At 77 years old, Martin Scorsese—arguably one of the last great American auteurs, able to override the constraints of commercial filmmaking—is perhaps busier than he’s ever been. His commodity: a rarefied freedom to tell stories without any interference from executives who often demand commercial appeal or merchandising potential. In other words, with The Irishman on the big screen and coming soon to Netflix, you won’t be seeing Darby native Frank Sheeran or Jimmy Hoffa dolls stocking the shelves this holiday season.
Although highly criticized for his new relationship with Netflix, Scorsese continues to make movies as he damn well chooses. His first release for the streaming behemoth, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, uncapped cans of footage shot more than 40 years ago, presenting a bygone era to new audiences in the vein of a sentimental time capsule—a signature motive in Marty’s life mission. He’s a storyteller, like Dylan, driven by both past and present; unconcerned about pleasing the masses but dependent on their presence. And if a story fails to find an audience or reach its maximum potential (e.g. New York, New York, The King of Comedy, Silence), that’s all right. The artist may be forgiven, with time, as distance offers new perspective to a body of work. A lifetime of agony and effort.
Scorsese in the digital age
On November 1, The Irishman, Scorsese’s most expensive and anticipated feature to date, following Philadelphia mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, entered a limited number of theaters across the country. On November 27, Netflix subscribers will be able to stream it worldwide. Some grumble of the hypocrisy in Scorsese’s decision to make a deal with traditional cinema’s arch enemy. Others sneer at his recent comments toward superhero movies, calling out his age and antiquated beliefs in a rapidly evolving marketplace. Of course, all you’d have to do is watch Joker to see Scorsese’s lasting impact on the medium.
So how does Scorsese continue to survive in the flesh-eating digital age? Probable ROI? Mostly. Presumed award nominations? Possibly. Or maybe we know he’s the last of a dying breed. Not only as a filmmaker—an alumnus of the “New Hollywood” class of the early 1970s, along with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdonovich, and others—but of a breed of 20th-century, working-class children of immigrants whose outlook on the world was shaped by necessity. A need to dream beyond their social and class rank. A hunger for more without the tools to hunt. Like Frank Sinatra’s plight one generation earlier, or Frankie Avalon’s journey within his own, Scorsese’s cinematic “voice” would leave an indelible impression on storytellers who’d follow him.
Raised by his Italian American family in Manhattan’s Little Italy, young Marty’s severe asthma restricted him from participating in physical activities with other children at school and in the street. His parents often took him to the movies, where he developed a lifelong passion for surveying the world around him without actively participating in it. From stars on screen to characters living in his own neighborhood, Scorsese viewed the human experience as a play, observing from afar, allowing his imagination to contort his sense of reality, figures, and events.
His poor-to-working-class surroundings in the tenement homes of New York’s Lower East Side were not unlike the streets of South Philadelphia, where part of The Irishman takes place. So much so, Scorsese shot on location in New York City, transforming Ridgewood, Queens to look like Philly’s Italian Market—an aesthetic to that of his own upbringing.
Story and storyteller
Growing up on Scorsese’s movies, I learned to invest my time and emotional elasticity into his process of storytelling, however fervent or disturbing the subject matter. Perhaps I was enthralled by his funhouse style of quick-draw scene pivoting. Or maybe I just loved hearing the word “fuck” more times than my parents would prefer.
Rewatching some of his earlier films today, as an adult, I find restlessness in his rhythm, like a conscientious child’s eagerness to share every detail with viewers, out of fear they’ll fail to understand the purpose. If violence or vulgarity is required, then it must be depicted at length until the point is made. Pauline Kael wrote of Scorsese upon the release of Taxi Driver in 1976: “Scorsese may just naturally be an Expressionist; his asthmatic bedridden childhood in a Sicilian-American home in Little Italy propelled him toward a fix on the violently exciting movies he saw. Physically and intellectually, he’s a speed demon, a dervish.” More than four decades later, Scorsese is still on a personal quest of curiosity and truth-seeking through an ultra-realistic lens.
As we continue to define and question the need for movies, along with the process of making and exhibiting them, at their core remains the value of the story. In Scorsese’s case, the storyteller holds more importance than the story itself. Not a brand, but a trusted name, like Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks rolled into one, without the need to erect an amusement park. Although should one ever get built, taxi cab and Spruce Goose theme rides are a must.
What, When, Where
The Irishman. Directed by Martin Scorsese. It’s showing at Ritz 5 and begins streaming on Netflix November 27, 2019.