Friday, November 1, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.12: Martin Scorsese's Bad/Life Lessons/Made in Milan

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.

Bad Grade: 75/B+

Martin Scorsese’s NYU short films are the stuff of legend, but his late-80s shorts aren’t half-bad either. After years of struggling to survive as a director, Scorsese got a pair of commercially-viable gigs, first directing The Color of Money, then directing the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. The title-track to Jackson’s long-awaited return to studio recording after the monster success of Thriller, “Bad” was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg until the director advocated for his good friend Scorsese.

The 18-minute video, written by The Color of Money-scribe Richard Price, follows Jackson as Daryl, a New York teen studying at an expensive prep school. Daryl returns to the city, only to find that his friends (led by Wesley Snipes) have turned to crime. When Daryl refuses to mug an old man, his friends berate him, but Daryl is ready to show “who’s bad”.

Bad is very clearly a work for hire, but that doesn’t mean that Scorsese half-asses it. Rather, he brought back his frequent technical collaborators, editor Thema Schoonmaker and cinematographer Michael Chapman, and together they give the black-and-white sections of the video an effective sense of claustrophobia. It’d be stretching to view this thing through too much of an auteurist filter, but the feeling of paranoia and of society (or a certain part of society) rejecting Jackson’s character does fit somewhat within Scorsese’s thematic wheelhouse.

Price’s vision of New York toughs is awfully silly, with everything coming off as a little too slick and sanitized. It’s almost certainly part of Jackson’s team’s vision rather than Price’s or Scorsese’s, and for all of the energy that Scorsese, Snipes, and Jackson invest in it, the goofy conception of gang violence works against them.

That said, Jackson’s not necessarily going for verisimilitude- he’s more influenced by West Side Story than Mean Streets, and the rivalry is really a stand-in for Jackson’s rivalry with the rest of the pop world (Jackson originally wanted Prince for Snipes’s role; ego got in the way). As the film shifts to color (in something that I suspect was influenced by Scorsese’s appreciation for Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It), the “real” gives way to overt artificiality, and Scorsese’s framing grows less claustrophobic. It’s as much practical as it is thematic- Jackson could dance like a sonovabitch, so pulling back and watching him work seems only logical (you hear me, Rob Marshall?).

Jackson’s choreography is masterful, but credit should also go to Scorsese and Schoonmaker for editing with the rhythm of the song (ahem, Marshall), giving it the momentum it needs. And when the song finishes and Jackson goes full West Side Story, chanting “who’s bad?!” like a madman, it’s hard not to get caught up with this sometimes goofy but beautifully made video. Oh, and the song is killer.

Life Lessons Grade: 91/A

Two years after the completion of Bad, after Scorsese had finished his passion project The Last Temptation of Christ, he took part in the anthology film New York Stories with filmmakers Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola. The film was a mixed success- Coppola’s segment in particular was derided- but Scorsese’s segment was widely praised. It’s easy to see why: Life Lessons plays like a fascinating mix between Raging Bull and Scorsese’s upcoming masterwork Goodfellas.

Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) is an abstract artist working in the vein of Jackson Pollock, but he’s as volatile as he is acclaimed. Dobie finds himself blocked on the day before a major exhibition of his work, and his relationship with his former lover/assistant Paulette (Rosanna Arquette) is falling apart. Dobie convinces Paulette to stay in his apartment, but as she sees other men, and he does nothing to promote her artistic endeavors, it’s only a matter of time before the relationship implodes.

Life Lessons is Scorsese’s third collaboration with Richard Price, and his best. It is perfectly cast, with Nolte appropriately haggard as Dobie and Arquette equally excellent as a woman whose insecurity is an inevitable byproduct to how artists use her (she also has a brief fling with pretentious stand-up comic/performance artist Steve Buscemi). Together, they make a fascinating portrait of a self-destructive relationship, with the more successful party being all passive-aggression and condescending, disingenuous interest in the other’s art. And yet, Dobie’s just as insecure, his petty jealousies of her other relationships showing his raging anxiety about whether or not he can hold onto even a bad relationship.

It’s more than a little revealing of Scorsese’s own tendencies in relationships (at least in his past relationships), though he’s far more self-critical than Dobie. He might be ruining the happiness of the people around him, but it’s that emotional turmoil that fuels his best art, and so he’ll keep it going for as long as he can before he moves onto the next body, drowning out the sound of his partner’s protests with loud rock music (“A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procul Harum is used particularly memorably). It’s not pretty, but it’s truthful.

But what’s most notable about Scorsese’s short is its narrative momentum. Shot by Néstor Almendros and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, the film plays like a warm-up for Goodfellas, making great use of fast-cuts and swirling cameras as Dobie works furiously over his canvas. He’s isolated, but he’s pretty brilliant in his isolation. He heightens the roiling emotion with a few sensual touches: slow motion as Arquette exits an airplane, part of the male gaze; an iris out from her foot, a bracelet wrapped around her ankle; and a blue-filter fantasy where Nolte gets to fulfill his deepest wishes. Scorsese throws in damn near every technical trick he can think of, and the result is one of the most dynamic, if relatively unsung, works in his filmography.

Made in Milan Grade: 68/B

One year later, around the same time he made Goodfellas, Scorsese got a nice paying gig making a short documentary on Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani. There’s not too much to say about Made in Milan: Armani’s a great artist in the fashion world, but his musings on his success aren’t terribly interesting. There’s a handful of interesting touches (the influence of classic Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift films on Armani’s work), but he largely comes off as self-important.

Still, Scorsese (working again with Almendros and Schoonmaker) gets some striking shots of Milan’s architecture (some reminiscent of later scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons), and it’s worth sitting through Armani’s navel-gazing to get to Scorsese’s filming of one of Armani’s fashion shows, which is shown as a gorgeous (if slightly alien) ritual. And really, it’s hard to complain about a minor work-for-hire when Scorsese had one of his defining films coming up.

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