Scorsese at ACMI

One of the greats of modern American cinema has the surface scratched in a new installation at ACMI

Marty, to his friends. Me, included.
Marty, to his friends. Me, included.

The film credits of Martin Scorsese are something to wax lyrical about for some time. They inspire passion in both the positive and negative (and the negative is something to behold – I recall a review for his 2004 The Aviator published in The Age, drawn in such negative tones that you’d have thought the critic had been dumped by the director personally the week before his deadline); of course there are purists who see the man as having sold out his urban, gritty soul in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to do more mainstream, big budget projects, like The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Hugo and The Departed.This is usually a bitterness borne of marginal artistic nativism: the minute he becomes more accessible, the minute he obtains mainstream appeal, he stops being cool. That kind of marginal, fringe shit that keeps alternate radio alive. Drives me bonkers.

I get wound up by his work, no matter what it is. There’s always something in there somewhere that is trademark. He has such an innate understanding of camera movements, of colour, of montage and of extracting the absolute most out of any given shot, or scene.

'The Departed' - Irish mob in Boston, standing in for the Chinese mob in Hong Kong
‘The Departed’ – Irish mob in Boston, standing in for the Chinese mob in Hong Kong

Case in point: I sat in a cinema in a Hong Kong shopping mall on the day The Departed opened in 2006. There was me and a handful of others, locals mostly, who were probably there for the smug satisfaction of being able to complain about the fact that it wasn’t ever going to be as good as Infernal Affairs (‘Moh Gan Doh’). I hadn’t seen it (I since have; and its sequel, and part of its hideous prequel… As a piece of work it’s fine, although it has these distinct Chinese film sensibilities to it, oddly sentimental music cues, that without the proper frame of cultural reference seemed bafflingly out of place). Anyhow, I had no frame of reference, and was just there for the Scorseseness of it. So, inside the first act, and there’s a fast tracking shot as Scorsese’s camera zooms inside a Boston corner store as The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ played on the soundtrack. Right there, I was sold. I was in heaven, I almost wept.

The best thing about Scorsese at ACMI is the fact that it makes you want to have a festival of the man’s films at home. For my own self, I start with Mean Streets (an original, full of life to this day, and pioneering for its use of jukebox music), move on to Taxi Driver, then Raging Bull (De Niro as the epitome of Scorsese’s broken men). The Color of Money (a disjointed piece to say the best; a kind of static, bleak character study broken up by frenetic editing), then ‘Life Lessons’ (a superb exercise in character and technique, compressed into a short to go with Woody Allen and Francis Coppola’s contributions to New York Stories).

Then… GoodFellas, Casino, Bringing out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shine a Light, Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

But those are just the ones I own. You’d need to take time for The King of Comedy. Prophetic film, that one – the piece from the early 80s which basically predicted the future, how the practically talentless could become famous just through having ambition For fame and fame alone.

'The Last Temptation of Christ' - and you thought you were having a bad Friday.
‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ – and you thought you were having a bad Friday.

Take The Last Temptation of Christ, which is a bleak sit – though not as bleak as Mel Gibson’s The Passion – which found the director in hiding upon its release because ill-informed Christian nut bags decide to threaten his life for making a film they thought might be offensive to their sensibilities (which, of course, they hadn’t seen). What makes it the more compelling, aside from it just being visually stunning and narratively enthralling, is the fact that it’s a fiercely Christian film – Christ on the cross has these thoughts of mortality and doubt planted in his mind by Satan, posing as a small girl. He then hallucinates of a life where he lives the life of a normal man, not the messiah: married, ageing and unexceptional. But the world turns to a hellish nightmare for the lack of his sacrifice, and on his deathbed, he realises his sacrifice was necessary for all mankind. He removes himself from the temptation instead of yielding to it, finds himself on his ‘rightful’ place atop Golgotha and declares “It is accomplished!” Spoiler alert, it was a dream, not reality. So piss off back to church and stop trying to prevent me from seeing films you might perhaps find offensive.

The Last Waltz, his documenting of the final gig The Band had (along with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and co) is widely thought of as one of the, if not the greatest concert films ever. His documentaries on Dylan, George Harrison and his 1995 four hour opus journeying through American film all show a man with a keen eye for documenting history, or at least extracting key moments in favour of others. The ‘Bad’ video for Michael Jackson is also worth your attention, as too the pilots for Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl. I can’t speak with any authority on Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Boxcar Bertha, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or New York, New York. Many have said many varied things about them.

Much of the work done in his films is encapsulated in the fine performances his work elicits, specifically from Robert De Niro, and in latter days, Leonardo Di Caprio. De Niro, great actor, has of late been more of a terrible actor based on his choices, and apparently a place of not really giving a toss no more. I place Di Caprio on as high a mantle as any actor working today, and here’s a guy who was just another of the bunch, circa Toby Maguire, Elijah Wood, Ryan Phillippe – 90s pretty boys who you could live or die without bothering to front up to their pictures. Leo, though, takes a key role in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, and has basically been on a winning streak since then (haven’t seen The Great Gatsby; never will). Look at the lad’s screen credits post-2002 and it’s something to behold, both the four films he made with Marty, and the others (Catch Me If You Can, Blood Diamond, Revolutionary Road, Body of Lies, The Revenant). To say he’s fully committed is an understatement. I think his best work is in The Departed – hollowed out, gutted by the strain of his deception; a perfect parallel to Matt Damon’s impotent & corrupt cop, whose lies are all but eating him up inside.

The exhibit at ACMI, as originally curated by the Berlin Film Institute, is notably and very Germanic in its efficiency. It features some beautifully captured on-set photos, script excerpts and notes by Scorsese; scenes extracted from his films to illustrate recurring themes and motifs and some costumes and props from his works – items as random as the photo of Stalin from De Niro’s jail cell at the start of Cape Fear, a flyer from After Hours, the devil puppet from the ‘Satan’s Circus’ scene from Gangs of New York and Gwen Stefani’s costume from The Aviator. All very nice pieces of film history in one form or another.

You see a thread, a narrative of its own emerge – the prevalence of the Church, the notions of masculinity throughout his work (watch in Mean Streets as Harvey Keitel’s Charlie goes into a church, and pushes his own boundaries, burning his finger on a votive candle, measuring himself against the potential fires of Hell); the parallels between his leading men, and how his leading ladies are usually the diametric opposite. A Freudian reading of the man’s screen credits would probably reveal a great deal.

'GoodFellas', the 1990 masterpiece, although apparently not as good as 'Dances With Wolves'.
‘GoodFellas’, the 1990 masterpiece, although apparently not as good as ‘Dances With Wolves’.

The thing holding back this experience from being as rousing a success as you’d suspect, or expect it to be, was the fact that it was but a year ago that the David Bowie Is… exhibit took up the same space. But that installation was a multi-media masterpiece – inviting, inclusive and spectacular at every turn. You’d expect as much: Bowie was as much a visual artist as he was an audio one. Scorsese is a film director, and you can only get samples of his work and occasional glimpses of recurring themes (his leading men invariably being deeply troubled, conflicted souls in search of redemption; the director’s own fixation on the church and its crucifixion iconography; the blood-soaked moments of graphic violence present in many, if not most of his films). I have read far more in depth insight as to the man’s work in the many books and articles I’ve read about him. A visual exhibit doesn’t do much more than skim the surface. Because how can it? GoodFellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street all hover around this side of three hours; you can’t begin to get an insight just by watching the trailers (except for getting the idea that the films’ marketing people knew how to sell his work). The exhibit does have sections devoted to costuming, editing and cinematography – none of which Scorsese himself had much say in, aside from hiring those responsible.

This exhibition is the lesser of the two when compared to the Bowie spectacular. But this is something that shouldn’t surprise. Those expecting a similar multimedia extravaganza will be let down, and at the end of the day it really is for those inside the tent. I’ve read more than I can say about the man, as well as other American auteurs; a decent critical analysis of such is required in voluminous, written detail, and upon reflection is denied a certain amount of justice by representing a fraction of it in a stand-up museum exhibit. Read Roger Ebert’s collection of writings (Scorsese by Ebert), or the Richard Schickel series of interviews, Scorsese on Scorsese and you’ll have a greater understanding. Or just start watching his films from the start and be enlightened.

Then exit through the gift shop and buy a souvenir ‘You talking to me?’ T-shirt if you like.

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