|Scorsese Dialectics Under Scrutiny in Berlin
By Dr. Alan Taylor (Oxon)
The present exhibition(austellung) on the life and career of Film Director Martin Scorsese at the Museum für Film und Fernsehen at Berlin’s Potsdamerplatz should be compulsory viewing for all cineastes and certainly students of the film craft.
To regulars of Scorsese’s oeuvre, that extends from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore of 1974 to the more recent Hugo (2011), there is a rich store of storyboards, props and production material to enliven what is a fairly familiar narrative that charts the director’s quest for a better life which, now that he is 70, is celebrated here.
The sequence of thematic stages that begins with The Family is framed with an introductory quote that asserts how “Martin Scorsese developed his own cinematic handwriting based on his interests in uncovering the motives of human behaviour and the language of film”. The exhibition is therefore grounded on solid auteur assumptions that were under critical strain even when Scorsese was emerging from New York University Film Studies class in the early 1960s.
The Family room combines the professional and the personal; family stills (father, mother, brother, daughter) are juxtaposed with stills from a range of films, Casino, Mean Streets, The Departed and The Last Temptation of Christ that collectively remind us of the brother motiv that sustains the film’s dialectic of love and betrayal. The room is staged with samples from scripts (Raging Bull) and props – Johnny Boy’s hat (Meanstreets) and a quaint Scorsese family table.
Things deepen with the move to the second room that explores Relationships and The Lonely Heroes (“They are not lonely heroes in the classic sense, but rather antiheroes, frequently young, heading towards violence, who are searching for their place in society”. The overriding image here, that connects Raging Bull with Christ is of course the crucifix and all it suggests of violence, sacrifice and redemption.
Of specific interest to film students here will be the storyboards and shooting plans from Boxcar Bertha and Meanstreets that, juxtaposed, literally focus on how the director presents the intimate moments between lovers. The intricate and detailed sketches that match each storyboard frame with specifically locked camera positions relative to the actors is solid textbook operating procedures and testimony (and I think I use this word with due care) to Scorsese’s concentrated work.
From human relationships to a core location, the exhibition then explores Scorsese’s ongoing relationship with New York, his hometown. Familiar titles (Meanstreets) now rub against the unfamiliar (Age of Innocence and New York, New York of 1977). Stills capture Scorsese on the streets of Little Italy (with friends) and Washington Square (leading a film crew) and as a student at the nearby New York University. Stills of Patricks Church in Little Italy and its cemetery resonate with the claim that the director “soon recognised and concerned himself with the conflict between the moral values of the Roman Catholic Church and the rules of the local gangster or crime families”. The centre of the room is covered by a staged model of New York and this is surrounded by viewing video screen panels that connect film sequences to actual location sites across the city.
With commanding themes established, the exhibition thereafter focuses more fully on Scorsese’s mastery of the craft. Rooms expand to include his close life-long collaboration with Film Editor Thelma Schoonmaker (the influence of Hitchcock’s Psycho on the storyboard designs of Raging Bull is notably impressive).
Video sequences and posters then emphasise Scorsese’s work with The Band, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson and early and long-standing influences (Fellini, Powell and Pressburger and Hitchcock).
Perhaps the most affecting room contains the actual Palme d’ Or which Scorsese won in 1976 for Taxi Driver. To its left are a range of letters from fellow directors (Capra, Wajda, Schrader, Spielberg, Lumet, Syberberg, and even Terrence Malik) who, in late 1979, are responding to his call for the restoration of fading films. In his own letter of appeal, Scorsese writes an outline of action: “The problem is not simple, but it can be simply stated”; he outlines five key points or concern and response: 1. unstable film stock, 2. the deterioration of existing films, 3. The need for research and development in 4. Film restoration and 5. film storage. For Scorsese, “The solution starts with an understanding of film and our responsibilities”.
The exhibition continues with an array of production material from more recent films, Casino, Aviator and Hugo. Highlights here include Max Cady’s (de Niro) bloodied shirt from Cape Fear and the work of ace credit sequence master Saul Bass (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Casino, Age of Innocence). The engagement with Bass reminds the visitor of Scorsese’s on-going pious engagement with Classic Hollywood (Gregory Peck is brought back into the Cape Fear remake) and studio stills from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore connect New Hollywood sensibilities with the Hollywood that made Gone With the Wind.
The exhibition ends suitably with stills from the 79th Academy Awards where Scorsese received his Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Scorsese is captured sharing his Best Director award with those vintage New Hollywood fellow travellers - Spielberg, Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
All in all, a timely and thoughtfully arranged exhibition that confirms Scorsese as a professional craftsman artist who has been fully and consciously engaged in all the creative potentialities of cinema.
On a broader level, and returning to certain core thematic motifs that began with family and isolated outsiders, the writer is mindful of certain concerns from theorist Kenneth Burke, a similar maverick cultural worker. As Rueckert would have it,
“Existence is a kind of dialectic of division and merger, disintegration and reintegration, death and rebirth, war and peace; the dialectic is the natural and inevitable result of the complex and ever-changing conflict relation between the human agent and his scene. This dialectic of existence - the drama of human relations - centres in what Burke speaks of as every man´s attempt to build himself a character in order to establish and maintain an identity. Burke says in Attitudes towards History that all the “issues” with which he has been concerned “come to a head in the problem of identity” (ATH, II, 138). And this is true not only of that book but of almost everything Burke has written. Man in search of himself and a way toward the better life is, for Burke, the universal situation, and the most unbelievably complex drama of this quest is a major subject of all Burke’s work…Burke attempts to chart the self, to direct it out of the wasteland towards a better life through symbolic action” (Rueckert, pp. 42, 43).
What is exposed by the Berlin exhibition is how Scorsese the film director has been able to explore what happens to young men who have no vocation of the kind he has had. The concentrated work ethic that has sustained Scorsese over 40 years can be usefully compared to those characters in the films who have failed in their own complex dramatic quests for security and trust. The Raging Bulls might at certain points be good, but in time they fail in the art of managing and strategizing their powers. In other words, they are not good at being good. As Deborah Knight has put it (in comparing The Age of Innocence with Good Fellas), "both stories are told retrospectively, both films show how the central protagonists are defeated by the social structures and expectations in which they are mired, and both films focus on male protagonists who realize too late the true meaning of situations in which they find themselves" (2007, 97).
The scenario that Knight describes - wherein an isolated character as outsider is contrasted with certain norms and conventions of a strictly hierarchical society that he (usually) is compelled to confront - pinpoints an essential characteristic narrative in Scorsese's own attempts to confront, flatter, engage, support and win over the Hollywood system of coded genres, three-act narrative straightjackets and rigid Studio working practices.
Whether it be in preserving film stock, leading documentary accounts of Hollywood histories or employing its still talented veterans, Scorsese has been tactful, knowledgeable and responsible in refining the gentle and thoughtful art of building a recognisable professional identity, one that has navigated that tricky “dialectic of division and merger, disintegration and reintegration, death and rebirth, war and peace" in what Burke might call the Hollywood barnyard.
ALAN TAYLOR attended the Scorsese exhibition on March 26th 2013. The exhibition ends on May 12th 2013. For full details, exhibition credits and thank-you video address by Scorsese see http://www.deutsche-kinemathek.de
Ref: Rueckert, William. H. Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations, University of Minnesota Press, 1963
Knight, Deborah, The Age of Innocence; Social Semiotics, Desire, and Constraint, in The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, ed Mark T. Conard, University Press of Kentucky, 2007, 93-107
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