Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Conversations With Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's motormouthed enthusiasm for movies can be grating sometimes, but the man often has interesting observations to make. That makes Richard Schickel's new collection of conversations a promising volume: you get the observations in reasonable doses without the cartoonish voice. The book is a survey of Scorsese's career up to the surprise hit of Shutter Island (a public endorsement Schickel and to a lesser extent Scorsese himself find "astonishing"), bracketed by reflections on the director's upbringing and education and general comments on his techniques and artistic principles. Memories being what they are, and the earlier canonical works having been well gone over elsewhere, there's less talk about Taxi Driver or Goodfellas than about The Aviator and The Departed. This book is no substitute for a comprehensive artistic autobiography, and the nature of the format makes the book a hit-and-miss proposition, but it's an entertaining read.

With such a project the whole is inevitably less than the sum of its parts, but you probably read it for the flashes of insight (or their opposites) and the odd bits of trivia. You learn here, for instance, that Leonardo DiCaprio considered Out of the Past "the coolest film I've ever seen" when Scorsese screened it for him prior to The Departed. You also learn that Akira Kurosawa panned The Age of Innocence, complaining that "I do not like movies about romances" while chiding Scorsese for using too much music in his films. That news reminded me that I missed a discussion of Scorsese's career as a character actor, including his role as Vincent Van Gogh in Kurosawa's Dreams. The two directors clearly had some sort of artistic relationship that barely gets touched on here.

On his own work Scorsese is most interesting when most critical of himself. Shutter Island is clearly a touchy subject for him, especially since Schickel doesn't seem to have liked it. Scorsese was still smarting from a perceived betrayal by the studio that pushed the release date from Fall 2009 to February 2010, even though he has to admit that they must have had the right idea based on box office. Going back a few years, it seems that Scorsese still doesn't understand what went wrong with Gangs of New York. He tells Schickel that his dream project might have gone over better had he not run out of money while staging the New York Draft Riots. That sounds like a way to blame the money men for his own story problem. He could have filmed the riots with thousands of extras, but it would not have helped the picture as long as the riots remained irrelevant to the final showdown between DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis's gangs. The deeper flaw in the often-brilliant Gangs is its insistence on a hero implausibly innocent of bigotry in such a bigoted age, its option for a generic revenge storyline instead of something more challenging.

Taking a larger view, I was intrigued by Scorsese's acknowledgment that Bringing Out the Dead marked the end of something for him. I didn't think much of the 1999 film, but I'd agree that there remains something essentially Scorsesean about that project that's missing from his films of the new millennium. While he still clearly has a creative passion about the making of images, the passion often seems to have gone out of his stories, leaving them the work of a master craftsman, but without his signature drive. Shutter Island is probably his best film of this period, but it's Dennis Lehane's story, not Scorsese's. While the director says nothing to confirm my hunch, I still feel that he hasn't been the same since 1995, when the public rejected Casino because it seemed too much like Goodfellas, which was like saying you'd allow John Ford only one cavalry movie. The most interesting thing Scorsese says about Casino is that he considers Joe Pesci's death scene the most brutal thing he's ever shot, and doesn't want to do anything like that again.

By the end, I recognized kindred spirits in both Scorsese and Schickel. I mean that almost literally, since it's on page 356 when the following exchange occurs regarding a film I haven't yet seen. I could hardly express better the value of film beyond its aesthetic or literary merit as a mirror of its time and place in history.

Schickel: The artifacts of history in film are terribly important. I mean, the worst movie in the world will contain clues to how we lived, how we dressed, how we talked.

Scorsese: That is what I was pointing out in 1979. There was a film called The Creeping Terror, a silly sci-fi film shot in the Midwest. They got everybody in some town to act in it. So you actually saw the way people dressed. And you saw how they behaved in everyday life. They were 'acting,' but they really weren't. The plot was not the point. What was important to me was what it said about America, and about our culture. It was very moving.

And sometimes so is this book.


The Movie Snob said...

This book sounds fascinating. I will definitely be checking this out.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, it's really essential for Scorsese fans, and fans of cinema in general. I love Marty, but you are right Samuel. He os often grating. I was fortunate to meet him back in 1993 at a movie palace in New Brunswick, New Jersey, when he introduced Powell and Pressberger's THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, and siged the Criterion laserdiscs. We got a few words in with him, and he was glowing, but his manner of speech can definitely be exasperating. TAXI DRIVER is playing for nine more days at the Film Forum in a gorgeous print, so I may be there. I loved most of his work, except for BRINGING OUT THE DEAD.

Terrific post here.