Friday, February 12, 2010

The Artistic Vision of Martin Scorsese

I wanted to write about this fantastic director since I admire his work so much. I will list his films which are some of my favorites, and provide a few words about each one. From 1968's Who's that Knocking at my Door, to this year's Shutter Island, Scorsese has had an amazing career. His 21 feature films have earned 64 Oscar nominations and 15 wins. He did not win a best director Oscar until 2007, for The Departed, a film about the Irish mafia. He had lost this coveted best director Oscar five times previously. But, after all, greats such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles never won best director Oscars. He has also directed several documentaries and short films, often about the classic rock artists he admires so much. He has had small roles in many of his films, just like another legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock. He is probably best known for his many films that are about the Italian mafia, but he has not limited himself to that genre. He did a period piece (The Age of Innocence) and a film about the Dalai Lama in Tibet (Kundun). Many of his films deal with emotional longing, loneliness, and some feature scenes of unflinching violence. He grew up in New York's Little Italy but lived a sheltered life due to being an asthmatic. He spent lots of time in church and going to the movies. Scorsese is known for his distinctive directing style in which the camera is often moving throughout the scene. Throughout the final three decades of the 20th century, Scorsese films often featured one of best actors of our time, Robert DeNiro. In recent years he has directed many starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He is a graduate of the legendary New York University film school, where his students included Oliver Stone and Spike Lee. Here are my favorites:

Mean Streets (1973) This was a breakthrough for Scorsese as well as stars Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. It featured a gritty, violent New York setting where the mafia rules, rapid fire editing and a rock soundtrack. This film is his most autobiographical, and it is a favorite film of many real life gangsters.

Taxi Driver (1976) This is one of the greatest masterpieces of film of all time, and my favorite Scorsese work. It is not a film for everyone. It is disturbing to say the least. It follows Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), a New York cabbie who says "Loneliness has followed me all of my life. I'm God's lonely man." He is man who has been broken by his time in Vietnam, his challenges to navigate through society and his worst enemy is himself. He is a powder keg ready to explode in a flurry of violence, and he does. He is trapped in a life which is an angry nightmare from which he cannot awake. He sees the world through twisted eyes and tries to "save" a prostitute from her lifestyle which she sees as her only option. On the other hand, he seeks revenge on another woman who had rejected his advances. Travis Bickle seems to view women as either angelic or as prostitutes. Cybill Shepard's character first appears wearing white and moving in slow motion, and Travis writes in his diary "They cannot touch her." He wants her, but at the same time his self destructive feelings are more powerful, and they keep him from doing the right things to win her over. This featured Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepard, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, and Harvey Keitel. Reagan assassin John Hinckley was obsessed with this film, and he thought that killing the president would impress Jodie Foster. Overhead shots are used repeatedly in this film showing guns for sale laid out on a bed, junk food at the adult movie theatre, and an long overhead tracking shot towards the end depicting the bloody mayhem left in the wake of Travis' killing spree. Scorsese has said that Travis Bickle saw what he had to do and it was a ritualistic, religious, sacrifice for him. The ultra violent, grimy, New York of the 1970s is much different than the more sanitized New York of today. Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Hardcore, Blue Collar, Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), and the haunting melodies of composer Bernard Herrmann deserve a lot of credit for this masterwork. Herrmann also did the music for Citizen Kane (one of Scorsese's favorites) and Psycho, among other Hitchcock films. His final film to score was Taxi Driver, and he died just hours after recording it. The main title theme with its sultry saxophone fit the mood of the film perfectly. This was nominated for a total of 4 Academy Awards, including the best picture Oscar, but it lost to Rocky. It won the highly coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. One of Scorsese's biggest fans is my favorite film critic, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. He gave a perfect 4-star review to 14 of Scorsese's films. These include; Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Casino, After Hours, The Departed, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and others. Regarding Taxi Driver he says "Taxi Driver is a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn't tell us half of what we want to know. Taxi Driver is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down." Ebert has insights into film like no one else. He is the only film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Raging Bull (1980) This is a tale of the violent, aggressive world of professional boxing where Robert DeNiro plays Jake LaMotta. DeNiro's character has trouble separating the world in the ring, where violence is applauded, with the world outside the ring, where violence is not allowed. This film was in black and white, with use of slow motion and a moving camera. Many view this as the director's greatest work. Actor Joe Pesci played a key role, just as he would in later Scorsese works. Cathy Moriarty plays the wife of LaMotta, and she must deal with his violent outbursts. This was nominated for 8 Oscars, and it won 2.

The King of Comedy (1983) This comedic film was a change of pace for the director known largely for his dramatic films based around Italian American life in New York. DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, who is a sad character who has lost touch with reality. His dream is to host a late night talk show. Jerry Lewis plays Pupkin's idol, Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like comedian/talk show host. Carson was actually considered to play the role, as well as Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. DeNiro's character lives at home with his parents and interviews cardboard cut-outs of celebrities in his basement as practice for hosting his own show one day. The story turns dark as Rupert Pupkin finds a way to make his dream come true, by any means he can. In the film Rupert says "It's better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime." Scorsese has said this was an emotionally grueling film to direct. He and DeNiro did not work together again for seven years.

New York Stories (1989) This was a different approach for a film since it was broken up into 3 sections, each directed by a legendary film maker. It was not a big hit with critics or at the box office, but I enjoyed it. The first segment, titled Life Lessons was directed by Scorsese. The other 2 were directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. Life Lessons was the story of a New York painter played by Nick Nolte who takes on a protege played by Rosanna Arquette who becomes his love interest. This included use of Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone in the soundtrack.

GoodFellas (1990) This film featured Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta as powerful figures in the world of the Italian-American mafia. I think that this film is on the same level as The Godfather, also directed by a legendary Italian-American, Francis Ford Coppola. It has scenes of disturbing violence and a great classic rock soundtrack. Roger Ebert called it "the best mob movie ever". Four years earlier, Scorsese's film The Color of Money was released, and it starred Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in a story about pool hall husters. This was his least personal film, but its success at the box office made a film like GoodFellas possible. The studios want nothing but blockbusters. This was nominated for 6 Oscars and it won 1, for Joe Pesci.

Cape Fear (1991) This marked the director's seventh time working with Robert DeNiro, and it is a remake of the 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum. Other Scorsese films have violent scenes, but Cape Fear felt more like a horror film than his other work. Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis also star in the disturbing but brilliant work.

Casino (1995) This mobster film takes place largely in Las Vegas and has a running time of about 3 hours. It is so well written and performed, the 3 hours goes by quickly and it left me wanting even more. I have only said this about 2 other works, The Godfather, and Brian DePalma's Scarface. It features Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and the best performance of Sharon Stone's career.

The Aviator (2004) Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this was a biopic about the odd but incredibly successful tycoon, Howard Hughes. It chronicles the love life, the business life and the obsessive-compulsive disorder which ruined a life which had so much potential. Like other films by this director, it shows one man's descent into madness. This was nominated for an amazing 11 Oscars, and it won 5.

Scorsese has a passion for music, and he directed directed the video Bad for Michael Jackson, the film The Last Waltz, about the musical group The Band, and Shine a Light featuring the Rolling Stones. He directed New York New York, which was a film where Robert DeNiro played a sax player, released in 1977, and it featured Liza Minelli. The original director's cut was 4 and a half hours, but it had to be trimmed significantly to play in theatres. There were challenges with this film in shooting the musical numbers, with the choreography, the lip-synching and the illusion of DeNiro playing a saxophone as well as his character. In May 2009, he confirmed he will direct a biopic about legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. In 2010 a Scorsese documentary will be released about former Beatle George Harrison. In 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore Scorsese directed the singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson. It made money, so this opened doors for him, and the film studios put trust in him to make more films. The TV show Alice, starring Linda Lavin, was loosely based on this film.

* Some information from,,, "Roger Ebert's Four Star Reviews 1967-2007" and "Martin Scorsese Interviews", Edited by Peter Brunette.
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