May 22, 2013
Schickel on Scorsese
Posted on Mar 11, 2011
I don’t believe that Marty is himself particularly paranoid—though he does have mirrors up in the “Video Village” from which he operates on his sets and in his editing room, so that no one can catch him unawares, from behind his back. And he does speak of being taught, as a kid, not to react to the suspicious behavior that went on around him. Eyes front (and blank), lips sealed—that’s how he passed many of his years in Little Italy. Where he grew up, almost all the deadly behavior he observed stemmed from someone betraying or attempting to betray someone else, whether the business at hand was criminal, familial, or something as simple as an attraction to a pretty girl (see his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, which seems to me underappreciated, especially by Marty himself).
Finally, there is this irony to contemplate: Marty is obliged to make his living in an “industry” controlled by people who have always wanted to impose rationality on their enterprise, have always tried to tame its wild children. Or ostracize them. Or break them. The idea that making movies at the highest level can ever be a fully reasonable activity has always struck me as laughable. But forget that. The point I am making is that the studio and the filmmaker have different motives and that the relationship between them is bound to be mistrustful, therefore rife with the possibility of—yes—betrayals. There’s this cliché about Hollywood—“It’s high school with money.” But you have to wonder: What if it’s actually Little Italy without gunplay?
If that’s the case, it becomes possible to imagine that what Marty observed and learned in his formative years was the best possible preparation for the career he later took up. Which, in turn, is a way of saying that in a fairly deep sense he is an autobiographer—not so much an anecdotal one, but one of his inner life, his yearnings, his feelings, his fears in his formative years. Nor is that impulse limited to his portrayals of criminal life. To give just one example that came up in the course of our talks, he observed that the codes of conduct enforced by New York’s upper classes on Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence are as harsh and unforgiving as any administered by the modern-day Mafia.
His is not the only way to make good movies. There is much to be said for the show of calmness in a line of work where the pretense that reason rules may be the nuttiest idea of all. But I’m here to tell you, there’s also much to be said for sitting up half the night listening to the spiraling enthusiasms—and the occasionally drowned dreams—of a man who cannot help but make the kind of commitment Marty has made to every aspect of filmmaking.
In a sense, Marty’s passion is his saving grace. It is so intense that when you’re in its presence you have only two choices: embrace it or flee it. The former course is, for me, at least, infinitely more rewarding. You can learn so much from him—not just about old movies you really ought to see, or re-examine more thoughtfully, and not just about how to achieve all kinds of potent movie effects (how to stage a scene or fire up an actor or find a solution to a technical problem). Somehow, as I’ve grown closer to Marty in recent years, that famous formulation of Henry James’s keeps tugging at my mind: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
It would be nice someday to apply that grandiose sentiment to a mere movie-maker without feeling a twinge of embarrassment. But there it is—it fits this case. And the case continually redeems himself by knowing what an absurd figure he can sometimes cut. He is also, in my experience, a courtly man—impeccably dressed in his European suits, a generous host, a man widely read in Greek and Roman history (some of those sketch movies he made as a child were epics about the classic age), and in the writings of men and women who share his need to lift himself out of the quotidian, to find something more than the brute reality of everyday life.
“I’m not an animal,” Jake LaMotta murmurs to himself when he finally touches bottom in a jail cell. And he is not the only such figure in Marty’s films. They may be full of “animals,” but for the most part these are balanced by figures who, following dim and enigmatic instinct, aspire to transcend their ignorance and their circumstances, to find some touch of grace in their grim and circumscribed lives. But there never has been and there never will be “a triumph of the human spirit” in a Scorsese film. He’s too intelligent for that. And too sternly moralistic. What I respond to most in his films is not just that they are unsettling, but that they generally remain unsettled. His stories reach their firm narrative conclusions, but they remain open-ended. You are always left wondering what might happen next to his survivors. And thinking that probably their fates will not be entirely contented ones.
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