When Martin Scorsese is directing a movie on all cylinders — and that, more or less, is the only way he knows how to direct — he can give you a rush you won’t get from any other filmmaker. The camera isn’t just gliding, it’s dancing, as if hypnotized into a trance by the characters it’s staring at. The music on the soundtrack is probably some kind of vintage rock ’n’ roll, but it’s the last song you’d expect to hear at that moment, which is what makes it the perfect song — one that fuses in electric counterpoint with the images, so that we’re not just watching the scene, we’re in the scene. And the actors are doing something that Scorsese invented, and a lot of filmmakers have imitated, but never with his bravura: They’re confronting each other, maybe shouting at each other, talking a blue streak of four-letter rage — and somehow it all plays not as a lowlife scuffle but as poetry, a kind of sense-quickening opera of ego.
Scorsese’s legendary body of work will be feted on Nov. 14 at the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, when he will receive the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film.
Looking back over his career, which has thrived for half a century, the first thing a lot of people would probably say about Scorsese is that he’s married to the mob — not literally, of course, but artistically. The (mostly) Italian underworld of organized crime has been his passionate and obsessive subject, the muse he keeps returning to. Yet it’s worth noting that in Hollywood movies, the gangster has never been just a gangster. He was, and remains, a mythological figure who acts out the impulses — the power, cunning, appetite and violence — that all of us carry on some level inside. Scorsese, in his mob films, has taken the underworld and made it our world.
He did it in “Mean Streets,” the 1973 landmark film in which he drew on his upbringing in New York’s Little Italy to craft an answer to “The Godfather,” by capturing the flavor of the mob as it’s actually lived on the streets, in the bars, among the penny-ante hoodlums. And he did it in 1990’s “GoodFellas,” the mobster-as-suburban-sociopath masterpiece that was like the original version of “The Sopranos.” And he does it again, on a grand canvas, with a venerable filmmaker’s wistful vision, in “The Irishman,” a drama that sums up the life (and death) of the mob with a chill that will leave you exhilarated and devastated.
If Scorsese had made nothing but those three films, he’d be one of cinema’s timeless maestros. But, of course, he has given us so much more, from the indelible urban inferno of 1976’s “Taxi Driver” to the tormented romantic yearning of 1993’s “The Age of Innocence,” from the tumultuous religious passion of 1988’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” to the sinister noir stylings of 1991’s “Cape Fear,” from the self-destructive brute tragedy of 1980’s “Raging Bull” to the money-fever madness of 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
It’s a fabulously eclectic slate of movies, yet what is it that binds them together? I think it’s that Scorsese, in nearly every film he has made, is looking at characters who push themselves to a kind of everyday extreme, because they’re searching for something — a way to reach into the raw experience of their lives and find a kind of redemption. It is, in essence, a religious quest. But though Scorsese, in discussing his films, has often invoked his Catholic background, the truth is that the people in his movies don’t seem to be able to find God in the world around them; they’re forced to look for God within themselves. And that’s true even of Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in “Last Temptation.” The brilliance of Scorsese as a filmmaker is that he absorbs us directly into that journey, inviting us to touch the hidden sanctity of everyday experience. Some people make feel-good movies. Scorsese does something more transcendent: He makes movies that you make you feel fully and divinely alive.