This latest entry in the Pocket Essential collection is perhaps the most welcome. An erudite study of America’s greatest living film-maker, Paul Duncan does what any good film writer should do – he makes you want to see the films all over again. Not only that, but equal measure is given to all his films, so that bloated misfires like Cape Fear (1991) rub shoulders with a personal project like Boxcar Bertha (1972).
The book follows the usual PE structure, using a chronological examination of Scorsese’s films to trace recurring visual and narrative motifs, tease out hidden meaning, and provide incisive comments on plot and character. In his introduction, ‘Martin Scorsese: Body and Soul’, Duncan trots out the usual chestnuts – Scorsese’s Little Italy upbringing, his love of movies and his attraction to men in conflict with themselves and their recurring desire to attain peace with society. He also explores the Aristotelian notion of tragedy, correctly identifying its appropriation in much of Scorsese’s work. As the author suggests, ‘His characters may be more bad than good…but they retain a certain humanity that the audience can hold onto’. We need only recall Jake LaMotta trying to hug his estranged brother on a bitterly cold New York night for proof of this.
Four chapters follow. In ‘Novice’, Duncan comments on Scorsese’s early NYU short films, most notably The Big Shave (1967). What is useful about this chapter is the way in which the way the author sets up an analytical template to be used for the rest of the book. Aside from the usual cast, crew, synopsis and background data, Duncan uses other headings – ‘wiseguy’ (the recurring character of the gangster), ‘cine-literate’ (Scorsese’s intertextuality), ‘seeing’ (his visual style), ‘hearing’ (his soundscapes) and ‘subtext’ (what the film is about). The establishment of such headings lend a clear and refined discussion to each film, and permit a wider understanding of the recurring themes in a Scorsese work. Such a set-up isn’t without fault, though. Do we really need ‘Home Movie’, in which we learn which member of the Scorsese clan plays a cameo? Likewise ‘Picture’ is frustrating – Duncan arguing that pictures, frames and the act of painting are crucial to his work. Perhaps they are, but in both cases, the reader is left wondering whether less space devoted to these quirks and more to other areas would have been more fruitful. It must be stressed though that these are minor faults. Given that a Scorsese film will always contain a multitude of aesthetic and cinematic flourishes, credit must be given to Duncan for providing a transparent means of deciphering them.
‘Doing the Right Thing’ covers the period from 1973’s Mean Streets to Raging Bull (1980). This is the strongest chapter, deeply knowledgeable about the production history of Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Duncan also provides a wonderfully succinct study of Taxi Driver. In the space of a half dozen pages, he combines references to Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) with more quirky detail on the film’s genesis.
‘Out on a Limb’ charts what is frequently seen as the director’s barren years, from The King of Comedy to Goodfellas. Duncan does a good job of illustrating how the success of Raging Bull led Scorsese into essaying more personal and idiosyncratic project. While this reviewer is of the opinion that After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986) will always remain lazy and indulgent affairs no matter how much re-evaluation is aimed at them, it is right that all his films are given equal word count. Duncan avoids the temptation of waxing lyrical about Goodfellas at the expense of, say, New York, New York (1977), and this balance pays dividends. Goodfellas is certainly Duncan’s favourite. He is right to underline that it is ‘not an operatic story’ about the Mafia but ‘about the nuts and bolts of running the business’. Scorsese’s masterpiece is not a bedfellow of The Godfather (1972), but is instead a forerunner of gangster soaps like ‘The Sopranos’, to which Duncan makes frequent reference.
‘King of the Kinematograph’ brings the reader right up to date with 2002’s Gangs of New York and his post-production work on The Aviator. Duncan is curiously defensive of Casino (1995), a film I always found derivative and ossified. Likewise, his glowing appraisal of Kundun (1997) and negative reading of Bringing Out The Dead (1999) seem based on personal preference than any objective study. Yet that is also one of assets of the Pocket Essentials – they can be at once partisan and profound; a fan writing for fellow fans.
Duncan also includes studies of commercials for Armani, Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ video and the documentaries, My Personal Journey, My Voyage to Italy and Lady By The Sea. The bibliography is broad too, but it is a shame that the web references are poorly represented. This is a longer Pocket Essential than usual, and it is to be hoped that their editorial policy will permit other directors to be treated with such comprehensive fidelity. Duncan writes early on that it will be interesting to see if Scorsese is still labelled America’s greatest director in twenty years, given the emergence of Soderbergh, Anderson and Mann. To read about and visualise the films in this eminently addictive study proves that as long as he is making movies, Scorsese’s pre-eminence is guaranteed.