“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His extensive filmography is glittered with universally acclaimed jewels like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The King of Comedy among others. With nine nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director, Scorsese is the most-nominated living director and is second only to William Wyler’s twelve nominations overall. He is also a recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award for his contributions to the cinema and has won an Academy Award, a Palme d’Or, a Cannes Film Festival Award, a Silver Lion, three Primetime Emmy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards among several others.
Born in New York, Scorsese developed a passion for cinema early in his life. As a child, he could not play sports with other children because he suffered from asthma, and, as a result, he found himself spending most of his time in movie theatres. Growing up in the Bronx, he used to rent Powell and Pressburger’ 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann from a local shop that had one copy of the reel. Later on in his life, he acknowledged the influence of Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic innovations on his own filmmaking.
Scorsese was a part of the “film-school” generation in the 1960s when he attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. The short films he produced in his time at NYU influenced his later work too as he mentioned the huge influence of NYU film professor Haig P. Manoogian on his films. He started his filmmaking career with his first short film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? in 1963 and didn’t look back. Scorsese showed signs of his genius right from the start, paying tribute to Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½ and also employing innovative techniques like animations, montage, jump cuts, associative editing, and freeze-frame shots. However, it wasn’t until his feature film debut I Call First, which was later retitled Who’s That Knocking at My Door, that Scorsese’s talents were properly recognised. In reaction to that project, Roger Ebert once wrote, “I Call First brings these two kinds of films together into a work that is absolutely genuine, artistically satisfying and technically comparable to the best films being made anywhere. I have no reservations in describing it as a great moment in American movies.”
The burgeoning filmmaker fully manifested his unique artistic sensibilities in 1973 picture Mean Streets, a compelling look at the gritty lives of lower echelon Mafiosos, unbalanced punks, and petty criminals in Little Italy. Mean Streets broke a lot of rules that were exclusive to mob films and presents an existential deconstruction of the identity of a gangster. Although it was heavily influenced by early Jean-Luc Godard, Cassavetes and Samuel Fuller, its textural rock soundtrack, shadowy lighting, and innovative cinematography provided a welcome edge to the film. The subversive editing techniques work well with the wired, dirty atmosphere to create a cinematic sensation of discomfort, suffocation and occasionally disgust. Mean Streets, and the various interpretations of the crime genre by the other “movie brats” of the 1970s like Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola heavily influenced the Poliziotteschi genre films in Italy as well as the Cinéma du look movement in France. Richard Linklater dubbed Mean Streets as the “patron saint of independent filmmaking,” adding, “It’s the kind of film that says, ‘Go do this.’”
Many consider Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver to be his magnum opus and with good reason. Scorsese’s searing investigation of masculinity and disillusioned aggression is a rebellion against the emptiness of the universe and at the centre of it is Robert De Niro’s iconic performance as Travis Bickle, an ex-marine and Vietnam veteran who works as a cab driver in New York City. Although it was criticised for its depiction of violence and inciting an assassination attempt, Taxi Driver has been defended by the likes of Ingmar Bergman who said it was among the highest forms of artistic expressions of violence and Quentin Tarantino whose own works were heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese. He maintained:
“One of the things about Taxi Driver, to me, [that] is just so amazing, is not only is it this wonderful character study of this – to put it lightly – troubled individual… What’s so fascinating about the character study is it truly puts you in the point of the view of this man. If you’ve ever been lonely and lived in a ghetto area, it’s easy to feel Travis Bickle’s kind of feelings of ‘all alone me’ versus ‘my environment.’ And the movie actually encourages that kind of empathy with a very questionable character. You see through his eyes so strongly.”
It can be argued that the most impressive portion of Scorsese’s oeuvre is his exploration of Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption through his crime films like 1990 film Goodfellas which received unprecedented critical acclaim. Often compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, Scorsese’s take on organised crime is a brilliant investigation of the cultural glorification of a life of crime as well as the moral vacuum that it often exists in. It is also true that Scorsese finally received the Academy Award for Best Director for his 2006 crime thriller The Departed but what makes the filmmaker so special is actually his ability to transition between these rigid classifications of genre and still manage to ask questions that have the same philosophical force. When someone talks about Scorsese’s deviations from the kind of films he usually makes, they often refer to his period piece The Age of Innocence (1993) or his religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). For me, the proof of Scorsese’s filmmaking versatility is actually the 1985 effort After Hours.
A criminally neglected work in Scorsese’s filmography, After Hours transcends classifications and never even bothers to ask platitudinous questions about faith or traditional violence. It is an unceasing urban nightmare which translates Kafka’s anxieties to the cinematic medium and superbly manages to explore the realm of the surreal without resorting to Lynchian excesses. The film has been criticised for its unconventional ending, one which makes the narrative structure circular and places the protagonist right back where he started but that is exactly what makes it a striking commentary on the nature of human impotence and the erasure of free-will. More importantly, it is a prescient observation of the change in narrative styles which would soon be seen in an emerging and promising medium of interactive art – video games! Narrative resolution has been relegated to the realm of the obsolete in a world where we keep playing the same levels over and over again.
Over the years, Scorsese’s films have shaped artistic voices not just in America but all over the world. It is extremely difficult to even begin to trace the stylistic references to his work but that’s just a testament to his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema. From New Hollywood films to contemporary works, a lot of filmmakers feel indebted to Scorsese’s achievements with the medium. A relatively recent example is Todd Phillips’ 2019 film Joker which explores the despicable tendency of celebrity fetishisation, questions of individual identity and frustrations borne out of societal neglect, just like The King of Comedy did 37 years ago. When South Korean director Bong Joon-ho won the Academy Award for Best Picture for Parasite in the same year, he said he studied Scorsese’s works in school and quoted the revered filmmaker during his victory speech, “When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that, ‘The most personal is the most creative.'”
There is no doubt that Scorsese has established himself as one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema but he has also been actively working for the preservation of the art and has even ventured into editing a series of reissued film books for the Modern Library. He has made two documentaries on national cinemas (the United States and Italy), appearing in many others to talk about his love for films and his influences as a filmmaker. It will be interesting to see what he manages to do in his next project Killers of the Flower Moon which will unite Scorsese with his frequent collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro simultaneously for the first time.