The end of the 1960s represented a watershed for American cinema. The great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age had, with a couple of exceptions, retired or passed away. The studios that afforded stability and continuity were now in the hands of conglomerates. Box-office receipts had been dwindling since the end of World War II. It was time for a change.
One of the changes was the introduction of a new generation of directors, the first generation to have been raised on the great films of the past; directors who, for the first time, were film buffs themselves. This new wave of young directors included Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Bob Rafelson, Jonathan Demme – and, above all, Martin Scorsese.
Of these, Scorsese was the most passionate. His enthusiasm for cinema’s past went beyond fandom or buffdom – he was passionately devoted to the rediscovery and restoration of the great films of the past – from any source. His knowledge of international cinema is vast and his memory for detail extraordinary. There’s so much information stored inside him it’s as though he’s bursting at the seams; he talks in a rapid-fire style as though he doesn’t have enough time to describe everything he knows. He’s like a character in a 1930s movie.
His films are passionate too. His best films are explosive in their impact, crammed with information and detail. Take the opening twin narrations of Casino, for instance, as an example of Scorsese’s urge to convey as much information as possible. He’s the cinema’s greatest proselytiser. Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane. On the one hand, his Catholic upbringing leads him to tackle religious subjects (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun – neither, unfortunately, included in this retrospective) while the Saturday matinee kid in him revels in the trashy gore of his gangster films.
Scorsese was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York, but when he was eight his parents moved to Little Italy in Manhattan. He suffered from asthma, so was unable to take part in strenuous activities, but his father took him to the cinema twice a week and the passion was ignited. He toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but the seductive power of movies – and rock ’n roll – prevailed. He studied at NYU, where he made a short film, What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In a Place Like This?, in 1963, followed by It’s Not Just You, Murray, in 1964 and The Big Shave in 1967, and soon afterwards started making a wholly independent 35mm black and white feature originally titled Bring on the Dancing Girls. Starring Scorsese’s friend, Harvey Keitel, the film finally emerged in 1968 as Who’s That Knocking at My Door?
After a stint in Europe – where he helped write the screenplay for a Dutch film – he returned to America to work on the editing of Woodstock and was then spotted by the perceptive Roger Corman and hired to direct a Depression-era melodrama, Boxcar Bertha (1972). He followed this with the independently-financed Mean Streets, which was made for $550,000 and premiered in Cannes before screening at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney, during 1974. The rest is history.
A retrospective of ten features has to omit important titles: I’ve mentioned two above but it’s a pity we can’t include any of Scorsese’s excellent music films (The Last Waltz, Feel Like Going Home, No Direction Home, Shine a Light, Living in the Material World), his quirky screwball comedy, After Hours, or his tribute to screen pioneer Georges Melies, Hugo. These, and others, can, fortunately, easily be found by the Scorsese buff; when he was becoming passionate about cinema it wasn’t so easy to access the riches of the cinema’s past.
Presented in association with the Sydney Film Festival and National Film and Sound Archive, Essential Scorsese: Selected by David Stratton saw the critic offer up his favourite Scorsese movies.