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Martin Scorsese

The Aggressive Surreal

Martin Scorsese has sustained a career in film now for fifty years, but we have the sense of a filmmaker never quite assuming that he will be taking an audience with him, yet with a singular enough perspective that means he has kept making films that are, in the main, singularly Scorsese-like. Unlike Steven Spielberg, who always seemed to know what the audience wanted, and unlike Coppola, whose vision was much more grandiose than Scorsese’s but less consistent, Scorsese’s cinema invokes a ‘personality’ – like Fellini, or Tarkovsky; Bunuel or Bergman, Scorsese has created a world that a certain type of character inhabits. It isn’t there in all his work, perhaps, but in numerous Scorsese films we have a very strong sense of what a Scorsese character is. These are people who have a problem with reality in various manifestations, and often the result is aggression, violence or even bloodshed. As Scorsese says in Scorsese on Scorsese: “I don’t think there is any difference between fantasy and reality in the way these should be approached in film. Of course, if you live that way you are clinically insane. But you can ignore the boundary on film. In Taxi Driver Travis Bickle lives it out, he goes right to the edge and explodes.”

We can think of other characters who implode or explode in Scorsese’s films. In New York, New York, Jimmy Doyle never knows when to let go of the relationship with Francine, in Raging Bull Jake La Motta keeps arguing with his wife over his obsessive jealousy, and in Casino Ace will do anything to keep a woman who never initially loved him. These are men who won’t see the reality in front of their eyes, and will imagine jealousy, on the one hand (Raging Bull), or refuse to accept that a woman never loved them in the first place (Casino) on the other.

“Imagination is therefore nothing but decaying sense and is found in men, and many other living Creatures – that is an impoverished imagination, without consistence.” So says Hobbes in his philosophical work Leviathan, and it is a statement that might not be true of the imagination in general, but that is a useful way of looking at Scorsese’s approach towards it. Frequently the director’s use of the imagination functions negatively (while in Spielberg’s work whether we like the films or not, it functions positively). This ties in with a more obvious characteristic evident in Scorsese’s carnations: their self-destructiveness. “I was fascinated by the self-destructive side of Jake La Motta’s character, his very basic emotions.” he says in Scorsese on Scorsese. Yet this was consistent with the imagination as fantasy: “I pointed out that this would mean De Niro playing Jake La Motta playing Marlon Brando playing Terry…[from On the Waterfront].” Just as Bickle can see himself as a stranger riding into town and wiping away the baddies as if in a Western, just as the gangsters in Good Fellas can seem themselves living a life of crime as if inside a gangster movie, so Jake shows that he could have been a contender: an absurd fantasy of course since the reality showed that he was more than a contender: he became world middleweight champion. Yet at the end of the film there he is doing the speech from On the Waterfront showing that he is now no more than exactly that in the Thespian sphere. If Terry was the failed boxer, and Brando was the brilliant actor exemplifying the American dream turned sour as he talks to his brother in the back seat of the cab, then De Niro is the great actor of his generation playing a brilliant boxer who because of his self-destructive instincts and his capacity for denial, thinks he can remake himself as a Thespian talent in New York bars and clubs. He might at first appear a man willing to confront his demons, but he finally comes across as someone who has created a new layer of fantasy.

We may wonder in many of Scorsese’s films how characters would get by without fantasy. Even in Scorsese’s early ‘women’s picture’ with Ellen Burstyn, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Alice hopes to have a successful singing career after her husband passes away. There she is with a twelve-year-old son, a car and a dream. As Pauline Kael says: “Alice’s idea of a new life is to return to what she had hoped to be when she was a girl in Monterey, California.” Alice isn’t without talent and we should always remember that Scorsese’s genius resides in demanding ambivalent responses in the viewer. Scorsese and his scriptwriter Robert Getchell don’t dismiss her for her dreams but fret over the practicalities. She is no longer so young, has other commitments, and really needs just to make a bit of money. Fantasy gives her a sense of hope as we see that in numerous Scorsese films it is the manner in which hope presents itself that creates numerous problems. In Good Fellas, Henry Hill isn’t likely to get round to doing very much with his life unless he enters gangland culture. This is exemplified in the scene when he beats up a preppie across the street from his girlfriend’s parents. Henry takes him out with the butt of his gun, unaware of the social mores this other character moves within, and yet well aware that this is the only way he could get one over on him. As we watch the scene from a medium shot, we see two worlds: one which indicates that everything can be solved with violence; the other that suggests this is behaviour that only makes sense if someone has a fantasy about the macho in their head. The boy has been well out of order (touching Henry’s girlfriend up), but Henry has hardly set the world to rights. When the film cuts to his girlfriend, she has an ambivalent look on her face. Is this a hero returning or an enemy she will now have in her midst? It might remind us of the look on Vicki’s face as the camera pans across the audience in Raging Bull after La Motta demolishes a boxer’s pretty face.

Often Scorsese’s characters live in their own world, yet it also one that suggests they are products of their milieu. As the director says in an interview with Judith Williamson: “At a certain point in your life you realise something’s there that’s part of your background, part of your make-up. That you can’t deny.” (Deadline at Dawn) This is partly what makes Scorsese’s film properly complex. His characters are figures of their sociological past, their present fantasies, and also their self-destructive instincts. Fantasy allows them to shore up a sense of self against basic neurosis, but it can also be augmented by the environment in which the person finds themselves. A number of Scorsese films have a surrealist dimension; the aggressive surreal: a world which seems to take place in conjunction with our own, but doesn’t quite seem to be at one with it. Whether this is Jake dragging his wife along the street more or less by her hair in Raging Bull, the final shoot-out in Taxi Driver, or even the crazy environment Paul Hackett finds himself in in After Hours (where a woman can ‘confess’ that she doesn’t have many scars, and another woman express her fascination for burns victims) the strange and the normal are never far apart in the director’s work. The same is true of fantasy and reality. As Nicolas Saada says in Projections 7: “Neither romantic nor hypnotic, Scorsese’s vision has a shattering actuality, a sad lucidity, far from any complacency. The explosion that throws Ace Rothstein [in Casino] out of his car is for him a rough return to reality. He doesn’t die like the movie hero he imagines himself to be as reflected in the eyes of Ginger [his beloved but far from faiththful wife].” David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary reckons Scorsese “wants it both ways – like all fantasists… [and] there is barely a grain of committed naturalism in him.” We are inclined to disagree, seeing the grain of naturalism coming up against the fantasy vision, and producing a properly original perspective that justifies the notion of the Scorsese-like.

©Tony McKibbin