Essential DVDs: Mean Streets (1973); Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980); King of Comedy (1983), After Hours (1985), Goodfellas (1990), Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Kundun (1997), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Oscars: Best Director and Best Picture (The Departed)
In His Own Words: “I think when you’re young and have that first burst of energy and make five or six pictures in a row that tell the stories of all the things in life you want to say, maybe those are the films that should have won me the Oscar.”
When the Academy convenes in a year a Martin Scorsese film is in contention, the phrase “America’s greatest living director” seems to magnetically attach itself to sentences containing the director’s name. It’s rather odd, then, that Scorsese has never won an Oscar. His collaborators —editors, actors, actresses, cinematographers, production designers —have reaped awards in their droves. But not little Marty.
It seems inconceivable, a travesty. After all, this is the man who detonated Travis Bickle upon New York’s unsuspecting underbelly in Taxi Driver. The man who unflinchingly traced the self-destructive descent of Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta. The man who with Goodfellas seduced a generation with the glamour of life as a gangster, before gleefully rubbing their noses in its repugnant, violent flipside. But then that’s the problem with Scorsese –at his best it feels like he’s almost too raw, too honest, too dark for the mainstream to let him into its comfortable bed.
It’s the nature of his material: abrasive and challenging. He refuses to flinch from the ugliness of the lives he portrays; typically those of alienated and morally compromised characters stumbling through modern life, grasping at some elusive metaphysical salvation. Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle, a pressure-cooker of frustration, disgusted with both New York’s festering nightlife and his crippling inability to communicate finds salvation in violence. Jake La Motta, the boxer forced to compromise his integrity who viciously avenges his lack of self-esteem on his wife and family. Henry Hill, the Bronx kid seduced by the exhilaration of being a gangster, only to taste a cocaine-charged cocktail of paranoia and brutality. Three of Scorsese’s most resonant central characters, all rooted in New York. Which is no coincidence.
The son of Sicilian immigrants, Scorsese was raised in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and arguably his best work all derives from this teeming milieu. As he saw it, the two career options in the “spaghetto” were those twin pillars of Sicilian life: organised religion and organised crime. You either worshipped God or the godfathers, and the pull between these two opposite poles, each with its own system of beliefs, ethics and punishments, plays out through Scorsese’s films. Even his earliest works are replete with religious themes and iconography, as if in atonement for his own lapsed Catholicism (Scorsese had originally studied to become a priest). Boxcar Bertha sees a criminal crucified to a train carriage. Mean Streets finds Harvey Keitel’s Charlie wrestling with the conflicting demands of his mob bosses and his Catholic conscience. The logical culmination was The Last Temptation Of Christ, whose portrayal of Jesus (not to mention a fallen Mary) brought ecclesiastical brickbats.
In stark counterpoint to such spiritual explorations is the violence that pervades much of Scorsese’s work. Ugly, unflinching, flirting with the gratuitous: Scorsese can’t seem to make up his mind if he is repulsed or titillated, as often can’t we, his audience. While the climactic carnage in Taxi Driver serves a cathartic purpose, and the sickening homicides of Goodfellas reprimand the audience for buying into gangsterism’s glamour, Casino’s crescendo of ultra-graphic brutality seems less justifiable. Again, not the stuff of Oscar success.
Even at his most brutal, however, Scorsese’s vision is breathtakingly cinematic. Never more so than when set loose among New York’s steaming sidewalks and skyscraping edifices. In the same way Michael Mann has captured the definitive on-screen aesthetic for Los Angeles, Scorsese has defined his home city. He catalogues life under the toenails of the Big Apple’s tower blocks with the same mixture of fascination and repulsion found in so many of his characters. His daubing of colour among night time cityscapes – the neon-lit processions of human detritus in Taxi Driver and Bringing Out The Dead; the drab, alienating décor of After Hours; even the sweltering, tawdry glow of Casino’s Las Vegas horizon of advertising hoardings — impeccably generates mood and atmosphere.
Never one to milk a trick or a flourish for its own sake, Scorsese is the consummate director. When necessary, his camerawork takes a back seat, remaining muted and distant, as in the sinister, absurd King Of Comedy. Elsewhere, virtuoso steady-cam shots come laden with meaning: we too feel the excitement that electrifies Karen (Lorraine Bracco) in Goodfellas as she is lead through the exclusive back entrance into the mobsters’ night club inner sanctum, traversing kitchens, tables full of respectful wiseguys and finally to stage-front where a comedian is in full flow. The scene then cuts to Henry (Ray Liotta) completing a robbery, accompanied by the stand-up’s pat one-liners. The amoral elation of the successful life of crime is conveyed with immense concision and ease.
Such eloquent inter-cutting speaks volumes of Scorsese’s long term collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Working on every Scorsese film since Raging Bull (for which she won an Oscar), her contribution gives the director’s arsenal of steady-cam work, tracking shots and framing its proper deployment. The combination of their skills creates films that exhilarate on every level: visually, intellectually, emotionally, even aurally (it wasn’t Tarantino who trailblazed rock music scores). Her collaborative contribution is only matched by Scorsese’s on-screen avatar Robert De Niro (who plays leading roles in eight of Scorsese’s finest films) and Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ and Bringing Out The Dead.
Following the early 80s, and the Heaven’s Gate-spurred clamp-down on big budget director-led projects, Scorsese veered between small scale independent (the underrated After Hours) and crowd pleasing studio picture (Colour of Money, Cape Fear). Flying the New York coop, films such as Kundun and Age Of Innocence have spanned continents, centuries and genres, to varying degrees of success.
Most recently, his scope — and budgets — have widened further. The Best Director nomination he received for the long anticipated, flawed, though magnificent, Gangs Of New York only highlighted the keenness among the Academy to atone for earlier omissions. But seeing as even his return to form with The Aviator —despite its Academy-pleasing focus on Hollywood heritage —fell short of that elusive gong, the sight of little, hyper-sensitive Marty, brow furrowed, shrinking into his chair at yet another rejection, could be a fixture for a few years to come.