Obsession: Martin Scorsese (Part I)

To get to the essence of why I absolutely love Martin Scorsese, it takes both copious amounts of, and also absolutely no time. In short, he's the most accomplished, most fantastic, and, simply, the best living American filmmaker; the last great bastion from the group known as the "Movie Brats." All of this is, I think, public record, though, and as such it definitely serves as the shallow version of my affection toward Marty - something I toss off to those less familiar with his work as a means of not sounding like the enormous geek that I truly am. "Who?" they ask, and I rattle off that he was the director of GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and THE DEPARTED. "Oh, I like those movies," they say, and sometimes, "TAXI DRIVER was weird," or "I didn't like the ending for THE DEPARTED." All of this, of course, drives me absolutely insane. This is because I want people to love Marty as much as I do. So that's why I'm going to attempt to give you the long version, going on and on through a few of my favorite films of his, and, hopefully, we'll get to the bottom of my borderline psychosis. But, likely not.

I guess the first time I remember seeing a film and noticing the name Martin Scorsese was CASINO. I'd heard the name, knew what he looked like, and even had seen a lot of his movies sitting on video rental shelves, but had never sat down to watch a film of his. I was blown away by the film's style, it's grandiose vision, and it's seriously dark streak of humor. When I later found myself watching more Scorsese, and realized that CASINO was nowhere near his best movie, I was in awe. From that point on, I had to see anything involving Scorsese I could get my hands on, and I now find it safe to say that Scorsese has never made a bad film. Not one. Sure, some may be more successful than others, but anytime a film comes out directed by Martin Scorsese, it's sure to be better and more interesting than anything else coming out in theaters.

From CASINO I moved backward, to TAXI DRIVER, GOODFELLAS, CAPE FEAR, and RAGING BULL. More on these, later. To fully grasp Scorsese, and why I find him a fascinating, in-your-face filmmaker, we need to start at the beginning, with MEAN STREETS.

MEAN STREETS is a film that's influenced very heavily by Scorsese's real-life experiences, and its style is a take-off of John Cassavettes' independent work, particularly in SHADOWS, but it flourishes and grows, right before your eyes, into its own beast. The effect of watching MEAN STREETS is that of visceral shock, and I can only imagine how amazingly progressive it was style-wise when it was released in the early 70s.

One of the things that has always struck me about this movie is its outstanding use of spatial relations in the bar fight sequence, when a camera is being hurdled head-first into the battle after the characters. This simple movement results in an in-your-face fight that seems much more realistic than fights in movies normally do. And its effectiveness in conveying the gritty quality of the story and the world of the film is without question. Of course, this is a quality that Scorsese would continue to develop throughout the next decade, in TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, eventually enveloping his Italian Neo-realism influence in a very expressionistic style reminiscent of classical Hollywood films noir. MEAN STREETS, though, was the start of it all, and every time I see Harvey Keitel’s head on a pillow I immediately think of “Be My Baby” and get filled with utter excitement for the events that lay ahead, especially the aforementioned bar fight, and the brilliance of Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy.

As noted by Roger Ebert, the movie is not about gangsters, but about living in a state of sexual sin. This is, of course, one of the overriding themes of every narrative film Scorsese has ever made post-MEAN STREETS. Most of the men Scorsese makes films about, whether villains or anti-heroes, or even moral compasses like Christ himself, share the weakness of sexual desire, and are punished or ruined in some way by it (with the possible exception of Christ, but more on that later). Of course, occasionally there is redemption, or the consequences are not so severe as utter ruin. Sometimes, as is the case, I would argue, with THE DEPARTED, or THE AVIATOR, or even GANGS OF NEW YORK, any destruction of life is caused by greed or ambition (this is also the case in other Scorsese films, or, all of them, depending on your view).

I think what really sold me on Scorsese is the fact that all of his films can be read in so many ways, and with a consistency that is perhaps only paralleled by those of Kurosawa, Renoir, or Fellini, meaning that each film stands on its own as a variety of statements on a variety of things and ideas, but that these ideas are so important to the filmmaker they show up across the board, almost uniformly, in every film he ever makes. And while emphases may be placed on different points, the similarities of Scorsese's work cannot be denied, whether it is the destructive personalities, the sensuality associated with religion (and sin), or the quest for redemption. Each film is unabashedly a Martin Scorsese picture. MEAN STREETS, the first "Martin Scorsese Picture", leaves his previous work behind (BOXCAR BERTHA may share similarities in theme and style, but it lacks a distinctive touch) and runs with it into the abyss that many of Marty's surrogates eventually find themselves succumbing to.

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