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Martin Scorsese

The Rage Within

Was Martin Scorsese the artist of his generation because he was the least narratively driven? We ask the question facetiously but not insignificantly, for Scorsese was a director who seemed to have a vision of cinema that was distinctive. Born in Little Italy in 1942, Scorsese was the son of a Sicilian immigrant, and the family lived in a tenement flat while the young Marty suffered from various ailments including asthma and pleurisy. Leading a sheltered childhood in a tough neighbourhood, Scorsese would watch numerous movies and also considered becoming a priest. It doesn’t take much for a biographer to draw parallels between Scorsese’s work and his early life, but what interests us chiefly is Scorsese’s capacity to reflect the ‘rage within’, as though most earlier films, no matter their violent content, still reflected the ‘rage without’.

There were of course psychotic killers in many films from the past, and indeed Scorsese’s regular scriptwriter Paul (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ) Schrader wrote an article in the early seventies, published in Schrader on Schrader, talking of the crazy streak in noirs from around 1949 to 1953. “The noir hero, seemingly under the weight of ten years despair, started to go bananas. The psychotic killer [in the earlier years], now became the active protagonist.” Scorsese has expressed his fascination, in Scorsese on Scorsese, with such characters, noting in Kiss of Death, for example, that Richard Widmark was ”being so hysterical and uncontrolled.” But it is as though in Scorsese films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull the character is barely active and hardly a protagonist. Violence often comes not from an over-reaction to a narratively oriented situation, but a violence that can come from anywhere. When we proposed that Scorsese was seen as the artist of his generation partly through his weak hold on narrative, then we might have added that he consequently wanted to show violence coming from somewhere else.

Now much has been made of the increasingly vivid representation of violence in American cinema in the late sixties and into the seventies. Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Soldier Blue, The Long Goodbye and Little Big Man were all seen as key examples of representational violence in film. But Scorsese seemed to push much more psychological, even more physiological, violence in the cinema, even downplaying the representational in Taxi Driver by toning down the colours of the violent shoot out (admittedly after demands from the censors) and using black and white for the boxing matches in Raging Bull, believing that colour would have made the film a bloodbath. Much of the unease in Scorsese’s work comes less from representation, than emotional sensation, from the violence within a character as it comes to the surface; and not from a character that reacts or over-reacts kinetically to the givens of a situation.

Scorsese’s breakthrough film Mean Streets is a good example of this. Made in 1973, years after his low-budget debut Who’s that Knocking on My Door, and a commercial work for exploitation producer Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha, this is a film basically of loose-ends and raw nerves. Many an action-gangster film has been made up of tied ends and settled nerves, for all the ambition of the characters, and in this sense Scorsese’s film plays like an antithesis to Coppola’s masterly The Godfather released the previous year. While Coppola offered a very structured, emotionally constrained and motivationally driven epic, Scorsese gives us a film where the characters are less the sum total of their ambitions, than the stray matter of their emotional whims. There are so many fights in the film, and so narratively under-motivated, that the characters can barely be called protagonists at all. When Scorsese says, in Scorsese on Scorsese, “I always find the antagonist more interesting than the protagonist in drama, the villain more interesting than the good guy”, it doesn’t quite get at his distinctiveness. It isn’t as though Scorsese sides with villainy over honourableness, which could still leave a high degree of motivational possibilities. As David Thomson notes of Dennis Hopper’s villain in Speed, quoted in the book Screen Violence: “Hopper is presented in the movie as a madman, a warped seeker after vengeance. But let us not forget that he is also a brilliant high concept screenwriter, for his plan and the movie’s are effectively the same.” Even if Scorsese had decided to focus on the antagonist, he could still generate tight plotting. Instead he offers less an antagonist than antagonistic behaviour from a position of a character neither being good nor bad, but physiologically complex.

Sometimes this complexity comes out of leading characters acting with the rawness of their nerves; on other occasions Scorsese shows us a scene that might be motivated but we’re not privy to that motivation. An example of the latter comes in a moment early in Mean Streets where Harvey Keitel’s leading character Charlie is sitting with one of his friends, Michael, and a fight suddenly breaks out behind them. They help break it up and then return to their conversation, while we’re left none the wiser to the cause of the fight but well aware that this is an environment (a friend’s bar), where violence periodically takes place. It is seen as no more than an irritation rather than a full blown disturbance. Frequently, though, the behavioural outbursts hint at character complexity. About halfway through Mean Streets, the epileptic young woman Charlie is seeing, Teresa, says to a black maid that she can clean their hotel room now in a dismissive and angry manner, and Charlie wonders what is the matter with her. Late in the film, after Charlie and his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) start fighting, Teresa has a fit, and Charlie and Johnny Boy are still half-scrapping as Charlie tries to attend to Teresa’s epilepsy. These are characters with inner demons rather than external conflicts, so when we say Scorsese was the artist of his generation because he paid little attention to story, it was because he was paying especial attention to character. As he once said said, “no matter what you’ve learned in terms of dramatic structure and all, you ultimately make a film on your own… you have to know who you are, or you can’t really have your film mean anything to you, or to anyone else.”

‘What is the matter with you’ could be the motto running through Scorsese’s films (and of course a line often used), as he offers us characters who act not from motivation so much as nervous frustration. Scorsese’s impact on seventies cinema was its astonishingly un-sublimated aspect of violence. Central to this lack of sublimation is what we might call the proximate aggression in Scorsese’s work. How much of the violence comes out of not conflict of ambition but conflict of approximation? When Konrad Lorenz says in his book, On Aggression, “aggression in very many animals and probably also in man is an essential component of personal friendship”, no filmmaker more than Scorsese has explored this violence in friendships, in domestic situations, between lovers and family members. In another scene in Mean Streets, Charlie breaks up a fight between Johnny Boy and the bar owner Tony saying “what’s the matter with you guys? We’re friends.” Lorenz might reply, exactly, and wonder why so much violence in film has been between enemies when it is more common that it resides between people who know each other. We can think also of Raging Bull, where the boxing scenes are contrasted with scenes of domestic violence as Jake (Robert De Niro) can’t readily differentiate between the ring and the home, as he takes out residual aggression on his wife and brother, evident for example in a scene where he drags his wife along the street to his brother’s home before attacking his own kin. We might also mention Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, where Scorsese constantly hints at the domesticated presence of violence. Whether it is the father losing his temper with his son early in the film after he accuses him of swapping the sugar with the salt, or a lover the titular character (Ellen Burstyn) takes up with later in the film who gets annoyed by her son’s petulance, the aggression in domestic space is frequently there.

In many ways Scorsese could be described as an episodic filmmaker, taking into account the literary idea that “as a rule, a work with episodic structure has little or no plot.” This brings us back to our point about antagonists and Speed; that central to plot is people wanting things and generating a story out of these wants. Baddies can be as useful as goodies for this purpose: indeed usually we talk of the villain’s plotting; rarely the hero’s. But the episode in Scorsese’s work is often closer to the incident, as if halfway between the desultoriness of the episode and the generation of event in plotted films. In fact the closest Mean Streets gets to an arc resides in the accumulation of incident. As Scorsese pointed out in an interview published in Projections 7, “it’s a series of three scenes which become more and more intense as the film goes on, until finally it resorts to holding a gun.” So initially Michael wants Johnny Boy to pay the money he owes him, and then there are a couple of variations on this until eventually Michael hires a gunman to shoot Johnny for not paying his debts. But one may wonder whether it is Johnny refusing to pay his debts that is the issue, especially, or is it that Johnny has no respect for Michael? When Johnny Boy says that he had borrowed from all the money lenders around without paying them back, and then came to Michael because he was the only schmuck who would still lend him money, Michael receives the series of insults as if it will be Johnny’s taunts that leave Michael no option but to kill him. This is why we talk of the incident rather than the arc – the unmotivated moments of violence over the accumulated move towards a conclusion. Scorsese says in the same interview “I remember when my father used to say, ‘there was certain time when so many words had been said that no more words were left, you had to pick up a bat and hit somebody.”

Yet surely this is only true of inarticulate characters, or more usefully un-sublimated ones. Frequently in Scorsese’s films violence comes out of a repetition of language, as though characters don’t quite have the wherewithal to provide variations that could lead to dissipating instead of exacerbating tensions. In Raging Bull, when Jake La Motta asks his brother if he has slept with his wife, this doesn’t lead to a discussion about why La Motta is being absurd; it results in a slanging match that makes violence almost inevitable. As Jake and Joey (Joe Pesci) argue back and forth, so Joey doesn’t explain to Jake why his jealousy is misplaced, but starts insulting him by saying his wife has really done a job on him, that he’s become a ‘fat fuck’ who’s going nuts. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle’s frustrations can’t find an articulate outlet, evidenced when he tries to talk to another cabbie who ends up exasperatedly admitting he is no philosopher as Travis (De Niro) reckons the cabbie isn’t offering anything useful. In Mean Streets, Scorsese shows someone being called a mook and as the insulted wonders what the word means, the person issuing it doesn’t bother providing an explanation: he follows the insult with what the word is meant to semi-sublimate – a violent intent – as he punches the poor ‘mook’ instead. In an early scene of almost pure Scorsese-speak between Charlie and Johnny Boy, what stops it turning tense is only the good-will they have between them. As Charlie and Johnny argue back and forth, as Johnny insists that he’s paid Michael the money he owes him, Charlie keeps asking until Johnny admits he hasn’t. Again Scorsese doesn’t create articulate discussion, but allows for a rare instance of characters positively disposed towards each other so the situation doesn’t become about the escalation of violence, but dissipates into banter. We notice a border-line example in Raging Bull, where banter and incident co-exist. In the scene where Jake and some others are sitting around a table, one of the flunkies talks about the good looks of a boxer Jake will be fighting, and Jake makes some comments about one of the flunkeys and the boxer fucking each other. It is a witless exchange, but still passes for banter as it doesn’t quite slip into the violent, though aggression still of course hovers over it. This would be an example of what Scorsese calls “the small violences”.

Much of Scorsese’s best work fits into the narrative expectations of the episodic, but instead of the sort of privileged moments critics would often find in filmmakers like Truffaut and Wenders that generate feeling, Scorsese’s uneasy moments create emotion. We distinguish the two here only to try and understand that Scorsese doesn’t want the episode to accumulate warmth, but the incident to accumulate a certain emotional tension. Most filmmakers of action are not especially interested in either feeling or emotion, except as a plot logical device to generate the story. What really interests the action film, according to José Arroyo in an article in Sight and Sound on James Cameron’s True Lies, is another type of logic altogether. “…action scenes are fluid and detailed and the use of inserts and close-up gives impossible stunts a human logic.” Feeling and emotion serve the action structure. In many of Scorsese’s films, though, the emotion courses through the film and leaves narrative development irrelevant next to the emotional exploration. In most action films the violence of course comes out of the situation, but in Scorsese’s work it is the situation that merely brings the violence to the surface. This is the reason for the surplus unease that one often feels watching a Scorsese film, where no amount of violent event can quite alleviate the aggressive emotions that sit in many of the characters. Any ‘action’ serves the emotions churning up inside them. If even the dialogue in Scorsese’s films often contains this menace then that is hardly surprising: violence permeates the environment, so that when Scorsese says that his father believed at a certain point talking wasn’t enough, we would need to add: in a certain milieu.

This is not the place to look at the exceptions (where would The Age of Innocence and Kundun fit into Scorsese’s fascination with violent worlds?) for it is chiefly about his seventies work and the films that created our sense of ‘Scorsese’ as an auteur with a particular vision. It would be more useful to say a little bit about how he creates the unease beyond the psychological and with the aid of the filmic. In both Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese offers what in most filmmakers’ oeuvres would look gratuitous. In Mean Streets Charlie’s gangster uncle offers a hand movement that Scorsese inserts an overhead shot of, and in Taxi Driver when Bickle does a similar gesture, Scorsese again films it from overhead. But the director’s use of apparently unmotivated inserts, his constantly moving camera, his adoption of jump cuts at the beginning of Mean Streets as Charlie gets out of bed, or lap dissolves as Bickle walks along the street near the beginning of Taxi Driver, give formal edge to the edginess the characters themselves possess.

Initially we provocatively asked if Scorsese was the artist of his generation on the basis of his often weak hold on narrative. Scorsese himself admitted in the Projections 7 interview that in the eighties – on films like After Hours and The Color of Money – he wanted to “discipline myself, to try at last to become a director – and this is not false modesty – who could do other people’s material, but see how much I could make it my own.” It was as though he wanted to get a surer grasp of conventional film form and still produce a work that would be recognizably ‘Scorsese’. But Pauline Kael once proposed, in an article on Luis Bunuel called ‘Saintliness’ in the New Yorker, that “sometimes what makes an artist great and original is that in his lack of interest in (or lack of talent for) what other artists have been concerned with helps us to see things differently and develop the medium in new ways”. Kael referred, in another article, to Mean Streets as a “true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking”, and even in films like After Hours, The Color Of Money and The Departed it is the low-key menace, and the sense of emotions coursing through the film, ready to turn malign, that makes Scorsese so important. Out of such an approach storytelling can only ever be secondary; as the director doesn’t seem to believe enough in the cause and effect building blocks of narrative filmmaking to create modulated suspense, the sort of tension that means we know the eponymous character will eventually show what he is made of in Shane, that Eastwood will get his man in Dirty Harry, or that Schwarzenegger will best the terrorists at the end of True Lies. Un-modulated emotion takes precedence over modulated suspense, with Scorsese assuming that aggression isn’t a means to an end, but an underlying principle in the culture. Lorenz says “intra-specific aggression is millions of years older than personal friendship and love”, adding that “intra specific aggression can certainly exist without its counterpart love, but conversely there is no love without aggression.” Lorenz is here talking about the notion of the bond in various species, and notes the more peaceable the species the less there seems the capacity for friendship. “The proverbially most aggressive of mammals…the wolf, is the most faithful of friends.”

Scorsese’s work is very much about the problems of friendship (Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, Good Fellas) of familial conflict (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull), marriage (New York, New York, Raging Bull, Casino), loneliness and its attempted alleviation (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver), about human relationships in their various manifestations. But it is as though these relationships aren’t underpinned by an option of love conquering all as the first principle of man’s existence, but, in a manner consistent with Lorenz, it is aggression that underpins our species. When Scorsese had problems with the happy ending that concludes Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he couched it in the sort of facetiousness with which we opened this piece. “I’m an artist, I’m gonna have an unhappy ending” (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), he said, before settling for an upbeat one. But this statement makes sense within Scorsese’s vision: that any optimism, any love, is underpinned by a deeper sense of potential menace. There are of course and will continue to be numerous filmmakers in US cinema making violent films, from James Cameron to Tarantino, from John Woo to Christopher Nolan. But with very few exceptions (perhaps Spike Lee, Paul Verhoeven) they have not allowed aggression to underpin their films; merely to punctuate them – to give that modulated narrative drive moments of violence that can be contained by the genre in which the filmmakers work within. Scorsese on the other hand troubles us with his exploration of the aggressive, barely sublimated emotions of his characters. His vision may not always be to people’s liking; but it is a vision, and one of the most singular in American film


©Tony McKibbin