The first reviews of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead are the latest evidence of the director’s status as a critical favorite. This is not because the notices have been uniformly glowing–it’s been some time since a Scorsese picture won unanimous praise from reviewers–but because Scorsese remains, almost uniquely among American directors, an embodiment of the beleaguered idea that filmmaking, and therefore film criticism, can be a serious, important, life-and-death matter. Here, for instance, is Roger Ebert, all thumbs:
To look at Bringing Out the Dead–to look, indeed, at almost any Scorsese film–is to be reminded that film can touch us urgently and deeply. Scorsese is never on autopilot, never panders, never sells out, always goes for broke; to watch his films is to see a man risking his talent, not simply exercising it. He makes movies as well as they can be made.
Never? Always? This is pure ideology–which is not to say that it isn’t, to some extent, true. Even Scorsese’s weaker films bristle with energy and intelligence. But look closely at what Ebert says: To be reminded of the power of film as a medium is not quite the same as being moved by a particular film, and Bringing Out the Dead is, for all its hectic pacing and breakneck intensity, an oddly unmoving experience. Yes, you think, movies can touch us urgently and deeply. Why doesn’t this one? If Scorsese makes movies as well as they can be made, why does one so often feel that his movies–especially over the last decade or so–could have been better?
Above all, to look at Bringing Out the Dead is to be reminded of a lot of other Scorsese films. Critics have noted its similarities with Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s first collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (who also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ and the later drafts of Raging Bull). Both movies feature a disturbed outsider cruising the nightmarish, as-yet-ungentrified streets of Manhattan in search of redemption. In place of Sport, Harvey Keitel’s suave, vicious pimp in the earlier film, Bringing Out the Dead features Cy, a suave, vicious drug dealer played by Cliff Curtis. The mood here is a good deal softer: The scabrous nihilism of Taxi Driver is no longer as palatable–or, perhaps, as accurate in its response to the flavor of the times or the mood of its creators–as it was in 1976. Nicolas Cage’s Frank Pierce saves Cy from a death as gruesome as the one De Niro’s Travis Bickle visited on Sport, and when Frank does take a life (in the movie’s best, most understated scene), it’s an act of mercy.
Aside from these parallels and variations, there’s plenty in Bringing Out the Dead to remind you that you’re watching a Scorsese picture. There’s voice-over narration. There’s an eclectic, relentless rock ’n’ roll score and a directorial cameo–this time Scorsese provides the disembodied voice of an ambulance dispatcher. There are jarring, anti-realist effects embedded in an overall mise en scène of harsh verisimilitude. And, of course, there is the obligatory religious imagery–the final frames present a classic Pietà, with Patricia Arquette (whose character is named Mary) cradling Cage, the man of sorrows, in her arms. To survey Scorsese’s oeuvre is to find such echoings and prefigurations in abundance. Look at Boxcar Bertha, a throwaway piece of apprentice-work he made for schlock impresario Roger Corman in the early ‘70s (if you’ve never seen it, imagine Bonnie and Clyde remade as an episode of Kung Fu), and then look at The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial, deeply personal rendering of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel which infuriated some Christians a decade and a half later. Different as they are, both films prominently feature 1) a crucifixion and 2) Barbara Hershey naked.
Well, that may be a coincidence. But it’s hard to think of an active director who has produced such an emphatically cross-referenced body of work who seems not so much to repeat himself (though he does some of that) as to make movies by recombining a recognizable and fairly stable set of narrative, thematic, and stylistic elements. In other words, Scorsese is the last living incarnation of la politique des auteurs.
That old politique–the auteur theory, in plain English–was first articulated in the 1950s by a group of French critics, many of whom went on to become, as directors, fixtures of the Nouvelle Vague. In a nutshell, the theory–brought to these shores in 1962 by Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris–held that, like any work of art, a film represents the vision of an individual artist, almost always the director. The artists who populated the auterist canon–Howard Hawks and John Ford, pre-eminently–had labored within the constraints of the studio system. But even their lesser films, according to auterist critics, could be distinguished from mere studio hackwork by the reiteration of a unique cinematic vocabulary and by an implicit but unmistakable sense of solitary genius in conflict with bureaucratic philistinism.
The auteur theory was quickly challenged, most notably by Pauline Kael, who shredded Sarris in the pages of Film Quarterly. But the “new Hollywood” of the ‘70s–with Kael as its champion, scold, and Cassandra–was dominated by young directors who attained, thanks to the collapse of the old studios, an unprecedented degree of creative autonomy, and who thought of themselves as artists. What resulted, as Peter Biskind shows in his New Hollywood dish bible Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, was an epidemic of megalomania, sexual libertinism, money-wasting, and drug abuse–as well as a few dozen classics of American cinema.
The avatars of the New Hollywood were mostly “movie brats”–socially maladroit, nerdy young men (and they were, to a man, men) who shared a fervid, almost religious devotion to cinema. Scorsese, a runty, asthmatic altar boy from New York City’s Little Italy who traded Catholic seminary for New York University film school, was arguably the purest in his faith. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, or Steven Spielberg, “St. Martin” (as Biskind calls him) did not see directing as a route to world domination but as a priestly avocation, a set of spiritual exercises embedded in technical problems. Scorsese’s technical proficiency won him some early breaks. While making Who’s That Knocking at My Door, his earnest, autobiographical first feature, independently, Scorsese was hired to edit Woodstock into a coherent film. His success (more or less) led to more rock ’n’ roll editing assignments–a traveling sub-Woodstock “festival” called Medicine Ball Caravan; Elvis on Tour–and then to Boxcar Bertha, which allowed him to join the Directors Guild and gave him the chance to make Mean Streets. That movie helped launch the careers of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and taught generations of would-be tough guys the meaning of the word “mook.”
K ael called Mean Streets“a triumph of personal film-making,” and even though it may be the single most imitated movie of the past 30 years–cf The Pope of Greenwich Village, State of Grace, Federal Hill, Boyz N the Hood, etc.–it has lost remarkably little of its freshness and power. Watching it, you feel that you are seeing real life on the screen, but real life heightened and shaped by absolute artistic self-assurance. Or, to quote Kael again, “Mean Streets never loses touch with the ordinary look of things or with common experience. Rather, it puts us in closer touch with the ordinary, the common, by turning a different light on them.”
This kind of realism marks Scorsese’s next two films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore–his best piece of directing-for-hire, and one of the half-forgotten gems of the period–and Taxi Driver, both of which were critically and commercially successful. But the medium-budget, artisanal, personal filmmaking of the early ‘70s soon gave way to grander visions. To be a New Hollywood director was to flirt with hubris. Biskind’s book, accordingly, concludes with a litany of spectacular flameouts: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, Spielberg’s 1941, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, and, of course, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. According to Mardik Martin, Scorsese’s erstwhile writing partner (as quoted by Biskind): “The auteur theory killed all these people. One or two films, the magazines told them they were geniuses, that they could do anything. They went completely bananas. They thought they were God.” Scorsese’s own Götterdämmerung came with New York, New York, a hugely ambitious jazz epic starring De Niro and Liza Minelli (Scorsese’s mistress at the time), and the first of a series of flops that continued with Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.
Of these three, Raging Bull has been singled out for vindication. It’s the highest-ranking of the three Scorsese films on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list, and it’s widely considered to be his masterpiece. But it remains exceedingly hard to watch, not so much because of the repulsiveness of De Niro’s Jake La Motta as because of its overall sense of aesthetic claustrophobia. It’s a movie lacquered by its own self-importance, so bloated with the ambition to achieve greatness that it can barely move. If it convinces you it’s a masterpiece, it does so by sheer brute force.
Raging Bull is undone by its own perfectionism. New York, New York and The King of Comedy stand up rather better, in my opinion, in spite of their obvious flaws. (So does The Last Waltz, a documentary of the Band’s last concert done simultaneously with New York, New York, thanks to the magic of cocaine.) For one thing, New York, New York is virtually the only Scorsese movie (aside from “Life Lessons,” his crackerjack contribution to the Coppola-produced anthology film New York Stories) to have at its center the relationship between a man and a woman. For another, it ends with Liza Minelli parading through a series of phantasmagoric stage sets singing a pointedly ironic song called “Happy Endings”–a sequence every bit as dazzling (and as mystifying) as the ballet from An American in Paris. Just as Mean Streets is an unparalleled demonstration of the power of film to convey reality, “Happy Endings” is a celebration of film’s magical ability to create it. A moviegoer’s dream, but good luck seeing it on the big screen.
For its part, The King of Comedy, a creepy reprise of Taxi Driver–played, this time, for laughs–is a movie made before its time, back when celebrity-stalking was a piquant metaphor for our cultural ills, rather than the focus of our cultural life. De Niro and Sandra Bernhard kidnap Jerry Lewis (playing, brilliantly, a famous late-night talk show host), Bernhard steals the movie, and the ending is guaranteed to provoke long, excruciating arguments about the difference between fantasy and reality.
In Biskind’s account of the tragedy of the New Hollywood, Spielberg is the villain, Hal Ashby the martyr, and Scorsese the scarred survivor. After the failures of the early ‘80s, he picked himself up and made some more movies: the quirky, proto-Indie downtown comedy After Hours, The Color of Money (a respectable sequel to The Hustler), and his long dreamed of The Last Temptation of Christ. His fortunes revived with GoodFellas, which was hailed as a return to form, and floundered again with The Age of Innocence, one of his periodic attempts–like The Last Waltz, Temptation and, most recently, Kundun–to defy expectation. Next came Casino, one of his periodic attempts to defy the expectation that he would defy expectations. Casino blends RagingBull with GoodFellas and can be interpreted as a wry allegory of Hollywood in the ‘70s–a time when “guys like us” (i.e., the free-lancing gangsters played by De Niro and Joe Pesci) were allowed to run things without interference. Of course, they got too greedy, screwed everything up, and the big corporations turned their playground into Disneyland. At the end, De Niro’s character, the scarred survivor, picks himself up and goes back to work.
Scorsese keeps working too–upcoming projects include Gangs of New York, with Leonardo DiCaprio, and a Dean Martin biopic starring Tom Hanks. His extracurricular good works–overseeing the re-release of classics such as El Cid and Belle de Jour, campaigning for film preservation, narrating a BBC documentary on his favorite movies–are testament to his abiding faith. But his movies more often than not feel cold and mechanical. They substitute intensity for emotion and give us bombast when we want passion. Why do we go to the movies? Pauline Kael used to say it was to be caught up, swept away, surfeited by sensation, and confronted by reality. Some of us keep going to Scorsese’s movies because we still want to believe in that, and we leave wondering whether he still does.