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(born 1942)

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"The only person who has the right attitude about boxing in the movies for me was Buster Keaton."
- Martin Scorsese


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martin scorsese
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scorsese


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biography


      'People tell me that I am incapable of telling a story. I don't care. I have other things to say. And another way to say them.' For all his lack of concern with the commercialism of cinema, Martin Scorsese has nevertheless made pictures which have sold well. Starting out as a respected editor, he went on to exploit his Italian-American origins in the films he has directed. His success has certainly earned him a place in the vanguard of the new American cinema

    Peter Hayden's 1978 documentary about Martin Scorsese is appropriately entitled Movies Are My Life, for no other director of the new American cinema has quite so completely managed to merge the concerns of his personal life with older film genres which helped to form his consciousness of life and cinema. An Italian-American of the third generation, Scorsese was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York, but his parents moved to Little Italy in 1950, so that it was in the Italian, Catholic milieu of Manhattan that he grew up. His asthma prevented the more strenuous pastimes; as partial recompense his father took him to the movies at least twice a week, which inspired him to draw his own story-boards for imaginary films. He now says that when thinking back over his childhood, he often confuses events that really happened with events from Alice Faye vehicles or the films of John Ford and Samuel Fuller.

    At 14 he decided he wanted to be a priest, but rock'n'roll, movies on 42nd Street and his gang pals on Lower East Side, New York, interested him more than the Church and took more of his time than his studies. Instead, in 1963, he enrolled in the English Department of New York University where he found himself more interested in cinema courses and was encouraged in his interest by Professor Haig Manoogian, to whom Raging Bull (1980) is dedicated. Among his fellow students and friends were Brian De Palma (through whom he met Robert De Niro), cameraman Michael Wadleigh (who later directed Woodstock, 1970) and Mardik Martin, who worked on several scripts with Scorsese.

    A growing awareness of the French nouvelle vague from screenings at the New York Film Festival helped him to see the possibility of making personal films under almost amateur circumstances. At any rate, it is clear from his second 16mm short made at NYU - It's Not Just You, Murray (1965) - what sort of cinema was to be Scorsese's major influence: that film ends with a production number (Love Is a Gazelle) in the manner of Busby Berkeley, a perfect example of popular American movies of the Thirties and Forties. That same film also indicated other central concerns which were to be developed in later films: It's Not Just You, Murray is a semi-fictionalized portrait of his uncle, set in Little Italy.


    Dress rehearsals

    In 1965 he attempted to make a 35mm feature - Bring on the Dancing Girls >><- a semi-autobiographical story. About a young man, raised in Little Italy as a Catholic, the film shows how a young girl brings confusion to his macho sense of 'angel or whore'. The S6000 Scorsese had borrowed for the film did not last long and he abandoned the project until 1967 when Haig Manoogian encouraged him to try it again, this time in an economically more realistic 16mm. The result was I Call First - released in 1968 under the title Who's That Knocking at My Door? - with Zina Bethune and Harvey Keitel. Seen now, the film has its own nervous intensity, a fine performance by Keitel, and striking black-and-white images, but seems something of a dress rehearsal for Mean Streets (1973) - itself already 'in the air' as a script.

    After finishing Who's That Knocking at My Door? Scorsese made a 16mm short, The Big Shave (1967), which was a hit at the Experimental Film Festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium. He stayed in Europe with cameraman Richard Coll and made publicity films for six months and co-wrote Pim de la Parra and Wim Verstappen's Obsessions (1969) in Holland. His reputation as an editor took him to Hollywood, and while editing and supervising post-production for Francois Reichenbach's Medicine Ball Caravan (1971), Scorsese met American International Pictures exploitation producer Roger Corman who hired him to make an action film 'for the guys on 42nd Street'.

    The producer expected something of a sequel to his own film Bloody Mama (1970). Instead, Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972) is a strange meditation, with bursts of violence, on roving union organizers and other outcasts of the Depression. AIP was somewhat disconcerted and did not quite know what to do with the film, since Scorsese had doctored the screenplay to some extent. Nevertheless, Boxcar Bertha and its director had their supporters in the film industry and on the festival circuit, and they advised Scorsese to make a film to which he was more totally committed than this impersonal commercial exploitation work.


    Italy isn't here any more

    That film was Mean Streets, made for $550,000, which became a hit at both the New York Film Festival and in the 'Directors' Fortnight' at Cannes. The film is a portrait of a generation of Italian-Americans in the ghetto of Little Italy, caught between the Mafia and the Church. Harvey Keitel again plays a variation of Scorsese himself, attempting to free himself of his Catholic background and yet to 'save' those around him, particularly his best friend and his friend's epileptic sister . . . with catastrophic results. Part of the film's excitement comes from the use of rock music, not only to underscore period but to comment on emotional states and point to how popular culture helps determine character.

    For all its personal concerns, Mean Streets is very much a genre film, in a tradition that dates back at least as far as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). Looked at from one angle, however, Scorsese has never made anything but genre films . . . but always with a difference. His next feature, Alice Doesnt Live Here Any More (1974) - the story of a widow's search for happiness on a trip across America in which she vacillates between the dream of a career and 'true love' - was in every way a woman's picture in the tradition of Sirk or Capra. It is probably the director's least personal film - Ellen Burstyn, who won an Oscar for her performance, had as much or more to say about the script as Scorsese or writer Robert Getchell. But Scorsese's own concerns are certainly not absent: the beginning in which an extract from an Alice Faye film is used to show how popular movies formed consciousness of identity, for example, or the unbalanced 'angel or whore' violence of the character played by Harvey Keitel, who is at one and the same time generous and loving with Alice, yet brutal to his own wife. Alice Doesnt Live Here Any More showed that at least some of the problems found in Little Italy are also a part of Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.


    Street life

    In 1976 New York City became not only the setting but a major character in Taxi Driver, the film which won the Golden Palm at Cannes and secured Scorsese's reputation as the most talented director of the new American cinema. While the script is by Paul Schrader, there are definite connections between Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. Here, however, the would-be 'saviour' becomes an exterminating angel, a killer praised and honoured for slaughtering a pimp. Ironically, though, it is praise for a paranoid murderer who could easily strike again. The film is a trip through hell with the 'real' city dissolving into an hallucination of odd colours and visual distortions -a hell from which there is no redemption.

    Those who praise Scorsese for his 'realism' are missing the point, unless it is his emotional realism they have in mind. There is little difference finally between the way he uses the actual streets of New York in Taxi Driver and the purposely artificial sets of the city he uses in New York, New York (1977). What he had in mind was:

      'A movie called New York, New York shot entirely in Los Angeles, which goes back to the old films I used to see as a kid, which reflected part of New York, but that was a fantasy of New York up on the screen. So, in the picture I tried to fuse whatever was a fantasy - the movies I grew up with as a kid - with the reality I experienced myself.'

    In New York, New York Scorsese wants to take the viewer through the changes in the American consciousness from the open-ended, high-energy optimism following hard on the tail of World War II to the repressed disillusion of the Fifties. While he glories in the artificiality of the form - something akin to The Glenn Miller Story (1953) - he attempts to make the human relationships realistic, in part to determine whether those old forms can contain emotional realism without bursting open. He is only relatively successful, at least in the version of the film that was released - the original four-and-a-half hours were edited down to just over two. There is now an imbalance in the structure which loses sight of the character played by Robert De Niro in the second half, so that the emotional drive of the film is weakened.


    The last round

    The Last Waltz (1978), a documentary about the last performance by The Band, is a genre film - the 'concert' film with interviews. Aside from the fact that it was shot and edited with musical grace and energy, the film is easily the best of its type because it has a moving thesis which grows from the material rather than being imposed on it. Its theme is one that is shared in part by New York, New York - the portrait of the end of a musical and cultural era which, for all its excitement, is finally autumnal in tone.

    Raging Bull is in the boxing-biography genre of the Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) variety, but with a difference. Set more or less in the Italian milieu and again with something of the sexual angel-whore problem, of the love- hate relationship with the Anglo-Saxon blonde which is also in Taxi Driver, the film describes in one scene how Jake La Motta (the hero) is driven to a violent frenzy when he fears that his idealized, teenage wife might have been sleeping with his brother. But Scorsese has developed other favourite themes in new ways: redemption, love, friendship between men, the unconsidered act. Scorsese refuses to think of Raging Bull as a boxing film. The King of Comedy (1983) continued Scorsese's relationship with De Niro. In this film, De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a man convinced that he could be the greatest of stand-up comics. His arrogance impels him to kidnap a top TV host (Jerry Lewis) to get a spot on prime-time TV. Pupkin is a pathetic hero, and the film a cautionary tale of an obsessed nobody who deludes himself into believing he deserves to be a star.

    His next film, After Hours (1985), is an original and episodic return to Scorsese's beloved mean streets. A black comedy of urban paranoia, it follows the idiosyncratic events of a night out that turns into a nightmare. His first film for four years, After Hours, starring Paul Hackett and Rosanna Arquette, is a stylish and quirky change of pace for Scorsese.

    He continued his move into the more commercial side of cinema with The Color of Money (1986) which is effectively a remake of The Hustler (1961). Starring Paul Newman, again, as fast Eddie Felson 25 years older, and Tom Cruise as the contender, it is as sharp and pacy a study of pool and competition as the original.

    Scorsese's final film of the decade, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), was his most controversial. Adapted from Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, it represented Scorsese's sincere, reverent attempt to humanize Christ - and was almost shut down by protests from Fundamentalist Christians (most of whom hadn't even seen the movie) on release. It still managed to earn Scorsese a Best Director nomination. (Scorsese had tried to make the picture earlier in the decade, but backing studio Paramount, fearing Fundamentalist backlash, canceled the production right before shooting was scheduled to start.)

    Scorsese didn't let the controversy keep him out of action; in 1989 he contributed the best episode to the three-part anthology film New York Stories (which also featured work from Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola). 1990's GoodFellas (Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, which Scorsese co-wrote), a dizzying, exhilarating, frightening look at the everyday life of a Mafia "wiseguy," won wide acclaim and also reunited Scorsese and De Niro for the sixth time.

    They continued the collaboration with the 1991 remake of Cape Fear another attempt for Scorsese (perpetually a Hollywood outsider) to crack the mainstream. Even with Steven Spielberg as executive producer, the film managed to reflect Scorsese's darker vision, and emerged a curious hybrid of conventional 1990s horror/thriller and brooding psychological melodrama. Then in 1993 he turned to wholly unexpected source material, Edith Wharton's novel of sexual repression in the late 1800s, The Age of Innocence , a flawed but stunningly realized evocation of an era and its social mores. (Scorsese received an Oscar nomination as co-writer.) He teamed up again with De Niro - their eighth time- for Casino (1995).

    Scorsese has also directed Michael Jackson's music video Bad (1987), and Robbie Robertson's Somewhere Down the Crazy River (1988), as well as two Giorgio Armani commercials and an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories called Mirror Mirror. He produced The Grifters (1990), co-produced Mad Dog and Glory (1993) and Clockers (1995), and executive produced Naked in New York (1994). He has lent his name and prestige to a number of American theatrical releases of both contemporary and classic films, and even interviewed one of his mentors, director Michael Powell, for the laserdisc release of Black Narcissus.

    The director has also worked in front of the camera, contributing cameos to a number of his own movies (most notably Taxi Driver as a psycho passenger) and working as an actor in such films as Round Midnight (1986), Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990, as Vincent van Gogh), Guilty by Suspicion (1991), and Quiz Show (1994). Most of his movies involve extended family participation, not only with longtime collaborators like actors De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Joe Pesci, screenwriters Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin and Jay Cocks, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, but in his frequent casting of his parents in actual roles. Mrs. Scorsese had a particularly memorable scene as Joe Pesci's mother in GoodFellas.

    Scorsese was formerly married to actress Isabella Rossellini and producer Barbara De Fina.

    In 2002, he directed Gangs of New York was slightly disappointing and suffrered from overruns and a performance by Daniel Day Lewis that was too over the top. Scorsese's salary for the movie was $6,000,000 but he had to pay back $3,000,000 due to budget overruns.


scorsese



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