A Beginner’s Guide To… Martin Scorsese

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Acclaimed American director Martin Scorsese is perhaps best known for his crime dramas, including Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and the Oscar-winning The Departed, but over a forty year career he has experimented with a range of genres becoming one of the most iconic directors of all time.

Descended from Sicilian immigrants, Martin Scorsese was born in 1942 and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a melting pot of cultures that included extensive Jewish, Italian and Irish communities; a topic wonderfully illustrated in his early documentary Italianamerican (1974). The two dichotomous forces of organised crime and the Catholic Church dominated his upbringing and became a notable influence on his film-making in later years.

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An altar boy, he intended to become a priest but failed to meet to the academic requirements. However, his childhood asthma affliction had precluded him from playing sports, so his parents had regularly taken him to the cinema where he developed a keen awareness of film-making techniques and the work of particular directors, including Hawks, Ford, Kurosawa, and especially British filmmaker Michael Powell.

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Part of the ‘Movie Brat’ generation – including Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma and Coppola – that influenced the New Hollywood of the 1970s, Scorsese’s cinephilia found fruition while at New York University in the late 1960s where he made a number of short films before his first feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967), with fellow student Harvey Keitel. As well as teaching Film to new students at NYU (including a young Oliver Stone), Scorsese found work as a cameraman and editor on two influential music documentaries, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter (both 1970), before finding work with the master of exploitation film-making, Roger Corman, who asked Scorsese to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972).

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Encouraged by his mentor, writer/director/actor John Cassavetes, Scorsese’s big break came with 1973’s Mean Streets, reuniting Scorsese with Harvey Keitel and marking his first collaboration with long-time muse Robert De Niro. With its atmospheric depiction of the urban environment, charismatic and violent characters, themes of religion and Catholic guilt, a flawed hero and stunning use of pop music on the soundtrack, Scorsese announced his arrival into cinema history.

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Over the next forty years Scorsese would repeat these tropes in films including Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995), as well as exploring genres such as the historical drama (Gangs of New York [2002], The Last Temptation of Christ [1988], Kundun [1997]), horror film (Shutter Island [2010]), biopic (Raging Bull [1980], The Aviator [2004]), musical (New York, New York [1977]), and documentary (Shine A Light [2008], No Direction Home [2005], Living In The Material World [2011]).

After making eight films with De Niro, Scorsese found a new muse in Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) marks their fifth collaboration. As well as directing, Scorsese has also produced a number of works, including the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and continues to work restoring and preserving classic pieces of cinema for future generations, stating:

Why preserve? Because we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been – we can’t understand the future or the present until we have some sort of knowledge of the past.

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Scorsese’s films depict richly textured worlds populated by larger than life characters, especially those set in a violent urban environment and the world of organised crime. He uses long tracking shots to embed the viewer within these settings, as well as rapid, highly evocative editing to create non-linear timelines, symbolism and meaning through juxtaposed images, as well as visualising the events described in his recurrent use of voice-over narration. He constantly looks to other films for inspiration, whether soviet-montage or documentary film-making for his editing techniques, Italian-Neorealism for his lighting design and inclusion of incidental imagery in Raging Bull, or early silent film for Hugo (2011).

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However, Scorsese’s critical and commercial success has not been consistent, with a number of his films failing at the box office and criticised for their indulgent running times. Scorsese’s fascination with male anti-heroes and issues of masculinity – especially within ‘gangster’ culture – mean his female characters are sometimes weak, abused or objectified by their male counterparts. Likewise, while Scorsese’s use of pop music as opposed to orchestrated scores can create an evocative sense of time and place, their upbeat tone coupled to his characters’ appealing charisma can suggest a glamorisation of violence in some of his work.

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Remaining at the boarders of the Hollywood mainstream, Scorsese has never let his critical acclaim and iconic status limit his exploration of subject matter or style. After five previous nominations, he finally won a Best Director Oscar in 2005 for The Departed, quipping “Could you double-check the envelope?” Still as prolific as ever, this legendary filmmaker is still at the top of his game.

Now, if only he would resurrect that Alexander project…

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Top 5 Martin Scorsese Films:

Taxi Driver (1976): Perhaps Scorsese’s finest film, this portentous tale of a man’s decent into the heart of darkness features a stellar performance from De Niro as disturbed Vietnam War-veteran Travis Bickle.

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The Aviator (2004): A biopic of filmmaker, inventor, pioneer and eccentric Howard Hughes sees Scorsese stretch to a wider canvas, a change in tone and explore a historical setting away from his beloved mean streets, which also features a superb performance from DiCaprio.

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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974): This story of a single mother caring for her son won Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress award and sees Scorsese touchingly depict a female protagonist while displaying a range of stylish techniques and aesthetic choices.

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Goodfellas (1990): Henry Hill’s dream of becoming a gangster is realised in a stylish drama that became the most iconic mafia epic since The Godfather.

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The Departed (2006): Adapted from the Hong Kong Infernal Affairs trilogy, the mesmeric cast, setting and Scorsese’s electric editing combine to form an Oscar-winning thriller. A refreshing change from Scorsese’s monstrous protagonists like Hill, LaMotta and Bickle, DiCaprio’s undercover cop fights to maintain his humanity as he infiltrates the Boston-Irish mob.

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Where do you stand on Scorsese? What are the merits of Marty? What would your top five be? Amuse us below…

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2 responses to “A Beginner’s Guide To… Martin Scorsese

  1. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide To… Steven Spielberg | One Room With A View·

  2. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide To… Oliver Stone | One Room With A View·

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