‘You never knocked me down Ray…‘ I’ve never particularly cared for Raging Bull. It’s a shocking admission as on paper it should be among my favourite films, what with that triumvirate of Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro in the driving seat, particularly when the latter was at the peak of his powers. I’ve always suspected that the film was ahead of me, that I lacked the insight and wisdom to fully appreciate it when I first saw it as a teen, and again through a handful of revisits over the intervening years. I could always appreciate the craftwork, Schoonmaker’s astounding assembly of the punishing fight scenes, Scorsese’s dizzying camerawork, and of course De Niro’s method madness with the weight gain and boxing regime he undertook to don those gloves of pugilist Jake La Motta, a commitment to the physicality of a performance that has since acquired mythic status. I’ve always wanted to revisit this on the big screen, an approach which could activate the revelatory experience this classic, and I have conducted some research into the films history which might also contextualise the film not only in the Scorsese oeuvre, but also in the wider channel of American cinema as it came to that crossroads of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Even if you accept 1/10 of what Biskind alleges in the seminal Easy Riders, Raging Bulls reportage this was a turbulent period. Scorsese’s private and artistic life was in crisis after the immense financial and critical failure of his previous film New York, New York and his tempestuous romance with the rarely stable Liza Minnelli was in freefall. Plagued by insecurities during a terrible shoot he’d worked with De Niro with the last three movies and wasn’t jumping at the chance for another failure, and as was the environment they were all seriously hopped up on deep coke habits – Schrader was doing four grams a day – and after a Telluride festival a combination of contaminated powder, his asthma medicine and overwhelming exhaustion Scorsese experienced a medical convulsion and almost died, and during recuperation in a New York hospital he had what addicts term ‘a moment of clarity’ and poured this destructive angst into a project he could now see from the inside out, the self destructive impulses, the aesthetic impotency and growling, Neanderthal, masculine insecurity – these are the hammer blows of Raging Bull.
Amusingly the film went into production the same month as Cimino’s Heavens Gate which struck the death knell of the decade, where Raging Bull can be considered its artistic apogee. Long time Scorsese scribe Mardik Martin made a first pass on Jake LaMotta’s autobiography, but something pivotal was missing. Schrader’s second assault introduced the tension between brother Jake (De Niro) and Joey (Joe Pesci), inflaming the jealousy that was absent in the book but forms the dark nucleus of his life and the carnage he wrought in and out of the ring. At first the United Artist executives were nervous, they didn’t feel such a reprehensible character won’t exactly entice in the ticket receipts, but Rocky had made all boxing projects hot properties, even shorn of their triumph of adversity plot predictability. Scorsese insisted on a tabloid feel, highly influenced by the work of photographer Weegee (a patron of Kubrick’s early Time career by the way) hence the insistence on the black & white palette which while problematic was a little more receptive to the suits after the relatively recent success of The Last Picture Show. Crucially this was also the first collaboration of arguably the greatest director and editor team of all time, Scorsese hiring Thelma Schoonmaker, although I’m sure you fact fans will be fascinated that the previous two films of his had been cut by a certain Marcia Lucas, wife of George, who was instrumental in the craft of New York, New York and a little modest picture called Taxi Driver – more on that later….
Raging Bull opens with a framing device in 1964, the corpulent once champion now fallen from grace, muttering his street soliloquy to a mirror before cutting back to his physical and celebrity prime, Thus the scene is set for an epic fall from grace, a man demolished by his own demons and insecurities, an aligned marriage of career and substance that pushed Scorsese to his artistic borders. The environment is a vividly reconstructed New York once again, Scorsese intimate since birth with those sweltering summer sidewalks, the red brick townhouses and tenement ambiance of overlapping arguments and domestic distress, a cacophony of constant barking animals and shrieking sirens. In this way the film is constantly, well, its angry and energetic, there are few calm asides nor allusions, a maelstrom of near constant flux and threat. This was Cathy Moriarty’s first film and she by her own admission completely ignorant of the practice of filming, but she had that undeniable chemistry with De Niro on screen, she wasn’t intimidated by him and handled herself admirably by tossing lines back during improvised scenes and sequences, so it seems a shame she never had much in the way of a subsequent career. Also look out for Frank ‘shinebox retrieval instructor‘ Vincent in his screen debut.
Older and wiser in the ways of cinema I can now recognise something of the street confessional, the raw virtue of early Pasolini which was an evident influence, channelled through the earlier pulses of the home countries Italian Neo-Realism. Bit Scorsese took this influential infrastructure and strained the character through a specific American lens of the punishing dream, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and achieving victory at all costs, no matter the impact on your marriage or soul. To have as your main character a narcissist, misogynistic self hating abuser, a man so paranoid he accuses and beats his own brother was a tough sell as you never sympathise with LaMotta and his distressing antics, but De Niro keeps you glued to the screen through sheer force of personality and profundity. As Schrader frequently attests for him character is action, what they do marks who they are rather than relying on the techniques of long soliloquys or illuminating dialogue, and we are in the orbit of a thoroughly odious, yet curiously understandable ogre. Whilst the contemporary parallels are evident Raging Bull strums deeper than surfaces, it has a wider breadth to suggest how we all fight, sometimes against ourselves and our own self destructive impulses and instincts, in the theatre or boxing ring of life. This being Marty we are treated to an expert entrance steadicam shot, the fight scenes took ten weeks alone to shoot, two and a half months, improvisation utilised to keep the energy and tempo consistent through what was a gruelling experience.
After the exhausting shoot was tapped out the post production schedule was almost as brutal, the sound mix alone took six months, Scorsese in perfectionist mode as he insisted on delicate completion of the Foley signalled rifle shots into melon to replicate the assault of flashbulbs and punches. Seen now the thundering editing in the fight scenes are intoxicating, in terms of sheer physicality these are among the greatest fight scenes committed to celluloid, dizzying, delirious and deadly. Crucially the camera stays in the ring with LaMotta during his dance with his opponents, a third character ducking and weaving through the melee, with special, almost expressionistic designed sets expanded beyond the realistic curtilage, giving every fight scene it’s own individual schemata that represents a different stage of LaMotta’s career as it closes in and fails. These were all specially designed and storyboarded in pre-production, Scorsese not opting for a traditional three line camera crew covering various angles, but instead resorting to one camera, perfectly choreographed like a dance movement with high speed interludes and expressionistic touches like the blood literally dripping from the encircling ropes.
At this stage in his career and psyche Scorsese assumed this would be his last film, and he’d retreat into teaching or academia after the films assumed failure, and I love how he termed it as ‘kamikaze film-making’, hurling everything into the picture and going for broke with nothing to lose. The results are there to see even as much as it simply still doesn’t connect with me, as much as I can fully admire the immense craft and dedication. It remains a text which you can’t deny for the sheer sweat and passion, crucial to the bruised and battered body of work, even if it doesn’t still engage on a personal level. Seeing it on the big screen at last revealed some of the films sheer technical prowess which leaves you shell shocked on a visual level, punch drunk and reeling from the sheer assault of sound, image and intensity, and that alone ensures its seminal status in the lexicon. Now, we all know how P.T. Anderson lifted the final monologue for that notorious final scene in Boogie Nights, which in turn traces a lineage through Kazan’s On The Waterfront of challenging characters throughout American cinema, all human beings, wrecked and wracked with their own failures, struggling to be better men despite their own burdens;
Sometimes, when you think the cinema you are constantly exposed to can seem staid and similar a broadside thunders, and your expectations are beautifully shattered. The reputation of Moonlight hustled up a high bar of brilliance, coalescing since its rapturous responses throughout the festival circuit of 2016. Initially, during the first part of my screening I was intrigued but I wasn’t necessarily immersed – an early, flashy single take that dervishly swerves around a scorching Miami neighbourhood smacked a little of indulgence, and setting yet another film in a narcotic nested centre of the African American experience could only make me think that we’ve been here too many times already. But then one early scene pours from the screen in such indecipherable beauty, when mid level drug baron Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim in the Miami surf, and this deeply moving film never looks back. Juan has taken this neglected and withdrawn boy under his wing after discovering him wondering through some ruined tenements in the ghetto of Liberty City, his father absent, his mother grappling with her own substance abuse demons.
Barry Jenkins adaptation of screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue charts Chiron through three formative periods of his life, as a boy, as a gangling and sullen teenager (played by Asthon Sanders) and then as a young man (a broodingly fragile Trevante Rhodes), his moniker shifting from school nickname to street name through a procession of identities. That is just one of the connective tissues that emphasise the underlying currents of self and soul that permeate the picture, beautifully rendered in a trio of linked performances from three previously unknown actors. Although I was initially perturbed by the unfolding of yet another tale of African American experience unfolding in the ghetto, of slinging on the corners and avoiding 5-0 it soon becomes clear that this is merely the backdrop of a wider psalm on our perceptions of the self and how these can change through time and circumstance, the id in a constant state of flux and evolution. Naomi Harris (better known as Moneypenny in the latest Bond’s) as Chiron’s mother and Ali (the fixer Remy in House Of Cards) are both fantastic support, surrounding Chiron with fully rendered adults to his wounded interior, with all their complexities and contradictions in full display.
For a sophomore effort (his first film, Medicine For Melancholy is already being reassessed) this is a film which is deeply accomplished, fully deserving of the panoply of awards it has attracted and its affinity with the best work of Wong Kar Wai and Lynne Ramsay, both cited by Jenkins as crucial influences. The palette is that of combining intimate, handheld closeness coupled with broad widescreen environments, James Laxton’s cinematography brilliantly blazing within the alabaster Miami sun and a twilight of shimmering oranges. Through these designs the film levitates, hovering in that space between self daydream and cognitive inquiry, where crucially Laxton lights the space, not the characters so they can work and move within the dimensions of specific scenes. Carefully orchestrated through the performances, score, masterful manipulation of exposition and colour schemata Moonlight weaves through the influential moments of this young man’s life, before alighting on a devastating emotional conclusion, without resorting to the usual closure of the screen-writing 101 playbook.
A rather lazy but accurate pitchline for the film has devolved to Boyhood meets Boyz In The Hood. Rather more beautifully I’ve heard Moonlight compared to ‘Caravaggio in Florida’, and as a culturally shrewd punctuation mark on the Obama era, of racial advancement and civic progress for gay rights, whch forms a an important thread but not the entirety of Chiron’s story. What is clear is that beyond the surface sexual and racial politics is that Moonlight is a cartography of shifting identities, not just of his life and struggles but also those of his mother and other ancillary characters, divorced from the usual social realist take on growing up poor, in troubled circumstances in modern America. Rather forlornly one hopes that it can overcome the steam train of the undeniably entertaining, skilled yet in comparison rather hollow La La Land come Sunday night, but I’m sure the Academy will favour another valentine to itself rather than this infinitely more complex meditation on masculinity. Believe the hype, this is a major film from a major new voice, aching and vibrant with bittersweet beauty;
It’s always January isn’t it? That somewhat bleak, recuperation and recovery month when the cinemas suddenly resonate with the flotsam and jetsam of the previous year, especially the award attuned ‘serious’ cinema that dominate the discourse of the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the BAFTA’s and all the others. I recall going to see Kenneth Lonergan’s previous troubled film Margaret during a chilly January release, a long gestating project that required the intervention of luminaries such as Scorsese – yes him again – just to complete the films editing and guarantee a limited domestic and international release. Five years later his follow-up Manchester By The Sea arrives on a gilded cushion of critical praise, already clutching a panoply of awards and nominations, with acting and screenplay nods seemingly guaranteed with this years Academy Awards are announced next Tuesday. When we first meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) we quickly parse that he’s a withdrawn and troubled soul, working as a handyman cum janitor in a quiet Massachusetts coastal town, prone to bouts of drunken violence in a local bar, while resisting the advances of men and woman into his hermetic, almost monastic world. A frosty morning phone call sets the story in motion – his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has passed away from a long-suffering cardiac condition, summoning Lee back to the titular Manchester to conduct the various legal and bereavement arrangements, also nominating Lee as the temporary guardian of his sixteen year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) since their alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Moll) fled, or was exiled from the family a few years earlier.
Beware gentle reader, consider yourselves seriously warned, as this film is fucking heartbreaking. Through an expertly orchestrated lattice-work of flashbacks we incrementally learn of Lee’s tragic back-story, ignited and recalled in his imagination by the stresses and strains of the present’s new emotional responsibilities, with many of his fellow townsfolk whispering of a dark history when his back is turned. Affleck has always struck me as a haunting presence, malevently malefic in Oscar nominated turns such as The Assassination Of Jesse James etc., adroitly amusing in the Oceans movies, genuinely certifiable in The Killer Inside Me. But beneath that sinister edge there is a vulnerability which reminds one of Montgomery Clift or early career Sean Penn, and he is perfectly cast and perfectly plays those qualities to the fore in Manchester By The Sea, wracked with guilt and withdrawn from the pains of the world, suddenly thrust into a new lexicon of blood-tied responsibilities that he struggles to surpass. Having listened to a recent WTF interview with him he knows from bitter experience the impact parental psychosis can levy on the family unit, how rage and for some substance abuse clouds deeper haunting problems of the psyche, and he seems to be drawing from that personal reservoir for this shattering performance. He’s a different man, happier, genial and invigorated by life in flashback, a severe counterpoint to the muted husk we follow in the present day, he’s bulls-eyed a nomination and potential Oscar win and this controlled and internalised turn would be my front runner for February.
This is very much a winter film, shot with a shivering authenticity in the small coastal town of Manchester which squats an hours drive from Boston, perfectly melding the seasonal torpor with the Chandler family tragedies. It’s a generationally blue collar community where the denizens love their hockey and basketball, they enjoy fishing with their buddies so they can enjoy a beer or seven, the blood ties that bind forming the spine of the community. Lonergan is too much a respectful chronicler of the human condition, of our frustrations and foibles to offer any pandering solutions to torment, he doesn’t posit such platitudes that obliterating events may ever heal or regenerate. Still, beneath that bitter observation there is a quiet tender core to the film as fragments of joy and relief still remain, and the continued affection between Lee and his nephew – an amusing Lothario in training – has also earned Lucas Hedges a deserved Oscar nomination.
While there is a drizzle of observational humour to alleviate the oppression Lonergan is also an expert in the minutia of day to day life, the small quiet moments signalled by the slight curves of a smile or a painful sideways glance, those miniscule moments of unconscious communication which can transmit more than a thousand word soliloquy. It’s also a treatise not only on the repercussions of tragedy and bereavement but on the administration of death, the protocols of passing. Who makes the phone calls to impart the terrible news? How do you arrange the details with the undertakers, and whom arranges storage of the cadaver when the ground is to cold to commit to a service? Anyone who is suffering some density of family strife and struggle – in other words 99.9% of the human race – will find the film brimming with empathy while perhaps an exhausting experience, expertly modulated and paced with key information being revealed in key emotional flashbacks, which as narrative devices are revealed with maximum effect. Sometimes the unvarnished truth of our lives and their unresolved and messy strands need to be reflected on screen, to remind us that we’re not alone, and not everyone can easily shoulder the burdens of their lives, the destructive decisions and drives, as traditional resolutions would have us believe. It’s very early I know, we’re barely a month into the year, but this deeply moving and tragic film is a certain contender for one of the years best;
As is my idiom, I do like to post some ancillary material when indulging in a director season, so I thought it best to keep the flow running with some acclaimed non-fiction material which is often overlooked in favour of Marty’s crime epics or spiritual sojourns. The BFI, as usual are doing a comprehensive job by showing many of his documentaries on the big screen alongside the movies, but I’m not inclined to spend precious resources in catching these on the big screen when I can barely keep up with the January new releases and tackle big, iconic movies such as a certain boxing picture which I have tentatively begun assaulting. So, courtesy of the inter-webs here are a couple of his highly regarded pieces, modest little examinations of his family in the first instance and a colourful acquaintance in the second, to keep things ticking over while I catch Manchester By The Sea this week and hope to bring you the story of brutalised boxer by the weekend;
I should say that this exercise has ballooned out of all proportion as I have committed to and made great inroads into re-watching every single Scorsese movie on my HD home A/V system, which has included upgrading some films to high definition from their mediocre DVD masters, thus so far I have powered through Gangs Of New York, Cape Fear, The Age Of Innocence, Boxcar Bertha, Hugo, The Aviator, Bringing Out The Dead and The Departed – not bad for a weeks work, with more still nesting on my watch-list. Anyway, here is his interview with the rather squalid Steven Prince, star of one of the key scenes in Taxi Driver you’ll recall, and his O/D story which Tarantino lifted for that sequence in Pulp Fiction;
You might be as bemused as I was to discover that we have a recent sequel, well if you consider 2009 as ‘recent’, that you can see here…..
Firstly, some context – German cinema can be considered a trailblazer in many respects during its long and illustrious history, as the cradle of such epoch defining talents as Fritz Lang, Murnau, and Pabst, or more recently the post war new-wave of Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders, to name just three. When you cast your eyes over these figures and historical movements there is one function and formula which doesn’t exactly spring to mind – rib-tickling, grin inducing comedy. A little research on my part hasn’t exactly excavated a vast, untapped chasm of Teutonic titters, although to be fair Fack Ju Göhte looks like it might be worth a watch, and Goodbye Lenin made some waves during its release back in 2010. That is pretty much it as far as I can see, until a modest film was revealed at Cannes last year which has upturned the nationalistic nerve of accusing the krauts of having no sense of humour. As I’ve mentioned here before the marketing for Toni Erdmann didn’t exactly molest my funny bones, so as usual I have been ignorantly bemused by its steep ascendancy to perhaps the most acclaimed film of 2016, featuring in the ascendant of hundreds of critics, academics and film industry professionals all over the world. Still, I am humble enough to accede to my elders and betters, so when a special advance screening and post viewing Q&A sprang up in the esteemed Curzon Bloomsbury I snapped up a ticket, eager to finally see what all the fuss was about. Rather than director and screenwriter Maren Abe being frozen in the spotlight the Curzon have secured the services of Austrian actor Peter Simonischek for their promotional parade, he plays the titular character in this frankly bizarre but repeatedly amusing oddity, one of most original films I’ve seen for quite a while.
When we first meet Winfried (Simonischek) we quickly process that he’s something of an eccentric of advancing years, a pithy prankster, as he imitates a disheveled unabomber clone while collecting a ticking parcel from a confused delivery man in the film’s opening scene. It is quickly ascertained that he is a part-time teacher, divorced but remaining cordial with his ex-wife, and warmly tolerated by the members of the community and his extended family whom roll their eyes in mock-exasperation at his silly jokes and foolish personas. One family fissure strikes a genuine raw nerve which can’t be concealed with well-intentioned levity, with Winfried’s uncomfortable relationship with his high-flying corporate daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) a source of regret between the two. She is constantly on the mobile while negotiating a particularly sensitive deal on behalf of her consulting company, a Romanian outsourcing scheme which inevitably lead to redundancies that the cowardly CEO is anxious not to be publicly responsible for inflicting. After Winfried’s unexpected visit to Romania where Ines barely has any time to spend with her father he unconventionally adopts the wig-couiffered, false teeth sporting persona of Toni Erdmann, professional life-coach and possible German Ambassador, and inseminates himself into her corporate circle to the bemusement of her unsuspecting colleagues and friends. The results, as they say lead to hilarious consequences, in an embarrassment of situations which are not a million miles from the cringe-inducing chortles of The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm…….
Toni Erdmann wasn’t quite what I had in my mind when I sat down in the opulent surroundings of the Renoir Screen Numero Uno, and thankfully, having slept on it I’m quantifying that statement in a throughly complementary fashion. As expected the film begins as a rather straightforward dramerdy, the clear spine being the lukewarm, stilted relationship between an emotionally estranged father and daughter, warily circling each other and yearning for a deeper connection but unsure how to broach their shared apprehension. After establishing the initial story contours however the film pushes off into an almost Dada influenced farce, an occasionally hysterical playground with bizarrely comic interludes and incidents. Two scenes in particular are spectacular specimens of the comedic form, quite unlike anything I’ve seen at the cinema for quite a while, and judging by the raucous reaction of my fellow patrons I wasn’t the only audience member throughly smitten with the droll absurdity. Technically the film is a straightforward affair, organic coverage captured in wandering hand-held close-ups, with a specific lack of any manipulative soundtrack or diagetic interference, letting the intrinsic comedy ooze through from the situations and reactions rather than signposting reactions through editing or punchlines. I’ve never seen either central performer before so there is no screen baggage to weigh down their performances, and they are both throughly convincing as two lost souls slowly acclimatizing to a new phase of their father / daughter relationship, and beautifully playing it straight no matter how absurd the circumstances.
I am utterly baffled by some of the readings I’ve gleaned from some social media streams for this film, specifically those interpretations citing Toni Erdmann as some sort of political riposte to our recent political turmoil, an analysis which I cannot detect at all. Yes, there is some sly undercurrent of corporate satire running beneath the absurdity, an examination of the modern office culture which inflicts such anxiety and distress on its drones at the expense of genuine, warm human interactions, a reduction of all discourse to commerce if you will. Extrapolating that further to encompass wider contemporary concerns seems like a stretch, it doesn’t need any deeper analysis other than a face value appreciation of a frequently hilarious, original and highly touching if slightly overlong (160+ minutes) movie. During the Q&A Simonischek came across as a cheery and avuncular fellow, explaining how they suffered numerous takes and were encouraged to improvise by their brilliantly precise director, during a challenging but rewarding shoot. He also explained how some of the particular strains of humour had been carefully researched – and I have to dance around some certain plot points here – but a certain, erm…well, ‘creature’ is culled from a Romanian fable which signals the waning of winter and the coming of spring, a symbol of a rebirth and new horizons which slots neatly into some of the characters evolution and growth. This is an almost unique offer, it’s difficult to parse with any recent film in terms of intent and tone which I suspect is why it has generated such international affection, and while it wouldn’t have charmed its way into my top ten I am curious to see it again and assess how some of the nuances and performances may be reinterpreted and assessed a second time around. So much cinema, even of an international variety follows formula so it was refreshing to be blessed with a story which was largely unpredictable, apart perhaps from a final conclusion which cleaves to the usual mandate of character growth and life lessons learnt. Now, after this highly amusing aside I will go and check out what’s been happening in the news and international affairs before resuming the fetal position, and be sure to continue the whispered moaning and praying that this is all some feverish nightmare, I mean you’ve got to laugh….right?;
In order to provide the most comprehensive cover for this seminal season we have to delve down into the lesser known, more neglected films in the Scorsese canon. Rifling through the material in my film book library there is unsurprisingly a wealth of anecdotes and analysis on the likes of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but I could barely glean a half-dozen pages on the making of The Color Of Money, the loosely grained 1986 sequel to sports classic The Hustler which starred a fresher faced Paul Newman in one of his iconic roles. Curiously to me, the 1980’s have usually been considered as Scorsese’s wilderness years, the period where he fell from the pedestal of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation following a litany of incredible pictures, even managing to recover from the annihilating reaction to his tribute to the Golden era Hollywood musicals New York, New York with what is widely considered as one of the greatest ever post war American films – Raging Bull. He kept working throughout the following decade, kicked the debilitating coke habit that landed him in hospital for exhaustion a number of times, but it wasn’t easy to convince the studios to fund his uncommercial projects. Sometimes however the movie gods would smile and the talent would approach him with opportunities, as Newman did when he raised the prospect of a return to the life of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, pool shark turned wholesale liquor salesman, a quarter century after he abandoned the life. Personally I love 1980’s Scorsese so we will be lavishing a particular emphasis on this period during this season. Even within that enclave this is perhaps his most overlooked picture which crackles with that whip-crack energy and emphasis on character and conflict, yet another man writhing in an existential web of regrets, half-imagined hopes and degraded dreams, with one more elusive shot at glory a chance to transcend their personal purgatory.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this film for a number of reason which I hope to unpick here. Unlike some self-important directors, slowly casting their imperious aspersions over the numerous scripts that pass through their aides fingers and only committing to a prestige project every four or five years Marty decided he wanted to keep working, to keep learning, to collaborate with new and established talent and to expand his repertoire – I admire that. Maybe some of this was commercially minded as we all have bills to pay, but after a cursory glance through the material and one assumes the chance to work with Newman he thought ‘yeah, fuck it’ and committed to the project – I get the same sense of instinctive decision-making arising from his remake of Cape Fear which enabled him to get his full Hitchcockian anxieties exorcised into another project. Paul Newman plays Felson a quarter century on from his rejection of the fugitive life, longer in the tooth and more temperate in his dealings, he initially senses a money spinning opportunity if he can harness and mould the skills of the volatile Vincent (Tom Cruise) and manage the possessive instincts of his girlfriend and partner Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Shot during a grim Chicago winter Scorsese’s regular DP Michael Ballhaus straddles the film in shivering greys and whites, the palette coming to life when the road-movie plot reaches Atlantic City, just as Eddie’s slow awakening and new-found faith in his own prowess coalesces in a conspicuous climax. Along the way we see the internalized mechanics of the con, of the sweet nectar of the hustle which I’ve always found fascinating, the psychological games and feints which Newman has prior pedigree in one of the all time great grifter movies The Sting. However, unlike more straightforward con movies like House Of Games or Nine Queens which rely more on their serpentine plot mechanics The Color Of Money strives for a deeper purpose, a character study of a man in the twilight of his career lamenting past glories, wondering and yearning if he can recapture his youth which fate and his own foibles snatched from him a generation ago.
As character study The Color Of Money is a picture which rests entirely on the quality of its performances, and Marty shepherded an Academy Award winner from Newman, and buttressed Cruise’s emerging screen persona as a cocky, charismatic all-American boy. This was released just as Cruise had just broken the sound barrier of superstardom, already a hot property after the previous years Risky Business, blasting into the fame stratosphere launched by Top Gun which opened five months earlier. Of course the box office receipts weren’t remotely comparable but he carries his purpose in the picture with his usual chutzpah, this scene the perfect encapsulation of his arrogant adolescence. The associated energy comes from the spectacular exhibition shots and the skilled montages dropped over the various games, I’m not a particular fan of sports films as, well, I’m just not into sports, but the skill on display is fascinating and gripping, all the more impressive as with the exception of one spectacular jump shot every stroke in the film was conducted by Cruise or Newman. Far more interesting is the hustle, that fine psychological game of convincing your opponent that you are an inferior player while slowly coaxing the prize money higher and higher, the act of losing while your ego demands revenge, the ability to walk away and nurse that hunger for revenge until you revisit your mark months later with the bookies odds stacked heavily in your favour. That’s where the characters come to the fore and the intrinsic drama of the film lurks, that struggle between male posturing in Vincent and the venerable wisdom of Eddie’s street smarts, although he isn’t totally immune to his ego obscuring his intellect. These nodes are the pinions of the screenplay by the always brilliant Richard Price – an acclaimed urban novelist in his own right whom has also written episodes of The Wire, Clockers and cult gang movie The Wanderers. Through his research and life experience he has developed a real ear for the argot of the street, for the genuine hustles and scores that this sub-class have developed, all of which gives the films a fascinating authenticity as backdrop to the internal ideological struggles. There is some fine supporting turns from John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a portly prestidigitator, and keep an eye out for a youthful Iggy Pop making a small cameo as another ignorant mark.
The towering presence isn’t Scorsese’s direction or the economic script, the real bounty is of course the lamented Paul Newman, a real screen legend who managed to laminate his late career with a scattering of incredible performances, see also Lumet’s The Verdict and Nobody’s Fool for how you populate the latter stages of your career with some incredible punctuation points. His reprisal of Felson is an aging chancer with a twinkle in his eye, slowly coming to terms with his own mortality and declining opportunities, hell-bent on one last blaze of glory before his star inevitably must diminish and fade. In terms of style Marty winds up his camera like a taut cluster of vivacity, before detonating the mechanism to dizzyingly orbit the baize battlefields as the games commence, tracking the ricocheting balls and thrusting cues like some general monitoring the forward deployment of his assets and his opponents ambushes and counter-strikes. The narrative is clean and compact, a linear journey which educates Vincent and Carmen in the various skillsets of the hustle across a frigid landscape of smoky pool halls and dive bars, as Eddie regenerates his mojo and confidence in his own ambitions. Scorsese’s usual darting coverage, long-takes shifting from perspective POV to mise-en-scene is just so skilful it brings a smile to the eyes, and as I’ve said before and will say again it drapes his films with such an effervescent energy, I just love the technique which makes his films such as joy to watch and revisit again and again. This time around what I found truly compelling, away from the insight into the street was the shifting motives of the characters, and Eddie’s conscious or unconscious use of Vincent to put himself back in the game and rekindle his dwindling confidence. Cleverly, the script probes that grey landscape between being confident enough to throw a game, to build confidence in an opponent before fleecing him with your superior skills, and not being hustled yourself by a stronger player, turning your own ego against you in a more devious and surreptitious manner – that’s the query that the film alights upon yet never definitely answers, wisely leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. This was another well-preserved 35mm print, overall a minor Scorsese perhaps but no less rewarding with its spiritual self-flagellation and adrenalined aesthetics, so rack ’em up;
Hmm, I’ve just got a press invite to see Neruda, the latest film from rising world cinema star Pablo Larrain, a film which cropped up in quite a few best of 2016 lists and just scraped onto the Sight & Sound list. Fortunately I have some time on my hands at present so I think I can slot this into an extraordinarily hectic month – apart from the Scorsese season I’ve also got programmed screenings of Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, Toni Erdmann and La La Land – but this screening is at the Fox HQ in Soho which I’ve never attended so that should be an experience. The movie looks good too, which kinda helps;
‘It goes back to that question I had in ‘Mean Streets’, how do you live a good life? A life which is good, meaning compassion, and respect for others, in a world like today or in a world where I grew up, quite honestly’. I think I’m safe in claiming this as the first essential Scorsese film in the canon, the one that he was inspired to make by his mentor John Cassavettes who gave him what we Brits would describe as ruddy good talking to after Marty was bitching about not really finding his muse and expressing himself honestly in the early, atypically difficult phase of any filmmakers career. It’s the usual story of shooting his semi-professional debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door over a period of years as the money was hustled from various vendors, struggling actors falling into and out of the film due to their shifting availability and commitment, begging borrowing or stealing expensive film stock and then being obliterated by ruinous lab processing costs, although he did forge a career long friendship with his initial screen avatar Harvey Keitel. Like all obsessive artists he tenaciously got the film made, and the final piece aroused legendary career shepherd Roger Corman who always had a keen eye for upcoming, hungry talent that he could exploit. Provided he could deliver the requisite level of nudity and violence to satisfy the drive-in circuit Corman offered Scorsese his somophore assignment Boxcar Bertha, providing him with a minuscule budget and the use of a professional crew, fulfilling the next logical step on that long road to becoming an established name in the industry. Although the film was lukewarmly received it made a return on its investment, so an emboldened Scorsese and his writing partner Mardik Martin dusted off their dormant script for a project called Season Of The Witch, a semi-autobiographical narrative inspired by their adolescence and experiences growing up in the rough, seething cauldron of the Lower West Side. Using the same crew as Bertha they embarked on an extremely swift, six figure budgetary shoot, the results of which has been accepted into the Library of Congress as a work of ‘significant cultural, historic or aesthetic significance’, the first Scorsese film proper that brims with queries on faith and moral turbulence in an environment of frequent violence and pea cocking male machismo, and a sly critique on the all-pervasive ideology of the American dream.
Although I am a worshipper at the church of Scorsese I hadn’t seen Mean Streets for years, even though a recent excavation of my streamlined DVD collection unearthed some special edition DVD published in the early noughties. Sure, I’ve always liked the film but it never really gripped me like some of his other cinematic sermons, but as usual a big-screen revisit regenerated my rapture, especially as an initial supporting strut to this two month season. Like his subsequent gangster films Scorsese is more interested in the low-level enforcers, the scuttling con-men and scumbags who operate at the margins of serious organised crime, those who rub shoulders with the strippers and dope-fiends rather than the Machiavellian consigliere’s or ruthless capos. There is a dramatic triangle at the heart of the film, with the ambitious and well connected Charlie (Harvey Keitel) operating as a racketeer with a sense of compassion and patience with his clients, sympathetically listening to their tales of woe while quoting St. Francis of Assisi as he grapples with his spiritual demons. He’s conducting a secret affair with his cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) who wants to move away with him to a safer part of town, but Charlie’s community spirit runs deep and he’s committed to protect his reckless childhood friend Johnny-Boy (De Niro), a degenerate gambler wiseass who owes money to every loan-shark in the district. Charlie is trying his best to be a good man in a bad milieu, boxed in by the traditions and definitions of his social and psychic environment, a theme that runs throughout Scorsese canon. Mean Streets also embedded some of the more recognisable aesthetics of the work, from the vigorous use of boomer era popular music as sly commentary on the motivations and machinations of the characters and plot, to the very first deployment of that trademark slow-motion soundtrack shot;
Proving that the entire so called 1970’s ‘golden age’ of Holllywood owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the nouvelle vague Scorsese has cited that when he saw this (9:53) sequence in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie it was an eureka moment, a stylistic revelation, unchaining the camera from its static observation of the space and instead gliding in long takes through space, incrementally pulling the audience into the fictional world and provoking a sense of energy, of restless kinetics, of moving pictures as a shattering of the usual Hollywood master-shot, shot/reverse-shot syntax. This is signature Scorsese, flexing his cinematic muscles for the first time and finding his aesthetic feet, its overused now of course although we’ve seen deployed to repeated brilliance since.
In terms of cinema history Mean Streets is an important picture, the first collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro which produced such highlights over the intervening decades, those first scenes together always prompting a wry style even as it has slipped into mild cliche. We’re talking spectacular swearing, the slightly off-kilter cadence of dialogue repetition, the immediacy of improvisation which breaks with that forced fiction formalism of most screen performances. De Niro plays the irritating Johnny quite brilliantly as one of those character types we all loathe, the selfish yet somehow cheekily charming self-destructive fuck-up who drags the main protagonist down – think Bernie in Millers Crossing, Ziggy in Season Two of The Wire, or just about any Sam Rockwell performance of the last twenty years. The real character brought so vividly to life though is New York itself, the restless city that never sleeps, teeming and churning with a volatile social energy. Commentators often cite Woody Allen as the ultimate cinematic chronicler of the Big Apple and to be sure he’s had his moments, but just as his international efforts set in London or Milan his camera never strays from the immensely privileged upper class locales, whereas in Mean Streets we are plunged into the cultural stew, the bubbling cauldron of the five boroughs, the spics, wops, niggers and kikes all striving for a score to get through another day, against the incessant distant cries of car horns and mournful emergency service sirens. Oh, I also have to applaud some of the innovations in the film, specifically the drunken Charlie scene which was achieved by strapping an arriflex body brace to Keitel and unleashing the rest of the cast on him, a fine mirror to the films overall hand-held aesthetics which Scorsese embraced as there was little space or time to construct complex camera arrangements on location, the economics and environment demanding a vérité approach which maps perfectly to films urban immediacy.
So finally to see ephemera – surprisingly, through the magic of the movies the film was primarily shot in Los Angeles with only eight days lensed in New York, to give some authenticity to locale and to enable the capture of the context setting San Gennaro religious festival. The crew averaged a remarkable twenty-four set ups a day which belies the urgent energy which bleeds onto the screen, it might be scrappy and you can see some of the rough edges but it all adds to the films asperous credibility. Although his third credit Scorsese has cited this as the first film where he truly learnt to direct a movie, not just mustering the technical aspects to completion but also the mastering the personal themes and injecting them into the material. He also learnt how to conduct and guide rehearsals, the importance of keeping a crew fed, watered and inspired even with mediocre resources, and how you find the story through the shoot and its environmental restrictions, the unpredictable weather, through illness, and the covenants of locations, all inspiring and obstructing in equal measure. Naturally there are a few movie references, the most overt being footage of Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeria in the cinema visit scene and a glimpse pf Lang’s The Big Heat seen on the TV, and you also you might recognise a youthful David Proval who most memorably went on to portray the terrifying Richie Aprile in the middle seasons of The Sopranos. This was a high quality 35mm print that the BFI projected which aided my enjoyment, it was an exceptionally preserved reel which could have passed for an analogue projection except for the usual distress around the reel changes. When Scorsese showed a rough cut of the movie to Coppola he instantly cast De Niro as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, accelerating a soaring career which resulted in an Academy Award for Supporting Actor a couple of years later. Scorsese and De Niro were now considered hot properties, and when ambitious husband/wife producers Julia and Michael Philips were considering some key creative posts for their controversial new project they knew that they wanted Scorsese to helm, provided he could also provide his friend in the leading role as a lonely, unhinged Vietnam veteran traversing the sordid streets of New York – I won’t insult you with the movie title but that masterpiece begin its long and hellish journey here;
The long road to penitence begins here. Almost three decades in the making Martin Scorsese’s latest, and potentially penultimate picture is finally anointed in the church of cinema, if he keeps to his recent comments about hanging up his viewfinder. This passion project has been adapted by Scorsese and his frequent screenwriter collaborator Jay Cocks from the celebrated 1966 novel Silence by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. This is not the first time this striking story has been brought to the screen, in fact it has been filmed twice before, once by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971 and by João Mario Grilo as The Eyes of Asia in 1996. I’ve seen neither so we’re not operating from a position of comparison, but I can assume that analysing all three could be a fascinating exercise as they emanate from the perspectives of the host and interloper countries – Japan and Portugal – with a neutral approach provided from the US with this latest translation. Anyway, that’s a whole other exercise, Silence has already been compartmentalised as the final entry in Scorsese’s so-called spiritual trilogy, mused in theological trysts alongside 1988’s controversy baiting The Last Temptation Of Christ and 1997’s zen like Kundun, neither perhaps Marty’s most celebrated works but both harbouring an essential and central ingredient of his entire cinematic oeuvre – the spirit and faith, and how our physical actions connect with the divine via our morally constructed maelstroms.
I’ve mentioned it here before but after growing up in those ‘mean streets’ of Queens and later in his childhood the Little Italy enclave of Manhattan Scorsese was submitted to the Catholic seminary at age 15, a path of devout clemency being laid before him. Thankfully for us heathen cinephiles he didn’t take to his studies and instead turned to the cinema, where he has spent a career examining men – and the fact is that it is nearly always men – wracked in some lacerating mortal or spiritual torment, sometimes finding some sort of redemption or transcendence, and sometimes….not. These themes find themselves at the heart of Silence which reminds one of Apocalypse Now given the similar trajectory into a pagan Heart Of Darkness, a clandestine pilgrimage into the hostile unknown of another culture and country, in order to resurrect with a lost mentor, to rescue an almost saint like idol. It’s 17th century Portugal, and Jesuit Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are advised by their superiors that a letter has fallen into their hands from a colleague long thought lost to the lord. A Dutch trader, one of the rare merchants from Europe allowed entry to the isolated Japan of that era has passed on correspondence from their inspirational mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), but the wonderful news of his mortality is coated with concerns, as the liaison also slanders Ferreira by claiming that he has since renounced the church and turned away from god. Refusing to believe this both Father Rodrigues and Garupe decide to follow in their teachers footsteps, and risk torture, death or worse in the mysterious Orient, where the practitioners of the Christian faith are lethally repressed since an earlier flowering of the faith was crushed by the Shinto / Buddhist majority.
This is an aesthetically beautiful film, a late flowering of a great master marshalling his frequent collaborative choir to beautiful crescendos, but the final effect rests on your own plinth of faith and belief, so speaking as a lifelong atheist I worshipped the craft but rejected the credo. Silence is set during a period of imperialistic colonisation of other corners of the globe by many Judeo-Christian sects, so their arrogance with converting others from their native beliefs, the prideful righteousness in enforcing their ideology on the poor and disenfranchised made me harbour zero sympathy for either Fathers journey, but we’ll come back to those dimensions shortly. Nevertheless as a historical backdrop the film is fascinating, following my visit to Japan a decade ago I have absorbed a little of Japanese history and was au fait with the shift from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji restoration, 17th century Japan being a near hermetically sealed culture and society. The fact that 300,000 converts had been raised and then been suppressed was a revelation, so there is much to enjoy from the sheer historical framework of Scorsese’s spiritual sociology. The design of the film is exquisite, from the gilded costumes of feudal Japan to the harmonious architecture of the dynamic dojo and seething peasant villages, garnishing Dante Ferreti (this is his 9th collaboration with Scorsese) a guaranteed Academy Award nomination. The colour palette is dominated with the frail and pale, the mist choked and mysterious in the opening sequences as slowly DP Rodergio Piasto infuses golds and flickering harbingers of light into compositions, as the Priests are tested and their religious odyssey requires a more frantic grip on their Jesuit faith. The camera movements are discreet, Scorsese’s usual inquisitive, darting minnow guidance through scenes shifting from POV to isolate specific sectors of interest, but there is no showboating here, there’s no Copacabana centrepiece, as Silence is a much more pious visual experience – although some of the landscapes are spectacular. In penitence to the title the soundtrack is also sparse and diagetic generated led, cloaking the auditorium with the chirping cacophony of the Japanese flora and fauna, enveloping all the senses in a pre-industrial Oriental Eden. Oh, and for you cult movie fans out there yes that is Shinya Tsukamoto – cybermind behind the Tetsuo pictures – who appears in a reasonably large part as one of the diligent and devoted faithful.
Can we elevate Scorsese to the other great spiritual seers in the vestry, alongside Bresson and Dreyer, Bergman and Malick? No, his faith follows the poverty of Pasolini, finding the struggle in the street among the dispossessed and depraved, although his style certainly apes the celestial. When his name is uttered the first thoughts are usually of the machismo oozing urban malaise of New York, his energetic and fluid camerawork, all set to a rocking soundtrack of baby boomer classics. I’ve long linked his work to a quiet moral authority, they might be buried under the cinematic chutzpah of Wolf Of Wall Street or Goodfellas but without wasting my powder on my review of that masterpiece (with hopefully a special guest attended screening if I can get tickets) there is always quiet moral sermon underpinning his character odysseys, a search for asomatous nourishment and solace, although the conclusions remain intangible and as etherial as a wisp of smoke from a tabernacle candle. These enigmas are dropped in Silence which is more studious, slower paced and contemplative, whose maker is uncharacteristically wearing his heart on his sleeve. Despite its beauty and the dense theological and ethical debate it elevates this for me is where Silence comes unstuck. Usually Scorsese is too skilled and wise an artist to ever make his position so oblique, but questions of faith such as the priests insistence of their holy righteousness are dressed with a solemn endorsement. More problematically the dire consequences of the theocratic insurgency the Jesuits are fostering are explored but through the cinematic syntax it is clear where the sympathies ultimately lie. That was my reading of it and I don’t find that comfortable, although more pious souls may arrive at different conclusions. Still, like the best of ambitious, passion projects I’m sure these reactions could change or warp with age, Garfield is convincing as a man stretched to the absolute limits of his faith, and his climatic scenes are extremely powerful, dramatically and emotionally in the same category as Willem Dafoe in Last Temptation. I have to confess I have no intention of catching the film again at the cinema which should also speak volumes, as a major late period work by arguably the greatest American filmmaker of the past fifty years it of course remains essential viewing, even if Silence won’t be golden for everyone;
This year’s ambitious season started for me with a screening of Silence today which will take a few sleeps to digest, so I thought I’d kick things off with a lovely little montage. Plus, if I’m honest, I also wanted an excuse to post this astonishing list of all the films which are coming throughout 2017/18 which doesn’t uniquely dwell on Hollywood product, so we can all get jolly well excited for new material from Haneke, Armando Iannucci, Martel, two projects from Claire Denis, Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (I haven’t seen the last two yet!) and Mikke, Bigelow, Lanthimos, Del Toro, Aronofsky, Alfredson, Craig Bone Tomahawk Zahler, Malick, Lynne Ramsay, Alexander Payne (always wondered where he had got to), Audiard, Wenders, Soderbergh (wait a second, Soderbergh?), Korine, Alex Garland, Joachim Trier (although his recent English language film didn’t quite work), Duncan Jones Blade Runner inspired Mute, Martin McDonagh, Bong Joon-Hoo and maybe, just maybe, Carruth’s The Modern Ocean – and these are just the ones I’m specifically interested in as there is much. much more coming through. Those rumours of cinema’s imminent demise are a little premature if you ask me, and I think Marty would be proud;
There are also rumours floating around today of a Twin Peaks preview at Sundance at the end of the month. Anyway, back to the subject at hand, as it somehow seems apt to begin our story in New York, where Scorsese was born in 1942. What’s that? Oh go on then, let’s take a little more of an academic look at a specific scene in the canon, which should help set the context for whom we are dealing with over the next couple of months;