The Scorsese Project 1: Context, and Watching ‘Important’ Films

Like most prolific directors, Scorsese is a name that for a fledgling cinephile and bring about as much trepidation as it does interest.  His filmography is lengthy, filled with ‘important’ movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, movies that are well regarded enough that they’re approached sometimes the way one approaches homework.

“Yes,” you say to yourself, “it’ll probably be good. But I’m only watching it because it’s a Notable Film.” It’s the worst possible attitude to approach movies from, but being into film you will hit it over and over again.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with it, of course, and I’m as prone to it as anyone. But it’s something that anyone who wants to know about movies has to get over. For me, it became a matter of looking for an in, trying to find the context or a way of viewing the movie where you just approach it on its own terms and judge it for yourself. Sometimes you end up hating movies that are well-regarded, but so what? Certainly when these movies came out they had their detractors, just as every movie does today.

When you strip a movie of the context of its legacy, and just focus on what’s presented, it certainly requires a certain amount of knowledge of film history. You can’t watch a movie from the 30s to the 60s without knowing what the studio code was, and how it influenced the language of movies at the time. By the same token, movies from the 70s have to be viewed as the rebirth of American cinema, freed of convention for the first time in decades, wildly experimental and exploring topics and themes that had otherwise been taboo in both film and in the wider culture of America.

This is as true for Scorsese as it is for anyone. His earliest movies are all indelible pieces of the 70s movie zeitgeist. They’re dark films, without a lot of overt commentary or the kind of character beats that modern Hollywood has turned into a process. As such, they’re a little harder to approach.

To someone raised entirely on modern movies, I feel many of the films from the 70s and early 80s tend to raise a question of ‘what was the point?’ Well, that is the point. We are to find meaning, not have it presented to us. What is usually entirely the realm of art films these days was the norm even in big studio pieces then. My how things have changed.

Thankfully, Scorsese films almost all feel pretty modern, dealing with themes that aren’t bound too much in the issues of the day. If you can get past the way movies were made 40 years ago, you can easily begin to enjoy what the movies are. And if you aren’t ready to make that leap, Scorsese’s still putting out movies, movies that are in modern context and are approachable by even a casual audience (but still as good as any of his first films). How many long-time directors can still claim that?

I saw my first Scorsese movie several years ago, back when I frequented a local indie theater that showed old movies at midnights on the weekends. These were the mid-aughts, the pre-Netflix days, so I would go see whatever was showing if I was remotely interested, the early easy way to get my feet wet with classic film.

The movie? Goodfellas. Which I enjoyed, but didn’t love (thankfully I revisited it later on). It was a positive experience, but I wasn’t really in a place where I recognized the director or explored his other movies. That’s learned behavior for me, much more recent. Back then I lived for what was playing.

So I had no experience with Scorsese until Shutter Island. Now, from the first trailer, I was incredibly interested in Shutter Island. And I love Shutter Island. It’s a smart throwback to Hitchcock thrillers, with a ton of atmosphere, oozing dread and creeping paranoia (paranoia that lords over both Bringing Out The Dead and After Hours, which I’ll cover when I talk about the discovered gems of the project).

But months later, when I was just picking movies at random in my instant queue, I hit upon the movie that would drive me to pick Scorsese as a Netflix Project choice. The Last Temptation of Christ was a movie I was almost certain I wasn’t going to like. I don’t like religious movies. I don’t like films that are almost three hours long. But I loved the movie. And when project time rolled around again, Scorsese was near the top of the list. Any director who could make three such different films was deserving of some attention, even if he wasn’t already one of the most famous working directors today.

Normally, when I arrange these projects I pick them from first movie to last, unfortunately I already had a few Scorsese movies from the middle and back of his career under my belt, and I was more interested in his more recent work in the aughts than I was in his early work in the 70s. My general aversion to the bleakness of most 70s films is pretty well known if you know my tastes, so I decided to wait and save those until I was too deep into the project to pull out. I was going to go in rough reverse chronological order.

This was a really big mistake.

As I’ll discuss in the following articles, there are plenty of recurring themes in Scorsese’s work. Some themes, like catholic guilt or the inevitable implosion of Joe Pesci’s characters, are better expressed in later films than they are when they’re first touched upon. By going backwards, I put the evolved ideas before the seeds, and some movies suffered greatly for it. I will try my hardest not to do these projects out of order in the future.

Scorsese, standing between Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, two men who are going to get mentioned nearly as much as Scorsese in these articles.

Also, this has been a much bigger project than I first thought, spanning months and some time when I was just tired during a lull in the great movies and stopped for a while. In that time, early movies would come up on Netflix Instant, and I’d watch them without regard for order, so the entirety of the project slowly became one large, cumbersome mess. It’s relevant to disclose the order the project went in, and to assert that I’m going to try my hardest to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s done far more harm than good.

So what follows will be the order I saw them in, with the release date.

( also of note: Scorsese has directed a bunch of concert films, which I made no effort to see. There can certainly be an argument for them being an important part of his career, but I have literally no interest in watching a bunch of concert movies. If that’s a problem, so be it, you can feel free to scold me in the comments and I’ll respond with a mildly-chagrined indifference. )

My History with Scorsese

  • Goodfellas (1990)
  • Shutter Island (2010)
  • The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • The Departed (2006)
  • Shutter Island revisit
  • The Aviator (2004)
  • Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1967)
  • Boxcar Bertha (1972)
  • Gangs of New York (2002)
  • Kundun (1999)
  • New York Stories (1989)
  • Cape Fear (1991)
  • Goodfellas revisit
  • My Voyage to Italy (1999)
  • The Color of Money (1986)
  • Mean Streets (1973)
  • Last Temptation of Christ revisit
  • Raging Bull (1980)
  • After Hours (1985)
  • Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
  • New York, New York (1977)
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
  • The King of Comedy (1982)
  • Taxi Driver (1976)

About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
This entry was posted in directed viewing, scorsese. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Scorsese Project 1: Context, and Watching ‘Important’ Films

  1. Pingback: Directed Viewing Redux: Scorsese Revisited, “Hugo” Mulled Over | The No-Name Movie Blog

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