Monday, 13 October 2008


Being a self-confessed, and shameless, 'Scorsese fan boy', I have, several times now, had to endure a conversation which goes along the following lines:

Me: Yeah, I'm actually a big Scorsese fan.
So-Called Big Scorsese Fan: Oh yeah, me too! He's actually my favourite filmmaker!
Me: Oh, cool. (Beat). What did you think of The Last Temptation of Christ?
SCBSF: Oh, I didn't see that one.
Me: Oh, okay. Did you like The Age of Innocence though?
SCBSF: Yeah right, like I saw that one!
Me: Kundun?
SCBSF: Kun-what?
Me: New York, New York?
SCBSF: Come on…
Me: Gangs of New York?
SCBSF: Didn’t see it. Heard it was rubbish.

By this point I've normally given up, but if I'm in an argumentative mood, I'll carry on the conversation, and it'll play out something like this:

Me: You do know that The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York were both long-cherished projects of his, right?
SCBSF: So what. I saw GoodFellas and Taxi Driver.
Me (despairing): You know, all the films I've mentioned are amongst his best work...
SCBSF: Piss off. Everyone knows his best films are GoodFellas and Taxi Driver.

And this is the point at which I sigh, hang my head in (their) shame, and walk away...

The problem with these 'So-Called Big Scorsese Fans' is by no means with the works that they like. Scorsese is a great filmmaker who makes great films, and, to date, he's only made one film which has left me cold. As a body of work, his oeuvre is immense, full to the brim with towering achievements and full of staggering variety. And in this lies my point. A study (hell, not even a study: a quick glance) at his body of work as a whole shows a depth and breadth all too often overlooked. To be absolutely clear about this, I am by no means wishing to belittle or insult the achievements of the more popular works; my point is simply that there's a lot more to Scorsese than gangsters and guns. And this is what gets missed by people, even by his so-called 'fans'. Furthermore, Scorsese is, was, and probably always will be first and foremost a spiritual filmmaker.

Sidestepping the fact that, as a child, Scorsese considered entering the priesthood, to concentrate on the films themselves, Scorsese's religious vein can be detected right from his very first feature, most commonly known as Who's That Knocking at My Door? (which actually shows exactly how fully-formed Scorsese's themes and style were right from the off). The film itself is tied up through and through with Catholic guilt, and already shows the outside world clashing with faith (and, what's more, through the use of candles!): in one scene, the Girl lights some candles for dinner, only for J.R. (a young Harvey Keitel) to inform her that these are 'holy' candles and to be used only for religious purposes.

Scorsese's next film was Boxcar Bertha, one of his lesser works and often acknowledged as one of the least personal of his films. But even here there is a use of religious iconography, notably in Bill's crucifixion (which, of course, foreshadows nothing so much as The Last Temptation itself).

Boxcar was followed by Mean Streets, which I suspect is the earliest of his features to be seen by the SCBSFs, and, in my opinion, one of the keys to an understanding of Scorsese as primarily a spiritual filmmaker. I say this because not only do the opening words of the film provide us with the framework through which to understand the film, but also with the framework through which to understand Scorsese's entire oeuvre:

You don't make up for your sins in church – you do it in the streets.

These immortal words, seemingly spoken by the film's protagonist Charlie (Keitel again), but actually recorded by Scorsese himself, say it all. Although he strangely doesn't make the connection with this quote, David John Graham talks in his essay Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese (found in Explorations in Theology and Film, ed. Marsh and Ortiz) about how Jake La Motta's beating at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull should be seen as 'redeeming'. Although I found the essay a little disappointing overall, this is a key point, and illustrates perfectly how the quote from Mean Streets can help with an interpretation of Scorsese's other works: by not fighting back, La Motta is receiving punishment for – and thus annulment of – his sins, and he is doing this 'in the streets' as opposed to 'in church'.

(Interestingly, it's my opinion that this quote can also be applied to Crime and Punishment, and that Mean Streets can be understood as a reinterpretation of Dostoyevsky's work, with Charlie, standing in for Raskolnikov, seeking his own redemption through his relationship with Johnny Boy's Sonya. A self-confessed Dostoyevsky acolyte, Scorsese would later go on to loosely adapt The Gambler for his section of New York Stories, so it's possible that he was indeed influenced by Crime and Punishment when formulating Mean Streets.)

Of course, to say that Mean Streets is Scorsese's most religious film would not only be ridiculous but also a blatant oversight of the fact that his oeuvre contains two religious biopics: The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, and indeed the former of these is perhaps the other key text necessary for a true understanding of Scorsese's tortured (anti)heroes.

“The dual substance of Christ –
the yearning, so human,
so superhuman,
of man to attain God...
has always been a deep
inscrutable mystery to me.
My principle anguish and source
of all my joys and sorrows
from my youth onward
has been the incessant,
merciless battle between
the spirit and the flesh...
and my soul is the arena
where these two armies
have clashed and met.”
Nikos Kazantzakis
From the Book
“The Last Temptation
Of Christ”

So begins one of the best films of all time: with a quote from one of the best books of all time. And here, perhaps, in Jesus, do we find the prototype for the Scorsese (anti)hero: a conflicted individual torn between the pleasures of worldly delights and the calling for/of something higher. Perhaps it is here that we find a way to understand Jimmy Doyle, caught between his music and his love for Francine (in New York, New York). And thus, although it's often overlooked, I believe it's genuinely possibly to find as much spiritual angst and confusion in the works of Scorsese as it is in those of Bergman, Tarkovsky or indeed Dostoyevsky.

I'm aware that I'm not necessarily breaking any new ground with these comments, but I felt compelled to write this blog as it still astounds me how many people overlook this aspect of Scorsese's work in favour of admiring them only for their violence (for, if we're being truthful, that's what SCBSFs like about his work). By ignoring this aspect of his work and by overlooking his 'smaller' pictures, the SCBSFs are not only missing out on some of Scorsese's best and most interesting works, they're also missing out on a true understanding of his work as whole, GoodFellas and Taxi Driver included.

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To pre-empt the criticism: I am aware that by focusing on the spiritual side of Scorsese's work this post is overlooking that other key aspect of his work: its inherent intertextuality and its revelling joy in the history of cinema. It has indeed been argued by others that Scorsese's films rewrite and rework those of others, and I intend to discuss this in full in a future post further down the line.

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Red Eyes said...

Hi Alex,
I think everyone of Scorseses critics should read this. Absolutely amazing and I would like to return.

Dan Edwards said...

Which Scorsese film left you cold? Just curious.