Here part 2 of my article for the Filmjaarboek 2010-2011.
“One could have an aspiration of making a film about impressions or feeling, emotions. But they have to be translated through a very primitive piece of equipment and they have to be as ephemeral as your dreams. Yet, it has to go through hard lenses and hard concrete and hard cables and projectors and lights. But it’s gotta be like dreamlike, it’s gotta be wispy, it’s gotta be something that you think you see one minute and that’s gone the next. It’s a hard thing to do and there’s no way to do it, but to do it …. and to fail and to keep failing.” (Scorsese on who’s that knocking at my door)
In 1995 Scorsese gave his vision on 100 years of American movie history with the documentary A century of cinema: A personal journey with Martin Scorsese. Here he describes what it means to be a filmmaker. In Scorsese on Scorsese he talks more in detail about his work. It all starts with visual craftsmanship, the filmmaker as illusionist. As Pim de la Parra describes it so aptly “cinematographical expression is his muse”. To get to the core of this expression Scorsese prefers to disassemble the magic lantern in small parts and then re-assemble it again. Visual craftsmanship is not only a must. It’s the ultimate form of pleasure. He’s jealous for the men in the era of the American studio system that could learn their trade by making three or four movies a year and end up making 80 to 90.
Surely this is one of the reasons why he’s making Hugo Cabret now in 3D. As he said in an interview in March 2010:
I’m very excited by 3D…But if the camera move is going to be a 3D effect, it has to be for dramatic purposes – not just throwing spears at the audience. And that, maybe I can’t do that. Maybe my daughter’s generation – she’s 10 now – can think that way“.”
To get the hang of the 3D-technique is indeed quite a challenge, Thelma Schoonmaker – Scorsese’s editor and right hand-, told me last year. The enormous camera’s with mirrors in stead of lenses, have their own way of working, to say nothing of the challenges of editing in 3D.
Of course Scorsese is not just a technician. It’s his way of telling stories that makes him original and unique as a filmmaker. His stories are not straightforward and he has the knack to utilize the possibilities of film for the best way of telling them. Although he is called the king of the tracking shot, he can’t be typified by a specific use of the camera. Story is everything and the cinematographic muse is not satisfied easily. This has led to an oeuvre that has sidetracked many a fan of taxi driver or goodfellas. As re-inventor of the American gangster movie he’s most associated with movies as Mean Streets and Goodfellas, but above all Scorsese is a versatile filmmaker.
His versatility and his need to tell stories in different ways also make him unpredictable to Hollywood. Hollywood does not like surprises. The industry basically wants simple stories with a beginning, middle and end. When a filmmaker wants to leave the beaten path, he or she can either become an iconoclast or a smuggler. Iconoclasts, artists like D.W. Griffith, Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, don’t care about conventions and institutions when they tell their stories. They are not prepared to make concessions to their personal vision. The deliberate clash of personal vision and conventions gives a great bang. Eventually that big bang leads to a few sublime stories, but also to short careers. Smugglers have a different way. They operate clandestinely. They make use of the existing conventions to tell their stories in a different way. Scorsese is a big fan of the B-movie genre filmmakers, especially those making westerns and noir, who managed to voice their personal vision with limited means.
Not only is Scorsese well aware of existing conventions, he feeds of them. The all-encompassing theme in his work is how to deal with existing conventions, the price the individual pays for adapting or non-adapting to its environment. Such an individual might be damaged taxi driver or a Jewish casino boss (Casino), a well-respected citizen (Age of Innocence) or even Jesus Christ.
It is a form of self-questioning. He wonders how different his life would be if he were a slightly different type of person. He was an outsider during childhood due to health problems. His world was small, but it was one he could observe closely in safety. Watching movies gave him another, sheer infinite, worldview, it dissolved frontiers and boundaries. This world was a very exciting, but also unsafe one. It is not surprising that two of his favorite movies, otto e mezzo by Federico Fellini and peeping tom by Michael Powell, deal with the power of the medium of film over the filmmaker. The arc between small and intimate and huge and overwhelming is contained in his work and it has a very personal and self-conscious tone.
Scorsese works as much as possible with the same people. De Niro and DiCaprio of course, and Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, the Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out The Dead. He alternates with cameramen Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson. Women play a very important part. Barbara de FIna is his producer for decades now, despite the failing of their marriage in 1991. His working relationship with his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, dates from 1965 and his mother Catherine was always around playing small and effective character parts in his films as well as doing the cooking for cast and crew. These relationships have brought him the safe familiar and nurturing base he needs.