Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #20 - Martin Scorsese

photo by David Shankbone
-Shutter Island
-The Departed


-Cape Fear
-The Last Temptation of Christ
-Taxi Driver
-After Hours

Quentin Tarantino recently said in an interview that he wants to eventually retire from directing because directors do not get better with age.  In the case of Martin Scorsese, he is absolutely wrong.

I am definitely in the minority on this, but I think Scorsese's early work is awful and his later work is fantastic.  Many critics like his raw, violent, gritty take on cinema.  I do not.  For me, gritty usually is a code word for lack of spectacle (an essential part of film-making).

A critic once said that Scorsese likes to delve deep into the souls of amoral men.  The problem is that there isn't much soul there to keep interest.  I think that this critic was right on the money.  Evil people can be fascinating, but ultimately off-putting.

Taxi Driver is considered by many one of the great American movies.  I respectfully disagree.  Travis Bickle is an interesting person to watch and De Niro's performance is great, but it lacks the artistry you would find in the work of someone like Francis Ford Coppola, who could tackle the raw elements of human life while making it visually beautiful.  And nothing can explain the blasphemous mess that was The Last Temptation of Christ.

And yet, Scorsese has grown as a director.  The Departed, the movie for which he won is only Best Director Oscar, is a brilliant piece of directing.  He is able to get you into the minds of both the hero and the villain in a way that you almost root for both at the same time.  The scene where the two of them are on the phone with each other without talking is riveting.  This was the movie where Scorsese finally abandoned his guerrilla style directing tactics and began to really use all the visual tools at his disposal.  The film has tons of trade-marked Scorsese type violence, but he smoothly uses it to push the story forward.

I thought this was just a fluke, but then I watched Shutter Island.  At first I thought he was going over the top with the musical score, like he did with Cape Fear.  But he sets the mood so well and he integrates stunning visual elements together to create a tense, cerebral thriller.  And the ending is one that will have you talking about for days.  He has brought out some of DiCaprio's best performances, as well as some of the most solid work by veterans like Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo.

And he hit a third directing home run with Hugo.  The movie is not great, but it is good.  It is the directing that is of special note.  Scorsese used the 3D elements in a way that brought wonder not to a galaxy far, far away or a orc-invested cavern, but to a turn-of the century train station.  He made the seemingly ordinary quite magical.

What has been great about late Scorsese is that he was widened his visual palate and abandoned his rough sketching.  He is not simply playing with the latest digital toys.  He understands that they are a means, not an end.  He uses the best technology to tell a good story and to draw you in.

Martin Scorsese has done something very few directors have done after 40 years.

He's gotten better.

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