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Scorsese learns from those who went before him

NEW YORK--There is no greater American filmmaker right now than Martin Scorsese, and hasn't been for some time, perhaps since Welles and Hitchcock and Ford died, and yet to talk with him is like meeting this guy who hangs out all the time at the film society.

We spoke for an hour or two about "Kundun," his new film, and our conversation kept jumping the tracks and heading for his loves and enthusiasms. When I mentioned, for example, that his life story of the 14th Dalai Lama reminded me of the lives of the saints that we read in Catholic grade school, that started him on Rossellini's "Flowers of St. Francis," and when I talked about how he got interested in the subject matter--the fall of Tibetan culture to Chinese imperialism--he began telling me about a 1952 film named "Story Over Tibet," and Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon," and the Tyrone Power version of "The Razor's Edge." We started on his camera moves in "Kundun," and that led to his camera moves in "Taxi Driver," and how its greatest influence was the way Hitchcock moved his camera in "The Wrong Man."

This is a voluptuary, a sensualist. Instead of describing beautiful women or old masters, exotic cuisines or great wines, hordes of jewels or the effects of forbidden potions, he is describing movies. Scorsese tells you about a shot in an old film, and it's like listening to Sidney Greenstreet telling Bogart that he must have the Maltese falcon. Perhaps the reason he is the greatest director is because he has spent the most time learning from those who went before him. Listen to him here, in a breathless passage that I supply for you word by word:

"I heard that the opening shot in 'Boogie Nights' is like the shot in 'Good Fellas' where the camera tracks through the nightclub. Well, why not? I mean, we did tons of that. Myself and DePalma and Spielberg and Coppola; in so many of our films we did things that relate to earlier films. There are several shots in 'Taxi Driver' that are inspired by 'Shane.' It's homage--the self-consciousness of saying, hey, here's a little nudge in the ribs to Truffaut; that's a nudge to Fellini; that's one to George Stevens; that's one to John Ford. You find yourself looking at old films a lot. The Hitchcock pictures I like looking at repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. Very often without the sound. The Powell-Pressburger films, John Ford, Welles of course.

"What happens is that you find, through these images, a way of writing with the camera that stays in your mind. 'The Wrong Man' by Hitchcock has more to do with the camera movements in 'Taxi Driver' than any other picture I can think of. It's such a heavy influence because of the sense of guilt and paranoia. Look at the scenes where Henry Fonda has to go back to the bank with the police and just walk up and down while the tellers look at him. They're deciding a man's fate. And watch the camera moves. Or the use of color in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes.' I think there's that kind of...influencing. It's not necessarily direct stealing. Each film is interlocked with so many other films. You can't get away. Whatever you do now that you think is new was already done in 1913."

Scorsese is sitting in the screening room of his offices in midtown Manhattan. This is not simply the room were he looks at his daily rushes or the rough cuts assembled by his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. It's also where he screens old movies, many of them rare prints from his own archive. Who else among active directors would take the time he did, to assemble and narrate a long television documentary on great films, and then write a book to go with it?

Now that "Kundun" is being released, Scorsese is in the same strangely objective mindset he often is after finishing a movie. I've been talking with him since his first film 30 years ago, and I suspect that if I looked back through all of my notes I would find him saying the same thing after every film: "I don't know if anyone will want to see this." He truly doesn't, and there is a reason for that: He doesn't make a film just because people will want to see it.

Most filmmakers work in a two-stage process: (1) Read public's mind; (2) Duplicate findings in next movie. Not Scorsese. "We're making this film for ourselves," he told Schoonmaker during "Raging Bull," which was widely considered the best film of the 1980s. "It's a home movie."

"Kundun" would seem to be at right angles to most of his work. It's about the childhood and young manhood of Tibet's spiritual leader, who is believed to have lived 13 times before his present reincarnation. This looks like a radical departure for Scorsese, whose films are often about Italian-Americans, not infrequently mobsters, living on the mean streets. Upward mobility for his characters means moving to Vegas ("Casino") or Miami ("Raging Bull") and continuing to lead the same lives.

But there is another thread to Scorsese's work that is perfectly consistent with "Kundun," and that's his obsession with spirituality--which is usually linked with guilt, but not (significantly) this time. His hero in "Mean Streets" holds his hand in the flame of a votive candle, trying to imagine the fires of hell. The overhead shots in "Taxi Driver" are inspired by how priests array the implements of the Mass on an altar. "The Last Temptation of Christ" is the story of man's struggle between the carnal and the exalted (for if God became man, did he not feel the same lust as any other man?).

"Kundun" is the story of a man who has achieved mastery over his ignoble emotions, who has found spiritual peace, and who carries that treasure out into a hostile world. The film begins with a small child being chosen by monks, who are seeking the new human vessel into which the 13th Dalai Lama, having died, will reappear. There is a magical scene in which the little boy tries to pick out "his" possessions from the earlier life, as they are scattered on a tabletop with others. As a young man her grows serene in the practice of his faith, and then must deal with postwar Red China, whose leaders covet the territory of Tibet and are scornful of its religion and tradition.

"I always wanted to make a series of films on the lives of the saints," Scorsese mused. "To try to understand their choices. I remember a film by Maurice Cloche, 'Monsieur Vincent,' (1947) about St. Vincent DePaul. The greatest one is Rossellini's 'Flowers of St. Francis' (1950), which is daunting because of its simplicity and compassion and heart. I've been watching that film for 25 years, and I always wanted to make something like it, about a human being who by exemplary action shows us how to live. Where non-action becomes action; where a decision not to make a decision is the decision. It may not be what Western audiences expect, but I believe the Dalai Lama and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, people who stood on the line for passive resistance and got hit for it, have a lotta guts." Scorsese, who has made so many films about violent men, erupting tempers and sudden death, told a "little parable" he came across while preparing this film: "An Army came into town and marched up to the monastery door and the general took his sword out, and the head of the monastery opened the door and just stood there. The general looked at him and said, 'Don't you realize I can kill you without blinking an eye?' And the monk replied, 'Don't you realize I can die without blinking an eye?' That's where I'd like to get to."

Now watch the way Scorsese's mind works, how all of his films, even those that seem opposites, are directed by the same man. His parable would seem to be far outside the universe of Jake LaMotta, the hero of "Raging Bull," but a little later, as we talked, he said:

"I want to feel like Jake does at the end of 'Raging Bull,' a stage I've never gotten to. He's at peace with himself, by the end, looking at himself in the mirror, rehearsing his act, repeating 'my kingdom for a horse.' I knew when I was doing it that I wasn't there. Up to that point I was with him, but I couldn't get beyond that point until finally, maybe, oh, when I did 'Color of Money'(1986), I kind of got used to myself. I realized, I'm gonna be this way all my life, and I better calm down, take it easy, don't waste the energy and burn up that fuel of yourself and everybody else around you. So I just got used to myself, and what can I do? I'm stuck."

He looked content to be stuck, at that place already occupied by Gandhi, Dr. King, La Motta and the Dalai Lama, who apart from anything else would be the makings of an interesting dinner party. "It has always made me feel a little comfortable that human beings may be capable of evolving spiritually," he said. "The Tibetans are not the only ones. There are modern people who have a compassionate heart, like Dorothy Day in New York, or Mother Teresa. There was a book recently that was critical of her, but the people who write that stuff, I wonder when was the last time they helped somebody to die?"

Scorsese cast his film only with non-actors, including many Tibetans who knew the Dalai Lama. And from them, he said, he absorbed some of the spirit that he tried to communicate in "Kundun."

"Some of the older ones had been part of his retinue back in 1949, before they left Tibet. So they understood everything and very often in the picture I'd walk onto the set and they'd be meditating and it was like a painting out of the Renaissance. There was a reverence and a spirituality that pervaded the set which was interesting. I wanted to be part of that world. Whether I took something away with me, I'm not sure, but I think I have.

"And then working with the little boy who played the Dalai Lama as a child, that was a contact with reality. The kid was terrific, he had a great face. But we had to do a lot of tricks to get that performance. Like the scene where they put him in front of the table and ask him to choose 'his' possessions, from his previous reincarnation, so they'll know it's really him.

"The Tibetans in the scene, and his own mother and the father and the other kids really helped out a lot. But if a two-year-old kid doesn't want to play, he doesn't want to play; that's it. He wants to take a nap, the crew waits until he wakes up. But I found that I was anchored in his behavior, because he wasn't acting, and neither were the other Tibetan actors. Some of the best acting in the movie takes place at the edges of the screen, with the extras, because you look at their faces and you see they are really truly in the moment."

And so here is this film about peace and spirituality, filmed in the lush colors that Scorsese has always loved in the older films he studies, and expressing his own sense of connection and growth. And now what will he make next? He is discussing a film about the life of Dean Martin. Now that would seem like an absolute change in direction, a fundamental shift in tone. But if he makes it, we will, I suspect, still be able to sense the same vision, the same search, the same filmmaker. Come on in, Dino; have you met everyone else here tonight? Mother Teresa you know...

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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