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Published on January 15, 2010

Passion of the wise guy

Toll Station controllers on the desert highway connecting Cairo to Alexandria must have wondered what could be causing the increased circulation on that mid-week winter day. Surely no one had informed them that Martin Scorsese, in the flesh, was to sit and chat for two hours at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, guided by the prompting questions of Ismail Serageddin, the library’s director general since its inauguration nearly a decade ago. In fact, this prominent cultural event cannot be said to have received the hype it merited – and a good thing too, since the hundreds of seats filling the conference hall were all occupied just by word of mouth and minor publicity. Movie buffs, local cinema stars, academicians and film students flocked into the hall, with polite albeit unwavering determination to secure the best possible seats allowing them the closest scrutiny of “Marty’s” face and body language. The lights were dimmed, the stage was lit, the two men took their seats, and the show started to roll as tape recorders registered and pens scribbled furiously to capture every word.

Imagine Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci talking out of the same body; remember the “wise guys” of Little Italy and you have a good idea of his real life persona: Martin Scorsese combines a diminutive physique with a highly charismatic spirit, perceptible Italian intonation with a fully American identity, wise guy gesticulation amalgamated with refined humility to produce an individual who can retain your attention and sympathy while speaking, at a distance from you, to someone else for a full two hours. He is himself a good film in action.

Born Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese (1942) to Catholic middle class parents working in the New York garment industry – his father a clothes presser and his mother a seamstress – this highly acclaimed Italian American director had already developed some of the life-long philosophical preoccupations that were to become pivotal focuses of his films during his teenage years. Roman Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption almost made a priest out of him; yet his fascination with the violence and machismo he was to witness on the streets of New York, added to his early acquaintance with Robert De Niro, pushed him in the opposite direction. “De Niro used to hang out with the rough crowd,” he reminisces, “we were 15, from the same neighbourhood, and a friendship began before either of us had entered the film industry.” It was none other than De Niro, who “knows me better than I know myself”, that was to save Scorsese’s cinematic career – even his life – years and years down the road.

Married five times (including to actress Isabella Rossellini), and father of a 10-year-old daughter (among three) at age 68, this is neither a man who is easily satisfied with the outcomes of his experiences nor one who retreats from or surrenders to his disappointments. He is, after all, born in Queens. “You spent a year of your life making a piece of junk,” had said his mentor John Cassavetes following the release of Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York “after he had hugged and kissed me”. Today, he makes the audience laugh while he chuckles at the dismissive words – back then, it was a different story. Back then, it was depression and cocaine abuse until De Niro barged into his hospital room to save the day. The result was Scorsese’s most highly-acclaimed film: Raging Bull.

“He [De Niro] came into my hospital room and said ‘Come on – Snap out of it! What are you trying to prove? Let’s do this film, it will be great! I’ll gain 30 pounds for the movie, so we have to make it now before I grow older and can’t shed the weight back off so easily. Come on, get up, let’s get outta here, we have work to do’. I didn’t want to make Raging Bull, but De Niro took me to an island and we worked on it. I am not the island type, I’m a very urban person, I don’t usually go to islands, but it worked,” Scorsese recounted with such accurate impersonation of De Niro’s speech cadence and inflection as to make the audience wonder which of the two men was the actor and which the director.

Serageddin, whose excellently-researched insight into the director’s life and body of work successfully sustained the fruitfulness of the encounter, jumped on the opportunity to poke Marty about the predominant violence in his films, referring to Raging Bull (1980) as the epitome of the trend. Scorsese, however, doesn’t answer straightforward questions with straightforward answers – he is a storyteller. “Do you know that the speed of one punch is equal to that of a jet plane? And yet, during boxing matches, for which my entire family would gather around the TV screen when I was young, all you could actually see were two tiny little figures in a box in the distance hitting on each other; I couldn’t see the punches, let alone feel the power of their blows.” And on he went with another story, entrancing the audience in the auditorium. “During one of the biggest matches in the history of boxing, Mohamed Ali was winning against Leon Sphinx who almost died under his punches. During a break Ali asked ‘what round is it? Am I winning?’ This is how debilitating the blows are to the players, and yet all that is seen by the viewers on TV and even from a distance by those attending the matches are those tiny figures banging on each other. I wanted to show, in Raging Bull, what the boxer perceives, what he hears, while he is in that fight, the power of the blow on his face, and that’s why all the fighting scenes are shot from inside the rink, mostly in slow motion.”

On his choice of topics, Serageddin probed Scorsese on shifting from the boxing rink to the pool table in The Color of Money (1986), considered the sequel to Paul Newman’s 1961 The Hustler. How did that one come about? “I had never worked with a film star before, but Paul Newman had written me a nice letter about Raging Bull and I like the milieu of the pool game,” explained Scorsese matter-of-factly while mentioning, but only fleetingly, how honored he was that Paul Newman had finally received his Oscar for that film. Scorsese’s humility was evident not only in this instance. The iconic director literally “dismissed” all praise of his talent and films during this two-hour encounter: he did not want to direct Raging Bull, nominated for eight Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Sound, and Editing), and did it only under De Niro’s pressure; he mentioned having been told that he “cannot direct women”; Taxi Driver (1976), another of his widely acclaimed films, he said was “the last thing I felt passionate about. I didn’t think it would be seen by anyone”; when referred to by Serageddin as king of the tracking shot, Scorsese hurried to mention those he perceived as the true “masters” of camera movement -- Bernardo Bertolucci and Orson Welles; about Cape Fear (1991), one of the highest grossing of his films at the box office, he chuckled “That’s another one I didn’t want to make”. As far as the auteur sees it, his successes are all accidental.

About his most controversial film, however, he was willing to talk at length. Subject to a number of cancellations and delays, The Last Temptation of Christ finally saw the light of the big screen in 1988 against violent opposition from the Catholic Church and religious zealots who burned copies of the film in a bonfire upon its release, some going as far as throwing Molotov cocktails inside a movie theater screening the film in Paris. Serageddin pointed out, however, that “with time, the merit of a film imposes itself”. Among the very circles that most fiercely rejected Scorsese’s attempt at portraying the Catholic perception of Jesus Christ as fully divine and fully human, voices eventually spoke in the film’s favour to claim that “maintaining equilibrium between these two contrasting natures might have been as difficult as The Last Temptation of Christ depicts.”

Raised with far-reaching Catholic seeds permeating his perception and outlook, Scorsese had always been consumed with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus Christ. “Among the middle class, especially where I come from, the worst offense is betrayal. We were raised to believe that Judas betrayed Jesus, that he was the bad guy; yet, without Judas, there is no crucifixion, no Christianity,” he explained. The way Scorsese came to see it, Judas had, perhaps, the tougher job of the two: delivering Jesus to those who would crucify him so that Christianity could be complete as a religion in Jesus’ absolving of humanity’s sins with his suffering on the cross. Based on what Scorsese saw as Nikos Kazantzakis’ “fascinating” novel by the same title and Paul Schrader’s screenplay, the film quotes this dialogue, encapsulating the statement made about Judas’ “accursed” mission:

Jesus: [feebly] You don't understand...
Judas: Understand?... You broke my heart… We held the world in our hands. Remember what you told me? You took me in your arms, do you remember? And you begged me, “Betray me, betray me, I have to be crucified...”

Returning to his defense of the film’s dichotomous depiction of Christ, Scorsese elaborated: “I was trying to work out the essence of religion as I believed it. In Catholicism Jesus is both fully God and fully human, so he must have experienced both, the divine calling and the calling of the flesh.” Serageddin was quick to change the subject here, whisking the conversation swiftly away from such flammable areas. To the Egyptian, predominantly Muslim audience, Jesus is a fully human prophet as no other being shares God’s divinity, nor does God have any offspring. What to Christian audiences represented offense – Jesus’s human nature – was the exact opposite of what the Muslim audience would flatly reject: his divine nature. The topic shifted to inquiries about what constituted the main pillar of a film, in the American auteur’s eyes.

“The actor is key,” Scorsese affirms, recalling his admiration for life-long friends and collaborators Robert De Niro, Havey Keitel, and, more recently, Leonardo Di Caprio. “I am 30 years older than [Di Caprio] is, but I admire him greatly for having the courage to venture, as an actor, into the difficult, grey zones.”

Because he works with such capable actors who are naturally at ease in the environments he conjures, Scorsese can afford much improvisation. “You know the scene between the character of Joe Pesci and his mother in Good Fellas [1990]? That’s my real mother, Catherine Scorsese. I placed two cameras in the kitchen, sat them both there with the knife, and just let them talk.”

Good Fellas explores the character of a soldier, “not a top level man, just a soldier,” who is seduced by money and the respect engendered by power. “The sense of danger in the story,” clarified Scorsese, “is in the allure of crime.” In the auteur’s words, Good Fellas is a documentary of a specific lifestyle he witnessed in the Italian neighbourhoods that were home to his childhood and adolescence — “it’s about the street corner life, not about the big bosses.” As he relates his personal experience growing up among this particular brand of people who were continually engaged in a “seductive dance between good and evil”, he recalls how “they move fast [snapping his fingers], they are always in and out, in and out, and they know all about self-deprecating humor.” And so does he. In another instance of self-deprecation, Scorsese had responded to Serageddin’s congratulatory comment about the director’s genius fade to white at the end of The Last Temptation of Christ — rather than the usual fade to black — with a snappy “we ran out of film stock”, followed by a hearty snigger while discreetly shifting on his seat. He was not only “bullied” into making his masterpieces, but what strokes of genius are detectable therein “just happened”.

On Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon (1963), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes starring Marius Goring and Jean Short (1948) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) – his three favourite films – he would have endlessly extrapolated, had Serageddin not interjected: what about the uncharacteristic happy ending in Cape Fear (1991)? With a typical wise guy “yeah… yeah” and hand wave, Scorsese confessed to not having been entirely satisfied with the original script yet challenged by the notion of creating a storm scene: “I followed Steven Spielberg’s advise ‘Keep the beginning, keep the happy ending, and change anything you don’t like in between.’ That worked for me and I ventured into experimentation with wide screen.”

More experimentation drifting away from established mainstream practices is also to be found in Scorsese’s sound tracks. In his films, the music score always comes from an element on the set itself, like a radio, not from any external source. “When I started making movies, the classical era of Hollywood film was long gone, and we could basically start all over again,” setting new precedents and experimenting at whim outside pre-established confines. “I could never understand why the music in a film would come from outside the frame, when it should be part of the components of the action on the set.”

As well as Cape Fear, The Departed (2006) — along with The Aviator (2004) — was one of the three films that generated the highest revenue at the box office, unlike most of his films which garnered much critical acclaim yet hardly qualified as commercial successes. “Making The Departed was like wrestling with the Hydra,” he recounted, once again attributing his success to chance: “I wanted to make it like a modern film noir; then Jack Nicholson came in, one thing lead to the next and it kept growing until it became this big hit.” Money, however, was just one of the film’s rewards: with The Departed, Scorsese finally received his Academy Award for Best Director, as well as homage from George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

The audience, captivated for nearly two hours by the magnetism emanating from him despite his relentless attempts at modesty, was finally allowed to express its gratitude for Scorsese’s recent funding for the restoration of Shady Abdel-Salam’s The Night of Counting the Years (1969), the jewel in Egypt’s crown of filmmaking history. Cinema, declared Scorsese, is a solid route through which distances between the West and the Middle East can be shortened. “Films are being watched by the younger generations on all the high-tech gadgets appearing every day, making different modes of thinking far less alien than they have ever been.” His own cinematic contribution to bridging this particular gap, he says, could one day find form in his directing a historical epic set in ancient Alexandria, a time and a place he finds “absolutely fascinating”. “I have watched many of Youssef Chahine’s films, as well as more recent works, because I want to become more aware of young Egyptian directors,” he courteously stated, engendering roaring applause from the multitudes of said directors crowding the hall, before Serageddin escorted him out and the auditorium faded to black.

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