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The 'Innocence' of Martin Scorsese

NEW YORK -- The greatest living film director started out as a kid named Marty who I met in 1967 when he was fresh out of New York University. Now he is Martin Scorsese, the director even other directors would place first - after themselves, perhaps. No one has made more or better movies in the past quarter century, and few people have changed less. He still talks with his hands and bounces when he talks, and he uses the street-corner comedian's tactic of giving everything a punchline.

The way Scorsese talks about the movies is an education. I learn when I listen to him. He sees films in a very particular way, the emotions and the visuals all tied up together, so that when he talks about a feeling in one of his films, he is also talking about the particular kind of camera strategy he used to create it.

Listen to him talking about a moment in his great new film, "The Age of Innocence" (which opened Friday). The movie is set among the rich New York aristocrats of the 1870s, and is based on a novel by Edith Wharton in which a man is engaged to marry the right woman and falls in love with the wrong one, and society sees that as a threat and tries to stop him.

In the movie, the man has planned to travel from New York to Washington to be with his mistress. He tells his wife the purpose is business. Now the man and his wife both learn that the mistress will not be in Washington after all. The man tells his wife he has decided not to go. She guesses the reason, but is too clever to confront him with it.

"This scene was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film," Scorsese was explaining to me one afternoon in his Manhattan living room. "As they're getting into the carriage, she says, 'I'm sorry, but how can you go pick up Ellen when you have to go to Washington this afternoon?' He says, 'Oh, that's been postponed,' and they get into the carriage. Then she says, 'That's strange,' because she's learned the legal case in Washington is still being heard. And he admits, yes, it is. 'So then it's not postponed,' she says. Which is almost her way of fighting. And he says, `No, it's not postponed, but my going is.'

"So they both know he has lied, but neither actually says it. And I found it fascinating to film that with a light touch. I asked myself how to place a hand in terms of camera placement, the size of the actors in the frame, the correct camera movement, the emotional level of performance. It was so funny; it was like painting miniatures. It was really fun."

And it is. In the hands of another director, the scene might have been assembled crudely out of big blaring closeups and shots of narrowed eyes, so that the dimmest simpleton in the audience would know that lies and intrigues were taking place. In Scorsese's hands, the scene makes you hold your breath, because you realize what danger the characters are in. One false move, and a truth has been exposed that will end the marriage. Neither wants to make the move. Yet somehow the truth is shared without being acknowledged.

I told Scorsese that in a lot of modern movies, it's bluntly clear what the characters are saying and exactly what the scenes mean. All of the dramatic moments are punched up so that a guy watching the movie half-drunk on an airplane won't miss anything. In "The Age of Innocence," the social fabric of is being threatened with rupture, but no one wants to admit that, and the movie is about how the danger is faced and dealt with, without anyone acknowledging that there was any danger in the first place. A subtlety of language

Scorsese laughed. "That bluntness, yeah. And losing all the color and the beauty of language and communication. They blamed me for that a few years ago. They had a wonderful article in the New York Times, called 'What Happened to Language in Film?' And they started quoting lines from 'Raging Bull.' Now, granted, a line like, 'You're gonna to find your dog dead in the hallway' is not the soul of subtlety. But in that movie when the De Niro character accuses his brother of fooling around with his wife, it takes him six pages of dialogue to say what he means. It may not be drawing room dialogue. But it's subtle.

"What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language. In the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870s didn't have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don't know which is preferable. I grew up thinking in one way, but in my own private life the past 10 years, I've started to appreciate the ability to say a little in certain emotional situations and mean a lot."

Scorsese's new film is what the industry calls a "costume drama," and great attention is paid to details of fashion, interior decoration, language, manners and the choreography of dinner parties. Immediately under the surface, however, beats the red pulse of passion. And it is the very same passion that has inspired Scorsese in almost all of his films: The passion of a man forced to choose between what he wants, and what he knows is right.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the film as Newland Archer, an up-and-coming young man from a good family, who is engaged to marry May Welland (Winona Ryder). She is sweet and pretty, well-connected and well-behaved. Then one night at the opera, he sees a cousin who was a childhood playmate, and who married a Polish count and has now separated from him and returned to New York. She is the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). He desires her with his whole being. But it would be wrong to go to her - wrong to break his engagement, wrong to frustrate society's plans for him, wrong to take up with a woman who has already been married.

Watching the film, my mind strayed back to Scorsese's first film, "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" (1967), in which a man falls in love with a woman and then learns she is not a virgin, and is torn between his desire and his Catholic morality. And to so many other Scorsese films - "Mean Streets," "Raging Bull," even the underworld of "Taxi Driver," in which men idealize women and then cannot deal the fact that women are human, too, and have passions, and are not perfect. Quintessentially Scorsese

Since so many of Scorsese's films have grown out of the streets of modern New York City, out of the Italian-American subculture of his youth, the announcement that he would film Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence struck many people as astonishing - as surprising, say, as if Abel Ferrara had announced a film by Henry James. It is only when you see the film, and realize what it is about, that you understand how this material is quintessentially Scorsese.

The project began, Scorsese said, when the Wharton novel was given to him by his friend Jay Cocks, a former Time magazine film critic who became his collaborator on the screenplay.

"We became friends 25 years ago. So he couldn't review any of my films then; conflict of interest. We stayed friends because of our interest in film. We would introduce each other to films.

"One of the genres that I really admire is the costume piece, even the trashiest kind, like 'The Count of Monte Cristo.' When I was nine or 10, my faher took me to see 'The Heiress,' which was the first costume piece that had a powerful impact on me. I didn't understand every detail, but I knew that something terrible had happened, a breach of trust and love - and everybody was dressed so nicely and they had such nice drawing rooms. I didn't understand how a father could talk that way to his daughter, explaining that the man was after her for her money, 'Because you're not clever and you're quite plain.' That's quite a scene.

"In 1980, Jay gave me The Age of Innocence and said, 'When you do your costume piece, when you do your romance, this is you.' Not meaning, of course, that I'm Archer or Ellen. It was the spirit of it - the spirit of the exquisite romantic pain. The idea that the mere touching of a woman's hand would suffice. The idea that seeing her across the room would keep him alive for another year. That's something I guess that is part of me. He knew me, by that time, fairly well."

The Scorsese that Cocks knew is indeed a connoisseur of exquisite romantic pain. He once told me he could not go to Venice again, because of romantic associations, and that he could not see the films of a certain studio, because of memories of a woman who had worked there. He smiled when he told me, he even laughed at himself, but still, he would not go to Venice.

He did finally go to Venice in August, however, to show his film in the Venice Film Festival, and he took his mother, so they could be together after the death of his father at 80. And he now looks at the films of all the movie studios.

"I think I've learned to. . .accept things, or at least to deal with them in terms like this book. I read a number of Wharton's other novels and they're very good, but this was the one that I said, 'Yeah, I understand this.' I was led through the labyrinth of it by the exquisite pain of not being able to consummate the relationship."

The Victorians were the sexiest generation.

"That's right. The more you had to get through all those clothes - the more he had to imagine through the clothes what was going on with her, the shade of the skin, the touch, the feel, the warmth, everything - I loved that tension, that conflict, and it's very sweet.

"And of course, it's the other thing, too. He believes that nobody notices, but everybody notices. When I read those paragraphs, I had felt that I was taken along by Edith Wharton. I felt like he did. And I realized what a fool I am. What a fool he is. I loved the way her prose just sort of dismembered him." 

And then there was the problem of finding a visual equivalent for the moments when the deepest emotions strike his characters. Take, for example, the opening sequence at the opera, when Newland Archer first sees the countess through his opera glasses, realizes she has returned to New York - and realizes, almost in the same breath, that he has fallen in love with her. No dialogue is used. How can Scorsese communicate the certainty of Archer's feelings? As he explained, I felt like a student in a master class:

"We look through his opera glasses, seeing what he sees. But not just in regular time. We did stop-frame photography, exposing one frame at a time and printing each frame three times and then dissolving between each three frames. It looks sort of like what you see when you look through an opera glass, but with heightened attention. He scans the audience and then backs up and stops on her. With all the different experimenting, that took almost a year to get right."

The strategy makes us feel not only that we are looking through his glasses, but that we are experiencing his feelings. What is best about the film, I think, is its feeling of complicity. There is a spoken narration (read by Joanne Woodward) that comes, not from any character in the story, but as the voice of the society itself. The narrator speaks of "we," and implies all the eyes that are on Archer, May and the Countess while they conduct their private war. And the feeling that Archer is under the restraint of that "we," that he must behave as society and his wife expect him to, leads us up to the film's great last scene.

I will not describe the scene. But I will report that for Scorsese, it is not only the summation of the movie, but of his reasons for making it. In the scene there is a revelation, showing that love is more complex and hidden than we know, and that sometimes perhaps exquisite romantic loss is more precious than selfish romantic gratitication. There is a line in the scene: "And to think it was his wife. . ." Think about that line, Scorsese seems to be telling us, and you will have a deeper knowledge of how life really does operate, outside the compass of our own little egos.

The afternoon was late. We sat in the living room, drinking coffee - in the second-story living room of a townhouse that was built in the Age of Innocence, in a room where perhaps people like Archer and May and the Countess had once taken tea. Scorsese's walls were lined with books. He said he was still seeing as many movies as ever, but he was reading more, too - "much more than when I was younger. I'm getting more into the past."

Do you think as people grow older, they grow more socially conservative?

"Not the old people I'm thinking of, the old directors like Sam Fuller or Michael Powell. They speak exactly what's on their mind, as if they're aware that they don't have any time to waste."

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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