Martin Scorsese has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to John Cassavetes’ dramatic realism and his boldly inventive style. Uncompromising, he is arguably the most brilliant filmmaker working in American film today. Over the last 30 years, Scorsese has directed an impressive cannon of innovative and controversial films.
Scorsese combines a cineaste’s passion for film noir with appreciation for rich characterization and evocation of precise sense of time and place. Scorsese’s brilliant, if also erratic career has been emulated by young indie directors. His intoxicating belief in the infinite possibilities of the film medium is most apparent in the work of Abel Ferrara, Quentin Tarantino, Nick Gomez, and most recently, Paul Thomas Anderson.
Scorsese’s films display such bravura with their dazzling camera, jump cuts, and vivid frames that the filmmaking itself becomes a subject of his movies. Even his weaker movies have boasted stylistic audacity, self-reflexivity and rich commentary on narrativity.
Few observers could have predicted that Mean Streets, Scorsese’s first significant work, would become the most influential film of the 1970s. Interestingly, despite ecstatic reviews from major critics, Mean Streets was a box-office flop that didn’t recoup its small $3.5 million budget. Still, it’s hard to think of an American film that had greater impact–in the 1990s alone, there have been at least half a dozen offshoots, including Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity, Rob Weiss’ Amongst Friends, Michael Corrente’s Federal Hill, John Shea’s Southie, and Ted Demme’s Monument Avenue.
A sort of Little Italy version of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the film explored male camaraderie, which became a perennial theme in the new American cinema, with young directors embracing Scorsese’s tough turf–macho rivalries and betrayals, brutal violence–and Catholic guilt. Set where Scorsese grew up, Mean Streets is the story of two Italian-American hoodlums at odds with their seedy environment. Charlie (Keitel) has to juggle concerns for his crazy friend Johnny Boy (De Niro), a secret romance with Johnny’s cousin, and an ambition to run an uptown restaurant. The visual style was marked by a restless, jittery camera that reflected the tension of city life, a topic that would find a more elaborate expression in Taxi Driver (1976), based on Paul Schrader’s script.
Emphasizing characterization rather than plot, Mean Streets assured Scorsese a central role in contemporary film history. Densely rich and angst-ridden, his films are rooted in his Italian-American-Catholic experience, confronting themes of sin, guilt and redemption in a fiercely contemporary yet universal fashion. His explorations of male camaraderie, violent behavior, and men’s deep fear of women have left a significant imprint on the work of numerous directors.
Scorsese should also be credited with inventing a new street language–his hoodlums talk in fresh, deliriously spontaneous lingo. In Scorsese’s world, violence is expressed in sudden eruptions of aggression in seemingly peaceful surroundings. In Mean Streets, Charlie starts a fight with a girl’s boyfriend simply because there’s nothing better to do. Later on, Johnny Boy throws a bomb into a mailbox, slugs a stranger in the street, picks a fight with Charlie, badgers another man with a gun. Scorsese portrays violence with shocking sadism–his men use primitive tools like hammers and baseball bats rather than guns.
Scorsese’s problematic treatment of women has also influenced the work of younger directors. He places certain women (usually mothers) on a pedestal to be revered, but most women in his films are depicted as deceitful whores. In Mean Streets, Charlie loves Teresa and wants to marry her, but calls her a cunt because they have slept together. Prostitutes abound in Who’s That Knocking, Big Bertha, Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver. In Raging Bull, La Motta asks his brother to keep an eye on his wife Vickie, implying that given the chance all women cheat on their husbands.
Mean Streets marked the beginning of one of the most creative pairings in American cinema. De Niro would loom prominently in future films as an embodiment of Scorsese’s vision of urban society’s neuroses. This kind of intimate director-actor collaboration would influence other indie directors: Abel Ferrara and Christopher Walken, Alan Rudolph and Keith Carradine, Whit Stillman and Chris Eigeman.
Scorsese has attained the goal of authorship more fully than his peers by maintaining high artistic quality. He may be the only director of the film generation who still passionately cares about film as an art form. However, this artistic freedom and bold experimentation have come with a price: Despite prestige and critical kudos (e.g., the AFI Life Achievement Award), Scorsese has never become part of the mainstream industry and has never won an Oscar, and his recent movies suggest that he is no longer a major player in Hollywood.