A movie masterclass lesson from Martin Scorsese.
Known for his realistic depictions of violence as much as anything else, Scorsese is a filmmaker whose work is easily dismissed by teachers as inappropriate. Contrary to such beliefs, explains SUSAN BYE, the director's body of work offers countless invaluable learning opportunities, from his classroom-friendly films, to select scenes from the more violent texts, to his tireless championing of media literacy education.
An introduction to Scorsese opens up an understanding of historical context, textual and cultural traditions, narrative complexity, the power of ideas, and the interplay between convention and invention. Most importantly, an introduction to Scorsese is an introduction to the art of filmmaking.
Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker with a passion for cinema, has used his extensive and expert knowledge of the artform to create a distinctive and renowned body of work. He is best known for his fascination with gangsters and misfits, his exploration of masculinity and his preoccupation with the streets of New York --subjects that have provided fertile ground for his career-long meditation on morality, society and the human condition. These concerns also arise in the many Scorsese films set in quite different worlds and featuring characters as diverse as a widowed housewife (in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, 1974), the Dalai Lama (in Kundun, 1997) and Howard Hughes (in The Aviator, 2004). Scorsese tells complex stories and is prepared to follow the characters that inhabit these stories as far as they need to go. Also an accomplished documentary filmmaker, Scorsese highlights those moments in both nonfiction and narrative film that communicate the truth about people. 'Ultimately it is not about the technique,' he says, 'it's not about the style. It's the people, and what's revealed the moment they lose their self-consciousness and let you in. That's cinema.' (1)
Scorsese's unique expression of the language of filmmaking and his respect for cinema as a cultural form make his films and ideas invaluable resources in the Media classroom. For students in the process of developing their knowledge and appreciation of the moving image in general, and film in particular, an introduction to Scorsese opens up an understanding of historical context, textual and cultural traditions, narrative complexity, the power of ideas, and the interplay between convention and invention. Most importantly, an introduction to Scorsese is an introduction to the art of filmmaking. Yet, for teachers of Media, Scorsese's work presents a conundrum. His films have drawn on, reinterpreted and added to the lexicon of cinema in such a singular and expressive way that they offer a gateway to a rich exploration of narrative filmmaking. At the same time, because of what Scorsese has described as his 'responsibility to the story', (2) many of his most celebrated films are too violent to screen in the classroom.
A number of Scorsese's films can, of course, be screened and studied in the classroom, but part of the value of studying Scorsese as a filmmaker relates to an understanding of the sustained themes and ideas that drive his work as a whole, along with an insight into how they play out and are reinterpreted in each of his films. For instance, Glenn Kenny considers the description of the filmmaker as a 'chronicler of damaged masculinity', and suggests that a line can be drawn from the bloody self-destructiveness of Scorsese's anti-Vietnam war short The Big Shave (1967) to
Teddy Daniels [Leonardo DiCaprio], the cop in 2010's Shutter Island who keeps replaying the same scenario over and over, trying to create a different outcome and failing miserably and being left only, in a very real sense, to his own mad self. (3)
It is possible to add both Hugo's (2011) bitter and diminished Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and the depraved and unredeemed Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) to this trajectory. In an era when mainstream film and television production is dominated by stories about men that portray a particular understanding of what it means to be a man in modern society, Scorsese's career-long investigation of masculinity offers an alternative perspective.
Accordingly, a focus on Scorsese offers students of the moving image the opportunity to consider, simultaneously, the concept of the auteur filmmaker as well as the fundamental role played by a team of outstanding collaborators in realising the vision of such a filmmaker. While I would never for a moment suggest that watching a few clips is an effective substitute for an entire film, a distinctive feature of Scorsese's style is his capacity to tell a complex story--about a character, or about life--in a single scene.
Think, for instance, about the scene in Raging Bull (1980) in which Jake (Robert De Niro) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) are sitting at the kitchen table with their spouses, and Jake's wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), makes the mistake of describing Tony Janiro (Kevin Mahon) as good-looking. Vickie is ordered out of the room and, when Joey's wife, Lenore (Theresa Saldana), defends her, she is also expelled. While this is taking place, Jake and Joey exchange a series of looks, each brother requiring the other to affirm his behaviour and reconfirm his authority. This scene encapsulates the weakness and pettiness inherent in a definition of masculinity dependent on the threat and execution of violence. It also lays bare the combination of narcissism and insecurity that characterises the bully. The scene, shot in black-and-white, set in a suburban kitchen in 1950s America and featuring some fairly unsympathetic characters, makes a point about the behaviour of bullies and a particular kind of male culture that is, sadly, universally recognisable.
In BBC series Scene by Scene, Scorsese marks out this scene, along with the other domestic scenes in Raging Bull, as one in which the simplicity of the camera movement works to support the acting in such a way as to place the characters 'in their environment and just let them be'. Scorsese is renowned as an actors' director and scenes such as this one offer a crystallisation of Scorsese's desire to get to the 'truth' of a situation. His filmmaking is driven by an investment in the philosophy of method acting and in capturing the 'raw, unforced feeling when the actors lose the sense of artifice and the barriers between fiction and reality break down'. (4) Because of the distinctiveness and complexity of the performances that Scorsese elicits in scenes such as this one, or the meal scene with Tommy DeVito's (Pesci) mother (Catherine Scorsese) in Goodfellas (1990), or Travis Bickle's (De Niro) demoralising phone call to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) in Taxi Driver (1976), or countless other unforgettably human moments, they offer students an invaluable opportunity to break down and describe the role and techniques of acting, as well as the way that it interconnects with mise en scene, camera and script. This is something students often struggle with, and Scorsese's distinctive style offers an alternative perspective from which to reflect on the conventions that have become so familiar as to appear invisible.
No exploration of Scorsese's bravura filmmaking style would be complete without the famous three-minute tracking shot from Goodfellas--the 'Copa shot', a tour de force that offers an opportunity for students to focus on the interconnection between story, character and production elements such as camera, lighting and sound (in this case driven by the rhythmic energy of The Crystals' 'Then He Kissed Me'). As with the scene from Raging Bull, the Copa scene speaks for itself, offering a condensed narrative of a young guy, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who is delighted to be showing his new girlfriend, Karen (Lorraine Braceo), the world where he not only belongs, but matters. The couple's fluid movement through the secret backstage world is punctuated by figures positioned along the way to allow the actors to pause momentarily to enable the steadicam operator to catch up. (5) The detour through the kitchen highlights Henry's confident ownership of the space, but also provides visual texture, as the bright lights of the kitchen contrast with the shadowy, red-hued corridor. As the couple enters the club area, a table with a white cloth fills the frame, conjured up, as if by magic, especially for them. Having observed Henry being greeted like a king and happily distributing twenty-dollar tips, Karen asks, 'What do you do?' and his ludicrous response (Tm in construction') brings home the confidence and exuberance of a world and a lifestyle that barely need a good cover story.
While this shot has achieved legendary status for its technical prowess, it is integrally connected to story--one which, in this case, is a form of morality tale in which the violence and corruption of the gangster's life leads to what Scorsese describes in Scene by Scene as a 'moral and spiritual dead end'. Just as the camera in the Copa shot communicates that Henry has achieved his childhood dream of being a gangster, Scorsese subsequently uses a dolly zoom to tell us that the good times have come to an end in the scene in which Henry and Jimmy (De Niro) meet at the diner. They sit at the window so Jimmy can see everyone who drives up and, as they talk, the world outside appears--literally to draw in on them. With this technique, made famous in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), Scorsese signals that Henry has lost his secure place in the gangster world, which is now threatening to crash in on him and bring him down. Even if the viewer doesn't register the visual effect, it has a powerful subliminal impact and offers a striking talking point for students who can consider how effectively these two short scenes from Goodfellas portray the inextricable interconnection of trust and betrayal that defines the majority of the male relationships depicted in Scorsese's films.
One of the joys of exploring Scorsese's work and his legacy as a filmmaker involves engaging with his own contribution to the discussion and interpretation of his films. Scorsese stands out for his generous willingness to discuss his work and to explain, defend and, on occasion, rue the interpretative choices he has made. His interviews with Roger Ebert are particularly insightful, with Ebert observing how the filmmaker's preparedness to talk about his films relates to the fact that '[h]e loves movies to an unreasonable, delirious degree, and he has unalloyed zeal for making them and talking about them. Words pour from him.' (6) Studying Scorsese's commentary on his filmmaking choices not only offers students an insight into how to discuss the effect and meaning of technical and aesthetic choices made within a narrative film, but also works as a model of the kind of thinking, planning and execution that might, in a concentrated form, drive their own productions. That Scorsese's enthusiasm and perfectionism can be traced back to a storyboard he created at the age of eleven for his own epic production The Eternal City (see illustration overleaf) can only add to his capacity to inspire. Scorsese also demonstrates the importance of taking a risk as an artist. For instance, in The Age of Innocence (1993), Scorsese uses a bold technique in which the frame fills with colour to express the emotions of the characters. He comments in Scene by Scene: 'It's such a shock to see that colour come up on the screen. But why not? Just do it! Colour means emotion.'
Scorsese's distinctiveness and originality as a filmmaker is intrinsically connected with his encyclopaedic knowledge and profound love of the institution of cinema. As he discusses and explains the choices he makes, he invariably refers to the work of other filmmakers that he has drawn on and used in a new context --such as the Goodfellas dolly zoom inspired by Vertigo, or the shots fired by Tommy at the end of Goodfellas, which, he has since explained, mimic the end of The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S Porter, 1903). In Scene by Scene, Scorsese explains a connection between the close-ups of Travis' eyes in Taxi Driver and those of Robert Helpmann in The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1951). He also mentions the influence of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Accattone (1961) on Mean Streets (1973), and of the opening credits of The Small Back Room (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1949) on the depiction of the city lights in Taxi Driver. Production designer Dante Ferretti has commented that, when working with Scorsese to plan the look and the world of a film, he finds himself watching a swathe of films as part of the pre-production process: 'He carries all these films in his head. He shows me whole films for just one shot, telling me, "Remember this image, that's the feel I want.'" (7) Media students are now very familiar with the postmodern flattening out of history through parody and pastiche, but Scorsese doesn't quote, 'he absorbs and transmutes'. (8)
Scorsese sees himself working within a rich and established tradition of filmmaking in such a way that not only watching his films, but hearing or reading his comments on this tradition, can encourage students to place the present in the context of the past to develop a more sophisticated understanding of cinema. Scorsese's 2013 Jefferson Lecture, 'Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema', is an outstanding classroom resource in its own right, tracing a line through the history of cinema to the present day, pausing to acknowledge the transformational storytelling power of pioneers such as the Lumiere Brothers, Melies, Porter and DW Griffih. (9) Citing the four key elements of visual literacy as light, movement, time and inference, he rhapsodises about the magic of editing:
For me it's where the obsession began [...] if you change the timing of the cut even slightly, but just a few frames, or even one frame, then that third image in your mind's eye changes too. And that has been called, appropriately, I believe, film language. (10)
This obsession with film language has fed into Scorsese's championing of screen literacy as knowledge essential to a society increasingly dependent on communicating through the moving image. As a filmmaker who has explored and developed a subtle and complex filmmaking vocabulary of his own, Scorsese is a passionate advocate for teaching young people the questions they need to ask in order to develop a literate understanding of the language of the moving image: 'So, what you're doing is training the eye and the heart of the student to look at a film in a different way by asking questions and pointing to different ideas, different concepts, suggestions.' (11)
Along with his promotion of critical screen literacy, Scorsese has also called for a 'respect for the language of cinema itself'. For him, 'the power of cinema' is connected to its 'invocation of life' and its capacity to enter a 'dialogue with life'. (12) Having grown up with a rich experience of stories told through film and television, he has long been an advocate for valuing and preserving American screen culture, and is the founder and chair of the Film Foundation, which is 'dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history'. (13) His deep investment in the heritage and history of moving-image culture is driven by the simple certainty that it matters.
Susan Bye works in the Education team at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image where she engaged with SCORSESE, an exhibition highlighting the depth and breadth of Martin Scorsese 's achievement SCORSESE was complemented by lively commentary and quality resources that can be found on the ACMI website <https://www.acmi.net. au/scorsese>, including an education resource focusing on the themes of the exhibition. Scorsese's inventive and complex films have spawned myriad academic books and journal articles, but the exhibition's education resource highlights online material that can be easily accessed by teachers, students and Scorsese enthusiasts.
(1) Martin Scorsese, quoted in Raffaele Donato, 'Docufictions: An Interview with Martin Scorsese on Documentary Film', Film History, vol. 19, no. 2, 2007, p. 207.
(2) Martin Scorsese, in 'Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy', Edutopia, 23 October 2006, <http://www. edutopia.org/martin-scorsese-teaching-visual-literacy-video>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(3) Glenn Kenny, '"With Love and Resolution": An Appreciation -The Art of Martin Scorsese', Humanities, vol. 34, no. 2, March/April 2013, <http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/ marchapril/feature/love-and-resolution-appreciation>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(4) Scorsese, quoted in Donato, op. cit., p. 203.
(5) Matt Mulcahey, 'Steadicam Operator Larry McConkey on Filming the Goodfellas Copacabana Tracking Shot and the Early Days of Steadicam', Filmmaker Magazine, 23 April 2015, <http://filmmakermagazine.com/93916-steadicam -operator-larry-mcconkey-on-filming-the-goodfellas-copa cabana-tracking-shot-and-the-early-days-of-steadicam/>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(6) Roger Ebert, 'Gangs All Here for Scorsese', RogerEbert.com, 15 December 2002, <http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/ gangs-all-here-for-scorsese>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(7) Dante Ferretti, quoted in in Rick Tetzeli, 'Martin Scorsese on Vision in Hollywood', Fast Company, 21 November 2011, <https://www.fastcompany.com/1793518/martin-scorsese -vision-hollywood>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(8) Roger Ebert, 'Scorsese by Ebert: Introduction', RogerEbert.com, 26 September 2008, <http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/ scorsese-by-ebert-introduction>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(9) Martin Scorsese, 'Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema', 2013 Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, <http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson -lecture/martin-scorsese-lecture>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(10) ibid., emphasis in original. You can read Luke Buckmaster's discussion of these four elements for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image; see Buckmaster, 'Scorsese and the Four Key Elements of Visual Literacy', ACMI website, 18 April 2016, <https://www.acmi.net.au/acmi-channel/2016/scorsese -and-the-four-key-elements-of-visual-literacy/>, accessed 20 September 2016.
(11) Scorsese, in 'Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy', op. cit.
(12) Scorsese, 'Persistence of Vision', op. cit., emphasis in original.
(13) See 'Mission Statement', The Film Foundation website, <http:// www.film-foundation.org/mission-statement>, accessed 20 September 2016.
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