Friday, March 25, 2011

Martin Scorsese - my essay on his early influences and stylistics

"I can't really envision a time when I'm not shooting something."
- Martin Scorsese 

Martin Scorsese is one of the most exciting and entertaining directors of Hollywood films. His intricate scenes, documentary like but yet stylized and personalized and various techniques used to communicate the psyche of the individual are some of the things that set him apart.
Early Days
"I grew up within Italian-American neighborhoods, everybody was coming into the house all the time, kids running around, that sort of stuff, so when I finally got into my own area, so to speak, to make films, I still carried on. " - Martin Scorsese

Being an Asthama patient, Scorsese was left indoors most of the time. This led him to do two things:
1) Watch movies in theatre
2) Observe people from his home from an unstable Italian neighbourhood.

He was also part of various social gatherings happening around his house and we can see that in every movie, the social gatherings- the food, the people attending them are very elaborately shot. Scorsese wanted to be a priest before he wanted to be a director but decided to not be one. We can see the presence of the church as an integral part in most of his movies. 
Sacred and sinful images co-exist even blend together in his movies. 

Cinematic Influences during growing up years (Western classics):
Scorsese has inspiring enthusiasm and his love for films started early. At the age of 8 he got himself an 8 mm camera and made a movie with his friends (see pic attached of the credits). Doing this enabled him to watch movies, more as a student than as a mere audience. At the age of 14-15 he became aware of the vision behind the camera. It is interesting to see how some of the Western films watched during childhood and certain aspects of these films find their way in Scorsese's future work. A list of the films and Scorsese's learnings from those films is enlisted below.

1) Duel in the sun - He got excited by the visuals and music in the film. A few techniques used like dissolves to the sun can be seen in his later films most notably Age of Innocence.
2) Land of the Pharoah - This was a movie about the death and he got enchanted by the idea of a story that leads to doom of people.
3) East of Eden - He liked the acting of James Dean and felt like this is how real characters talk. In most of his films, dialogues are mostly conversational almost as if we are evesdropping into those characters life just like in East of Eden. 
4) Citizen Kane - This movie made him aware of what goes behind the camera as he noticed the change in camera angles, use of deep focus, use of sound track, overlapping dialogue and various technical tricks
5) Tales of Hoffman - This movie made him aware of the use of music. The movie had a  sword fight without any digetic sound effects but only music. He used this technique a lot ( for example in  GoodFellas when Robert De Niro is sizing up pple in the bar or during the sequence of deadbodies being uncovered)
6) Public Enemy - This movie influenced his style of using music the most. This movie had a sequence when the protagonist's brother starts playing music for the arrival of the brother. Instead of the brother his deadbody arrived. This made an ironic comment on the situation. Scorsese observed that in his neighbourhood too, there could be music playing at a pizza parlour and some guy is getting roughed up. So this seemed more natural way of using music to him.
7) The searches - Scorsese went with his friends to watch this movie where John Wayne played a negative character. He and his friends identified with him inspite of being angry with him. To Scorsese, he felt like a real character - more fallible. He saw the picture again and again and found more meaning and more levels.
World Cinema Influences
1) Eisenstein : The idea of juxaposition of images, to create a new meaning and the idea of the audience synthesizing the movie fascinated Scorsese. For example in the movie Taxi Driver, the scene where Robert De Niro is adding some powder to a glass of water and tiny bubbles are  being formed, or the series of montages in the movie Kundun, where we see the shot selection to be based on the memory of a young boy.

2) Italian Neorealism : Use of real locations and breaking the boudaries of the studio, documentary like but intensely personalized film making has been prominent features of all Scorsese's movies.

3) Fellini's 8 1/2: A film about artistic dillemas - was the singlemost remarkable movie for Scorsese. The scenes had a dream like, floating quality to them that stayed with Scorsese. In 8 1/2 the camera is always in motion and the images are always fluid, almost pouring into one one another. To Scorsese, the shots seemed natural and integral to the movie, looking immensely simple on screen but were extremly difficult to execute. Fellini's relationship with women - who are elusive, and uncontrollable resonated with Scorsese's idea of women. Scorsese was deeply affected by this brutally personal film by Fellini.

4) Jules and Jim: Truffaut's Jules and Jim had an opening shot that directly dives into the core of the movie. Scorsese was impressed by this approach of getting right into the subject without dilly dallying and employed this techniques in the majority of his movies. Jules and Jim also used freeze frame to underline a point about the character and Scorsese used that a lot in GoodFellas to underline the key moments of growing up years of the protagonist.

1) Opening Mise-en-scene:
The first scene of every movie by Scorsese inevitably fulfils the following two purpose:
 a) Sets the mood of the movie
 b) Tells us what the movie is going to be about.
For example - the opening long take of Raging Bull, has Jack La Motta standing in the ring to fight. We instantly know that the movie is about boxing. That shot is also slow, lyrical, so we know that the movie will deal with poignant side of the boxer's life also.
Another example is Last Temptation of Christ: It starts with a voice over of Christ being tormented and the images of him struggling alone with this thought and struggling physically on the floor. We know that the movie will be about the struggle of Jesus trapped inside a human body and mind.
Some other examples: Age of Innocence- Flowers made up of fabric in the backdrop of handwritten words (with changing font colors) and the accompanying music, Casino- Blowing up of the car, GoodFellas- Killing a half dead person kept in the rear of the car etc.

2) Characters:
The characters of Scorsese films are real. We can see glimpses of Scorsese's personality and growing up influences in his characterisation.The characters are lovable, real and talkative. There is an inherent dichotomy that exists in all his protagonists that make us debate whether what they are doing is right or wrong and in the end we feel that what they are doing is natural and probably we could be doing that in that situation. For example his protagonists in Departed(questions about loyalty) , GoodFellas (decision to sell drugs), Casino (Robert De Niro's marrying Sharon Stone). There is no celebration of heroism but celebration of realism in his movies. Even in "Last Temptation of Christ", Jesus is a real person throughout the movie. 

Scorsese uses voiceover to dwell deep onto the psyche of the characters and tries to strike a fine balance between the motivation of character defined by the plot and the motivations defined by the characterisation itself. There is a sequence in GoodFellas, where the protagonist is being followed by helicopter and he is eluding that and trying to avoid being caught. At the same time he is cooking family dinner and is worried about the sauce being stirred and sticking the bottom of the pan. Sequences like these makes the character more real and identfiable.

3) Camera Movement:
The camera movement of Scorsese's movies are mostly fluid and consist of a good amount of long takes (even though he is doesn't shy away from cuts and uses them when appropriate). The camera is used a lot for showing point of view and becomes a personality of its own. For example usage of point of view for introduction of other gang members in a party. Scorsese is brilliant in picturizing large disorganised social gatherings with a long take and brings his camera right in the middle on the gathering as if we are part of it and satisfies our natural instincts of looking at the food, eves dropping into an intersting conversation. Choregraphing and shooting that situation is a remarkable quality.

There is a lyrical quality to his long takes and are almost like brilliant brush strokes. The most memorable shots are the first party sequence in Age of Innocence where the camera goes around revealing the paintings in the room and introducing the character. It slows down on the characters being talked about. Again, introduction of Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro's reaction to her has camera being a conspicuous character in the context of the scene. 
Also Scorsese combines lots of track in and zoom in to underline the emotion/tension in the scene (After Hours, Last Temptation of Christ, Cape Fear), he uses lots of long takes with steadycams to maintain the flow of the scene for example in second date (long take sequence) in the restaurant of GoodFellas. 
As music is inherent part of Scorsese's movies, some of his camera movements are planned according to the background tract that would be playing (example - in GoodFellas (finding of the dead bodies) - the sound track was playing during principle photography as well so that camera movement could be planned accordingly).

4) Editing pattern:
Scorsese in lots of movies uses parallel sequences so that the words spoken accompany the images (example Departed sequence - Dicaprio's confession to the psychatrist "you heart rate wis jacked"), his one scene flows into other and for this he uses lots of sound bridges. One of the most brilliant of these is in Casino, when Sharon Stone gets married and the visuals of marriage sequence is juxtaposed with te conversation of Sharon Stone and her boyfriend on phone immediately after marriage.
In Age of Innocence, there are lots of dissolves to various colors - red, magenta - to associate the thought of the lover with certain color. There are lots of editing experiments in Scorsese's movie (like disssolve within a shot).

5) Use of Music:
Scorsese is a connoiseaur of music. His various scenes are rich in music. Most of the music is not the original sound track but are tracks from vaious albums that could be playing around the time the events in the movies are happening. The songs make a comment on the scene, mostly ironic (as mentioned in Earlier Cinematic Influences) but sometimes emphasize the mood of the movie (baby baby track in casino). He uses music to create the mood of the film (Last Temptation of Christ) and also to establish the movie in a certain space and time and sets its social context. The music connects to the psychology of the character it is played on.  

6) Overall Mise-en-scene construction: 
Scorsese works hard on mise-en-construction - shot division, story boarding, choice of colors in the frame, angle of shot, relative height of characters, choice of music and editing pattern etc. His mise-en-scenes ar consistent with the look of the film too. Example in Last Temptation of Christ, he chose earthy palette - brown was the predominant color throughout. Even the clothes were muddy are black, grey or brown, there were no trees shown inspite all the shots being outdoors. 
For his gangster movies his mise-en-scenes are generally intricate and provide the social fabric on which the film is resting. The shots are mostly midshotsto tell that the people live in a crowded environment with no personal space.
For Taxi Driver, to show the world seen by Robest De Niro (protagonist) feels like an outsider observing the world. The blurriness of streets (point of view of Travis) is underlines by the blurry, skewed thoughts of Travis. His lonliness is underlined even when he is with his friends and the fireds occupy one side of the table and he alone is on another side of the table. Scorsese managed to create a dream like quality. The most impressive is "you talking to me sequence" with jump cuts. The last shoot out scene is graphic but also dream like. 


Unknown said...

Watched Taxi Driver again last week after reading your blog. It was a very good experience. I had never paid any attention to his music before but now it all made sense. Thanks for the new insight.

arati kadav said...

Thanks Aniruddha.