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Martin Scorcese-70’s & 80’s

September 18, 2007

When Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, presented the Best Director Award to Martin Scorcese or Marty as his fans call him for The Departed, in the recent Oscar awards, it was a kind of emotional reunion. The four of them along with Brian De Palma made up the movie brat pack of the 1970’s. While Spielberg and Lucas went totally mainstream Hollywood,De Palma created a cult of his own with Scarface and Untouchables. Coppola pushed the envelope further with Godfather series and Apocalypse Now. And then there was Marty. Like Woody Allen, Marty had a life long love affair with New York City, but with a difference. Marty’s New York was not that of Manhattan, Wall Street, 5th Avenue, Tiffany’s, it was not the New York of Queens, luxurious penthouses and elegant, beautiful people. His New York was that part which most of us just pass by and are thankful, that we dont belong there. It was a New York of Hells Kitchen, inner city areas, gangsters, pimps and ghettoes. It was a New York of brothels, low cost porn movie theaters, shady bars, drug addicts and prostitutes. Marty explored that part of the Big Apple, which one generally does not find in tourist brochures and which most of us pretend that it does not exist.Marty was influenced a lot by Italian neo realism, and The Bicycle Thief was a major influence on him. After making some short movies, Marty debuted with his first feature movie, Whos That Knocking at My Door?, a 1967 B&W movie starring Harvey Keitel. And it was later on, that his buddy De Palma, introduced him to a young Robert De Niro. De Niro and Marty would kick start a collaboration, that would be right up there with other great director-actor combos like John Ford-John Wayne, Billy Wilder-Jack Lemmon and Alfred Hitchcock-Cary Grant to name a few. Harvey Keitel would also be a regular on most of his projects. Marty came up with Boxcar Bertha in 1972, not a very remarkable movie, but it was the one which provided him the grounding for movie making. And then came Mean Streets in 1973,one of his best and most underrated work.

The movie starred Harvey Keitel in the lead role, and De Niro as second lead in a tale about two friends growing up in an Italian American ghetto. Mean Streets established many signature elements of Marty’s work. Catholic guilt and redemption, in where the character of Charlie played by Harvey Keitel, is torn apart by the guilt he faces in being a gangster. Gritty New York locales, most of the movie is shot in the dark, backlit streets of New York city and a soundtrack filled with rock music. The movie also features Marty’s dizzying camera work, especially in the climax fight between De Niro and Keitel, where it tracks, De Niro’s movement, along the streets, up the stairs. And yes most of Marty’s movies had that dark claustrophobic environment. Rapid fire editing and stacatto dialogue, would be the other feature. De Niro burst on to the screen with a compelling performance as Johnny Boy, Charlie’s hot headed and impulsive friend. Marty followed up Mean Streets with Alice Doesnt Live Here Any More in 1974, a soft romantic tale for which it’s lead actress Ellen Burstyn( who gained fame with her role as the mother in Exorcist), won an Academy Award for Best Actress.

The 70’s was an age of cynicism in the US. While the fiasco in Vietnam was a blow militarily, Watergate made the people lose faith in the American Presidency. In the economic sector, the Japanese onslaught, dealt a huge blow to the American automobile industry, and most of the cities were reeling under crime, riots and urban decay. So when Travis Bickle, arrived on screen in Taxi Driver(1976), ranting against the scum of the earth, he was in effect, echoing the cynicism of the average American. To call Taxi Driver a classic would be an understatement, its an iconic movie.And maybe i guess, because there is a bit of a Travis Bickle in me too, a bitter, cynical loner, but then thats another topic.

Take one of the best shots in the movie, where Bickle, drives the taxi through the seedy streets of New York, narrating his feelings about the scum of the earth. You have the narration, and the shots are in dark dim lit, rushing past, with the shady brothels, dimly lit shops, hustlers, small time hood. Marty actually brings that grimy, gritty New York into focus, with his camera angles, where you get the feel of riding in the taxi itself. Marty would again use the same technique in Raging Bull, where the boxing scenes, give you the feeling of being there. And yes the open ended climax, which still has people discussing about it. Now one very important aspect here is Bernard Hermann’s background score, at no stage does the music intrude into the scene, and yet it forms such an important aspect of the movie. Maybe this is something a certain Ram Gopal Verma could keep in mind while making a movie. And yes Robert De Niro in a tour de force performance as Travis Bickle. He makes us totally emphathize with his character of a cynical, lonely loser who becomes an unlikely hero. Marty however was left empty handed at the Oscars, as the Academy preferred the feel good Americana of Rocky.

Marty attempted to pay a homage to his favorite genre, the American Musical, with 1977’s New York, New York, starring his favorite Robert De Niro again. However Marty’s attempt to move away from gritty realism to the showmanship splendour of the American musical, did not find favor with critics, and in age where gritty realism was the key word, it some how seemed a misfit. The movie was a major disaster at the box office, and its failure led Marty to depression and drugs.

Robert De Niro helped Marty come out of his cocaine addiction after the failure of New York, New York, and then in 1980, the two collaborated on another classic movie, Raging Bull. Based on the memoirs of real life boxer Jake De La Motta, with De Niro, in the title role, the movie was the fascinating study of the rise and fall of a champion. Shot totally in B&W, the movie is famous for it’s unforgettable boxing sequences. Where Marty, took the viewers to the seedy underbelly of New York in a Taxi before, here he takes us inside the ring. Most of the shots are in framed close up, with the camera panning dizzy angles, and what you see is boxing which is raw, violent, intense and ferocious. No punches pulled here literally.But Raging Bull, is not just about boxing, it is also a pyschological profile of an insecure character, who suspects his wife, only because she is beautiful. A kind of Othello, in this case the suspect being De La Motta’s own brother. In a way Jake Le Motta is different from Travis Bickle. Bickle is a loser, a social outcast, a loner, who lives in a delusional world of his own. But you end up emphathizing with him, Le Motta on the other hand is a totally unsympathetic character. He suspsects his wife of sleeping with his brother, and the scene where unable to face his constant harrasment, she shouts back at him, that she is sleeping with his brother, is just too harrowing. Raging Bull is not the standard hero becomes a champion kind of sports movie. It is a harrowing look into the fall of a man, unable to face his own inner demons, and De Niro won the award deservedly for his portrayal. And yes another great performance by Joe Pesci, as De Niro’s brother, who is the target of his ire.

Marty again broke ground, with two totally different movies, more in the league of black comedy. He teamed up with De Niro, again in 1983 for The King of Comedy, a kind of quirky black comedy. De Niro again reprised his Taxi Driver role of an paranoid loner,who kidnaps his idol played by Jerry Lewis, so that he could become the top comedian in NYC. Though the movie was a flop, it marked a departure from Marty’s earlier jerky camera style, and the shots are more conventional here.

After the Swinging 60’s and the cynical 70’s, the 80’s was a period of Reaganomics and Greed is Good culture. As commercial considerations started to override everything else, Hollywood turned it’s back on the quirky, path breaking movies of the 70’s and started to go commercial. Having realized that his previous style of movie making,did not have much place here, Marty went back to making a totally downbeat low budget comedy, After Hours(1985). One of his more underrated movies, this is a fantastic comedy, featuring the escapades of a mild New York white collar professional, who has to spend one night on the streets of New York after he misses his last train back home. The sequence at the subway counter, where he tries to argue with the ticket seller, after he finds that he does not have money to pay for the ticket, is one of the best shot.

1987 saw Marty make The Color of Money, his most mainstream Hollywood venture, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. The movie was the sequence to Newman’s 1961 movie The Hustler, where he played the role of Fast Eddie, a pool hustler, who makes it to the top. Set against a billiards backdrop, the movie has Newman as Fast Eddie, but this time mentoring a young hustler, Vincent, played by Tom Cruise. More of a sports movie, and focussing on the mentor-pupil relationship, it was neverthless not one of Marty’s best, though Paul Newman, got a long deserved Oscar for this movie.

1988 saw him go back to his quirky, personal style of movie making with the highly controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. The movie was mired in controversies starting off with the choice of Wilelm Dafoe to play the role of Christ. Director Sergio Leone, remarked, “that is the face of a murderer not of our Lord”. But the biggest was the climactic part of the movie, where Jesus is shown imagining in a dream sequence making love to Mary Magdalene, raising a family, and settling down, all the time while he was on the cross. Also shots showing Jesus Christ as gay, being tempted by Satan, were highly controversial, and the movie faced worldwide protests from religious groups. Most of Catholic dominated Latin America, did not allow this movie to be shown, and even in US, it faced protests from many religious leaders.But to date Willelm Dafoe’s remains one of the best portrayal of Jesus Christ. Religious controversies aside, the movie is worth watching for the final dream scene, when Jesus imagines himself spending life with Mary Magdalene, brilliantly shot.




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