Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Martin Scorsese: 'Headlong Momentum of a Consummate Story-teller'

If works of Martin Scorsese were not so absorbingly effective, one would have tempted to call him a ‘show off’. He simply loves to ravel in style and wears his love for his craft on sleeves. Good thing is that his showmanship comes from his excellent command over the language of cinema and mastery over various ingredients that go into making a truly great movie. What makes this good thing work is his ability to deploy his skills to realize his vision. In him we see a happy synthesis of a “consummate story teller and a visual stylist.”   With his extraordinary skills in both style and substance he chose a role of outsider and stuck to deploy his skills to realistic portrayal of gritty urban landscape. His saga is replete with defining motifs of celluloid lore of past almost four decades. His two defining sensibilities- catholic religious themes (he trained to be a priest) and fascination with gangsters (he grew up in little Italy area of New York), were leveraged to deal with fluent portrayal of reality of American life in particular and, more importantly, life in general. He chooses his themes and builds his story like a clockwork which is absorbing in its effortless complexity and flawless execution. Themes like the love for technology or wonderment created by curiosity (Hugo), corruption by power and greed, betrayal (all his gangster movies), joy of talent and music (his documentaries of Rolling stones and Bob Dylan), catholic sin (Mean Street) and aloneness (Taxi Driver) get fleshed out with powerful performances, made to order editing and camera movements that capture the spirit of the story. He uses his camera like a pen and impels viewer to ‘read’ his scenes.  He is capable of creating a point of view shot without using PoV shot. A perfect marriage of craft and emotions.


This visual calisthenics is not jarring as it works on the inherent grammar of his stories.  Scorsese has complete tonal control over what is appearing on screen. He maintains that control with a surefootedness which is an innate quality with Scorsese. He has honed his technological virtuosity to amazing sophistication. However, this sophistication has always been subservient to his greatest gift- the gift of storytelling. He has a knack of grasping the central theme of the story and portraying  that with gritty realism and a lyrical control over the flow of the story. Another thing that makes a Scorsese movie so captivating is his enthusiasm for his subject.  As Late Roger Ebert said in his review of ‘Goodfellas’ ‘the film has the headlong momentum of a storyteller who knows he has a good one to share.” Scorsese is able to convey that enthusiasm   to the audience and makes them an accomplice in his story telling. 
Martin Scorsese was born on November 17, 1942, in Flushing, NY to Charles and Catherine Scorsese who later often made cameo appearances in Scorsese films. As a child he suffered from severe asthma. His condition restricted his outdoor activities and helped him develop a relatively solitary passion in movies. Given the devout catholic atmosphere at home he studied to become a priest. Eventually he found a stronger calling in films and enrolled in film school at New York University. His student efforts, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (9 Minutes), It's Not Just You, Murray! (15 Minutes) were noted favourably. After another short film- The Big Shave (1967) he completed his first feature Who's That Knocking at My Door? in 1969. He formed two key partnerships in the movie one with actor Harvey Keitel and other with Editor Thelma Schoonmaker who has played a defining role in affirmation of Scorsese’s visual style. For next three year he taught films at New York University, worked on documentaries, shifted to Hollywood, directed Boxcar Bartha. He came back to New York and made his first great movie Mean Street in 1973. New York Times says “ Mean Streets established many of the thematic stylistic hallmarks of the Scorsese oeuvre: his use of outsider antiheroes, unusual camera and editing techniques, dueling obsessions with religion and gangster life, and the evocative use of popular music. It was this film that launched him to the forefront of a new generation of American cinematic talent. The film also established Scorsese's relationship with actor Robert De Niro, who quickly emerged as the central onscreen figure throughout the majority of his work.” 

His Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, brought Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Oscar in 1974 and  a Best Supporting Actress nomination for co-star Diane Ladd. His gifts were reaching their fruition and found a resounding manifestation in one of the all time great movies of cinema history ‘Taxi Driver’. Paul Schrader’s screenplay found that rare coming together of all the elements to create perfect harmony. Harmony is a curious word to use for the gorgeous chaos that was ‘Taxi Driver’. The movie is a veritable study in how to depict links between individual and societal pathology. Scorsese hit on the language that can be used on celluloid to portray mental decline, corrosive impact of loneliness in a society relentlessly pouring excuses for violence for emotionally challenged. De Niro rose up to the task with gritty determination. Music, cinematography, performances, editing and direction created a wonderfully weird tapestry that made every quixotic turn natural and even hitting a receptive chord in audience. Travis Bickle’s (De Niro’s cabbie driver character) complete alienation with humanity and his awkward attempts to have normal contact with fellow humans had outlandish turns (remember when he took his date to a porn theatre in all his earnestness or the conversation with the presidential candidate in the car that progressed from flattery to alarm or his interactions with  the child prostitute) led to deepening of story and audience felt engrossed in the splendid unfolding of a complex story. For the audience every jarring incident is a comforting marker in the journey of the story. That inherent order in the chaos is what made Taxi Driver the movie that it is. 

He remained prolific in coming days, though with relatively moderate success. New York, New York, a musical starring De Niro and Liza Minnelli was not received very well. He succeeded with his documentaries. His documentary of the farewell performance of the Band, shot on Thanksgiving Day of 1976 and star-studded The Last Waltz in 1978 were appreciated by the target audience. Filmed in black and white Raging Bull is regarded as his most ambitious movie and is ranked among his greatest. De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar, while newcomer Cathy Moriarty won a Best Actress nomination and Thelma Schoonmaker won an Academy Award for editing.  De Niro-Scorsese team gave a middling satire in 1983 The King of Comedy. He directed After Hours when his dream of directing The Last Temptation of Christ fell through due to pulling of plug by the studio. After hours, though lesser known of his movies, has been called an exercise in “pure filmmaking; … a nearly flawless example of -- itself.”  The Color of Money, got him more commercial success and Oscars for his stars Paul Newman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

He started 1990s with a masterly Goodfellas.  The film epitomized his grasp over gangster genre. He is a master of simmering violence that works as a lubricant for the story. Age of innocence and Kundan  were worthy exercise in different styles. He ended the Millennium with ‘return to the gritty urban reality’ in Bringing out Dead with Nicolas Cage. 

In the new century, Scorsese attained what every artists dreams of- a great late style. He is making great movies at will. Starting with Gangs of New York a larger than life violent period drama he went to biopic like Aviator, documentary on Dylan and Stones. 

 2006 brought best Director Oscar to him for The Departed, an adaptation of Infernal Affairs. To quote Ebert again “What makes this a Scorsese film, and not merely a retread, is the director's use of actors, locations and energy, and its buried theme. I am fond of saying that a movie is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about it. That's always true of a Scorsese film.” He has continued making quality movies. If Shutter Island stopped at very good,  Hugo came out to be great. A very far cry from violent gangster movies, Hugo showed Scorsese, almost 70 at that time in full command of his gifts and weaving a celluloid poetry, leveraging his awesome technical skills for a fluid storytelling experience. A tribute to wondrous world of movies. One only hopes that he maintains that ‘headlong momentum’ of a consummate storyteller. 

-Dhiraj Singh

1 comment:

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