Martin Scorsese: The Lonely Raging Bull

A penetrating, profound essay has long cried out to be written about Martin Scorsese, the director critics say made the greatest film of the last decade. This is not that essay.

In 1972, Martin Scorsese directed a film called Boxcar Bertha, which ends with the hero getting crucified. In 1988, Martin Scorsese directed a film called The Last Temptation of Christ, which ends with the hero getting crucified. In 1973, Martin Scorsese directed a movie with Robert De Niro called Mean Streets, which depicts two small-time hoods growing up in Little Italy. In 1990 he will release a film with Robert De Niro called Good Fellas, which depicts two small-time hoods growing up in Little Italy. Styles, budgets, and Harvey Keitel may come and go, but some things stay the same.

There's been a lot of talk about Martin Scorsese lately, not only because he has a new film in the can, but because the people who compile things like 10-worst, 10-best lists have deemed Raging Bull the greatest film of the 1980s. This is a bittersweet tribute to Scorsese, because Raging Bull was released in 1980 (meaning that the greatest film of the decade was made a decade ago), and the intervening 10 years have been a turbulent period for him, encompassing the catastrophic King of Comedy, the quirky After Hours, the financially remunerative but pointless Color of Money, the idiosyncratic Last Temptation of Christ, plus a couple of worthy smaller projects (Bad, Life Lessons from New York Stories). Scorsese has done some cracker-jack work in the 1980s, but not the kind that rivals Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull. Maybe that's why he's going back to the old neighborhood.

Still only 48, Scorsese is widely thought to be the greatest American director of his generation, winning on points because Francis Ford Coppola's career is a mess, because Brian De Palma has shown us the bottom of his tiny bag of tricks, and because Woody Allen's small, egocentric films fail to address the problems of people living any further west than, say, Columbus Avenue. Another Scorsese contemporary, Steven Spielberg, has made quite a name--and an awful lot of money--for himself addressing bedrock American concerns (Are there 50-foot sharks in the water? Are there extraterrestrials in the garage?) before wandering off to turn great books into so-so movies. All of these people are at least as gifted as Scorsese, but Scorsese is the only one who keeps making powerful, attention-getting movies by remaining generally faithful to his gloomy vision of life. So he gets the ring.

Martin Scorsese has clawed his way to the top by portraying an endless collection of poor role models for our kids. (It should come as no great surprise that he started out working for Roger Corman and John Cassavetes.) The classic Scorsese protagonist is a jerk who, if he plays his cards right, might work his way up to being a schmuck. In Mean Streets, Charlie is a loser and Johnny Boy is a dope. Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy) is a schlemiel. Eddie Felson (The Color of Money) is a has-been. Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) is a psychopath. Jimmy Doyle (New York, New York) is a clown. Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) is a neanderthal. Judas (The Last Temptation of Christ) is Judas. And Scorsese's Christ is a very, very reluctant messiah who has a 9-to-5 job making crucifixes and who would really rather not end up on one, if that could possibly be arranged. As for the women, don't ask.

Obsessed as he is with his galaxy of losers, Scorsese has had a problematic career. The critics loved Mean Streets, his first major-league outing, but audiences didn't, giving Harvey Keitel the first cruel intimations of the direction his career was heading in. After that came Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a sort of big-screen "Rhoda," which some see as Scorsese's apology to the film industry, the money-making project that saved his career. (He still hasn't apologized to us.) Since that time, he's been in and out, making them big (Raging Bull) and small (Life Lessons), good (Taxi Driver) and bad (New York, New York), successful (The Color of Money) and not-so-successful (The King of Comedy), and he managed to make The Exterminating Angel Comes to Soho (After Hours). He's made three great movies, a couple of pretty good ones, three flawed experiments, a pair of interesting duds, and Alice, which flat out sucks. Grade: A-.

With rare exception, the asthmatic ex-seminarian has continued to dance with the one who brung him: schlubs, and the occasional goofball. Non-Robert Redford types. People you couldn't care less about unless Scorsese was telling you their story. Scorsese makes movies about the problems of troubled urban man, which explains why a lot of critics love his work, because film critics are, by and large, troubled urban men.

Though Scorsese's films may reflect the cinematographic influences of visionaries such as Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini, and the rest of that crew, the primary thematic influences are Little Italy, the Catholic Church, and the movies he saw as a kid when he was trying to avoid being suffocated by Little Italy and the Catholic Church. He is an eclectic, a fallen-away Catholic who went to film school, but he is no revolutionary. You want to be a revolutionary, you end up like Kenneth Anger.

Though on the surface it may seem that Scorsese has dipped into a number of genres (film noir, musicals, rock documentaries, romances, and even TV commercials), in reality he has been remarkably consistent in the way he makes movies and the types of movies he makes. If it worked once, Marty's credo seems to be, why not try it again? No, it is not unfair to Scorsese to say that he reworks familiar territory, sometimes because he wants to go back and get it right, sometimes because he probably doesn't even know he's doing it. Taxi Driver is at least partially about a man who wants to save a whore from herself, and so is Last Temptation. Raging Bull deals with a guy who doesn't mind taking a dive; ditto The Color of Money. Mean Streets profiles a hapless individual who, because he's been born into the wrong family, has an unappetizing career path cut out for him; same deal with Last Temptation.

Other similarities abound. The trick endings of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are cut from the same cloth, cynical afterthoughts which seem to tell the audience: These guys are cruds, but you're idiots. When in doubt, Scorsese always goes to an overhead shot for dramatic effect. If something big is going to happen, look for the color red in a dress, a neon light, a film credit, or a blood vessel (Taxi Driver only got an "R"-rating after Scorsese agreed to tone down the color of the artery-red blood at the end of the film).

As noteworthy as the recurrent scenes, themes, colors, and shots are the consistently amazing soundtracks, the always impeccable work of Scorsese's screenwriters, and the omnipresent talents of De Niro and/or Keitel.

But the greatest constant in Scorsese films is the emphasis on relationships. Basically, Martin Scorsese makes buddy movies-- Keitel and De Niro, De Niro and Joe Pesci, Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel--where women are usually an inconvenience at best. When the women surface--they are often jailbait--they tend to form the third wedge of an uncomfortable triangle. Mean Streets centers on the relationship between Keitel and De Niro, with De Niro's epileptic cousin, Teresa, mucking things up. Taxi Driver has two triangles--De Niro, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks, and De Niro, Keitel and Jodie Foster. The Color of Money has three competing characters-- Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Alice has two triangles--Burstyn, Keitel and Keitel's wife, and Burstyn, Kristofferson and the kid. Raging Bull focuses on De Niro's suspicion that his brother has been screwing his wife. The King of Comedy revolves around De Niro and Sandra Bernhard vying for the affection of Jerry Lewis. In Last Temptation, Christ has two relationships: one with Judas, the other with Mary Magdalene. (There is a third, with God Himself, but He never appears on screen.)

Scorsese has been married four times, so he obviously has trouble with women. No, maybe they have trouble with him. It's worth remembering that Scorsese plays the thoroughly unappealing passenger in Taxi Driver who chit-chats with De Niro about blowing off his wife's face. After that scene, it's amazing that Scorsese has had four dates, let alone four marriages.

Given Scorsese's problems with the opposite sex and his falien-away Catholic background, it's hardly surprising that the women in his films, almost without exception, are virgins, goddesses or whores. The only exceptions are Liza Minnelli in New York, New York and Ellen Burstyn in Alice, and those are his two worst movies. The only Scorsese movie that ends with a solid relationship is Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, where Burstyn, no looker, improbably gets to keep the ruggedly handsome Kristofferson.

As for kids, forget it: they're either absent, irrelevant, or abandoned. The only time kids intrude are in Alice, where Burstyn's coy geekling is a walking justification for child abuse, and Taxi Driver, where Jodie Foster plays a 12-year-old who takes it all ways. If the world had to depend on Martin Scorsese's characters to repopulate the world, mankind would be extinct in one generation. This is not what you would expect from a Roman Catholic Italian-American. But, of course, Scorsese went to NYU in the '60s.

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