Martin Scorsese

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Oct. 29 1999 9:30 PM

Martin Scorsese

The vicar of cinema.

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This kind of realism marks Scorsese's next two films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore--his best piece of directing-for-hire, and one of the half-forgotten gems of the period--and Taxi Driver, both of which were critically and commercially successful. But the medium-budget, artisanal, personal filmmaking of the early '70s soon gave way to grander visions. To be a New Hollywood director was to flirt with hubris. Biskind's book, accordingly, concludes with a litany of spectacular flameouts: Coppola's Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, Spielberg's 1941, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, and, of course, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. According to Mardik Martin, Scorsese's erstwhile writing partner (as quoted by Biskind): "The auteur theory killed all these people. One or two films, the magazines told them they were geniuses, that they could do anything. They went completely bananas. They thought they were God." Scorsese's own Götterdämmerung came with New York, New York, a hugely ambitious jazz epic starring De Niro and Liza Minelli (Scorsese's mistress at the time), and the first of a series of flops that continued with Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.

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Of these three, Raging Bull has been singled out for vindication. It's the highest-ranking of the three Scorsese films on the American Film Institute's Top 100 list, and it's widely considered to be his masterpiece. But it remains exceedingly hard to watch, not so much because of the repulsiveness of De Niro's Jake La Motta as because of its overall sense of aesthetic claustrophobia. It's a movie lacquered by its own self-importance, so bloated with the ambition to achieve greatness that it can barely move. If it convinces you it's a masterpiece, it does so by sheer brute force.

Raging Bull is undone by its own perfectionism. New York, New York and The King of Comedy stand up rather better, in my opinion, in spite of their obvious flaws. (So does The Last Waltz, a documentary of the Band's last concert done simultaneously with New York, New York, thanks to the magic of cocaine.) For one thing, New York, New York is virtually the only Scorsese movie (aside from "Life Lessons," his crackerjack contribution to the Coppola-produced anthology film New York Stories) to have at its center the relationship between a man and a woman. For another, it ends with Liza Minelli parading through a series of phantasmagoric stage sets singing a pointedly ironic song called "Happy Endings"--a sequence every bit as dazzling (and as mystifying) as the ballet from An American in Paris. Just as Mean Streets is an unparalleled demonstration of the power of film to convey reality, "Happy Endings" is a celebration of film's magical ability to create it. A moviegoer's dream, but good luck seeing it on the big screen.

For its part, The King of Comedy, a creepy reprise of Taxi Driver--played, this time, for laughs--is a movie made before its time, back when celebrity-stalking was a piquant metaphor for our cultural ills, rather than the focus of our cultural life. De Niro and Sandra Bernhard kidnap Jerry Lewis (playing, brilliantly, a famous late-night talk show host), Bernhard steals the movie, and the ending is guaranteed to provoke long, excruciating arguments about the difference between fantasy and reality.

In Biskind's account of the tragedy of the New Hollywood, Spielberg is the villain, Hal Ashby the martyr, and Scorsese the scarred survivor. After the failures of the early '80s, he picked himself up and made some more movies: the quirky, proto-Indie downtown comedy After Hours, The Color of Money (a respectable sequel to The Hustler), and his long dreamed of The Last Temptation of Christ. His fortunes revived with GoodFellas, which was hailed as a return to form, and floundered again with The Age of Innocence, one of his periodic attempts--like The Last Waltz, Temptation and, most recently, Kundun--to defy expectation. Next came Casino, one of his periodic attempts to defy the expectation that he would defy expectations. Casino blends RagingBull with GoodFellas and can be interpreted as a wry allegory of Hollywood in the '70s--a time when "guys like us" (i.e., the free-lancing gangsters played by De Niro and Joe Pesci) were allowed to run things without interference. Of course, they got too greedy, screwed everything up, and the big corporations turned their playground into Disneyland. At the end, De Niro's character, the scarred survivor, picks himself up and goes back to work.

Scorsese keeps working too--upcoming projects include Gangs of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio, and a Dean Martin biopic starring Tom Hanks. His extracurricular good works--overseeing the re-release of classics such as El Cid and Belle de Jour, campaigning for film preservation, narrating a BBC documentary on his favorite movies--are testament to his abiding faith. But his movies more often than not feel cold and mechanical. They substitute intensity for emotion and give us bombast when we want passion. Why do we go to the movies? Pauline Kael used to say it was to be caught up, swept away, surfeited by sensation, and confronted by reality. Some of us keep going to Scorsese's movies because we still want to believe in that, and we leave wondering whether he still does.

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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