Martin Scorcese: Swimming with the Sharks

Martin Scorsese is a scary little guy with mean friends in New York's Little Italy, but he's also a driven artist and almost certainly our finest American screen director. Even when he blunders, he's world-class as opposed to flash.

At mid-career, the director is fascinating to watch because he hasn't totally sold out, as the old saying goes. He's inching in that direction, but with reservations and with honor. If we're lucky, he'll squeak through the strangling confinements of today's Hollywood hit factories and make another string of great pictures, having mainly his own ferocious achievements to surpass.

Several of Scorsese's films are now solidly in the classic repertory: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull among them.

His lesser but still considerable achievements include Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, The Last Waltz, The King of Comedy, After Hours, and the aptly-titled The Color of Money.

On the debit side I count Scorsese's various dabblings in the music-video form-notably Michael Jackson's "Bad," also aptly-titled--and the interminably gassy, vacuous, and "controversial" The Last Temptation of Christ.

Let me hasten to say that I have no particular problem with Last Temptation's theology--but as a movie I hated it from beginning to end (running time. 163 minutes). It struck me as one of the emptiest movies of the 1980s. Before it was over, it made me wish I was dead with my back broken.

Yet with my thumb literally stuck to the VCR's fast-forward button, I never doubted Scorsese's sincerity or seriousness in bringing Nikos Kazantzakis's novel to the screen, and I'm even less inclined to do so after reading Scorsese's account of the production's fractured history.

Does that make Last Temptation a better picture? Hardly. But when Scorsese talks at all, he tends to tell the truth, and his commentary on how the movie biz works when faced with a "serious" project is quietly devastating.

Since he entered the national consciousness in the mid-1970s ("Was you talkin' to me?"), Scorsese has relentlessly avoided interviews. Accordingly, the publication of Scorsese on Scorsese marks something of an occasion, amounting as it does to a sketchy and highly elliptical autobiography.

The slim little volume, distilled from three lectures the director gave at British film institutions in 1987, shies away from the more intimate aspects of Scorsese's personal history, which is largely confined to brief information squibs provided by the editors. Thus, the book is an appetizer rather than a full-course meal, yet revealing and valuable all the same.

Scorsese discusses each of his 25 films, videos, and TV commercials, from the early experimental shorts to his current production, Good Fellas. He pays touching homage to his father and the early treks they made together to movie theaters. In passing, he offers brief but tantalizing glimpses of producer Sam Arkoff, film composer Bernard Herrmann, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, John Cassavetes, British director Michael Powell, and agent Michael Ovitz. Above all, Scorsese voices his passionate commitment to films and filmmaking.

"The first image that I remember seeing on a cinema screen," he recalls, "was a Tru-color trailer for a Roy Rogers movie... Westerns remained my favorite movies until I was about ten."

"I'm not a very well-read person," he says later, "because I grew up in a house without books, and basically everything I learned was visual."

The young Scorsese--a devout Catholic lad who began to confuse religion with the movies--belonged to the first generation of American film-school students circa 1960-65. In a rise that transcended the spectacular, he flashed up through the system, making the then-obligatory stop to film a Roger Corman cheapo (Boxcar Bertha, 1972) before making Mean Streets in 1973 and the even more astonishing Taxi Driver in 1975. As sometimes happens, he got famous and he got a little lost. With his fifth studio film--New York, New York (1977)--he foundered on several fronts, and the magical spell was broken.

Following the "first triumphant decade of his career," the editors note discreetly, "there were many inclined to regard Scorsese as a spent or compromised force in the aftermath of the early eighties"--i.e., after 1982's $20 million boxoffice failure The King of Comedy and the onset of myriad personal problems.

In that climate, following a years-long obsession with filming The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese entered Hollywood's Goofy Zone. The picture was eventually produced and released by Universal in 1988--but an earlier commitment for backing by another studio turned out to be no commitment at all.

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