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[Article] – Alternative Scorsese Masterpieces

 

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Posted November 20, 2017 by

 
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This month not only sees Martin Scorsese turn 75, it also marks 50 years since his feature film debut with Who’s That Knocking At My Door, five decades that have produced an incredible legacy, with three films on the AFI top 100 list (Raging Bull at number 4) and an unbelievable 81 – EIGHTY-ONE – Oscar nominations for his works, including eight nominations for best director. Many of Scorsese’s titles are regarded as masterpieces, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and Casino have already taken on iconic status, and more recent entries like The Aviator, Hugo and The Wolf Of Wall Street will be sure to join them, but amongst so many great works, others can get passed over, what other Scorsese films deserve the same kind of reverence.

The King Of Comedy

Released in 1983, The King Of Comedy was a scabrous, disturbing portrait of the seduction of the late night talk shows and the lust for fame, but was a flop upon its arrival, it was a film – like Billy Wilder’s Ace In The Hole – that was too ahead of its time. It is only in recent years that the films message has become painfully relatable with the advent of reality television and social media, where anybody can become famous and everybody wants their fifteen minutes, though back in ’83 perhaps audiences didn’t want to or weren’t ready to digest the films message about the destructive nature in the pursuit of stardom. Robert De Niro stars as wannabe comedian / talk show host Rupert Pupkin (not pumpkin) whose pursuit of Jerry Langford and trying to get on his show (Jerry Lewis) becomes more and more inappropriate, growing from frequenting his office to (polite) home invasion to eventual kidnap, if it isn’t clear from that plot outline, the role is full of darkly comic opportunities.

De Niro may be better known for his other, more dramatic, transformative Scorsese roles – Raging Bull, Taxi Driver – but The King Of Comedy provides a real showcase for his comic ability, often overshadowed by the intense, focused performances he is more associated with, and is in fact Scorsese’s favourite performance by De Niro in any of his films. That is certainly high praise given their celebrated legacy together, but its hard to deny Scorsese’s claim, De Niro is awfully brilliant as Pupkin, who is a truly strange creation, a thirty-something, moustachioed, baby-blue suit wearing, socially inept man who still lives at home with his (unseen) mother. His mannerisms and dialogue often go beyond awkward, where you can do nothing else but laugh, his whole existence and relation to the rest of humanity seems to be a constant source of discomfort, Pupkin was years ahead of characters like David Brent, who popularised that kind of awfully awkward comedy, another element of the film that was too ahead of its time.

Through Pupkin’s ordeals the films message becomes clear, he may be a unusual person, but he is a product of society, like Travis Bickle, driven to extreme measures (though not quite so extreme) in to try and prove his worth and gain any kind of acceptance. Scorsese paints a society where you are either famous or invisible, Pupkin’s pursuit of fame sees him constantly shut out – him being asked to leave is a recurring motif – and the final irony is that his stand up routine isn’t bad, not great, but perfectly serviceable, a reality where Pupkin could make a living as a comedian isn’t inconceivable, but his constant rejection means he destroys his career before it can even begin (or does it… a very Taxi Driver like ending questions otherwise.) The kind of scathing black comedy that Scorsese unleashed may be commonplace nowadays, but provided a portrait that was far too uncomfortable for its time, fortunately time has been kind, or perhaps unkind, as the fame chasing, self obsessed society has seen The King Of Comedy become incredibly, and painfully prescient.

The Age Of Innocence

Scorsese often gets pigeonholed for making gangster films, not in the case of The Age Of Innocence, which saw him turn his hand to the costume drama, a genre that can often be described as ‘stuffy,’ but great directors transcend genre and despite its period trappings there is plenty of Scorsese familiarity under the surface. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Edith Wharton – suggested to Scorsese by co-writer Jay Cocks – you would think a story about 19th century socialites would have little to interest the directors whose films had become famous for their brash and audacious expressiveness, and that on the whole had been contemporary, but The Age Of Innocence had clear Scorsese themes throughout. First – and most obvious – it is another New York setting, eleven of Scorsese’s films have been set in or featured the city, a city of which he has a symbiotic relationship with and an intrinsic understanding, he knows how it operates and how its society works, which is the second recurring theme – social commentary.

Set in the 1870’s, the story follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives in a repressed society, where one cannot express their true feelings and must maintain the façade of social convention, when he falls for the recently returned Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) he cannot act due to his current engagement; it would be the height of bad manners. Characters who are driven to extremes by societal oppression were highlighted in Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, though in those examples their relationship with society caused them to act, here the effect is the opposite, the society the Scorsese paints is perhaps even more hellish than the melting pot of Taxi Driver. The sheer level of oppression hid behind the formal niceties creates a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love, Archer and the Countess unable to express their true feelings, and eventually acquiescing to convention, unable to commit to destroying the family and image.

Such is the level of repression on show, with so little truth being said, Scorsese uses all of his technical prowess to delve under the surface, eschewing the usual visual confines of the genre. With frequent collaborator Michael Ballhaus, they employ a staggering array of cinematic tricks, double exposures, changing frame rates, ellipses, lighting effects, overlays and colour changes and fades, all the more impressive is that al this visual embellishment never overbalances the film, managing to undercut without being too explicit. But perhaps the most important storytelling device employed is the use of narrator (Joanne Woodward) another common Scorsese theme, though unlike his other films, say GoodFellas or Casino, the narrator is not one of the characters, rather an omniscient presence, serving the purpose of saying what the characters cannot. This voice provides a scathing, sardonic unpicking of the events on display, often offering a counterpoint to the action, allowing Scorsese to show the true venomous nature of society. The Age Of Innocence may not be as obviously iconoclastic as Taxi Driver, but tempered under the surface and showed Scorsese was capable of a more subtle, sinuous approach, which resulted in one of his most affecting films.

Bringing Out The Dead

Another New York film, and perhaps one of Scorsese’s most nightmarish representations of his geographical muse. Inspired by event of real-life paramedic Joe Connolly, the film follows Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) on three nights of graveyard shifts through a hallucinatory NYC, laced with a particularly black streak of gallows humour, with the title phrase – the medieval practice of bringing out any deceased persons to be collected – providing a macabre summarisation of events. Unsurprisingly, visualising hallucinatory experience of the film is where Scorsese excels, using his cinematic bravado of whip pans, manipulated up film speeds and a collection of elaborately grandiose camera movements to create some kind of lucid nightmare. Full credit must also go to cinematographer Robert Richardson (who won Oscars for The Aviator and Hugo) who compliments Scorsese’s camera with a mastery of light, employing what he terms as ‘psychological lighting’ where the light may not make any literal sense but serves as an extenuation of the characters emotional state.

Using a film developing process called silver retention or a bleach bypass (a favourite technique of Janusz Kaminski on films like A.I. and Minority Report) Richardson drains some of the warmer colours – apart from searing red – ups the contrast and brings out the whites, which seem to glow ethereally. This is used to great effect when Pierce is haunted by the ghosts of those he failed to save, who are top-lit with glowing halos, and often adds an unnatural intensity to scenes, where you can almost feel the heat given off by the light, such is its power. Not only showing mastery of the camera, Scorsese captures something that has become all too rare these days – a good Nicolas Cage performance – Cage is an undeniably talented actor, but can often go off the rails, especially when he doesn’t have a good director to corral him, Scorsese knows how to control him and exactly when to let him off the leash. As Pierce unravels and grows increasingly unstable as he suffers with burnout and the problems being surrounded by constant death bring, Scorsese keeps his exasperation believable without becoming unhinged, with Cage playing the quieter moments with just as much dedication as the few moments where his allowed to chew the scenery.

Scorsese films are no stranger to characters who are defined and shaped by their careers, with Bringing Out The Dead being no exception, but being a flop upon its release has seen it become forgotten amongst those others, it doesn’t even have a Blu-Ray release, strange for a director of Scorsese’s stature. Regardless the film shows Scorsese at his most precocious and delirious, highlighting his uncanny ability to visually express a characters inner turmoil, and while his films may often be remembered as being highly dramatic, they are also funny, really funny. It took until The Wolf Of Wall Street for mainstream recognition of Scorsese’s comedic talents, but he has always had a prowess for the darker styles of humour, which proves especially insightful here, observing that when faced with death day-in-day-out, eventually, all you can do is laugh.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Scorsese’s follow up to Mean Streets finds him in somewhat unfamiliar territory, somewhere that isn’t New York, but this doesn’t deter him, as he crafts a painfully honest portrait of life in southwest USA. The ‘Here’ in title, where Alice (Ellen Burstyn) doesn’t live anymore refers to Monterrey, California, her childhood home, presented in flashback in a golden-era Hollywood sheen – reminiscent of Gone With The Wind – to represent Alice’s rose-tinted youthful optimism. Though twenty-seven years later, her dreams of a singer have gone unfulfilled, and she lives a stay at home mother in Socorro, New Mexico with her deadbeat husband and er, unique son, But when her husband is suddenly killed in a traffic accident, she aims to travel back to Monterrey to reignite her shelved career.

Scorsese’s output may seem defiantly male-centric at times, but he has always been able to create three-dimensional, complex female characters, with Alice being the crowning achievement, earning Burstyn a well-deserved Oscar. Yet to develop that cinematic slickness, Scorsese employs a more ‘vérité approach, similar to Italianamerican, using handheld camera angles, less manipulative editing (unable to work with now established editor Thelma Schoonmaker as she was unable to get into the editors guild until Raging Bull) and allowing dialogue to follow a more improvised route, creating some particularly forthright observations. Alice’s daily struggles, as she tries to act defiant in the face of adversity, range from coping with domestic violence, to more light-hearted scenes where a quiet conversation turns into a water fight, and Scorsese’s more down-to-earth approach means that these varying tones never clash, the sharp injections of humour serving as remedy for the underlying disappointment and as a coping strategy for Alice.

But this is undeniably Burstyn’s film; Scorsese’s approach shows total confidence in her, she portrays a naturalism that is wholly believable and remains fiercely independent despite deep down knowing her dreams are unattainable. Praise must also go to Alfred Lutter, playing her son Tommy, who keeps up remarkably well with the freeform dialogue and never feels forced, or like he is just reading lines, their relationship throughout provides a constant source of hilarity and hardship. Scorsese’s iconic characters may be defined by the likes of De Niro and Pesci, but Burstyn’s performance deserves to be up there with the very best, and makes you wish that Scorsese would develop more female-lead projects, as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore proves he is adept at capturing them without artifice, or reducing them to caricatures.

Silence

Films with religious themes often struggle to find a wider audience; the questions they ask are often not ones audiences want to contemplate, when they would rather have entertainment. Silence’s stark and unflinching (but ultimately rewarding) examination of faith, coupled with a epic running time hardly drew in the crowds and despite good reviews, it garnered only a single Oscar nomination for best cinematography, like many now-great films, it may take time for Silence to attain such status. Scorsese’s catholic background has often influenced his work; most famously with the exploration of guilt in Mean Streets, and Silence represent his most challenging picture, so much so, it took over twenty-five years to bring to life.

Based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō, which Scorsese read whilst working on Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, the story follows two 17th century Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) who venture to Japan to find their old mentor (Liam Neeson) who has apostatised under shogun oppression, who torture Christians into renouncing their faith. Needless to say that what unfolds is hardly cheery fare, and finds Scorsese in more stoic form, restraining his camera and often employing subjective points of view, letting scenes play out in painful detail, unblinkered in their depiction. Keeping faith whilst enduring incredible hardships can make for agonising viewing, and Scorsese does not shy away from both the physical and mental torment the characters become subject to, the cast shows great dedication is giving themselves over to their roles Garfield and Driver cut haunted and exasperated figures, and it is a welcome return to (dramatic) form for Neeson. Though not to overwhelm with constant hardships, Scorsese brings some welcome relief with Issey Ogata as the governor Inoue Masashige, whose incredible physicality and elocution illicit the same kind of uncomfortable laughter Heath Ledger wrought as the Joker, bringing a weird sense of enjoyment to what is essentially the films villain.

The film is undoubtedly an endurance test for audiences, but is definitely one of Scorsese’s most rigorous inquisitions of a subject, stripped of hyperactive camera movements and breakneck editing, he questions thoughtfully and without bias, examining whether Christianity had the right to impose itself on Japanese culture and whether it is right to sacrifice your faith to save the lives of others, without resorting to cinematic clichés. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, and it may not be what you expect from a Scorsese film, but it marks a personal triumph for the director, real proof that he can put substance over style, and ultimately offers some catharsis after 150 minutes of suffering.

New York, New York

Scorsese’s first film after finding real success with Taxi Driver, and his biggest film to date, New York, New York was a musical, or least a film about music in the vein of his filmmaking hero Michael Powell (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) featuring huge crowd scenes and theatrical sets, which Scorsese tackles with gusto. The film follows budding musicians Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans (Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli) in post-war America and how their relationship suffers as they find success, and both actors excel in their roles, portraying their troubled personal lives and their musical abilities with great conviction, but it is Scorsese who makes the film really sing. The film marked ten year since his debut, and you feel with New York, New York Scorsese is really starting to perfect his cinematic artistry, up till then his films may have been visually striking, but they possessed a raw quality to them, a roughness and grittiness that may have been part subject, part budget, now he was beginning to take real command of his craft.

With complex camera movements, garish use of colour and some swooning musical numbers, Scorsese really embellishes the theatrical nature of the film, highlighting that sometimes life often imitates art and the lines begin production and reality begin to blur. This is particularly effective in a argumentative scene set in a snowy clearing, where all the trees are wooden – as in constructed, like stage props – and the effect is furthered by other scenes of conflict that are often set elaborately dressed spaces, such as a music bar whose walls are adorned with neon instruments. Scorsese’s approach is not only evocative and entertaining, but serves to hold the film together, whose story covers many years and perhaps runs 15-20 minutes to long, he keeps it moving though, not allowing it to stagnate, something which has become a trademark of Scorsese films, despite boasting epic running times (The Wolf Of Wall Street being the longest at 2hrs 59mins) they do not overstay their welcome.

New York, New York, like The King Of Comedy or The Age Of Innocence shows Scorsese command of his subject is not restricted to genre, he knows how to temper his approach for each particular story, and that is the most important part first and foremost – story. His flourishes could be seen as stylistic flourishes, acrobatic embellishment, but they are employed to assist the plot and to help emotionally express whatever is happening in any given scene. New York, New York is a story of musical dreamers and Scorsese evokes it expertly, making a film that is exuberant, impassioned, bittersweet and melancholic all at the same time, a prime example of his mastery for visual expression.

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Sam May
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