Reviews, articles, rants & ramblings on the darker side of the media fringe

Archive for November 19, 2011

Martin Scorsese – Part 2 (Mid 70’s – Early 80’s)

Scorsese made the iconic ‘Taxi Driver’ in 1976 – his dark, urban nightmare of one lonely man’s slow, deliberate descent into insanity. The film established Scorsese as an accomplished filmmaker operating on a highly skilled level, and also brought attention to cinematographer Michael Chapman, whose style tends towards high contrasts, strong colors and complex camera movements. The groundbreaking performance of Robert De Niro as the troubled and psychotic Travis Bickle was highly regarded. The film co-starred Jodie Foster in a highly controversial role as an underage prostitute, and Harvey Keitel as her pimp, Matthew, called “Sport.”

Taxi Driver also marked the start of a series of collaborations between Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader, whose influences included the diary of would-be assassin Arthur Bremmer and ‘Pickpocket’, a film by the French director Robert Bresson. Already controversial upon its release, Taxi Driver hit the headlines again five years later, when John Hinckley Jr. made an assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan. He subsequently blamed his act on his obsession with Jodie Foster’s Taxi Driver character (in the film, De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, plans an assassination attempt on a senator).

Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, also receiving four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, although all were unsuccessful. The critical success of Taxi Driver encouraged Scorsese to move ahead with his first big-budget project: the highly stylized musical New York, New York.

New York, New York was the director’s third collaboration with Robert De Niro, co-starring with Liza Minnelli (a tribute and allusion to her father, legendary musical director Vincente Minnelli). The film is best remembered today for the title theme song, which was popularized by Frank Sinatra. Although possessing Scorsese’s usual visual panache and stylistic bravura, many critics felt its enclosed studio-bound atmosphere left it leaden in comparison to his earlier work. This tribute to Scorsese’s home town and the classic Hollywood musical was a box-office failure.

The disappointing reception that New York, New York received drove Scorsese into depression. By this stage the director had also developed a serious cocaine addiction. However, he did find the creative drive to make the highly regarded ‘The Last Waltz’, documenting the final concert by The Band in 1976. The concert was held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and featured one of the most extensive lineups of prominent guest performers at a single concert, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Wood and Van Morrison. However, Scorsese’s commitments to other projects delayed the release of the film until 1978.

Another Scorsese-directed documentary entitled ‘American Boy’ also appeared in 1978, focusing on Steven Prince, the cocky gun salesman who appeared in Taxi Driver. A period of wild partying followed, damaging the director’s already fragile health.

By several accounts (Scorsese’s included), Robert De Niro practically saved Scorsese’s life when he persuaded Scorsese to kick his cocaine addiction to make his highly regarded film, Raging Bull. Convinced that he would never make another movie, he poured his energies into making this violent biopic of middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta, calling it a Kamikaze method of film-making. The film is widely viewed as a masterpiece and was voted the greatest film of the 1980s by Britain’s Sight & Sound magazine. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor Robert De Niro, and Scorsese’s first for Best Director. De Niro won, as did Thgelma Schoonmaker for editing, but Best Director went to Robert Redford for ‘Ordinary People’.

Raging Bull, filmed in high contrast black and white, is where Scorsese’s style reached its zenith: Taxi Driver and New York, New York had used elements of expressionism to replicate psychological points of view, but here the style was taken to new extremes, employing extensive slow-motion, complex tracking shots, and extravagant distortion of perspective (for example, the size of boxing rings would change from fight to fight).
Thematically too, the concerns carried on from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver: insecure males, violence, guilt, and redemption.

Although the screenplay for Raging Bull was credited to Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (who earlier co-wrote Mean Streets), the finished script differed extensively from Schrader’s original draft. It was re-written several times by various writers including Jay Cocks (who went on to co-script later Scorsese films ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘Gangs of New York’). The final draft was largely written by Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

The American Film Institute chose Raging Bull as the #1 American sports film on their list of the top 10 sports films.