Scorsese, Martin: Impact on Indie Cinema

Scorsese has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to 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. He 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. Even a small-scale film like the black farce After Hours is rewarding, because of its mixture of Kafkaesque ambience, realistic dialogue, delirious expressionism, and sketch comedy of Saturday Night Live (in the presence of Cheech and Chong).

His first film, Who's That Knocking at My Door (1968), was a semi-autobiographical drama about the relationship between a streetwise (Harvey Keitel), hung up by his strict Catholic upbringing, and an independent young woman (Zina Bethune). He then made the exploitation flick, Boxcar Bertha (1970), a minor blood and gorefest that nonetheless gave him the opportunity to get closer to the Hollywood system.

Mean Streets

Few observers could have predicted that Mean Streets (1973), 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.

Taxi Driver

An iconographic street opera, Taxi Driver centers on Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet turned psychotic vigilante against New York city's “scum,” pimps, whores, muggers, junkies, and politicians. The film generated controversy due to its bloody denouement–a hallucinatory, brilliantly sustained sequence of carnage involving a 12 year old prostitute (played by Jodie Foster). A disturbing expression of seedy city life, Taxi Driver was filtered through the distorted personality of a troubled cabbie, superbly played by Robert De Niro.

Raging Bull

For his next and finest film, Raging Bull (1980), Scorsese chose black and white cinematography to lend stark realism, brutal vigor, and psychological intensity to the story of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, who rose from squalor to the height of his profession, only to be destroyed by his own paranoia. In a switch of genres, but congruous with his continuing concern with the darker side of urban life, Scorsese turned to The King of Comedy (1983), an incisive black comedy about an obsessive fan (De Niro) who wreaks havoc by stalking a comic celeb (Jerry Lewis). Bizarre aspects of city life during a seemingly endless night were also evoked in the nightmarish comedy, After Hours (1985).

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 doesn't go for ironic detachment. As David Denby pointed out, Scorsese stresses the lyrical, opera-like possibilities of gangster life (GoodFellas)–his mobsters are emotional, unlike Tarantino's cool, sardonic heroes. 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 Screen Women

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.

This virgin-whore dichotomy is sometimes embodied within the same female figure, who's visually presented in a fragmented manner. In Taxi Driver, teenager Iris is a child-woman who's an object of idealization for Bickle but a sexual object for her customers. Blonde campaign worker Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) is first perceived by Bickle as a goddess to be protected, but when she rejects him he calls her a cunt. In After Hours, Paul becomes infatuated with a seemingly shy and fragile woman (Rosanna Arquette), who turns out to be sexually promiscuous and emotionally unstable. Women's first appearance onscreen reflects only parts of their bodies; if their entire bodies are shown, they're masked in a disharmonious way.

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.

Based in New York, Scorsese has largely worked outside the establishment, pursuing his own path (with Hollywood money) by making personal movies such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Scorsese has never enjoyed the box-office success of Coppola (The Godfather), Spielberg (E.T.) or Lucas (Star Wars). Weary of not getting public recognition for his versatility in The Age of Innocence and Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese returned to more familiar grounds with vivid portraits of mob life in GoodFellas (1990), which was successful, and Casino (1995), which was not. Then totally disregarding commercial considerations, he made one from the heart, Kundun (1997), a box office failure.

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.