I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Brief (And Somewhat Selective) History of Martin Scorsese

by Whitney Weiss
Oct. 16, 2016
Martin Scorsese is one of those American directors whose complete oeuvre is more varied than regular people initially realize. Those unfortunate enough to come of age in what some say is his era of decline might even have a tragically skewed perception of his films, assuming that they're all shoot-em-up people pleasures (or vehicles for a portly Leonardo DiCaprio). On some level, the former's not entirely off; dads and teenage boys love CasinoGoodfellas, and The Departed because, on the surface, they're movies about wise guys, gangsters, crooks, crooked cops, and the women unfortunate enough to end up married to or sleeping with all of them. Look a little closer, though, and there's more going on in those films than the tired old glorification of macho guys. And much like his movies, Scorsese is the kind of director (and person) who is far more complicated than first impressions might lead you to believe. 

To start, the man responsible for bringing audiences Raging Bull and Goodfellas couldn't really spend much time punching and romping while he was growing up in 1950s New York because he had asthma, which meant afternoons spent taking in El Cid and Land of the Pharaohs at various Manhattan movie theaters. Later, he ended up attending New York University and earning his degree in film from the Tisch School of the Arts, which was then in its second year. At Tisch, Scorsese met Harvey Keitel, who acted in his student films and later in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who's been working with Scorcese ever since and whose influence stretches beyond the cutting room (Schoonmaker was married to Michael Powell, the famous British director responsible for Peeping Tom and Black Narcissus, and Powell spent a lot of time hanging out during the shooting of After Hours and talking shop). Within a few years of graduating, after paying his dues working on other people's movies, Scorsese was churning out his first features. And that's where it gets a little crazy. 

Basically, for the next 20 years, Martin Scorsese cranked out a steady stream of some of the best American movies ever made, along with some great (and underappreciated) documentaries. Italianamerican, which you get to watch today, was made in 1974, the year after Mean Streets came out, and it's a loving, tender, and often-hilarious look at Scorsese's parents, much of which is shot in their very loud (in both senses of the word) apartment. Of course, the most reasonable move after releasing a gritty, ultra-violent movie like Mean Streets and a wonderful documentary about one's parents and heritage would be…a feature-length romantic comedy starring Kris Kristofferson and a very young Jodie Foster. Well, that's exactly what happened, and the film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, is actually worth watching. After that came Taxi Driver, which remains as iconic and pertinent as ever, in 1976, followed by New York, New York, a musical starring Robert De Niro and love interest Liza Minellli. Really.  

At the same time that Scorsese was working on New York, New York, he was doing piles of cocaine with Robbie Robertson in a room they'd sealed off from daylight, where they were attempting to finish editing footage from an epic farewell concert for Robertson's band, The Band. The documentary, despite making it appear that Robertson was doing most of the singing when really he was just chewing his face off, is a hugely successful long goodbye, which features legendary performances from Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan, and some of the best renditions of Band standards. Robertson, having been drawn to Scorsese for his use of pop music in Mean Streets, ended up sticking around after the editing for The Last Waltz was done, serving as music producer and consultant on films like The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, The Color of Money, and Casino. 1978 also saw the release of American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, another masterfully-edited Scorcese documentary that lets actor/junkie/former Neil Diamond road manager Steven Prince shoot the shit with the camera. Some of his stories were later lifted by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater and turned into major plot points in Pulp Fuction and Waking Life, respectively, proving once again that Scorcese's influences are occasionally subtle, but far-reaching.  

The 80s were as good to Scorsese as the 70s; in a single decade, he released: the critically-acclaimed instant-classic Raging Bull, which was shot in black and white; the tragically funny King of Comedy, which starred Robert De Niro as a fame-hungry loser, Sandra Bernhard, and Jerry Lewis; After Hours, a low-budget black comedy that's the best Scorcese film you've never seen; the pool hustling buddy film The Color of Money (starring Paul Newman and a cocky young Tom Cruise); and the epic and controversial Last Temptation of Christ. Oh, and he directed the music video for Michael Jackson's Bad. The 90s brought Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Casino, and Bringing Out the Dead.

By this point, the very things that Martin Scorsese had introduced to American cinema--seemingly impossible long shots, brilliant and generous use of pop music to score major moments in the film--might not have carried the element of surprise they did when audiences first saw them, but they were no less capable of resulting in moments of iconic cinematic flawlessness. Just re-watch that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta takes his date into the Copacabana, where you travel with them, via steady cam, through the side door, down back hallways, into the kitchen, and finally to a table right in front of the stage, all to the sound of The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me"...in a single shot. It is absolutely perfect. And then Scorsese pulls it off again in the very same film, setting a day of coked-out paranoia, family visits, helicopters, and eventual detainment to The Rolling Stones and Harry Nillson's "Jump Into The Fire." 

That young, wide-eyed athematic who spent his afternoons absorbing films turned out to be a walking encyclopedia of cinematic knowledge as an adult. In 2007, when his friend Thelma Schoonmaker received a lifetime achievement award in Boston, Scorsese made the drive up to do some chatting on a panel with her. I went with a friend, expecting to walk away with some knowledge. Once Scorsese first stepped up to the microphone, pens across the theatre were set ablaze; he literally talked for 10 minutes, mentioned 45 films and 15 directors no one had heard of, implored those present and interested in cinema to find a way to see them, and then continued his rapid-fire barrage of information, in the world's least pretentious way, for a good 45 minutes. I walked out of there with writer's cramp and the burning desire to see every single movie he mentioned. You can have a similar experience when you watch the epic double feature that's on today, which starts with A Personal Journey Through American Movies, a British Film Institute-produced overview of American cinema, and continues with My Voyage to Italy, a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging look at the films and directors of Italy. Both are perfect examples of what you should expect from Scorsese, though you may not have realized it before.   


Whitney Weiss lives in Buenos Aires, where she DJs, throws a party called Father Figures, and is one-half of a band that bridges the gap between Snap! and Quad City DJs. If you want to hear what she's up to, you should visit soundcloud.com/djwhitneyweiss.