Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese (born November 17, 1942) is a prominent American film director, screenwriter, and producer. He is a native New Yorker and earned his M.F.A. in film directing from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He is considered to be one of the most influential American filmmakers of his era. His films include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Color of Money, Casino, The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island. He tends to develop long-standing collaborations, such as with actors Robert De Niro (with whom he has made a total of eight films), Harvey Keitel, and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as editor Themla Schoonmaker and writer Paul Schrader.

Throughout his body of work, Scorsese repeatedly addresses such themes as identity, corruption, guilt, redemption, and violence. His protagonists are often social outcasts or pariahs; they may be corrupt, violent, or criminally insane. They have strong, turbulent personalities and are usually extremely flawed, elements which generally help to drive the plot. His films are frequently set in large cities, particularly New York, and often deal with corruption and violence in city life. Environment plays an important part in his films, with the grit and tension of the atmosphere greatly affecting the ‘feel’ of the movie. Visually, the camera work in his films is consistent; he is fond of mixing long tracking shots and slow motion with fast-paced editing of sequences. The unifying feature of Scorsese films is the way that he uses these elements to help the audience experience events in the same way that the protagonist experiences them, and to keep the viewer unsure of what will happen next.

Two examples of Scorsese’s personal style of filmmaking are Taxi Driver and The Departed. Both films take place in large cities – New York and Boston, respectively – and feature characters that live outside the confines of everyday social norms and rules. Both films also feature the steady decline of the main character’s mental stability as the plot progresses (Travis Bickle’s descent into depression and violence in Taxi Driver; William Costigan’s increasing paranoia and alienation in The Departed). Violence is a prominent feature in both storylines, as is a subjective, dreamlike quality aimed at involving the viewer in the protagonist’s emotions and experience, and heightening the suspense.

Filmed in 1976, Taxi Driver is considered one of Scorsese’s greatest films and sealed his reputation as a skilled director. Set in New York City shortly after the Vietnam War, the story revolves around Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an ex-marine who presumably served in Vietnam (although there is no real proof of this). Travis suffers from depression and insomnia. To cope with the sleepless nights, he takes up a job as a taxi driver working 12-hour nighttime shifts. He meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a volunteer supporter of New York Senator Charles Palantine’s upcoming Presidential campaign. Feigning interest in the campaign, Travis develops a brief relationship with Betsy, which she ends after he takes her to a pornographic movie. Travis slides further into depression, showing disgust at the behavior of his fares. He becomes interested in weapons, illegally purchasing four separate guns and repeatedly practicing drawing them. He also meets a child prostitute called Iris (Jodie Foster) and tries to convince her to return to her family in the Midwest. After some time, it becomes clear that Travis intends to kill Senator Palantine during an upcoming speech. When he attempts to draw his gun on the Senator, he is spotted by Secret Service agents and chased from the crowd. Giving up on the assassination, Travis settles for killing Sport, Iris’s pimp (Harvey Keitel), as well as the bouncer in the brothel and the client in Iris’s room, becoming seriously wounded in the process.

The climactic shoot-out scene at the end of Taxi Driver has become one of the most remembered scenes in movie history. Several techniques were used to make this sequence feel dreamlike and to heighten the dramatic tension. The camera work used a mix of quick and aggressive back-and-forth cuts, long, slow tracking shots which follow Travis’s progress through the brothel, and slow-motion sequences. The set itself is dimly lit and rather claustrophobic; both the hallway (where Travis executes Sport) and the staircase are extremely narrow and confined. The struggle between Travis and the bouncer begins on the staircase and carries on into Iris’s room, where Travis shoots him point-blank in the head in front of the child. Afterward, as Iris sobs in the corner of the room, Travis tries to commit suicide. He clumsily works his way through his weapons, trying to find one with a spare round to fire into his head. The scene keeps this sort of slow tension as the police arrive in the doorway, aiming their weapons at Travis, who mimes shooting himself in the temple. The camera then assumes a birds-eye view and takes a long, slow drift throughout the brothel, down the stairs and out into the street, very deliberately panning over the massive amounts of blood spread throughout the house, and later over the crowds of people gathered outside who were disturbed by the noise. This eerie drift works well with the de-saturated colors in this scene; it emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the shootout and of Travis’s increasingly paranoid state of mind. The de-saturation of the shootout was done in an effort to obtain an “R” rating. As a result, the blood ended up being a much lighter, almost orange color. No matter the intent behind the color change, I personally found that the de-saturation worked in the context of the film. Grittier, darker, more realistic blood may have provoked a more visceral reaction to the scene, but I think Scorsese’s goal throughout the film was to involve the viewer in Travis’s near-fantasy world and the loss of touch with reality that provoked him to do this, and the strangeness of the coloring in the climactic scene only adds to that. Scorsese tends to pull the audience into the protagonists’ experience any way he can. Another way he does this is by manipulating the film’s score. There is no background music to accompany Travis up the stairs to Iris’s room; it only starts to play when the police appear in the doorway afterward. When it does kick in, it’s loud, sudden, and piercing (mainly played on horns). This seems to be a theme with Scorsese and musical scores: he is very aware of how music can affect the audience’s experience of the story. Without the blaring background music, the slow drift through the house following the shootout may have been an opportunity for the viewer to relax, knowing it was all over. Instead, the tension carries on long after everyone is dead.

The denouement following this sequence was also very interesting. A letter from Iris’s father is read aloud in a voiceover, explaining that the girl is home and safe, that Travis had been in a coma for an unspecified length of time, and that the family could not be more grateful for his actions. As the letter is read out, the camera pans over several newspaper articles cut out and pinned to a blank wall, all of which feature Travis Bickle and his heroism in the face of moral evil. I found it very ironic that the media touted Travis as a hero, considering that if he had been successful in assassinating the Senator, he would have been called a villain and a murderer. It was also interesting to see Betsy’s change of heart when she rides in the back of Travis’ cab; she no longer looks at him with disapproval. The sudden optimism of this final scene left me wondering if it was actually a dream; perhaps Travis was imagining himself a happy ending just before he died in the shootout. It just seemed too cheerful and optimistic in comparison to the rest of the film. Yet, that cheeriness is taken away almost as soon as it is shown. As Travis drives off and leaves Betsy on the sidewalk, there is a sudden noise, causing him to look sharply into his rear-view mirror at something the audience can’t see. This is a hint to the viewer that Travis is still not well and most likely will never be well. Scorsese’s characters tend to start out damaged and end up even more damaged. Very rarely does anyone get out unscathed. Scorsese’s later film, The Departed, is another example of this.

Filmed in 2006, The Departed is a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, which was released in 2002. In the film, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is recruited into the Irish-American mob by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Costello sends Sullivan into the Boston police force as a mole for his criminal organization. Meanwhile, William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an undercover policeman sent to infiltrate Costello’s group as an informant. Before long, both sides become aware that there is an informant in their organization; Sullivan and Costigan each try to discover the others’ identity without blowing their own cover.

The main theme of this film is the concept of identity and of mirroring. Both the main characters and their associates seem to be mirrored versions of each other, similar figures that happen to be associated with opposite sides. Sullivan and Costello mirror one another, as do the authority figures Costello and Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen); Costello is a father figure to Sullivan, while Queenan is a father figure to Costigan. Throughout the movie there are plot devices and twists that continue adding layers to these connections between the characters. Symbolism is also used to stress this point. There is a scene in the film where Costigan attempts to arrest Sullivan, chasing him through the streets of Boston’s Chinatown at night. At this point each man knows of the existence, but not the identity, of the other. This scene uses symbolism, lighting, and camera editing to further emphasize the concept of identity, and to stress that both characters’ identities are beginning to fragment as they pretend to be other people. There is a moment where Costigan has lost sight of Sullivan, and looks wildly around in all directions; he spots a wind-chime made out of small fragments of a mirror and sees his own face split into many smaller pieces, hinting at his own increasing alienation throughout the film, before noticing the reflection of Sullivan in the background. The lights from neon signs and the steam billowing from restaurants distort and envelop both characters during the chase. In fact, there is hardly a shot in this scene that does not hint at some sort of mirroring or distortion, whether it is the disproportionate shadows of the characters thrown against an alley wall or the exaggerated echo of their footsteps. Nothing appears the way it really is. This is further emphasized when Sullivan, thinking that Costigan is approaching him from behind a delivery truck, leaps out to stab him with a knife. Instead of Costigan, his victim is revealed to be an innocent restaurant employee taking out the trash.

Where Taxi Driver used de-saturated colors to emphasize the dreamlike quality of the shoot-out in the brothel, The Departed did not employ the same technique with its color palette. The blood in this film was very stark and realistic. However, Scorsese manages to inject the same surreal quality into a violent scene by using a different technique: slow motion. In the scene where Costigan meets with his superior, Captain Queenan, in an abandoned building, they are followed by a group of Costello’s men (Sullivan tipped them off). Costigan is forced to go down the fire escape in order to keep his cover; Queenan stays behind to distract the men. When he refuses to give up the identity of his informant, Queenan is then thrown from the roof of the building, landing in the alley at Costigan’s feet and dying on impact. This is one of the most effective scenes in the film because of the way that Scorsese chose to pace the sequence. The camera techniques leading up to Queenan’s death are quick and aggressive, cutting from one subject to another and employing restless, spiraling tracking shots which follow Costigan’s progress down the fire escape into the alley below. When Queenan is shown falling, only one shot is used: he falls into and out of frame in slow motion. After so many aggressive shots and camera movements, the sudden change of pace gives the audience time to let the horror and helplessness of the situation sink in. It also sets up a contrast between the fall and the impact. When Queenan strikes the pavement, it is brutal and graceless. There is a horrible noise, and Costigan is covered in blood from the collision.

Similar to the background music in the climax of Taxi Driver, The Departed employs various tricks with the score in order to heighten the impact of certain scenes. For example, there is a scene in which Sullivan is sitting alone in his office, looking at the cell phone that the (now deceased) Captain Queenan used to communicate with Costigan. Sullivan thinks that he is on the verge of finding the informant in Costello’s group. Throughout the scene, Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia de Lammermoor" plays loudly in the background, an aria used several times throughout the film, including a sequence with Costello watching a live performance of the same opera. The aria continues until Sullivan flips the cell phone open, bringing the music to a sudden stop and heightening the tension of the moment. This abrupt start-and-stop technique was also prevalent in the scene with Costigan and Costello driving out to a warehouse to make a drug deal. Sullivan calls Costello to let him know that he is being tailed by two police cars. During the phone call, the Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping off to Boston” is playing at full volume until Costello screams at Sullivan to get rid of the tail, at which point it stops abruptly. The volume of the music in this scene emphasizes Costello’s increasing belligerence, making the aftermath of his shout all the more jarring. “Shipping off to Boston” also appears at several other points throughout the film, and each time it starts and stops according to cues in the scene. The tendency for the background music to start and stop follows along with Scorsese’s abrupt shifts in pacing and editing; the overall effect is that the viewer is unable to predict what will happen next.

All of these effects are used to engage the viewer in the protagonist’s experience, setting up an emotional investment in that character’s fate. Establishing a connection with a character with debatable morality raises questions for the viewer: given the same circumstances, would their own actions be any different? Can the protagonist be seen as a hero, despite their dubious ethics? Scorsese has an interesting outlook on heroism, which can be seen in both of these films. Many similarities can be drawn between the characters Travis Bickle and William Costigan. In both Taxi Driver and The Departed, the main character spirals into a state of depression and alienation over the course of the story. Despite their flaws – one is an outright murderer, the other depressed, disaffected and paranoid – they each elicit sympathy from the viewer, simply because each character is trying, in his own way, to solve the problems around him. Setting characters in a hostile environment encourages understanding and empathy from the audience. In contrast to the actions of those around them, the protagonist’s morally dubious choices seem more righteous and justified than they would in a safer, friendlier environment. Their actions appear immoral – Travis Bickle’s decision to kill those he saw as responsible for Iris’s situation, or William Costigan’s last-ditch effort to regain his identity through blackmail – but it is clear that they are each trying to right a perceived wrong. In fact, both characters are touted as heroes by the end of each film (by people who only witnessed the aftermath of their actions, and had no idea what each character really went through). Scorsese’s take on heroism seems to be that the intent behind an action partly determines the morality of that action.

Martin Scorsese has a very recognizable style of filmmaking, which is evident throughout all of his works. Though the subject matter, time period, setting and implementation may vary, the same basic themes and stylistic choices are always present: violence, guilt, redemption, insanity and alienation. A Scorsese film is always recognizable as such.

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