Last week was notable for director Martin Scorsese reaching the golden age of 66, a moment when many a hard-working director might begin to lean towards slowing down. But the two words "slowing" and "down" are not found in Marty's lexicon, and certainly not joined together.
Through a mutual friend, I contacted his office over two years ago to ask him to do a retrospective at a not-for-profit cinema I'd co-founded. Initially, it was a "yes"; then it was "Marty's in the editing room", and finally the dreaded "we'll call you". All this time later, in spite of my checking in regularly, the event has not come to pass.
Only a fool would complain about this. There is nothing arrogant or malicious in Scorsese failing to commit. I know this from watching him, hearing him, and observing his deeds and indeed the films he creates. More than any other director I can think of, he is totally, 100% committed to the art of cinema, the classic example of someone doing what he's best at and what he loves. This is a man gloriously consumed by film.
And he loves watching them almost as much as making them. He is at heart a student of film, showing a keen interest in its evolution and a reverence for great work that has come before. For those seeking proof, check out his two sterling mini-series on movies: A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), and My Voyage To Italy (1999), about that country's post-war neo-realist movement.
It's ironic that he nearly chose a different path, at one point contemplating the priesthood after being raised Roman Catholic in New York City. But from his earliest days as a small, asthma-plagued child, the make-believe world of movies beckoned to him, and by the early seventies, he was one of those early Roger Corman acolytes who had moved on and now seemed ready to take the reins of a troubled industry in transition. At this point, it was achingly clear that unless the film business could reinvent itself, it would sink into irrelevance, unthinkable for a medium that at its best was the most powerful and captivating ever conceived.
A new generation of film-makers with unfamiliar names like Coppola, Ashby, Bogdanovich, Friedkin, and Scorsese stepped in to fill the void, and were given a one-time chance to do original, even risky material, as long as budgets stayed lean. Finding a sizable audience hungry for fresher material, these men would go on to shoot some of the signatures films of the past generation.
Remembering that time so vividly, it's hard to contemplate that Martin Scorsese now sits atop the Hollywood establishment as the white haired muse of cinema. But retirement- are you kidding? This man talks fast and works faster. At the end of his days, it's likely he'll be carried off the set with a huge smile on his face.
Thirty-five years ago, Scorsese had been an editor on "Woodstock" (1970), and just completed his second feature film as director, "Boxcar Bertha" (1972), with Barbara Hershey. With trepidation, he showed a cut of "Boxcar" to friend and mentor John Cassavetes, then the undisputed king of independent cinema. Cassavetes told him he could do better.
Scorsese then adopted the age-old advice given to creative people: always begin by evoking the places, people, and conditions you really know about from personal experience. This he did with his next feature, "Mean Streets" (1973), a breakthrough achievement which established the director's trademark raw, unflinching style, and launched this young filmmaker on a prolific and often brilliant career.
To mark the birthday of this enduring talent, I propose the following list of top Scorsese films, with all titles culled from www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.
Mean Streets (1973)- In a plot out of a 30's gangster picture Scorsese might have seen as a kid, small-time hood Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a native of New York's colorful Little Italy, is trying to reconcile his life as a small time thug to his strict Catholic faith. He's also constantly forced to clean up after his impulsive, erratic childhood friend and inveterate gambler, Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro). Bonds of friendship and loyalty are sorely tested, as Keitel finds himself in deep water alongside his old buddy. Shot on location in the streets of New York's Little Italy, the character and flavor of the neighborhood are made pungent through the director's keen eye and sense of place. He extracts memorable performances from Keitel and De Niro (both of whom he'd use again). The then wiry young De Niro manages to show the tragic, pathetic side to a pretty hateful character, so we understand Charlie's compulsion to protect him.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)- Young widow Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is left to make a new life for herself and her young son, with no prospects and precious little money. With Alice harboring vague hopes of becoming a singer, she and her boy take an eventful road-trip west. Watching their challenging but colorful journey unfold is as satisfying as the hopeful outcome they ultimately achieve. Here the director branches out into more unfamiliar territory, a world away from the gritty, urban, ethnic male preserves of "Mean Streets". Yet the personal, heartfelt quality of "Alice" makes it one of my favorite Scorsese outings. Singer/actor Kris Kristofferson proves immensely appealing as Alice's laconic, no- nonsense boyfriend. Also look for a young, predictably precocious Jodie Foster in a small role.
Taxi Driver (1976)- Travis Bickle (De Niro), Vietnam vet turned Manhattan cabbie, is an angry, forgotten man, and he's about to break. His work takes him into the cesspool of the city, in contact with various lowlifes, including a pimp named Sport (Keitel), who protects child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis befriends. He then takes one last stab at a better life, courting lovely campaign aide Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). But it's soon clear he doesn't belong in her world, and Bickle's final disintegration is at hand. Scorsese's dark vision of human alienation in an urban wasteland captures the seaminess of pre-Giuliani Manhattan, and DeNiro's career-making performance as Bickle is truly haunting, recalling those real-life outcasts who have used violent crime to tell an oblivious world: "I was here!". Stunningly directed and acted, this picture is every bit as disturbing now as when released. Be warned: it's not for the faint of heart.
The Last Waltz (1978)- Continuing a tradition begun with his co-editing of "Woodstock" close to a decade earlier, Martin Scorsese captures "The Last Waltz" for posterity. This was The Band's final 1976 tour, after a back-breaking sixteen years on the road. To mark the milestone as a celebration, not a wake, the group assembled a veritable rock hall-of-fame to join them, including Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, and Neil Young. The rest is music history. Often hailed as the greatest concert movie ever, it may just be. Robbie Robertson, the film's producer and guiding light behind The Band, is charismatic off-stage, electric on. All the guest musicians sing and play at the top of their games. Highlights include Joni Mitchell's "Coyote", Waters's earthy, soulful "Mannish Boy", Dr. John's dreamy "Such A Night", and Clapton's jaw-dropping guitar work on "Further On Up The Road". Scorsese hired top directors of photography to film this event from every conceivable angle, and the result is an intimate, exhilarating ride into the heart of rock music.
Raging Bull (1980)- In 1941, real-life boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro) spurns the mob, who want a piece of him, in his quest for the middleweight title. With the help of Joey (Joe Pesci), his brother and manager, Jake wins the championship belt, then loses it to Sugar Ray Robinson. As his career spirals downward, Jake bloats up and physically abuses Joey and his own teenage wife Vicky (Cathy Moriarty). Alienated from everyone and wrestling with emotional demons, the relentlessly self-destructive Jake searches for some semblance of inner peace. Based on LaMotta's memoirs and filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, Scorsese's intense, no-holds-barred drama tackles the familiar theme of redemption with blunt force. Oscar winner De Niro, who famously packed on 50 pounds to do the "fat" scenes, is riveting as the brutish Jake, whose primary talent lies in the amount of punishment he can take in the ring. The fight sequences-sweaty and savage-are bravura pieces of filmmaking. "Raging Bull" may be hard for some viewers to sit through, but Scorsese ultimately leads his protagonist, and us, to a state of grace.
The King Of Comedy (1983)- Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a no-talent funnyman who dreams big dreams of Vegas-style celebrity. Namely, he wants to appear on the talk show of his idol, the caustic Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and begins haunting the man's offices to no avail. Provoked by another, slightly unhinged Langford fan, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin finally hatches a bizarre, even more devious scheme to get the attention he's convinced he deserves. In the under-exposed "King of Comedy", De Niro plays a creepy, psychotic loser who delivers hammy jokes in clownish stage garb, while poker-faced Lewis portrays an acerbic talk-show host modeled after late-night king Johnny Carson. The film fell flat with audiences in the early '80s (blame the blockbuster!), but in recent years has become something of a cult hit, and with good reason, too. De Niro and Lewis play off each other beautifully, and the truly sordid Bernhard adds another layer of offbeat appeal to this twisted take on our obsession with celebrity. Long live this "King"!
Goodfellas (1990)- Based on "Wiseguys", Nicholas Pileggi's novel, "Goodfellas" focuses on gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a Mafia soldier who can never be "made" because he isn't 100% Italian. This hardly prevents Henry from being in the thick of the action, along with mentor Jimmy Conway (De Niro) and cohort Tommy de Vito (Pesci). This unforgettable movie experience traces the fortunes of Henry and his crew, as eventually the ascendancy of narcotics in underworld business spells Hill's own undoing. Scorsese's mob masterpiece, which he co-scripted with Pileggi, is an intimate, insider's glimpse into the rise and fall of the Mafia from the 1950's onward. Period music, costumes, and a bold, intrusive shooting style help evoke a heady, secret world of crime without consequences, a world bound to implode. Liotta is strangely sympathetic and all-too-human as Hill, DeNiro frighteningly combustible as Jimmy, and Pesci electrifying as the savage, psychotic Tommy (he nabbed an Oscar for this). My favorite of the director's films, this ranks as one of the best crime movies ever made.
Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005)- This ambitious two-part documentary covers the enigmatic balladeer's rise, focusing on Dylan's artistic courage in shifting from folk to rock-infused songs in the mid-sixties, and his steadfast refusal to play a broader cultural role in these tumultuous times. He wanted simply to make music, and let the music speak for itself. Modern day interviews include Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Allen Ginsberg. Don't miss this masterful portrait of a pivotal crossroads in Dylan's career, leading up to the serious 1966 motorcycle accident that signaled a prolonged hiatus from touring. This intimate and insightful film makes it clear that Dylan would likely have taken a break from public performances anyhow, as his mid-sixties tour in England was met with hostility every time the singer picked up an electric guitar, further straying from his sacred folk roots. "No Direction Home" constitutes a fascinating sixties time capsule, and a revealing meditation on artistic integrity and the pitfalls of fame.
No, folks- it's not a typo...both "The Departed" (2006) and "Shine A Light" (2007) do not make my top list. Though I'm in a big minority here, I'll submit that while both features make for solid movie entertainment, neither achieves quite the level of greatness reflected in the prior selections. The problem with "The Departed" is the same one affecting most re-makes: it falls short of the original. For those unaware, that original was a Chinese film titled "Infernal Affairs" (2002). With "The Departed", Scorsese moves the story from China to Boston, adds a few characters, and makes the story considerably longer and more violent. If you watch "Infernal Affairs", you may agree that true to the old adage, less is (most often) more.
The fact this film won Scorsese his only directorial Oscar reflects the same phenomenon that had Liz Taylor winning for "Butterfield 8" (1960), and the late Paul Newman nabbing his only statuette for another decent but over-rated Scorsese outing, "The Color Of Money" (1986). Why not "Hud"(1963), or "Cool Hand Luke"(1967), we ask? Because there are times when an Oscar is won for someone's whole body of work, not the performance or film cited in the award. With "Shine A Light", we see the aging Rolling Stones up close in all their wrinkled glory, performing most of the same songs they've been putting across for the past 30-40 years. It's definitely catnip for die-hard Stones fans, but for others, I'd just as soon recommend a re-screening of "Gimme Shelter"(1970).
Though personally I glimpse a slight tendency towards over-indulgence in some of Scorsese's more recent films, the breadth and overall quality of his work still outshines that of most any film director working in Hollywood today. For that alone, we all have ample reason to celebrate his birthday.