The Aviator: Martin Scorsese – filmmaking without autopilot

By Shannon Blanks
May 27, 2004

He walks into a local drugstore. The features are familiar enough by now. The short stature and concerned eyes; the clean-shaven face offers a strong contrast to the fully bearded maverick of his younger years. But most importantly, there are the eyebrows. Even before the mile-a-minute breathless rant totally gives him away, the eyebrows tell us that Martin Scorsese is gracing our screen.

True to his public persona, the nitpicking perfectionist offers withering self-criticism of some snapshots he took at a nephew’s birthday party. “Far too nostalgic,” he says of one, his dissatisfaction escalating until he proclaims, “I’ve lost the narrative thread. … I’ve got to reshoot.”

Walking away from the counter, a frustrated Scorsese calls “the nephew” on a cell phone and asks, “Timmy, it’s your Uncle Marty. How’d you like to turn 5 again?”

This promo spot for American Express aired during this year’s Oscar show; oddly enough, it’s probably the most successful campaign Scorsese has ever managed to mount during Oscar season. But how close to home does this satirical television spot hit?

Is Scorsese simply having some fun with his image at his own expense? Or is there a biting truth to his critical remarks?

There are those who believe directing is a young man’s sport, making the claim that far too often great artists toil around in the business far past their prime.

The lukewarm reception and Oscar shutout received by Scorsese’s lovechild, “Gangs of New York,” caused many critics to raise such questions surrounding Scorsese’s unquestionable but possibly diminishing talent. One of his most formidable cinematic offspring offered his opinion on the subject recently.

“If I say Martin Scorsese's movies are getting kind of geriatric and everything, he can say, F--- you, man! I'm doing what I want to do, I'm following my muse, and he's 100 percent right. I'm in my church praying to my god and he's in his church praying to his. There was a time we were in the same church, and I miss that.”
Quentin Tarantino, Entertainment Weekly

Far too nostalgic

Whether you agree with his comment or not, the current king of “Cool Cinema” has brought up an interesting point. Would it be fair to say that Martin Scorsese has reached a point where he has said all he is going to say? Have his movies suddenly become pale imitations of his masterpieces of yesteryear?

There were those who couldn’t get past the overwhelming shadow of “Goodfellas’ ” brilliance to see any value in the excessive violence and grandiose decadence displayed in “Casino.” There were even more who thought “Bringing out the Dead” was a sorely placed misstep by an overindulgent albeit masterful auteur, whose failures only stirred up wistful memories of one of his most revered works, “Taxi Driver.”

There are certain truisms to the accusations that suggest the film world’s most beloved cinephile has lost the “Midas touch.” For one, there are certain Scorsese trademarks that have become just that, trademarks. The novelty of the mix-tape rock ’n’ roll score is gone, picked up and refined by such young and diverse talent as the aforementioned Tarantino, Danny Boyle and Wes Anderson, among others. The elaborate camera work, quick cuts during swish-pans, close-up insert shots, freeze-frames and choreographed tracking shots have been poured over and absorbed by such talented and diverse auteurs as P.T. Anderson, Tarantino and even David Fincher to a certain extent. They have integrated the brilliant work of Martin Scorsese into their own personal vision, just as Scorsese integrated the camera work of such disparate and masterful filmmakers such as Max Ophuls, Francois Truffuat and Samuel Fuller into his own.

But to discredit Scorsese for his influence on modern filmmaking is to ignore an artist who has never fallen victim to inertia, an artist in constant evolution. Those who question “Casino’s” validity as an entry into the Scorsese canon fail to see or appreciate the sweeping character arcs that elevate his sights beyond the neon colored streets of Las Vegas, drawing subtle and poignant parallels between the greed of common hoodlums to the overindulgence of American consumerism at the time. They fail to appreciate an artist still as obsessed with the tiniest of details, his obsessive behavior mirroring that of his own characters (think about the scene in which Sam Rothstein requests that an equal number of blueberries be placed in every muffin). Many critics and disappointed fans only saw the similar stylizations and familiar characterizations played by familiar actors as more of a reason to hold the film up against “Goodfellas” instead of judging the film on its own merits. The same could be said for “Bringing out the Dead,” whose insomniatic, lonely drifter prowling the seedy, underlit streets of late-night New York prompted many critics to dub the film “Ambulance Driver.”

The comparisons between Frank Pierce and Travis Bickle do eventually meet at an end. What many fail to see is the humanity inherent in the character of Frank Pierce, so effectively brought to life by a brave and heartfelt performance by Nicolas Cage. Where as “Taxi Driver’s” study of loneliness and self-imposed alienation remains as poignant today as it was 25 years ago, the difference between the two characters can be found in Travis Bickle’s choice to remain on the fringes of society, which stands in stark contrast to Frank Pierce’s desire to integrate himself back in the folds of common everyday life. He is tired of being a grief mop for the misplaced souls who wander through the vast terrain of the city unnoticed in the dark shadows of the night. And in this melancholy quest to be reinstated into some type of social order, Frank Pierce may ultimately prove to be an even more human character then Travis Bickle – once again proving that Scorsese’s empathic eye and keen insight into human behavior have not dimmed over time.

Roger Ebert put it best in his review of “Bringing out the Dead” as he so succinctly remarked, “To look at ‘Bringing out the Dead’ – to look, indeed, at almost any Scorsese film – is to be reminded that film can touch us urgently and deeply. Scorsese is never on autopilot, never panders, never sells out, always goes for broke; to watch his film is to see a man risking his talent, not simply exercising it.”

Lost the narrative thread

“The world needs more filmmakers with passionate enthusiasms like Martin Scorsese. But it doesn't need ‘Gangs of New York.’ Imaginative and wholly unbelievable, ‘Gangs of New York’ seems too big for any screen it could possibly be projected onto … at some point you have to stop building a world and start telling a story, and in ‘Gangs of New York,’ Scorsese is so distracted and dazzled by his homemade universe he just can't seem to hunker down. The narrative is gangly and unfocused even though, naturally, the story is what drew him to make the picture in the first place …”
Stephanie Zacharek, Salon Magazine

“The virtues of ‘Gangs,’ a failed film but not a fiasco, are the virtues of a pageant, not a drama. Unable to make his personal obsessions compelling despite his unquestioned filmmaking skill, director Scorsese and his team have created a heavy-footed golem of a motion picture, hard to ignore as it throws its weight around but fatally lacking in anything resembling soul.”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

“It is fatally overlong, filled with haphazard history lessons and half-drawn conclusions, never jelling into a cohesive film or possessing the energy to move its great bulk forward.”
Bill Muller, The Arizona Republic

“Gangs of New York” may achieve greatness with the passage of time, and if so, its quest will mirror that of “Raging Bull” as an underappreciated masterpiece that eventually found its way into the hearts of critics everywhere. But as of now, it’s most reputed for being the biggest production of Scorsese’s career, where it can take a seat aside “The Last Temptation of Christ” as arguably being his most troubled production as well. But in the production of “Gangs,” cinema may have unwittingly bore witness to yet another step in the evolution of one of its greatest artists.

Filled to the brim with intricate details, vividly drawn characters and episodes of cultural moments in American history deserving of their own film, “Gangs of New York” is most certainly a production that revels in its bulk, which is more than enough to set it apart from the widely accepted works of brilliance produced by Martin Scorsese.

The one thing “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” have in common is the devout adherence to a discipline most likely born from the devout Catholic in Scorsese. That same discipline has given birth to some of the most invigorating and precisely executed cinema of the past quarter-century. What we find in “Gangs of New York” is an artist giving himself over to his obsessions. Though never one to shy away from deeply expressive filmmaking, “Gangs of New York” finds Scorsese in new territory. The doors to the floodgates have broken, and there’s a reckless reveling in emotion and vision never seen before in the work of Martin Scorsese.

Letting go of his reservations, Scorsese has not only marked the end of a lost era in Hollywood filmmaking, he seems to be setting the stage for the next step in his evolution as an artist. It isn’t that the films of Scorsese have become geriatric at all. If anything, it appears that a man whose breathless rants and excitable nature often betrayed the love and commitment to his art and craft can no longer hold back in recklessly expressing the same excitement and devotion to the application of his craft. Adherence to the discipline a story dictates to his filmmaking has taken a backseat to his passion and obsessions. Because of this choice to abandon his previous tendencies for fastidiousness, few films of such scope and size have been as deeply felt as Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” This not only stems from the sensationalistic story at hand and its larger-than-life characters, but more importantly from the manner in which the filmmaker has so ardently presented it to us.

With the aviator on the horizon, and rumors of yet another collaboration with the talented young thespian Leonardo DiCaprio, it seems Scorsese shows no signs of slowing down. Whether or not there are marked flaws in his latest works is beyond questioning, but what Scorsese manages to show us is the invaluable nature of a passionate filmmaker: an all-too-rare commodity in today’s film world. Ebert put it best: To watch a film by Martin Scorsese is to watch a man risking his talent, not simply exercising it. And those words have never been truer than at this point in his career.

Related link: Martin Scorsese's filmography @ IMDb