One of my end-of-year gifts was Conversations With Scorsese by Richard Schickel, and I have been reading it with the sort of leisurely pleasure I haven't received from a book in some time. (Same goes for another gift, the collected Moomin; more on that in another post.) It's not a hagiography, a critical analysis, or a formal biography of Scorsese, because we already have tons of those. It's just a sit-down between two men -- one a longtime admirer and evangelist for the other's work, if not always every single bit of it -- and the reflections inspired by the way those two talk.
I actually like that Schickel is not a fan of everything Scorsese did, and that I don't always agree with Schickel on his own tastes. To wit: Schickel feels The Departed is one of Scorsese's best; I think it is one of his worst, a movie of astounding ineptitude for a filmmaker of his class -- amateurish, clunky, vastly inferior to the Hong Kong source material film Infernal Affairs in just about every respect. But the point is not to concur on everything; it's to see what there is to say, and understand where it comes from.
Scorsese got into movies in a way that was almost furtive. He was the asthmatic kid who looked down from the window of his family's apartment and saw the messy world of city life splayed out below him -- the way organized crime hovered around the edges of everything in the neighborhood, the hardscrabble way everyone earned a living. The movies were not just an escape, but they suggested another way to do something with his world, a way to transform one's surroundings and illuminate them. Over time he went from drawing storyboards for a Roman epic that would never be, to actually filming on rooftops, to landing a film scholarship at NYU.
Scorsese comes from a class of artist I try to examine a little more closely than most -- not an academic, or an autodidact, but someone who comes in from slightly outside the expected lineage and brings in things with them. James Rosenquist came into painting by way of doing billboards professionally, not art school, but brought with him a highly specialized set of techniques from that trade that allowed him to forge his own little path. Scorsese's working-class background stood him in good stead in the long run, because it allowed him to bring things to the screen that weren't always palatable (Mean Streets being a potent early example), but were rooted in something he'd known and felt and understood. He was also a film-school kid from right around the time "film school" was still a relatively new idea, when we were approaching the end of Hollywood as a come-as-you-are, bring-what-you-have melting pot and moving into a time when the whole process of getting into film, and making film, was becoming far more formalized and fear-driven.
Another thing that strikes me is how Scorsese's love of movies-as-such is illuminative, not showy. When his parents and grandparents would see the Italian neorealist films on TV and cry, they weren't moved by anything aesthetic; they were in tears because what they saw was their own lives. Rarely does Scorsese talk about the technical aspects of things, but not because he's uninterested in them. (I always resented the way Pauline Kael talked about the movies as theater, as celebrity vehicles, as cultural phenomena, but almost never as cinema.) It's because his attention is on other things first: What did this make me feel?
At one point he and Schickel talk about how sometimes a movie arrives at just the right time culturally to make an impact with a certain audience; the example in question, Fight Club, isn't one of Schickel's favorite movies, but the point is clear. Sometimes you just get hit by something at the right moment for it, and it becomes part of you, and you can't ignore that. This is the voice of an aesthete, but not one who's trying to impress you with how much he's seen; more that he's paid attention to what all of these things added up to him for.
There's a lot more to dig out of this over time; expect more posts in this vein.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind