It’s his birthday today.
It will be a huge loss when this man goes. He holds up the torch for continuity of cinema history, and his breadth and depth of knowledge – which he is so eager to share – is an essential part of the movie-lovers’ world. I cannot tell you how many movies I have sought out because of his passionate advocacy. He knows everything. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet of my friend Glenn Kenny’s book Made Men, about the making of Goodfellas, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Glenn interviewed everyone involved, including a lengthy sit-down with Scorsese (whom Glenn had interviewed before). It gives good context about the phenom of that film AND how it was rejected by a lot of people, because of the violence. (Same shit, different day.) Its reputation has grown to a towering height ever since, but it was one of those things where people didn’t quite recognize what they had when it first arrived. There was a lot of chatter about that movie. Maybe not as totally irritating as the ridiculous chatter around The Irishman, ranging from “This movie literally silences women” (there aren’t enough eyerolls in the world …) to “Scorsese only directs movies about gangsters” (I guess Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, New York New York, The Last Waltz, King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, Last Temptation of Christ, “Life Lessons”, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator, Shutter Island, the George Harrison doc, Hugo, Wolf of Wall Street and Silence don’t count. He’s done more movies NOT about gangsters than movies about gangsters. And these people, some of them, actually write about film. In a way, they help me save a lot of time: I know who NOT to read now.)
One of the honors of my career thus far was to write and narrate a video-essay on the three central performances in Raging Bull, included in the special features of the Criterion Collection’s long-awaited 4k release of that masterpiece. That piece required a deep and concentrated dive into the Scorsese/DeNiro collaboration – one which I have already been invested in since I first became aware of movies as a teenager – but to do so in a deliberate way, with this focus in mind, was an intense joy. I am very very proud of that video-essay (not online: you have to be a paying member of the Criterion Channel and/or buy a copy of Raging Bull to watch it. Of course I highly recommend you do so, and not just because of my video-essay.
One unexpected result of my participation in Criterion’s release of Raging Bull was receiving a hand-written card in the mail.
I had to sit down on my front steps when I figured out what was going on, when I saw the masthead on that little note card. I am truly honored.
For his birthday, here are some other pieces I’ve written where Scorsese figures either prominently or peripherally:
— For my Film Comment column about watching movies in a theatre vs. watching them at home, I wrote about the quaalude scene in Wolf of Wall Street, and how differently it played in the two different contexts. It was fascinating!
— I had the great honor of interviewing Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker about her gig restoring Powell/Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, one of Scorsese’s obsessions and influences.
— In 2013, which feels like it was a million years ago, I wrote about The King of Comedy for what was then Capital New York, and is now Politico. I love that bleak joyless movie.
— I wrote about Taxi Driver on the occasion of the film’s 35th anniversary. The film hasn’t lessened in power, not by one iota.
— For a feature at Ebert about the Best Films of the 2010s, the contributors all voted on their choices, and the editors tallied it up coming up with the final list. I lobbied – hard – to write about Wolf of Wall Street, which I did. I lobbied hard because:
1. I love that movie.
2. Women criticized the movie for its misogyny. I thought it would be cool to have a woman sing its praises, just to fuck with the accepted narrative.
One of my goals in life as a writer is to combat sexist assumptions – coming from men AND from women – about what women will and will not or should and should not like. If a woman disagrees with the so-called feminist status quo, she is shunned by so-called feminists as “not like us.” It’s happened to me practically all my life. It happened to me in high school, in college, and beyond. It happens to me now in the world of film criticism. The only way to deal with it is to not give a fuck. I already don’t give a fuck about sexist men. They’re everywhere. But women who buy into this “girls like different things from boys” shit? What is WRONG with you? Why are you reinforcing Victorian-era-1950s-era gender roles like this? Make it make sense. I address this in the piece.
And finally, and the biggest: I wrote the booklet essay for Criterion’s release of After Hours, his Beckettian-Surrealist-Kafka-esque (all of the above) New-York-cross-section movie starring Griffin Dunne. My involvement in the release led to a 45-minute phone call with the man himself, where I was nervous beforehand, and then not at all nervous during, because he was so nice. We talked about After Hours, yes, but so much else. He gave me a code-name the next time we meet in person, which we are bound to do: “Sheila-Raging-Bull-After-Hours” so he’ll know who I am. You know I will take him up on it!
I’ve seen Killers of the Flower Moon twice. It’s still in theatres: I highly recommend seeing it in a theatre. It’s different from his other films. There are very few cinematic flourishes, of the kind we associate with Scorsese. There’s one long shot, swirling through the rooms of a house, each room bustling with activity, one of those intricate shots Scorsese is so good at, an attention-getting camera move. But other than that, Killers of the Flower Moon is shot in a fairly straight-forward way, with lots of focus on the faces, on close-ups. Lily Gladstone gives a performance literally like no other – it’s an unprecedented role – but it’s De Niro I think of when I think of this film. This is unlike anything he’s ever done before – so exciting, and – quite honestly – one of his most frightening performances. But what’s going on goes even deeper than that. There are certain performances which are so psychologically acute – so insightful – that they actually explain how the world works. Not many performances are like this, because not many actors (or people, really) have that wide a lens. De Niro does. He had that wide a lens as a young actor too. It’s why he stands out. He’s beyond himself, he’s beyond a SELF. Travis Bickle explains something about how the world works, he explains a TYPE of alienation in the same way Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov explains the same thing. We need these people, these characters, these vessels – and when it “hits”, then forevermore we have it as an example. We can go back to Raskolnikov again and again. It’s not a character. It’s not even a mindset. It’s a psychological state of being: and we need artists who look at things with such a wide lens. Again, it will be rare. Because, in general, human beings are not very smart about why we do what we do, and how we do what we do. Otherwise why would we keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Robert De Niro’s performance is chilly, ice-cold, and perhaps it’s coldest when it’s warmest. If you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean. Lily Gladstone represents the human cost of the evil perpetrated. De Niro is the evil. And evil doesn’t snarl and cackle like a villain. Evil is caring, evil speaks in a soft voice, reaches out with a soft touch. Evil HIDES itself. Robert De Niro, a pessimistic even nihilistic man – at least in terms of his psychological makeup – understands this. Even very good actors find a way to wiggle out of the psychological implications of what they are asked to play. Playing a villain LIKE a villain is one way actors try to escape, keep themselves safe, avoid complicity in what they are playing. They find ways to distance themselves. De Niro does not.
Seriously. It’s a major performance.
Seeing these octogenarians working, still upping their game, challenging themselves, going to newer deeper levels, and creating a work so personal it implicates ALL of us … this is reason to celebrate.