To me back then, this, not Tamla Motown, was the Sound of Young America — loud, baffling, exotic, cool, wild. It comes from the same place as Kramer in Seinfeld, and Surfin' Bird, and Papa-Oom-Mow-Wow, and James Brown being wrapped in a cape and being led off stage before bounding back to the microphone, and Muhammad Ali's boasts, and the insane celebrations when a contestant won a lawn mower on The Price is Right.To which I would add the sight of Rupert Pupkin applauding himself in The King of Comedy, and the guys arguing over a what "mook" means in Mean Streets, and the kid's slapstick routines with his mother in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Jodie Foster's pink-and-green sunglasses in Taxi Driver and Joe Pesci asking if he is funny twenty times over in Goodfellas*. Scorsese is a great reminder that no matter how sophisticated or literary a director can be, they are also, at root, sensational creatures — in his case quite literally so. After watching his movies you want to do anything — get drunk, dance, fire a gun, something, anything other than merely sit there, watching the TV, as I was last night. Maybe if I put my foot up against the screen and rocked it, like Travis Bickle, before pushing the whole thing over, I might get something like the right affect. I did no such thing, of course. That TV wasn't cheap. Instead I got up and paced around, explaining to my wife in a highly agitated manner why I was ready to concede that Scorsese might be — just might be — a genius, if that word is to be worth something after all. And then I sat down again and watched the rest of the telecast.
* Last year Intelligent Life asked me to provide an overview of Scorsese's films; this is what I said, more or less.
1. Mean Streets
Scorsese made several pictures about the mob, each more technically assured than the least, each with slightly less reason for existing. Shot for $300,000 in the summer of 1972, Mean Streets knows why it exists. It’s one of the great debuts in American cinema: boisterous, high-spirited, with a bouyancy that whisks it close to comedy, it's a cock-of-the-walk movie halfway between early Truffaut and a Ronettes song. Its got a spring in its step. Harvey Keitel’s fondness for his wastrel cousin, played by De Niro, is evident in every frame and De Niro has never been better: a long streak of nothing telling tall tales in a porkpie hat, he acts as if movemaking were a species of practical joke. He punks the movie. The scene in which they argue over the term ‘mook’ (“He called me a mook. What’s a mook?” “I dunno.” “You can’t call me a mook” etc) contains the seeds not just of Scorsese’s later career, but Tarantino’s, too.
2. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
In an alternative universe, this film would have been the harbinger of the great and varied career to come. Ellen Burstyn got Scorsese the gig; she felt that the script — about a mother and son traveling from Phoenix to Monteray in search of a better life —needed some salt and pepper. Again, it’s the rhythm of the movie that transfixes, with the backchat between Burstyn and her boy flying back and forth like Marx Brothers routines: nobody has caught the fond, fractious, flirtatious relationship between mothers and sons better. And this is Scorsese, remember. The men, meanwhile, prowl the periphery, huffing and puffing, occasionally blowing the door down, but it is Burstyn who holds firm for her Oscar. Here is one of the great facts about Scorsese, unnoticed even by him: he’s a terrific director of women.
3. Taxi Driver
For a while there, it all seemed to look so good. The beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shephard) is working as volunteer for a presidential nominee, alongside the cherubic Albert Brooks no less, when one day she is noticed by a taxi driver, a stringy looking fellow with a cheeky grin and curiously persistant manner. He is accompanied by a Bernard Hermann score that seems to swell with the size of his feelings for her. She says yes to a date. A saxophone soars. And.... they sit down to watch a porn movie featuring spermatazoa pulsing across the screen. I don't think craziness has ever been better presented on screen. Taxi Driver makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Surveying the carnage of the final scene, you may at first find yourself shocked but repeat viewings reveal a pall of inevitability: but of course this is where this was going. The plot has the lopsidedness of genuine delusion. It feels flush with Travis’s fever. De Niro is perfectly matte, like Oswald. Initially overawed by her co-star, Jodie Foster was taken out to breakfast by him, every day, until he bored her awe away.
4. Raging Bull
You know it’s the masterpiece because its in black-and-white and has Mascagni on the soundtrack, but its okay: you’re allowed not to like it. Raging Bull is not a very likeable film. “Jake fought like he didn't deserve to live” said Scorsese, recovering from hospitalization himself. It’s hard not to take the film as the smuggled psychobiography of an artist-addict hitting rock bottom. From the very first scene, in which De Niro asks Joe Pesci, his brother, to hit him square in the face, this movie is going one way — down. We hear tell of La Motta’s ascent but see never feel it. De Niro comes out of the gate with the relentlessness of a rapist — a “thug Othello” in Pauline Kael’s phrase — while the supporting cast win points for their defensive skills. Joe Pesci lets lose with some brilliant filth, while Cathy Moriarty, then 19, moves with the sublunary grace of a woman who knows how not to get hit.
5. After Hours
In 2000, Scorsese wrote a fan letter to Wes Anderson, praising the then 30-year old director for the delicacy, tenderness, and grace of his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Some found the act of patronage unlikely —a single snort from Jake La Motta’s nostrils, after all, would destroy Anderson over-fastidious world in an instant — but behind the glower of Scorsese’s reputation, a lighter, more puckish talent has always struggled to emerge; his sense of rhythm has always been an inch away from great comic timing. The King of Comedy was mere deconstruction, but After Hours is the real deal, a screwball misadventure about a yuppie (Griffin Dunne) on a fool’s errand through lower Manhattan after dark. It was Scorsese’s first film without De Niro in over a decade and the giddiness is palpable; Roseanna Arquette delivers a marvously nutty soliloquy about sex and The Wizard of Oz — as good a summary of the film’s concerns as can be imagined. Like Illeana Douglas and Vera Farmiga after her, Arquette has that bloom to her — brainy, vulnerable, a little loose — that always draws Scorsese in.
If Raging Bull was the purest expression of will — that sheer, bloody-minded, tyres-in-mud obstinacy that typifies an addict hitting bottom — the films that immediately followed — After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ — feel a little like creative rehab: a guy going easy on himself, trying to relax, recharge his batteries, before stepping back into the ring again with Goodfellas. It may be his best film, certainly the best treatment of his most persistent theme: ubi sunt, passing glory. Tellingly, De Niro was happy to sit on the sidelines, leaving centre stage to Ray Liotta, laughing like a hyena at the thuggery going on around him, this wife, a punchy Lorraine Bracco, and Joe Pesci whose ‘Do I Amuse you?” speech is a masterpiece of spiraling dread. This is full-tilt fimmaking, firing on all cylinders. The movie traces a perfect arc, before burning up with its own heat. Its like watching a metor self-immolate.
The camera cranes its neck to catch a single rocket hurtling through the air before ploughing into the wall of a small town in the Himalayan mountains, sending smoke and debris in every direction. It may be the most startling single act of violence in a Scorsese picture if only because of the picture in question: Scorsese’s film about the Dalai Lama. Many joked about his involvement, which came his way thanks to the screenwriter Melissa Mathisson, who also wrote the largely silent E.T. but who better to register peace than the director who has spent most of his career disturbing it? The movie has a hypnotic rhythm. It doesn’t tell a story so much as leaf through a series of episodes, many of the scenes lasting only 30 seconds or so, like someone riffling through the pages of a storybook. It sounds like a recipe for distraction, but it works: the movie casts a beautifully hushed spell. Watch it in the right mood and you will be gently wowed.
8. The Aviator
Think of one of Scorsese’s trademark shots: a fast tracking shot across a room towards an actor as he barks orders, or fires a gun, and you realize just how badly suited the director is to filming epics. Scorsese is an agarophobic, a street fighter. He likes things close and tight. Give him a long shot and he can’t wait to get wriggle out of it, which makes the series of epics that he made for Harvey Weinstein in the nineties all the more misbegotten. The Aviator stood a better chance than Gangs of New York: an epic about an agarophobic. The early scenes in Hollywood are dazzling, but as Di Caprio’s Howard Hughes descends into bug-eyed paranoia, he resolutely fails to take the audience with him. The fault was not just di Caprio’s — Scorsese himself seemed unable to summon the old Djins. The spirit is willing but the flesh tones are from memory.
9. The Departed
There is a pleasing irony to be had from the fact that Scorsese's Oscar finally came ot him, not courtesy of any of the tony epics with which he spent much of the 90s trying to wow the academdy, but for a real jackal of a picture about the mob, as low and snarling as anything he has made. That it is also not even his best mob picture is a second, unwanted irony that everybody did their best to ignore. It was the Irish mob this time, given gleeful voice by screenwriter William Monahan, with Leonardo di Caprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon caught up in a game of cat-and-mouse so cross-hatched with betrayal, that only the rat in the closing credits appears to know what’s going on. It’s a strange centreless movie, beset by tonal wobbles, and climaxing in a bout of blood-letting so Jacobean in its intensity as to teeter into black comedy.