Scorsese: A Life in Film

The famed director’s cinematic masterpieces pierce the big screen at the Filmmuseum; ambitious films meet scrutiny

“On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” A scene from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver | Photo: Columbia

In one film, a nameless man begins to shave. Suddenly blood trickles down his throat. The more he shaves the more blood trickles until his throat is covered in blood. In another, we see the interior of a church and suddenly hear rock music. In yet another, petty gangsters play with guns to the sound of reggae. In yet another, we see a familiar face, Harvey Keitel, flicking playing cards in the direction of a naked prostitute in a desolate room to the throbbing sound of “The End” by The Doors.

These are four intense, highly expressive scenes, sculpting images of fear and faith, violence, and the fragility of human life: Each uses film to make a difference. In Martin Scorsese’s vocabulary “expressivity”, “intensity” and “making a difference” are central. His films have helped transform the landscape of American cinema and have inspired countless young filmmakers worldwide.

The Austrian Film Museum has chosen, once again, to honor this remarkable film-maker with a six-week retrospective of Scorsese’s entire filmography running through Oct. 5. There is good reason for doing so: Even after a long career, Scorsese remains extraordinarily prolific and has made, among others, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York and The Aviator since the last retrospective there in 1995.

Perhaps Martin Scorsese – like Francis Ford Coppola, with The Godfather, a soaring artistic and commercial success, or John Cassavetes, who with Faces created, almost single-handedly, an independent American cinema – tried to do the impossible: To create serious, artistically ambitious films within a culture that doesn’t tolerate them. That all three have achieved as much as they have is perhaps a minor miracle.

Scorsese’s gift lies in his ability to “interpret” an idea, transforming it from a word or a sketch on paper into a visual image on screen. Through skillful camerawork, says long time collaborator Mardik Martin, Scorsese is capable of turning what could potentially be a boring scene into something special.

The desire to “make a difference” is born, at least in part, from the importance of the Catholic Church in his life. Scorsese wanted to be a priest in his youth but dropped out of a seminary and transferred his idealism and his religious zeal to filmmaking. Instead of celebrating the supernatural he continues to celebrate life itself by communicating the religious intensity of experience. Where in a conventional film, for example, shots of a boxing match might switch between the ring and the audience, in Raging Bull (1980) Scorsese concentrated purely on the ring itself, focusing on details, such as the drip of blood on the ropes, that a lesser director might ignore.

“My whole life has been movies and religion,” Scorsese once said.

Born in 1942 and brought up in the American Sicilian neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side, Scorsese suffered from acute asthma from an early age. So instead of playing with other children, his family took him to the movies, filling his mind with images that still inspire him, in often surprising ways.

Thus the light reflecting off a revolver in a Fifties western finds its way into a gleam on a pistol in Taxi Driver.

One of the keys to Scorsese’s career was his Who’s That Knocking at My Door, an impressionistic film made between 1964 and 1969 about boredom and what he described as “the sense of no direction” on New York’s Lower East Side, where Scorsese was brought up. The absence of a conventional narrative structure has as much to do with the circumstances in which it was made as with Scorsese’s desire to create a dreamlike state or the influence of Federico Fellini’s 8 1⁄2 or Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), the post war movement of the French avant-garde.

The film was created essentially in three stages. The first stage, filmed largely with a 35mm Mitchell BNC, focused on the lives of characters Scorsese knew from his Sicilian American neighborhood, and was basically a student production.

The second stage: the story of the “cultural conflict” between Harvey Keitel and the girl from “outside the neighborhood,” played by Zina Bethune, was filmed largely with a 16mm Eclair NPR a couple of years later. And the final stage: the extraordinary dream/sex sequence to “The End” by The Doors, shot in Amsterdam in two days in May 1968, was created in order to get the film released.

After that, Scorsese went on to make the socially critical and highly political Boxcar Bertha, set in the Depression, co-directed and produced by “B-Movie master” Roger Corman, whose knack of spotting young talent brought Barbara Hershey and David Carradine to the set. After difficulties getting to make movies at all, Scorsese was tempted to make another film for Corman but was dissuaded by Cassavetes, who urged him to return to the pioneering style of Who’s That Knocking at My Door.

The result was 1973’s Mean Streets, which was set in the milieu Scorsese knew from his childhood, and revolved around the question of responsibility. This had been a topic of daily discussion in his childhood household, and the subject of countless reprimands by Scorsese’s father, particularly of his younger brother. That relationship is reproduced in the film by actors Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Made with very little money and in an incredibly short space of time, it is perhaps Scorsese’s best film.

Three years later, Scorsese went on to make Taxi Driver, with again both Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, which is also a masterpiece. Based on a script by Paul Schrader, produced by Michael and Julia Philipps and filmed by Michael Chapman, the film starred a young Cybil Shepherd and an even younger Jodie Foster, playing the role of a twelve-year-old prostitute, the quality of the film hanging on the ability of the producers to assemble an extremely able team at a relatively low cost.

Filmed as an expression of how those making it felt about New York, Taxi Driver was not expected to become a commercial success. However, the intensity of the screenplay, the expressiveness of the performances and the camerawork have turned it into a classic. It, together with Mean Streets and Who’s That Knocking at My Door have guaranteed Scorsese’s place in film history, and in this way at least, he has made a difference after all.


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