Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gangster's Paradise. Martin Scorsese: The Great Directors Retrospective

Born 1942


It is accurate to say that Martin Scorsese is both one of film's great directors as well as one of its greatest fans.  He loves movies to where having a conversation with him is like, to coin a phrase, quoting Scripture to a nun.  One gets the sense that he could tell you everything about something as obscure as Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine or as out of the mainstream as The Saddest Music in the World

His fascination for film, his love of film, has earned him a rare credit: a filmmaker embraced by both the intellectual and the Average Joe.  Regardless of your status or education, everyone has at least ONE Martin Scorsese film they love.  I think he is able to do so because he is first, a master craftsman.  Every shot serves the story while still having a great visual flair.  This pleases the intelligentsia.  His stories, for the most part, are about the netherworld of criminals, those operating on the margins of society.  Here, a regular guy can gain a passion for the stories he tells. 

He had a great eye, starting from his youth.  Asthma kept him within the confines of his Little Italy home, where Marty (dare I call him Marty?) started observing the people in his neighborhood.  His eye was trained to observe, to note what worked and didn't work in movies.  His parents took him to see films as a way to get him out of the house, and within the spectacles of DeMille, the neo-realism/fantasy of Fellini, and directors as varied as Billy Wilder and William Wyler, Scorsese could observe a wide world of cinema.

His career as an editor also was of great service.  He knew how to pace a story, keep things moving and keep a structure in the story.  Once he went into directing, he told his stories, and those usually involved the seedy side of the Italian-American experience.

Scorsese didn't popularize the modern gangster/mobster film, but starting from Mean Streets right on down to The Departed, Scorsese specializes in the depiction of the criminal world, where loyalty comes into conflict with legality.  Goodfellas I think is the best example of this quandary.

You have Henry Hill, who is really a despicable person: unapologetic about being a criminal, so much so that he tells us that being a 'ganster' has been his life's goal.  (Side note: one of the things I dislike about film is the reliance of voiceover, but Goodfellas is one of the films where it works, primarily because it provides us with more than one voiceover.  That, and because Scorsese never made it an easy way to tell us the story.  He actually used the visuals, particularly the way he thrusts the camera at us, to give us the information we need).  However, Hill has a love for the people he's surrounded himself with, until his paranoia gets the better of him (even though it is accurate).  By the time he, shall I say, goes rogue, we end up caring about his plight but also thinking he's a sleazy character.

Again and again, Scorsese brings us people we should dislike, but his mastery of storytelling is such that we cannot help but at least be mesmerized by them.  Take Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull.  Just in the opening, where we see Robert DeNiro shadow-boxing in slow-motion while Pietro Mascagni's intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana played, we see the beauty of boxing married to the violence of the sport; the stark black-and-white cinematography only enhanced the beauty as well as the seamy nature of LaMotta's life story.  Again, we have another story of someone we shouldn't like (and probably wouldn't if we had to be around him for long), but by the end, when we see this once-great fighter reduced to being this fat pseudo-comic at a sleazy club, we end up feeling great sorrow and sadness for this guy.

While Scorsese is most identified with the mobster/gangster film, he isn't above trying new genres.  Who would have thought the man behind Taxi Driver (a great film that I still cannot bring myself to watch again simply because it freaked me out so) would tackle something as dainty as Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence?  Let's face it: innocence itself isn't something one associates with Scorsese, let alone costume dramas from the Gilded Age.  It would be like watching a Merchant/Ivory production of Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano. However, Scorsese is not a filmmaker to be sidelined to one genre. 

One thing that is a constant in Scorsese's films are how he uses music.  He has a passion for Gimme Shelter from the Rolling Stones, but if one sees a film like Goodfellas, note just how songs set the mood for the scene without overpowering the scene or making the song gratuitous.  Every song appears to not just fit into the scene but be perfectly natural to it, from Henry's aspirations being underscored with Tony Bennett's Rags to Riches, through The Crystals' Then He Kissed Me in that amazing tracking shot of Henry and Karen going to the Copacabana right on through Eric Clapton's Layla feeding Henry's "triumph" of life in the Witness Protection Plan (the finale shot I though I nice nod to the ending of The Great Train Robbery). 

He has had the desire to explore more stories, from the spiritualism of Kundun (a biopic on the Dalai Lama) to the mania of The Aviator (another biopic, this time on Howard Hughes before he became a complete recluse).  Now, he's going to go into 3-D (barring his participation, I still think 3-D is the work of the Devil) with Hugo, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Throughout all his work, he has remained a stalwart in film preservation, knowing that what influenced him will influence future filmmakers and the desperate need to save our historic film heritage. 

One story I can tell about a Scorsese movie I haven't seen involves perhaps his most controversial film: The Last Temptation of Christ.  When it came out, I was still going to a Catholic church (like Scorsese, I'm the product of a Catholic upbringing).  The film was highly controversial, and the priest railed and thundered so passionately against The Last Temptation of Christ that I was completely scared away from seeing it.  In fact, I'm still a bit scared to see it.  Therefore, I'm in no position to say whether it's good or bad, but I can say that I don't know I would see it: the idea of our Savior having sex, even in a fantasy sequence, may be far too much for my Evangelical heart to take. 

I also wasn't thrilled by Shutter Island.  Scorsese or no Scorsese, I was frustrated with it.  I recognize I'm in the minority on this, but I stand by my view that the story was so obvious (and Leonard DiCaprio's accent so fake) that I could never get into it. 

Still,  nothing takes away from Martin Scorsese being a true genius.  Perhaps his Best Director Oscar for The Departed was a way to honor his body of work (and if I may digress, he lost to lesser directors and lesser films now barely remembered.  Raging Bull didn't win Best Picture in 1980.  Quick: what did?  Give up?  Ordinary People.  When was the last time that film was studied in film school, let alone shown, on television?).   However, it was well-deserved.

Martin Scorsese loves film.  We love Martin Scorsese films (well, most anyway).  It's been a passionate affair between Marty and the camera, and like all Scorsese films, it's been an amazing thing to behold.

With that, I wish a Happy Birthday to Martin Scorsese, and welcome him among the Great Directors.

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