Martin Scorsese


Martin Scorsese (Motion picture director; born November 17, 1942, in Flushing, New York)

He is a true original; a fearless artist who brings out the best and most inspired work in others and in the process continues to surpass himself. Difficult to pinpoint, impossible to ignore, by turns shocking and rousing, challenging and always entertaining, he doesn't so much make films as define and redefine film itself. "Martin Scorsese is the patron saint of cinema," wrote David Thomson in The New York Times, "he is a defender of the faith." That faith, in the power of film, in the endless possibilities of art and life, is at the heart of this man's body of work.

His is an impressive filmography by any standards, as giddy in its variety as it is unsettling in its depth. From Jesus to Travis Bickle, from the Dalai Lama to Howard Hughes, the wildly different characters in a Scorsese movie each ring true. They also often bring out the most memorable, fearless performances by his actors: Not only Robert DeNiro-;whose range from Taxi Driver through New York, New York is breathtaking-;but also actors as diverse as Joe Pesci and Ellen Burstyn, Teri Garr and Sharon Stone, Liza Minnelli and Willam Dafoe, Griffin Dunne, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon all have created for Scorsese what must count as landmarks in each of their careers. Yet even the most faithful fan would be hard-pressed to articulate any one element in common to these performances or indeed to these pictures. The raw gritty violence of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull surely could not suggest the exquisite gentleness of Kundun or the mystical metaphysical doubts of The Last Temptation of Christ. The almost Godardian coolness of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the naked emotional fragility of The Age of Innocence are worlds away from the black comic touch in After Hours or the light screwball madness of The King of Comedy. His masterpiece The Departed, for which Scorsese at last won an Academy Award for Best Director in 2007, perhaps emerges as among his most original works only because we haven't seen his next picture. One thing is for certain, as every movie lover knows: It will be a surprise.

Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese was born in Flushing in 1942 and grew up in Little Italy. His parents, Luciano Charles Scorsese and Catherine Cappa Scorsese, were workers in New York's Garment District. Their son featured both memorably, especially his mother, in cameos in his movies. Young Martin entered seminary right out of high school, but his religious vocation within a year took a different turn. He abandoned plans for the priesthood to enter New York University, where he received his B.A. in English in 1964 and his M.A. in film in 1966, soon after joining the faculty of his alma mater. Films were taken seriously in the '60s with an intensity and seriousness unrivaled before or since, and the he absorbed and then revitalized much of what he learned from the movies all around him-;everything from the French New Wave and the Italian neorealists and existentialists to the budding American independent movement spearheaded by John Cassavetes. If Jean-Luc Godard was right and one must confront vague ideas with clear images, Scorsese took this dictum further. From the start, he seemed to insist on emotional clarity: as early as the underrated Boxcar Bertha, certainly in Taxi Driver and then through the rest of his remarkable career.

This realism also could be at once stylized and shocking is something Scorsese made clear early on: His short 1967 feature The Big Shave, an extended, almost cruel close-up of an alarmingly bloody bit of male grooming that ends with a throat-slashing, succeeded as a pointed commentary on the then raging Vietnam War. It also has stood the test of time as a serious, seriously funny dark comedy. His first feature-length movie, Who's That Knocking at My Door? revealed Harvey Keitel's talents as well as Scorsese's. It also introducing the frantic editing and the aggressive use of music that would become hallmarks of his style-;though even these purely Scorsesean traits would in time lead down unexpected paths: Think of the use of Philip Glass's utterly devastating, generous score for Scorsese's Kundun, or of the sincerely affectionate respect for the music of The Band in The Last Waltz.

Mean Streets, championed by the influential critic Pauline Kael, already showed Scorsese's assurance as a director, his ability to be as innovative as Godard and as mainstream as the best of Hollywood. It helped that he brought out gripping performances from Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro; in fact, his directorial self-effacement may count in part for what could be seen as the industry's taking Scorsese for granted. Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore; her director didn't. It would be decades before Scorsese would win the Oscar, although he was honored over the years by the Directors Guild of America, by BAFTA and by the Golden Globes.

Taxi Driver, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, followed Mean Streets. And the rest is history. The daring and misunderstood New York, New York, the high-contrast black-and-white Raging Bull, the colorful Goodfellas and the touching The Age of Innocence all added to the Scorsese legend, each reflecting the sense of wonder that is the soul of his films. Religion, a deeply personal concern for Scorsese, found some of its profoundest expression on film in his contrasting The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Gangs of New York brought the man to his roots as no other picture before it. The Aviator retold a familiar American legend in bold new colors. The Departed, notable even for this director, would have signaled the coming of a major new talent if we did not know its director well. The freshness is in the process.

"I love the way the camera moves," Scorsese told T.J. English, author of The Westies, the source for The Departed. "I love the cut from one moving shot to the next, or the cut from a moving shot to a static shot. The inspiration always comes from the point of view of the lens." It sounds so simple.

September 2007
Martin Scorsese