The King of Comedy: a dark and cynical work on the cult of fame and its dark twin, in a world where reality and fantasy may be one and the same

Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” (1982)

I suppose most directors worth their salt who have amassed a considerable body of work have a sleeper film in there somewhere that initially bombed at the box office but which over the years has become a cult masterpiece. For US director Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” lays good claim to being that film: in spite of its title and the presence of actors like Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall, this is a dark and often bitter and cynical work on the cult of fame and celebrity, and how notoriety, infamy and ignominy are its dark twin sister. Viewers are invited to sympathise with the film’s lead character Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) who pursues purpose and meaning in his otherwise empty life, and who is unwilling (perhaps justifiably) to join the long queue of wannabe celebrity stand-up comedians doing time in clubs before indifferent audiences, telling the same jokes over and over, in the hope of breaking into showbiz, hobnobbing with other rich and famous actors and directors, earning millions and living a luxurious material (and just as spiritually empty) life, even as his fantasies combined with his lack of self-awareness lead him into carrying out desperate acts that end up pointing in one direction … to a maximum high-security prison for six years on charges of kidnapping.

Appropriately the film opens in an already disturbing way with late-night TV talk-show host Jerry Langford (Lewis in restrained form) being mobbed by autograph hounds and a deranged woman (Sandra Bernhard) who believes herself to be in love with Langford and he with her. Pupkin uses the commotion she creates to ask Langford if he can appear on his show; Langford tells Pupkin to contact his secretary. Pupkin does so the next day and the secretary (Shelley Hack) asks him to produce a tape of his work. Pupkin obliges and after hearing the tape, Langford’s staff advise him to get some work experience and polish his act. All through Pupkin’s encounters with Langford and his staff, viewers see that Pupkin is at once naive and deranged, and detached from the reality around him. The truth is that Pupkin is a mediocre talent with no social life and no connections that could get him a gig in a club.

As Pupkin becomes more demented, convinced that Langford has befriended him and is willing to be his mentor, the aspiring comedian begins to stalk his office and his home, and it is here that viewers see something of Langford’s personal life and the heavy price he has had to pay on the road to fame and fortune. While Pupkin aspires to become famous to escape the hell of poverty, loneliness and anonymity, Langford is a bitter and paranoid character insulated from the outside world by layers of lawyers, advisors and various hangers-on, all of them necessary to protect him from stalkers and fans who regard him as public property; there are occasions in the film where Langford escapes from his various cocoons to mingle with the crowds and feel anonymous. It is appropriate that the two men’s paths should cross repeatedly in the film to the extent that they exchange places and for one brief moment Pupkin achieves the fame he desires and Langford the anonymity he craves; in one scene where Langford sees Pupkin on TV, the grim and knowing expression on his face as he watches Pupkin is priceless.

The supporting cast is good to excellent: Sandra Bernhard as the equally deranged and lovelorn fashion designer Masha nearly steals every scene she shares with de Niro; other actors hold up their own without appearing to be overwhelmed working with Lewis or de Niro.

The blend of reality and Pupkin’s fantasy, to the extent where audiences are not sure whether the film’s denouement is one or the other, is smooth and just as disturbing as Pupkin’s own fragile grip on sanity. This suggests that the society in which Pupkin and others like him and Masha are able, sometimes even encouraged, to indulge their fantasies and resort to desperate actions is itself highly disturbed and also unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In a world where Western mainstream news media has become little more than a global public relations outfit for governments, corporations and the people behind them pursuing their own agendas and dreams of grandeur and self-importance, and the public is fed so-called news that bears no connection to real events, “The King of Comedy”, despite its ageing look – it was made over 35 years ago after all – still has something relevant to say to modern audiences.

New York, New York: a homage to and a subversion of Hollywood / Broadway glamour, fame and artifice

Martin Scorsese, “New York, New York” (1977)

One of Martin Scorsese’s most under-rated films, in my opinion, and in many ways an experimental and even surreal film, “New York, New York” scores in my little red book for subverting Hollywood stereotypes about boy-meets-girl / boy and girl fall in love / boy and girl fall out / boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after, and the conventions of Hollywood film musicals at their biggest and brassiest. At once it’s Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood and Broadway musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s and his critique of the fantasy world that such musicals encouraged their viewers to hide in rather than face and deal with the humdrum realities of daily life or their personal issues. The film also showcases its lead star Liza Minnelli’s talent as a singer and actor and gives her the opportunity to race through more than her fair share of fantasy Hollywood / Broadway music numbers and mini-dramas that reference aspects of her mother Judy Garland’s career. At the heart of the film though is the romance between two flawed and dysfunctional human beings, their stormy relationship and how it influences their lives and leads them to pursue their own paths and creativity.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert de Niro), a recently returned World War II veteran and saxophonist, is out looking for fun and girls at a victory celebration when he spies Francine Evans (Minnelli) and starts pursuing her. De Niro’s playing of Doyle is electric and not a little reminiscent of his creepy and obsessive character Jake Lamotta in “Taxi Driver”, another Scorsese vehicle for his talent, and Doyle’s relentless stalking of Evans can have viewers on the edge of their seats. Doyle and Evans briefly play a week at a small night-club as a sax and singing duo before Evans high-tails back to her agent and her usual role as singer for a travelling jazz band. Doyle chases her and the band around the country and eventually joins the band as saxophonist, later becoming its leader. The film follows their tempestuous romance as it develops and blossoms into marriage and Evans’ pregnancy, and follows the consequences of Evans’ changed state as she decides to return to New York and take up a career recording albums. Doyle’s time as band-leader is short-lived due to his mercurial temperament and his having to replace Evans with a mediocre singer. From then on, the film sees Evans and Doyle drift further apart, Evans pursuing her recording career in a style of jazz Doyle increasingly finds stale and unchallenging while he is drawn to the more vibrant style of swing and bebop developing in the black neighbourhoods of New York.

The character development is steady if slow and at times Doyle’s insensitive, self-centred character with hints of instability and violence can be wearying. Evans displays worrying signs of codependency as she puts up with Doyle’s domineering nature and need to control her actions and decisions. Both de Niro and Minnelli are marvellous to watch as their characters bounce off each other and the stormy argument they have while they are driving away from a night-club is a sight to behold. The music is a third character in the film, fascinating to hear as it changes through the decades and splits into two parallel jazz styles that mirror the increasing psychological separation between Doyle and Evans.

Visually the film is a treat, culminating in the surreal Broadway number in which Evans, playing Peggy Smith in a show within a show, almost recapitulates her life through the story of an usherette who chances to meet a rich film producer who appreciates her talent and makes her a star. The film combines a lavish and richly glowing style of presentation, especially in scenes where Doyle and Evans are performing either together or separately, with a documentary-style realist treatment of the two characters’ relationship and the work they must do in writing and rehearsing their music, and travelling from one club gig to the next with their band in early scenes of the movie.

The film’s end which initially did not find favour with most audiences when it was first released, seems absolutely right to me: Doyle’s acceptance of Evans’ decision might demonstrate how much he may have matured over the years, realising that he cannot control Evans or their child forever and that his music and her music may never find common ground again. His music is moving ever forward, and he willingly and impulsively follows where it goes, whereas Evans seems stuck in an increasingly artificial music world where her career continues to be controlled by other men.

Viewers may find the film’s inter-twined themes about following one’s heart and the effect of that on one’s relationships with others, the nature of fame and how it tears people apart, and the clash between artificiality and realism intriguing if confusing and scattershot.

An affectionate if subjective review of a musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)” (2011)

I had expected the second part of this documentary on George Harrison to be more interesting than the first and to be quite deep – it covers the second half of his life after all! – but the reality is that it is no more than an affectionate series of snapshots and fond reminiscences by family members and friends who loved him or worked with him. There is little exploration into why Harrison was so drawn to following esoteric Hindu and other Indian traditions and philosophies, how he was able to reconcile being a major celebrity and popular music icon, with enormous wealth and influence at his finger-tips, with following a spiritual path which must have beckoned him at some stage of his life to renounce his material life-style and possessions. One suspects that Harrison’s understanding of the Eastern traditions might have been a bit naive or self-serving, and not very self-critical or engaged in self-examination; there is mention in the documentary of his cocaine habit and his infidelity to his first wife Pattie Boyd (who divorced him in 1977 because of his repeated unfaithfulness and his alcohol and cocaine abuse) and later to second wife Olivia Arias, so his spiritual quest was certainly an odd one that permitted self-indulgence. Since the point of the film is supposedly to investigate how a famous celebrity comes to follow a personal spiritual quest in order to deal with the pressure of fame and the emptiness of easy wealth, and how that person lives with the contradictions that arise as a result, the documentary’s failure to do so in a meaningful way to those audiences not familiar with Harrison’s music or musical history leaves the whole project looking like a moving scrapbook of memories and selected highlights that might or might not be interesting to know.

The format that Martin Scorsese uses to make the documentary – allowing interviewees to ramble at some length and slotting them together in a meandering chronological narrative along with snippets of old photographs and film – strains at its limitations: everyone interviewed speaks warmly of Harrison and his generosity with money and material possessions, his puckish humour and various eccentricities. Harrison’s boundless generosity, stemming from his beliefs, leads him to an unexpected career as a film producer, providing financial backing to various British films in the 1980s through Handmade Films and helping to keep the British film industry afloat during that decade. The interviews generally present a positive view of Harrison and he comes off looking a like a saint. The film-making approach makes a sober assessment of Harrison’s life and spirituality impossible. (The fact that Olivia Harrison was a co-producer might partly explain the film’s generally forgiving view towards her late husband.) Large gaps in Harrison’s musical career in the late 1970s,  part of the 1980s and most of the following decade are glossed over. Inexplicably there is no mention of the recording and release of his album Thirty Three & 1/3 in 1976 which revived public interest in Harrison’s career after a creative slump in the early to mid-1970s.

Anyone wanting an evaluation on how significant Harrison was as a musician and song-writer during his life, even as some sort of guide or exemplar of living a spiritual life, and whether the legacy he left after his death has stood the test of time and grown, won’t find the answer in what is essentially a hagiography.

A survey of social and cultural changes in 1960s Britain through one musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)” (2011)

A really very thoughtful and fascinating documentary (in its first half at least) on the life and career of the British rock musician icon George Harrison, as told by the people who knew him and worked with him, in more or less chronological order from his days as a working-class Liverpool schoolboy jamming with the kids who together would become one of the world’s most beloved and influential rock bands. Hollywood director Martin Scorsese performs a very deft job tracing Harrison’s development as a musician, a song-writer and a man on a personal spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in his life. Harrison’s maturation as a musician and person took place during a period of social and cultural ferment in Britain, one in which his band The Beatles was itself a major player, attracting other musicians, artists, photographers and various hangers-on, not all of whom had something worthwhile to give. The pressures of fame, wealth, the power and influence that come with having money and celebrity, and the often unwelcome attentions of a media hungry for sales and profit or of groupies, drug dealers and others, were deeply felt by the band members both individually and collectively, and Harrison felt such strains perhaps more deeply than the other members – hence the sub-title, in which living with such easy wealth pushed Harrison into questioning the direction and purpose of his life and heading onto a more spiritual path.

Part 1 deals with Harrison’s time with The Beatles: his career then is more or less synchronous with the band’s musical evolution right up until 1966 when meeting the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar exposes Harrison to a very different musical tradition and culture which leads him to investigate meditation and spiritualism. The documentary moves with the ease and flow of classical Indian improvisational music through the 1960s and shows something of the rapidly changing musical and cultural scene in Britain. The creative conflicts among The Beatles crop up as a motif throughout the documentary.

One expects that the former surviving members of The Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ring Starr) will appear in the documentary and they do. Ex-wife Pattie Boyd and best friend Eric Clapton (who was in love with Boyd while she was married to Harrison and who married her after the Harrisons divorced) also appear. Though there is a lot of talk about the internal politics that drove The Beatles apart, there is very little about how Harrison approached the song-writing process, how he became a talented and capable composer in his own right such that Frank Sinatra adopted one of his songs “Something” into his own repertoire, and why his talent was slow to develop to the extent that it was overshadowed for a long time by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

(Of course one of the problems in making a documentary about a dead person based entirely on interviews with the people who knew him is that they will often be inclined to speak well of him, rather than criticise his shortcomings, and this is certainly the case here with this documentary with the result that Harrison perhaps comes off as a better person than he actually deserves to be. His martial infidelities which cost him his marriage to Boyd are passed over. Plus one hardly expects the likes of McCartney to rue his and Lennon’s treatment of Harrison as an inferior in the song-writing department to the extent that Harrison’s contributions to The Beatles’ collective work were held to much higher standards than Lennon and McCartney’s compositions.)

Fittingly Part 1 ends with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, one of the great Beatles classics and the first such song to feature a guest musician (Eric Clapton on lead guitar) in a significant role, thus signalling Harrison’s eventual break away from The Beatles into his solo career and life which I presume will be covered by Part 2.

The documentary is aimed at people who know The Beatles’ music and something of their history and the times in which they lived. For others (mostly young people born after the 1970s), the documentary may be confusing and even pointless: Harrison wasn’t the most prolific member of the band and was certainly very self-effacing, and his otherworldly songs are not always the most pop-friendly chart-topping pieces. But perhaps that is all the more reason for Scorsese to have made a documentary about him. The film’s narrative structure seems very loose but that is deliberate: it’s intended to flow in a wandering way yet it still goes from A to B all the way to Z.

The Wolf of Wall Street: a film of empty and numbing spectacle and comedy sketch

Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)

Adapted from the 2007 memoir by the former convicted stockbroker swindler and current motivational speaker Jordan R Belfort, this film is intended as an immersion into the world and times of this man, played by Leonardo di Caprio, perhaps with the aim of trying to find out what made him tick and whether, after time in jail, two broken marriages and the lives of thousands of people in ruin, the man has learned something from his experiences. The film traces Belfort’s career as a stockbroker beginning some time in the late 1980s when he joins L F Rothschild, a merchant bank and investment firm not related to the famous European family, and is befriended by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who teaches him a few rather unsavoury things. The merchant bank crashes in the wake of Black Tuesday in October 1987 just after Belfort gets his stockbroker’s licence. Down and out, he accepts a new job at a brokerage firm that sells stocks of somewhat dodgy companies by cold-calling potential clients by telephone. Using Hanna’s lessons, Belfort applies high-pressure sales tactics in his work and rapidly rises to the top. He befriends his next-door neighbour Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and together they found a new stockbroking firm Stratton Oakmont Inc, taking some of Belfort’s work colleagues along. Stratton Oakmont Inc rapidly rises in wealth and notoriety due to Belfort and Company’s use of shady tactics that involve feeding misleading information about companies (in which Belfort and his minions have already invested) to naive investors to encourage them to buy stocks and raise the the firms’ share prices. Once the share prices reach a certain level, Stratton Oakmont Inc sells the shares, causing the prices to crash, making millions in profit for the stockbrokers but leaving their clients flat broke.

The film avidly follows Belfort’s high-flying life-style in which the ingestion of cocaine, quaaludes and various other illegal substances and their dubious combinations are inhaled, a parade of hookers and strippers passes through Belfort’s bed-sheets, and expensive cars, yachts, mansions and holidays in exotic parts of the world are consumed and burnt up faster than Belfort can burn the cash and the credit cards. (There’s hardly anything though about the exertions Belfort spends on scamming clients of their money.) The FBI, represented by Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), is soon on Belfort’s trail and tracks his and his colleagues’ movements. In the meantime, Belfort goes through two marriages, the latter to pretty blonde Naomi (Margot Robbie) after whom he names his luxury yacht. Eventually after a series of narrow escapes and misadventures, rendered in blackly humorous style, Lady Luck deserts Belfort and he finds himself out in the slammer in a burning Nevada desert. His firm Stratton Oakmont Inc also goes down in flames and only Donnie Azoff narrowly escapes jail, having been tipped off by Belfort that the Feds are on his case too.

Scorsese’s use of first-person viewpoint in which di Caprio frequently addresses the audience (face on as well) brings the viewer into the film as a sort of co-conspirator; I think this is intended to heighten the immersive effect of the movie. The film’s three-hour running time and its breathless pace also plunge the audience deeply into the action. We are propelled through Belfort’s whirlwind life and times with barely a chance to catch our breath and consider whether we are as guilty as Belfort in watching him and presumably cheering him on, hoping against hope that he doesn’t get caught by the FBI. At the same time, the narrow focus on Belfort shuts out competing viewpoints: we don’t see the anguish of his clients, many of them naive Mom-and-Dad investors who have scrimped and saved over the decades, when they lose their precious life savings, face bankruptcy and foreclosure of their homes, and even maybe contemplate suicide. We don’t see Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman) having to deal with the fall-out from his association with Stratton Oakmont Inc. We don’t see how Belfort’s marriages dissolve as a result of his drug-induced rampages, funny though they often are, and the effects of his behaviour on his children and house-keeping staff.

After all is said and done, and the end credits start to scroll, the viewer realises that not much about Belfort and people like him, and the culture that birthed him, has been said that hasn’t already been told by other films like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and Mary Harron’s “American Psycho”.  Scorsese substitutes an assembly line of in-your-face spectacles and repetitive comedy sketches for story-telling. The effect of seeing one misadventure after another involving expensive purchases like a sports-car and a luxury yacht being wrecked in spectacular fashion during yet another quaalude episode becomes numbing (which may have been intended). Ultimately Belfort’s pursuit of money and the goodies, drugs and status it buys is hollow, and the man himself is trapped in an invisible prison of his own rapacity and criminal behaviour.

The creepiest parts of the film are scenes in which Belfort gives sales pep talks to his staff; these staff meetings have the air of evangelical religious rallies in which people offer up everything save their lives to their guru. At staff celebrations, hookers are rolled out to stockbrokers like cattle and sheep to be slaughtered as sacrifices to their greed.

A film about the culture of greed and compulsion in the financial industry that doesn’t actually show it in action or its devastating effects on its victims; a character study that doesn’t reveal much about a loathsome character who undergoes no change and essentially remains a loathsome prick throughout; a film about the American dream and its exploitation that ignores the context and culture in which psychopathic personalities are able to rise to the top and remain unchanged even after punishment: “The Wolf of Wall Street” is ultimately as empty and boring as its main protagonist.

A compelling character study in “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince”

Martin Scorsese, “American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince” (1978)

After making his break-through films “Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York”, Martin Scorsese turned back to directing a documentary short about a friend, Steven Prince, who appeared in a small part in “Taxi Driver”. The film is in the form of an extended interview divided up into several chapters headed by film clips of Prince as a small child at home. Prince talks about several hair-raising episodes in his life as a drug addict  before he got the “Taxi Driver” gig, including the time he shot and killed an armed robber while working at a petrol station, helping a woman who overdosed on a drug by injecting adrenalin into her chest and following a manual while doing so (a tale nicked by Quentin Tarantino for “Pulp Fiction”), escaping the cops during a drugs bust by bursting into tears and accidentally electrocuting someone while driving a van over wires.

Scorsese focusses his camera on Prince and just lets the film roll while Prince reminisces animatedly about the ups and downs in his life and sometimes acts out what he or someone did. The stories may or may not be true and those that are might be very exaggerated for the benefit of viewers. Prince has quite a cadaverous look similar to Marilyn Manson / Brian Warner in his younger days in the 1990s. The relaxed, minimal nature of the filming with very few edits gives it the feel of a home movie and Prince is a very entertaining raconteur who holds viewers spellbound with his tall tales. Scorsese and another actor appear in the film as minor presences.

The film does look a bit ragged early on, especially during a fight scene, but it is very well-made and has none of the jerkiness and occasional out-of-focus shot that might be expected of a home movie of its type. One has to remember Scorsese made this film during a period in his life when he was partying a lot and high on drugs including cocaine. There’s no moralising about how drugs are bad for you and can ruin your life, or how being a drug addict exposes you to the full range of human behaviours and their depravity and is a life lesson in itself. The last scene in which Prince talks about his last conversation with his father before the older man’s death from heart disease is very moving: for a brief moment before the credits begin to roll, Prince falls silent and his usually lively face becomes a quietly powerful study of warmth and feeling as though resolving to stride forward in life as a tribute to his dad with whom he had a rocky relationship until their telephone reconciliation.

Definitely worth a look if you’re a Scorsese fan or you just like visual character studies pared down to the bone.


Two comedy horror shorts by Martin Scorsese about self-destructive compulsions and obsessions

Martin Scorsese, “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” (1963) 

Martin Scorsese, “The Big Shave” (1967)

Two hilarious short films from Martin Scorsese, one from his student days and the other when he was starting his film-directing career, yet both have energy and a refreshing surrealist experimentalism. Both shorts are at once comedies and horror films. In the first film, a writer called Harry (Zeph Michaelis)  is obsessed by a photograph of a man in a boat on a lake, so much so that his career suffers and his life goes down the toilet. He tries to escape his obsession by socialising at parties, marrying an attractive girl (Sarah Braveman) and confiding in his close friend (Fred Sica) and a psychoanalyst. Eventually though, Harry’s life does go down the toilet – literally. In the other film, the focus shifts from the toilet shown in the first few frames to the rest of the bathroom which an unnamed man (Peter Bermuth) enters to shave. For a few moments, viewers could be mistaken for thinking this is an advertisement for “Rape Shave” shaving cream or a mock parody of a Kenneth Anger film – but then the fun really starts about the third minute where the film takes on more colour, the man just keeps going with his shaving ritual and the all-white bathroom becomes rather … less so.

“The Big Shave” is intended as a satirical comment on the Vietnam war raging at the time: the man’s continual shaving of himself might represent US stubbornness in pouring in more cannon fodder and resources into fighting a war that was going badly and which would end badly for the US. Much the same can be said for the current self-destructive US policy of fighting wars across western Asia and northern Africa even as the American middle class shrinks in numbers and income and the country teeters on the brink of calamity and chaos, whichever angle (political, financial, economic, social, cultural) you want to look at it from. The jazz music soundtrack barely skips a beat and even increases in tempo and happy mood. The creepiest part of the film is the actor’s blank and empty-eyed expression as he repeatedly, even compulsively, continues to shave himself as if trying to obliterate his existence that disturbs the tidy whiteness of the bathroom. It’s as though Scorsese has noticed something fetishistic about the bathroom’s all-white hygienic perfection – the early close-up shots of bathroom objects suggest as much – and is determined to mock it. Close-up shots of soiled bathroom taps and sink drive home the character’s almost ritualistic self-flaying and I half-expected him to faint: most certainly that would have been too histrionic and the final shot in which he places the razor blade gently if shakily on the edge of the sink and presumably dies quietly off-screen while the water washes away the mess is a chillingly powerful one.

“What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” is notable mainly for its use of montages of photographic stills throughout, in particular, the montages of scenes in the offending photograph where the man and then the boat are made to disappear, and of Henry’s engagement and marriage to the girl and their honeymoon. The film is very brisk with rapid-fire editing and one gets a sense of Harry’s awful fate in his voice-over narration which increasingly becomes panicky. His confrontation with his demon occurs off-screen with a right royal flush and his friend watches in horror as Harry disappears into the object of his obsession.

Although very brief and more concerned with experimentation in style, these little films already indicate a future theme that Scorsese would return to again and again throughout his career: humans driven by hidden and unacknowledged compulsions and urges to repeat self-destructive actions.

It’s Not Just You, Murray! – a clever comedy piece by budding film director great

Martin Scorsese, “It’s Not Just You, Murray!” (1964)

Made by Scorsese as a film student at New York University under the tutelage of Haig Manoogian, this short film is a clever comedy piece about a mob boss Murray (John Bicona) who’s commissioned a film crew to make a laudatory biopic about him and his chief enforcer Joe (San de Fazio) who’s been his best friend since childhood. The beauty of the film is in the way Scorsese skilfully packs in experimentation with elements of various Hollywood film genres of the past – musicals, musical comedy, silent film, film noir, gangster movies among others – and with the film-making process itself: photographic stills, a kaleidoscopic montage of one scene multiplied into five that rotate around one another in the manner of Hollywood musicals, cinematic self-reference among other techniques Scorsese uses. At once a spoof of gangster movies and an affectionate homage to aspects of Italian-American culture such as male bonding, the film is a character study of sorts: it’s a look at Murray and Joe, how their friendship has developed over the years and how the two men are close even though it’s obvious to all except Murray himself that Joe’s been two-timing him with his wife and might even be the father of Murray’s kids.

The fact that it’s in black-and-white is no problem for Scorsese who even makes fun out of that restriction by shooting some scenes as though they were part of a silent film, complete with tinny piano accompaniment, or part of a 1930s Hollywood musical, complete with close-ups of a chorus line of girls; other scenes in the short might have come straight out of a serious crime or legal drama from the 1950s, or from an Italian movie of the same period (Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” has been cited as an influence on Scorsese so I assume that film’s being referenced here). All the different styles, filming elements and techniques and references are blended together so well that the flow of the film appears completely natural even though parts of it look old and other parts look new and fresh, even nearly 50 years after its making.

The final scene at the end of the film looks like pure surrealism with all the major people in Murray’s life turning up to celebrate his success and a professional photographer hired to take a photo of Murray and Joe together. The film ends precisely at the point that the camera flash goes off, there’s a big bang and a white cloud of smoke issues to completely obscure the two, er, friends … so does Murray finally realise what Joe’s been up to or does Joe get the last laugh here?

Scorsese’s mother Catherine shows up in small cameos as Murray’s mama, forever stuffing her little boy with spaghetti even when he’s doing jail-time and she has to feed him through the bars!

The film looks back on Hollywood history and forward to Scorsese’s career in making films about the Mafia and his interest in  film culture and its preservation. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in Scorsese’s development as a film director and in film experimentation.

Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.