Sunday, July 28, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.1: Martin Scorsese's Early Films

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

When Roger Ebert saw Martin Scorsese’s directorial debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (then titled I Call First) at the 1967 Chicago Film Festival, he hailed the arrival of a great new American director, one who would become one of the most influential in the world. Hardly anyone needs to point out that Ebert was dead-on, but it’s appropriate that Ebert was the first major American critic to hail the newcomer. Just as Ebert did for film criticism, Martin Scorsese has influenced just about every modern director worth his salt (which is why it’s sad that Ebert won’t be able to cover Scorsese’s new films). From Paul Thomas Anderson to Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee to Wes Anderson, much of modern cinema stems from Scorsese. And why shouldn’t it? How many other directors have remained as consistently fascinating? How many directors from Scorsese’s generation how maintained his boyish enthusiasm for cinema? For Scorsese, more than nearly any other director, film is part of his being.

Before he was one of the world’s greatest directors, however, Martin Scorsese was a kid from New York City. As an asthmatic boy, his parents took him to the movies frequently, where his love for the movies was born. After considering going into priesthood, Scorsese went to NYU, first earning a B.A. in English in the College of Arts and Science, then an M.F.A. in film at the Tisch School of the Arts. There, Scorsese had a chance to throw together his diverse influences- Cassavetes, the French New Wave, Elia Kazan, Italian neorealism, Federico Fellini- into one still developing yet distinctive sensibility.


Scorsese’s first student film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, shows proof of his talent right from the get-go. The story, about a man who becomes so obsessed with a picture he bought that he can’t focus on writing or his new marriage, isn’t necessarily much more than something to hang his style on, but it’s quite a style. Much of the film is Scorsese’s chance to show us what he can do with editing- his use of jump cuts might be a bit show-offy, but his enthusiasm is infectious. Plus, the film shows that his gift for anxious, unpredictable rhythms was present from his first film. It doesn’t hurt that, like the early films of fellow Film School Brat Brian De Palma, the film has a wicked sense of humor, turning its protagonist’s anxiety into a wry joke. Grade: 77/B+

Scorsese took another step forward with his second short, It’s Not Just You, Murray!. The film, about a bootlegger whose beloved partner is schtupping his wife, shows Scorsese taking his French New Wave-influenced playfulness and running with it- breaking the fourth wall, letting Murray (Ira Rubin) direct the camera, and often hilarious use of montage (“Undertaking services?” *shoots a man* “We did our part”). The film is also notable for how Scorsese mixes his more naturalistic influences (Cassavetes-style handheld cameras in a bootlegger bust) with the more florid ones (a final scene that recalls Fellini’s 8 ½, a musical performance from Murray), and for the introduction of certain key themes- men who idealize women without understanding them, the emptiness of the American Dream, and the lower-class gangster milieu that would make up many of his greatest films. Grade: 82/A-

Scorsese’s most famous short film, and his greatest, is also his shortest. 1967’s The Big Shave is simple at its outset- a young man enters a bathroom looking exhausted. He shaves his stubble, applies another layer of shaving cream, and then dispassionately shaves away his skin as blood drips down over the sink and floor. The effect isn’t a terribly convincing one- the man’s skin remains intact- but the psychological effect is still best approximated as “HOLY SHIT”.

Much of the effectiveness comes from the juxtaposition of the violence and the ironic use of Bunny Berigan’s Gershwin-penned standard “I Can’t Get Started”, and Scorsese’s set-up of the bathroom as a clean, practically sterile environment, both of which show Stanley Kubrick’s influence. Scorsese’s smart mixture of close-ups on the man’s face and shots of the white bathroom sink getting drenched with blood is terrific too, giving us enough of a visceral reaction while also making us think the image is more gruesome than it actually is. The dark comedy of the piece is often interpreted as a reaction to the senselessness of the Vietnam War, which makes Berigan’s song of past triumphs falling short next to a failed love an appropriate soundtrack. Even if one doesn’t see the film as allegory, it still works as one of Scorsese’s first portrait of self-destruction. But mostly, it’s the first case of Scorsese finding an effective balance of graphic violence and the right song. Grade: 92/A

Grade: 63/B-

One of Scorsese’s short films, 1965’s Bring on the Dancing Girls, would serve as the seed for his first feature film. In 1967, Scorsese expanded on a simple portrait of a J.R. (Harvey Keitel in his first film role) hanging with his friends in New York City by adding a love subplot between J.R. and a girl (Zina Bethune) and J.R.’s torment after he learns she was once raped. Retitled I Call First, the film played at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967. One year later, exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner agreed to distribute the film if Scorsese added a sex scene.

The film doesn’t completely work as a whole- the quality of the film stock varies, it doesn’t have the narrative drive of Scorsese’s best work, and it feels like two similar but not entirely compatible films mashed together to create a feature. But while the pieces don’t quite fit together, they are quite impressive on their own. Scorsese is largely limited in the shots he can get, but his use of handheld cameras is smart, giving us a fly-on-the-wall feeling as we watch the very natural, Cassavetes-inspired improvised scenes between Keitel and his pals. There’s not much narrative in most of these segments, but it gives a terrific sense of the world J.R. (and, by proxy, Scorsese) comes from- insular, blue collar, full of macho posturing and Catholic imagery. It’s simple, but it’s rather effective, and it’s easy to see how John Cassavetes might have been impressed enough to take young Scorsese under his wing.

The love story occasionally suffers from a young director’s need to underline everything, particularly an overly earnest confrontation near the end and an image of the guilt-ridden J.R. cutting his lip on a crucifix, but it’s largely effective. The first meeting between Keitel and Bethune is very charming, as the overly-enthusiastic, boyish J.R. flirts with her by talking about westerns, trying to relate to her with his own nerdy obsessions. It’s a goofy bit, but here the earnestness works for the film, and it’s aided by Keitel’s assured performance (a near dead-on Scorsese impression) and the constant movement of Scorsese’s camera, which knows when to focus on the energetic Keitel and when to bring the two close together.

The film is also the first showcase for the emotional heart of nearly all of Scorsese’s films: guilt. J.R. loves and idealizes Bethune’s character, but he doesn’t understand her, and his old-fashioned Catholic upbringing limits their relationship. Scorsese shoots a love scene between them in tight, intimate close-ups only to break away as his Catholic guilt forces him to stop from having sex with her. He’s a “nice guy”, but he falls upon the Madonna/Whore complex, delineating the difference between a “girl” and a “broad” to his clearly uncomfortable girlfriend. When she does confess that she was raped, his idealization of her purity is poisoned, and his outrage is horrifying. Even when he tries to mend their relationship, it’s he who has to forgive her for her action. J.R. and Scorsese are clear analogues for most of the picture, but the conception of purity is auto-critical. Scorsese understands that J.R.’s view of women is his own problem, one borne of a culture that he both loves and finds extremely limiting.

The real draw to Who’s That Knocking, however, is Scorsese’s use of music. The added exploitation scene, a sex scene set to The Doors’ “The End”, might be gratuitous, but Scorsese stages it rather well, taking a potentially trashy sequence and making it a dreamy, beautifully shot sequence that dovetails with the film’s portrait of desire vs. guilt (its insertion in the middle of Keitel and Bethune’s conversation is awkward, though). Another bit, the imagined rape of Bethune set to the Dubs’ doo-wop classic “Don’t Ask Me to Be Lonely”, comments on J.R.’s longing while also showing the breakdown of his reason as multiple versions of the song play simultaneously, creating a jarring effect. And even the film’s biggest detractors have to admire the “El Watusi” sequence, which uses the relaxed build of Ray Barretto’s Latin song to give a hypnotic power to a party with J.R. and his friends. Scorsese pans across the party, using dissolves to give us smooth transitions and slow motion to exaggerate every motion as the party goes from relaxed to dangerous as one of the friends pulls out a gun. It’s the best example of macho posturing in a film that’s ultimately a dry-run for his first masterpiece, Mean Streets. On a more base level- it’s really, really fucking cool.

Grade: 56/B-

Who’s That Knocking didn’t start much of a storm for Scorsese, but it got him noticed. After a stint as an editor on Woodstock and a false start getting fired from directing The Honeymoon Killers for working too slow, Scorsese got a break directing 1972’s Boxcar Bertha for exploitation producer Roger Corman. The film is a fairly simple Bonnie and Clyde knock-off- a union worker (David Carradine), a rebellious young woman (Barbara Hershey) and others team together to rob from railroad owners- and Scorsese doesn’t make the film as personal as Jonathan Demme managed to on his own Corman productions. But while the film is exceedingly modest, it does show some of Scorsese’s technical flair, most notably whenever he deals with violence. Where many Corman productions use violence to thrill, Scorsese manages to make a handful of scenes viscerally upsetting, particularly a late-film death that evokes a certain famous Catholic icon (hint: it’s the most obvious one possible).

Boxcar Bertha taught Scorsese how to make a film quickly and efficiently, but more important is the lesson that came after he screened it for his mentor John Cassavetes. After hugging him close, Cassavetes told him “You just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.” Cassavetes did note that the film was OK for what it was, but he implored Scorsese to tell a story that really mattered to him. One year later, Scorsese debuted Mean Streets, and a legend was born.

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