The Filmmaking of Martin Scorsese Demystified in 6 Video Essays

Some film­mak­ers of the 1970s “New Hol­ly­wood” era have passed away, retired, or fad­ed into rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty, but each movie Mar­tin Scors­ese makes still meets with great inter­est from crit­ics and movie­go­ers alike. His lat­est pic­ture Silence, despite its out­ward­ly dry sub­ject mat­ter of 17th-cen­tu­ry Jesuit priests in Japan, has remained a sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion and indeed debate since its release at the end of last year. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, its title evokes one of the sig­na­ture tech­niques that have kept his work engag­ing over the decades, no mat­ter its sto­ry, set­ting, or theme: his uncon­ven­tion­al and pow­er­ful use of moments with­out sound or music, explored in the Every Frame a Paint­ing video essay “The Art of Silence” above.

One espe­cial­ly effec­tive exam­ple of Scors­ese’s silence comes from Good­fel­las, quite pos­si­bly the most acclaimed of his gang­ster movies — and indeed, one of the most acclaimed works in his robust fil­mog­ra­phy.

The “film break­down” from Film-Drunk Love above gets into what, exact­ly, has already solid­i­fied this quar­ter-cen­tu­ry-old film into a clas­sic, high­light­ing its use of freeze-frames to empha­size par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant moments in the life of its young mob­ster pro­tag­o­nist as well as the impor­tance of that pro­tag­o­nist’s wife and oth­er female char­ac­ters in moti­vat­ing or observ­ing the events of this high­ly male-ori­ent­ed sto­ry, one that fits well among those of Scors­ese’s favorite sub­jects, a list that includes the police, box­ers, invest­ment bankers, Jesus Christ, and the Rolling Stones.

Scors­ese’s movies may depict a man’s world, but as James Brown once sang, it would­n’t be noth­ing with­out a woman — and this film­mak­er cer­tain­ly knows it. The Press Play video essay above exam­ines the indis­pens­able pres­ence of women in his work, who offer feroc­i­ty, temp­ta­tion, manip­u­la­tion, judg­ment, and moti­va­tion, and often a com­bi­na­tion of all of the above and more, but nev­er friend­ship. “Men can’t be friends with women, Howard,” says Cate Blanchet­t’s Katharine Hep­burn to Leonar­do DiCapri­o’s trou­bled mogul in The Avi­a­tor. “They must pos­sess them or leave them be. It’s a prim­i­tive urge from cave­man days. It’s all in Dar­win: hunt the flesh, kill the flesh, eat the flesh. That’s the male sex all over.”

But Scors­ese works in cin­e­ma, after all, and none of these ele­ments would have a frac­tion of their impact if not deliv­ered with the keen visu­al sense on dis­play since his ele­men­tary-school days. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the video essays of Anto­nios Papan­to­niou, which pro­vide tech­ni­cal shot-by-shot break­downs of how mas­ter film­mak­ers assem­ble their most mem­o­rable sequences. Scors­ese’s fil­mog­ra­phy can some­times seem made up of noth­ing oth­er than mem­o­rable sequences, but Papan­to­niou picks one from Cape Fear where Scors­ese’s wide-angle lens­es, “con­stant motion,” “ultra quick shots,” and “unset­tling angles and zooms,” the essay argues, put the view­er in the pro­tag­o­nist’s place “and project to us his pri­vate hor­ror.”

Cape Fear came, of course, as a remake—starring Robert de Niro and Nick Nolte—of the epony­mous 1962 psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller with Robert Mitchum and Gre­go­ry Peck. Scors­ese, per­haps Amer­i­ca’s first open­ly cinephilic big-name direc­tor, has made no secret of his knowl­edge of and enthu­si­asm for this his­to­ry of his cho­sen medi­um. In the Good­fel­las break­down, for exam­ple, he describes that pic­ture as an homage to the decades of gang­ster movies that pre­ced­ed it. “Equipped with ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of the medi­um, he draws from its past to inform his work,” argues Steven Bene­dict in his video essay “The Jour­neys of Mar­tin Scors­ese,” a look at how that mas­tery of what has come before allows his own films to not just “explore the human expe­ri­ence” but to “expand cinema’s abil­i­ty to express that expe­ri­ence.”

In 2015 we fea­tured Scors­ese’s list of 85 films every aspir­ing film­mak­er needs to see (this in addi­tion to his 39 essen­tial for­eign films for the young film­mak­er), all of which he men­tioned dur­ing a four-hour inter­view grant­ed to Fast Com­pa­ny. The Fla­vor­wire video essay above illus­trates Scors­ese’s words with clips from the movies he rec­om­mends, mak­ing a crash-course “Mar­tin Scors­ese film school” that encom­pass­es every­thing from Jen­nifer Jones shoot­ing Gre­go­ry Peck in The Duel in the Sun to the “self-con­scious­ness” of Cit­i­zen Kane’s style to the tes­ta­ment to “the pow­er of movies to effect change in the world, to inter­act with life and for­ti­fy the soul” that is neo­re­al­ism. From which cin­e­mat­ic tra­di­tion — or set of tra­di­tions — will Scors­ese draw, and in the process expand and trans­form, next? No doubt this tire­less auteur is just as excit­ed to reveal it as we are to find out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Scors­ese Reveals His 12 Favorite Movies (and Writes a New Essay on Film Preser­va­tion)

Mar­tin Scorsese’s Very First Films: Three Imag­i­na­tive Short Works

Revis­it Mar­tin Scorsese’s Hand-Drawn Sto­ry­boards for Taxi Dri­ver

11-Year-Old Mar­tin Scors­ese Draws Sto­ry­boards for His Imag­ined Roman Epic Film, The Eter­nal City

Mar­tin Scors­ese Cre­ates a List of 39 Essen­tial For­eign Films for a Young Film­mak­er

Mar­tin Scors­ese Makes a List of 85 Films Every Aspir­ing Film­mak­er Needs to See

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Cynthia Kay Castle, RN says:

    Amaz­ing men­tor teacher for any­one aspir­ing to direct. The gift of using the “The Art of Silence” from the amaz­ing fil­mog­ra­phy of Mar­tin Scors­ese Don’t miss this mas­ter’s cre­ative vision that has helped us to love even the unlov­able in the com­pli­cat­ed lives of the beau­ti­ful and per­haps dia­bol­i­cal­ly over­ex­posed char­ac­ters. +Open Cul­ture share, repost­ed with it’s link by a fan.

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