“Together with his unobstructed panorama of those mean streets, and his long relationship with religion, Scorsese’s character was shaped. It infused in him just the right amount of guilt to develop stories about the struggle between good and evil and that dangerous place in between — not bad enough for hell, not good enough for heaven.”
It can be said that all directors have a unique style: Spielberg tells stories; Welles manipulates angles and lighting; Allen is a narcissistic narrator; Eastwood casts mysterious shadows; Hitchcock is the master of suspense, and Redford is a painter, whether it is his intimate portrait of a crumbling family in Ordinary People or a full landscape of the cowboy way in The Horse Whisperer.
Scorsese is an editor in search of redemption.
Martin Scorsese gave a cameo performance in Redford’s Quiz Show and spouted a lesson in geography, “Queens is not New York!” In that one line Scorsese gave us a glimpse of his persuasion, as if he held the island of Manhattan sacred and needed to define its boundaries, just as religion is limited by narrow boundaries.
The streets of New York have been his venue for most of his work in the last thirty-five years. And more than any other director, Scorsese stirs his religious background to filter through his lens. One could argue that Woody Allen has used, perhaps over-used, the Jewish “nebbish” for just as long. However, Allen tempers his demons (if they actually exist) with harmless, if somewhat cynical, humor; whereas, if there is any humor at all in a Scorsese film, it is accidental or very black, and if it offends the golden rule, retribution will certainly follow.
To understand Scorsese’s vision in films, it is necessary to talk about his early life. Without identifying the young Martin, it would be impossible to appreciate the countless symbolic and technical elements ever-present in his film work.
This essay will attempt to show that Martin Scorsese had two major influences in his early life that set the course for his filmmaking — ingrained in his psyche and forever imprinted in his creative cells: the grey, concrete, intolerant streets of Little Italy and the black and white concrete doctrine of the intolerant Catholic faith.
Two worlds, pictured so vastly different in our minds, how is it possible to link the cruel street life with the sanctuary of the church? Actually, they are not so different. The streets of Little Italy were governed by “wise guys” who handed out their own form of justice and demanded loyalty. The Church was governed by wise men who handed out wafers and commanded loyalty. Both worlds would provide Scorsese with his settings for inner conflict, accompanied by his signature color, red — the blood from the streets, the blood of Christ, and the red fires of hell.
To imagine young Martin attempting to find solace away from and off those mean streets by going gung-ho into religion is ironic. What he found, probably, was that it would have been easier to have had his nose broken by some punk, a wound that would have eventually healed, instead of having his spirit and mind twisted for years and years, leaving the deeper wound of guilt.
For a boy with asthma, frail and small, life in the streets — playing stickball or stoopball, or anything with a ball — was impossible. To entertain Martin, his parents took him to the movies, a hobby that quickly turned into an obsession. Watching movies and creating his own clumsy storyboards was a private sport. For community, and to be part of a club, Martin found the church, and the less strenuous activities they offered. He admits that he needed to be accepted somewhere and that he couldn’t do it in the streets, so his acceptance was in the church.
If we look at film and church as mediums, they are really quite similar. As Martin loved the biblical epics, the church, with its pageantry and operatic ceremonies, must have appealed to him, because he refers to it as theatrical. In the heart of Little Italy, Martin had a high-angle view from his window on Elizabeth Street of life on the streets. It would prove to be a prophetic POV in his directing style. The window frame would later become a film frame for the passionate Scorsese. In Scorsese on Scorsese, he describes his childhood:
Italian-American communities lived in a series of about ten blocks . . . Little Italy was very sharply defined . . . we didn’t care about the Government, or politicians or the police . . . we felt we were right in our ways . . . (3)
Together with his unobstructed panorama of those mean streets, and his long relationship with religion, Scorsese’s character was shaped. It infused in him just the right amount of guilt to develop stories about the struggle between good and evil and that dangerous place in between — not bad enough for hell, not good enough for heaven.
His early Catholic school education cemented his dread of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. The nuns would describe in detail visions of damnation to hell. As Scorsese often describes the experience, “They’d . . . lead us to the catacombs under the church . . . we’d pray the Rosary . . . echoing among the graves . . . ” He admits that those images never left him. “The camera movement in a lot of my films . . . comes from creeping around those catacombs.”
The teen-aged Scorsese was expelled from a seminary for some of the reasons that would define his work: guilt, disillusionment, temptation, and an earful of pop music. Still hoping for a career in the priesthood, Scorsese applied to but was rejected by Fordham University. Instead he attended New York University. There he met the people who would become his friends, colleagues, and collaborators: Brian DePalma, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, and the brilliant film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It was no accident that fate (and low grades) brought Scorsese to NYU, and all of a sudden, it became clear that his early journey took him to his destiny. He “realized,” says critic Les Keyser, “that his Italian heritage, his Catholic faith, his rock-and-roll music, his inner turmoil could all be synthesized on screen . . . cinema can make him whole.”
Plaited into his editing style of directing, Scorsese found his signature color, red. While Woody Allen sees New York as black and white postcards, Scorsese sees the city as a beautiful lady in a red dress (who steps in a puddle on the way to the party). His red splashes and backgrounds bring the town to an almost bloody vividness. Yes, there are puddles and potholes, and Scorsese hides none of them. Allen’s New York is all Porter and Gershwin. Scorsese’s is rock and roll, and blues in the night. His New York is down and dirty — pure grit. Roger Ebert observed a “Scorsese . . . whose movies teemed with life . . . whose camera used to prowl restlessly.”
Before entering NYU, Scorsese began making amateur films with his friends and for the first time, “Directed by Martin Scorsese” appeared on screen — and consumed by flames in the closing shot. Maybe this was his penance — to see his name swallowed up in hell’s fire. It must have freed him, somehow. But those flames, red and intense, lurked within him, for he never abandoned the color red. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the symbolic blood of Christ and the work of the Devil — each one red, and each one fighting for its place in Scorsese’s psyche.
The flames of hell! Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese’s first commercial success was meant to be a messianic trilogy to begin with Jerusalem, Jerusalem, then Who’s That Knocking At My Door, ending with Season of the Witch (later changed to Mean Streets).
Looking at the subject of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, it’s obvious that it is autobiographical, with its setting in a Jesuit retreat house. While a priest leads the boys through the Stations of the Cross, the main character, J. R. (who will become Charlie in the subsequent installments), envisions Jesus as a contemporary criminal in Little Italy. He is arrested, and the bloody boy is piloted through the New York streets while onlookers jeer. Although this story remains as a treatment, much of J. R.’s conflict is resurrected in Who’s Knocking and Mean Streets. This was the beginning of Scorsese’s doubt in his religion, and his certainty that he could combine the mysteries of theology with the reality of life. The trick was to see Jesus as a man, not a god.
If there is any doubt that Scorsese was influenced by both entities, let’s look at Knocking.
The character of J. R./Charlie is in love with a girl. (“Girl” is her only identity in the film — Scorsese didn’t even give her a name, maybe because she was not as important to him, Scorsese, as the male protagonist.) To J. R., “going all the way” would give him a non-refundable ticket to hell. It would also crush any respect he had for the girl to begin with. However, they decide to “do it” in J. R.’s parents’ bedroom where several statues of saints and lighted candles bear witness. With all that religion watching, he decides he can’t do it. After all, he loves her and wants to marry her. And in “those” neighborhoods, there were two kinds of women — the pure ones to marry and the used ones to party with. When the girl reveals she is not a virgin, J. R. is crushed. The fact that she was date raped does not quell the questions and mental pictures he had. He wrestles with the teachings of Catholicism — forgiveness of sin — and decides to forgive her. (Big of him, wasn’t it — he forgave her for being raped!) The girl would have none of him, smart enough to know that he would never forget. The ending, filmed in Scorsese’s church of his youth, Old St. Patrick’s, finds J. R. kissing the feet of Jesus on a crucifix. Blood flows from the wound. J. R. is looking for forgiveness. He has failed as a Catholic, and Scorsese uses the blood of Christ as a symbol of redemption. Yes, it was Scorsese’s very early work, and the bleeding Christ was far from subtle. Over the years, the bleeding Christ would reappear — not on a cross, mostly, but in the form of lonely, disenfranchised men. It should be mentioned that Scorsese was a virgin when he married, believing it was a sin to have sex before marriage. He admits that he married so that he could legally have sex, and having sex would put an end to his sinful masturbating.
Now, when we meet J. R. (now Charlie) in Mean Streets, he is still teetering on the edge of life and sex and violence, while trying to hang onto his religion. In the opening scene, in a church, the place where Scorsese himself sought answers, Charlie is running his hand across the flames of a candle, contemplating the enormous heat of hell’s fire. This guy truly believes in the literal version of hell — fire and damnation, as Scorsese believed it when he was a boy. Charlie’s guilt borders on the pathological, and he is desperate to find solid ground, but working as a collector for his mobster uncle is not exactly a holy mission. As his girlfriend, Theresa, reminds him, “St. Francis was not a numbers runner.” Charlie wants to go to heaven, just like Martin did in his schooldays. Charlie believes that the only way to redeem himself is to become a messiah, to deliver the loose cannon, Johnny Boy from the mafioso world, and then both of them would become saints. Charlie fears the pains of hell, but all the acts of contrition and hand-burning fail to ease his guilt. As a teenager, Scorsese felt the same way. He was certain he was going to hell merely for reading racy magazines. So Charlie’s attempt at redemption is really Scorsese’s memory of how he used to feel. Scorsese had given up on the Catholic religion in 1965, but it provided good material for his films.
In 1964, It’s Not Just You, Murray won an award from the Producers Guild of America as Best Student Film of 1964. It was a story about the lives of glamorous gangsters as seen in the old Hollywood movie mills, men who are blind to the desolation crime has wrought in their lives. Scorsese takes on this theme again in his 1990 film Goodfellas, the true story of the rise of gangster Henry Hill, his eventual betrayal of his cohorts, and his “demise” in the witness protection program.
Critic Mark Nicholls, writing about The Age of Innocence, says: “Common to all Scorsese films and their central protagonists is the expression of deep melancholia” (26). In this film, melancholia is central to Newland Archer’s loss. Archer denies himself the woman “he wanted most.” Scorsese had to have been drawn to this material because of Archer’s sacrifice and life of self-denial. The Age of Innocence “is the representation of the male melancholic imagination par excellence . . . his [Archer] journey through the film represents a compulsive search for loss and the obsessive care to preserve and encrypt the significance of that loss” (27). Unlike Eastwood’s characters with shadowy pasts, Scorsese’s men are tragic because we know what they want — we are not detached from them. We get to see and feel everything they do. That is why Archer is so pitiful. By giving up the Countess, he secures his place in New York society — the polite tribe that ostracized the Countess. It is the same with Catholicism — self-denial of worldly desires, which includes the sins of the flesh, but the reward in heaven awaits — in Archer’s case, it was New York society — heaven on earth.
Another interesting aspect of Innocence that had to have piqued Scorsese’s interest is that the Countess is referred to as “dead.” She is dead to proper New York upper class, and she, herself, considers herself dead and the opera house heaven. She sees it as a refuge, just as Scorsese, shunned by the tougher kids in his neighborhood, found comfort in the church. It must be observed that with Scorsese’s penchant for the color red, the Countess goes to a party in a bright red dress, while the other women are in muted tones: the Madonna-whore.
This is an easy thing for Scorsese to hone in on — worshiping a dead martyr. Not to imply that Ellen Olenska is Joan of Arc, but it seems that the bigger sinner will always look to destroy the lesser one. The most evil will always cast the largest stone. And Ellen’s appearance is overtly angelic, as if she would fly away in a moment — and so she does. This was perhaps another attraction to Scorsese — a woman who has shown herself to be unfavorable to society rises above it by acting virtuously. She is a Mary Magdalene to Scorsese.
In his essay on The Age of Innocence, Mark Nicholls reveals that with the Countess agreeing to stay married, it places Archer in the perfect role of the male melancholic. It makes him the tragic man who was denied his greatest love. Of course, Archer did not fare badly, with his place in the tribe secure. Would Scorsese have fared well in the theological world, so long as he was removed from temptation, as Archer was? We’ll never know. Nicholls claims, and I agree, that Scorsese is not content with one “farewell” scene, so he repeats it in a stage play. This is more evidence of Scorsese’s need for penance — one Hail Mary is never enough.
Notice in Innocence, every time the fireplace is shown, the fire in it is not a steady burn, but sparks fly out, the logs tumble. Even the lighting of cigars is focused on the flame. This is all representative of Scorsese’s use of fire as a symbol for damnation, or at least showing that God is not happy. When the logs move, or a spark flies, it is a reminder of what awaits should one yield to temptation.
In The Age of Innocence, Scorsese doesn’t miss a detail, as critic Charles Helmetag writes: “The lavish thirteen courses presented at elegant homes . . . each served on its own china pattern . . . filmed from above . . . serve as a surrogate for the characters’ unsatisfied sexual appetites.” (162) I agree; however, Scorsese is a stickler for details and continuity. The ritualistic dinners, the life schedule itself are much like the celebration of the Mass — and filmed from above — well, God is always watching.
Whether he is subtle or blatant with religious references, and early on, guilt projecting, Scorsese went full bore with The Last Temptation of Christ. He tries to calm his detractors in the opening written prologue, “a fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” Of course, the conflict is the battle between the spirit and the flesh. The movie could have been his swan song as semi-autobiographical. Even before the film was released, theological critics were up in arms. To even suggest that Christ was tempted was considered blasphemous. In contrast, Mel Gibson’s The Passion was lauded by the Catholic church, and Christian religious organizations screened the film in thousands of theaters. Well, Gibson just stuck to the story — the same “greatest” story ever told, but he did it according to the literal translation of the New Testament. Gibson didn’t really care about any criticism of the film, and offered no explanations. On the other hand, Scorsese pleads for forgiveness before his movie even begins. After viewing the film, skeptics were a bit mollified. Jesus does die on the cross, and all is well with the world.
In Last Temptation, Christ is not perfect. He is a man, suffering from severe headaches, doubtful of his calling. Just before he dies on the cross, the film enters a dream sequence. Christ is visited by an exquisite angel who rescues him, and he is very relieved to be relieved as the Messiah. In the dream, Christ marries Mary Magdalene, they have children, grow old — but, before he dies (in the dream), he goes back to his true calling. Paul Schrader based his screenplay on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, but the film is strictly Scorsese. Having Jesus live a long and normal life is okay, as long as it is in a dream sequence.
Recalling the scene in which Mary M. is copulating with a series of strangers, there is a close-up on one of the spectators, an Indian man. Christ is in the background, out of focus. The camera moves in, and the audience expects the extreme close-up to be on Jesus, but instead it goes to the eye of the Indian, then locks focus on both Christ and the man. Scorsese was not able to have Jesus look fornication smack-on — he needed a buffer.
The first time Scorsese looked at the script for Taxi Driver, he claims, “I was burning inside my skin . . . felt I had to make it” (Dougan, 45). Scorsese identified with the loner, Travis Bickle, an avenging angel. Scorsese admits that he knew this guy . . . the feeling of rejection, the killing feeling, of being really angry. This is how Scorsese confronts his demons. He is attracted to characters who are isolated, damaged, and in many cases, have the need to save others: Travis saves Iris from the pimp; Charlie tries to save Johnny Boy; Archer wants to rescue Ellen from scandal. In all of them, there is a Christ-like quality. Travis in Taxi Driver is the purest example of Scorsese’s alter ego. Travis is a Vietnam veteran who was lied to by his country; Scorsese was a Catholic veteran, basically lied to by his religion. Travis is rejected by the smart, pretty blonde; Scorsese was rejected by the “cool” kids in his neighborhood. Travis is not redeemed at the end, and I doubt that Scorsese will ever feel worthy. It’s just his nature.
In his films we see at least one shared theme: man not worthy of woman — Travis Bickle not good enough for Betsy; Christ not “manly” enough for Mary Magdalene. Newland Archer lives with an unfulfilled yearning for the Countess Olenska. Scorsese himself shows the urgent need to punish the boy in him throughout his films. The main character never seems to triumph — how could he when he is always riddled with sin? Even when he tries a shot at redemption, as some of his self-appointed deliverers sometimes do, they always fall short. Just as in the Catholic religion, man always fall short of the glory of God. And, because women are to be worshiped, they should be off limits sexually, but Scorsese has his leading men fall into the “trap” several times, to find themselves in agony because they are not worthy — just like those Catholics who believe they are not worthy of Christ’s love.
Note also that women in Scorsese films never appear as the central figure. They are objects of desire, and usually not available, or not interested in the male protagonist. In Who’s That Knocking, Theresa is the Madonna to Charlie, a pure, wholesome woman to be worshiped. When he finds that she is not a virgin, his world is shattered. She becomes, to him, the Whore. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta practically stalks Vickie. But once he gets her, he treats her very badly. She fell from grace just by giving in to him. One could say that the “hunt” is all the fun, but Scorsese does not think that way.
Goodfellas shows an intriguing dynamic at work. By the time of its release in 1990, Scorsese had all but abandoned his Catholic teachings, except for the prayers he claims to say out loud for the duration of each and every plane ride. However, too tattooed in his core is the lesson that crime does not pay, or more to the point, crime is expensive.
In Goodfellas, twenty-five years out of film school, Scorsese revisits his student film It’s Not Just You, Murray, the story of a small-time Sicilian hoodlum who wants to be a big-time gangster. Murray is drawn to a life that offers fast money, but he is betrayed by his criminal partner, Joe. Goodfellas, based on Nicholas Pilleggi’s book Wiseguy, is the true story of Henry Hill, a mobster who worked his way up the ranks, only to disappear into the witness protection program after “flipping” on his cronies. Roger Ebert writes, “No finer film has ever been made about organized crime — not even The Godfather . . . although the two works . . . are not comparable.” (2)
Scorsese’s fingerprints are all over this one. For instance, opening scene: After hacking a half-dead body, the three “goodfellas” are about to slam a trunk closed. The frame is frozen, the screen goes red, and a sizzling sound rises — the sight and sound of hell — red and sizzling! No doubt, Scorsese wanted us to know right away that these guys will suffer for their sins, eventually.
Goodfellas is a tale of seduction. Scorsese uses every material temptation to draw us in to empathizing with Henry. Like Murray, Hill narrates the story, and we’re lapping it up. Hey, that kind of life looks pretty good — pockets full of cash, best seats at the Copa, closets full of clothes, no nine-to-five . . . great! Of course, to have that life you’d have to shoot people, or feed someone to a lion, and keep watching your back to see if your best friend’s gun isn’t aimed at it. The price is high for the easy life of greed and glamour — that is the theme. That is what Scorsese will never release from his psyche — the wicked will pay. Even if he does not believe it consciously, it’s in there. And, as in the tradition of the church, they must pay a price. They don’t go to hell, but into the Witness Protection Program, which is more like purgatory, as Henry admits at the film’s closing: “Now I’m . . . a nobody.” Henry Hill is a Judas, and Scorsese gives him a sense of guilt and some compassion, but in the end, he saved himself.
Another important element of this film that must have attracted Scorsese is the membership of an exclusive club. These guys were not priests, but the concept is the same. Like priests, gangsters who become “made men” take vows, blood oaths, and burn a picture of a saint (in their hands). It’s all very religious and theatrical — Scorsese’s hallmarks.
Using his famous film tricks in Goodfellas, Scorsese has Henry take Karen (who would become his wife) on their first real date to the Copacabana nightclub. Instead of entering through the front door, Henry takes her through the back door, down the stairs, “serpentining” through the halls, kitchen, around and around. Symbolically, Henry is leading Karen down the winding path to destruction. Scorsese here evokes the circuitous catacombs of Old St. Patrick’s, and the result is a three-minute Steadicam shot winding around corners and curves until the couple emerges into the club itself. The shot is accompanied by the Crystals’ song “Then He Kissed Me.” When we think of the words, “He kissed me in a way I have never been kissed before,” Henry is seducing Karen, and the impact of the camera following them as he leads her astray is extraordinary. Karen begins as an innocent but is pulled in by the glamour and money. In a way, Henry is the anti-messiah, dooming instead of delivering her. Also, Henry is the classic Judas. He is in awe of the gangsters. He wants to fit in, and for years he is a faithful servant. In many scenes he is an arbitrator, a devil’s advocate. Henry wants to belong to the club, but when things got rough he turns on all of them to save his own skin.
Even innocents like Karen — Henry’s wife, and the other narrator of the film — admits that the life of a wife of a gangster is irresistible and she can’t help herself. Scorsese does a masterful job of taking us all on this roller coaster ride with Henry and Karen. We see them live in gaudy lavishness, lose it all (when Henry goes to jail), then rise again, and finally fall in a frenetically filmed sequence as if jungle drums are beating the minutes to their end. Scorsese makes sure we’re with Henry and Karen on that final day, the day they are caught. They are falling apart, and the close-ups, quick cuts, and sharp angles force the audience in, and finally, we are the ones who are claustrophobic and about to go to jail.
Scorsese compares the Mob to any other military organization. It’s a matter of territory. A wise guy is a soldier in an army, following orders; and to maintain order, killing is a necessary evil. Scorsese understands the rules of that corporation, even though he did not choose that path. From his window on Elizabeth Street, he watched it, without praising or condemning it. It was merely a way of life. However, when a character like Tommy in Goodfellas begins killing people for sport, and then compounds his felony by “whacking” a made man, he had to be punished. The fates of Henry and Tommy are different for a very “Scorsese” reason. Scorsese sent Tommy to hell with a single bullet. Henry was sentenced to purgatory because his sins were not as egregious.
Also noteworthy is that Scorsese does not depict wise guys as all bad. For Henry Hill, Scorsese lets us see what a diligent worker he is, even when the world is crashing down around him. In the scenes leading up to his arrest, Henry, even high on cocaine, takes his job very seriously — he drops off guns, picks up his crippled brother, delivers the drugs. Scorsese actually makes us feel sorry for such a company man as Henry, and his sympathy gives him a few extra prayer-points in purgatory.
Moving from purgatory and plunging straight into hell brings us to Scorsese’s gore-fest, Gangs of New York. As he explained to Mark Singer, he was no longer interested in filming graphic violence without some humanity to it. He defends Gangs by saying that the rivals were warriors, barbarians, and at that time, that’s how it was in the streets — people killing people. It was much the same way when Christ lived, and Scorsese, perhaps unconsciously, drops the innocent, or the loner, in the middle of hell and the lamb is either sacrificed or crawls his way out.
Gangs is a red movie, cinematically: tinted in red, soaked in blood. Based on Herbert Asbury’s book of the same title, it is set in New York’s Five Points, some fifteen years before the Civil War. However, the book is just a collection of violent episodes in the neighborhood. It was up to writer Jay Cocks and Scorsese to weave a story. The result is the quintessential Scorsese, the master of movie violence and the seeker of redemption.
The film begins with a scene beneath Manhattan tenements, in carved-out catacombs. And here Scorsese takes us back to the catacombs of his school. The Irish leader named Priest prepares for battle, and the preliminaries have all the action and ritual of a mass, even to Priest’s putting on a collar (to protect his neck). The young Scorsese was terrified in those mysterious catacombs, listening to the recitation of the rosary echo off the walls below the church. Gangs’ opener has that same sense of mystery and dread — who are these guys and what are they doing in a cave? Scorsese deliberately omitted the name of the film from the opening title sequence. The audience is not sure what’s going on down there. It is as if Priest and his followers emerge from hell into the light — on to the white snow, pure snow that is about to be violated and soaked with blood. Scorsese never really emerged from those catacombs because Catholicism keeps alive the fear of what can happen in the daylight, too.
The hero of Gangs is Amsterdam, set on avenging his father’s murder. He does this by using the mobster motto of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. His target is Bill Cutting (the Butcher). Again, as in many Scorsese films where we see things mostly through the hero’s eyes, the point of view is mainly Amsterdam’s, so we can get inside him and stay focused on his revenge. Amsterdam is almost Oliver Twist in appearance. He doesn’t look tough, and he doesn’t seem like he’s a match for the bloodthirsty residents of Five Points.
Amsterdam is an avenging angel. His girlfriend, Jenny, a skilled pickpocket and fiercely independent, eventually discovers her high moral qualities, and her priorities shift to the unwavering loyalty to Amsterdam. At the risk of repeating myself, hello Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Jay Cocks and Scorsese must have had a similar upbringing. It seems that all the guilt, the unresolved issues that dwell inside the writer and the filmmaker, are assuaged, temporarily, in this film. But like any kid riddled with religion, they must keep repenting over and over again. And why not do penance on familiar ground? Whether it is the 1970s or 1870s, New York is the Temple to be revered.
In Scorsese on Scorsese, the director describes Manhattan in Gangs as “the frontier meets the city.” Because Amsterdam begins to admire Cutting, Scorsese claims that he “complicated . . . a straightforward revenge story because I was interested in emotions.” Also in this book, interestingly, Scorsese only discusses the chronology and technical aspects of Gangs, and steers clear of the obvious religious overtones.
Somewhere inside him, he must be aware of his penchant for characters searching for atonement. When speaking with Mary Kelly about Bringing Out the Dead, he admitted that in Mean Streets, Travis Bickle drove around Hell’s Kitchen like an angel of death, but the paramedic in Bringing Out the Dead is an angel of life. No one talks about angels and death and life more than a seasoned Catholic. The director may be holding onto some guilt for being a spectator in his own neighborhood when he was a kid, for not interceding on behalf of others. And in his own words, Scorsese admits, “I still wonder whether I should quit everything and help the poor . . . but . . . I’m still not strong enough” — an admission that he still carries the spiritual baggage, those feelings of inadequacy and the guilt for not being “strong.” His work shows that he continues to do penance by making films about outcasts and men in moral crises.
One film that deserves mention here is the underrated King of Comedy, mostly dismissed by critics and misunderstood by audiences. Look at Rupert Pupkin, a pitifully lonely man, desperate to break into stand-up comedy. His only acquaintance is an equally obsessed but crazy woman, hell-bent on meeting her TV idol. The other “people” in Rupert’s life are in his basement — life-size cardboard cutouts of A-list celebrities on whom he practices his shtick. Here is another Scorsese loner, but Pupkin doesn’t know how sad he is. Unlike Travis and Charlie, silently imploding, Rupert Pupkin is a volcano erupting before our eyes. He is disturbing to watch; we feel sorry for him. Even Pupkin’s triumph at the end is pitiful. With King, Scorsese gives his camera a sabbatical from prowling and snooping. He just stands back and films the explosion. It looks like Scorsese was trying to find the quickest way to redemption this time, because Pupkin does not suffer in this film. Even his two-year incarceration is not filmed. He begins and ends a winner — in his own mind.
Speaking of outcasts, Scorsese went to the top gun with The Aviator. He takes us back to a Howard Hughes before he became the Las Vegas recluse. In this film, Hughes is just making his mark in Hollywood and steadily rising in the aviation business. Here Scorsese picked a man who was too much in the public eye, nothing like Travis Bickle, but even a wealthy playboy like Howard Hughes was alone. Scorsese’s Hughes is almost Christ-like. In the segment when Hughes goes into seclusion, he is naked, dirty, has an overgrown beard and nails, and the red-tinted screen lets us believe that, surrounded by his enemies, he is in hell. Scorsese reinforces the theme when Katharine Hepburn leaves Hughes and he burns all his clothes — he is completely naked and framed by Scorsese as if he is standing in the fire.
Scorsese describes his life as a journey from Little Italy [via the Catholic Church] to the land of movie-making. His career can be summed up in his own words:
There was another journey I wanted to make . . . I wanted to be a priest . . . I soon realized that my . . . real calling was the movies. I don’t . . . see a conflict between the Church and the movies, the sacred and the profane . . . there is a spirituality in films, even if it is not one which can supplant faith.
Scorsese is not in the habit of filming remakes. He has too much respect for cinema, and tampering with a classic would be considered a sin. But in 1991, he put his own trademark on the 1962 film Cape Fear.
Bowden is a defense attorney threatened by his former client, rapist Max Cady. In the original version, Bowden merely testified against Cady, but in Scorsese’s version, Bowden knowingly and willfully botches the defense. Cady has waited fourteen years to get even. The imperfections in both characters give them a moral equivalence. Nobody’s perfect in a Scorsese picture.
And Scorsese goes for the jugular. Cady of 1962 looked dangerous with his swagger and mean southern drawl. Scorsese’s Cady looks like he just escaped from hell — another version of the angel of death. Additionally, unlike the 1962 family, the poster children for 1950s repression, the updated Bowdens represent the modern American family — doubting, disappointed, splintered.
As Scorsese explains Cady’s intrusion on them, “the weakness in the family is almost begging for someone to come in and disrupt it even further.” The family, already fractured and in crisis, must now come together to eliminate a common foe. The climactic ending in the storm is their way of “weathering” their descent into the belly of the beast. As Scorsese says, “The storm was very important because the characters’ journey has to culminate in violence in order for them to come out redeemed.”
The director takes full blame for the religious overtones: “We didn’t set out to make a religious film . . . it turned out that way . . . must have been my influence . . . he [Nolte] has his hands full of blood . . . guilt . . . then it’s washed away . . . sort of forgiveness and redemption.”
Redemption — always redemption! Somewhere between heaven and hell, Scorsese found his rock, the movies, and continues to bless us with his very special vintage holy water.
And, finally, a few years ago, the Academy, at long last, released Martin from the winless purgatory, and blessed him with the Best Director trophy for The Departed, a film that took him back to his film roots. The hellish vision, the carnage, the Mob and the Catholics, all come together again for a Scorsese reunion. The Academy voters also threw in the Best Picture award, probably for their own penance and redemption. Everyone agrees it was about time — no one wanted the former altar boy to wait for his reward in heaven.
Helmetag, Charles. Recreating Edith Wharton’s New York in Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence, Literary Film Quarterly, 1998, 26(3), 162.
Italie, Hillel. The Restless Warrior at 55, World Tibet National News, Jan. 27, 1998.
Keyser, Les. Twayne’s Filmmaker Series, Martin Scorsese, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1992.
Nicholls, Mark. Male Melancholia and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Film Quarterly, 58(1), 25-30.
Scorsese, Martin. Scorsese on Scorsese, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 2003.
Singer, Mark. The Man Who Forgets Nothing: The Minestrone of Martin Scorsese’s Mind, New Yorker, March 27, 2000, 76(5), 90.
The Age of Innocence, Roger Ebert 9/17/93
Gangs of New York, Roger Ebert 12/20/02
Goodfellas, Roger Ebert 2005
The King of Comedy, Roger Ebert 5/15/83
Raging Bull , Roger Ebert 1/1/80
Taxi Driver, Roger Ebert 1/1/76