Martin Scorsese: rinse and repeat self-indulgence

The director of Goodfellas has debased his talent

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1985, Martin Scorsese’s career was at such a low ebb that he had to take the movie-director equivalent of a menial job. Now, those days of the low-budget, narrow-horizoned After Hours are long forgotten: his position as one
of history’s all-time greats is seemingly unassailable. No studio dares utter the word “no” to him. 

The result is a debasing of his talent: new Scorsese films are routinely an hour too long. The truth, though, is that his directorial talent has never been as great as occasional masterpieces like Goodfellas (1990) tricked us into believing it was.

Perhaps we can forgive the gaucheries of Mean Streets (1973) on the grounds that it was Scorsese’s first proper feature film. Even so, it’s noticeable that
it’s not just overly episodic but in places actively badly directed. Witness the contretemps in the pool hall when Charlie and Johnny Boy push over Joey Scala’s men to make their escape. Because it suits Scorsese’s narrative convenience for them to not give chase, the hardened thugs stay on the floor like overturned tortoises. 

Taxi Driver made Scorsese’s name in 1976, but lacks momentum or moral, relying for its gritty power on the shock value of Jodie Foster’s child-prostitute character and on it constituting by simple happenstance a snapshot of a Big Apple that then seemed on an unstoppable ride to dystopia.

New York, New York (1977) is curiously soap opera-like if reasonably entertaining, but 1980’s Jake LaMotta biopic Raging Bull is quite simply across-the-board bad filmmaking, afflicted by preposterously exaggerated boxing action, an atmosphere-flattening lack of a soundtrack, agonisingly repetitive dialogue, endless and tedious confrontationalism and irritatingly pointless black-and-white stock. The critical esteem in which this gruesome concoction is held is the definition of Emperor’s New Clothes. 

It can’t be denied that Scorsese’s career is speckled with genuine greatness. The King of Comedy (1982) is a fine meditation on the haves and have-nots of talent and is executed with a surprisingly light touch. After Hours is actually a very good and funny urban comedy and succeeded in its objective of edging Scorsese back into contention after the crushing disappointment of the initial failure to secure funding for his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the commercial underachievement of The King of Comedy. 

Truly magnificent is Goodfellas, from its stylish construction to its brutally thought-provoking narrative to its blizzard of iconic scenes. In this year of celebrations of the half centenary of The Godfather, we are reminded how comparatively little we have heard in recent times about that once omnipresent Francis Ford Coppola picture: quite simply, Goodfellas instantly eclipsed it in terms of being the definitive gangster flick. 

Since then, though, Scorsese has lazily settled on Mafia-Picture Director as a main calling. This might be a worthwhile pursuit if it described an upward aesthetic gradient, but the fact that, in Goodfellas, he had already delivered the genre’s ideal makes it instead a grand exercise in futility. 

It’s also akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Casino (1995) and The Irishman (2019) contain broadly the same milieu, set pieces and morality lessons. Scorsese is simply moving the furniture around. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he, in another act of laziness, uses the same actors over and over: seeing Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel in a Scorsese mobster movie for the umpteenth time makes for a bizarre feeling of déjà vu-cum-musical chairs. 

The Irishman took this rinse-and-repeat casting to a risible breaking point, with Scorsese deciding that advances in CGI meant that he could get away with giving the septuagenarian De Niro another turn as a vigorous and violent young hood. New levels of surrealism were created by an artificially unlined De Niro setting about antagonists with limbs stiffened by age.

Fine offerings like The Aviator (2004) and Shutter Island (2010) might sporadically show that Scorsese still has it, but other efforts suggest that he doesn’t understand his own talent. The Irishman and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) are achingly slow, the momentum of what could be great narratives dragged down by longueurs just begging for the application of a brave editor’s scissors.

Whisper it lightly, but Scorsese doesn’t really believe in cinema

But then, such ill-discipline may very well lie at the heart of the man’s craft. Whisper it lightly, but Scorsese doesn’t really believe in cinema. He has consistently refused to work within the art form’s natural parameters, whether it be by using voiceovers (surely somebody who understands that film is a show-don’t-tell medium doesn’t need to resort to such a cheat) or by whimsically breaking the fourth wall (Ray Liotta’s peroration direct to camera at the end
of Goodfellas almost ruins a film reliant for its impact on naturalism). 

The most pathetic and petty example of that postmodernism was Scorsese ostentatiously and vengefully superimposing a black bar over an aeroplane ticket in Goodfellas because an image-protective American Airlines had refused to allow the director to show its logo. 

Scorsese pioneered the use of everyday music in soundtracks. Up to the late Seventies, rock and pop was usually deployed in feature films only as source music (songs that the characters in the narrative can theoretically hear). Yet while Scorsese is to be applauded for his insistence on the legitimacy of popular music as underscore, his use of it is fatuous. 

What relevance does George Harrison’s romantically worshipful “What is Life” have to the scene in Goodfellas where a frazzled Henry and Karen are doing a drug deal? What conceptual sense does it make for a moon-in-June love song like the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to be playing behind the montage that opens Mean Streets? Scorsese always has his convoluted rationales for such things, but in reality he’s self-indulgently shoving in some of his favourite listens.

Scorsese recently slammed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, asserting that its component films are sensationalist and empty. In fact, thoughtfulness and rationalism suffuse every single one of them. In Captain America: Civil War, the vigilante nature of superheroes and costumed crime fighters is subject to profound questioning. 

Such solipsism demonstrates that this former paragon of New Hollywood has somewhere along the line become old-school. Or perhaps that should be Establishment? How else to describe somebody whose overlong latter-day efforts prove that he has reached that status of untouchable impunity that so many successful artists attain? 

It is obtained, of course, always to their — and our — disadvantage.

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