Martin Scorsese Turns 80

Martin Scorsese (b.1942) turns 80 today, so I thought it would be a good time for some kind of omnibus post on him, having scribbled about his movies piecemeal over the years. Thus far in some way, shape or form I have written about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (1974); New York, New York (1977); Raging Bull (1980); The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); The Aviator (2004); Hugo (2011); George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011); Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (2019); a 2022 piece on Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent; and this recent essay on Scorsese’s comedies and uses of comedy, which touches on several of his films.

The first Scorsese movie I ever watched in a theatre or anywhere at all was Raging Bull, and it remains one of my favorites. The film of his which I have seen the most, by many miles, is Goodfellas (1990). I’ve probably watched it a dozen times it gives me that much pleasure. Casino (1995) yields similar dividends, and it has grown on me a great deal over the years after an initial feeling that it was just warmed-over Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence (1993) has also been elevated in my esteem since it was first released. It’s one of just a couple I’ll likely write about in future, along with Gangs of New York (2002). The latter one, by all rights, ought to be my favorite of his movies, given its subject and setting, but it was and is a major disappointment. A future post about that film, in the context of the writings of Herbert Asbury, to follow at some point! Conversely, I loved Cape Fear (1991) when it was released (saw it a couple of times in the cinema in fact) but it subsequently fell in my eyes after I discovered the original film, and now I place it in a category with Shutter Island (2010), as unworthy De Palma-esque exercises in style and quotation for their own sakes.

I was ten when Taxi Driver (1976) came out. I never heard of it until years later, after Raging Bull was released. I have to confess that it’s never done much for me, despite my sharing a first name with the film’s anti-hero. This brings up a blind spot I’ve always perceived in Scorsese’s films which has always troubled me: a sort of apparent tone of amorality in many of his movies, especially the ones dealing with violence and/or corruption. We have every reason to know that this is not the true nature of the man’s character, not just because we never hear bad stories about him behind the scenes, but because he is conspicuously caring and generous with regards to things like charity, film preservation, and so forth. He is palpably a nice man. We also know that he has a spiritual side. He briefly considered the priesthood, and his earliest films, along with The Last Temptation of Christ, the George Harrison doc, and Kundun (1997), which is about the Dalai Lama, explore religious questions, indicating some level of contemplation of right and wrong.

Yet, somehow the way he has shaped his films, until recently anyway, seem to take a detached, fly-on-the-wall perspective on behavior that can only be called barbarous. Indeed, there are times when the viewer seems invited to take sensuous pleasure in it. I descry a perfect storm of possible explanations for this attitude on his part, all of which are coming from a theoretically good place. One is the “Judge Not” philosophy of Catholicism, which Scorsese has been in dialogue with all his life. (For a point of cultural reference that may illuminate, see here). Another comes from Method Acting, the conviction that again, actors shouldn’t judge the characters they are playing, because people always feel justified in their own actions. (Which is vitally true for actors, though it need not and should not be the philosophy of a director, I don’t think). And lastly, there’s the fact that he’s a Boomer, and he has shared his generation’s turning away from society’s traditional mechanisms for behavioral guidance in favor of exploring freer alternatives (rock and roll, for example, a major sub-theme in his corpus of work).

That said, I do feel Scorsese’s more recent films dealing with moral questions have increasingly demonstrated less ambivalence, and when you look at movies like The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019), there seems to be a waxing arc of clarity in his thinking about these matters. Of course, now “Boomer” has come to signify something quite different from what it once did. “Okay, Boomer” is now the slang phrase for calming down a cranky alte kaker. One of Scorsese’s first film jobs was working on Woodstock, the very phrase at one time synonymous with youth. But in recent years he’s found himself doing battle with today’s younger generation over the issue of whether Hollywood’s superhero franchises are suitable cinema for grown-ups. I have to side with Marty. They are not. And Scorsese’s movies are. (Yes, I write about superheroes here, but that’s because I write about everything. Its 30 posts out of 7,000. That proportion sounds about right!).

The fourth factor in that amoral voice we spoke of, of course, has to do with the great Greco-Roman tradition of aestheticism, of beauty for it own sake, traceably to the ancient Pagans, all the way through the post-war Italian filmmakers Scorsese so admires as well as the movies of Powell-Pressburger. That spreading pool of blood in Taxi Driver has always reminded me of Turner’s paintings of the burning of the Houses of Parliament, a kind of unfeeling contemplation of the beauty of something terrible. An MCU defender might counter that at least these comic book movies don’t do that. But I’m not sure it’s anything to boast of to say that the films you champion lack both meaning AND beauty. At any rate, Scorsese already made his statement about the deleterious effects of vainglorious maniacs trying to live out superhero fantasies in the modern age. And that, too, is Taxi Driver.

Today I’m picturing a birthday party on Zoom, in which Scorsese uses a CGI technique a la The Irishman and shows up looking like this: