Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
I met Martin Scorsese for the first time in 1969, when he was an editor on "Woodstock." He was one of the most intense people I'd ever known - a compact, nervous kid out of New York's Little Italy who'd made one feature film and had dreams of becoming a big-time director one day. It would take him five years.
The first feature was "Who's That Knocking at My Door?", the major discovery of the 1967 Chicago Film Festival. It was the semi-autobiographical story of an Italian-American youth coming of age; it won praise and prizes for Scorsese, but didn't do any business, and he supported himself with editing, teaching and odd jobs. The night I met him, we went to Little Italy and drank Bardolino wine and he talked about projects he was being offered.
He finally took one of them - a Roger Corman exploitation picture called "Boxcar Bertha" - because he needed to direct again. "Corman thinks it's an exploitation picture," Scorsese told me, "but I think it'll be something else." He was right; his talent made the film, which starred Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, better than it had to be.
The movie got him more work. In 1973, on a small budget but with total artistic freedom, he made "Mean Streets," a sequel to "Who's that Knocking." It was a ferocious, painful, deeply felt masterpiece. In 1974 he made his big critical and box office success, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," for Which Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar. Scorsese was established, was "bankable."
His new film, which opens here Friday at the McClurg Court, Lincoln Village and five suburban theaters, is "Taxi Driver" with Robert DeNiro - a violent and frightening return to the New York of Mean Streets. It looks like another hit.
Scorsese and I met for lunch during his visit last week to Chicago and were joined by Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for "Taxi Driver." They were a study in opposites: Schrader, a Midwestern Protestant in pullover sweater and tie, and Scorsese, a New York Italian-American, in jeans and a beard. But they'd been working together on this screenplay since 1972.
Scorsese: Because there's a lot of violence to this picture, some of the New York reviews are calling it an exploitation film. Jesus! I went flat broke making this film. My films haven't made a lot of money. Right now, I'm living off my next film.
Schrader: If it's an exploitation film, I wish we had a dollar for every time we were told it would never be a success at all. This screenplay was turned down by everybody.
Scorsese: We showed it to some New York media educators, and I thought we'd get lynched. And we showed it to some student editors...there was one wise guy there I recognized from a screening we had of "Alice." He asks whether, after all my success, I'm about ready to fall on my ass. I've hardly gotten started!
Schrader: We get almost no valid reactions immediately after the screenings. The immediate response is usually very visceral and angry. But if this film weren't controversial, there'd be something wrong with the country.
Ebert: What you give us in this guy, DeNiro, who comes from nowhere - we get hardly any background - and drives a cab in New York and eventually we realize he's seething inside, he's got all this violence bottled up....
Scorsese: And he goes back again and again to where the violence is. One of the reviewers, I think it was Andrew Sarris, said how many times can you use 42nd St. as a metaphor for hell? But that's the thing about hell - it goes on and on. And he couldn't get out of it. But you're right that we don't tell you where he comes from, or what his story is. Obviously, he comes from somewhere and he picked up these problems along the way.
Schrader: I wrote it that way after thinking about the way they handled "In Cold Blood." They tell you all about Perry Smith's background how he developed his problems, and immediately it becomes less interesting because his problems aren't your problems, but his symptoms are your symptoms.
Ebert: Pauline Kael has said that Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola are the three most interesting directors in the country right now - and that it might be due to their Catholicism, that after Watergate, the nation feels a sort of guilt and needs to make a form of reparation, and that Catholics understand guilt in a way that others don't, that they were brought up on it.
Scorsese: Guilt. There's nothing you can tell me about guilt.
Schrader: I've got a lot of Protestant guilt.
Scorsese: You can't make movies any more in which the whole country seems to make sense. After Vietnam, after Watergate, it's not just a temporary thing; it's a permanent thing the country's going through. All the things we held sacred - the whole Time-Life empire...whoosh! Well, Time's still left.
Ebert: In a lot of your movies, there's this ambivalent attitude toward women. The men are fascinated by women, but they don't quite know how to relate to them...
Scorsese: The goddess-whore complex. You're raised to worship women, but you don't know how to approach them on a human level, on a sexual level. That's the thing with Travis, the DeNiro character - the taxi driver. The girl he falls for, the Cybill Shepherd character - it's really important that she's blond, a blue-eyed goddess.
Schrader: He goes from a goddess to a child goddess. The 121/2 year-old prostitute he's trying to rescue - she's unapproachable, too, for him.
Scorsese: She has the candles burning in her bedroom, she's like a saint to him. He can't imagine these pimps treating her the way they do. Before he goes to avenge her, it's almost like he cleanses himself, like in "The Virgin Spring" when Max von Sydow scourges himself with the branches before he goes out to avenge his daughter's death.
Schrader: We actually had that shot in the movie, and we took it out. Travis whips himself with a towel before he goes out with his guns. We took it out because it looked a little forced and unnatural.
Scorsese: But the Catholic thing? I suppose there are a lot of Catholic references in the film, even if they're only my own personal reference. Like the moment when he burns the flowers before he goes out to kill. And when he's buying the guns and the dealer lays them out one at a time on the velvet, like arranging the altar during Mass.
Schrader left for another interview, and Scorsese and I continued our conversation in his hotel room, which was furnished with two reminders of home: A large box of cookies from Cafe Roma in Little Italy ("My mother sent them, she knew I'd be homesick") and a stack of the latest issues of film magazines. Scorsese got married recently to a free-lance writer named Julia Cameron, from Libertyville, and he was planning to have dinner with his new in-laws that night. He thought he'd bring along the cookies.
Ebert: You talked about living off your next film.
Scorsese: It'll be called "New York, New York." it takes place in the 1940s and 1950s, it's about the big bands. Liza Minnelli plays a singer and DeNiro will be her husband. It's not a musical; it's a film with music. I got that definition from Billy Wilder, who said you can't call it a musical unless the people sing in situations where you don't expect them to. It'll be about their marriage breaking up, about their problems in relating to one another...
Ebert: Will it take a feminist position? A lot of people embraced "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" as feminist.
Scorsese: Well, it'll be about the problems of a career marriage. I don't know if it's feminist. Actually, not "Alice," but "Taxi Driver" - this is my feminist film. Who says a feminist movie has to be about women? Alice was never intended as a feminist tract. At the end, she's making the same mistakes. The first shot of her in Kris Kristofferson's house shows her washing the dishes. A big close-up.
Ebert: And "Taxi Driver," where the hero can't relate to women at all, is...
Scorsese: Feminist. Because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you. This one shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between the goddesses and whores. The whole movie is based, visually, on one shot where the guy is being turned down on the telephone by the girl, and the camera actually pans away from him. It's too painful to see that rejection.
Ebert: The film is dedicated to Bernard Herrmann, the great movie composer. He died just after he finished the score.
Scorsese: God, that was terrible. Immediately after. He was so happy, he was back in Hollywood, he had a full orchestra, people were getting down on their knees to him. He was doing some jazz passages, and he insisted on finishing that day. I told him we should do it next week, because he looked tired, "No," he said, "let's do it now." That was on Dec. 23. The next morning, the day of Christmas Eve, he was found dead.
That Sunday, Julia and I flew to Chicago to get married...
Ebert: I wanted to ask about the violent scenes, the scenes where Travis freaks out and starts shooting.
Scorsese: We shot those in slow motion. In 48 frames to the second, which is twice the ordinary 24 frames - and, of course, if You shoot it twice as fast and project it at the regular speed, it comes out half as fast...
Ebert: Which is what everyone gets backwards about slow motion.
Scorsese: Right. And in the scenes of the killing, the slow motion and DeNiro's arms...we wanted him to look almost like a monster, a robot, King Kong coming to save Fay Wray. Another thing: All of the close-ups of DeNiro where he isn't talking were shot 48 frames to the second - to draw out and exaggerate his reactions. What an actor, to look so great up against a technique like that! I shot all those shots myself, to see for myself what kind of reaction we were getting.
Ebert: The whole movie's very stylized, expressionistic...you fragment scenes into very striking details, you control your colors to get a certain feel, there's the garish lighting....
Scorsese: And then I read that I'm a realist, a naturalist! Somebody compared the picture to "Shoeshine!" Really! I'm not interested in a realistic look - not at all, not ever. Every film should look the way I feel.
Ebert: I read that DeNiro really drove a cab to prepare for this role.
Scorsese: Yeah. I drove with him several nights. He got a strange feeling when he was hacking. He was totally anonymous. People would say anything, do anything in the backseat - it was like he didn't exist. Finally a guy gets in, a former actor, who recognizes his name on the license. "Jesus," he says, "last year you won the Oscar and now you're driving a cab again." DeNiro said he was only doing research.
"Yeah, Bobby," says the actor. "I know. I been there, too."
After "Mean Streets" was released, I wrote a review saying that Scorsese had a chance to become the American Fellini in ten years or so. The next time we met after the review appeared, Marty looked serious and concerned: "Do you really think it's going to take ten years?"
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