of his early work in the 1970s, and if this a negative experience, it perhaps provides irrefutable evidence of his evolution as a filmmaker.

What follows next are a list of my 10 favourite Scorsese movies. It was too difficult to put them into some kind of rank order.

Taxi Driver, 1976

Many say this is the best film Scorsese ever directed, and though I would agree with such a bold statement, the emotional power of this film comes directly out of the 70’s social and political malaise that was widespread in mainstream American society. Bickle was Schrader, and his rage and violence was undoubtedly a physical manifestation of a nation at war with itself. A masterpiece.

Raging Bull, 1980

Stallone’s triumph with ‘Rocky’ in 1977 was enough to give birth to the boxing genre, and though many would say ‘Rocky’ is probably the most entertaining and definitive boxing movie, ‘Raging Bull’, Scorsese’s first film of the 80s is still considered by some critics today to be the best American feature film to have emerged out of the entire decade. Characterised by virtuoso tracking shots and trademark Schoonmaker editing techniques like balletic slow motion, Raging Bull is a film about male identity, sexuality and redemption that is directed with an tangible nod to the great neo realist Italian masters like De Sica and Rossellini. This is a film like the best of Scorsese that transcends genre limitations and becomes much more than just cinema. Compelling.

3. After Hours, 1985

A personal favourite, ‘After Hours’ is the closest Scorsese has ever come to directing an out and out comedy. Shot entirely at night, the narrative follows a lonely desk clerk, Paul Hackett, played superbly by Griffin Dunne, who takes a nightmarish journey through downtown Manhattan simply to get back home. This is Scorsese’s ode to Hitchcock and he liberally references films like ‘Marnie’ and ‘Vertigo’ with great assurance. Terribly underrated and often pushed to one side, ‘After Hours’ was made quickly, shot on a low budget and based on an offbeat script written by a film student. Wickedly inventive in its use of New York locations, ‘After Hours’ is not simply a minor film as many would like to categorise it as, but also brilliant cinema.

4. Mean Streets, 1973

The opening of Scorsese’s breakthrough feature film, ‘Mean Streets’ is unforgettable for its use of music, a stylistic technique that would come to define the rest of his work, and provide a future inspiration for Quentin Tarantino and his colourful use of the soundtrack. Influenced by the improvised, realist style of Cassavetes, Mean Streets was the turning point for Scorsese, and though the film has dated in some aspects, it is supported by superlative performances from De Niro and Kietel and boosted by an authentic study of small time criminals that is both personal and cinematic.

5. Goodfellas, 1990

Scorsese reinvented himself with the visceral gangster epic, ‘Goodfellas’, and at the same time rewrote the language of American cinema, creating an entirely new lexicon of film techniques from the whip pan to tracking shots, producing one of the most fast paced and intoxicating narratives ever seen. Scorsese draws upon his love of American film genres and masters like John Ford to paint a deeply powerful indictment of gangster life and hypocrisy. Impressive, ambitious and daring – this is Scorsese at his best with a potent final image of Joe Pesci reminding us of the startling, primitive nature of early cinema.

6. Kundun, 1995

Paul Schrader’s stunning film about the Japanese writer, ‘Mishima’, was a flawed project on East Asian culture, and his collaboration with the minimalist composer, Philip Glass, undoubtedly left a lasting impression on Scorsese who extracted from him a tremendously operatic score that elevates the story of the Dalai Lama to a spiritual plane. ‘Kundun’ is a very spiritual film and proved that Scorsese could confidently work in any genre. A commercial failure at the box office but a real triumph in terms of realising the epic spectacles of the Hollywood golden age.

7. The King of Comedy, 1983

Scorsese’s telling and biting satire on the media, celebrity, fame and loneliness was a film ahead of its time, and features one of De Niro’s darkest and most complex performances as the eccentric and unhinged lonely comedian, Rupert Pupkin, who goes to insane lengths to pursue his obsession with fame and recognition. Intelligently directed by Scorsese, ‘The King of Comedy’ extended his fascination with lonely outsiders who exist on the margins of working class society.

8. The Age of Innocence, 1993

Scorsese’s foray into the period drama was a real achievement in terms of capturing the intricacies and details of New York’s upper class at the turn of the century. An emotionally involving story about unrequited love that is defined by towering contributions from Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pefiffer, ‘The Age of Innocence’, is a homage to the bittersweet cinema of Max Ophuls.

9. New York, New York, 1977

A spectacular failure upon it’s release, ‘New York, New York’, was a big budget tribute to the musicals produced by MGM, and was significantly re edited to meet commercial demands. The film has been restored to its original directors cut and though it still has problems with pacing, it presents us with familiar thematic preoccupations like male violence, sexuality, and guilt. An excellent example of genre filmmaking.

10. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974

Before Scorsese achieved international success with ‘Taxi Driver’, he was offered the chance to direct a melodrama starring Ellen Burstyn who had just shot to fame with ‘The Exorcist’, and he apparently took the job purely to disprove the notion that male directors had difficulty directing female leads. Ellen Burstyn would go on to win the Oscar for best actress and Scorsese had finally entered the mainstream of American cinema.


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