ME DO iT
Martin Scorsese is one of the most revered filmmakers in all of le cinema, but on top of that he might be the world's foremost cinephile - the name is "Scorsese" itself is synonymous with an abiding love of cinema history.
We asked a handful of our favorite film writers to discuss a movie that Scorsese brought to their attention, a film that his utterly infectious love of movie history had driven them to seek out and discover. This is our tribute to Scorsese as an impassioned historian spreading the gospel of the artform he loves & an exploration of how the director has often times served as young movie-goers' introduction to the larger world of cinema, acting as a guide in territory that would otherwise be unfamiliar to budding cinephiles.
These are the film we saw because of Scorsese.
federico fellini, 1953.
~ by john frankensteiner ~
“There’s no culture where I come from, bro.” These are the words of Abel Ferrara verbally sparring with journalists, his larger point being that it was easier for him to make movies in Europe, specifically Rome, because the culture there gives audiences a better understanding of what makes a good movie, thus giving him a fighting chance of being understood and getting financed, as opposed to his own country of America. “If you were brought up on McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, you wouldn’t know what good food is. So, go die. Supersize me.”
For all the problems of the American film industry (which are endless), it has produced many of the greatest movies ever - so on the grand scale, what Abel Ferrara is saying is insane. But it’s inconsequential how literally true it might be to say, “There’s no culture where I come from, bro” because it can feel true and might even be true on a small scale. Your town, your environment, your people, might lack culture. Most don’t grow up in households with parents reading the art section or reading at all. This is why I remember this crazy throwaway Abel Ferrara rant: There really was no culture where I came from, bro. Not in my formative years, anyway. Certainly no one to show me the films Ferrara would consider good.
But there was, and continues to be, Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese’s joyous 1999 documentary about the Italian films that influenced him as an artist and person, My Voyage to Italy, was the first film syllabus of my life - and Scorsese as the host, my only mentor. I’ve heard from several people over the years that this was true for them, too. His in-depth look at the films of Roberto Rossellini, Alesandro Blasetti, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni (Jean Renoir, Giovanni Pastrone and Pietro Germi also get one film each showcased) was my gateway to not only Italian cinema, but a springboard to international cinema as a whole. Scorsese’s academic interpretation mixed with his unpretentious voice of “just a guy from a regular background” was an encouragement of an immeasurable amount. Back then “the Foreign Film Fan” immediately brought visions of the most over-educated, insufferable person you could imagine, someone putting on some expensive accent as an affectation, sounding and acting like no one from my own working-poor neighborhood, apparently the only type of person who was allowed to talk about art.
But there Scorsese was, sounding like one of my dad’s buddies, just shooting the shit about movies he loved, to greater effect than most people alive are capable. With his actual working-poor background, this signaled to me that you didn’t have to be from the Upper West Side to know and appreciate great art. In fact, these Italian films being showcased were in particular made more for the working-poor than anyone else. These were the rare films that were made for us.
The film that Scorsese showcased that seemed most like “films for us” was Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni. The way Scorsese articulated how personal an experience it was for him made me suspect it would be the same for me. Fellini, the flashiest and biggest name of the lot, was the first of the Italian filmmakers to really catch my young eyes (which I imagine is true of most.) It’s difficult not to be seduced by the bombast. There may be a few better directors than Fellini, but none of them are more director than Fellini. Artists like Fellini are the figures that get you hooked on art forever. It also helped that his status made his films the easiest to find. This was the tail end of the Blockbuster era, so finding the works of any of the other directors included was doubtful, but finding La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 felt possible and, as it turned out, I found them at Blockbuster.
La Dolce Vita was nothing short of a religious experience for me: a great film at a formative age is an experience that can’t be topped. Movies can always be deeply moving, but it becomes basically impossible to be awed at a certain point, at least for me. So much of awe depends on it being a new experience and the more films you watch, the more the next film just reminds you of a previous one. But a fledgling cinephile has less frame of references so every night of watching movies can feel like a new experience - it’s an intoxicating time.
I certainly had never seen a movie like La Dolce Vita and it’s hard to imagine ever getting wowed like that again. 8 1/2 I also loved, but was less taken with. That’s the movie the directors of Scorsese’s generation love the most because they’re directors, they relate to 8 1/2’s angst over artistry - but Marcello’s aimless, existential despair in La Dolce Vita spoke much more to me, the non-artist, the searcher for something else, anything else. It still does - more than ever.
I Vitelloni was the one I really wanted to see, though, my Fellini white whale. I never did find it at Blockbuster. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was 19, that I finally did get ahold of it, a shoddy VHS copy at the height of the DVD era (I found a VHS copy of Kurosawa’s Ran at the same place). Often a search for a movie unfairly sets that movie up to be anticlimactic. You spend years building that movie up in your mind, a nearly impossible task for it to ever live up to, but I Vitelloni lived up.
Having grown up in a seaside town on Long Island - which like I Vitelloni even had a festival every summer (although no beauty contest) - this film seemed as made for me as it did to Scorsese, I would argue even more so. It really spoke to my ‘90s slacker formed brain, too, its young malaise forever relevant, but especially so coming out of that decade. “Vitellone” literally translates to an immature calf, a cut of meat in-between being veal and beef, so neither one, really. Fellini took a poetic interpretation to redefine this word as grown men too immature to transition into adulthood, stuck between childhood and adulthood, proto-slackers. Fellini described the five vitellone characters as, “The unemployed of the middle class, mother's pets. They shine during the holiday season, and waiting for it takes up the rest of the year.” Scorsese described them even better as, “These guys just waiting for the next flash of happiness to break up the long stretches of boredom and sadness. Desperate to get out, yet terrified to leave the security of home. Basically, they dream.”
Of the five vitelloni, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), emerges as the clearest stand-in of young Fellini, the vitellone with vague ambition to leave home. Fellini even later described himself as, “An ex-vitellone.” While there is an overall plot, it doesn’t matter, really. It’s a hang movie. You’re hanging with the vitelloni in aimless episodic wanderings, partying all night, getting hit with terrifying epiphanies as the sun comes up over the sea in the morning. That goddamned, beautiful sea that seems like the barrier to anything more, every seaside town feeling like its own personal Alcatraz Island, a prison impossible to escape to get to the land of more culture; stifled and filled with melancholy. I Vitelloni was a fucking mirror.
It’s really interesting how Fellini shoots Moraldo: when Moraldo isn’t out by himself walking desolate streets at night, he’s hanging with the other vitelloni who are frequently shot together, crammed into the 1.33:1 aspect ratio - but Moraldo is often separated within the same frame, frequently distant in the background or pulled up into the foreground. Sometimes they’ll be a three or four shot of the vitelloni, then cut to Moraldo in his own frame. Moraldo is alone even in this group, Fellini’s gift of visual storytelling more subtle here than it would become, but just as masterful.
"We always talked about leaving, but only one of us, one morning, without saying a word to anyone, actually left."
This is all to push the film to its rightful conclusion: Moraldo hops on a train and leaves town, he says he doesn’t know where, but we can surmise Rome. This could be a cheap ending, it’s very much a cliche, but Fellini elevates it with sheer craft: Moraldo, on the train, waving goodbye to Guido, the metaphor for waving goodbye to childhood, finally becoming a man. Guido is an anti-vitellone, a young boy waking up for work at the train yard at 3a.m. - Moraldo strikes up a friendship with him as they repeatedly pass each other in the early hours, Moraldo still up from the previous night. As the train leaves the station and Moraldo is finally on his own, there’s a medium shot of him followed by a spectacular series of cuts to four separate subjective tracking shots of the four remaining vitelloni, all sleeping in bed, Moraldo imagining each one dreaming, like they always were. It cuts back to Moraldo on the train, choked up thinking about them. This is the last image of Moraldo and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Scorsese described it as, “A poignant moment, done through a series of cuts and camera moves that have affected me throughout my entire life. For me, it captures the bittersweet emotions of a moment that eventually comes for everyone: the moment you realize that you could either grow up or stay forever a child.”
I Vitelloni is all over Scorsese’s work. The clearest example is Mean Streets, the Johnny Boy character is a vitellone, himself, and the dynamic between that character and Charlie is directly comparable to the dynamic between Moraldo and another vitellone, Fausto (a dynamic that became a genre unto itself post-Mean Streets). When Moraldo says goodbye to Guido at the train station, Fellini dubs his own voice over Interlenghi, Fellini taking ownership of that character as himself. Scorsese begins Mean Streets as the inner voice of Harvey Keitel, in similar fashion. I Vitelloni’s influence on Scorsese never ended, the introduction to all five vitelloni is done in a tracking shot with a voice over telling you who is who, exactly how Scorsese would later do for his famous introductions in Goodfellas. I’m sure there are countless other examples. I would make the argument that of all the movies that influenced Scorsese, if you had to choose one that best explains how Scorsese came to be, it would be I Vitelloni.
The ending of I Vitelloni has stayed with me throughout my life, too. It’s a perfect movie ending in the sense that it’s total artifice. You stop the movie there because it might be the last bold moment of Moraldo’s life, the peak moment to end on before there’s no more happy endings to manufacture. Despite Fellini taking ownership of Moraldo as his stand-in, Moraldo is not Fellini, and chances are very likely that Moraldo will fail and have to return. I know many who moved to California following their dream to make it in the movies, none of them succeeded, most of them returned home. Like Moraldo, I made it out of my seaside town in my 20s, only to have to return to a very similar one in my 30s, once again stifled by the sea. Maybe that’s Moraldo’s fate, too. Simply leaving isn’t always good enough. But that makes me like the ending more. It doesn’t overstep its happy ending to insult the viewer’s intelligence.
As Scorsese described the vitelloni in the beginning, “These guys just waiting for the next flash of happiness to break up the long stretches of boredom and sadness,” the ending is similarly a flash, this time of triumph for Moraldo, taking that scary step towards the unknown, a brief triumph no less valid than a long lasting one. It’s a celebration of a small moment that regardless of the result, is still worth celebrating. Win or lose, Moraldo can tell his grandchildren about that moment and forever be their hero. Moraldo escaped beyond the barrier of the sea, even if only for a moment, off to the land of culture, bro.
jacques tourneur, 1942.
~ by martin kessler ~
There have been innumerable films put on my radar at one time or another by the infectious passion for cinema of Martin Scorsese. There were a few I was tempted to write about, including some of the films courageously preserved and restored by the World Cinema Project which Scorsese founded. I knew which film I had to write about though. Not only for my high personal regard for it, but also for the awkwardness of the introduction.
The first time I’d really heard of Cat People (1942) was while watching the docu-series, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) on television. I was instantly intrigued by the premise of the film, but I had a misunderstanding of what that was. Somehow, through commercial interruptions, and flicking back and forth between other channels (this was long before the days of streaming services), I had conflated the scenes shown of Cat People, the story of a woman who may supernaturally transform into a unseen deadly feline monster, with a fragmentary clip of The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), a story about a Hollywood producer who’s a total dick. It's an excellent film in its own right and takes inspiration from Cat People for its "film within a film." In my mind they had merged into what I believed at the time to be a single movie. I expected Cat People to be an early meta horror movie about a supernatural big cat terrorizing a film production that mirrored the events surrounding it. Maybe like an early predecessor to something like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). Imagine my confusion when I finally tracked down the film and this conceit never came.
It didn’t really matter though, since the film won me over regardless of that confusion. The initial appeal was the subtlety and elegant simplicity of its horror, not only remarkable for its era, but any era. Most horror films seem crass in comparison to its relatable dread produced by the ominous feeling of being followed: the potential for violence in the atmosphere while walking to the bus alone at night or the vulnerability of being in a pool and realizing you’re being watched by someone (or something) you can’t see.
I’m sure one reason I took to the film so quickly was that it held much in common with some of the genre films I was growing up with and regarded as favorites already by then. Films like Predator 2 (1990), Split Second (1992), or Candyman (1992), which featured lethal, unseen, mysterious entities in urban setting... films where myth and modernity collide. Cat People struck me not only as an ancestor to this particular niche of films that appealed to me, but also the best of them.
If Cat People was only an enduringly potent horror film that would be enough reason to write about it here, though the film grew to mean more to me over time. It wasn’t just that the psycho-sexual subtext became more clear as I matured, but also that as I accumulated bits of life experience here and there, it seemed to me a film that I could see inner-self reflected back to me. There are moments when I identify deeply with the reserved outsider Irena (played by Simone Simon) who has a wild animal within her - and there are moments where I identify deeply with Oliver Reed1, the man who falls for her, marries her before realizing he’s in over his head. There are even moments when I identify with the shadows on the walls and all that they’re imbued with.
Every time I watch I wish Irena could be saved from herself, but she can’t be saved. I’m not someone who’d typically fess up to having “a type,” even to myself, though in hindsight if I’m being honest with myself it’s clear that I do. I’ve dated my share of cat people over the course of my life so far. Actually, my eternal crush is the character Catwoman, in several incarnations, but most specifically in the version portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (1992). I can see much of Irena in that iteration of the character; a demure assistant who manifest the powerful, sexual, and dangerous Catwoman persona to lash out at the frustration and abuses in her life, but who also teeters on the edge of an abyss. I had to take a moment to google this, and apparently the Catwoman character first appeared in comic books two years prior to when Cat People was put into shoestring-budget production (these days I enjoy noticing the reused set from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)). Catwoman has evolved much in the decades since though, so I think it’s fair to look at her from the perspective of Cat People’s influence and legacy.
I feel like I’m revealing my age, talking about all these 90s films in relation to a 1940s films. Really Cat People is such a perfect gateway to a wider world of cinema, that I sincerely feel like a jackass for taking so long to walk through that gateway. It’d take years for me to the watch the other remarkable films created during the collaboration between producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, or Tourneur’s superb solo effort Night of the Demon (1957) (or, hell, even The Bad and The Beautiful once I finally figured out my original mix up.)
One of the longest holdouts would be the direct sequel, The Curse of the Cat People (1944). Even hearing that it was great, I loved Cat People so much that I stubbornly avoided seeing the The Curse of The Cat People. I had some concern that it even if it was great, it may somehow tarnish my view of what I considered to be a perfect movie. I’ve managed to actively avoid French Connection II for much the same reason, despite people I trust insisting that, “it’s actually good!” Of course The Curse of The Cat People would be about as brilliant as sequels get, avoiding the trappings of imitating its predecessor and instead offering a tonal departure, expanding on the first film in interesting and compelling ways. I don’t mind the 1982 remake by Scorsese’s occasional collaborator Paul Schrader either, to tell you the truth. Sure it’s gaudy and ogling in all the ways the original isn’t, but hardly a bad film. However, the original is truly timeless.
1 Not to be confused with walking tour de force English actor of the same name, this Oliver Reed is played Kent Smith.
gary sherman, 1982.
~ by john cribbs ~
"Because there's a lot of violence to this picture, some of the New York reviews are calling it an exploitation film. Jesus!" - Martin Scorsese, on Taxi Driver in a 1976 interview with Roger Ebert.
When I sidled up to Joe Bob Briggs following one of his typically fun, insightful and exhaustively researched talks, this one at a screening of Michael Winner's The Sentinel, I could have asked about any number of topics but for some reason had his appearance in Casino on my mind. I honestly can't remember what my question was about - maybe I just wanted to know if he wore his own bolo tie or was outfitted for one on set by Oscar-nominated costume designer Rita Ryack, or why he would lower himself to appear in such hoity toity indoor bullstuff - but me bringing up the film launched him into Scorsee anecdotes. Which wasn't where I wanted the conversation to go: who needs further extolling of the revered Kino-Eyebrows anyway?
But when Joe Bob talks, you learn things. Between set-ups, Scorsese would pull the drive-in pundit to the side of the slot machines and chew his ear about exploitation movies. If only someone had turned a camera on this meeting of high- and low-brow connoisseurs as they discussed the merits of Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox and Bobby A. Suarez's Filipino kung fu action sequel Pay or Die! Eventually the discussion slided into the director's brief stint directing the brilliant true crime cheapie The Honeymoon Killers, from which he was fired after a few days, ostensibly for spending too much time shooting a close-up of a beer can "lit perfectly for the intended tone."
Scorsese would go on to make his own exploitation picture (I'm writing about Scorsese, of course I've got to call them "pictures") with Boxcar Bertha, which came off a little too classy for a Roger Corman production. He wasn't made to make B-movies; maybe that's why he's so fascinated by them. Despite his inexhaustible efforts as an art tastemaker, cinema trendsetter, international film preservationist and tentpole entertainment naysayer, I'm always most fascinated to hear he supports underloved genre titles like Exorcist II, Shakes the Clown or Cemetery Man. He's not the only notable cinema maverick to do so (Truffaut once called The Honeymoon Killers his favorite American film), but unlike certain Jack Hill-worshipping Hollywood hotshots Marty doesn't routinely broadcast his enthusiasm for un-canonized cult movies. You don't see his name on re-releases of nudie cuties or dubbed ninja flicks under the Miramax Zoe banner, he hasn't made documentaries about these kind of movies (debate among yourselves whether Val Lewton's output counts) and more often than not his endorsements are very unofficial.
Hence one of the great Marty myths, set at a Paramount dinner function in 1982 where other guests were perturbed by a heated argument taking place between the Raging Bull auteur and his then-girlfriend, Paramount vice president of production Dawn Steel. Apparently, John Milius wanted to hire this guy Gary Sherman to direct his first full-on producing project Uncommon Valor. So intent was Milius on convincing Steel that Sherman was the man for the job, he'd set up a screening of the director's latest film, Vice Squad (a movie starring Wings Hauser, the original writer of Uncommon Valor, who after having his credit arbitrated off the movie would opine: "John Milius is a scumbag right-wing bastard and I can't wait for his day to die, that son of a bitch!" according to Psychotronic Video.)
Steel hated the movie, and wondered out loud to fellow guests why she'd want to even meet someone as clearly hate-filled and misogynistic as the man who made Vice Squad, let alone work with him on a sensitive action-drama about a ragtag squad of Vietnam vets mounting an operation to rescue American soldiers still held captive overseas. According to Sherman, Marty turned to Steel and rebutted, "Are you crazy? This is one of the great films of the year. This film should win the Oscar for best picture, but nobody has the balls to even nominate it for anything!" The resulting squabble over the merits of Vice Squad are lost to time and subject to hearsay (almost all of this anecdote comes from Sherman himself or dubious internet-type sources), but it's nice to think that Scorsese was as willing to stand up for 80's sleaze as he was exploitation classics of the previous three decades.
Because "sleaze" is the correct adjective for Vice Squad, that specific kind of very early 80's sleaze that could be found in dark urban dramas like Ms. 45, Alphabet City and Enemy Territory, cop-killer cat & mouse fare such as Sharky's Machine and 10 to Midnight, serial stalker movies including Eyes of Laura Mars, Eyes of a Stranger and Blind Date, "runs afoul of the wrong kind of psycho" thrillers 52 Pick-Up and Walking the Edge (and later, Russell Mulchay's Ricochet), not to mention such gritty streetwalkin' stories as Angel and - uh - Streetwalkin'. It was the same kind of sleaze lovingly applied to updates of 50's high school social dramas in the early 80's: Savage Streets, Class of 1984 and Class of Nuke 'Em High. Sharing marquees on still-scummy 42nd Street, filling still-operating drive-in theaters, lining shelves of the burgeoning video rental store market, movies like these - gritty crime stories refitted as surreal modern fairy tales - kept the spirit of cinema sleaze alive. The unifying theme of these Reagan-era B-movies was that flesh is vulnerable, life is cheap and the system can not protect you.
Keeping one foot squarely in sleazeville allows Sherman to go big: big emotions, big characters. What if Travis Bickle, who channeled his simmering hatred for creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets of New York into the gut of laidback hustler Sport, happened to shuffle off to the opposite coast and start hacking on the Sunset Strip only to get a look at Ramrod, a hulking nightmare of rockabilly pimpdom? Not only is Ramrod the personification of the "neon slime" of Vice Squad, he's every law-abiding citizen's paranoid fear of unprovoked violence and raging perversion hiding just around the dark alley of a remorseless American city. Hauser's performance as Ramrod (a precursor to Michael Shannon's goofy turn as the villainous cop in Premium Rush) is made all the more unsettling by his determination. A giant grinning maniac driving around in a Ford Bronco wearing a cowboy hat with matching rose & horseshoe shirt, he sets out to subdue weary street walkers like he's breaking horses - the arms dealers and fellow flesh peddlers he deals with don't get treated much better. Every mannerism is determined by what can give him an advantage over the person in front of him, the businesslike nature of his sadism is why it's so unnerving. And when he makes an extravagant escape from the windshield of a wrecked police car, his determination to visit terrible retribution on Princess, the hooker who helped bust him, is tempered only by that same methodical efficiency. He's a Terminator in cowhide boots.
Ramrod is a wolf on the prowl, on an asphalt prairie with no bushes to hide behind. Sherman knows what places are scary - the endless tunnels of the London Underground, a too-picturesque coastal town, a mirror maze of a skyscraper - and he knows that the seemingly endless stretch of Sunset Strip where everyone sees everything along the exposed mean street is a particularly dangerous place to be. Princess, a working single mom not unlike Alice Hyatt, braves this jungle like a proud lioness but is also too quick to underestimate how vulnerable she is out there in all that open. A few eccentric johns she can handle, but squaring off with an ogre like Ramrod she may very well end up like the horribly-murdered Nina Blackwood. Hey, "Blackwood" - doesn't the Scorsese version of stalking sexual predator Max Cady tell his vulnerable teenaged prey he's from a Black Forest, then grin at her and say, "Maybe I'm the Big Big Wolf?" There's some Ramrod in Cape Fear's unrelenting good ol' boy psychopath; maybe Marty did make an exploitation movie in his heyday after all.
Scorsese could have very well picked up a few things from Vice Squad. The fact that Princess, Ramrod and the detectives run into a series of colorful urban dwellers (or C.U.D.) over the course of one long night may have influenced his interest in directing After Hours three years later. But what must have appealed to him were the film's golden touches of lurid content: shoving a woman's face right up into the pulpy mess that used to be her best friend, a mahjong-playing kung fu master destroying a hotel lobby, a bloody t-shirt that reads "Have You Hugged a Cop Today?" just kind of hung up in the background of a police station (where one giant desk cop is seriously pissed about his paperclips gone missing). The movie's insistence that it is a "composite of events that have actually taken place" is continuously undermined by its outrageous, almost (dare i say) comic book approach, but I think it's those moments that prove our boy Marty has a broader palate than those who would accuse him of snobbery might be willing to admit. He loves Fellini. He loves Renoir. He loves Kubrick and Michael Powell and Mizoguchi and Jacques Cocteau. He loves The Horse Thief. And he loves Vice Squad. If you asked him I'm sure he'd love to talk about it - albeit, perhaps, off the record.
wes anderson, 1996.
~ by marcus pinn ~
This series came at an interesting time as I recently revisited Bottle Rocket a few months ago with my wife (her first time watching). We moved at the end of June and were without cable for a couple of days so we had to rely on my dvd collection for media entertainment. I figured she’d dig Wes Anderson’s early work. There’s a 5 year age difference between us (I’m older) so she’s more familiar with the Royal Tenenbaums/Life Aquatic era of Wes Anderson’s career, while I’m more familiar with the Bottle Rocket/Rushmore era where his signature visual style was certainly there, but it wasn’t as prominent & overbearing.
I’m also weirdly fascinated with a lot of the recent headlines & news stories concerning Martin Scorsese. The whole “comic book movies aren’t cinema” thing is the dumbest argument/debate on both sides but I’m forever fascinated. I may not agree with the few things Mr. Scorsese said regarding comic book/superhero movies, but the responses have gotten so out of hand that it’s become people arguing against much bigger personal issues that truly have nothing to do with what he said or his movies.
“I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema…Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” - Martin Scorsese, Empire Magazine
Martin Scorsese’s initial comments back in 2019 have gotten people so upset that a nice majority of folks have taken to the (incorrect) stance that he's essentially just an old out of touch filmmaker and his movies are overrated and only about the mafia. Not only is that just not true (in the grand scheme of things his mafia/mafia-adjacent movies only make up a small fraction of his filmography), but it shows people embracing ignorance & stupidity in an effort to “stick it” to Scorsese. He doesn’t see your tweets and he doesn’t care. I’ve never seen a group of so-called cinema lovers tell on themselves. I saw a serious non-cynical semi-viral tweet where someone complained that Scorsese had cast Al Pacino in yet another one of his movies (for those of you that aren’t familiar, The Irishman is the first & only movie Al Pacino & Martin Scorsese have collaborated on). Just say all Italian-American names sound the same to you, go pre-order your tickets for The Eternals already and just let folks be.
This is an interesting case of people conveniently deciding what to be upset about. Outside of the many cases of popular filmmakers saying harsher things against other films & filmmakers in the past, do you mean to tell me that prior to Scorsese’s comments none of us have said unnecessarily mean things about movies (or entire genres of cinema) before? Stop it. Also, and I’m not the only one to say this, the comic book/super hero “side” has won. And they will continue to win. Why do some of you care what Martin Scorsese thinks when your movies are the biggest things out and will continue to be for a while. Some of my most personal favorite movies are ridiculed by some of my closest friends (two of those friends happen to run the website you’re reading this article on right now). Have I stopped being their friends because they don’t like To The Wonder? No. Because I don’t care. Their distaste for that movie doesn’t affect my enjoyment of it.
I swear - I’ve never seen a bigger group of sore winners before in my fucking life.
Now…that doesn’t mean the Scorsese “side” gets off clean either. Much like how hating on Martin Scorsese movies that you've probably never seen in the first place doesn’t give you a personality, hating comic book movies and grouping them all together under an umbrella of negativity and dunking on them isn’t a personality either. It’s corny. We’re also talking about Martin Scorsese. Similar to how there’s a faction on the “marvel” side that wants to be oppressed so badly, Martin Scorsese is a household name and will never have a problem getting a movie made. Didn’t Netflix recently give him free reign and a ton of money when making The Irishman?. You guys aren’t oppressed either.
What’s also disheartening is that The Irishman (which is excellent) has become more of a meme than anything else and it’s legacy will forever be tainted.
Personally, I enjoy Ant-Man more than something like The Aviator (yeah, I said it), but I’ll also take Marty’s best film over any comic/superhero film any day of the week. But that’s just me.
Outside of my own personal preference towards Scorsese’s (good/great) films over (most) comic book-based films, he’s attached his name & cache to a lot of smaller, independent & art house films over the years in an effort to give them more of a spotlight. From the underseen African film Soleil O to Joanna Hogg’s recent work. That sounds quite commendable, no? Truly a lover of cinema could appreciate that, right?
If it weren’t for Marty I wouldn’t have watched Wes Anderson’s excellent feature debut, Bottle Rocket.
Early Wes Anderson takes me back to my teenage years. Does anyone else remember how hard MTV pushed Bottle Rocket in the mid-ish/late-ish 90’s? I guess you had to be there. If you were born at any point in the 90s you might not remember but Wes Anderson’s relationship with MTV started prior to the Rushmore-themed vignettes that he directed for the MTV movie awards. If I remember this correctly, MTV not only produced a short EPK special for Bottle Rocket that used to air semi-regularly, but they also gave Wes Anderson the “best new filmmaker” award for Bottle Rocket at the 1996 MTV Movie awards (this award started in 1992 but I don't remember them making a big deal out of the award until Anderson won in 1996).
In a way, Wes Anderson’s early period (Bottle Rocket & Rushmore) bookmarked MTV’s last gasp at being a (somewhat) creative network that highlighted indie and/or up & coming artists from time to time. Don’t get me wrong - TRL was becoming king by the time Rushmore came around but there was still an attempt at a balance between the boyband fandom and somewhat interesting music, movies & shows.
Even with the MTV hype train behind it, Bottle Rocket wasn't the easiest movie to see in 1996. My hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts had a nice indie movie theater (and the town of Northampton right next door had two indie theaters), but to my knowledge I don’t remember it playing at any western Massachusetts theaters close to me. Also, I was only 14/15 years old when Bottle Rocket came out. By my freshman/sophomore year I was definitely one of the “movie guys” in my high school, but I was still a somewhat typical teenager. Band practice, football practice, track & field practice, etc. I only had so much time. I wasn’t going out of my way to seek out indie and/or arthouse films like a fanatic until my senior year of high school going in to college. After a certain point I kind of forgot about Bottle Rocket.
I didn’t even actually see it until well after Rushmore. It might’ve been my sophomore year of college so somewhere between 2000-2001? I saw somewhere that Martin Scorsese had listed it as one of his favorite films of the 90s and that only made me more intrigued. Between the ages 18-21, Martin Scorsese was king along with all the other typical filmmakers that young American cinephiles worshiped during that period (Kubrick, Bergman, Cassavetes, Jarmusch, etc). Scorsese’s word meant something so I bought the Bottle Rocket DVD (which included a Scorsese endorsement on the cover) and I fell in love with the tale of three wannabe petty criminals on the run from Johnny Law before it was even over.
A decade or so after listing Bottle Rocket on his personal favorite films of 90’s, Scorsese wrote a small piece about it in Esquire Magazine. It’s still one of his favorites:
“A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I watched a film called Bottle Rocket. I knew nothing about it, and the movie really took me by surprise. Here was a picture without a trace of cynicism, that obviously grew out of its director's affection for his characters in particular and for people in general. A rarity. And the central idea of the film is so delicate, so human: A group of young guys think that their lives have to be filled with risk and danger in order to be real. They don't know that it's okay simply to be who they are."
My initial fascination with Bottle Rocket was post-Rushmore/pre-Royal Tenenbaums. This was around 2001 so Tenenbaums was just about to hit theaters and the folks of my generation were about to lose the Wes Anderson we knew. The style/look that we know today wasn't a thing just yet (the release of Tenenbaums kind of officially ushered in that style of Peter Greenaway influenced, vintage corduroy clothes, plucky/quirky string music and centered shots that became cemented in to our psyches for the next 20 years). Wes Anderson’s visual style is certainly all over Rushmore but we only had that and Bottle Rocket as a reference so we didn’t know what to expect for the next 20 years and counting.
It almost feels like some of Wes Anderson’s most vocal fans today didn’t discover his work until Royal Tenenbaums/The Life Aquatic. While they’ve certainly gone back and watched the more subdued/stripped down stuff like Bottle Rocket, they didn’t experience it early on so it almost feels like a historical artifact to them. They only seem to relate deeply to the Wes Anderson of the last 20 years.
On one hand - you have to give it to Wes for doubling, tripling & quadrupling down on his style with each project. If you did a Wes Anderson film festival over a weekend starting with
Bottle Rocket and ending on The French Dispatch (I can only judge that one based off the the trailer & stills), you can clearly see him turning up his style a notch (or two or three notches) with each movie. If I had a chart you’d see a steady progression. It’s almost like his style is a response to some of his negative critics. He’s saying; “oh you think my style is too much or too quirky? Well…I’ll just amp it up even more on the next movie I make”. Part of me appreciates his (presumed) stubbornness.
But on the other hand - one could say he’s become a parody of himself. It’s gotten to the point where Wes Anderson’s style is joked about and made fun of on sketch comedy platforms, and some the films he’s directly influenced in the 15+ years or so just come off like bad parodies or insults of his work (Napoleon Dynamite, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, Submarine, etc). Wes Anderson has an overly loyal fanbase that can sometimes never seem to comprehend any negative criticism towards his films, so I’m sure there will be some pushback against what I’m about to say but, he’s taken up the mantle left by Tim Burton. And I’m aware Tim Burton is alive & well but who is checking for a new Tim Burton movie in 2021? I’m not. I don’t know anyone else who is. I’m sure there’s a small handful of people out there reading this right now professing to still love Tim Burton’s current movies in an almost defiantly bratty way just to be contradictory against what I’m saying, but my point still stands. Tim Burton is not the director he was decades ago. I just personally think it’s a problem when style completely overshadows literally everything else about a movie. And I see that has happened with Wes Anderson.
But things were different in the 90s…
Wes Anderson was young, new & fresh.
Rushmore, along with other films like Welcome To the Dollhouse, American Pie &
Ghost World, captured my specific generation. We were the kids that just missed generation X, but we’re too old to be considered millennials (or at least we just didn’t fit in with that millennial label because we had a connection to Gen X).
When Welcome To The Dollhouse came out I was about to make the transition from middle school to high school like Dawn. When
Rushmore came out I was in the middle of high school and close to the same age as Max Fischer. By the time
American Pie came out I was at the end of my senior year of High School about to make transition to college. When
Ghost World came out I was out of high school like Enid & Rebecca trying to find my place in life.
Rushmore and the other films in that lane have a special place in my heart. So by the time I finally watched
Bottle Rocket I was a full fledged Wes Anderson fan just off of the strength of one movie.
I may not exactly relate to the characters of Anthony, Dignan & Bob (the failed criminals we follow in Anderson’s feature debut), but they were around the same age as me when I discovered
Bottle Rocket and even though I had a somewhat clear path in life at that point in my early 20’s (architecture & design), they still captured that young aimless feeling that I had from time to time while I was in college. It was the comfort movie for my friends and I. We used to quote specific lines from Bottle Rocket made famous by Owen Wilson’s Dignan at random to make each other laugh (the way Wilson/Dignan says; “I can’t focus unless the gun is on the table” remains undefeated). It became our special movie.
To this day Bottle Rocket remains my favorite Owen Wilson performance. Maybe not his best acting, but still my personal favorite. Everyone should have a friend similar to Dignan. He’s certainly obnoxious and has a false sense of reality but he’s an incredibly positive person who puts his friends before himself.
To quote Luke Wilson’s Anthony in Bottle Rocket:
“Say what you will about him [Dignan] but he’s no cynic and he’s no quitter.”
Just look at the structure of the film and how it’s bookended. Bottle Rocket starts with Dignan “breaking” his friend Anthony out of a voluntary mental institution (Dignan doesn’t know it’s voluntary) and it ends with him taking the fall for a burglary in order to not get Anthony arrested. He’s truly a loyal friend.
The characters of Bottle Rocket are incredibly lost and insecure like a lot of folks in their early 20s. It’s definitely a lesser acknowledged Generation X movie but something we all can relate to. Even on a surface level.
Marty really hit the nail on the head when he said; “They don’t know that it’s okay to simply be who they are”. Anthony & Bob come from an upper class background. Dignan may not come from that background but he’s still familiar with that world. Why the hell do they want to be criminals? They could be doing so many other things. They’re dorks. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with being a dork. But there is a problem when you try to be something you aren’t (like a violent criminal). Back when the film came out, the Boston Globe perfectly described Bottle Rocket as “Reservoir Geeks”. This is such a great description because it’s not just about geeks (Bottle Rocket) trying to be criminals and pulling off heists (Reservoir Dogs). Bottle Rocket came at the tail-end of the height of the Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction era of indie film. The stench of early Tarantino is still all over cinema to this day, but back in the mid/late-90s it was so blinding. Every god damn thing was Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Films like Bottle Rocket and the lesser acknowledged Palookaville (which is essentially Bottle Rocket for fake tough guys from Staten Island or New Jersey) almost did a minor reset on that lane of Tarantino influenced films where a certain specific type of dork penned these super violent crime stories yet didn’t have the first clue about what truly goes in to living a life of crime in the real world.
And not to be too disrespectful - but one could say the same thing about a young Martin Scorsese (whose influence is all over the work of Tarantino). Marty doesn’t personally know anything about the criminal life. Perhaps that’s why he appreciated Bottle Rocket so much. Maybe he saw a bit of himself in Anthony, Dignan & Bob...
Luke Wilson as Anthony is also a quietly solid performance as the straight man to the comical relief Dignan (if you’re only a casual Bottle Rocket fan, go back and rewatch it and pay attention to all the funny lines that he says under his breath throughout the movie).
Anyone familiar with Wes Anderson knows that the Wilson brothers (that includes older brother Andrew Wilson) are a fixture in his films (along with the obvious folks like Bill Murray & Jason Schwartzman). Earlier I traced the trajectory of Wes Anderson upping his specific visual style with each film. Another interesting detail to add to that trajectory is the absence of Luke Wilson post-Royal Tenenbaums. As soon as Luke Wilson stepped away from the “cinematic universe” of Wes Anderson, Anderson's films got more and more Wes Andseron-y. Is this a coincidence? I truly believe that once/if Luke comes back in to the fold we’ll get a slightly more grounded version of Wes Anderson.
There’s a grounded/down to earth presence about Luke Wilson that he brings to most of his movies. While they’re still friends, it’s been reported that the working relationship got really tense between Luke & Wes while making Royal Tenenbaums which is why Luke stepped away. I know this series is supposed to be about movies discovered through Martin Scorsese, but I’d also like to use this platform to manifest a Luke Wilson/Wes Anderson reunion. It’s been 20 years. Enough is enough. Part of me would kind of respect Luke Wilson if he never returned to the world of Wes Anderson leaving us with his second best performance after Blue Streak. But it would also be a nice treat for all of us OG fans.
There is a glimmer of hope. In Luke’s own words from just a few months ago:
“I mean, yeah, we keep in touch and are always kind of talking about doing something, and it’s just a matter of putting the band back together” - Luke Wilson, The Playlist.
THE RED SHOES
Emeric Pressburger/Michael Powell, 1948.
~ by christopher funderburg ~
Martin Scorsese loves movies, that’s the first thing they tell you on the first day of being a Serious Cinephile. As much as he’s defined by his work, he’s almost equally defined by his vociferous, verbose advocacy for world cinema and its preservation. But what does it mean to “love movies”? Don’t Spielberg and DePalma love movies? What makes Scorsese the emissary of world cinema - is it only that he goes a step (or two) farther in extolling the virtures of Truffaut & Kurosawa? No. The love anyone is talking about isn’t just that Scorsese runs a distribution company.
Growing up, Martin Scorsese didn’t mean anything to me as a filmmaker. Early on in my cinema-going life, at maybe 16 or 17, I decided that the New Hollywood “mavericks” were a load of a shit. That’s the kind of kid I was and if you want me to defend being the kind of kid who adored Godard and Truffaut but despised Steven Spielberg and Hal Ashby, I can’t offer any kind of defense except that it isn’t any happier to be that kind of kid than it is to have to put up with being around them.
It doesn’t matter why Scorsese’s movies didn’t click for me (there’s no denying that a bit of my distaste was unfair but how could I love Scorsese when the worst person in every film school had a poster of Taxi Driver on his wall?) And I didn’t dig deep: I quickly tuned out that entire generation of American cinema and instead obsessed over the filmmakers that I did click with (like Truffaut.) And Truffaut happened to be the kind of deeply opinionated & cruelly dismissive critical voice that appealed to the kind of kid willing to wave off Friedkin entirely because they didn’t like The French Connection.
There’s a reason Truffaut and Godard are the eternal first loves of young cinephiles, discovered at age when you’re apt to believe most deeply in Valery’s assertion that “taste is made up of a thousand distastes” and listing each and every one of those thousand things you hate is still exciting, still gives you a sense of definition and purpose. And at that age, you don’t know anything (not 1000 things to dislike, for sure) so you naturally look to your heroes for taste and definition. And all I knew about British Cinema was Truffaut’s withering quote: “To put it bluntly… there [is] a certain incompatibility between the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain.’”
If I was too quick to dismiss The New Hollywood as a kid, I was ten times too quick to dismiss British cinema based on Truffaut’s blanket dismissal. If it was made in the UK, I didn’t even consider watching it. In my defense, the mid-90s were a particularly grim time for British cinema (literally grim, even) and my ideas about what Truffaut meant by British cinema were probably an ill-formed mess about kitchen sink melodramas and Britcoms. But the long and short of it is that I threw filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the trash without even having seen a single one of their films.
I can understand now that a lot of Truffaut’s animus comes from the traditional, knowingly childish “France vs. England” cultural spat where both sides look violently down their noses at each other. And I probably should’ve understood even then that the man who loved Hitchcock wasn’t demanding a stringent cultural embargo on all things tea and crumpets. But it’s complicated. As Terrence Rafferty points out, Truffaut’s work (and films) feel like a personalized letter to the audience, an intimate exchange about the things that matter: life, love, cinema. Truffaut isn’t just an artist whose work you’re meant to receive, he encourages you to feel an emotional relationship with him both as an artist and a man.
A little later, maybe a year or two into college, I saw Scorsese on some kind of a PBS-type panel show. He was, as he invariably does, speaking with great speed and enthusiasm about a slew of movies he loved, each one a masterpiece, each one the singular expression of a vital artistic voice. I can’t remember exactly what he said about The Red Shoes, only that he got serious and slowed down for a moment. The program then showed a clip from the film, the moment where Moira Shearer hops into the shoes and they lace themselves up. “Cinema as music,” he says.
Scorsese is a lot of cinephiles’ first love, too.
I remember hearing Scorsese talk about the film and watching the clip even more vividly than I remember seeing the movie for the first time, when it immediately became one of my favorites. I saw The Red Shoes on the advice of a filmmaker I thought I hated and felt like such an asshole: I had been particularly resistant to Red Shoes director Michael Powell’s work not only on Truffaut’s faintly idiotic directive but because I knew Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, had been married to Powell. Like such an asshole, I loved to bring up that Powell was a very classy 35 years older than Schoonmaker when they got married and a powerful figure in an industry where women had to fight to keep afloat. I made these artists I never met into enemies and villains in my mind.
The Red Shoes is a beautiful and bizarre movie, dreamy, elegant, charming, existentially brutal, all the things I love in an artwork. The production design, the costumes, the interplay of sound and editing, its cinematic rhythms; it is beautiful, tragically, elegantly beautiful. I love The Red Shoes as much as I love any movie and I wasn’t even going to see it. A single line from a filmmaker I loved shut my eyes and a few words from a filmmaker I thought I hated opened them again.
It’d be too cutesy to say that I had some deep moment of reflection where I saw that my heroes could be wrong (even I already knew that) or that I saw myself in The Red Shoe’s story of a character over-defined and ruined by their artistic identity (I definitely did not). But it did make me think about the ways in which we all (or maybe just me and you) needlessly commit to an artist, pledge ourselves to their work, refuse to hear the bad word about our beloved even when we know better. And vice versa.
But that’s the story of every first love: you search every line of every letter sent for a hidden meaning and feel each word written with an intense weight it can’t possibly bear. In that pin-prick moment when it’s finally punctured, you think “I don’t think I even know what the fuck love is.” It gives you enough wisdom to go on with it but better and when you look back you see you gained The Red Shoes and lost nothing. When anybody tells you “Scorsese loves movies,” that’s what they mean, it’s that kind of a love story.
~ NOVEMBER 16, 2021 ~