This year’s BAFTA Fellowship award is being presented to Martin Scorsese. The fellowship, which is a lifetime achievement award, has been awarded to some of the biggest names in cinema, so it was only a matter of time before it was handed to the man behind Goodfellas , Casino, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Departed, Mean Streets, and many, many more.
Scorsese has long since been considered a legend in his own lifetime. Since his first feature film release in 1967, I Call First, he has gone on to become of the most successful, critically acclaimed and influential directors in the history of cinema. His films are invariably about larger than life characters inhabiting, and struggling in, demonic, hellish urban worlds, yet this is no one trick pony; his name spreads across many genres from sports biopic to documentaries, from musical to family fantasy. His work is also undeniably defined by his working relationship with Robert De Niro, with whom he has made eight films to date, a partnership which spanned Scorsese’s golden era of 1973 – 1995. This is an era so littered with cinematic classics that it is hard to argue against Scorsese being considered the greatest living film director.
In an age where films can become submerged by unconvincing CGI and unnecessary 3D a revisiting of Scorsese’s work from the aforementioned era only reveals his work to be as fresh and as vibrant as ever; real people in real situations dealing with real dangers and difficulties. Arguably Scorsese’s finest hour in this, or any, era is Goodfellas; a near perfect concoction of character development, cinematography, musical score and a collection of actors performing at the very top of their game. It isn’t easy to root for a group of criminals, drug pushers, drug addicts, jailbirds and murderers as they extort their way to illegitimately gained millions, but the strength of the narrative, the likeability of the characters and a much needed infusion of humour make it almost irresistible. The film’s narrator alone, Henry Hill, blows up cars for the local gangsters after dropping out of high school, indulges in at least two extramarital affairs, partakes in a drug smuggling ring and then rats out all of his friends for their lifetime of crimes in exchange for witness protection. Yet, despite all of this, he is strangely likeable. The same can be said of Charlie in Mean Streets who tries to hide knowledge of his epileptic girlfriend, but only because he is trying to work his way out of Little Italy like she plans to; both Ace and Nicky in Casino, who slide deep into the abyss of Las Vegas sleaze and crime, but only because the city is so corrupt and easy to begin with; and even Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver garners some strange level of sympathy as, despite the strengthening of his isolated madness, his level of repulsion at Iris’ plight and subsequent actions to try and save her are heroic, albeit in the most violent way possible.
It is this affinity with the poor and downtrodden, the excluded, the outsiders that aligns us as an audience so closely with these dubious anti-heroes. The King Of Comedy portrays the protagonist, Rupert Pupkin, as a man hell bent on being a ‘celebrity’, a stand-up comedian. He is part of a world in which creeps and the mentally unstable worship at the altar of television demigods, in awe of these otherwise ordinary people simply because they appear on a screen in our homes. Scorsese depicts with unnerving accuracy the idea that is now taken for granted in contemporary society that you don’t have to start at the bottom of the ladder anymore, grafting and fine tuning, putting in the long hours perfecting your craft; these are people who dream of superstardom and they want it immediately, even if it means kidnapping a talk show host at gunpoint and forcing your way on to the screen while the police wait in the wings to arrest you afterwards. Rupert’s claim that it is ‘better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime’ rings even truer now than it did in 1983. The skin crawling desperation of a barely talented, deluded wannabe is such a familiar sight on our television screens these days that it could lessen the impact of the finale, but there is still an overwhelming sense of triumph and happiness when Rupert performs on air and becomes famous for his crime, albeit from behind the bars of a prison cell; the perfect encapsulation of the David Vs Goliath struggles of so many Scorsese characters that has audiences rooting for people they can recognise and relate to, but just slightly more criminally mined people.
As far as trademarks go, though, it is Scorsese’s ability to soundtrack his scenes with seemingly perfect musical choices, with anything from 1960s pop to classical making appearances over the years. Mean Streetsoffers one of the most imitated, and frankly coolest, entrance scenes ever; Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy, draped over two women, enters the red-lit bar, the image of unhinged raucousness, in slow motion to The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash while Harvey Keitel’s Charlie watches on disapprovingly via the help of a long, slow zoom across the very bar itself. The much heralded three minute single take tracking shot in Goodfellas which follows Henry and Karen from leaving Henry’s car in the street, through the bowels and kitchens of the Copacabana bar all the way to getting seated at a table, talking and interacting with numerous people on the way, all played out to Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals, is quite simply the stuff of legend. But it is perhaps the achingly beautiful opening scene of Raging Bull which sees Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta shadow boxing and warming up in a boxing ring, clad in his trunks, gloves, boots and leopard skin gown, all played out in sumptuous black and white slow motion to Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo that underlines the true deftness of touches in a medium that can be over done so very easily.
His films portray a little of all of us, they relate to us on so many different levels. His classic films are a muddle of pride, guilt, desire, passion and a longing to better one’s own station; but whereas the ordinary folk who fill cinema screens know the limits of decency and morality, Scorsese’s characters don’t, and they are only too happy to reap the benefits, for however fleeting a period. Now, well into the 21st century, his more recent efforts may not tower as high as they once did, nor shine as brightly, but they still hold their own against most of contemporary Hollywood’s offerings; think Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island and The Departed, the film which finally won Scorsese his much deserved and long overdue Best Director Oscar. Now that he is being rewarded for his lifetime of work the only hope is that it is not the final crowning glory. But, if last year’s Hugo is anything to go by, and if the rumours of a new partnership between him and Robert De Niro are true, then audiences could still be cheering on questionable anti-heroes to great soundtracks for many years to come.