From Jesus Christ to Rupert Pupkin, Scorsese’s filmography is a long road of men with big ideas and heavy hearts, men with monkeys on their backs and demons at their heels. A flawed protagonist is a part of compelling fiction, to be sure, but Scorsese has a long history of the same sort of man in different eras, a man who can never live up to his own idea of what he should be.
All of the mob movies I covered in the last section are home to this idea, that men with ambition eventually burn through it and end up falling because they grasped too far or stepped over the lines of that world. But even excepting those movies, and looking at the rest of Scorsese’s films, is to find a storehouse of suffering and pathos.
A safe place to start is The King of Comedy, a low point for the examination of human nature. Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, is presented initially as an aspiring comedian who we quickly realize is more or less a madman. Sitting in his basement, a mockup of a late night talk show set, he holds conversations with cardboard cutouts and responds to the laughter of a wall.
But he’s a man that aspires, even in the face of all of reality shoving him constantly out of the door and onto his face. Pupkin’s story is a story of a man who never gets what he wants, who is always rejected, until he finally has to take matters into his own hands by kidnapping his idol (played by Jerry Lewis) in demand for airtime on Lewis’ late night talk show. When he’s denied what he feels is his for long enough, he eventually goes out and takes it by extreme means.
In many ways that’s not entirely dissimilar to De Niro’s character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. The two films could not be more tonally different, Taxi Driver bleak and pessimistic and The King of Comedy darkly humorous, but both characters are men rejected by the world around them. When Pupkin was rejected, he ignored them. When Bickle gets rejected, though, it pushes him deeper and deeper down the darkest of roads, until he becomes more a blind idea of vengeance, lashing out at the world.
The interesting thing about Taxi Driver is how indiscriminate Bickle’s violence is. He hates the filth on the streets, but really he only seems to lash out at what falls into his lap. He attempts the assassination of a senator, but he never seems to care what the senator’s policies are. He’s just a figure to strike out at, like a teenager striking out at parents or teachers. In fact, at the end of the film he expresses pleasure that the man he thought about killing now has a nomination for president.
The similarities between Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy extend all the way to their endings, where both men become something close to folk heroes or celebrities for the actions that they took. Both endings have a dreamlike quality to them. Travis Bickle may never have survived his murderous rampage, or he might be revered as a vigilante, but his nature is still turbulent and unfulfilled when we leave him. Rupert Pupkin maybe rose to fame on another man’s capture, or maybe he simply finally retreated deep into the voices that were always more supportive than real life. We never find out, because we’re never told. The inner lives of these men are so removed from reality that its clear even they don’t know exactly just how real the world around them is.
There are two other Scorsese movies that I feel work in tandem with similar themes, those being Gangs of New York and The Departed. Both films are focused on men who try to live up to the ideals set by father figures, usually with disastrous results. In Gangs of New York, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Amsterdam lives to avenge his father but finds himself taken in by the man (played by Daniel Day Lewis) who murdered him in cold blood when Amsterdam was a child. Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is not a good man, but he’s a larger than life man, a man with ideals and philosophy as much as he has violence. And the betrayal by Amsterdam strikes him as if it were from his own son.
Similarly in The Departed DiCaprio and Matt Damon play two sides of the same coin. DiCaprio grew up struggling and became a cop who goes deep undercover. Damon is handpicked in childhood by crime boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) to become a cop and become a mole in the task force that is trying to hunt Costello down. Both men become attached to their new bosses, DiCaprio becoming Costello’s right hand man and Damon’s character being tasked by the Captain of the police force (played by Martin Sheen) to find the mole.
Both men want to please the men who handpicked them for this job, but they also discover that enough time undercover brings them closer to the men they’re charged with betraying. Over time, both of them begin to break under the strain, neither of them happy with the tasks they’ve been given and both of them desperately trying to find the other to destroy him. It is, beyond all the crime trappings, a story about seeking to destroy ones negative self, the darkness that is in each person. But in The Departed the cost of doing so seems to be ones own identity and soul.
A similarly tortured character lives in Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, in Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden. Bowden is a lawyer who lives an outwardly perfect life with a wife and daughter. But when an ex-con (played by De Niro) comes accusing Bowden of providing him a shoddy defense 15 years earlier, Bowden’s life begins to unravel. It’s obvious early on that Bowden did exactly what he was accused of, being a bad lawyer to ensure what he felt was justice. But Bowden is a man with a seemingly loose grasp of right and wrong, a man who’s had multiple affairs and who steps outside the law to go after De Niro’s Max Cady when Cady begins to (legally) torment Bowden.
Cape Fear tries to show how good people go bad and bad people justify their actions and can also demand and deserve justice. Bowden’s life disintegrates at Cady’s hands, but on a certain level one cannot help but feel it is in some way deserved. Cady is a monster, but Bowden eventually ends up at a place not too far from Cady, violent and rationalizing more and more extreme reactions to himself. It is that awakening to who he is, what he is capable of, that is the real story of the remake over the 1962 original, a much more conventional thriller.
The most tortured normal soul in Scorsese’s filmography, though, has to go to Nicholas Cage’s Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead, one of the more obscure Scorsese pictures. Pierce is a graveyard shift EMT in Hell’s Kitchen, in a story that covers three nights of his life as part of a two-man first response team. Cage’s filmography is littered with suffering characters, ironic and genuine, but Pierce seems like a man already about to become unglued when the film opens.
Pierce sees his job as providing solace for those who he comes across in his work, comforting the families of the sick or injured or dead. The people he works on are almost secondary to the people around them, those who suffer but who he cannot help. He can work miracles on those who he’s sent to fix, but the wake of suffering he leaves drags him further and further down into the darkness. And even when he’s at the point of exhaustion, he goes out of his way to apologize for not doing more. It is a long, hard look at someone lost in their own notions of suffering and responsibility, a man who tries to take the weight of a small part of the world on his shoulders and buckles under the pressure.
Which leads us to two of the most interesting films in Scorsese’s filmography, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. These are religious pictures, make no doubt about it, dealing frankly with the lives of men (Jesus and the 14th Dalai Lama, respectively) who have often been revered as divine. What is interesting is how wildly different Scorsese, raised and still a practicing Catholic, treats the two of them.
Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ is, at its core, a humanistic portrayal of the historical figure. Scorsese’s Jesus starts as a man who has incredible doubts about his own place in the world, uncertain of the divinity that others would ascribe to him. Even as his notoriety grows, and he begins to perform the miracles outlined in the scriptures, he seems more terrified of this power than accepting of it. Whatever this Jesus is becoming, he seems an unwilling participant in his own story, a man dragged to prominence and then brought to a violent end because of it, all while seemingly wishing it could be any other way.
The core of The Last Temptation of Christ is a lengthy sequence while Jesus is on the cross, a depiction of a hypothetical wish where he was plucked from the cross by an angel and healed and allowed to live a normal, mortal life. He takes a wife. Has children. Grows old. His former disciples scold him for abandoning them, but he brushes them off in favor of this simple life of a simple man, the one thing he wanted and couldn’t have.
In the end he sees it for what it is, the final trick of the devil come to tempt him away from his sacrifice in his last moments, but what is interesting isn’t that he is being tempted but what he is being tempted by. For a figure of such reverence in Western culture, The Last Temptation of Christ paints us a Jesus who is simple a man trying to deal with the extraordinary burden he has been given, compassionately helping others until there is nothing left of him to give, despairing that in becoming this savior he had to forsake his own life, both in death and in how he chose to live.
Which brings us to Kundun, the story of the childhood of the 14th Dalai Lama through his discovery as a toddler to his fleeing Tibet during the Chinese invasion as a young man. Unlike Jesus, Scorsese portrays the Dalai Lama with all the reverence the religion commands. He is shown as more than a man from the outset, his reincarnation never in question and his divine right to rule explicit and celebrated by the film.
It seems weirdly reverent for a director who has gone out of his way to make human films about flawed men, a director who before or since has shown little interest in eastern religion in his films. But what isn’t immediately clear is that Kundun is an examination of that other side, the place where Scorsese’s characters all wish they could be. After a dozen films of men who provide their own undoing, Scorsese makes a film about a man who lives by the idea of not taking action. A man who is measured and thoughtful and introspective. And if he is divine, then so be it. Scorsese and his characters would undoubtedly see things such as restraint and inaction as efforts beyond mortal men. Certainly they’re beyond the gangsters. Certainly they’re beyond even Jesus, in Scorsese’s eyes.
Which is why Kundun stands out in stark relief from the rest. It is the answer, the counterpoint, a response to all the action and destruction with inaction. It provides little in the way of answers on its own, but when set against Scorsese’s other pictures throws the men of decision and death into a new light. It makes them look more petty, more low. It is a film that comments on a filmography, a deliberate contradiction to not only a director’s body of work, but seemingly to the director himself.
The final scene of Kundun, when the Dalai Lama crosses from Tibet into India, ends with the border guard asking the Dalai Lama if he is the Lord Buddha. The Dalai Lama answers not with dogma, but with a statement so open-ended it could be a question of its own: “I think that I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”
Kundun is the mirror to Scorsese’s films as the Dalai Lama tries to be to those around him, but more than that, it is a statement on Scorsese’s movies (and perhaps all movies) in general. What we look at when we see movies, flawed characters or not, is a mirror to turn back what we bring in on ourselves. It exposes us, human and bare, storytelling as compassion, as connection, as means of self-discovery and introspection.