Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published August 18, 2016
Martin Scorsese. © Brigitte Lacombe

In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Martin Scorsese drew on a painting by Hieronymus Bosch showing the grotesque faces of spectators watching the carrying of the Cross. The image is a mild surprise in the Scorsese exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Most of the display feels rooted in New York City, more especially in those ‘mean streets’ of Little Italy, where the director grew up.
The poles of that small world were the Catholic Church and the Mafia. The young Scorsese, who entertained ideas about becoming a priest, would go on to make legendary films about gangsters.
The Last Temptation’, was a project that suffered at least one false start when Paramount wouldn’t commit funds. The final product proved controversial due to the suggestion that Jesus may have been a sexual being, but even this didn’t save it at the box office.
The failure of the movie was a disappointment to Scorsese, but perhaps its real purpose was to help him get Catholicism out of his system. He once told an interviewer: “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” These twin addictions go a long way towards explaining why Scorsese has spent years in psychoanalysis, and perhaps why he has been married five times. An obsessive personality, he has subsumed the needs of life to the demands of work, and invested that work with the full panoply of personal compulsions.
Scorsese’s temperament is writ large in the show at ACMI, which reveals his almost crazed perfectionism, his passion for cinema history, and his need to turn every project into an exploration of his own psyche. Although he seems to fit François Truffaut’s template of a cinematic auteur – a director with a particular worldview and a signature style – he is also a great collaborator, willing to incorporate creative suggestions from long-term associates such as scriptwriter, Paul Schrader; set designer, Dante Ferretti; cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus; editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; and costumier, Sandy Powell.
The exhibition pays tribute to the work of Powell in a series of original costumes and designs, and to Ferretti, Schoonmaker and Ballhaus in impressive movie clips. The rest of the show is a mixture of memorabilia, storyboard drawings, archival photos and film excerpts. It’s a bower bird’s nest that doesn’t have the same compelling interest as last year’s David Bowie survey, which managed to forge an absorbing experience out of a disparate mass of material. With Scorsese one always feels it is the movies themselves that matter, while the bric-à-brac is largely a distraction.
If I had to choose the most riveting part of the show it would be the clips from the movies, notably the amazing sequence in The Color of Money in which Tom Cruise clears the billiard table; the fight scenes in Raging Bull; or the entrance to the Copacabana Club in Goodfellas. In recent films the stand-out sequence must be the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street, where Leo DiCaprio’s character takes a handful of quaaludes, and slow motion carnage ensues.
All these sequences are better experienced within the context of the films, where they advance the story. The exhibition itself never becomes more than the sum of its parts.
For such a perfectionist Scorsese is a remarkably patchy director. Every masterpiece such as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, is matched by films that have failed to ignite either critics or popular audiences. The failure of The Last Temptation’ is interesting in light of the massive popularity of Mel Gibson’s brutal, bloody The Passion of the Christ in 2004. Was there huge growth in Christian belief during the 16 years that separates these films? It seems more likely that Scorsese lost out because of the complexity of his vision, as opposed to Gibson’s directness.
The early reviewers of The Last Temptation’ complained that Schrader’s script made Jesus and the boys sound like they’d stepped out of a bar in downtown Manhattan. By contrast Gibson had his characters speaking Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin. The psychological complexities of the Scorsese film reflected the director’s own tortuous, doubted-filled feelings about his lapsed Catholicism. Gibson, by contrast, approached his task with a believer’s evangelical zeal.
The Scorsese film represents a strange compromise, with Willem Dafoe as Jesus and Harvey Keitel as Judas, looking every bit as unlikely as Jeffrey Hunter and Rip Torn in the corresponding roles in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961). Yet there is also a fastidious care taken with historical details – in the way Jesus is fixed to the Cross for instance. Scorsese doesn’t simply borrow images from Bosch, but from artists such as Mantegna and Giotto. The dialogue, which many find jarring, may be seen as a way of conferring familiarity and immediacy on the events of the New Testament. Gibson portrayed the same events in a way that keeps us at an awe-struck distance. The Passion of the Christ addresses the faithful, while Scorsese keeps his options open.
What can a director do? It’s absurd to believe any movie can accurately depict the world in which Christ lived and died, although plenty have tried. One of the reasons I dwell on this film is because it was an occasion when Scorsese ventured outside of his comfort zone. The only time he may have gone further was with Kundun (1997), which tells the story of the childhood of the Dalai Lama; or perhaps with Hugo (2011), his sole attempt at a children’s film.
Even these excursions are not as radical as they initially appear, as religious symbolism plays a part in almost every one of Scorsese’s features. There are several actual crucifixions, and many other scenes in which characters face death (or sex) with arms outstretched. Kundun seems less of a departure when we learn that Scorsese is a devotee of Transcendental Meditation.
Hugo is a barely-disguised homage to Georges Méliès and the early days of cinema, another installment in Scorsese’s catalogue of films that draw on the work of revered directors and favourite movies. In 1991 Scorsese gave us a remake of J.Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962). In The Color of Money (1986), he shot a sequel to Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). Even The Departed (2006), the film for which he finally received a much-coveted Academy Award, was a remake of the Hong Kong crime flick, Internal Affairs (2002).
The references grow ever more precise when we learn that one of the boxing ring scenes in Raging Bull is modelled on the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); or that a meal eaten by Travis Bickle, the anti-hero of Taxi Driver, copies a meal in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951).
Every director is a cinema buff before he or she begins making films, but there are certain figures whose love and knowledge of the movies seems to colour everything they do. François Truffaut is one example, Jim Jarmusch another, but Scorsese’s cinephilia may be the most acute case ever recorded. The downside is that his movies can become too self-conscious, too calculated in their construction – which may be why he enjoys collaborating with other strong personalities that bring their own ideas to the look and feel of a project.
The good and the bad of a Scorsese movie are often closely aligned, as in the bold experimentation saw him use late 20th century music as the soundtrack for Shutter Island (2010) rather than a specially composed score. One can admire his sense of adventure, even if this music frequently proved distracting.
When we think of Scorsese’s movies we think of the big city, of crime and violence, of obsessive loners. Those loners, as Scorsese is quick to admit, are always substitutes for the director himself. They are, however, almost exclusively from the dark side.
The characters played by actors such as Robert De Niro, and latterly by Leonardo DiCaprio, rarely inspire trust. In a confessional impulse that testifies to the ongoing influence of Catholicism, Scorsese exposes the insecurities, the rage and ambition that lie so close to the surface of these technically brilliant exercises in filmmaking. It may be the reason why even Scorsese’s failures are more convincing than most of the Hollywood movies that hold today’s box office records.
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne Until 18 September.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20th August, 2016