Buon Compleanno, Signor Scorsese
by Lily Ekimian
You can’t talk about movies without talking about Martin Scorsese. This week, we celebrate his 76th birthday, but I would like to focus on his 51 years as a filmmaker. The reason his films will never be forgotten is that everybody watches them – and I mean everybody. Very few directors have been able to pull off what Scorsese has been doing since the beginning of his career, which is to create aesthetically pleasing films for the masses. He is not an arthouse filmmaker, but he is also not pure Hollywood; he has found the wonderful balance that does indeed exist between the two.
The reason I say he must be mentioned when talking about cinema is that he has ingrained himself so deeply in its history. Scorsese celebrates the tradition of filmmaking by placing his films in relation to the classics, engaging in a dialogue with the films he loves. What I’m referring to goes beyond paying tribute (though he does that, too) and instead works to enhance one’s understanding of both his films and their predecessors. A good example is viewing Taxi Driver in the context of The Searchers. There are so many ways you could watch Taxi Driver, but I think my favourite is as a commentary on what is widely considered as John Ford’s masterpiece. I will admit, I took issue with finding John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards a hero, and I did not know how commonly held this view was.
But if you think of Taxi Driver in those terms (Travis Bickle as Edwards, Iris as Debbie, Sport as Scar), you end up with a more complex view of both Bickle and Edwards, and can easily find neither to be a true hero, but both to be one in their own minds. What’s more, you may also realise what the society receiving the film considered a hero to be from the reception of the character (and, to the post-Vietnam War American audience, Travis Bickle was seen as a hero by some of the most disillusioned).
Scorsese also plays with, and updates, The Wizard of Oz in his Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and After Hours. Both these films follow characters who just want to go home, but the approaches of each film could not be more different. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore paints a compelling portrait of a woman, a recently widowed mother, that shows us how in touch Scorsese was with the world around him through his ability to depict it so accurately (as he so often does). With After Hours, we get the fantastic Kafkaesque journey of a word processor in an absurd comedy that depicts more of a mood than a reality. Watching both films alongside The Wizard of Oz serves to offer the most well-rounded understanding of this cinematic odyssey narrative.
But perhaps my favourite example of Scorsese’s cinematic references is the influence of Federico Fellini’s La Strada on Raging Bull. On one level, you can see how both films deal with a man whose animalistic rage is displayed in both his personal life and his profession (a travelling circus strongman and a boxer, respectively). But what strengthens this comparison for me is that, while Jake LaMotta is a real man, Raging Bull is a film primarily concerned with the artistic representation of an emotional state, rather than the facts of a man’s life. When an overwhelming number of films today are based on true stories, it is important to remember this approach, and remember that by choosing to use the medium of film you are choosing to place your film within the history of it. Perhaps if Raging Bull was adapted into a play, we would see less of Anthony Quinn’s Zampanò and more of Stanley Kowalski.
Martin Scorsese’s films are the work of a man who has truly embraced and internalised his craft. Scorsese has upheld the tradition of cinema by adding invaluable works to it, works that engage with and enhance that tradition, and for his birthday, I say without hesitation that he is the greatest director alive.