A Dreamer Walking

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Character Studies

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 23, 2014

Scorsese #2One of the reasons movies like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and his latest The Wolf of Wall Street rub audiences the wrong way is because of director Martin Scorsese’s determination to not show the big picture. What Scorsese is interested in is the individual perspective. Almost all his films revolve around an individuals point of view and Scorsese is unwilling to leave that point of view for sentimentality or political-correctness. He has faith his audience will bring a broader perspective to the films they are watching, but Scorsese is focused on showing a world seen through the lens of his flawed characters. This is what makes Scorsese’s movies so interesting.

The first Scorsese film I chose to watch when I started studying him was Taxi Driver (1976). After seeing the movie I couldn’t believe how frustrated it made me feel. “Gosh”, I thought, “they said this guy was a good director!” What I saw was a completely unlikable character, in Travis Bickle, with little arc. I first thought I just picked the wrong movie. However, after watching Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) I found the same problems arose: the characters were all hard to warm up to and there was little to no character growth. In fact, one of my first papers on Scorsese revolved around the problem I had with the lack of arc in his films (check out the paper here).

After listening to many of Scorsese’s interviews and commentaries I began to realize he was never interested in movies about characters who ended up overcoming their flaws and winning the day. I don’t believe Scorsese felt capable of telling many of those kinds of stories in an authentic way. Most of Scorsese’s movies don’t revolve around huge life altering events that send his characters on specific adventures. He is actually known for his lack of interest in narrative driven films. And, though I still hold to my point I made years ago about Scorsese not having much of an arc for his characters, I have come to realize that has never really been his intent. What he wants us to see is the effect a changing environment has on his unwavering characters. Again and again in Scorsese films we observe characters who are unable to change and adapt to the shifting world around them.

We see the characters in Scorsese’s films show their inability to adapt to a changing world in many different ways. In Gangs of New York there is Bill The Butcher. From most accounts audiences considered him the most interesting and colorful character in this Scorsese epic. Bill deals with a the world around him by demanding it stay the same. The story takes place in the city of New York during the Civil War. This represents a huge evolution in the United States, yet Bill refuses to acknowledged it. He tries his hardest to keep New York the same way it has always been. He ruthlessly undermines newly elected officials and continues to hold onto his hatred towards immigrants and African Americans. Bill represents the old New York. I believe this character most resonated with Scorsese because he also fell in love with a New York (the place he grew up) which has since gone away.

In the movie Goodfellas change is dealt with in a completely different way. The main character of the movie is gangster, Henry Hill, and unlike Bill The Butcher he is not in a position where he could force his environment to stay the same. The first half of the movie shows us exactly why Henry is the kind of guy he is. We see how enticing life as a gangster can be. Scorsese brilliantly displays the glamor, excitement, and power that comes with gangster life and then he pulls the rug out from under Henry. Soon the struggle for power puts friends against friends. Henry’s luxurious lifestyle and excessive amounts of money get him into drugs and allow him to support mistresses which in turn brings more chaos to his life. He soon finds he can’t support the glamorous life he and his wife have grown accustomed to and things begin to crumble around him. Though you can’t say Henry’s lifestyle ends up benefiting him in the end, there is no attempt to show Henry having regret for the life he lived. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for cheating on his wife and helping to cover up the murders of several people. At the end of the story we see his situation change dramatically but he is no different.

If you enter a Scorsese movie wanting to see characters come to their senses or pay for their crimes I am afraid you will be disappointed. The latest Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, is proof of just how little Scorsese cares about appeasing his audience byshowing any kind of justice or redemption. The protagonist of the film is one of the most despicable men you will ever see, Jordan Belfort. The film revolves around a team of stockbrokers, lead by Belfort, who cheat, lie, and double cross their way to the top of the Wall Street food chain. The film is based on a true story yet not even a second of the film is focused on any of the many thousands of people Belfort ruined because of his scams. Instead we are are exposed to an excessive amount of drug use, prostitution, and partying. Many asked what the point of the movie was. I don’t think Scorsese had a particular message he wanted to send. However, I think he made the movie because he wanted to get into the head of someone who could do such damage without thinking twice about it. Scorsese didn’t show any of the victims of Belfort’s schemes because Belfort didn’t care about his victims. As I said at the top of this post, Scorsese is relying on his audience to bring a bigger picture to his movies.  His job is to show us an unflinching example of what goes into the mindset of a character like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese isn’t interested in having us like Belfort, but rather he wants us to understand him. Like the movie or not Wolf Of Wall Street produced a huge amount of dialogue about the corruption of Wall Street. This dialogue was generated because of Scorsese’s unwillingness to create false sympathy for the character of Belfort and because of Scorsese’s ability to let us see through the eyes of such a corrupt character. The movie forced us inside the head of a man few of us would ever care to know in the real world.

Scorsese is completely focused on transporting his audience inside his characters head. In fact, what almost all Scorsese films have in common is they are deep character studies. Scorsese wants his audiences to be consumed by his characters. And once we are in his characters heads, he refuses to let us out. We end up seeing the world of Scorsese’s protagonists rather then the world we know. In the commentary for Taxi Driver the film professor Robert Kolker talked about how we don’t know what is real or not in the movie because Travis Bickle isn’t seeing the world in a realistic way. The same could be said to an even greater degree for the movie Shutter Island. (SPOILER) At the end of Shutter Island we learn the whole story we just watched isn’t real at all but was simply imagined by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (END OF SPOILER).

Scorese’s focus on the psyche of his characters is obsessive. Scorsese wants us to question what we thought we knew about people in this world. Repeatedly he refuses to give us characters we can completely root for or against. Instead he shows his audience a much more colorful world, filtered through the eyes of his protagonist. We can see ourselves being entranced by the same demons that send people like Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, and Jordan Belfort into madness. And, we are never given any easy answers as to how to fix their problems. Instead we are made to come up with the answers for ourselves. In many ways it would be easier for Scorsese to create an out for himself by giving into the audiences desired outcomes for the characters in his films. But it is by forging his own path and taking an unflinching look at the people he concentrates on that Scorsese has become one of the most admired filmmakers in the world.

The Audience’s Comfort

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 14, 2012

Andrew Stanton said in a recent interview that there is nothing he likes more then to feel he is in good hands at the beginning of a film. He wants to know that there is a master storyteller helming the wheel and he is in for a great adventure. You want to let your audience know they are not wasting their time, that they are seeing something they have never seen before. This however has more to do with trust than comfort.

Honestly the new is often uncomfortable for the audience member. Most of the entertainment in film comes from creating a story that puts the audience in suspense. We put the audience in suspense through putting the audience in a state of unease.

One of my greatest problems with most classic films from the 30’s through the 50’s is the clear black and white line they draw with almost every situation and every character. There usually is a clear good guy and a clear villain. The goal is obvious and usually not too deep or insightful. Classic westerns, for example, tried extra hard to villainize the Indians so we didn’t need to think twice when one of them were shot. The Hollywood system created stars who were reliable. The good guys were always good.  The bad guys were always bad.  And, the beautiful women were always beautiful. Even John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, with a few exceptions, were characters who seemed to have rough edges but were dependable for coming to their senses at the end of the film. The result from this was a lack of suspense, specifically for the younger audience member. Because the big studios were unwilling to take many risks and create characters who walked the line between good and evil and create stories that did not always end in the politically correct way, the studios’ power over the film industry died off. In the sixties we saw the rise of the independent filmmaker. These filmmakers began to blur the moral line with films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), to the point that in the 70’s our interest in the anti hero grew, expressed most vividly in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver  it was hard to know what was going to happen in any given scene. Scorsese and writer, Paul Shrader, put us in a state of unease by creating a main character, Travis Bickle, who was always in a questionable state of sanity. He was not out to do the right thing, however he wasn’t the villain. He was the character we were supposed to get to know the most in the film. The choice he made at the end of the film brought us as an audience out of our comfort zone. He did not choose to do the right thing like we were so used to. Instead, he commits a great crime and gets away with it. The film did not give us any clear answers. We didn’t know who to hate and we did not know who to like. The film did things we were not used to and had a character we were not morally in agreement with, which put us in a state of unease. This unease created a suspense that made each scene more interesting to us.

I am not saying you should create films with characters we can’t like or who don’t do the right thing sometimes. However, don’t try to please us when making your story and characters. Every character you make should have both good and bad qualities. We are not supposed to like everything about them. A good example of what I am talking about is the TV series Deadwood. In the series we are introduced to a ton of characters, all of whom have both good and bad qualities. Through out the three seasons the series aired we explored several different aspects of these characters and found that some of the characters we first labeled “villain’s” had truly redeeming qualities, and some of the characters we thought of as “hero’s” were corrupt and wrongdoers in many ways.

The series Deadwood kept its audience on their feet in many clever ways. It was a show where the audience was not supposed to be comfortable. They took us out of our comfort zone by having the characters talk in extremely profane ways. David Milch, the show’s creator, knew that the language by itself would help the audience realize we were not watching any old classic western. In all of the first four to five episodes we see a character die. Some of whom seemed to be quite established. This took us out of our comfort zone and created interest and suspense. Viewers never knew exactly what was going to happen. There were things I saw in the series that I was morally against and frustrated with. However, the more I thought about it the more I was happy with Milch choosing to go against the audience’s expectations and do the politically incorrect thing.

You will never satisfy every audience member with your movie. Don’t try. Take the audience out of their comfort zone and do things we are not used to. You will now doubt have your share of critics if you choose this path. But, it will make your films worth something. Your personal vision on any given subject is what matters. To take the unknown path is not only scary for your audience but you as well. However, it’s the very thing that keeps the cinema alive. The unexpected keeps the audience member interested, connected, and inspired.

Taxi Driver-Extra Features Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 27, 2011

Taxi Driver:

Collectors Edition 2-disc DVD Review:

Martin Scorsese On Taxi Driver: 8.5 out of 10: This is a very good 16 minute interview with Martin Scorsese. He explains his feelings on the project as best as possible. Martin talks about why he wanted to direct Taxi Driver and what he got out of it. He also goes into detail on what influenced him. Martin names several directors, from Francesco Ross all the way to Alfred Hitchcock, as being strong influences for Taxi Driver. This feature is not about how Martin approached each shot or how he got the film accomplished. The feature does have a tremendous amount of information of what Taxi Driver meant to Scorsese. I think it is good that this interview is taped many years after the making of the film. He seems to have had time to think about the reasons to why he did Taxi Driver and why it was a success.

Producing Taxi Driver: 7.5 out of 10: A good 10 minute look at how the Taxi Driver film was started. You hear mostly from producer Michael Phillips on what the movie meant to him. We are told that the movie was very controversial but sadly do not hear of much detail to why. We also see why some of the filmmakers were attracted to the film. There is a nice little look at the new generation of filmmakers that were coming up from the 1960’s and 70’s.

God’s Lonely Man: 9.5 out of 10: This is a great 25 minute documentary on the origins of the Taxi Driver film. We go into the life of the screenwriter Paul Schrader and see how the film was created from his own personal experiences. He talks about the foundations of the main character Travis why he was appealing to him. Paul gives us a lot of insight to what the philosophy is behind the screenplay. He talks in detail about what he thinks the job of a screenwriter is and what it is not. This documentary is a must for anyone studying screenwriting. The documentary helps us understand Taxi Driver in a much deeper way.

Influence and Appreciation: Martin Scorsese Tribute: 8 out of 10: This is a great 18 minute documentary on Martin Scorsese. It talks a little about how he got associated with Taxi Driver. They talk about him as being a student of film who always had a independence and exhilarating energy for filmmaking. We hear a lot about the kind of influence Martin was on the rest of the Taxi Driver crew. It is a documentary about why Martin is such a good director, only concentrating on the making of Taxi Driver and before. I wish they used the Taxi Driver as an example more often. I wish they went into more specific examples of how Martin’s shooting was revolutionary for his time. All in all a very good documentary. It was very well told and I liked hearing about the revolution in the 70’s for Hollywood filmmaking.

Taxi Driver Stories: 7 out of 10: A interesting look at a few New York taxi drivers. They talk about what taxi driving is all about for them. We hear how the business has changed from the 70’s to the present times. They explain what drew them to the job and some of them explain why they chose to leave the profession. It is a 20 minute documentary on some unique peoples lives as taxi drivers. Does not really have anything to do with the making of the actual film Taxi Driver.

Making Taxi Driver: 8 out of 10: This is a well made 1 hour and 10 minute documentary on all the stages of making Taxi Driver. All the way through the documentary we hear about the philosophy behind the film and how it resonated with the cast and crew. Many people talk about their role in the film and specifically how Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro pushed the film to be the classic it is today. Jodie Foster has some good things to say about her role as a 12 year old prostitute. She talks about what both Martin and Robert did to take her acting to a whole new level. Paul brings us a lot of insight into the meaning behind the movie. I would have liked to hear from Martin a little bit more. They never really get into much detail about the conflict that came with the film. I did enjoy hearing about Robert De Niro’s contribution to the film and what his attitude was as an actor back then. A good all a round look at the film making process.

Travis: New York: 5 out of 10: This was a okay look at New York in the 1970’s and how it has changed to present times. The documentary was very short however and not nearly enough of an explanation was given on how Now York has changed. We are told by some high up officials that the City has changed from back then to now. But, we don’t hear how it has changed or much of why. We are told that the City is Rich, but never are given a explanation. We also are not told why New York City is the place of opportunity, even though there are some interviews who say it is.

Story-Boards by Martin Scorsese: 8.5 out of 10: This is a fantastic 4 minute explanation by Martin about the beauty of storyboards. I really enjoyed it and think he explains well the general benefit of self made storyboards. We are given good explanation to how the storyboards help both him and his cinematographer understand how to go about shooting the film.

Commentary: By Professor Robert Kolker: 8.5 out of 10: Professor Kolker seems to have done his research on Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver in this commentary. He makes us understand to a much higher degree why Taxi Driver is considered by many to be a great piece of Cinema. He goes into detail on how Martin uses the camera to push the story and it’s meaning forward. He talks about Travis and explains his view on many of his scenes for us. Sometimes it feels like he is trying to put meaning into things that never had any. But, for the most part we dissect the Taxi Driver movie and see a lot of the fine details that make the film great.

Commentary: By Screenwriter Paul Schrader: 7.5 out of 10: I have some mixed feelings about this commentary. First off, Paul does a good job giving us his unique and valuable perspective on the film. He mostly sticks to his thoughts on the script. One of the frustrating things was the long gaps without him saying a word. It really felt like he was only talking half the time or less. There were several scenes I very badly wanted him to talk about that he just skipped over. He does a good job when he does talk. Paul is very honest. He tells us what he thinks a screenwriters job is and what he thinks is not a screenwriters job. He has experience with both directing and writing, so his comments on what the directors job is and what the screenwriters job is, are very valuable. Overall I did get some valuable information from him, but wish he talked and discussed much more then he did.

From these extra features I think we get a very good view on the making and importance of the Taxi Driver. We hear a fair amount from all the major people who took part in the making of Taxi Driver. For me it was a great introduction to Martin Scorsese. I was able to see some of his passion for film. I was also able to see what got him started in the film business and how his philosophy started to change the rest of Hollywood. Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro were also interesting people to look into. Paul Schrader’s screenplay really was something else. This is just as much Paul’s movie as anyone else’s. I respected the trust that Paul seemed to have with Martin, it is a good look at how a screenwriter and director should work together. These extra features explain very well the reasons to why Taxi Driver is considered one of the greatest films ever made. It also inspires the independent artist to make his own film, no matter how gutsy the story is.

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Perfecter Of The Elements

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on January 24, 2011

Martin on rightI have just begun to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s ability to use both visuals and sound to enhance our understanding of what his characters are feeling. We are not just told what emotions the character is going through, we see it. The most vivid example of this is in Raging Bull during the fight scenes.

In many ways Scorsese is at his best in Raging Bull. We are literally transported inside the main character Jake LeMotta. During the fights when Jake is doing well we are right in on the action with him, as if seeing most of the fight from Jake’s point of view. The camera is steady and the image is clear. The lights glamorously applaud Jake as if he is the king of the world, or in boxing terms “The Champ”.

This clip from Raging Bull is a perfect example of how the camera, sound, music, and lighting, are all glamorizing Jake’s climb to fame.

This section of the film represents Jake’s professional career at it’s best. Martin tries to stay in the moment as long as possible by doing a continuous shot from the locker room to the ring. The farther down the hall we get the more we are able to hear the glorious applause for Jake. On top of that we have music playing romanticizing the moment. Everything is smooth and there is no extreme close ups. Jake is in total control and thus the visuals and sounds are supporting that control. It almost ends as quickly as it starts. The opponent gives up and Jake is now Champion with all the elements of cinema supporting his victory.

Now take a look at this scene, where Jake finally falls and gives up his title.

Immediately we can tell the audience is not quite on Jake’s side anymore. The punches to Jake seem louder and the lighting is much more dim. We even see steam coming from the fighters and the ring, as if we left the real world and are in some kind of hell. Finally we see Jake has given up. He drops his hands and beckons his appointment to come and finish him off while leaning against the ring. Then it happens. We leave reality completely. We get a shot of Jake in the middle of the frame, a abnormal, wide angled, and uncomfortable perspective. Everything  goes quiet (Martin understands sometimes the greatest sound is silence). Then the camera does a tilt down covering the opponent in shadow. The opponent sounds more like an animal then an actual human now, breathing in and out slowly. Behind Jake the steam is more visible then ever before. Jake looks almost distorted in the frame.

The beating begins. Everything seems to go extremely fast now. For the audience the fast abrupt cuts are just as painful as the punches. The camera lights go off like they are attacking Jake along side his opponent. The sounds of the journalist’s camera lights going off are like machine guns emptying out clips. We get extreme close ups of Jake’s face and the blood spurting out in all directions. It no longer matters whether the scene is realistic or not, what Martin cares about is the feelings and emotions he is expressing. We finally end seeing Jake completely destroyed yet still standing.

These are just a few examples of how well Scorsese uses his cinematic skills and experience to further the journey of the viewer. In his movies we will not always see deep attention to plot. All of Scorsese’s cuts will not match up flawlessly. Sometimes we might be frustrated with the characters he is trying to express or the story he is telling. But one thing is for curtain, Scorsese knows how to use the camera. He knows how to literally express emotions through the medium of film. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Aviator are just a few other movies of Scorsese’s where we really are able to explore the inner being of one of his characters.

I think Scorsese does not care if we do or do not like his films. What he wants is for the audience to experience something unique and different. He wants to express himself through his films. He knows the best cinema comes from within.

(He is the LINK to my first Martin Scorsese “Observation” post)

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Where is the Arc?

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on January 20, 2011

martin-scorsese_M_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85After recently watching three of Martin Scorsese’s most critically acclaimed films, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, I have noticed one key factor that seems to be true with each one of these films. The main characters stay the same. This is very different from the normal Hollywood film. Or at least the normal critically acclaimed film. Usually we are taught to create an arc for the main character. We need to see them start one way and through their journey learn something new and change because of it. Not really the case with these three Scorsese films.  (If you continue you will hear spoilers for all three of these films).

I am not saying the characters don’t change at all. But all the change we see seems to be a outward change. The soul of the characters stays the same. A good example is Henry Hill in Goodfellas. At the beginning Henry loves the life of being a Gangster. We see how Henry was introduced to the Gangster life and his voice over gives us all the details to why he likes this way of living. At the end Henry rats the gangsters out. However, it has nothing to do with him not liking the gangster life anymore. He even tells us strait up that he misses it. The problem for him is the circumstances changed. He needs to leave the gangster life to save his own neck.

In Taxi Driver the movie ends the same way it began. In fact this was the filmmakers intention. We are introduced to a paranoid man in Travis Bickle. The paranoia becomes so great Travis goes on a killing rampage. Somehow he is hailed as a hero in the public’s eye and starts the cycle all over again. The reason why we know the cycle is going to start all over again is because on the inside nothing has changed with Travis. In Raging Bull the only change in the main character Jake LeMotta is he goes from a famous boxer to a washed up showman.

To be honest, Martin is being more honest to reality in showing these characters with faults that do not really change. For the most part we are unwilling to look at ourselves and make the changes needed to transform who we are on the inside. Martin also is a skilled storyteller and is able to tell intriguing stories even though the his main characters don’t have an arc.

It is interesting to see how the characters life styles and who they are on the inside effect how they deal with outside situations. Seeing Travis’s self loathing and paranoia effect the way he judges situations was interesting to me. Seeing how Jake LeMotta’s mistrust and his obsessions took a hold of him and caused him to lose everything, was also intriguing. For me however these things by themselves leave me unsatisfied.

No matter how good the filmmaker is a story still needs an arc both in the the plot and the characters. I am not nearly as interested in the outward alterations as I am in the inward change. If you are not going to have any change on the inside you should be able to get done with the story much sooner. I knew Travis was crazy in the Taxi Driver thirty minutes into the film. I knew Jake was a good boxer with relationship issues fifteen minutes into the film. I realized that Henry liked the life of being a gangster within the first five minutes of the film.

We only need to go outside to see people who don’t have any inward change. Sadly, the world is full of those kinds of people. However, for me the movies should be different. They should show us growth, both good and bad. I am fine with films that have good people choose to go bad based on the circumstances. That is a interesting observation that if told right will make me think. I also am fine with films that have bad characters change for the good. I am not saying there needs to be a huge change. Not saying  they should go from completely bad to completely good. Just, I want to see a difference the story made on the character. I want to see the inner transformation that takes a master filmmaker to express.

Martin Scorsese’s Favrite Movies

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 12, 2011

First off, I am sorry that I have not been updating this blog on a more consistent basis. I will try my best to remedy that.

I have been doing some research on Director Martin Scorsese. He is the next director that I have chosen to really dig into. I have bought the blu-ray’s of both Raging Bull and Goodfellas and plan on dissecting (looking into and abstracting as much information as possible) them both. At the moment I am looking into Martin’s movie Taxi Driver. I will try my best to get a review of the Collector’s Edition DVD up soon.

However, I have run across some Youtube video’s that I think are worth posting on this blog. It is a a three part all together about 25 minute interview on the movies that influenced Martin the most when he was a kid and a young filmmaker. He talks a little bit about how he inccorpuated some of the qualities of the movies he liked, such as The Searchers and The Public Enemy, into his own movies. I would suggest you do as I did and write down a few of these movies names. After looking at some of their reviews, they seemed like movies worthy of looking into.

This is really one of the things I like the most about Martin. He has a huge vocabulary of film that he seems to draw from in every piece of work he does. It is undeniable that Martin is one of the most intelligent film directors of his generations. The vast amount of knowledge that Martin seems to have in regards to how to use editing, the camera, the acting, and the music in order to bring about the vision for his film, is magnificent. He in himself is very much worthy of studying.