Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
In reading some of the reviews and excerpts of your new Scorsese book, I finally "got" what it is that you get about his work: Catholic identification. I'm sure other people have said the same thing over the years, but for some reason, it only just clicked with me. Because this is exactly why I never really got Scorsese.
For me, he's always been pretty uneven. But, in contrast to most, I think he's become a much better filmmaker with age, whereas others prefer his early work. Not to be misunderstood -- I'm not slagging him, not at all. I just think that my initial education of Scorsese (aside from "The Color of Money"), came about while I was in high school in the early-'90s, which was the same time that, due to both "Goodfellas"' acclaim and "Raging Bull" being named the best picture of the '80s, he had become the impenetrable critics' choice for greatest working American director. At that time, comparing his library with that of other filmmakers (Kubrick, Coppola, Spielberg, Allen, etc.), I felt forced to take an honest contrarian position -- one that became entrenched during the '90s, as his reputation held, even though the quality of his films simply didn't live up to that title (perhaps because he was now actively seeking to live up to this mantle). How could Scorsese be the best when Spielberg released "Jurassic Park," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" during that same decade? (Or, in this decade, "A.I.," "Catch Me If You Can," "Minority Report," and depending on your views, "Munich" and "War of the Worlds.")
The reason I never appreciated Scorsese's Catholicism -- and what everybody found so astonishing about its representation -- is because I simply didn't relate to
it. On any level. My parents were both agnostic, and I've been my entire life; never had my mind shaped through any kind of religious dogma. And that's something quite different than somebody who was born and raised a Christian, then later decided through education and experience that agnosticism was a more proper position -- no matter what you ultimately choose to believe (or not believe), that youthful indoctrination is always going to remain in the back of your mind. In this sense, I simply don't understand any of the so-called profundity that's supposedly on display -- sin, guilt, morality, blood sacrifice -- because these things, from a purely untainted mind, don't mean anything. Makes about as much sense as Zeus.
This is probably why, even before I knew anything about Kubrick's background, I gravitated toward his world: It felt more highly evolved. Only later did I realize just how similar our backgrounds were: We're both of Jewish heredity, though raised without any religious identity, both terrible students who didn't go to college/film school, both self-taught, etc. Basically, free-thinking autodidacts.
As well, I tended to prefer filmmakers whom I believed had solved the problems laid out for themselves in making their movies. There was always an unmistakable confidence of execution in the work of Coppola or Spielberg or later the Coens. With Scorsese, however, I always saw insecurity: For all their labor, his movies felt fussy like they were never quite finished. You could see the agonizing conflict of
decision-making in his craft (something that many people claim as evidence of his effort). I used to remark when I was young that I could still see the grease pencil marks on his movies. Later, I read that his two biggest American influences were Welles and Cassavettes -- and those opposing aesthetics said it all.
(Interestingly, I once saw a documentary about Kubrick in which Scorsese recalled the epiphany he had upon first learning that K had started as a still photographer: He finally understood the controlled framing and ability to distill information and meaning into single images. For me, this was ironic, because as a kid when I was first familiarizing myself with Scorsese's movies, I kept thinking that it appeared as if he had never taken any still photos.)
The other thing was that, as an artist myself, I was always of the position that artists should be creative and not repeat themselves. Most of the filmmakers I admired were constantly trying to redefine subjects and aesthetics picture to picture, but with Scorsese, all I saw was New York and petty crime (with a couple of exceptions) over and over with the same actors over and over. I kept thinking: What didn't he get about this already? Scorsese was more like the blues and rock musicians he admired, in that he developed a signature style that he's played his whole career. That said, if Scorsese was The Rolling Stones of his generation, then Spielberg was The Beatles. (Somebody once suggested to me that the Stones were the greatest rock band ever, but that The Beatles were the greatest recording artists ever.)
Jamie Stuart is a New York-based filmmaker and the operator of mutinycompany.com. His most recent project was the web series "NYFF46," which was created for Filmmaker Magazine.