“Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, ‘My name is on that. I did that. It’s OK’. But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.” – Martin Scorsese
For the better part of the last three decades, I have been a fan of Martin Scorsese. My admiration first took bloom in the summer of 1985, and happened to coincide with what I consider to be the discovery of my young adult life; set off the main drag of the town I grew up in, I found a small video store. Now, this in itself was no great revelation; in the years before Blockbuster came barreling into my area, forcing all the smaller video chains out of business, there were at least half a dozen such stores within a 3-mile radius. But the moment I walked into this particular video palace, I knew it was special. Where most were lining their shelves with numerous copies of the ‘hot new releases’, this one had titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, films that the others simply didn’t offer. For me, this store was a treasure trove, and I returned there often, sometimes 3-4 times a week, uncovering classic after classic, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.
And it was here that I first found Mean Streets.
Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the head for a 15-year-old from the suburbs; a marriage of images and rock music, violence and pain the likes of which I had never seen before, offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that I found all too real, and a little bit frightening. I must have rented it at least six times that summer, and as a result, Mean Streets fast became my favorite movie. More than this, it was my jumping-off point into the career of Martin Scorsese. After Mean Streets, I moved on to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two more shots to the head. Through these three films, I realized just how deep, just how down-and-dirty, and just how moving the cinema could be. They marked a turning point in my development as a film fan. Movies were no longer limited to the land of make believe; they would also be a window overlooking the real world.
Now, almost 24 years after I first walked into that video store, I’ve decided to take my admiration to the next, perhaps the ultimate, level. Over the course of the last several weeks, I sat down with everything that home video has to offer of Martin Scorsese’s work behind the camera, 26 films in all, and what I uncovered on this love-fest of mine proved to be just as enlightening as that first viewing of Mean Streets all those years ago.
As I sat watching one Scorsese movie after the other, I found myself asking, “What exactly is it that constitutes a Martin Scorsese film”? It was a question I had to pose, because I quickly realized that most of my initial beliefs, the pre-conceptions I had built up about the man and his career, only told part of the story.
For one, there was my presumption that the recurring trait in every Scorsese film was a down-to-earth quality, where the genuine, the realistic, would be favored above all else. Well, this is certainly true in some of Scorsese’s finest films, especially those where actual events served as a foundation (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator). However, it was wrong of me to discount the role that fantasy played in Scorsese’s work. The opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore looks as if it was lifted right out of Gone With the Wind, and the musical numbers of New York, New York were obvious nods to the Hollywood big-budget spectaculars of the 40’s and 50’s. There is the dreamy romance of The Age of Innocence, and the hilarious bad luck of Paul Hackett in After Hours; in short, films that have little or no basis in reality whatsoever, proving that the fantastic plays just as important a role in the great director’s work as reality does.
Then, there is the violence, and many Scorsese films are certainly violent in nature, whether it be on a small scale (Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Bringing Out the Dead) or a much larger one (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York). And yet, Scorsese also directed films about Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ) and the Dalai Lama (Kundun), each of whom revealed an abhorrence of violence through their teachings, and one certainly couldn’t classify The King of Comedy or The Aviator as violent motion pictures. So while blood will sometimes spill (and usually by the bucket-full) in a Scorsese picture, the director seems equally as at home making movies where not a drop hits the ground.
Finally, there was my belief that Scorsese felt most comfortable when working within certain genres. After all, he has undoubtedly staked a claim as one of the finest in the gangster/crime genre, directing such widely praised films as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Departed. Yet, over the years, Scorsese has also made a movie about a strong woman (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a musical (New York, New York), concert films (The Last Waltz and Shine a Light), comedies (The King of Comedy, After Hours), Biopics (Raging Bull, The Aviator), romantic movies (The Age of Innocence and his short film, Life Lessons, in New York Stories) and documentaries (No Direction Home). Even if we take a look to the future, to the Scorsese pictures yet to come, we see films such as Shutter Island (classified on IMDB as a drama/mystery) and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (a biopic concentrating on the early years of the 26th President of the United States), revealing a director who does not recognize the limits others have set for him. Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, To Have and Have Not, Rio Bravo) is considered the king of crossing genres, having worked in almost all of them at one time or another during his 40+ years as a Hollywood director. After spending a few weeks reviewing the career of Martin Scorsese, I now see he has more in common with Hawks than I would have previously given him credit for.
More so than anything, watching the 26 works listed below has strengthened my respect for Martin Scorsese’s skills as a filmmaker. He is an American director who belongs to the world, an artist who never ceases to challenge himself, never limiting his output to a specific genre (though he has been called a master of some). Instead, he moves forward, always probing, pushing the boundaries of motion pictures, testing the limits of cinema as he tests his own right along with them. He is, without a doubt, one of the finest directors working today, and all signs point to the fact that he will continue to remain as such for years to come.
…and we, the film fans, stand to benefit the most from this.
Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967)
This early Scorsese work, which actually consists of several different shorts he made while a student at NYU’s film school, is interesting in that it both dabbles in familiar Scorsese territory (following a group of friends in New York’s Little Italy), yet also shows off a newcomer experimenting with the craft. A film that, style wise, seems to have more in common with the French New Wave than American films of the time.
Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Scorsese directed this one for Roger Corman’s American International pictures, and it’s primarily a by-the-numbers exploitation film…that is until the final scene, where Von (played by Bernie Casey) takes a shotgun to a group of baddies. This ending is undoubtedly 100 percent Scorsese!
Mean Streets (1973)
With tough, street-wise characters ensconced in a New York setting, this film signaled the start of an era, and provided a glimpse into the style that Scorsese would perfect over the course of the next several decades. Yet what truly stands out in Mean Streets isn’t the film’s exceptional design, or its gritty depiction of urban life. Instead, what stays with you is the character of Johnny Boy, and the performance of a very young Robert DeNiro. DeNiro plays Johnny Boy as if he were a rabid dog, and this character set the stage for the various performances the actor would deliver for Scorsese in the years to come. The first in a string of successful collaborations between DeNiro and Scorsese, Mean Streets serves as a foretelling of the raw power they would generate together, launching one of the most successful collaborations in cinematic history.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
This is a film I covered in Hidden Treasures, at which time I praised the style Scorsese brought to the production, in which he matches the exuberance of many of his New York movies. On this viewing, I found myself concentrating more on Ellen Burstyn’s performance as Alice. Burstyn does much more than successfully capture the daily difficulties of being a single mother; she also manages to generate a hell of a lot of humor along the way. The interactions between Alice and her 12-year-old son, Tommy (excellently played by Alfred Nutter) are at times downright hilarious, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is, as a result, a very entertaining comedy. While Scorsese’s touch is still evident, it does not overwhelm the story at hand as I originally believed. To the contrary; it merely enhances what was already there.
Taxi Driver (1976)
“Someday a real rain will come to wash all the scum off the streets”. So says Travis, the isolated antihero of Scorsese’s gripping 1975 film. Travis hates what he sees in the world, and before long he’s doing something about it. Each time I watch Taxi Driver, feelings of isolation and loneliness overtake me. What Scorsese does, and does very well, is bring us deeper and deeper into Travis’ world. By keeping us so in tune with his lead character, Scorsese succeeds in closing off the rest of the world, leaving us privy to little else aside from Travis’ warped reality. We serve as the lone witnesses to his descent into the abyss, and when Travis is declared a ‘hero’ at the film’s conclusion, we know better. We know Travis is a man whose actions stem more from a blossoming hostility than a true concern for the welfare of mankind. Instead of praise, Travis is a man who should be feared. And they would fear him, too, if they only knew him like we do.
New York, New York (1977)
I know what Scorsese was trying to do with this film, which is pay homage to the classic musicals of the 40’s and 50’s; but unfortunately the result is a very mixed bag. The opening sequence, set in a dance club on V-J Day, is phenomenally staged, and Liza Minnelli shines whenever she’s belting out a tune. One the flip side, we have Robert DeNiro as her love interest, giving a performance that is surprisingly uneven, at times even downright foolish, and because of this I simply couldn’t accept that a romantic spark would have ever ignited between these two in the first place. In most romantic films, you’re asking ‘when’, as in when will the two leads finally discover they’re perfect for each other and walk off into the sunset hand-in-hand? With New York, New York, the question is ‘why’, and in a film that’s entire 2 hour 40 minute run time depends on this storyline, this is a really big problem.
The Last Waltz (1978)
A concert film that covers the final live performance of The Band, Scorsese brought with him several tricks he learned while working as an assistant director on Woodstock, the main lesson being that the more cameras you have pointed at the stage, the more likely you are of capturing every nuance of a live performance. By having so many angles, so many options to choose from, Scorsese was able to not only control the proceedings, but also construct a movie that would become much more than a mere ‘concert film’. While The Band may have never achieved the heights of fame that The Beatles or Rolling Stones ascended to, this cinematic record of their final performance (which also saw such musical legends as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Muddy Waters stop by) has the feel of being one of Rock’s most legendary happenings.
Raging Bull (1980)
In August of 2003, Sports Illustrated published a list of the best sports movies ever made, and this film was right near the top of it. Yet it is unlike any other sports film. Shot in black and white, Raging Bull captures the power of Jake La Motta the boxer, the raw strength and determination that drove him to succeed in a sport known for its brutality, yet his strengths as a fighter could not mask his failings as a human being. Jake La Motta was an angry man, and in the ring, La Motta was able to channel this anger. His problem was he couldn’t shut it off when the bell sounded; that anger stayed with him everywhere he went. In Raging Bull, we witness time and again the self-destructive nature of the man, and watch as, one by one, those closest to him slip away. The Sports Illustrated list contained a number of great films, including such uplifting stories as Rocky, Chariots of Fire, and Phar Lap, movies that display the higher qualities of competitive sports, the ‘never say die’ mentality and dogged determination that define a true sports hero. Raging Bull stands alone among them, a serrated edge in a community of clean-cut legends. Where most sports films will indeed lift your spirits, Raging Bull drags you down to hell with it.
The King of Comedy (1982)
This film, a very funny look at obsessive fans and the inherent dangers of maintaining a celebrity status, boasts at least one element that is certainly worth cherishing: Robert DeNiro dropping his tough-guy persona in order to play a geek. As Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe comedian who’s convinced he deserves a shot at the big time, DeNiro manages to be simultaneously spooky and hilarious. There are times when his asinine shenanigans are so embarrassing that it truly becomes a chore to continue watching; I often found myself laughing and cringing at the same time. Even Rupert’s fantasies are incredibly over-the-top. They say seeing is believing, but I still have a hard time accepting the fact that the actor who portrayed such legendary Scorsese bad-asses as Johnny Boy, Jake La Motta, and Jimmy Conway is the same guy who played his Rupert Pupkin. I mean, honestly…the normal DeNiro character would have this clown for breakfast!
After Hours (1985)
I can’t even begin to describe how bad a night Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is having. He meets a beautiful girl named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a coffee shop late one night, and decides to visit her at her friend’s apartment, something that has happened hundreds of times before, to hundreds of other guys. What happens to Paul on this particular night, however, is truly unique, and must be seen to be believed. After Hours is a very funny film, but not in the laugh-out-loud style of many comedies; it is a film that will cause laughter in hindsight, when you have time to reflect on the pathetic bad luck of its main character. Watching this movie is like staring at a train that’s running out of control, watching it crash, and then keeping your eyes glued through all the carnage that’s sure to follow. Paul Hackett’s train runs out of control the moment he steps into a taxi that fateful night, and he doesn’t have a minute to catch his breath from then on…and neither do we.
The Color of Money (1986)
The Color of Money is not a Martin Scorsese film; this is an attack launched time and again at this movie, from critics and fans alike. The truth is, it really isn’t a Martin Scorsese film. I mean, it is…he directed it…but it’s not in that it doesn’t have the same energy, the same bravado as a typical Scorsese work. It follows its story too closely, the camerawork doesn’t seem as interesting, and even the situations are (gasp) somewhat formulaic. I concede on all of these points, but in no way do so to damn the film outright, or to cast it out of the great director’s filmography (as some wish they could do). With The Color of Money, we bear witness to Martin Scorsese sitting comfortably in the back seat, allowing his star, Paul Newman, to drive. Does this make The Color of Money a bad film? Absolutely not. It makes it an atypical Scorsese film, nothing more. After all, if Martin Scorsese decides to stay out of the limelight every now and again, who better to take his place in it than Paul Newman? So, don’t go into The Color of Money expecting a Martin Scorsese film, but don’t let that scare you away, either. It is a Paul Newman film, and the great actor proves once again he’s certainly worth the price of a few hours of your time.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Placing a different spin on the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ is based not on Christian scripture, but a novel penned by Nikos Kazantzaki, one that brings a rare human quality to the story of Jesus. Like most men, Jesus is at first unsure of his purpose in life. It’s only through suffering and self doubt that he learns of his divine mission, and even then he is tortured by temptation and weakness. This exploration of Jesus’ humanity resulted in a great many attacks against the film. Morality in Media declared it “an attack on Christianity”, and the government of Chile banned the movie outright for its supposed blasphemy. In truth, the film is far from blasphemous, unless it’s now considered blasphemy to believe in what Christian doctrine teaches to be the true miracle of Jesus; that he was of a dual nature, a combination of mortality and divinity. After all, its scripture that tells of Jesus’ life on earth, where he faced temptations and suffered excruciating torture. The Last Temptation of Christ takes the story one step further, showing us Jesus’ very human reaction to it all. It is the preference for the human over the divine that has subjected the film to controversy, but does one truly diminish the nature of the other? If believers are willing to accept that Jesus once lived among us as a mortal, why is it blasphemy to assume that there were times when he reacted in a mortal way, experiencing the same hardships and uncertainties that affect us all? Wouldn’t such a reality make his sacrifice even more powerful, more miraculous? Christians believe that Jesus gave his life for our sins. For my money, The Last Temptation of Christ is the first film that provided insight into just how great a sacrifice this truly was.
New York Stories (1989)
(New York Stories is comprised of a trio of short films, each one from a different director. In keeping with the theme of this post, I will not be discussing the segments directed by Francis Ford Coppola or Woody Allen, centering instead on Scorsese’s contribution, Life Lessons).
You know almost immediately that it’s Scorsese who gets the ball rolling in New York Stories, especially when Procol Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale kicks in, blaring over a rapid montage of art supplies and alcohol, and continuing on as artist Nick Nolte picks up his assistant, Rosanna Arquette, at the airport, a meeting played out in slow motion. It is a style that is instantly recognizable, and quite unmistakable. Scorsese’s Life Lessons, which runs a mere 45 minutes, is a complex tale of love and art, and, despite its short length, is a film that is vibrantly alive. The camera shifts perspectives constantly, exploring, observing, and admiring everything that passes before it: the art, the artist’s studio, Arquette’s beauty, and Nolte’s obsession with it all. Though he’s done so countless times before, it remains an unyielding joy to watch Scorsese generate such energy from material that, if left under-explored, would have been mundane at best.
The debate rages on: which is the better gangster film: The Godfather or Goodfellas? Personally, I find the whole thing a bit ridiculous. True, both movies are an exploration of organized crime, with each successfully transporting us ‘inside’ that world, a world where theft, extortion and murder are little more than a means by which guys move up the social ladder. But this is where I believe all similarities end, for each film brings us into this criminal society by way of its own unique style, and if I were to look outside of cinema, towards other realms of entertainment, I would say The Godfather is comparable to an opera, while Goodfellas would be more on the level of a heavyweight boxing bout. Through its graphic depiction of violence, its fearless determination to get ‘down and dirty’ with its characters every chance it can, Goodfellas is a flat-out shot to the gut. Now, certainly there’s violence (sometimes sudden and brutal) in The Godfather, but there are also honorable characters; the wise Don, the loyal and loving son, men who rise above this violence, above the grime one would normally associate with crime and murder, existing instead on their own plane of respectability. In Goodfellas, there are no honorable men; we bear witness to the good times, we suffer through the bad times, but never once are we fooled into believing its characters are anything other than common thugs. So, as different as they are, I see no point in debating which of the two is the better gangster film. Besides, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a world where I couldn’t have them both.
Cape Fear (1991)
A remake of the 1962 classic starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, Scorsese seems intent on claiming this new version as his own right from the get-go, falling back on a variety of camera motions and angles, and utilizing everything from rapid close-ups to negative exposures in moving the story along. Quite surprisingly, in Cape Fear, the trademark Scorsese touch is magnified to such a large degree that it actually works against the film, rarely allowing enough time for anything else to come up for air. As I was watching Cape Fear, I found myself recalling a scene from Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful, where producer Kirk Douglas is chastising the director of his film, played by Ivan Triesault, for not exploring a key scenes’ full dramatic potential. The director defends himself, saying, “I could make this scene a climax. I could make every scene in this picture a climax. If I did, I would be a bad director”. This, I feel, may be the problem with Cape Fear; every single scene for the first 45 minutes or so plays out as if it were a climactic moment, with such bravado and energy (and always capped by Elmer Bernstein’s booming score) that the audience feels worn out before anything really has a chance to get started. It’s interesting that the film’s best scene, where stalker Robert DeNiro meets the daughter, played extraordinarily well by Juliette Lewis, in the auditorium of her school, is one of the few times that Scorsese lets his characters take center stage. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between, and are usually sandwiched between textbook examples of high-octane cinema. In the case of Cape Fear, I think less could have resulted in a whole lot more.
The Age of Innocence (1993)
The time period is the 1870s, and the place is New York, yet this is not the New York we have grown accustomed to seeing in a Martin Scorsese film. Set amidst the city’s upper-class society, The Age of Innocence presents instead a story of sophistication, high drama, and, yes, even innocence. It is a movie born from the varying personaities of its filmmaker, presenting to us for the first time Scorsese the romantic, well supported in this, his maiden voyage, by Scorsese the artist. The romantic within him takes its form in the way Scorsese builds the story of Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a man deeply engrained in high society, yet who loathes every aspect of it. He is engaged to marry May (Winona Ryder), but finds himself drawn instead to her cousin, the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), herself an outcast of sorts, and the subject of much gossip and innuendo. In the scenes they share, Day-Lewis and Pfeiffer generate real passion, and together form the centerpiece of the film. Scorsese the artist then takes center stage by way of what he chooses to surround that center with, namely some of the most stunning imagery he has ever committed to celluloid. Many of these images could well exist outside the film, perhaps even adorning the walls of a fine art gallery, and yet they serve their purpose well; they do not overpower the narrative with their splendor, but instead work in unison with it, constructing a tale as engaging as it is striking to behold. The Age of Innocence is a wonderful marriage of art and romance, conceived by a filmmaker who had traveled well outside his normal playing field to create it.
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Film (1995)
This is a documentary that all fans of American cinema should see; a trek through the history of American film, from the silent days right up to the movies of the mid-1960’s. But as Scorsese, who acts as both host and narrator, points out in the beginning, it is all a very personal affair. These are the movies that inspired him, and their influence helped transform Martin Scorsese into what he is today. As you can imagine, this being a ‘personal journey’, Scorsese does not limit himself to mainstream films. In fact, he admits that, at times, it was the lesser-known movies that had the biggest impact on his career. So while we do take a stroll down Main Street Hollywood with the great director, hearing tales and recollections of D.W. Griffith, John Ford, Citizen Kane and Murnau’s Sunrise, we also walk with Scorsese down the side streets and back alleys, where we uncover the likes of Jacques Tourneur, Allan Dwan, Two Weeks in Another Town and The Phenix City Story. It is a brilliant combination of the known and the undiscovered, transforming this personal journey into a fascinating cinematic ride.
For some reason, Casino never attained the plateau of respectability that Martin Scorsese’s other ‘mob films’ (such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas) reached, and for the life of me, I can’t account for this. All the elements are there in Casino; a great performance by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci turning in another gem as a rabid dog whose bark and bite are equally as lethal, and a true story at the heart of it all, providing fascinating insight into the early days of Las Vegas. The film even has a handful of outstanding scenes that become forever etched in the mind, like DeNiro catching the card cheats and dragging them into the backroom for some Vegas-style justice, or the cowboy who takes his boots off and puts his feet up on the poker table. So, why this lack of respect? Was it the appearance of Sharon Stone in a key role? In my opinion, Ms. Stone does some excellent work here, turning in a performance I would rank as one of her finest. Could it be a ‘been there-done that’ mentality, having yet another Scorsese crime film to deal with? Again, I would think not. Many consider The Departed to be his finest film in years, and that was made about a dozen years after Casino. Whatever the reason, the truth remains that Casino deserves a better shake than it’s been given; it is, after all, a remarkably entertaining film.
Kundun is a case study in emotion over style. Now, please don’t misunderstand that statement; I am not referring to an absence of style, because Scorsese’s prowess as a visual filmmaker is as alive in Kundun as in any of his previous films. This time, however, in relating the life story of the 14th Dalai Lama, Scorsese shows a preference for the emotional, and all of his technical skills are utilized to serve that single purpose. Faces are important in Kundun; the face of the young Dalai Lama, a life of responsibility thrust upon him at an early age, as well as the faces of those around him, who realize before he himself does that, if the Dalai Lama is to lead his people, he must do so from abroad, leaving the country of his birth. There is pain in these faces, the pain of dealing with a changing world, and Scorsese makes us feel every bit of it. Filmed primarily in Morocco, Kundun is visually stunning; and Scorsese makes full use of the impressive landscapes at his disposal. His camera, as well, is always alive, free of constraints and moving in a manner we have come to expect from a Martin Scorsese picture. Yet the visuals are here to serve their purpose, and do not divert from the director’s ultimate goal. In fact, it was only on reflection that I realized this style was even present; it did not impress itself upon me as I was watching the film. So while you’re initial reaction to this historical epic may be that Scorsese the filmmaker has taken the day off, look again. The cinematic flow one expects of a Scorsese work is there for the taking, but never once is the spotlight cast upon it. Scorsese the filmmaker was hard at work on Kundun, but chose to remain in the shadows, hidden, so that Scorsese the storyteller might weave his own bit of magic.
My Voyage to Italy (1999)
My Voyage to Italy does for Italian cinema what Scorsese’s Personal Journey through American Film did for the U.S.A., which is take us on a spirited ride through some of the movies that inspired the filmmaker early in life to undertake a career in film. As it happens, the works that aroused the artistic spirit of Martin Scorsese also managed to spark it in others; from the silent epic Cabiria, which stirred the imagination of pioneer D.W. Griffith so profoundly that it led to the creation of his own epic, Intolerance, through to the Neorealist films of Rossellini and De Sica, which acted as a springboard for French New Wave directors like Truffaut and Godard, Italian movies have left an indelible mark on cinema the world over. Scorsese covers all of these, as well as the careers and works of other great Italian directors such as Fellini, Visconti, and Antonioni in this in-depth, four-hour documentary. So while My Voyage to Italy is, indeed, every bit as personal a journey for Scorsese as his American project several years earlier, it just so happens that this time around, the films that touched him so deeply also touched the entire world.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Bringing Out the Dead is the tale of Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a burned-out paramedic who is haunted by the spirits of those he was unable to save. If nothing else, this film has given me a better understanding of how emotionally difficult life as a paramedic must be. You often hear how doctors will “shut off” their feelings, which they do in order to maintain their sanity and build an emotional distance between themselves and their patients. I agree that, as a philosophy, this makes perfect sense, and I would certainly never begrudge anyone their sanity, especially when the work they perform is of such vital importance to society. Doctors, however, have one advantage that paramedics do not; whereas a doctor will usually deal with the sick in a neutral location, such as their office or a hospital, a paramedic must often enter their patient’s home. I would think that performing CPR on a cardiac arrest victim while surrounded by that person’s loved ones, all the while staring at family photographs hanging on the wall, would make a level of emotional detachment extremely difficult to maintain. How, exactly, do you shut off your feelings when you’re forced to function under these conditions? Frank couldn’t, and, as a result, he has come apart at the seams. One of the many markings of a good film is that it will bring you into its world and invite you to think. Bringing Out the Dead caused me to do this, so putting aside for a moment the excellent performances and technical achievements in order to reflect on this one, lone aspect, I must conclude that I found Bringing Out the Dead to be a very good film.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Gangs of New York is the Scorsese film I am least familiar with, having seen it only once, and that during its initial release in 2002. In a way, I was counting on this viewing to reconcile me with the movie, which I remembered as being exciting, yet not overly impressive. This time around, the word that kept popping into my head was ‘ambitious’, as in far too ambitious. There were undoubtedly thousands of stories floating around the great city during the days of the Civil War, and Gangs of New York seemed intent on telling all of them at once. Many of these tales (the formation of the gangs, the role of the Police and Fire departments in the Five Points district, the unbelievable level of political corruption) are, indeed, fascinating, and the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis (in his second Scorsese film) and Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first) impressive enough to keep any viewer’s attention. In fact, I found the film received a definite boost of adrenaline whenever Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher was on-screen; I wanted to see more of him….and less of a few other things (the last thing a movie this ambitious needed was the obligatory love story thrown in on top of everything else). That said, I found enough to like in Gangs of New York to ensure I’ll return to it once again, and can guarantee that it won’t take me another seven years to do so.
The Aviator (2004)
A biopic on the life of millionaire Howard Hughes, The Aviator is a film that has a lot going for it, not the least of which is a stellar performance from Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. It is an amazing portrayal, and I was reminded just how amazing it was while watching it again. When DiCaprio is on screen, the electricity flows, and The Aviator certainly benefits from the fact that he is on-screen most of the time. Whether he’s barking out orders to his subordinates, tangling with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, in an Oscar-winning turn) or going up against the United States Senate, Dicaprio’s Hughes is a force to be reckoned with. Along with the incredible confidence in his own abilities and business acumen, we see the other Howard Hughes; the man so overcome by his fear of germs that they could reduce the mighty tycoon into a quivering mass in an instant. Even here, DiCaprio does not falter, giving us a Hughes trying his best to maintain some dignity as he suffers through his crippling personal horrors. With The Aviator, it becomes crystal clear as to the reason why Scorsese has dubbed Leonardo DiCaprio his ‘next DeNiro’; the man can flat-out act.
No Direction Home (2005)
This made-for-television documentary provides insight into the early career of Bob Dylan, from his rise as an icon in the folk community through to the moment his fan base turned on him, accusing the singer of going ‘commercial’. It is a period of music history that merits closer examination, and No Direction Home delivers, giving us as in-depth a film on Bob Dylan as we’re likely to see. Over the years (and through various interviews), Dylan established himself as one of the most elusive personalities in music history, which is why No Direction Home proved such a pleasant surprise. It’s all here, from those who influenced his earliest work, men like Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger, to his own successful career in folk music, and culminating in the mid-1960’s, when songs like “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” hit the Billboard charts, alienating a large portion of Dylan’s most fervent admirers, who would forever view their hero as a “traitor” to the cause. As a fan of Dylan and his music, I enjoyed No Direction Home; it brought into focus an artist I have always admired, one who has never invited analysis of his work, and it was a pleasure to learn as much as I did.
The Departed (2006)
The Departed has been hailed by many as a return to form for Martin Scorsese. A quick glance at the review capsules on Rotten Tomatoes reveals as much; praising The Departed as Scorsese’s finest since Goodfellas, a triumphant return to the mob film, a genre he himself helped shape over the years. I agree that The Departed is an excellent movie; it was my favorite of 2006, and I was thrilled that it finally netted Martin Scorsese his long-overdue Academy Award as Best Director. However, having spent the past several weeks reviewing the director’s work, I am only willing to go this far: The Departed is Scorsese’s best film since The Aviator. Yes, The Departed marked his return to the gangster/crime genre, and yes, it was a thrilling, well-acted film that kept me on the edge of my seat. It was…it is…all of these things, and more besides. And yet I can’t help but feel just a little bit annoyed. Martin Scorsese made five features (ignoring for a moment the documentaries) between his last Mob movie, Casino, and this one, and while I certainly can’t proclaim each of them to be classics (my issues with Gangs of New York are listed above), they were, at the very least, interesting, and at their very best, some of Scorsese’s finest work behind the camera. So while I do regret taking up space here to discuss the director’s previous accomplishments, especially since I myself am such a fervent fan of The Departed, I feel it would be remiss of me to keep silent, and I can’t help but ask why, when the landscape of American cinema is so littered with inferior retreads of proven formulas, do we expect our finest filmmakers to continually repeat themselves?
Shine a Light (2008)
Marking his second venture as director of a concert film, Scorsese mixes things up a bit with Shine a Light when, in the movie’s first 10 minutes, he takes us behind-the-scenes, revealing just how much work goes into staging a filmed concert. We’re privy to conversations between the director and his crew (one of which is an absolute classic: when Scorsese is advised that, if Mick Jagger stands too long in front of a high-powered light he’ll burst into flame, the director replies, quite non-chalantly, “Well, we can’t do that. We want the effect, but we cannot burn Mick Jagger”). We also witness the conflicts that arise between the filmmakers and the band, like when the Rolling Stones don’t deliver a finalized playlist until moments before going on stage, leaving Scorsese and his crew completely in the dark about where best to place their cameras, or when Mick Jagger tells Scorsese that too many cameras zooming around will be a distraction for the audience as well as everyone on-stage (a point on which Scorsese refuses to give any ground). These opening 10 minutes are an insightful look at artist vs. artist, with each side defending their right to create. Then the music starts, and the result of all the back and forth plays out before our eyes. Shine a Light is informative, fun, and, when the chips are finally down, a chronicle of an ass-kicking performance by one of the greatest bands in Rock history.