By David Nilsen
Few modern directors enjoy more reverential respect than Martin Scorcese. Across a five-decade career, he has managed to create films that span the worlds of the arthouse theater and the multiplex, many of which have entered the broader cultural canon as indelible images of twentieth century America. In a new book by film critic and professor Tom Shone, Martin Scorcese: A Retrospective (791.43 Shone), we are given the privilege of peering into the mind of this movie master and behind the camera on the set of his films.
Growing up asthmatic and a bit scrawny in the bizarre and dangerous world that was New York’s Little Italy in the middle of the twentieth century, Scorcese watched and walked among mobsters and “goodfellas” on a daily basis. He also spent much of his time in various movie theaters, soaking in matinees and idolizing screen heroes. His career options, as he saw them, were simple: the mob or the priesthood. He chose the latter, but his growing passion for film pushed him to attend NYU’s film school, where he made some well-received student films before making his first feature, Who’s that Knocking at My Door, in 1967.
Scorcese’s career has now spanned half a century and is still going strong. His films – sometimes small, sometimes epic – are often raw and visceral but at the same time bear the polish of the virtuoso director’s exacting technical skill. They are often brutally violent, but can also be funny and tender, and cut deeply to expose the inner motivations of their characters.
If the body of Scorcese’s work could be boiled down to a single theme, it would have to be guilt. Throughout his most personal (and acclaimed) films, he explores the ways in which his characters deal with guilt, with penance; with the alternating insistence and impotence of their own consciences. Scorcese grew up staunchly Catholic, and the teachings of the Church were stamped onto his psyche and have continued to influence his writing and direction throughout his career. In films like Who’s that Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), one gets the impression the filmmaker is wrestling with a demon, sweating out his own religious angst with fear and trembling. In films like Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006), and Wolf of Wall Street (2013), he looks into what happens when the conscience is abandoned altogether. The characters in these latter films seem to be mirror opposites of this struggle – one wonders what they would be like if they ever felt guilt.
In Martin Scorcese: A Retrospective, Tom Shone shows us Martin Scorcese like we’ve never gotten to see him before. Filled with behind-the-scenes set photographs, interviews, little known facts (did you know that Warner Bros. wanted Tom Cruise and Madonna for the leads in Goodfellas, or that Scorcese almost directed Schindler’s List?), and Shone’s own insights, this book is a must-read for any Scorcese fan, and any serious student of American film. The book contains numerous anecdotes from the planning stages of these films and from the actual productions; these were fascinating to me as a film lover. For example: For Goodfellas, a film about the Italian mob, Scorcese and his creative crew wanted to use extras who had actual mob connections. They held an audition and listened as the men who showed up told outlandish stories to impress them. Several were hired and put on the Warner Bros. payroll, but gave fictitious social security numbers, and no one has any idea where that money ended up. During filming, only Robert De Niro was given real cash to handle; everyone else had counterfeit cash. Naturally, they caught one of the mob extras trying to pass it at legal tender at one point. Unsavory figures would show up on set and “encourage” the crew to make sure certain people got seen on camera.
Shone’s reflections on Scorcese and his films are expressed with surprisingly lovely prose and demonstrate not only a great appreciation for the director’s work but an intimate understanding of what makes him tick, of the rhythm that beats beneath the surface of his films. In the chapter covering Goodfellas, he has this to say:
“It marks Scorcese’s most ebullient performance as director, with editing, camerawork, and sound all working at full tilt to create a great, rolling, runaway ribbon of celluloid – cinema as guitar riff – that surges, chugs, and kicks like a Keith Richards guitar lick. ‘The moviemaking has such bravura you respond as if you were at a live performance,’ said Pauline Kael. ‘All you want to talk about is the glorious zigging camera, the freeze-frames and jump cuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Scorcese’s work: They don’t just respond to his films, they want to be him.’
Up to a point. That Steadicam shot through the Copacabana is a show-off piece of filmmaking, but it works because Henry himself is showing off in order to seduce Karen – so Scorcese seduces the audience, too. His exuberance is born of the vitality of his hoodlum antiheroes, who even as they dish out death are themselves full of life – vibrant, awful, vulgar life, with their wide suits and hot cars, their lacquered women and their terrible taste in home furnishings.” (page 149)
Scorcese has recently stated that he isn’t sure how many movies he has left to make. At 72 years old, he has expressed that time is his biggest consideration when looking at new projects. “I have the desire to make many films, but as of now, I’m seventy-one and there’s only a couple more left if I get to make them,” he told Shone in 2013 (page 274). “I miss the time when I had the desire to experiment and try different kinds of of films, I miss that time, but that’s done, it’s over.” The director’s devotees might hope he has more than a couple left, but it’s true that the vast majority of his career is behind him. He is currently directing Silence, due out in 2016, a passion project about two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in the seventeenth century to spread the gospel of Christianity and face violence and persecution. His biopic of Frank Sinatra is lined up after that. Time will tell if more films are on the horizon.
Shone’s book includes an exhaustive filmography for Martin Scorcese in his varied on set roles in the back and serves as a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to dive into the great filmmaker’s catalog. The book is oversized, allowing the gorgeous film stills, set photos, and candid shots to pop off the page.
The book concludes with a letter Scorcese wrote to his daughter, Francesa, in the Italian magazine L’Espresso in January 2014. In the letter confesses his fears for the future of filmmaking, for the dominance of the dollar and the way studios are becoming less willing to experiment and take risks. He hopes for a better cinematic world for his daughter and admonishes her to follow her own inner light in anything she pursues. Scorcese has done that in his career – he has worked with studios and been forced to make compromises, but he has ultimately done what he has wanted to do. He has made the movies he has wanted to make, even when they haven’t been as readily received as others. He has his faults as a director – faults Tom Shone is honest about in his book – but the faults are his, and so are the triumphs. Check out Martin Scorcese: A Retrospective today and get into the mind of one of our greatest living directors.
Martin Scorcese: A Retrospective is available now at Greenville Public Library.