Scorsese On Scorsese
Martin Scorsese (Edited by: David Thompson and Ian Christie)
Faber and Faber, 1979

“But prayer is really dealing with what you have in the home, dealing with the family, how you raise your children, how you relate to your wife. May be that’s what prayer really is in the modern world”

–    Martin Scorsese (Scorsese on Scorsese, 1979)

Scorsese on ScorseseAmazingly, last night I had the most memorable dream of my life and the best part is that I remember all of it in detail. I was at Scorsese’s house and talking to the man himself about the cinema in India and the deteriorating state of old regional films. How about that?! Dr. Freud would immediately remind me that I had finished reading Scorsese on Scorsese just the day before. Whatever the case is, reading Scorsese on Scorsese is best approximated as an extended conversation with the director. In fact, editors David Thompson and Ian Christie have done a splendid job by keeping factual autobiographical details to the minimum, presenting them as small italicized snippets between Scorsese’s talks, hence removing any hindrance for us to speak with Scorsese the man and Scorsese the director. Though compiled from a set of lectures and interviews the director had given around the world, Scorsese on Scorsese never gives you the feel of an authoritative person directing you towards what you have to know. Instead, Scorsese recollects events, almost from the top of his mind, lets us interpret and thus get to know the man and his films more.

Divided into six chapters, the first of which details his childhood and teenage memories and the rest taking us virtually through the making of each one of his movies, Scorsese on Scorsese is a joy ride for any film buff. There is much humour throughout the book and at times you almost hear Scorsese break out with his characteristic and infectious laughter. Many would agree if I say that Scorsese is one of the biggest film buffs of the world and this opinion is established as a fact in these texts. There is almost no line in the book where you don’t hear the man come up with a movie comparison or a simile that is related to the movies. Even in the most commonplace of statements, like feeling sick on the sets (“…I was coughing on the floor and sounding like a character from The Magic Mountain”), recalling parking problems (“…but destroying things as in a Godzilla movie”) or describing the streets of New York during summer nights (…reminds me of the scene in The Ten Commandments, portraying the killing of the first born, where a cloud of green smoke seeps along the palace floor…), Scorsese’s never flagging enthusiasm for the cinema surfaces.

Scorsese on Scorsese is a must-read for anyone who doubts Scorsese’s status as a genuine auteur. As one moves along in the book, one sees that all of Scorsese’s characters have a bit of Scorsese in them and could be seen as extensions of his personality in a fictional world (Be the screenplay officially by Schrader, Price or Minion, Scorsese invariably seems to have had a hand in their final versions). Although the book covers the directors career only till New York Stories (1989), one can see the same phenomenon carry on in his later films too. As Scorsese goes on explaining how each movie, each scene and each set piece came about one can actually see the deep influence that his childhood and teenage has had on his thought process and his vision of the world. He elaborates on what made him take to priesthood and then the transition to cinema (He says: “In my neighbourhood, the people in power were the tough guys on the street, and the Church. The organized crime figures would tip their hats to a priest and watch their language, an they would have their cars and pets blessed”).

This book was compiled just after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) hit the screens and it is evident that the whole book centers itself on this event. Right from the unusual introduction chapter, which recounts the events that preceded the release of the controversial movie, one can see that the authors intend to take a look back at the director’s career standing at this historical point. The concept of religion is also manifest in Scorsese’s talks throughout the book as he subtly reveals how his experience during the days as a young priest, away from the meanness of the streets, shows itself in almost all his early films. Be it overt as in Mean Streets (1973) or underneath as in Taxi Driver (1976), the idea of God and religion, Catholicism in specific, seems to be always present, mostly in the form of a hope for redemption, in his movies. In hindsight, The Last Temptation of Christ almost looks like a confrontation of sorts with his own inability to reconcile between what he learnt in the Church and what he saw in the streets.

Another interesting thing is that even though he has had to put up with a lot, Scorsese never dwells on the difficulties much. Yes, he does talk about them in detail, but he makes all his travails sound like simple trivia and things of distant past. It is remarkable how he has earned the title of a major Hollywood director (in spite of his legendary association with New York), especially after his near ostracism by the studios after The King of Comedy (1982). He makes the trouble he had shooting After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1983) sound so amusing that one tends to overlook how appallingly tough it must have all been. The book complements these accounts with loads of rare, behind-the-scenes photographs from his movies, the complete story board of the final scene in Taxi Driver drawn by the director himself and other stills from famous movies, including the ones he cites as inspirations, placed side by side as if the director himself is showing us what went through his mind when he made those compositions. There is even a still of Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese in discussion during the shoot of Bad (1986)!

During the course of all this recollection, Scorsese talks about some abandoned scripts and some ideas for future that now seem so fascinating. He talks about a script called “Gangs of New York” that couldn’t be realized (and which eventually got made in 2002 perhaps with much change), he mentions that he doesn’t really want to do remakes (he made Cape Fear (1991) almost immediately!) and that he was immensely influenced by the music in the Moroccan film Transes (1981) (which has now got restored by the World Cinema Foundation headed by him and shown online for free!). Those who still think that Scorsese has sold his soul to Hollywood of late, I think, would see that The Aviator (2004) is as personal a movie as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull (1980) once they read this book, or rather this memorable evening of reminiscing with Scorsese. At the end of it all, it feels like if Scorsese had indeed taken up priesthood as a profession, which seems to have seemed very likely, the world would have got one good priest more but one great director less. Now, what kind of an unfair exchange is that!



P.S: Scorsese on Scorsese contains one of the greatest forewords that I have read. I type it down for you here:

What’s Hecuba to Him?

The first Martin Scorsese film that I saw – or that saw me – was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The actors were directed with assurance. There was not a frame wasted. I said to myself: Michael Powell, you’re going to have a good time – this man knows where he’s going and you’re going with him. On the screen we were entering a fast food emporium, with two splendid actresses volleying words and phrases at one another. It was like watching a singles match on centre court at Wimbledon, between two champions. I hadn’t seen match play like this since I saw Pat and Mike.

We screened Taxi Driver. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I said. ‘Who’s that devilish actor who plays the Devil in the scene with Robert De Niro?’
‘That’s Scorsese.’ Said my friend, who had arranged the screening.
‘What! Can he act too?!’
He smiled, ‘want more?’
‘Is there more?’
He nodded vigorously. ‘Much, much more.’

He arranged a screening of Mean Streets. It was in a little projection theatre off Wardour Street, London WI. There were four of us and the projectionist. When the screening ended, we looked at each other, stunned. The five of us crossed a narrow street and went into a pub that was just on the verge of closing. Nobody else was there. Still we said nothing. There was nothing to say.

All art is one, and every artist owes a duty to his art. We can’t all be masters, but we can know a master when we see him, because he has something to say to us, and sooner or later imparts it. The difference between these films of Martin Scorsese’s is that with Alice and Taxi Driver he handles the materials like a master; with Mean Streets he is in direct contact with the audience, from the beginning to the end. This is the rarest gift given to a movie director. Most directors, however wise, however experienced, however resourceful, however bold, don’t have it and never will have it. Marty always had it.

He has this great, generous gift of creating a situation for an audience, and sharing it with them. He is the ventriloquist and his doll, the singer and the song. In his latest film, Life Lessons, Marty performs the same miracle, he is the painter and his palette, he is the pupil and the master, he is the cunning of the fox and the innocence of the child, he is the voice of the tape deck screaming ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.

When Hamlet sees the tears in the Player’s eyes, and asks Horatio:

What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba
That he should weep for her?

he is asking the same question that we ask of ourselves when Scorsese, in The Last Temptation of Christ, gives us our first glimpse of that hill called Golgotha. For, as the tears spring to our eyes, we know that we shall see that hill again, and then it will be our last sight on earth – and his.

Michael Powell
March 1989

Stanley Kubrick Directs:  Expanded Edition
Alexander Walker
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ), 1972

A brief internet research about the best books written about the life and works of Stanley Kubrick gave me quite a few results with Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs (Expanded Edition) topping the list. Since there wasn’t any book called Kubrick on Kubrick, I had to go for this one! Stanley Kubrick Directs is literally a page-turner, for it contains more images than text. The book is divided into six sections – The Man and Outlook, Style and Content and four chapters dedicated to four of Kubrick’s most famous films.

stanley_kubrick_directsA friend once remarked that there was spirituality in the way Max Ophüls’ camera moved. I was reminded instantly of Kubrick then. But surely, not for the same reason. Kubrick’s tracking shots are anything but spiritual. I should label them “satanic”. These bewitchingly ominous shots, in my opinion, are the essential sequences from each of the films – be it in the French war trenches, in Korova Milkbar or aboard the Discovery space shuttle. And reading that Kubrick was impressed by Ophüls’ films forced a smile on my face. This is not the only reason that I find the opening section of the book – Stanley Kubrick: The Man and Outlook – fascinating. Walker presents us all of Kubrick’s preoccupations as a child and as a teenager and later establishes how the reverberations of these influences find their way to most of Kubrick’s films. As a film buff, it is rewarding to dig deeper into Kubrick’s films after reading these facts.

But Walker follows it up with the most disappointing of all sections in the book. In this section, titled Kubrick: Style and Content, Walker aims to present us the working methods of Kubrick. Unfortunately, this part turns out to be nothing more than a briefing of Kubrick’s early films, till Lolita (1961), interspersed with elaborations of some obvious facets of Kubrick’s films. Walker’s digresses without hesitation and adulterates the section with facets not in line with the chapter’s objective and analyses that at times seem downright speculative.  As a result, this section seems like a poor excuse for a ramp up to Kubrick’s masterpieces that were to follow.

The book then presents us illustrated analysis of Kubrick’s Big 4 that followed – Paths of Glory (1957), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). The first two films here take up two thirds of the analysis section and ironically are the least satisfying. Both the analyses of Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are fraught with screenshots (by Halcyon) that are subsequently verbalized. Having presented the early influences of Kubrick, Walker should have let the audience connect the dots and interpret the film their own way. But he starts deconstructing Kubrick’s mise-en-scene frame by frame and strips us completely of the joy of discovering a film. No, I’m not cribbing, but it is a bit discomforting to see such great films presented cut and dried, preventing further exploration the reader may otherwise be tempted to perform. I know this is an analysis, but why at such grassroots level?

Surprisingly, Kubrick’s most profound film is given the least space. A big positive for this section is that it does not go over the top like many an analysis written on the film. Walker sticks generally to the technical and narrative aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and discusses “2001 that could have been” citing various choices made by Kubrick with respect to the script. However, it is dissatisfying to see the film grossly ignored in comparison to the earlier two films and sidelined to a smaller status. The film by itself warrants elaborate literature and any analysis should most definitely include the higher aspects it tries to encompass. Walker just grazes through those notions and it never looks like it is for the good of the audience.

But, comes the essay on A Clockwork Orange to salvage the book’s pride. This is the best of the four analyses and serves as a grand climax to an otherwise dissatisfactory book. This is one section that respects the complexity of the film but never once shirks discussion. Walker makes a great move by not just diluting the mise-en-scene by deconstructing it to particulars. He seamlessly integrates multiple ideas the film presents and provides us a solid critical analysis that clearly shines in comparison with the previous three. And it is this section that provides a sense of comfort when one closes the pretty ordinary book.

This book is widely considered the best book on Kubrick till date and that worries me. Kubrick’s canvas is visibly vast and if this is the best of literature available on him, there is a long way to go. Stanley Kubrick Directs does present considerable detail for people who are confused why he is the most critical Hollywood director on a technical level, but the treatment of the content of his film leaves a lot to be desired. May be I expected a bit too much.


Note: This is a section where I will be blogging on books on films and filmmakers. The entries will be far and few, but this will at least provide me an opportunity to read text – a thing that I used to hate till now.