Saturday, May 22, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Martin Scorsese

By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“You don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it on the street; everything else is bullshit and you know it…”-Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets

In the first installment of this column, I examined a wide range of different technical aspects that I believe make Wes Anderson the definitive author of his films. This week, I want to try something a little different; I want to narrow the focus to one particular aspect of Director Martin Scorsese’s work and examine that in-depth as opposed to shallowly glossing over the myriad facets of his films that remain consistent. While I could expand the scope of this piece to focus on Scorsese’s use of music, his persistent return to the tracking shot, his predilection for New York as a setting, his recurrent use of first Robert De Niro and more recently Leonardo DiCaprio as leading men, or his long term relationships with screenwriter Paul Schraeder and editor Thelma Shoonmaker, I have chosen instead to focus on one aspect of his career that I see as defining of his aesthetic: the tendencies towards paranoia, insecurity, and social ostracism in many of his protagonists and other main characters.

A brief aside on authorship before I dig into Scorsese’s work. An issue that I think will come up repeatedly in this column in the months to come is the question of the screenwriter’s place within the auteur theory. The theory prescribes that the director is the author of the film and that he has more control, and therefore more expressive power, over the final product that is released. This is an issue that I presently take with the auteur theory, as I believe the screenwriter in many cases originates and so fully develops the story of the film that his or her mark must be left on it at least as strongly as the directors. The first installment of this column, on Wes Anderson, cleanly side-stepped the issue, as Anderson has written or co-written every one of his screenplays so far. This column will examine screenwriters on an individual basis in future installments, but for now Scorsese is a prime example of a director who is clearly an auteur despite a limited hand in the actual writing of his films. Most of the times when he is credited as a screenwriter, he is adapting the work of another author to fit to the screen (such as in GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence, and Casino) and even when he is writing an original story, he generally co-writes the screenplay with a more experienced writer, as is the case with his second film, and the real start to his career, Mean Streets which he co-wrote with Mardik Martin (who would collaborate with the director again when he wrote the screenplays for New York, New York, and Raging Bull).

After serving as a director-for-hire on Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese was advised to make a more personal film. The result was Mean Streets, which has many of his recurring themes in full swing. The film is Scorsese’s from the outset, even opening with his voice as he narrates the inner thoughts of Charlie (Harvey Keitel). Scorsese says, “You don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it on the street; everything else is bullshit and you know it…” From here out, we are in Scorsese country, and for most of the rest of his career, the director has told stories centered around men with exactly those ideals. The character who most fits into the mold of a “Scorsese man” (which is what I am setting out to examine) in Mean Streets is Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro in his first collaboration with Scorsese). Johnny Boy is of a piece with many supporting characters in Scorsese movies: he is a lifelong friend of the protagonist, and an unabashedly violent sociopath. Johnny Boy begins the movie in debt all over town, and continues throughout it to engage in fights and reckless behavior, all leading to the film’s climax in which he is finally forced to face the consequences of his actions.



Johnny Boy is the first appearance of this character type in a Scorsese film, but the particulars of the character’s viewpoints and outlook on society became much more solidified in Scorsese’s next collaboration with De Niro: Taxi Driver. The film centers around Travis Bickle (De Niro) a lonely, depressed, and paranoid outsider who drives the streets of New York while carrying on a seething inner monologue about the corruption and moral degradation of the city. His insecurities manifest in letters he writes to his parents, in which he fabricates a life as a successful, well-adjusted government employee, and in his aborted romance with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a campaign volunteer. As the film continues, Bickle devolves into paranoia, becoming obsessed with cleaning up the streets of New York and ending corruption, even going so far as to buy a variety of guns to prepare for his ascension to vigilante status. Travis has no friends, and no companionship save for his occasional conversations with fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle), and his ostracism deepens his descent into madness as the film continues.



In New York, New York, Scorsese’s musical homage to classic Hollywood and the big band era in New York, Jimmy Doyle’s (Robert De Niro) insecurity and paranoia alienate him from his wife and lead singer Francine (Liza Minelli). Doyle excels musically, both as a saxophone player and as a band leader, but is crippled in his personal life by his inability to handle his relationship with Francine and the pressures of society to live a traditionally domestic life. While he has a charming persona, it only serves to hide his manic insecurity and final weakness. He constantly attempts to control the fiercely independent Francine, but she resists. Francine is empowered and self assured enough to succeed in life and love, yet Jimmy resorts to violence and eventually abandons his wife and child simply because he lacks the strength to be a standard father.

The trope of paranoid, insecure men continues through what may be Scorsese’s best film, Raging Bull as Jake La Motta (De Niro, yet again) also abandons his first wife for Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a younger woman whom he can more easily control. As he attains boxing success, Jake continues to fear that Vickie is cheating on him, keeping her in line first by beating potential suitors, and eventually resorting to physically intimidating her. His violence and paranoia lead to estrangement from his brother (Joe Pesci), his wife, and his kids before he attains a modicum of redemption by the film’s end.



De Niro continues to embody Scorsese’s take on the dangerous side of masculinity in The King of Comedy, where he plays the nebbish Rupert Pupkin, a failed stand-up comic who delusionally dreams of making it big by getting a spot on the late night show hosted by Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Much like Travis Bickle, Rupert fails in his attempts to woo a woman, and is driven by desperation to criminal acts in order to feel he has self worth, but more importantly, as a means of forcing others to accept that worth. Like most other Scorsese men, Rupert judges his own worth only through the way he is viewed by others, and as a show man, his success is entirely tied up in the opinions of his audience.

Even when he tackles subject matter far outside his general comfort zone, Scorsese’s view of masculinity pervades his films. In The Last Temptation of Christ, he portrays Jesus (Willem Defoe) as a man tortured as his personal demons struggle to shout down his better angels. Never sure whether he is truly the son of God or just insane, Jesus is always paranoid about both whether he is doing right, and whether his morals are derived from a higher power or a source of endless evil. As he tries to spread his message, he is totally ostracized by society and forced to the fringes in spite of his deep seated desire to be a normal, productive member of society with a family.



Scorsese’s portrayal of Jesus further conforms to his notions of masculinity when Jesus attempts to flee the hopelessness of his harsh reality by falling prey to the temptation of a life that more closely matches his ideal. Jesus imagines for himself a life in which he is able to live as a normal man, marry, raise children, and live a full life. Similarly, at the end of Taxi Driver, as he is confronted with his own fate, Travis Bickle imagines that he is hailed as a hero for his actions and gains the respect and appreciation he has always desired. Even Rupert Pupkin allows fantasy to soften the blows dealt to him by repeated failures in The King of Comedy when he fantasizes about the stardom he attains because of his desperate acts.

The Age of Innocence is likewise out of Scorsese’s comfort zone (being a costume drama set in New York’s high society in the 1870’s), yet the film still examines a man who longs for nothing more than to fit into a society he constantly feels ostracizes him. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a free-thinking feminist who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the society to which he belongs as he is forced to choose between entering into a passionless marriage with May (Winona Ryder) and becoming involved with her social outcast of a cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer). More than anything else, including true love, Newland wants to be accepted by his society, and is willing to sacrifice his personal happiness to achieve that goal.

Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas features three more examples of deeply flawed men. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) rejects a more socially accepted life in favor of a life of crime, but also finds himself dragged into paranoia as he begins using cocaine and suspects his friends may not be as loyal as he once thought. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, who won Best Supporting Actor for his performance) are classic “Scorsese Men” eschewing their insecurities by resorting to acts of extreme violence and allowing their paranoia and arrogance to lead to their eventual downfalls.



Casino follows a similar path as it traces Ace (Robert DeNiro) through his reign over the titular gambling house in Las Vegas, and explores how his relationships lead to his downfall. Unlike most of Scorsese’s protagonists, Ace is not at all paranoid, and is in fact almost fatally secure in the love of his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) and the loyalty of his best friend Nicky (Joe Pesci). Yet he is still ostracized from society by his criminal past and his association with the sociopathic Nicky. All Ace really wants is to become licensed to operate his casino so that he can be a legitimate businessman, yet he is denied his license because of his past and is therefore forced to operate outside of the law to keep his dream alive. Nicky makes up for Ace’s lack of insecurity in spades, forcing others to recognize him with brutal acts of violence and garish behavior aimed solely at garnering the respect of those around him through fear if other means elude him.



The trend continues into the new century and into Scorsese’s pairings with Leonardo Di Caprio. In The Aviator, Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) amasses great riches and attains nearly every goal he aspires to, but he is personally plagued by his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and by a nagging insecurity that destroys his personal relationships with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). His paranoia also threatens to destroy his success as he doubts the fidelity of his lovers, the loyalty of his workers, and the security of his home and his professional secrets. Hughes is also viewed as a social outsider, seen as incredibly eccentric by most and protected from criticism by those close to him.



In The Departed, seemingly every male character fits into this type. The film follows two undercover operatives, one working for the police and one for a criminal syndicate. The secretive nature of the work every character is involved in leads to a high level of paranoia, especially in the undercover operatives Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), but also in their superiors, especially Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The characters are all so dedicated to their work that many of them actually abandon their places in society, delving into fabricated lives and thus existing outside of social norms.

Scorsese’s newest film, Shutter Island, is one of the more transparent examples of his views of masculinity. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshall investigating the disappearance of a patient from an isolated mental institution. Daniels has a dark past, and is forced deeper and deeper into paranoia as he begins to question his own sanity. His insecure mental state further alienates him from the doctors and forces him to question his role in society and his role in his own life.



Many things tie Scorsese’s films together technically and thematically, but central to his work is his recurring examinations of the male psyche. I have focused on an extremely narrow portion of this, for better or worse, but rest assured that there is enough to write another full column on how his protagonists treat the women in their lives, or the role that religion plays for his main characters. Knowing about Scorsese’s recurrent characterizations can deepen the appreciation of any one of his individual works, and can lead to a better understanding of his goals as a film maker. One thing is certain though: while he does not control his films by writing the screenplays personally, Martin Scorsese exercises a level of mastery over his works that establishes him definitively as an auteur.

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

6/6: Terry Gilliam

6/20: David Mamet

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson

7/18: Fritz Lang

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