“Scarface” (1983)

December 31, 2008 at 5:38 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Roger Ebert)

Roger Ebert’s Chicago Sun-Times review from Dec. 9, 1983…

The interesting thing is the way Tony Montana stays in the memory, taking on the dimensions of a real, tortured person. Most thrillers use interchangeable characters, and most gangster movies are more interested in action than personality, but Scarface is one of those special movies, like The Godfather, that is willing to take a flawed, evil man and allow him to be human. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Montana is played by Al Pacino, the same actor who played Michael Corleone.
Montana is a punk from Cuba. The opening scene of the movie informs us that when Cuban refugees were allowed to come to America in 1981, Fidel Castro had his own little private revenge — and cleaned out his prison cells, sending us criminals along with his weary and huddled masses. We see Montana trying to bluff his way through an interrogation by US federal agents, and that’s basically what he’ll do for the whole movie: bluff. He has no real character and no real courage, although for a short time cocaine gives him the illusion of both.
Scarface takes its title from the 1932 Howard Hawks movie, which was inspired by the career of Al Capone. That Hawks film was the most violent gangster film of its time, and this 1983 film by Brian DePalma also has been surrounded by a controversy over its violence, but in both movies the violence grows out of the lives of the characters; it isn’t used for thrills but for a sort of harrowing lesson about self-destruction. Both movies are about the rise and fall of a gangster, and they both make much of the hero’s neurotic obsession with his sister, but the 1983 Scarface isn’t a remake, and it owes more to The Godfather than to Hawks.
That’s because it sees its criminal so clearly as a person with a popular product to sell, working in a society that wants to buy. In the old days it was booze. For the Corleones, it was gambling and prostitution. Now it’s cocaine. The message for the dealer remains the same: Only a fool gets hooked on his own goods. For Tony Montana, the choices seem simple at first. He can work hard, be honest and make a humble wage as a dishwasher. Or he can work for organized crime, make himself more vicious than his competitors and get the big cars, the beautiful women and the boot-licking attention from nightclub doormen. He doesn’t wash many dishes.
As Montana works his way into the south Florida illegal drug trade, the movie observes him with almost anthropological detachment. This isn’t one of those movies where the characters all come with labels attached (“boss,” “lieutenant,” “hit man”) and behave exactly as we expect them to. DePalma and his writer, Oliver Stone, have created a gallery of specific individuals, and one of the fascinations of the movie is that we aren’t watching crime-movie clichés, we’re watching people who are criminals.
Al Pacino
does not make Montana into a sympathetic character, but he does make him into somebody we can identify with, in a horrified way, if only because of his perfectly understandable motivations. Wouldn’t we all like to be rich and powerful, have desirable sex partners, live in a mansion, be catered to by faithful servants — and hardly have to work? Well, yeah, now that you mention it. Dealing drugs offers the possibility of such a lifestyle, but it also involves selling your soul.
Montana gets it all and he loses it all. That’s predictable. What is original about this movie is the attention it gives to how little Montana enjoys it while he has it. Two scenes are truly pathetic; in one of them, he sits in a nightclub with his blond mistress and his faithful sidekick, and he’s so wiped out on cocaine that the only emotions he can really feel are impatience and boredom. In the other one, trying for a desperate transfusion of energy, he plunges his face into a pile of cocaine and inhales as if he were a drowning man.
Scarface understands this criminal personality, with its links between laziness and ruthlessness, grandiosity and low self-esteem, pipe dreams and a chronic inability to be happy. It’s also an exciting crime picture, in the tradition of the 1932 movie. And, like the Godfather movies, it’s a gallery of wonderful supporting performances: Steven Bauer as a sidekick, Michelle Pfeiffer as a woman whose need for drugs leads her from one wrong lover to another, Robert Loggia as a mob boss who isn’t quite vicious enough, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Pacino’s kid sister who wants the right to self-destruct in the manner of her own choosing.
These are the people Tony Montana deserves in his life, and Scarface is a wonderful portrait of a real louse.

 

Roger Ebert

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The J. Geils Band – “The Morning After” (1971)

December 31, 2008 at 5:22 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Lenny Kaye review for Rolling Stone (issue #95), Nov. 11, 1971… 

 

Call ’em the best new band of 1971, if you will, ’cause that’s what they are, and here’s the goods to prove it: The Morning After, a recollection of the sort of things that went down the Night Before, a hard-core dose from the College of Musical Knowledge that comes on like rifle fire on a hot summer night.

Sound like a bit much? Well, maybe. But ever since they began to move out of their local Boston environs in January of this year, the J. Geils Band have provided evidence to the fact that shake-your-ass music is not about to be swept under the rug by the heavy metal kids or the gentle singers of song. In their cross-country live performances, including an epic stand at an otherwise-moribund Fillmore East closing that neatly showed the way for everyone else on the bill, and with their fine debut album, they’ve displayed a musical acumen that most groups never reach; and like it might have always been hoped for, in some rock & roll dreamland, it looks like it’s only the beginning for New England’s finest.

Live, this is all easy to explain. Caught in a time-warp where most bands have given up their melodramatics to concentrate on music, the six man J. Geils Band have set their minds to the construct of a Show, with lots of visual action to please the eyes while the ears are in motion. Peter Wolf, moving around the stage like some Bronx-bred version of Rasputin, spouting out catch-words that punctuate the set’s momentum, might well be the finest up-front performer to come down the pike since Iggy hisself, and Wolf’s control, his ability to sense out an audience situation and proceed from there, could truly provide a manic textbook for any and all who might want to create the same kind of mayhems. The Band (fronted by J. Geils’ Gangster of Love guitar) shovels support under him, with a rhythm section that pushes just that extra inch harder, with nobody taking any more than the song says they should. Add a knack for choosing semi-obscure gems of rhythm ‘n’ blues to provide their material, a pile of terse arrangements that keep building to all ends of the dynamics scale, some well-done (if at times a little obvious) originals, and a collective personality that’s in the best American Tradition (y’all have read Iceberg Slim, haven’t you?), then it’s not hard to see how the combination could keep getting better and better.

But it does, and although The Morning After strikes me as being just a shade less impressive than their first effort (due to a slight material problem), there’s no sign of any stopping. If you put this record on at just a hair more than halfway volume on a good set, stand back a little and let the opening traditionals of “I Don’t Need You No More” strike you full in the gut, there’s no way you’re going to keep yourself from being knocked across the room. No joke: I tried it and before you could say “Let’s get cra--zy baby!” I was flat up against the wall, just like friend Larry the first time he shot speed and really got off. It kills, yes indeed, but then they say you only live once.

Things begin to ease back to normal on the second cut, which is a Magic Dick harp solo called “Whammer Jammer.” He provides a golden set of minutes, as you might expect from one of the finest harmonica players in the business today, coupled with a precision and tone that hardly has an equal. But this is just Dick alone, the most pointedly blues-oriented (except for possibly J. himself) in the group, and to really tell the shape of the Geils band, you have to move into the next cut, Dyke and the Blazers’ “So Sharp.” It’s not a particularly incandescent song in this good of an album it has little choice but to come off as a filler but its value lies more in telling where the true heart of the group lies, which is to say in early and mid-Sixties rhythm and blues, a time just before the slick explosion hit soul and just after the music had moved from the older forms of the Fifties (the Contours’ “First I Look At The Purse” from their debut album is a good example). And here, with a verse structure firmly reminiscent of Dyke’s “Funky Broadway” and a great guitar hook from J., they do it to a nice ripe turn. They dedicate their performance to the memory of that great artist.

To further drive this point home, they turn next to Don Covay, and a lovely tune called “The Usual Place,” embellishing it with some of Seth Justman’s swelling organ washes and a vocal (and even group) performance that brings back the early Rolling Stones with a Seventies vengeance. This isn’t really to be taken as anything unusual, since it’s apparent that both the Stones and the Geils Band listened and learned from the same set of masters, the only difference being that a long lop of years (and environments) have separated their perspectives. In fact, the only surprising thing is that there haven’t been more bands working in this area, combining the straight-ahead drive of rock & roll with a strong sense of rhythms and blues.

By the time you wind up at the end of the first side, at the opening bars of “Gotta Have Your Love,” you’ve been sufficiently warmed up and now the time has come: the thing opens innocently enough, chugging through a couple of verses and choruses. Then, from out of nowhere, they break into a rhythmically syncopated series of stops and starts that never misses a heartbeat, straight out of the James Brown pulse. Geils steps in, gives you a taste of some of the guitar prowess he’s held in check for most of the record, and then Justman pianos it out to the fade. It sounds simple, but be guaranteed that this is the real stuff; if it don’t start you shaking just the least little bit, you might as well turn yourself in at the morgue.

“Looking For A Love,” second in the “Love” trilogy that ties together sides one and two, picks up the pace from there and throws it skyward about twelve notches or so. If Atlantic wants it, here’s their single from the album, with a chorus line that hums right into your cerebellum and a driving performance that will probably bust places right open when it’s sent out live. Peter Wolf delivers a scream toward the end that makes you wonder if there was a full moon on the night of the session, and the fade is such that you might wish it had continued on another few days or so. A motherfucker, plain and simple.

“Gonna Find Me A New Love” solidifies the new level they’ve moved the album to, a great bluesy rocker which they keep as simple and straight-forward as possible. “Cry One More Time” is a bit too close for comfort in its resemblance to the first album’s “On Borrowed Time.” However, it stands on its own as a fine piece of work.

“Floyd’s Hotel,” despite its amazing set of lyrics and a great performance, also suffers from this problem. It might just be the archetypal style it’s worked up from, but a listen to it always takes me back to “Cruisin’ For a Love,” a personal favorite from their first release, and from there, its differences aren’t as noticeable as its similarities. This isn’t too much of a problem at the current point, where the Geils Band is still young enough for it to be taken under the general heading of Style, though it might be worth considering when it gets to track-layin’ time again.

But for now, let’s take it out with “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s How You Do It).” a tribal stomp of a piece that provides the perfect encore for this album. Everybody gets a chance to show their stuff here (except for bassist Danny Klein, whose role it is to ferry the ship off the ground), and the form is just fine and dandy. Wolf babbles encouragement, Justman plays himself into circles, Geils slinks around all of them, and Steven Bladd (my choice for the most solid drummer this side of Pretty Purdie) keeps ’em all healthily in time. The title tells the whole story, both for the cut and the album, just the way it’s always been since the little bastard child of rock & roll first stuck its head up and said that there ain’t no good but the better.

This here’s the better. Slowly growing into the best. 

Lenny Kaye

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Alastair Pirrie – “Cohen Regrets” (1973)

December 30, 2008 at 4:16 pm (Leonard Cohen, Reviews & Articles)

Written for the New Musical Express, March 10, 1973…

 

Leonard Cohen, Grand Master of Melancholia, slipped quietly in and out of London last month – even CBS, his record company, had difficulty tracking him down – and left behind his intention to quit with the music business.

 

As displayed in his albums, Cohen is a man of many moods – and CBS, at least, are taking his announcement with a cool attitude of wait and see.

 

CBS Press officer Lon Goddard confirms that Cohen was depressed by the state of the music business on his return to Canada. “But,” he adds, “I don’t think it’s going to last. When he’s rested for a month or so, he’ll be back.”

 

Meanwhile, a new Cohen album, completed during his British visit; is expected shortly.

Alistair Pirrie spoke to Leonard Cohen for NME.

 

If Leonard Cohen sticks to his announced decision to quit the music business; it will come as no surprise to those who know him well.

Among friends, he would often claim that he hated the business of selling his songs to people, and he hated the society that made this necessary.

One night recently he told me why he wanted to quit. “I’m no longer a free man; I’m an exploited man. Once, long ago, my songs were not sold; they found their way to people anyway.

“Then people saw that profit could be made from them; then the profit interested me also. I have to fight too many people on too many levels to have to fight about money as well.”

He paused and took a sip of his wine. “There is much to regret in the system of placing songs at the disposal of others.

“Now the record companies pressure me to force my songs because the stores want them to sell. I will not force my songs for them.”

Cohen was born 35 years ago in Montreal, Canada. He started off his career studying arts at McGill University though later, interested in business, he switched to commerce.

Later still he tried law at Columbia University in New York and, on leaving, took a job in the family clothing factory.

He had started writing at the age of 14 – mostly prayers and poems to get women. Not long after he started in the family business, his first book of poems was published, and any plans he had to run the factory were forgotten.

At the end of the fifties Cohen took off with a woman called Marianne and lived in virtual isolation on the Greek island of Hydra for nearly eight years.

When he left, he suffered a nervous breakdown and it was soon after this that he started putting his poetry to music.

He says that he has no concept of religion in his life but, strangely enough, he sings a song about Joan of Arc on his last LP Songs of Love and Hate.

“It was a strange song indeed; it was out of myself and contained the notion of reverence. When I recorded that song I will admit to having a strong religious feeling. I don’t think it’ll happen again.”

 

Cohen is a dark, sad man, and, at times, his deep, dead-pan voice falters into a brooding silence.

He doesn’t like Lennon-type protest songs. “I don’t programme the songs I write,” he told me, “I just write what comes.

“If my passion was involved in those daily issues I would write about them. Anyway, I half feel that my songs do protest in their own way.

“I don’t have to have a song called ‘Give Peace a Chance’. I could write a song about conflict and, if I sang it in a peaceful way, then it would have the same message. I don’t like these slogan writers.”

All of his songs and poems are about people and situations which have come into his life.

“Suzanne” on his first LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen, is a description of a spent with a girl of that name. It really did happen, and she did feed him tea and oranges that came all the way from China.

Another of his songs from that same LP was written when he was in Alberta and met two girls in a cafe.

“I was alone,” he intoned gravely, “and I had nowhere to stay that evening. I went with them back to their room and we all slept together. When I awoke I wrote a song about them. I called it ‘Sisters of Mercy’.”

Although Cohen -was always dissatisfied with the record business, he didn’t feel he was working in a void which isolated him from new experiences.

“It’s been my experience that there is no situation which is artificial. There are responses which are artificial or untrue.

“But I mean, here we are sitting and drinking wine. You and I are together here. There is no room for a lie: we’re just two men sitting talking.”

 

If Cohen had to be remembered by only one of his songs, he would choose “Bird on a Wire.”

“The song is so important to me. It’s that one verse where I say that I swear by this song, and by all that I have done wrong, I’ll make it all up to thee.

“In that verse it’s a vow that I’ll try and redeem everything that’s gone wrong. I think I’ve made it too many times now, but l like to keep renewing it.”

Cohen became more and more dissatisfied with each LP he produced, culminating in almost dejection over his last record Songs of’ Love and Hate.

“I suppose you could call it gimmicky if you were feeling uncharitable towards me. I have certainly felt uncharitable towards me from time to time over that record, and regretted many things. It was over-produced and over elaborated… an experiment that failed.”

During my last conversation with him, Cohen had changed. He smoked my cigarettes almost continuously and appeared much more withdrawn, answering questions vaguely and lapsing into silences much more frequently.

In his song “Bird on a Wire” there is a line in which he says “I have tried in my way to be free”.  Perhaps he feels that this latest move will mean a new chance for him to be free. I think for a man as self-explorative as Leonard Cohen, freedom is a great deal further away.

Alastair Pirrie

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Die Rattles – “The Witch” (1970)

December 30, 2008 at 10:38 am (Krautrock, Music, Psychedelia)

This psychedelic offering from Germany’s Die Rattles (The Rattles) was originally recorded in 1968 and was a hit in their homeland. This re-recording from 1970 surprisingly made it to the charts in America. They were in fact, the first German band to make the American charts.  The song itself sold over a million copies worldwide.  
They also had a number of other hits in Germany during the mid-60s. 
This pre-Kosmische band was actually where Achim Reichel (who eventually formed A.R. & Machines) started out.  

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“Raging Bull” (1980)

December 29, 2008 at 6:05 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Gene Siskel’s review from the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 19, 1980…

 

After seeing Raging Bull in New York three weeks ago, I wrote that it is one of the best American films of the year, a superb creation of the finest acting-directing team in the United States, Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese.
Since, friends who have seen the picture came away admiring it but pointing out some flaws. The major objection seems to be that the film, which tells the story of brutish ’40s boxer Jake La Motta, doesn’t have a clean, straight-forward narrative line. (It’s a problem that has been noted in the other four Scorsese-De Niro films, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York)
Even granting this objection  which I’m not quick to do
Raging Bull still stands as a superior achievement of film and acting art. Frankly, in 1980 you could take most Hollywood films and throw them in a blender and it wouldn’t make that much difference how you reassembled them. Safe and boring describes most Hollywood products, with major stars selling their artistic souls in the name of sequels and big-budget action.
What Raging Bull does so well is venture into the dark side of the human animal, in this case, the animal that was La Motta, the onetime middleweight champion who has admitted throwing a championship fight and who, in his private life, was a bullying louse to his first and second wives.
Raging Bull is a portrait of an animal, and it undoubtedly will be too violent, too dark, too ugly for many moviegoers, who can take revenge into the lighter side of human nature in Nine to Five and Seems Like Old Times.
But if you like a movie down-and-dirty, Raging Bull is it. Filmed in black-and white, and shockingly well acted by De Niro, Raging Bull suggests that if you are looking for the source of evil in the world, you don’t have to look any further than yourself. It’s inside you or it isn’t. And it comes out or it doesn’t.
With Jake La Motta, according to Scorsese and his screenwriters, it came out a lot. De Niro’s La Motta is a paranoid bully, who drops his first wife like a hot rock after spotting a blond teen-age vision in a white bathing suit (newcomer Cathy Moriarty in a sizzling screen debut) at a neighborhood Bronx swimming pool.
De Niro’s sexy pickup scene with Moriarty-one of the most supercharged scenes in the movie-is filled with the same kind of focused energy that De Niro exhibited when he picked up another young blond woman-in-white (Cybill Shepherd) in Taxi Driver.
After the pickup scene, Raging Bull moves along two tracks, as De Niro battles his opponents and mobsters in the ring and his new young wife at home.

Occasionally the two worlds come together. Paranoid about his wife flirting with other men, De Niro punishes her after she makes a chance remark about one of his opponents as having a pretty face. That remark results in a freeze on the homefront and De Niro’s crushing his pretty-face opponent in the ring.
Much of what is on the screen is true. La Motta himself has admitted that, saying that he was a louse then. (Of course, he has a financial interest in praising the movie – 3 percent of the net profits.)
While watching De Niro exploding at his wife and manager-brother (Joe Pesci), your thoughts may wander to the large number of home disturbances and family gunshot victims that regularly occur during the year and seem to increase during the holiday season.
De Niro as La Motta regularly explodes into the kind of fit that nowadays typically results in someone getting shot. At one point in the film he bashes his head against a wall, crying out, “I’m not that bad. I’m not that bad.” But, frankly, we can’t agree. De Niro as La Motta is an animal.
Raging Bull has been beautifully filmed by Scorsese, again working with his Taxi Driver cameraman Michael Chapman. The film’s boxing scenes are striking dramatizations of La Motta’s ’40s fights, and the impact is greater than documentary footage would have been.
The savage ferocity of boxing never has been better depicted in a fight film. At one point, Chapman’s camera seemingly falls to the canvas along with one of La Motta’s opponents.
De Niro has to be the odds-on favorite to win the Academy Award as best actor, which will cap an already extraordinary career for the 37-year-old star.
Much has been made of his gaining 55 pounds during the production to capture La Motta’s physical deterioration. The guess is here, however, than even without the weight gain-which is shocking on film-De Niro would have been able to communicate what La M
otta was going through. There doesn’t seem to be an emotion that De Niro can’t handle. De Niro would. Young actors ought to be studying him the way actors in the 50’s and 60’s studied Marlon Brando.
The film’s supporting cast is equally distinguished, which is a tribute to Scorsese’s ability to cast well and allow talent to grow. Moriarty is a true discovery, and Pesci is equal to De Niro in every scene they have together.
Together with Scorsese and Chapman providing a close, musky, black-and-white environment, De Niro, Moriarty, and Pesci create a world in which violence can explode at any moment. Which, come to think of it, is the world of today.

Gene Siskel

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“Manhattan” (1979)

December 29, 2008 at 4:25 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Roger Ebert, Woody Allen)

Review by Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1979 (not sure of exact date), this is probaby Woody Allen’s masterpiece, in my mind… 

 

The overture is filled with brash confidence: Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” played over powerful black-and-white visions of Manhattan and its skyline, and the mighty bridges leaping out to it from the provinces. The voice is filled with uncertainty and hesitation: “Chapter One. …”
The voice is Woody Allen‘s, of course, and we find ourselves laughing — actually laughing already — on the words “Chapter One,” because the Allen character is so firmly established in our imaginations that we supply the rest of the joke ourselves. “Chapter One,” yes, but Woody’s the definitive vulnerable artist with giant dreams, and so of course he begins with confidence but will be mired in self-doubt long, long before “Chapter Two.”
A great deal of the success of Allen’s Manhattan depends on how well he has established that Woody persona. Because we believe we know him (or the character he plays), we supply additional dimensions to the situations on the screen. A movie that might seem sketchily fleshed-out in other hands becomes a great deal more resonant in Allen’s: This is a variation on a familiar theme.
And the Gershwin is a masterstroke. Woody Allen populates his film with people who are at odds with their own visions of themselves. They’ve been so sold, indeed, on the necessity of seeming true and grave and ethical that even their affairs, their deceptions, have to be discussed in terms of “values” and “meanings” — the dialogue in this film was learned in psychoanalysis. Their rationalizations double back upon themselves, and then, clear as a bell on the sound track, there are the Gershwin songs. “S’Wonderful” and “Embraceable You” and “Sweet and Low Down” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” … written as if love were simple, for chrissakes, and you actually could “fall” in love when we all know it’s more a matter of pulling yourself up, hand over hand, out of a pit of snapping emotions. In Allen’s earlier films, middle-class society was usually the contrast to the Woody character’s hang-ups and fantasies. This time, brilliantly, he sets his entire story in a “real” world — and uses the music as the counterpoint. No wonder it’s deliberately loud and dominating; Gershwin is the second most important person in this film.
Allen’s humor has always been based on the contrast between his character (“Woody,” spectacled, anemic, a slob, incredibly bright and verbal, tortured by self-doubt) and his goals (writing a great novel, being like Bogart, winning the love of beautiful women). The fact that he thinks he can achieve his dreams (or that he pretends he thinks he can) makes him lovable. It is amazing, for example, how many women believe they are unique because they find Woody sexy.
What Allen does in Manhattan is to treat both the Woody character and the goals with more realism, and to deal with them in an urban social setting we can recognize. He was already doing this in Annie Hall, the comedy the critics said was “really” serious — as if comedy were not already serious enough. His earlier movies were made from farce, slapstick, stand-up verbal wit, satire, and the appeal of the Woody character. Annie Hall and Manhattan are made from his observations about the way we talk and behave, and the fearsome distances between what we say and what we mean, and how we behave and how we mean to behave.
The story follows several characters through several affairs. Woody himself is twice-divorced as the movie opens — most recently from a lesbian who is writing a book that will tell all about their marriage. He is having an affair with a seventeen-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway). His best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), is married and is having an affair with a girl he met at a party (Diane Keaton). But Murphy has doubts about the relationship, and so subtly tries to shift Keaton to Allen, who in the meantime thinks he wants to ditch the seventeen-year-old. Inevitably, Woody and Keaton begin to fall in love, and their courtship is photographed against magnificent Manhattan backdrops. And once this is all set up, of course, it goes topsy-turvy.
The relationships aren’t really the point of the movie: It’s more about what people say during relationships — or, to put it more bluntly, it’s about how people lie by technically telling the truth. Manhattan is one of the few movies that could survive a sound track of its dialogue; a lot of it, by Allen and Marshall Brickman, has the kind of convoluted intellectual cynicism of the early Nichols and May (and a lot of the rest of it consists of great one-liners).
Manhattan has been almost routinely praised by the New York critics as “better than Annie Hall.” I don’t think so. I think it goes wrong in the very things the New York critics like the most — when, in the last forty-five minutes or so, Allen does a subtle turn on his material and gets serious about it. I’m most disturbed by the final scene between Woody and Mariel Hemingway. It’s not really thought out; Allen hasn’t found the line between the irony the scene needs and the sentiment he wants his character to feel. The later scenes involving the Michael Murphy character are also not as good as the early ones; the character is seen correctly for humor, but hasn’t been developed completely enough to bear the burden of confession.
And yet this is a very good movie. Woody Allen is … Woody, sublimely. Diane Keaton gives us a fresh and nicely edged New York intellectual. And Mariel Hemingway deserves some kind of special award for what’s in some ways the most difficult role in the film. It wouldn’t do, you see, for the love scenes between Woody and Mariel to feel awkward or to hint at cradle-snatching or an unhealthy interest on Woody’s part in innocent young girls. But they don’t feel that way: Hemingway’s character has a certain grave intelligence, a quietly fierce pride, that, strangely enough, suggest that even at seventeen she’s one Woody should be thinking of during Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” 

Roger Ebert

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Erik Hinton – “Grotesque Neo-Realism: Discussing Martin Scorsese’s Confounding Style” (2007)

December 29, 2008 at 11:14 am (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Written on June 29, 2007 for the PopMatters website comes this discussion on legendary director Martin Scorsese…

 

When any eager genrephile, from a rank and file movie-goer to a film scholar, tries to pigeonhole a Martin Scorsese film into a neat category, their attempts are almost unilaterally frustrated. Testosterone-laden male youths view his works as action “flicks” replete with headshot gratification, the older set looks upon his oeuvre as a chain of endlessly amorphous dramas that exposes the underbelly of society, and the 21st century intelligentsia waves the banner of Lyotard and calls Scorsese a filmmaker deeply entrenched in the postmodern aesthetic.

However, I find that Scorsese’s work is too complex—indeed polysemy is the very core of Scorsese’s filmmaking—to be satisfactorily subsumed under such simplistic headings. I posit, as an alternative, that Scorsese’s cinema is an admixture of distinct renderings of each of his respective narratives: that of hyperrealism and that of neo-realism. Through a mosaic of simulacra, a hyperbole, a-canonical plot structure, and a salient omission of clear protagonist antagonist demarcations, Scorsese creates what a sort of “grotesque neo-realism”. The dualistic nature of this style is precisely what has allowed Marty, as he is affectionately referred to by fans, to sit astride the division between popular and art filmmaking, and endlessly confound viewers who try to reduce his work to a singularity.

Here I pause to address a possible concern with my terminology. Some may object that hyperreality is dissimilar to the grotesque. Sherwood Anderson defined the grotesque as people who devote their entire life to a single truth and, in doing so, become caricatures of themselves (Winesburg, Ohio). In this context, it becomes clear that the standard explication of a postmodern society, one in which the populace caricaturizes itself daily in parades of images bereft of signification, is strikingly similar to the canonical description of the grotesque. Truthfully, postmodern hyperreality appears to be a pandemic of the grotesque in which entire societies have repopulated themselves with Andersonian caricatures devoted to image. This is reflected in our proclivity for trends, celebrity, etc. Obsessed with the ‘truth’ of appearance, the hyperreal character is grotesque.

As my proposed classification for Scorsese’s work has two parts, I’ll examine each half individually. Fortunately, the way in which his style manifests itself is divided such that it parallels the split of the semantic dyad “grotesque neo-realism”. The hyperreality of the grotesque becomes visible through Scorsese’s mise en scène and the neo-real is most conspicuous in Scorsese’s narrative form. It should be noted that these characteristics are in no way limited to the vehicles through which they become salient. If either the grotesque or the neo-real were restricted to their respective methods of expression, Scorsese’s films would seem to be generic mash-ups or crude amalgamations of influences rather than the smoothly blended masterpieces with which audiences are familiar.

With regards to the former component of this stylistic conflation, Scorsese’s pervasive use of simulacra underpins his hyperreal constructions; Marty’s diegesis are populated by a wealth of disassociated signifiers. Religious icons and generic specific semantic elements serve to exemplify this simulated hyperreality, while Scorsese’s fixation on the media and pop culture addresses the phenomenon directly. In revolving his filmic universe around hollow valences (superficial levels of appearance), Scorsese elegaically addresses a society no longer capable of summoning meaning, trafficking only in appearances.

 

The characters of Mean Streets are amoral as best, motivated almost entirely by self-interest and works of redemption are foregone in favor of a causal chain of decay.

Despite the extensive usage of simulacra in the films, those of a religious nature have been afforded the greatest amount of study and concentration. This is a reasonable trend as the majority of Scorsese’s films are brimming with Catholic iconography, albeit completely severed from any normative Christian message. Scorsese’s 1973 Mean Streets marks the beginning of his fixation on the theological aesthetic. The households of the film are decorated with crucifixes, rosaries and portraits of Jesus. However, the most memorable instances of Christian imagery are Charlie’s (Harvey Keitel) repeated mortifications of the flesh, where he immolates the fingers of his hand in various flames from votive candles, gas ovens and the like. Mary Pat Kelly explains that this action is performed to “…remind himself that the fires of Hell burn with infinitely greater intensity” (Martin Scorsese: a Journey). Furthermore, Charlie is seen in constant communication with God, repeating ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’, or requesting divine signs, and using similar informal rhetorical apostrophe.

However, Scorsese makes it clear that religiosity is not to serve as the angel on Charlie’s shoulder, warring with the contradictory impetuses of Charlie’s life on the ‘mean’ streets. When Charlie prays he is not asking for moral amelioration; when he burns his hand he is not trying to better his spiritual constitution through strict penance. Rather, these practices have become ritualistic. He needs to remind himself of hellfire, not to rectify his ethical trajectory but to construct his character as someone who fears hellfire. As long as Charlie can achieve salvation of the signifier, he is saved in this world of simulacra. Instead of Catholicism morally elevating Charlie, it mollifies the demands of virtue. In this way, religion obtains an exchange value and in doing so is stripped of meaning. Were this not the case and if Charlie was legitimately wrestling with split demands on his person, we would observe fiercely visceral responses to religious elements. Instead, Charlie’s mortification is done coolly and his dialogue with God is taken in stride.

The gap between signifier and signified in Mean Streets, though, is much smaller than the divide present in Raging Bull (1980). Furthermore, Scorsese’s inclusion of Catholic iconography is commensurately more subtle. The audience is not presented with lofty theological discourses and characters with heads bowed and hands folded. Instead, Christian symbolism is carefully enmeshed with the scenery and cinematography. As Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) indulges in adultery with the buxom Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), Jake’s body is portrayed as that of a flogged Christ, complete with a wound which mirrors Jesus’ famed spear piercing. Their intimacy recalls the Stations of the Cross in which Christ’s lesions are kissed and eventually the couple is book-ended by portraits of Jesus and Mary. Later in the film, halo-effect lighting again changes a brutalized Jake into a Christ figure at the boxing-gloved hands of the satanically rendered Sugar Ray (Johnny Barnes). Finally, after Jake has been incarcerated, the camera hugs his figure as he mortifies his flesh, punching a cement jail cell wall until he can no longer bear the pain. 

Whereas in Mean Streets, Charlie possessed at least some conception of the religious underpinnings of his environment and actions, Jake LaMotta is completely blind to any theological concerns. Jake is significantly more morally bankrupt as well, beating his wife and brother, fostering a lascivious preoccupation with carnality, and verbally abusing nearly the entire cast of characters. However, beyond Jake’s conspicuous separation from the Christian symbolism which envelops his narrative, there is no character or act which may be seen to correspond with the iconography. The characters are amoral as best, motivated almost entirely by self-interest and works of redemption are foregone in favor of a causal chain of decay.

Rather than being a polarizing agent, Christian imagery serves to establish the diegesis as a conglomeration of appearances, mirroring Jake’s constitution: Jake tries to play the role of the tough guy, the smooth lover, and the championship boxer but rather than investing his essence in these pursuits he is content to merely appear to be each of these. Thus, Jake amasses the traits of these personas but it only ever appears as if he is acting from a script for each of the characters. In this way, the mosaic of Catholic simulacra parallels Jake’s superficial constitution. Disassociated symbols of religiosity become standards, marking Jake as an empty combination of appearances.

Although religious iconography is the most celebrated use of simulacra in Scorsese’s filmmaking, Marty often masterfully retexturizes elements of generic signification to create his hyperreal diegeses as well. The process by which this occurs is counterintuitive. Scorsese adapts a genre’s semantics as faithfully as possible and overlays them on the neo-realistic narrative form (to be discussed later). Separated from their traditional plot structures, these elements engender a sense of generic insincerity. This disconnect actively transforms these generic constituents into simulacra complementing the grotesque hyperreality.

 

Scorsese frequently steeps his films in blood, casually drawn at the barrel of any number of firearms (and occasionally blunt objects).

 

 

In Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese utilizes the classic components of gangster films: guns, police, larceny, a ‘godfather’ character, etc. However, he severs these elements from their usual context. Typically, gangster films chronicle the rise of a thug to the highest ranks of organized crime until he commits a misstep at which point he is usually killed. In Goodfellas, the ascent of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in status occupies less than a third of the plot, with the majority of the film detailing his painfully slow and consistent fall from glory. Furthermore, death does not provide the customary capstone to the film, with the ending portraying a safe relocation to a witness protection program. Genre depends on the dialectic synthesis of its semantic and syntactic elements to wholly functional as a recognizable genre. (It should be noted that the division of genre into semantic and syntactic components is an allusion to Rick Altman’s genre theory presented in his book Film/Genre.) Altman defines a genre’s semantics as the atomic signs of the genre such as its iconography and traditional stars. A genre’s syntax, on the other hand, is the genre’s recurring plots and themes. With only the appearance of a gangster film as a skin on a neo-realistic framework the conventions borrowed from such early genre standards as White Heat (1949), Scarface (1932), and the like are decried as vacuous and the diegesis becomes a grotesque simulation.

Such a technique is reprised in The Age of Innocence (1993) where the costume drama becomes the genre which has its imagery appropriated by the deft hand of Scorsese. The mise en scène of The Age of Innocence is as mimetic a citation as one can achieve, seamlessly employing ornate dresses, lavish interiors, and perfectly coifed hair to blend with the canon of films centered around ballrooms and aristocracy. The performances are plucked directly from a Visconti piece; Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer deliver highly affected and austere portrayals of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. However, just as in Goodfellas, this movie does not fit neatly into the category which it might initially appear to: the patrician period film. Instead, these components are divorced from the syntactic architecture to which they traditionally refer and left to float freely as generic simulacra. Missing from The Age of Innocence is the perspectival interiority necessary to maintain the diegesis of the costume drama.

Most other works in this vein (The Forsyte Saga, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) deal with problems within the upper-class social circle viewed from firmly within that circle. Problems must be solved in the manner which aristocratic tradition dictates; operating within this premise identifies pieces depicting this period. However, Newland and Ellen are both instantly posited out of the sphere looking in, desiring, on some level, to break away from their aristocratic lives. Thus, both act as outsiders transplanted into a world alien to their natures. Furthermore, the prevalent third party voice-over narration creates a level of dramatic irony which suspends the viewers outside of the world of the 19th century elites. The ubiquitous influence of Martin Scorsese becomes salient in this fashion and the costume drama is revealed as just another skin for the movies Scorsese has been making since his film career began. The artifacts of the genre, the valence of the genre itself, are bereft of generic signification and engendered is a sense of a diegesis that is virtual, that is hyperreal.

As referenced earlier, Scorsese approaches the hyperreality directly as well, focusing (particularly in his early films) on pop culture and media hegemony. Both of these forces are integral in defining a world without whole signification as pop culture digs up past signs and gives them new life as simulacra and the media raises questions of truth vis-à-vis its powers of legitimization. Scorsese’s 1983 The King of Comedy is the filmmaker’s pithy discourse on pop culture and, more specifically, the phenomenon of celebrity. Centering on a deranged admirer’s obsession with Jerry Langford (Jerry Lee Lewis), an immensely famous talk show host and comic, The King of Comedy traces the path of Rupert Pipkin (Robert DeNiro) from stalking Langford, to kidnapping him, to becoming famous as a result of his actions. In this way, the movie highlights the caprice of star/fan-dom and decries the construct of celebrity to be completely hollow. Furthermore, by painting our world as a mosaic of vacuous icons and admirers, Scorsese suggests that the modern landscape is ridden by a geography of empty images.

Scorsese’s conceptualization of the news media reinforces this picture of the modern (or rather post-modern) world. In Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese demonstrates the ability of the media to transform Travis Bickle’s (DeNiro) cold-blooded homicide into a sterling example of vigilante justice. In doing so, the audience is confronted with the tenuous identity of truth—if media controls the truth, then is objectivity a fallacy—and Taxi Driver becomes a filmic translation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition. By undermining reality in this fashion Scorsese grandstands the fraying connections, governed by truth, between images and that to which they refer; if the world is governed by subjectivity, architectures of signification must be equally variable.

However, were Scorsese to content himself with creating hyperreality in this way alone, his films would become overly scholastic, post-modern experiments targeting fans of Baudrillard and his ilk. Needless to say, this audience would not be a large one. However, Scorsese’s brilliance lies in his ability to wield high-brow filmic discourse with an appeal to the average viewer. Furthermore, his schema is actually complemented by this appeal. The main device Scorsese uses for this effect is hyperbole. As exaggeration in the form of caricature is the primary element of the grotesque, such an element may be sewn nicely into Scorsese’s hyperreal tapestry.

Scorsese’s prime medium for this exaggerated filmmaking is violence. Often maligned that his diegeses turn into abattoirs, Scorsese frequently steeps his films in blood, casually drawn at the barrel of any number of firearms (and occasionally blunt objects). I find error not with this assessment of Scorsese’s films but rather with the argument that this violence is merely exploitative. The penultimate scene in Taxi Driver portrays Travis Bickle ensanguine a tenement staircase, unloading a surplus of ammunition in the pimp Sport, his doorman, and a client patronizing the prostitute played by Jodie Foster. In the melee, Travis too is wounded in the neck, further contributing to Scorsese’s bloodied canvas. It is not enough that a multitude of casualties are incurred. Scorsese makes his characters painfully hard to kill and concentrates his camera on the grisly repeated mangling of the bodies by a hail of bullets. Once the police finally arrive, viewers are treated to a bird’s-eye tracking shot which surveys the excessive carnage.

Such displays are reprised in Goodfellas, Casino, and Gangs of New York (to name only a very small portion of Scorsese’s violent oeuvre). Perhaps the most salient exhibition of brutality occurs in Casino as the audience watches Joe Pesci and his character’s brother first bludgeoned with baseball bats and then buried alive. Contrary to popular belief, this overkill is not gratuitous. Rather the hyperbolic character of Scorsese’s violence functions to caricaturize his diegeses, branding them with a stigma of virtuality. As the grotesque comes to light and pathos is frustrated by unsympathetic characterization, violence is rent from any signified material. Bloodshed becomes merely the crimson material from which Scorsese erects his hyperreal arena of action.

 

When repeated 398 times, “fuck” loses its meaning.

 

In concert with violence, Scorsese wields foul language rather fluidly. To this day, Casino boasts the third most occurrences of the word “fuck” in movie history (398 instances to be exact). Goodfellas is ninth with 300 f-words and The Departed lags at 23rd with a scant 237 occurrences (FMG). Sources, including flustered mothers and bible-belt critics, slander Scorsese’s profanity as unwarranted, and guilty of mottling otherwise strong scripts with irredeemable obscenity. To be fair, Scorsese is not his own screenwriter and he cannot be given complete credit for the verbal crassness which punctuates his movies. However, the consistency (and my admitted inclination towards an auteurist schema) with which his films feature foul language suggests Scorsese has some hand in the profanity. Furthermore, Scorsese need not have his stamp on every aspect of his film to discuss these elements in the context of his body of work.

Foul words operate in much the same way as violence. In the needlessness of its excess it counter-intuitively becomes purposeful. Verbal obscenity elevates language to the same grotesque plateau as violence does the mise en scène. In doing so, speech is deconstructed, broken down into atoms which mean essentially nothing. When repeated 398 times, “fuck” loses any meaning (its denotation innately tenuous) in much the same way as a child repeats a word ad nauseum until it begins to sound like nonsense. Scorsese’s profane semantics confront phallogocentrism and liberate the word as merely an utterance. This is not to say both obscenity and violence are afforded some generous apportionment of objective legitimacy. Rather, both are cast into a post-modern morass of universal subjectivity. Language has lost is communicative function and is merely an expression of obscenity in Scorsese’s hyperreality.
The performances of Scorsese’s actors, the agents wielding violence and dirty language, are commensurately hyperbolic. DeNiro’s portrayals of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver come across as thinly disguised spasmodism. Johnny Boy skitters across rooftops and fire escapes while wildly gesticulating and Travis Bickle’s acrobatic rehearsal of his assassination is a long-winded, elliptically-edited paroxysm. Joe Pesci, as well, is absolutely larger than life, perennially incoherent and prone to violent outbursts. In Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) launches into a relentless harangue—albeit eventually for humor’s sake—after he is refered to as ‘funny’. Later, he discharges his firearm into the torso of a youth who he feels has slighted him and cattily denies he has done anything wrong.

A true taxonomy of every outrageous performance in a Martin Scorsese piece would rival the length of the combined credits of his oeuvre. Directing actors to play their characters in this manner, Scorsese’s players become archetypal grotesques. His figures play parodies of themselves and their baroque identities flesh out his diegeses as hyperreal. For virtuality to be fully constructed, it is insufficient for the world alone to be markedly simulated. The characters must be as well. In this way, Scorsese points his discursive finger at his viewers and safe-guards his schema from being misinterpreted as reifying the world as hyperreal. Rather, Scorsese shows his manifold of simulacra to be progeny of the figures which people his diegeses.
Here we will break from the topic of the grotesque and advance to that of the neo-real. This latter component rescues Scorsese’s films from the threat of absurdism and masterfully transfigures his exaggerated worlds into ones which viewers may relate to. This is not to say that Scorsese’s wielding of neo-realism immerses the audience in the diegesis and welds their humors to the sentiment of the film; spectators are rarely emotionally attached to Scorsese’s works. Rather, viewers are safely distanced from empathy by characters who are boors at best and alien environments such as the world of taxi drivers and aristocratic 19th century New York. However, the true faculty of Scorsese’s neo-realism is to ground his otherwise baroque narratives in some semblance of humanity. This serves as the bridge between the hyperreal and the everyday experience of members of the audience. As imitation of their reality, the neo-real aspect suggests that perhaps the hyperreal (with which it is conflated) is also a mirror of the viewers’ world.

The neorealist ethic is simple: focus on melancholy aspects of lower class life and present reality in a verisimilar fashion by shedding the literary conventions of canonical plot and predominance of narrative advancement. ‘Real’ life is often not glamorous, with most existences revolving not around an ascent to a climax but rather a steady repetition of everyday events, and the average action is perfunctory, not profoundly causal. Scorsese was strongly influenced by this tradition and borrows heavily from it, his predilection for neorealist cinema expressed in his 1999 Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy).

It at first seems counterintuitive to assert that Scorsese’s work fits into the neorealist aesthetic, his films often centering on wealth, not poverty (see Casino, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun). To this objection, I offer two replies. Firstly, while there may be a handful of Scorsesean casts placed in the social strata of affluence, the average Scorsese film does, indeed, train its camera on moderately impoverished (both financially and spiritually) individuals. The beginning of Marty’s career is marked by a ubiquitous concentration on the lower ranks of society. The eponymous protagonist of Boxcar Bertha (1972) is a homeless train robber and fugitive, while Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) chronicles the plight of widowed Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her child as they struggle to survive on the low income earned in waitress and bar jobs, and Taxi Driver (1976) features Travis Bickle who subsists in a world of tenements, filthy taxis, and junk food. Secondly, although the characters generally become more well-to-do as their careers progress, I argue that gangsters, despite any wealth they have acquired, are immutably mired in the ‘groundling’ aspect of society. Any money stolen, coerced, or otherwise illicitly gained is merely gilding on indisputably canaille ranks, as evidenced by their crude sensibilities and unrefined speech and behaviors.

Scorsese’s humanist trend toward the masses is further revealed through his refutation of Nietzschean individualism. There is not a single character in Scorsese’s entire oeuvre that can be said to be exceptional; rather his leading figures appear to be merely manifestations of the particular permutation of pedestrian attributes which Scorsese has chosen to highlight. Even Scorsese’s Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ of 1988) is common. This Christ (Willem Dafoe) is not the radiant avatar of iron-clad faith as he is traditionally depicted. Rather, he is often ill-tempered, dirty and haggard, and gives into Satan’s temptation until the very last moment of his life. It may be objected that Travis Bickle is an exception to this rule, a mohawked, perverse superman. However, I find this claim to be substantiated only superficially. Although his training and equipping of weaponry does recall the armament of a comic book protagonist, one must examine the results of this spectacle. He not only completely fails at an assassination attempt on Senator Charles Palantine but the dénouement of his preparation is anything but awe-inspiring. He shoots a surprised pimp (failing to kill him) and guns down an older, overweight doorman (who he again fails to kill for several minutes). The cleanest kill of Travis’ rampage is the nonplused man patronizing Jodie Foster’s character’s services. This vigilante spree is not only shoddily executed but the righteousness of his motives are tenuous at best. These are not the marking of an übermensch as the apotheosizing media within the film would have you believe. Travis is a painfully regular individual whose fragile mental constitution drives him to sloppy homicide.

Taxi Driver highlights what may be termed a neorealist morality, a prevalent aspect of Scorsese’s work. The demarcation between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist is blurred beyond all recognition—interestingly much of postmodern cultural output shares this characteristic. Without grand narratives of good and evil, we have no meter by which to measure our actions. Neorealism in its devotion to truth argues that in everyday life the binary opposition between right and wrong is much more obscure than popular cinema would have one believe. Thus, Scorsese’s films do not have heroes and villains but take cues from such Italian cinema classics as Rome, Open City (1945) and Umberto D. (1952), populating the world with characters whose motives vacillate from acceptable to ignoble. It bears noting that saying that Scorsese’s oeuvre is somewhat devoid of heroes does not mean it is devoid of protagonists.

While the two terms are similar, a ‘protagonist’ embodies the central character, who is the main focal point of a piece; a hero must in some way be sympathized with or rooted for. Furthermore, whereas directors often use the point of view of the camera to identify the audience with the protagonist, Scorsese’s films utilize the camera’s point of view for means of investigation, plumbing the psychological depths of the individual whose perspective the audience is imparted. Jake LaMotta is not the hero of Raging Bull, he is the phenomenological vehicle of analysis. Although the camera focuses on LaMotta, his utterly unsympathetic characterization as a jealous, violent womanizer forces the audience to connect, instead, with the constellation of persons mistreated by him. Jake is viewed as a choleric test subject who Scorsese attempts to dissect with a camera which encircles his figure. Often Scorsese’s lens lingers on fragments of LaMotta’s form—a muscle, an expression, a wound—taking the man apart with its attention to detail.

Most of Scorsese’s films avoid a strict hero-villain bifurcation by simply not including an antagonist. This cast construction is a staple of neorealism; one need only to look at the hallmark neorealist film, The Bicycle Thief (1948). The film’s succinct message is that in times of poverty everyone steals to survive. Thus, protagonist versus antagonist is not an ossified relationship but rather the reciprocal nature of the everyman under the weight of financial depression. Goodfellas has some characters more morally bankrupt than others (Tommy DeVito, for example) but there are no actual villains. The lead, Henry Hill, has moments of virtue such as when he, as a boy, bandages a bleeding gunshot victim. However, the overwhelming laundry list of felonies in which he engages in his adult life exposes man’s morality to be inconstant. This film’s concern is not to uplift its audience by engaging them in a diegesis in which issues are black and white and by allowing them to champion the clear-cut hero. Goodfellas rather endeavors to explore the social architecture which spawns the mob and makes their protracted existence viable. Humanism vis-à-vis neorealism is not used as a glossing agent but as an archaeological one, uncovering hidden social substructures.

While a metaphysics of morality is an important concern of neorealism, its most salient characteristic is its formal replication of daily existence. Although typically accomplished through dead intervals (which do have some presence in Scorsese’s body of cinema), Marty prefers to achieve filmic credibility through narrative form. Scorsese’s works combat climacticentricism, the practice of orienting plot around one moment of intense conflict preceded by ascending stories and followed by falling action. The model which Scorsese adopts commences with a brief rise (although sometimes this stage is skipped), usually a main character’s waxing celebrity, succeeded by the majority of the film detailing that figure’s gradual self-destruction or fall from glory. To recourse to geometrical analogy, without a climax the slope of the plot’s trajectory is much smaller than the canonical narrative retarding the film’s pacing. This creates a subtle effect of dead interval further generating the neorealistic milieu.

Although the beginning of Scorsese’s career hints at such patterning, Raging Bull is the first instance of neorealistic formal maturity (which continues most similarly in The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, and Casino). Furthermore, the boxing epic is a warhorse of cinema, the regularity of its structure making Raging Bull easy to analyze through the manner in which it departs from the usual fare. Typically, these texts begin with a nobody fighter who trains incessantly until he get a shot at fame on which he capitalizes. This slingshots the boxer to glory. However, such a plot is entirely fantastic and divorced from a reality which dictates that the individual is rarely, if ever, subject to such peripety. Raging Bull, though, does not turn the traditional plot on its head, rather it makes subtle adjustments to the canonical plot by stretching out the falling action.

The reverberations of this minor change push the film out of the classic action flick genre and into neorealistic territory. LaMotta does receive his break and he does become the middleweight world champion. The fight which wins him this celebrity only receives a very small portion of film time and his achievement is tinted with failure from the beginning as LaMotta laments that “his small hand” prevents him from ever contending for the heavyweight title. Additionally, a large part of the movie is dedicated to watching LaMotta’s defeat and loss of the championship belt and his ensuing corpulent weight gain and eventual incarceration. This mournful epilogue (which comprises roughly an hour of screen time) and the relatively minute amount of film spent on his success robs his championship victory of climactic status and transfigures the film from one about a world-class boxer to one about the universal flaws of man. Such is the schema of neorealist filmmaking: underlining the common denominator.

 

The Hyper-real and the Neo-real

 

With both halves of Scorsese’s style fleshed out, it becomes necessary to turn our attention to the conjunction of his style, how the grotesque operates in concert with the neo-real. As posited previously, if these qualities were discrete and not blended, Scorsese’s style would seem fragmented and his films would be mired in formal ambivalence. Scorsese, though, avoids such a condition through his realization of the innate interconnectivity between the hyperreal and the neo-real. Scorsese brandishes the deconstructive character of the grotesque but repurposes it. Whereas traditionally such postmodern devices are used to strip away appearances and expose absolute nothingness beneath, Scorsese peels back the shroud to reveal a nothingness underscored by the universality of the human condition.

Instead of mere posturing or bemoaning the farcical parade of signifiers in our society, Scorsese entertains the hyperreal to show that our systems of religion, reputation, capitalism, etc. are empty placeboes to pacify participants. By exposing these orders as simulacra, Scorsese paints Catholic icons, the tough guy image, and economic jockeying as token currencies. Beneath this superficiality though, Scorsese’s neorealism asserts an indisputable relationship between men, both humanness and the common abandonment to hyperreality. Rather than proffering hopelessness, Scorsese suggests that in the omnipresent intoxication with image, our postmodern society has found new ground on which to relate.

While masterfully commanding this contemporaneous overarching denudation and discreet summoning of hope, Scorsese’s mixed style also accounts for frequent misunderstanding in the perceptions of critics and viewers. This failure of appraisal almost always occurs when an element expressive of one half of Scorsese’s form is fixated upon and separated from the full scope of Scorsese’s technique. Most often this critical cathexis targets Marty’s violence or language. While fully justified (when considered holistically) as emblematic of Scorsese’s hyperreality, these excessive features are repeatedly censured as smacking of exploitative filmmaking; Scorsese is misconstrued as an author of spectacle cinema, transgressing to draw an audience attracted by taboo.

Such a dismissal of Scorsese’s work and equation to B-filmmaking is a tragic delusion. If Scorsese’s violence or language was muted, the grotesqueness which underlines his hyperreality would fade as well. Diminished in intensity, this half of his style may go unnoticed to viewers untrained in postmodern thought and the identification of simulacra. With a diluted or missing hyperreality, Scorsese’s works would read as modernized yet anachronistic apings of filmmakers like De Sica, Rossellini, etc. It is precisely Scorsese’s firm hold on the hyperreal which places the filmmaker in the vogue contemporary consciousness still preoccupied by postmodern thought. It is the interplay of the hyperreal and the neo-real which makes Scorsese’s cinema absolutely fresh.

The blended dualism of Scorsese’s craft is, without doubt, the source of Marty’s films’ deft balancing on the boundary between art and popular cinema. As the preceding text of this essay would suggest, Scorsese’s entrenchment in an avant-garde philosophical aesthetic garners him the respect of the art house. Both hyperreality’s postmodernity and neorealism’s humanism are, insofar as their theoretic nature, the province of the scholar rather than the casual audience. Such a filmic affectation does little for mass appeal, the high-brow often warding off the rank-and-file who are repulsed by any trappings of pretension. Scorsese, though, is not endeavoring to make esoteric films, descending as he does from a blue-collar Italian lineage and being intensely concerned about issues of community. Thus, beyond the more rarefied components of Scorsese’s cinema, there are relatable casts, stimulating action, and dialogue which is often humorous and always pedestrian. Neorealism affords the universality of the characters and the grotesque, in its celebrated hyperbole, is visually compelling. Thus, just as the hyperreal and the neo-real bleed into each other in form, this dyad is blended in drawing viewers as well; one cannot assert that the grotesque makes Scorsese’s films art and the neo-real makes them popular.

 

Why does The Departed feel so markedly un-Scorsesean?

 

Until this point, Scorsese’s latest film, The Departed (2006) has gone all but unmentioned. The rationale behind this neglect is that just as The Departed serves as a postscript for Scorsese’s style, so should the discussion of the film serve as an afterword for this essay. Scorsese has commented that this film was his first to have a plot. Immediately, such an admission should indicate inclemency for Scorsese’s grotesque neorealism. Technically speaking, all of Scorsese’s films have a plot. Thus, the subtext of Scorsese’s self-commentary is that The Departed is the first of his films to have a canonical plot. This appraisal is an accurate one. The Departed lacks the traditional Scorsesean quick rise and protracted descent of narrative, substituting climax and causality for neorealistic form. For the first time, Scorsese resorts to the panacea of popular cinema to drive his story forward: plot twists. Marty sacrifices much of his traditional neorealism, and The Departed becomes something of a blockbuster with a vaguely artistic grotesque character. As suggested earlier, neither component of Scorsese’s grotesque neorealism can sustain the overall milieu without the other, and The Departed feels markedly un-Scorsesean.

Is this proof, as many critics have suggested, that The Departed is merely a (successful) play at an Oscar win? While I cannot purport to have access to Marty’s motives for making this film, I propose that The Departed marks an evolution in Scorsese’s style in which he utilizes a metatextual adroitness to complement his hyperreality. By conspicuously adding a canonical plot, (perhaps for the purpose of an award) Scorsese’s label of simulacra is extended to include purely formal elements such as the plot itself. If the plot is not intended to serve the story but, rather, to attract Oscar panel attention or invite some other reward, what meaning does this construct really have? His film, thus, simultaneously announces a parade of disassociated signifiers, as per usual, and is one itself. In this way, The Departed becomes a sterling example of post-modernity in the world of the viewers; Scorsese begins to author the reality of not only the diegesis, but the real world as well. Grotesque neorealism is given the faculty to transcend its original celluloid medium and the reality of the audience, our reality, becomes incipiently grotesque.

 

Erik Hinton

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“National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978)

December 28, 2008 at 5:23 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Roger Ebert)

In my opinion, Animal House is one of the funniest (in a completely stupid kind of way) movies ever made. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times and I’m sure I will see it at least a dozen more.
This review comes from Roger Ebert from 1978, in the
Chicago Sun-Times

 

“What we need right now,” Otter tells his fraternity brothers, “is a stupid, futile gesture on someone’s part.” And no fraternity on campus — on any campus — is better qualified to provide such a gesture than the Deltas. They have the title role in National Lampoon’s Animal House, which remembers all the way back to 1962, when college was simpler, beer was cheaper, and girls were harder to seduce.

The movie is vulgar, raunchy, ribald, and occasionally scatological. It is also the funniest comedy since Mel Brooks made The Producers. Animal House is funny for some of the same reasons the National Lampoon is funny (and Second City and Saturday Night Live are funny): Because it finds some kind of precarious balance between insanity and accuracy, between cheerfully wretched excess and an ability to reproduce the most revealing nuances of human behavior. In one sense there has never been a campus like this movie’s Faber University, which was apparently founded by the lead pencil tycoon and has as its motto “Knowledge is Good.” In another sense, Faber University is a microcosm of … I was going to say our society, but why get serious? Let someone else discuss the symbolism of Bluto’s ability to crush a beer can against his forehead.
Bluto is, of course, the most animalistic of the Deltas. He’s played by John Belushi, and the performance is all the more remarkable because Bluto has hardly any dialogue. He isn’t a talker, he’s an event. His best scenes are played in silence (as when he lasciviously scales a ladder to peek at a sorority pillow fight).
Bluto and his brothers are engaged in a holding action against civilization. They are in favor of beer, women, song, motorcycles, Playboy centerfolds, and making rude noises. They are opposed to studying, serious thought, the Dean, the regulations governing fraternities, and, most especially, the disgusting behavior of the Omegas — a house so respectable it has even given an ROTC commander to the world.
The movie was written by National Lampoon contributors (including Harold Ramis
, who was in Second City at the same time Belushi was), and was directed by John Landis. It’s like an end run around Hollywood’s traditional notions of comedy. It’s anarchic, messy, and filled with energy. It assaults us. Part of the movie’s impact comes from its sheer level of manic energy: When beer kegs and Hell’s Angels come bursting through the windows of the Delta House, the anarchy is infectious. But the movie’s better made (and better acted) than we might at first realize. It takes skill to create this sort of comic pitch, and the movie’s filled with characters that are sketched a little more absorbingly than they had to be, and acted with perception.
For example: Tim Matheson, as Otter, the ladies’ man, achieves a kind of grace in his obsession. John Vernon, as the Dean of Students, has a blue-eyed, rulebook hatefulness that’s inspired. Verna Bloom, as his dipsomaniacal wife, has just the right balance of cynicism and desperation. Donald Sutherland, a paranoic early sixties pothead, nods solemnly at sophomoric truisms and admits he’s as bored by Milton as everyone else.
And stalking through everything is Bluto, almost a natural force: He lusts, he thirsts, he consumes cafeterias full of food, and he pours an entire fifth of Jack Daniel’s into his mouth, belches, and observes, “Thanks. I needed that.” He has, as I suggested, little dialogue. But it is telling. When the Delta House is kicked off campus and the Deltas are thrown out of school, he makes, in a moment of silence, a philosophical observation: “Seven years down the drain.” What the situation requires, of course, is a stupid, futile gesture on someone’s part.

Roger Ebert

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Kurt Loder – “Marshall Crenshaw’s Modern Mastery” (1982)

December 27, 2008 at 9:17 am (Kurt Loder, Reviews & Articles)

From Rolling Stone, May 13, 1982, comes this article on MC…

 

Had Ozzie and Harriet been in the habit of having their groceries delivered, the kid who would have showed up at their back door with the bags might well have resembled Marshall Crenshaw. With his waxed-apple cheeks and wire-frame glasses, and shiny copper coins neatly positioned in his polished penny loafers, Crenshaw would have been perfect for the part. On the other hand, a delivery boy capable of outwriting, outsinging and outplaying little Ricky would have unbalanced the Nelsons’ show, so Crenshaw is probably better off in his own era – or is he?

Fronting a fine, no-frills trio, the twenty-eight-year-old Crenshaw has been whipping up word of mouth all over Manhattan for nearly two years now with his fresh-faced, attitude-free enthusiasm, incisive guitar work and non-stop hit parade of self-penned show stoppers. Four of his songs were covered by other singers before Crenshaw had finished recording his first album; and that debut LP, just released, is bristling with what sound like classic car cruising radio hits. But there’s no guarantee that commercial radio, even after reluctantly clutching the Go-Go’s to it’s corporate bosom, will make a place within its formula-ridden formats for Crenshaw’s more roots-concious rock & roll.

Crenshaw himself has no idea whether radio is ready for his album. “But they better do something, or everybody’s just gonna loose interest,” he says, nipping from a glass of milk in his tiny uptown apartment one warm April afternoon. “Everybody already is losing interest. The way I felt estranged from the rock music scene in 1969 or 1971, other people are starting to feel that way now.” But isn’t it possible that lots of people actually prefer the faceless spew of metal-pop that passes for rock radio these days? “Yeah,” Crenshaw allows, “but there are also kids out there who don’t. What about them, you know?”

Crenshaw used to be one of “them.” The eldest of four sons born to a Detroit city official and his wife, now a schoolteacher, Marshall grew up in the suburb of Berkley. He started getting heavily into radio around 1958 and became hooked on rock & roll – the real stuff. When he was six, he got a guitar – “a seventeen-dollar cheapo from Sears” – and by the time he was ten, he was “playing guitar around the house all the time, for anyone who came over, even for people who might not have wanted me to.” Marshall’s brother Robert, five years his junior, caught the bug as well and started banging along on whatever percussive devices were at hand around the household. It was the beginning , though none of them knew it then, of a band.

When Crenshaw began collecting rare records, it was the guitarists who really got to him: Les Paul, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, Motown’s Marv Tarplin. “I listened to the things that drove me wild, and the guys were only playing like two notes. It wasn’t what they played, but the way it came across – the presence of the guitar.” He played throughout high school and pursued this precarious vocation after graduating in 1971, disdaining college without a second thought.

One day, Crenshaw and his bandmates of the moment discovered an ad in a local paper offering a small recording studio for sale. Somehow they managed to put together a couple thousand dollars to buy it. The studio was a primitive four-track facility, but to Crenshaw it seemed like heaven.” I was in and out of that place day and night. I even went on Christmas Eve once. I was just obsessed. I decided I was going to put something down on tape, and whatever it took to get the sound to go onto the tape, I was going to figure it out. That was my approach. One of my biggest hits there was ‘Sittin’ in the Balcony,’ by Eddie Cochran. I made a copy that was right on the money.”

Around this time, Marsahall’s brother Robert landed a drumming gig with a Fifties cover band called Danny and the Robots, and Marshall soon joined him in the group. “By about 1974,” he explains, “all I really could listen to was old rock & roll, Phil Spector stuff and Buddy Holly.”

Crenshaw tired of the rock circuit, of playing bars where beer-logged bodies flew through the air faster than requests and, as he recalls with a wince,” the bouncers would grab guys by the face, you know?” And soon he’d lost what little love he’d ever had for the Detroit-area music scene. “People there think of the music business as some lofty, unattainable thing, which it isn’t. It’s just a business where everyday people have their job to do, and it happens to be music. That’s what I wanted: to have a job to do and have it be music.”

In pursuit of this goal, he moved to Los Angeles with $400 in his pocket, figuring, “I’d end up as Helen Reddy’s bass player or working in a record store.” Soon broke, he signed on with a country & western band for a six-month tour of the West. Passing through Colorado, he spotted an ad in Rolling Stone soliciting Beatle lookalikes for roles in the various Beatlemania companies then infesting the nation. On a whim, he submitted a tape: a note for note rendition of “I Should Have Known Better.” Then he promptly forgot about it.

Following his C&W trek, Crenshaw went back to Detroit, married his high-school girlfriend – and suddenly got word from Beatlemania’s producers that he was to be auditioned. He passed the test in New York and, following a stint as a “Beatle in training,” found himself impersonating John Lennon in various Beatlemania productions throughout the U.S.

“It had no effect on me musically at all,” Crenshaw says, “because I’d already absorbed the Beatles’ music before then, firsthand. Beatlemania was theater. It had very little relation to rock & roll. But the money was good, especially considering the amount of work you had to do, which was almost nothing.”

After two years, he’d had it. He quit the show during a four-week stay in Boston. “I said to myself, ‘Okay I gotta go and I gotta go now.’ So I sat in my hotel room and started writing songs.” It was his first serious stab at songwriting. A few of those tunes – “Someday, Someway,” “Not For Me,” “The Usual Thing” – would later turn up on his album.

Crenshaw returned to the apartment he and his wife, Ione, had maintained in Westchester, New York, and hooked up with his brother Robert, who had earlier decamped for Manhattan to attend electronics school. Together, they began cutting the songs Marshall had written on the road. “I had a Teac four-track tape deck, a dbx compressor and two thirty-dollar mikes. No mixer, no equalizer. We did the drums in a rehearsal studio then I’d bring the tapes home and work on them.” It may sound tacky by today’s inflated studio standards, but Crenshaw was undaunted.

“That’s how you make rock & roll records,” he insists. “There has to be the element of chance and a lot of risk involved. That’s how the very best ones were made. I’m talking about stuff like Motown and Sun and Chess. They were all made under circumstances where, in order to get what you wanted from the equipment, you had to use your guts and imagination more than anything else. People say, ‘The Sgt. Pepper album – wow, it was only recorded on a four track.’ But take a look at Spike Jones, who made his records on lacquers, with no dubbing at all. How did he do that?”

Crenshaw took to this orgy of overdubbing quite happily. “I was always a big fan of Les Paul, who overdubbed everything on his records himself. To me, when you do that, there’s kind of an intimacy to it. I like that atmosphere on a record.”

Marshall and Robert put together about thirty songs they considered to be good, recruited bassist Chris Donato and began gigging around Manhattan in August 1980. Eventually, Crenshaw submitted a homemade demo tape to Alan Betrock of Shake Records, a local independent label, and last year, Shake released a twelve-inch single featuring “Something’s Gonna Happen” backed with “She Can’t Dance.”

Marshall‘s irresistible hooks and harmonies, coupled with an increasingly sharp stage act, drew lots of attention. Producer Richard Gottehrer, noted for his early work with the Go-Go’s, heard a demo and tipped off singer Robert Gordon, whom he was then managing; Gordon recorded three Crenshaw tunes on his fifth album, Are You Gonna Be The One. SInger Lou Ann Barton was also alerted and included Marshall’s “Brand New Lover” on her recently released debut LP.

Marshall Crenshaw was suddenly perceived as a hot item, and the record companies came calling. When he finally signed with Warner Bros., he says, “It was just great. As soon as the pen hit the paper, I just felt like a tremendous burden was lifted off me.”

Crenshaw originally wanted to produce his own album, but found himself a bit at sea in the twenty-four track environs of the Record Plant. When Richard Gottehrer joined in as coproducer, the two of them wrapped up the LP in five weeks.

On the exhilarating evidence of his first album, Marshall Crenshaw gives every promise of being a rock & roll song master on the level of such illustrious forerunners as Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, and Barry and Greenwich. If he’s consistent, that is. But he’s not worried about the crucial second album yet. “Our next record can be The Best of Marshall Crenshaw – the same songs in a different sequence. And after that,” he says, “we’ll put out our live album.”

Kurt Loder

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The Rutles – “Cheese and Onions” (Video – 1978)

December 26, 2008 at 3:49 pm (Cinema, Comedy, Music, The Beatles)

Taken from the animated movie Yellow Submarine Sandwich, comes The Rutles singing their classic, “Cheese and Onions,” from 1978 (transported from the year 1968 A.D.)
The movie features the voices of Teddy Roosevelt, Marlon Brando, some guy named Ringo Starr and your mom.

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