Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
by Roderick Heath
More than a decade ago, in the wee hours of the morning, watching television with the despairing diligence of a teenage film fanatic in a boring town. In between episodes of Night Court and infomercials, a blast of black-and-white shocked my eye. On screen, a seamy flat, a mother preparing dinner and feeding it to her kids, set to weirdly percussive rock music. The mother looked familiar, the caterwauling filmic style, too. Cut to a street scene. Macho epithets between scrawny youths, and is that a young Harvey—shit, it is a really young Keitel. “Jenny Jenny” cranking up as the youths get busy, batons hidden behind backs now slapping skulls, two guys kicking another along a pavement, brawlers colliding with wire fences in the grimiest Brooklyn backstreet.
My budding cineaste’s brain immediately recognised that somebody made this, somebody who had capital-T talent. The somebody was Martin Scorsese. The mother was familiar because it’s his mother, Catherine, not the beloved frizzy-white-haired granny who cropped up in his later work, but a thick-armed, double-chinned, suburban momma. The distance between that kitchen montage and his recent work is vast in every respect, except that, 40 years later, Marty’s feel for the cubist contours of montage is just as fundamental.
The New York cinema scene of the ’60s was a warrior movement of hipster guerrillas under the aegis of Warhol and Cassavetes, the film schools, the new critical league with its Sarris, Kael, and Schickel, soaking up the French New Wave vivacity, the British Free Cinema veracity, the pan-European cine-cultural conversation, and wedding it to quintessential American energy. Spitting creative heat like an oiled hotplate, this landscape produced an ocean of experimental shorts, and some features.
Scorsese survived youthful infatuation with the idea of becoming a priest to become the pet student of NYU film lecturer Haig Manoogian (he coproduced Who’s That Knocking at My Door? with wife Betzi, who contributed to the script). Scorsese impressed with shorts like What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! The Great Society going bush and bust in Vietnam, and a private depressive fit, resulted in his breakthrough short The Big Shave (1966). Scraping together $75,000 at age 25, Scorsese set about making a short feature, variously titled in development Bring on the Dancing Girls! and I Call First. He wanted chum Keitel to star, but Harvey was comfortably ensconced in a job as a court stenographer after being hungry too long as an actor. Nonetheless, Harvey took his chance and was joined by costar Zina Bethune, a stage and TV actress and the closest thing to a star of this bunch.
Blood-brothers of Fellini’s “little goats” (I Vitelloni, 1953), JR (Keitel) and pals Joey (Lennard Kuras) and Sally Gaga (Michael Scala) are spivs who spend most of their time hanging around Joey’s hole-in-the-wall bar, The 8th Ward Pleasure Club. JR, a former bank teller, and Sally are unemployed and run on credit, borrowing so much money that Joey whines that he can’t walk through Chinatown anymore without getting ambushed by their loan sharks. This trio spend their time in arguments each night about what to do, driving the neon veldt of the city and winding up back where they started. Scorsese establishes an argot and mise en scene that will eventually be placed into a narrative form in Mean Streets, but here remains a kind of experiential immersion into a place, a mood, a way of life. Their existence teems with chance—they live in the world’s biggest city—but is actually hermetic, self-involved, which is why JR is prone to zoning out in his friends’ company, and meditating instead on The Girl (Bethune).
Scorsese keeps the JR-and-friends and JR-and-The-Girl sequences formally separate. The fact that she is only known as “The Girl”emphasizes her singularity in JR’s otherwise generic life as a young Italian-American male. JR and The Girl meet waiting for a ferry ride and flirt nervously. JR spies a picture of John Wayne in her magazine, and movies proves the first, vital commonality of their attraction (cinephilia is, of course, a major theme). After his command of the possibilities of montage, Scorsese’s most impressive early trait is his ability to encourage Cassavetes-style improvisation controlled by a clear sense of desired effect and a fine ear for truth—both difficult for young artists. Such scenes crackle with verisimilitude, even though they drag and are not contoured into an easy narrative form. Strong narrative command lies in Scorsese’s future.
JR and The Girl establish a less nervous rapport as he impresses/bemuses her with his film-geek lexicon. The sense of excitement and newness is contrasted with the stale, grumpy exchanges of the three male friends in their drives about town (“That girl is bothering you!”). Scorsese uses experimental style (Kenneth Anger, again–shiny metal is sexy) to fetishize the happy interaction of the young men with their technology. The weird exhilaration of riding a car lift. Of pulling switches and raising electrified car windows. Fetishize the human form; JR and The Girl making out (but not making it) on his bed; super-close-ups of faces, skin, kisses, shoulders, the texture of flesh marked out, the weird exhilaration of human on human. Except that JR is young, and Catholic, and afraid. “Call me cold—anything you want—old-fashioned or what!”
The young men, gathered in someone’s family flat. Play-acting. A gun, wielded with excitement. Violence acted and sublimated, like static electricity, waiting for an arc to become active (but young Martin never gives an iota of gangland aura; no, they’re just dumb young wannabes, more in love with the movies than their women). They strike their poses, enact their parts—hood and victim. Scorsese uses slow motion, celebrating this transient transcendence from men to screen gods. Later, they make a foray into upstate New York; climbing a mountain stirs a wealth of comical whining from Joey but sparks something JR’s soul.
Emerging from a revival-house showing of Rio Bravo, JR joyously explains that Feathers was a “broad”. The Girl, of course, must remain pure. Madonna/whore complex, natch, but it’s a cover. Suggestion of homoeroticism in JR and his friends would send them into paroxysms, but they are loathe to engage with the feminine. In explaining the Broad identification to The Girl, Scorsese plummets into one of JR’s sexual fantasies. This bit, shot later at a producer’s insistence, to which Scorsese adds skin to make the film marketable as a sex flick, is actually the best in the film, a scene of great technical show and vertiginous dream-speed, anticipating such orgiastic montages as the cocaine locomotion of GoodFellas. JR’s beautiful boy-manhood is celebrated in quick, carving edits, his flesh desperate for erotic realization, and he beds anonymous whores in a carnal funhouse of an attic room, whilst imagining, but not screwing, The Girl, who stands, naked in Grecian inviolability. The Doors’ “The End” bellows oedipal climax; JR throws a handful of cards across a woman’s body—ejaculation as contempt. On one level, it’s dumb. But it’s breathless and compulsive, that it is to say, pure Scorsese (and also, pure Thelma Schoonmaker, who erupts with her own editing genius).
Back to walking arm-in-arm with The Girl after the movie. What’s JR’s problem? Virginity? Arrested development? Religion? We know his friend’s opinion of women. We’ve seen Sally making out with his girl in the 8th Ward, stealing money out of her handbag. The big crash? The Girl confesses that she has had a sexual encounter—a rape by a former boyfriend, when parked in a car. Well, that’s not her fault surely? JR thinks not: good girls don’t park with men of doubtful character, do they? To JR, it reeks of violation, defilement, terror, sex as bestiality. That it’s rape he’s up against makes the distaste more intense. Scorsese’s staging of The Girl’s confession has no sound effects, just a rock ballad dubbed over, made to skip, repeat, distort as we see The Girl’s brutal rape, wrestling on snowy ground and being pinioned on the front seat. It’s filmed in stark and chilling terms (the movie was shot in uneven, but sometimes impressive, high-contrast by Richard Cillo and Michael Wadleigh, who would direct the epochal rock doc Woodstock, with Scorsese as an assistant editor and director).
JR gets drunk with Sally and Joey, transfigured in his giddy laughter by imaginings of the rape. The boys get together and obtain a pair of prostitutes, Susan and Rosie (Susan Wood and Marrisa Joffrey). Watching a bad movie on the couch whilst the first pair of boys get busy, the remaining boys raffle turns to go in. JR loses, and in sweaty, fake-comic panic, drags the girls out, vowing if he can’t go first, no one’s going. Things turn almost nasty when one of the girls lashes out, scratching Joey’s neck; he angrily throws them out. It’s an orgasm in itself, ejecting the whores from the boy’s circle.
JR, tipsy and in sexual-emotional anguish, goes to The Girl’s apartment. Reunion seems blissfully possible. “I understand now, and I forgive you,” JR drunkenly offers. The Girl goes rigid, and rejects his entreaties: “I won’t marry you on that basis.” Driving him to insults, including the inevitable “You who-ore!” he attempts apology, but things are done. JR flees, drowned in alienating white light, to church. He confesses, prays, bows and kneels before iconography. Shots and actions repeat; the ritual of religion encages JR, or, rather, he encages himself in it. Kissing the foot of Jesus, his lips bleed—or so he hopes. His religion seems fit for Hellraiser; it puts hook and chain in your flesh and condemns you for eternityof body-ache. The song “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” plays—cheesy pop, but evoking the insistent demand of conscience, responsibility, religion, sex, everything cacophonous in JR’s immature ears. The last we see of JR, he and Joey take leave of each other outside the 8th Ward.
By the end of Who’s That Knocking, we might not like JR much, but we understand him. Scorsese would later confess his intellectual stance as one of an anthropologist who begins here with own milieu. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? is a moral and a sociological study, of the failures of everyday morality and socialization to educate a young man in dealing with real life. Scorsese refuses to indicate that JR has learned a lesson. He shows that JR has gone through an experience that has shaken him to the core. Autobiographical, but with an artist’s clear distinction of self from self-study, Keitel’s JR may or may not, Stephen-Dedalus-like, be Scorsese. He’s an alter-ego, possibly doomed to mediocrity through a failure of growth, or who may, as his poet’s expressions in watching the sunset from the mountain hints, one day escape himself. This type of film making is far more common today; in fact, Who’s That Knocking deserves some credit for inventing a whole genre in bildungsroman American indie films. Messy, occasionally naif, and dated, it still possesses an urgency, a bravura technique, and a fumbling towards a new lucidity that makes most of what came after it look pallid.
The finale of JR in church promises the opening of Mean Streets–still in the church, still praying for guidance, still receiving silence.