Directors Who Dominate: Martin Scorsese

17 Mar
2011

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Among the directors who dominate the Flickchart global rankings, it’s probably safe to say that Martin Scorsese has one of the more diverse and consistent filmographies you’ll find. Since he started directing in the early 1970s up to now, he has directed the numerous gangster films for which he is best known, but also comedies, period dramas, concert films, documentaries, thrillers, even musicals. And while not all of his films have enjoyed either popular or critical acclaim, his Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins for 2006‘s The Departed (ranked #24 globally) were greeted by cinephiles with cries of “finally!” One of cinema’s finest masters and greatest supporters had received the recognition many thought due him several times before.

Scorsese was of the so-called “movie brat” generation, the first group of American filmmakers to grow up watching and studying film, the first generation to go to film school before heading out to Hollywood to try their luck. Born in Queens, he graduated from NYU’s film school in 1964, then hit Hollywood just as the studio system was crumbling under its own weight, ripe for fresh new talent to come in and revolutionize American film. The directors lumped together as the New Hollywood movement, including Scorsese, were marked by a devotion to film itself, both the rich history of American film and the influences wafting over from the 1960s European cinema, as well as a preference for intimate, realistic, character-driven stories. Scorsese even more than most knew and loved the legacy of American filmmaking, and you can see him subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) homaging classic Hollywood cinema in nearly every film he has made.

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Almost as soon as Scorsese arrived in Hollywood, director/producer Roger Corman took him under his wing, as he has done with so many aspiring filmmakers – Scorsese’s early low-budget feature Boxcar Bertha was made under Corman’s mentorship, who encouraged the same type of visceral, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking in his protégés that he employed on his own films. The film that really put Scorsese on the map, though, was 1973‘s Mean Streets, a gritty crime drama about a guilt-ridden gangster (Harvey Keitel) tasked with straightening out live wire Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Often stylistically over the top, Mean Streets (ranked #293) nonetheless taps into something very personal and meaningful about New York City wise guy culture as well as these characters in particular – besides that, it has an electric intensity that would characterize most of Scorsese’s best work. It also set the precedent for Scorsese’s fascination with the city he grew up in; a large percentage of his films are set in New York City, whether he’s working in the crime/gangster genre or not.

After Mean Streets, Scorsese directed Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar win for the very proto-typical New Hollywood character drama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – the first of several Oscar-winning performances in Scorsese films. Returning to the New York crime milieu, he next cast De Niro as the unhinged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, which remains one of his very best and most incisive films (ranked #51), as well as one of his most controversial due to the casting of the underage Jodie Foster as a child prostitute. The film’s depiction of crime, perversion and vigilante justice remains unsettling to this day. Scorsese’s next film New York, New York is often considered a misfire (ranked #3386), an attempt to recreate the glitzy movie musicals of the past. It’s one of the films where he wears his nostalgia for bygone Hollywood most blatantly on his sleeve, pairing his frequent star De Niro with Hollywood musical royalty Liza Minnelli (daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli) in a showbiz story of romance and musicians.

As a young man fresh on the Hollywood scene, Scorsese had worked as an editor on Woodstock; after New York, New York he turned to concert documentaries rather than narrative musicals to indulge his musical proclivities, starting with The Last Waltz in 1978, the document of The Band’s final concert. He’d return to music and concert docs periodically during his career, most notably for Bob Dylan in No Direction Home and The Rolling Stones in Shine a Light. He’s even done a few music videos for Michael Jackson and others, and produced a TV series on blues music.

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Returning to his roots of character-driven drama, he and De Niro made one of their finest films in 1980 (barely breaking the Flickchart Top 100 at #92, Scorsese’s fourth highest-ranked film), the gritty yet stylish boxing drama Raging Bull, for which De Niro won an Oscar. As New Hollywood faded into the 1980s, Scorsese varied up his act a bit, directing the dark comedy The King of Comedy (with De Niro as a wanna-be comic who gets carried away by his adoration for a talk show host), absurdist comedy After Hours, about the worst night ever in a young man’s life, then taking on The Color of Money, the sequel to 1961‘s The Hustler. All these films are solid, but lack to one degree or another the spark that set his 1970s films (plus Raging Bull) in a class by themselves. In 1987 he earned the wrath of the religious right with his passion project adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ (ranked #515), which depicts an alternate narrative where Jesus descends from the cross and carries out a full human life and family. Scorsese himself was brought up Catholic, and you can easily see Catholic themes and undercurrents running through much of his work, from Mean Streets to The Departed – in fact, The Last Temptation of Christ is a vey interesting exploration of Jesus Christ as a character and the controversy over the film is far overblown from what it deserves. But the film was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a commercial failure.

Scorsese’s next film is the one that Flickcharters as a group rank the highest, his return to the gangster genre and his collaborations with Robert De Niro, 1990‘s Goodfellas (ranked #12 globally). Charting the initiation of a young man (Ray Liotta) into the mob and his rise through the ranks, the film remains, along with The Godfather, one of the greatest modern gangster films, combining virtuoso filmmaking (remember that one tracking shot?) with solid acting and characterization. But the success of Goodfellas would not deter Scorsese from making some riskier choices in his next projects: first, Cape Fear, a remake of a 1962 thriller done into a near horror film, then a costume drama based on Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Reactions to these films vary wildly, with many able to see and appreciate Scorsese’s auteur stamp on them and others feeling they fall below his other films in quality. 1995‘s Casino was a welcome return to the crime drama genre he knows so well, but 1997‘s Kundun, a biopic of the Dalai Lama, was too much of a departure for many to take (ranked at #2154), though it is praised for its lush cinematography and storytelling. Bringing Out the Dead, a somewhat surreal tale of a paramedic’s nightmarish shift, was his last film before entering what I’d consider his current career phase.

If Robert De Niro was clearly Martin Scorsese’s muse in his early and mid-career, Leonardo DiCaprio has definitely taken on that role now. Starting with 2002‘s Gangs of New York, DiCaprio has starred in all four of Scorsese’s narrative feature films (though he is not in the upcoming Hugo Cabret). Gangs of New York is usually considered an interesting failure (though Flickcharters have ranked it a respectable #303), a rather unwieldy exploration of very early New York gang life, dominated by Irish gangs rather than Italian ones, but it still has its moments, many of them due to a larger-than-life performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. But it was DiCaprio that Scorsese held onto, casting him as famous airplane manufacturer/film producer/hypochondriac Howard Hughes in The Aviator (which incidentally brought Cate Blanchett an Oscar for her spot-on portrayal of Katharine Hepburn).

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Scorsese’s most successful film of recent years, both popularly and critically, is easily 2006‘s The Departed, a well-executed remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. With an extremely strong cast including not only DiCaprio, but also Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, and Vera Farmiga, a complex storyline involving gangsters, cops, and the double-agents who infiltrate both, and well-drawn characters, The Departed was a welcome Academy Award winner for both Best Picture and Best Director, Scorsese’s first award in a career of outstanding films. His most recent effort, the atmospheric psychological thriller Shutter Island, didn’t meet with universal critical acclaim, but it’s hard to deny Scorsese’s eye for period detail and the rhythms of his large and talented cast – clearly Flickcharters recognize this, giving it a global ranking of #159.

Up next for Scorsese is Hugo Cabret, a departure in many ways. It’s a film based on a children’s book, an audience Scorsese has never aimed at before, and it will be his first foray into 3D. I’m far from a fan of 3D, but I have to admit, I’m dying to see what a filmmaker like Scorsese, who clearly understands that the language of cinema must be rewritten for 3D, will do with the format. Perhaps the two most fundamental things about Scorsese are his deep love of cinema itself, shown both in his ability to tap into classic tropes and techniques while still keeping a modern sensibility and in his ongoing efforts to preserve and promote our cinematic heritage, and his insatiable interest in innovation, in trying new technologies and new genres, while always keeping story and character first and foremost. He has dominated American cinema for more than thirty years, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. I certainly hope he doesn’t.

  • Travis McClain

    I loved Bringing Out the Dead, as did my wife. She was actually working EMS when I showed it to her, and it rang so true to her that she insisted we buy a second copy of it on DVD just to ensure that we’d have a backup!

    As for Gangs of New York, I loved it when I saw it Christmas Day 2002 on the big screen. I know Cameron Diaz has her detractors, but I didn’t have a problem with her performance. The little post-9/11 inspired tag felt artificial to me, and I could have done without that, but that was hardly enough to sour me on the film.

    Incidentally, Warner included a wonderful, full length documentary (Scorsese on Scorsese) as a bonus feature on the 2-disc Special Edition DVD release of The Departed. For some reason, they did not port it over to the Blu-ray release, though. As a consequence, it’s one of the few DVDs I’ve kept despite upgrading the feature to its Blu-ray counterpart. Anyway, the doc features Scorsese discussing his films to that point, and sharing some of his life along the way largely in providing context for the perspective he had at the time of production. I highly recommend it.

    Scorsese is one of those rare people whose enthusiasm for the medium is unquestioned. I would love to have taken a film class taught by him, even without any intention of ever being more than a viewer. I think what really comes across in his storytelling is an unerring capacity for reducing large stories to the most basic human interest level. The environments in his productions are rich and intricate, but never do they distract us from the underlying question: “Why do we care about these people?”

  • http://www.the-frame.com Jandy Stone

    Gangs of New York was probably one of the first Scorsese films I saw, actually (I’ve been doing a lot of catch-up lately), and I thought it was pretty uneven. And yeah, I’m not at all a Cameron Diaz fan, so that probably added to it. I’m actually not that big a Day-Lewis fan, either, so maybe the cards were stacked against me liking Gangs of New York – I respect what DDL does, but i don’t really get caught up in it.

    And you’re exactly right on Scorsese’s enthusiasm. I love watching him talk about films and filmmaking – it would make me excited about it even if I weren’t already. His level of passion for the art, craft, and history of film is almost unmatched among popular filmmakers.

  • Travis McClain

    There was an American Express commercial with Scorsese that I think offered the perfect distillation of his storytelling sensibilities. Addressing someone off screen, not quite looking into the camera, he dismisses some images he’s been shown by asking, “Where’s the drama?” It’s as profound as it is simple.

  • Nigel Druitt

    I think the first Scorsese I saw was Cape Fear. Maybe Gangs. Either way, the only Scorsese film I’ve seen that I’ve genuinely loved is The Departed. I think it’s fantastic. I kind of dig The Aviator, but after that, what I’ve seen doesn’t do much for me. Not even GoodFellas (though there are aspects of that film that I liked).

    I always feel funny when I say that I’m not a big fan of Martin Scorsese. Like I should be, but I just can’t get into his work. (I’m that way with Tarantino, too…) But looking at the rest of the titles there, I think I’d really like to see Bringing Out the Dead. I remember being interested in that one years ago…

    Anyway, nice article, Jandy. An interesting read.

  • http://reviewsbytom.blogspot.com Tom Clift

    Really interesting piece Jandy! I haven’t seen a lot of Scorsese’s “lesser” works, but I’m really interested in checking out THE KING OF COMEDY and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST especially.

  • Tsokolo

    I just love the directors from New York. Their work is authentic and honest. Though their non-compromising stand when exploring issues and making films has always landed them in trouble. I suppose that’s why Hollywood is reluctant to honor their work. If it took Hollywood +/- 30 years to present Scorsese with an oscar, how long will Spike Lee have to wait?