Friday, 1 April 2016

The Great Directors... Martin Scorsese... Part 1 (1963-1977)

My quest to watch my way through Martin Scorsese’s entire directorial career has reached it’s first milestone, ten films and a quarter of the way in. So far it hasn’t been entirely what I was expecting, but I’ll explain more about that as I go. I’m including all available shorts, documentaries and feature films. Wthout further ado…

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963)
Hmm. Not the best start. This is a 9 minute short he made in his film student days, about a guy who becomes obsessed with a picture hanging on his wall. You can see little flourishes of the humour Scorsese would later use as his career took off, but I found the style of this film a little grating. It is a student film though so I’m not going to be too harsh, or give a score, because at that stage of film school I imagine it is all about experimenting and finding your “voice”. The best thing about it is that it’s actually survived all these years and found it’s way onto Youtube, but it’s really only a curio for Scorsese completists.

It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964)
His second (available) short film is slightly more substantial, but still I’m not getting much of a sign that this is by someone who will go on to become one of the most influential and entertaining directors of all time. It features a mobster named Murray, who looks back over his rise to success in the mob game, and attributes much of his wealth and success to his best friend Joe. Except behind his back, Joe has been anything but a friend. The most striking thing about this is how the talking-directly-to-camera thing reminded me of his last film The Wolf of Wall Street. Again for completists only, and available on Youtube.

Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)
We move now into Scorsese’s first feature length film, and the first of his collaborations with Harvey Keitel. Disappointingly, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. The story surrounds J.R. (Keitel), an Italian American who sees himself as bit of tough guy, but also a good Catholic boy. Do all Italian Americans think of themselves in this way, or is it just in the movies? Keitel gives a solid performance in one of his earliest roles, but I found Scorsese’s writing of the character became quite unpleasant, particularly in his response to a rape. It could be that he was commenting on sexual attitudes at that time, and the contradictary messages coming from the church, but for me the same point could have been made in a more sympathetic manner. In terms of editing and direction the film is a little aimless at times, with some tiresome scenes involving “the guys” hanging out that could have been shortened or cut altogether, and unnecessary dream sex sequences that didn’t add anything to the story. He would at least develop some of the ideas on show here into the far superior Mean Streets.

The Big Shave (1968)
A five minute film in which a man shaves his face. Events take a bloody turn, shall we say. It’s not worth critiquing, but if you're a fan of either blood or shaving, it's a reasonable way to spend a few minutes. Available on Youtube.

Boxcar Bertha (1972)
I'd never even heard of this film before, so went into it thinking it could soon be time to begin wishing I'd never started this project. But ooh, it was actually quite good. This is a film that might best be described as Bonnie and Clyde and Clyde and Clyde, seeing as it’s about a young girl who (literally) romps her way around 30’s America with a group of union railroad men, robbing and destroying whatever gets in their way. You can see the difference an increase in budget makes, this looks so superior to his earlier work, presumably down to having access to better equipment and crew. Probably even just a better understanding of how to make a movie. It’s also a lighter and funnier script, not that I’d call it a comedy, and I enjoyed seeing him step away from the New York setting for the first time. Barbara Hershey and David Carradine created fun and interesting lead characters, and for the first time in this list, help form a satisfyingly entertaining movie. I also liked the name connection to the character Carradine would go on to play 30 years later (Kill Bill), on both occasions called Bill. One of Quentin Tarantino’s endless references to other movies, or just a coincidence?

Mean Streets (1973)
Now this is where his filmmaking really starts to take off. Harvey Keitel is joined by Robert De Niro for a superb tale of a low level bar owner trying to make his way through the ranks of the mob. Set in Little Italy, the home of the stereotypical Italian American gangster (in the movies at least), this is a film that oozes fuhgettabaddit's and capiche's from every pore. De Niro plays a rebellious nobody who thinks he's above being a somebody, refusing to pay back his mounting debts owed to the neighbourhood's loan sharks, and making life increasingly difficult for Keitel's play-it-by-the-book character. You can see why De Niro is about to become a breakout star. If we're talking specifically about this type of Italian American neighbourhood gangster picture, I still think Scorsese (and even other directors) had better work to come, but there's no doubting Mean Streets had a massive influence on the genre. Before this, mobsters were usually caricatures in costumes - he turned them into real people. It's also the first film he made that I'd call a must-see.

Italianamerican (1974)
This is a sweet and funny documentary in which Scorsese interviews his parents about growing up in their New York neighbourhood. They're a fantastic couple, bickering with each other about tiny things yet always in a good humoured way, and with a natural awkwardness in how to behave and what to say in front of the camera. I love that we get to see his mum make the spaghetti sauce, and that she keeps breaking off the interview to go check it (keep an eye out during the credits for the recipe). Things like that are what make this a bit of a treasure, an insight into the lives of Italian Americans without the need for any flashy drama, just a camera and two people with entertaining and interesting stories to tell. The best thing is that with every film to follow, whenever there's a violent or foul-mouthed scene, I'll be sat there imagining his mum's reaction.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
Again Scorsese is defying my expectations of his work, with another film I'd not heard of previously. A road movie of sorts, similar to something like Five Easy Pieces, that follows a singer (Ellen Burstyn) and her amusingly hyperactive son through a succession of towns, men and jobs. When the singing work falls away she finds herself waitressing in a diner, where she meets Kris Kristofferson, and tries to find ways to get through the day in a life that hasn't panned out as she'd hoped. It doesn't feel much like a Scorsese picture, but I enjoy stories like this about straightforward working class people, and the performances are strong throughout. The film belongs to the son Tommy though, played by young Alfred Lutter, who manages to be likeable despite playing such a deliberately irritating child, and can tell the best joke-that-makes-no-sense you'll ever hear. I enjoyed this a lot, definitely one I'll be returning to. Oh and it's worth seeing if only for the genius opening scene - if you can imagine a foul-mouthed Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, then you're somewhere close.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Travis Bickle, one of cinema’s greatest loners, drives a yellow cab around the streets of New York as a way of dealing with insomnia. A combination of sleep deprivation, and just being a bit of a lunatic, leads towards obsessions with a beautiful woman (Cybill Shepherd), a politician associated with her, and a young prostitute (Jodie Foster). De Niro was made for this lead role, and has spent the rest of his career trying to repeat it. Scorsese’s writing is tremendous, up there with his very best, repeatedly hammering home Bickle’s viewpoint of the city: sleazy, dirty, noisy, disgusting. That last word probably sums up the inside of the character’s head; he is disgusted by what he sees around him, and in his own disturbed way, decides to start putting things right. I’d also say it is one of Scorsese’s best looking films, the cinematography captures that ‘fleapit city’ vibe perfectly, and those vents billowing steam into the New York streets have never been used more atmospherically in a movie. Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention the famous “you talkin’ to me?” scene, although it’s funny how memory of iconic scenes can be distorted, he actually plays this particular section a lot calmer and more low key than my prior recollection of it. There is almost nothing negative I could say in regards to the film, it’s the one I was most looking forward to revisiting in this list, and it never disappoints. Martin Scorsese has finally announced his arrival at the top table, one of the very best directors around, and this is his first masterpiece.

New York, New York (1977)
Oh. What happened here then? We’ve gone from cinematic greatness directly to one of the least engaging films I’ve seen in some time. De Niro is back again, this time alongside Liza Minnelli, playing a couple of jazz musicians who sing and play their way around New York. Robert De Niro as a talented jazz saxophonist? Nope, not buying that in any way. There’s some drama between them, and lots of talking, but I struggled to care. I must confess that I have a passioniate dislike for jazz, I hate it with all my might, so I was never likely to be won over. The appeal of listening to people playing random notes is lost on me - when a toddler banging away on a toy piano can achieve the same effect, it’s time to sit down and write yourself a properly structured tune. Having said that, you could argue that a great film would be able to hold your attention and interest even if the subject matter isn’t usually your type of thing. This doesn’t, and there’s almost three interminable hours of it. The only positives I can find are that it looks nice enough, and the famous title track isn’t unpleasant, but I’m looking for more than that unfortunately. Sorry Mr. Scorsese, if you’re reading (and I’m sure you are), you lost me on this one. A disappointing way to finish part 1 of this project then, I can only hope it’s uphill again from here.

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