The last two days have been given over to a more overarching analysis of Scorsese’s filmography, the themes and recurring archetypes that find their way into his films. And while it’s really the end goal of the project to be able to examine the films in such a way, to tease out such threads that make up a director’s personal flavor, it’s time to get down to the brass tacks. This is the part with all the opinions.
I want to talk a little bit about the movies I feel are especially worth seeking out, the gems that I only discovered because I dug into the back catalog. By the same token, there are plenty of movies that I feel aren’t really worthy of the same effort and attention, and I’d like to point those out too. I don’t think Scorsese made a movie that wasn’t worth seeing, but certainly if you had to pick and choose, there are a few that can be passed up in favor of stronger fare.
So let’s get started, shall we?
The Sinking Ships
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
This 1974 drama is actually well regarded. The story of a Alice Hyatt (played by Ellen Burstyn, who won a BAFTA and an Oscar for the role) is a housewife with a young son and a husband who exists only to be killed off in the first five minutes of the movie. With no job and only the dream of a singer she gave up when she got married, Alice and her son sell off all their things, hop into a car, and head to California so she can try to make it as a singer.
What follows is a series of woman-in-a-man’s-world vignettes, about how she has trouble looking young and getting a job, and when she does she falls prey to a series of men who want more than just a singer. The chief among these is Ben, played by Harvey Keitel, who she falls for only to find out he’s married and abusive, setting her on the run again until she ends up a waitress in Tucson, kind of falling for Kris Kristofferson and making friends with the zany people she works with at a roadside diner.
The problem with this movie, to me at least, is that it easily feels the most dated of all the films. Certainly there are still significant women’s issues concerning employment, but the whole thing starts off on a premise that seems like it’s coming out of the 50s, not the 70s. And while certainly Burstyn is a good actress, she’s given a pretty thankless role as she mothers poorly and works worse. In the end, it’s a series of men who show up as the scene stealers, giving her what she needs to carry on. It’s weirdly conflicted about the feminist issues it supposedly confronts, and has little impact for it. Scorsese’s interests are varied, to be sure, but this middling slice-of-life fare really isn’t his shining hour.
New York, New York
V-J Day, 1945. In New York City a smooth-talking saxophone player named Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and a barely-professional singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) meet poorly. It’s a simple story. Boy meets girl, girl kicks boy to the curb, boy pursues girl and the rest is history. So is the opening setting for New York, New York, Scorsese’s 1977 tribute to the big musical studio productions of old Hollywood.
The story of Jimmy and Francine’s on/off relationship over the years as their careers rise and fall seems like it would be prime for Scorsese’s exploration of interesting characters, but New York, New York is a movie whose story and whose tone never meet up. Scorsese, at the time in the deepest part of a cocaine addiction that almost killed him a few years later, makes a lavish film that brings to mind some of the better Gene Kelly pictures. The problem is, the characters never seem to really buy into that world, instead trying to create the serious character studies that Scorsese’s best known for. The result is a long-winded spectacle without a lot of heart, and characters who seems wildly inconsistent between the performance scenes and the talky bits.
There are things to treasure in the movie, to be sure. De Niro, always a method actor, learned saxophone for the movie and it shows in his performances. The guy can act a musical sequence well, playing a character who is more alive with an instrument than he is with other people. And Liza Minnelli has a third act musical montage up there with the big, bombastic, indulgent number that closes out An American In Paris. It’s flashy, and those bits work really well. Scorsese’s always known his film history, and when he wants to shoot an era he nails the look and feel of it.
But the movie runs on for two and a half hours, and much of that is a relationship drama that never feels dramatic. Both characters seem in their own heads, the actors coming from different places and never quite meeting in the middle. A director more on his game or a movie with perhaps a different focus would have melded the two genres a lot better. But as it stands, New York, New York is notable almost entirely for the titular standard it produced.
Gangs of New York
This one hurts, because I genuinely like Gangs of New York. A look at the generational tension between immigrants and ‘native’ Americans in the late 19th century, Gangs is a big ambitious epic of a film on a scale that really only comes around once in a great great while. And the performances by and large are fantastic. DiCaprio is not quite at the top of his game, but this was his breakout year as a respected actor (Catch Me If You Can was released the same year.) Cameron Diaz turns in a rare good performance. And then, of course, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis.
Bill “The Butcher” Cutting is a character that’s bound to outlive the movie he comes from. A grinning, greasy gentlemanly avatar of the greed and violence and murderer’s honor that represented the America of the time, Bill Cutting is the most charismatic man in the movie. He’s loathsome but impossible to truly hate, a man who you know is without morality but seems to operate under his own code. The movie is worthwhile for him alone.
But really that is the major highlight, and the rest of the movie suffers in comparison. Gangs of New York is big, with a dozen characters and hundreds of extras and major battles involving an array of forces engaging in some pretty shocking brutality. And the period feel is nailed, with amazing design and ancient accents that sound so strange to the modern ear. Yet all that design doesn’t really hold up a production that seems a little too big for the story it tells, a world created to explore the relationship of two men, a giant canvas that never really properly fills out and pays off.
Gangs of New York isn’t a bad movie, by any means, but it’s a movie that stumbles greatly as it heads towards its end, and a movie that doesn’t seem entirely sure where its heart is and what its message is supposed to be. And compared to the surety and focus of the rest of Scorsese’s filmography, that kind of uncertainty is an unforgivable stumble.
The Hidden Gems
After Hours is one of those movies thats really hard to explain, because the appeal is in its crazy, illogical plot. Paul Hackett is a word processor, a guy who as the film opens seems to be the most bored man in the world. Then he meets a girl named Marcy in his local cafe, and the two strike up a conversation. He gets an invitation to come visit, technically to buy art off of Marcy’s roommate but mainly to see Marcy. When he gets there, it starts a series of adventures, as one thing after another goes wrong.
After Hours is one night of bad luck, a man bouncing from one event to the other, always discovering the worst possible person or arriving at the worst possible time or saying the worst possible thing. It’s oppressively paranoid, about a New York full of crazy people, barely held together by the conventions of society once the sun goes down.
The comedy is certainly not of the laughing variety. Paul, played by Griffin Dunne, seems like a man shellshocked by the horrors he’s presented, but they’re just so ridiculous that in the context of viewing it the film becomes a parade of suffering heaped upon the main character, who seems to blithely walk into trouble again and again. The rabbit hole falls deep, and by the end even Paul recaps his night with something akin to disbelief, injured and exhausted and being hunted down by a number of people.
The film plays out with its nightmare logic, never winking at the audience, never really delighting in its own jokes. It feels very of the 80s, a movie that explores narcissism and isolation as only the 80s could present it. In many ways, it feels like it covers similar ground to American Psycho in that way, though certainly without the violence and misogyny and unreality that makes that movie so infamous. Instead, at first After Hours seems like an offbeat relationship movie, until it derails hard and fast and never looks away from the train wreck until the baffling, perfect ending. As far as long nights of cinema go, its one of the best.
The King of Comedy
This isn’t really a hidden gem, I expect. I mean, certainly I had heard of this movie more than once before I went into it. But it’s no Taxi Driver or Raging Bull in terms of film influence, and so it finds its way onto this list. I’ve already spoken at length about DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin, but the movie is much more than that. In many ways, I see this movie as a companion piece to Network, the story of where our obsession with entertainment can take us.
While Network is about the people in the studio, The King of Comedy is about those at home, the people who live and breath the celebrities that they see on TV every day. For the isolated and disaffected, those celebrities become as real (if not moreso) than those around them. Rupert Pupkin’s imaginary friendship with Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) is his closest human contact, but lines get crossed when Pupkin tries to make that imagined relationship a real one.
Jerry Lewis is pretty easy to overlook in this movie, playing the straight man to De Niro’s genius work as someone completely unhinged, but he managed to make the celebrity look like a lot of work, a man who tells jokes but then mostly wants to be left alone. He has his own agenda which at first only barely is relevant to the film, brushing in and out of scenes. There’s a notable one where Langford is trying to get somewhere, and asks a woman for help, but when he doesn’t stop to talk to her husband on the phone she wishes cancer upon him. How quickly fans turn vicious when their dreams aren’t catered to.
And that becomes the main destination of The King of Comedy. Pupkin can’t get air time on Langford’s show, so he’ll demand it by kidnapping Langford. Its a crazy, desperate plan, but it’s just crazy enough to work. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Pupkin is so far gone it doesn’t really matter to him one way or another how his comedy routine is received. He will bask in greatness forever. Whether its real or not is as irrelevant to the film as it is to Pupkin. It’s only us who are left asking whether the end of Pupkin’s gamble is real or not, or whether it even matters. And its that inability to pay off, to answer questions, to be significant, that is the trap of celebrity and television culture. The King of Comedy knows that better than anyone, providing lessons that are truer in today’s world than they were when the film was new.
Bringing Out The Dead
This is another one I’ve spoken about already, and perhaps its a little obvious that I’d choose it. I’ve already demonstrated on this blog that I have a great appreciation for Nicolas Cage, both ironically and genuine, but I am being serious here when I say that this is by far the best Nic Cage performance I’ve seen to date. Bringing Out The Dead is a haunting movie, and not a particularly pleasant one, but it is the one I find myself thinking about the most after all is said and done with this project.
Frank, Cage’s beleaguered paramedic, is running the graveyard shift in Manhattan. Each night out is like a war, bodies unceasing, the hospital always full of the dying and suffering littering the halls. Each night he finds himself paired with a different man, but none of them are good partners for Frank. John Goodman’s Larry is a man who deals with the trauma of the job by eating. Ving Rhames plays Marcus, who has turned to Jesus, selling his work as miracles to keep the failures from weighing too heavily. And Tom Sizemore plays Tom, violent and unpredictable, a man who has lost all compassion and treats each night out like it really is a war zone.
Frank is none of these things. Because Frank doesn’t try to deal with all the suffering. He doesn’t put it off, or compartmentalize it. Instead, he becomes a martyr about it, helping families and grieving alongside them, haunted by the ghosts of those he lost, their faces pressing him to do more, do better, to do the impossible against the inevitable waves of death that he comes across every night.
He seems incapable of quitting, trying to get fired only to keep showing up night after night, as the ghosts appear more and more often and the circles under his eyes deep until he begins to look worse off than the people he’s going out there to save. Cage takes it all in stride, playing a man heavy with demons without falling into melodrama. It would be an easy role to overact, but Cage shows rare restraint. He seems to genuinely barely keep it together, and as we watch him still reach out, time and time again, to those who you know will only hurt him without thinking, its impossible not to feel for him.
Frank’s a damned fool, and knows it. But it seemingly doesn’t phase him, and we are invited along into a seemingly endless long night of the soul, days and shifts blurring into a mess of humanity, all felt too keenly, impossible to look away from. And that’s the real triumph of Bringing Out The Dead. It is a bleak subject matter, but the film always seems more interested in compassion than nihilism. A story of survival in a broken world. Where barely hanging on is a happy triumph.
And that’s all for today. Tomorrow we have the final day of the Scorsese project. I’ll try to recap all this madness, and talk about the Scorsese movies everyone should see, and where someone who wants to follow along should start.