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Entries in martin scorsese (4)


In Which We Charm Absolutely No One

Notes on Margaret


dir. Kenneth Lonergan
150 minutes

Kenneth Lonergan’s hold on the countless ways we fail to communicate is Margaret’s most bewitching coup. Rather than gaining mileage from what is unsaid, his teenage protagonist, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) clashes with each person in her ever-growing sphere as she tries to reconcile with a fatal bus accident in which she feels partly responsible.

Discovery, as Lonergan lays bare, is often achieved with fight. Shushing, shouting, crying, dismissive arm-waving, passively listening, correcting someone’s grammar, mimicking, misunderstandings, storming out and slamming doors, all inch Lisa further from resolve but closer to breaking through her childhood safeties and habitat, the Upper West Side — a character unto itself in Margaret.

Anna Paquin is terrific as a teenage girl. She struts to her desk. She pouts. She still has baby fat. Her skirt is too short and her henley shirts, too tight, but with stretched sleeves to pull over her hands in more contemplative, panicked moments. Her hair is greasy at the roots. Her eyeliner, reapplied regularly. Her eyebrows are over plucked and her stare is restless no matter the emotion — eagerness turned frustration, grief turned anger. Her attitude thaws with adults who outdo her wit or minutes before she loses her virginity.

On screen, teenage rebellion is charming. But not Lisa Cohen’s. Hers is not easy to look at — it overcompensates, it’s at times ugly and a bit ridiculous. It’s authentic. For years on screen, Kirsten Dunst sought to be Lisa Cohen.

In one scene she wanders drunkenly around a party, stumbling from a boy named Paul to another boy named Darren. She is bold and willing with Paul in the bathroom but it’s the way her body flops down on the floor in the hallway to make-out with Darren, only to struggle as she gets up, that is exact.

Lisa Cohen is both the heroine in a 19th century novel and a character from a post 9/11 graphic novel.

Margaret is cut somewhat messily; some jumps are more abrasive than others. In this way, everyone’s story is told alongside Lisa’s. Everyone is defenceless, including the audience.

She dismisses a boy’s phone call and we are immediately dropped in his bedroom where he sits on the edge of his bed, crying beside his Pavement poster.

A conference call with lawyers and loved ones, and Lisa, contrasts with three New York buildings — Lisa’s urgency calmed momentarily, not by a parent or a friend, but by her city.

“What’s Indiana like?” Lisa inches in to ask her teacher. They are sitting on the couch in his sublet. Seconds later the camera cuts away, and in the next scene, she stands at his front door as he apologizes for what just happened.   

Like Maurice Pialat in A Nos Amours, who too directs and plays the father of a teenage daughter, Lonergan is Karl, Lisa’s dad who lives in California, remarried. Shots of Karl pacing outside his beachside house as he speaks somewhat idly to his daughter, contrast with her relentlessly shifting world. His sky is blue and empty while wide shots of Lisa walking home after school are peopled and hectic — a huddle of boys part as she digs her hands in her skirt pockets and passes them, bothered by the unwanted attention.

Margaret slows in parts to truly appraise emotions. Instead of dialogue as a tool used to forward plot, it rationalizes a character’s feelings. Lisa’s mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) is dating a man named Ramon played by Jean Reno. One night she asks Lisa’s opinion about a date outfit. Their exchange is immediately cruel and spirals as if on each side, the breaks have jammed. But neither is in fact mad. Both are hurting and experiencing the kind of homelessness only possible in one’s own home, at the end of a week that crawled with failed attempts. A mother readying herself for a date is no match for a daughter afflicted with misunderstood angst.

Lonergan’s long takes ripen as Lisa’s emotions, no matter how sincere, heighten. It’s as if something on screen thickens, like batter, when the camera sticks with a conversation that at first appears to have no direction. It’s exhilarating. 

At an outside terrace, Paquin, Jeannie Berlin, who plays a dear friend of the deceased, and a lawyer meet for lunch. They discuss legal options. Lisa interrupts a number of times. Salads are served. It brought to mind a scene in Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours where three adult children, mourning the loss of their mother, discuss her will and the family’s summer home. They speak diagnostically much like in Margaret where emotions turn to equation. In both films, unglamorous details are entirely involving. 

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about the city of Los Angeles. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Carolina" - The Gertrudes (mp3)

"Flashbulbs" - The Gertrudes (mp3)

"Six Jars" - The Gertrudes (mp3)


In Which We Can Never Stay Out Of Trouble When It's Baited With This Much Tramp

I Found My Level And I'm Living It


The Hot Spot, 1990

dir. Dennis Hopper

Once there were three friends who took it upon themselves to overthrow and destroy an old guard system they knew they could clearly improve upon. They had grown up on the work of the people whose jobs they now had to take. They realized it was a funny way to thank them. But when it came down to it, the old legends had succeeded because they were so much a product of their time, and new times required new products. It was necessary to invent Easy Rider/The Social Network/This Recording

The new sixties Alpha Male sensibility ultimately didn't turn out to be any different from the old Alpha Male sensibility. It was exactly the same with long hair. The new Alpha Male may have even preached a good game on gender politics (although just as often not), and then not followed suit in his personal relations with women. It might seem difficult to reconcile masculinity with feminism, BUT IT'S NOT. Only an insecure man/person has to always be right or in charge all the time. Traditional masculinity is a cool looking hot rod with a shitty engine that stalls in middle age. It is a lemon.

Nothing is worse than a guy who thinks he is a revolutionary because he reads foreign newspapers and Al Jazeera's twitter feed but who can't seem to fully renounce male chauvinism in his own life because of course he loves the perks. There's an economic principle that these perks come at the expense of another group, in this case women.

nothing in her way except THE FUCKING PATRIARCHY

The Privilege Denying Dude meme caught on because it was so true. It is only heterosexual white men who ever believe that we live in a post-anything world. Romanticizing traditional masculinity is like romanticizing the Confederacy or the Nazi regime. Great uniforms, accessories, and anecdotes. But your politics fucking blow. 

Straight white dudes often want to believe we are past these problems because the alternative is that they are the villain in the movie called World History. But I mean, it's true that they are the villain. And like any legacy sullied by genocide and imperialism, no one is asking them to claim all the responsibility for it but it is absolutely required that it be acknowledged. To refuse to acknowledge the continued dominance of racism/sexism/homophobia/socially exclusionary practices is to reinforce them. 

Here's the thing about unconscious biases. They are unconscious! So when people say "I am not a sexist/racist/homophobe" they are being well-intentioned about meaning it, but just saying it doesn't automatically make it true. It is about deeds, not words. And thoughts are not deeds. They are not even words. A person may think a tremendously offensive thing, and then feel as though this is an intrinsic betrayal of their real sexist/racist/homophobic feelings. But it's not. Necessarily. It also can be.

You have been conditioned, and then encouraged not to think about it. Often rewarded for not thinking about it. But you must think about it. True self-analysis is a revolutionary act. And unlike revolutions in other countries where you are just sympathizing hopefully with the proletariats, it is a revolution you have a shot at being an actual part of. The personal is political. Women are the universal proletariat

The individual has the most power over itself. More than any outside group can influence, and more influence than it can have on any outside group. It is impossible to renounce dominance in all its forms because dominance can be incredibly useful. Dominant behavior exists in nature to such an extent that it is often conflated with "nature" (although of course nature is equally a pond as much as it is a tidal wave).

The desire to dominate exists in the self, but why is it so rarely felt as the desire to dominate the self? To subordinate and win control over one's worst urges and tendencies? It spins outwards instead. Other people seem easier to take control over than oneself, because other people appear static and one's self is always shifting. 

Which brings us back again to gender. To see "women" as a foreign country you must conquer is the definition of denying them personhood. To assume that to fuck a woman is to take something from her, to degrade her as a person in some way, or alternately but equally insidiously, that it is to promise commitment. Yo she might just want to get laid. To assume anything about "women" as a body: that single women are lonely, that married women are happy. That you can make any universal statements about what "women" are like. You can't make any universal statements about what any group is like, because then you are denying individuals their differences. You are perpetuating your privilege. That is how stereotypes work. They are useful! It is scary!

Everybody is different. Women are not automatically Taylor Swifts just like men are not automatically whores. Believing that all men are whores/assholes/dogs is just as damaging and untrue and fucked up as believing that all women are Taylor Swifts. Even Taylor Swift is not really a Taylor Swift. Everybody is a whore sometimes.

The Nice Girl is really a Slut. Likewise, the Slut is really a Nice Girl. It works exactly the same for men. The Nice Guy is also an Asshole. The Asshole is also a really Nice Guy. There is only one type of person, and that person is a person who can be different ways with different people under different circumstances. Nobody is always nice or always awful. People are not monolithically good or bad. Everyone is capable of both. 

I never really gave too much credence to the whole virgin/whore thing because like most of the most horribly misogynist aspects of life I chose to ignore it and pretend it just didn't/would never be applied to me for as long as possible. Then in the past six months I got called a slut by three different dudes, none of whom I knew well at all.

All three of whom took it upon themselves to tell me and my female roommate (unprompted, naturally) what kind of girls we are. More specifically in one case that she is a "sexy uptight librarian" and I am a "fun bar slut." All three times I was so baffled that I didn't even react appropriately and punch them in the fucking face. 

Later I kept going back over why exactly I didn't. I think I probably didn't want to betray that it had any effect on me whatsoever. They are just words, after all. But it did have an effect on me, and the effect was "WAIT WHAT?" Because my roommate wears glasses and I am a ginger? I also wear glasses, and my roommate is really hot. You actually believe there are two different kinds of women, and they are "sexy uptight librarian" and "fun bar slut"? Was that a neg? Has that ever worked to get you laid?

But the truth was that it haunted me, because nothing is funnier than the phrase "fun bar slut." I saw it chiseled on my gravestone. "Molly Lambert: She Was A Fun Bar Slut." I don't even go to bars that much! I just thought about the episode of Laguna Beach where douchebag Stephen Coletti yells "Keep dancing on the bar SLUT" at Kristin.

That only happened on Laguna Beach. Things like that only occurred on reality television. That would never happen to me. But then it did, three times, all equally unprovoked. All sort of attempts to pick me up, I guess under the false auspices that a strong negative reaction from someone is better than no reaction at all (WRONG). 

The virgin/whore trope plays heavily into film noir. I took a film noir class in college but all I remember is that I wrote a tight paper about the sound design in The Long Goodbye and got really mad at my friend Jon when he criticized Barbara Stanwyck's wig in Double Indemnity ("IT'S PURPOSEFUL ARTIFICE!!!" I may have yelled). There are always two women, and one is a virgin and the other is a whore. One is Janet Wood and the other is Chrissy Snow. The whore is always more interesting and usually dies. 

The first time I recall my awareness of the concept of virgin/whore dichotomy was musical theater, in West Side Story. Maria is the lead. She has great songs. But Anita is so much cooler and stops the show. Maria is boringly good and humorless. Anita gets to be funny. Maria is a soprano. Anita is an alto. In chorus I sang as an alto because there were always less of them. Most girls tended to want to sing the "pretty" i.e. soprano parts rather than the less glamorous harmonies assigned to altos and men. 

I sometimes envied the sopranos, but I also found them cloyingly sweet. I thought it was ridiculously narcissistic to think you should always get to sing the lead parts. Both were within my range, and I always thought about how arbitrary it was that I considered myself an alto. I could equally have sung the soprano parts, I just happened to be singing alto. Shouldn't I be rewarded for being able to do both?

In The Hot Spot, Jennifer Connelly is a sexy uptight librarian and Virginia Madsen is a fun bar slut. Don Johnson is the fucking dude. Don Johnson is so hilariously cool in this movie. So flawlessly masculine. It's dumb as hell. Is there a term for the way male directors dehumanize their male antiheroes into overly perfect idealized objects of desire? The narcissistic male gaze? Christopher Nolan has made it his life's speciality. 

Dennis Hopper drains most of the ambiguity from the Charles Williams book and screenplay. This despite the fact that what's so great about Charles Williams is how he questions pulp's genre conventions. His femme fatales are usually the smartest characters in his books, not judged for wanting to have sex in crazy places. Rather than die at the end she wins the hero's heart and rides off into the sunset with him.

The emotionless drifter/private eye is an archetype like James Bond. Like James Bond it doesn't exist in real life anywhere. It's an ideal, seductive and imaginary. The same way the "Nice Girl" is an imaginary ideal of a woman who would never get upset about anything. The slut might get mad. She might leave you or fuck someone else. It is even possible she will murder you, since film noirs are hysterical masculine fantasies

The Hot Spot's gender politics are more than decent in the end. Virginal teenage dream Jennifer Connelly also takes topless photos and flirts with her blackmailer. She is the one who gets Don Johnson to murder someone. So much for the Nice Girl. Meanwhile Fun Slut Virginia Madsen murders her husband (while fucking him, LOL) and asks Don Johnson to fuck her in all kinds of "deviant" ways that aren't really deviant so much as they are incredibly silly. So silly that when he ends up with her it doesn't really matter (although it's a nice twist), because the love triangle feels so weightless.

I have seen The Last Movie. It is unwatchable. And I say this as somebody who will watch anything. It's incredibly boring and not shot well. You can see that the budget was spent on drugs. The Hot Spot is fucking hilarious, but one thing it is not is unwatchable. It is totally watchable. It is the kind of movie you watch on Cinemax until 4am (as I did) and wake up the next day not sure if you just had a well-lit dream.

The lighting is a character, falling somewhere between David Lynch and Zalman King, and tending towards blue and pink. What is this kind of lighting called? Erotic thriller lighting? Overlapping with neon noir? It shows up in Showgirls and Bad Influence. It calls to mind 80s porn, Miami Vice, and Cocktail. It definitely feels extremely 80s. 

Oh yeah the 80s. They were not always kind to the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls of the 60s and 70s. But then again, those guys weren't very kind to the 60s and 70s were they now? Never assume you can just rest on your past glories. Let's do a body count:

Jack Nicholson: He made some of the best movies of his career and peaked on testosterone poisoning. He starts the decade with The Shining (80) and Reds (81) and ends with making The Two Jakes (90) which presumably was the beginning of the deflation of the hubris that he was unstoppable. It's too bad, because one of the things I love about Nicholson is his extreme versatility. I like that he wrote a bunch of scripts. I liked Drive He Said. I will also point out that after Reds Jack Nicholson stopped being hot. Much like Brando he became sort of actually disgusting. He was just coasting on the idea of his previous hotness and became a dirty old man, which is why I was so confused when I found out he was actually hot in the seventies.

Dennis Hopper: Blue Velvet, Hoosiers. But Jack Nicholson still fucked your wife!

Dustin Hoffman: no1curr

Warren Beatty: Oh Warren Beatty. So much privilege to spend. Reds is one of my favorite movies, so for that alone Warren survives the 80s with his dignity intact. If Jack Nicholson is Don Draper, Warren Beatty is Roger Sterling; never taking himself seriously enough to accomplish anything truly great as an actor. And I guess there was Ishtar. Although like Heaven's Gate, Ishtar is one of those movies that is more "legendarily bad" than it is actually bad. They are both more like legendarily bloated and long, but not without their fans and moments. Beatty makes Dick Tracy the same year Jack Nicholson makes The Two Jakes. They both find out they are actors.

Bob Rafelson: After making The Postman Always Rings Twice ('81) everything on Rafelson's IMDB starts to have the word "Erotic" in it. Sorry Bob. Was it Head?

Peter Fonda: OOF.

Robert DeNiro: Jake LaMotta. DeNiro was never a partyboy. He staged Scorsese's intervention after The Last Waltz and is supposedly very mild mannered IRL, nothing like a "DeNiro character." He's just an incredible actor. He puts all his crazy in there.

Al Pacino: Scarface, the ultimate cool 70s becoming the shitty 80s movie.

Roman Polanski: You know how in every group of guys there is one guy who is the biggest asshole/fuckup and every other guy is secretly like "man, at least I'm not THAT guy" even though they are first to goad him on at parties? Roman Polanski. The guy that Jack Nicholson compares himself against when he wants to feel better about his choices. Like, cheat on Anjelica Huston? Reprehensible. Rape a child? WORSE!

Martin Scorsese: Raging BullAfter Hours and The King Of Comedy. Scorsese hustles

Francis Ford Coppola: Lost his damn mind in the jungle. But hey The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and I do enjoy Peggy Sue Got Married, especially Nic Cage's part.

Toni Basil: Hey Mickey!

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. You can read more of her work here. She last wrote in these pages about painting. She twitters here and tumbls here.

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In Which For Martin Scorsese It Was The Subculture

Making It Up As You Go Along

Martin Scorsese is a revolutionary figure in American cinema and not just for the unblinking originality of his films. As much a calculated auteur than a regular guy putting forth his vision of the world, Scorsese prefigured the democratization of the cinema by bringing his violent and disgusting adolescence to life. He is also a talented critic and historian, infusing his films with a network of tributes to the legends of the movies he loved as a child. In this far ranging chat with critic Anthony DeCurtis that appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly in spring of 1992, he touches on the making of his most important projects and what's it like to be Marty.  - A.C.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: I want to start with Goodfellas. Obviously you have returned to some familiar terrain. What brought you to that specific project?

MARTIN SCORSESE: I read a review of Wiseguy back when I was directing The Color of Money in Chicago, and it said something about this character, Henry Hill, having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider. He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better front man and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting. You could move in and get a cross section of the layers of organized crime — from his point of view of course. Which could be true — maybe, who knows? It's what he says. You get into two different areas there. What he says the truth is — you have to take his word for it, which is .... I don't say it's doubtful, but it's like...

AD: It's a version.

MS: The second element is really the most important one: his perception of the truth. Where, you know, if somebody gets shot in a room and there's five people who witnessed it, you'll probably have five different stories as to how it happened. You know what I'm saying? So you have to take that all into consideration. But that's what fascinated me about the book. So I got the book and I started reading it and I was fascinated by the narrative ability of it, the narrative approach.

AD: Henry has a real voice.

MS: He's got a wonderful voice and he has a wonderful way of expressing the lifestyle. He reminds me a lot of the people that I grew up around. It had a great sense of humor, too. So I said, "This will make a wonderful film." I figured to do it as if it was one long trailer, where you just propel the action and  you get an exhilaration, a rush of the lifestyle.

AD: That acceleration at the end of the film is amazing, when Henry is driving around a madman, blasted on cocaine, trying to deal for guns and drugs while the police helicopter is following him, and, through it all, he keeps calling home to make sure his brother is stirring the sauce properly for dinner that night.

MS: Yeah. The sauce is as important as the helicopter. That's a whole comment about drugs, too. When I read about that last day in the book, I said I'd like to just take that and make it the climax of the film. Actually, the real climax is him and Jimmy in the diner. A very quiet moment.

AD: When you talk about the world you grew up in, as it happens, it is virtually the same world I grew up in. I went to Our Lady of Pompeii in Greenwich Village.

MS: Great!

AD: On Bleecker Street.

MS: It was the West Side, though. You were on the West Side. That's a funny thing, on the East Side, we didn't have the influx of other cultures, that very important bohemian culture.

AD: My family was Italian and working-class — I wasn't part of that. I grew up in a world as enclosed as the one that you describe. But there was always this sense that there was something else. I mean, when I was a kid, the Village Voice office was around the corner. So when it got to the point where like, as kids, everybody was getting in trouble with the police, I had a very clear vision that there was some way out.

MS: There was another world. We didn't know that.

AD: It's a very clear distinction. The bohemian world of the Village was like another world, even though you only lived a few blocks from the Village.

MS: I never went to the Village until I enrolled at NYU in 1960. I grew up on the East Side. From 1950 to 1960, for ten years, I never ventured past Houston Street, past Broadway and Houston. I think my father took me on a bus when I was five years old or something, I remember Washington Square. I was on a double-decker bus. And I remember a friend of mine, I was about nine years old, his mother took us to the Village on a little tour to see the little houses and flowers. It was like a wonderland, because they had flowers. It was a very different culture.

I was used to, you know, wonderful stuff too, on Elizabeth Street, which was five grocery stores, three butcher shops all on one block. Two barbershops. And it was barrels of olives — which was great. Growing up down there was like being in a Sicilian village culture. It was great. But you come from there so you know. It's complicated to explain to people who didn't grow up in it.

AD: It is. When I'm trying to tell people about it, I refer to your movies. I don't know any other representations of it.

MS: A good friend of mine I grew up with just sent me a letter. He just saw GoodFellas and he said he had just spent a sleepless night remembering what a great and incredible escape we both made from that area, from that whole lifestyle.

AD: I first saw Mean Streets after I had left New York to go to graduate school in Indiana. I had never been west of New Jersey, and I saw Mean Streets...

MS: In Indiana!

AD: And it was like, "Wow, somebody got it. There it is."

MS: That's the whole story of Mean Streets. I mean, I put it on the screen. It took me years to get it going. I never thought the film would be released. It just wanted to make, like, an anthropological study; it was about myself and my friends. And I figured even if it was on a shelf, some years later people would take it and say that's what Italian-American on the everyday scale — not The Godfather, not big bosses, but the everyday scale, the everyday scale — this is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did in the early seventies and late sixties. Early sixties even. This was the lifestyle.

AD: Why was it important to do that? To document that?

MS: Oh, you know — myself. I mean why does anybody do anything? You know, you think you're important so you do a film about yourself. Or if you're a writer you write a novel about yourself or about your own experiences. I guess it's the old coming-of-age story. Actually there were two of them for me. Who's That Knocking On My Door? and Mean Streets. Who's That Knocking I never got right, except for the emotional aspects of it — I got that.

AD: I watched it recently and was struck by how strong it was. How do you feel about it at this point?

MS: I dislike it. Only because it took me three years to make. And, you know, we'd make the film and we'd work on a weekend and then for three weeks we wouldn't shoot and we'd work another weekend. So it wasn't really a professional film to make. It took three years to make. The first year, '65, I cast it. We did all the scenes with the young boys and we had a young lady playing the part of the girl. But later we came up to about an hour and ten minutes and there was no confrontation. The young girl was always seen in flashbacks and asides. It was all between the boys. So you never understood what was happening between the Harvey Keitel character and the girl. The conflict was, of course, being in love with a girl who is an outsider, loving her so much that you respect her and you won't make love to her. Then he finds out she's not a virgin and he can't accept that. it's that whole Italian-American way of thinking, of feeling.

Finally we got it released. We got it released by '69, when we were able to put a nude scene in it. In 1968, we shot a nude scene. In '68 there was a new tolerance about nude scenes. Very old, wonderful actors and actresses were playing scenes in the nude — it was very embarrassing. We had to get a nude scene. We shot it in Holland, because I was up in Amsterdam doing some commercials for a friend of mine. We flew Harvey over and we got the young ladies there and we did this nude scene. I came back, kind of smuggled it back into the country in my raincoat, put it in the middle of the film and then the film was released. But it was still a rough sketch to me. I wish... ah it's the old story: if I knew then what I know now it would be different.

AD: One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the sexual fantasy sequence while The Doors' "The End" is playing.

MS: Well, that was the scene done in Amsterdam. That was fun.

AD: The Oedipal drama in the song underscores the Oedipal struggle of the Keitel character. Using that song also captures the way that you were profoundly affected by what was going on culturally in the sixties. But for the characters in your movies, the sixties don't seem to exist. Their world is...

MS: Medieval! Medieval. Well, that's the thing. When I was about to release the film, we were having a problem getting a distributor and my agents at William Morris said to me, "Marty, what do you expect? You have a film here in which the guy loves a young woman so much that he respects her and he won't make love to her. Here we are in the age of sexual revolution, and you're making a film about repression! Total sexual repression. Who's going to see it? Nobody."

Yeah, I mean, that was my life. When I went to Woodstock in '69, I mean, it was the first time I started wearing jeans — afterwards, I took cufflinks; I lost one of the cufflinks. Certainly it was having come from that neighborhood and living there completely closed in, like in a ghetto area, not really leaving till the early sixties to go to the West Side. So I had one foot in the university and the other foot in Mean Streets, you know, that world, that lifestyle. i became aware of other people in the world and other lifestyles, other views, political and otherwise, much later. But I was quite closed off. It was like somebody coming out of the Middle Ages going to a university.

AD: In a documentary that was done about you, you said that you would see certain things when you were young and you would say, "Why don't you ever see this in a movie?" I was wondering what it was you were seeing, or what you felt was missing then in the movies?

MS: I think it is the way people behaved. I'd be sitting and watching something on television. My uncles would be in the room. My mother would be there. One of my uncles would say, "That wouldn't happen that way. It's a good picture and everything else, I really enjoyed it, but, you know, what would really happen is such an such. He would do this and she would leave him and the guy would kill the other guy." They would work up their own versions of the film noir that we were watching, and they were actually much better. My uncles' and my mother's and father's ideas were much better than what we were watching on TV. And it had to do with what was based in reality. What would really happen.

AD: That's an interesting aspect about your movies. Obviously you're completely soaked in film history and you've seen a million movies. But your movies never become just movies about movies. There's never anything cute or clever about them. Even when Henry in GoodFellas says, when the police are coming for him, that things don't happen the way they do "in the movies', it doesn't seem contrived. Of course, you got that from the book.

MS: I was going to take that out, but I left it in because I felt it had more of an honesty to it. I hope it had an honesty to it, if you understand. I always find that sort of thing too cute or too self-conscious or something — thought I don't mind being self-conscious at all. I like Joseph Losey's films. You see the camera moving, it's very self-conscious. But it took me years to get to understand the precision of it and the beauty of that, you know? And I don't mind the self-conscious aspect. What I do mind is pretending that you're not watching a movie. That's absurd. You are watching a movie and it is a movie.

But Henry, did say, "They don't come to you like you usually see in movies." So he's not talking about this movie. He's talking about other movies that you see. And I was even thinking of saying, "I know you're watching this as a movie now." I was even thinking of putting that in. Then I said, no, it get too — what's the world for that? — maybe academic to get into that. There's a falseness about that that I wanted to avoid here.

AD: It seems exactly like what he would say.

MS: It just sounded right to me, you know what I'm saying? It sounded right in the context of the way he was speaking and all, so I just let it go.

AD: That approach to things related well to the subterranean world you deal with in GoodFellas and some of your other movies. You depict a real world of consequences, in which people don't get a lot of chances to make mistakes. There is a clear sense that if you step out of line, if you do the wrong thing, you're going to pay for it.

MS: That's very important. These guys are in business to make money, not to kill people, not to create mayhem. They really want to make money. And if you make a big mistake, you bring down heat on them, you bring attention to them, you cause strife between two crime families, somebody has to be eliminated. It's very simple. Those are the rules. Very, very simple. I mean, you can't make that many big mistakes. You don't rise in the hierarchy if you do. It's very much like a Hollywood situation, where, you know, how many pictures could you make that cost $40 million that lose every dime. You can't. It's purely common sense. And so they work out their own little elaborate set of rules and codes.

AD: It's also a means of working out a certain version of the American dream. In GoodFellas Henry says he'd rather be a wise guy than be the president of the United States.

MS: It's better, because you can do anything you want. And you can take anything you want, because, like Henry says, if they complain, you hit them. It's very simple. it's more exciting, and the opportunity is endless. And this is the great country for it to happen to, because the opportunity here is endless, usually.

However, I always quote Joe Pesci, who pointed out that wise guys have a life cycle — or an enjoyment cycle — of maybe eight or nine years, ten years the most, before they either get killed or go to jail and start that long process of going in and out like a revolving door. I try to give the impression of that in the film when Henry gets to jail and says, "Paulie was there because he was serving time for contempt. Jimmy was in another place. Johnny Dio was there." I mean, this is like home for them. Then the life begins to wear you down. The first few years are the exuberance of youth. They have a great time — until they start to pay for it. Tommy starts doing things, just unnecessary outbursts. Look why Jimmy goes to jail — because he beats up some guy down in Florida. It's a long story in the book; in the film, it's totally unimportant as to why they're even there. We did so quickly to show you how, just as fast as it happened, that's as fast as he could go to jail for something he forgot he did.

AD: Tommy and Jimmy in GoodFellas are, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, walking powder kegs. What interests you about characters like that?

MS: There are a thousand answers to that. It's interesting. It's good drama. I'm attracted to those kinds of characters. And you see part of yourself in that. I like to chart a character like that, see how far they go before they self-destruct. How it starts to turn against them after awhile — whether it's shooting people in the street or arguing in the home, in the kitchen and the bedroom. How soon the breaking point comes when everything just explodes and they're left alone.

AD: You once said that the La Motta character in Raging Bull never really has to face himself until he's alone in his prison cell, hitting his head against the wall.

MS: Totally. That's the one he's been paranoid about all along. I mean, it gets to be so crazy. If his brother, and if Tommy Como, and if Salvie and if Vicky did everything he thought they did — he can do one of two things; kill them all or let it go. If you let it go, I mean, it's not the end of the world. But, no, no, he's got to battle it out in the ring. He's got to battle it out at home. He's got to battle it everywhere until finally he's got to deal with that point where everybody else has disappeared from him and he's dealing with himself. He didn't let it go. And ultimately, ultimately it's you.

AD: Is that the source of all that violence, of all that paranoia and anger?

MS: Oh, I think it comes from yourself. I mean, obviously it comes from Jake. It comes from your feelings about yourself. And it comes from what you do for a living. In his case, he goes out in the morning and he beats up people. And then they beat him up and then he comes home. It's horrible. It's life on its most primitive level.

AD: But that doesn't account for the sexual paranoia.

MS: Well, yeah. I don't know if it does. But I am really not a psychiatrist. It just comes from the fact that the guy is in the ring and you feel a certain way about yourself. You could take anyone, you see; the ring becomes an allegory of whatever you do in life. you make movies, you're in the ring each time. Writing music — if you perform it, you're in the ring. Or people just living daily life, when they go to their work - they're in the ring. And, I think, it's about how you feel about yourself that colors your feelings about everything else around you. If you don't feel good about yourself, it takes in everything that you're doing — the way your work is, the people who supposedly love you, your performance with them, your performance in loving, your performance in lovemaking — everything. You begin to chip away at yourself and you become like a raw wound. And if a man spits across the street, you say he spit at you. And then you're finished. Because then nobody can make a move. You'll think, "Why did you look at me that way?" Who's going to be with you? Who can stay with you?

AD: At the end of Goodfellas, you leave Henry in a more problematic spot than the book itself does. Is there any reason for that?

MS: It's not about Henry, really; it's about the lifestyle. It's about all of them together. Henry's the one who gives us the in; he opens the door for us, but basically, it's about all these people. So it's more a comment on the lifestyle than it is on Henry. I mean, he's just left out in God knows where, annoyed because he's not a wise guy anymore. I was more interested in the irony of that. There wasn't a last paragraph in the book saying, "Now I know what I did. I was a bad guy, and I'm really sorry for it" - none of that. Just, "Gee, I can't get the right food here." It's right in line with when he says as a kid, "didn't have to wait in line for bread at the bakery." I mean, it's the American way — getting treated special. It's really a film about that. It's a film about getting to a position where you don't have to wait in line to get served in a store.

AD: A significant issue in the arts in recent years, and particularly, in your case, with The Last Temptation of Christ and Taxi Driver, has been various attempts at censorship. What are your feelings about that?

MS: Obviously, I'm for freedom of expression. I was very glad that The Last Temptation of Christ was able to be made by an American company, that I didn't have to go to Europe or some other country to get the money for it. That's what this country is about, to be able to do something you believe in. I'm for freedom of expression, but in each generation there are threats to it, and you have to keep battling and fighting. I'm concerned about the educational system because it seems to be at a low level at this point in our history and that means that a lot of kids are not learning about this, are not learning that they have to fight for this freedom in this country. I don't necessarily mean going to the Mideast. I'm talking about fighting for it at home, fighting for it in your school, fighting for it in your church. Because they have a low level of education, many people are not going to know that. They're going to take it for granted and it's going to become worse and worse of a problem and there's going to be fewer people to make sure that we secure these rights, to take the right stand.

That's all I'm concerned about. I personally don't like a lot of the stuff I see — it's offensive to me. But that's what it's about. You have to let it go. As far as my personal way of dealing with subject matter, I can't let anybody tell me, "Don't do that, it will offend people." I can't do that.

On one level, when I'm dealing with a Hollywood film, that means I have to do a certain kind of subject matter that will make a certain amount of money. If I decide to make less money, that means I  can take a risk on subject matter. So the only criterion on the films I'm willing to take risks on is that it be truthful, that it be honest about your own feelings and truthful to what you know to be the reality around you or the reality of the human condition of the characters. If it's something that's not honest, not truthful, then it's a problem. If you don't believe in it, why are you making it? You're going to offend people to make some money? What for? It doesn't mean anything. The money doesn't mean anything. All that matters is the work, just what's up on screen.

So that's it. I'm not like some great person who's out there undaunted, fighting off all these people. I didn't think any of this stuff would really cause trouble — let alone Taxi Driver. The Last Temptation, I knew there would be some problems, but that's a special area for me. I really demand that I get to speak out the way I feel about it, even within the Church, the Catholic Church. Some of my close friends are still priests and we talk about it. I just heard from one today, and they support me.

AD: But you must think about the potential impact of your movies. I remember your saying that you were shocked when audiences responded in an almost vigilante fashion to the end of Taxi Driver.

MS: To The Wild Bunch, too, they reacted that way. I was kind of shocked.

AD: It would suggest there's some kind of fissure between your moral and spiritual concerns and how the films are perceived.

MS: No, I went to see the film that night and they were reacting very strongly to the shout-out sequence in Taxi Driver. And I was disturbed by that. It wasn't done with intent. You can't stop people from taking it that way. What can you do? And you can't stop people from getting an exhilaration from the violence because that's human, very much the same way as you get an exhilaration of violence at the end of The Wild Bunch and the violence that's in Taxi Driver — because it's shot a certain way, and I know how it's shot, because I shot it and I designed it — is also in the creation of that scene in the editing, in the camera moves, in the use of music and the use of sound effects, and in the movement within the frame of the characters. So it's like...art — good art, bad art, or indifferent, whatever the hell you want to say it is, it's still art. And that's where the exhilaration comes in. The shoot-out at the end of The Wild Bunch is still one of the great exhilarating sequences in all movies, and it's also one of the great dance sequences in the movies. It's ballet.

Now Taxi Driver may be something else, I don't know. It may be something else entirely. the intent was not necessarily the reception I saw. I know it can't be the reaction of most people who have seen the picture. I was in China in '84 and a young man from Mongolia talked to me at length about Taxi Driver, about the loneliness. That's why the film seems to be about something that people keep watching over and over. It's not the shoot-'em-out at the end. As much as I love the shoot-'em-out at the end of The Wild Bunch, I wouldn't put it on for fun. If you put it on for fun, that's something else. That's a whole other morbid area.

There's an interesting situation going on. There's lots of movies that have been cut and movies that appear on video with scenes put back in and you begin to get these esoteric groups in the country, people who become obsessed with getting the complete film. The films can range anywhere from Lawrence of Arabia to some very, very shlocky horror film that shows dismembering of bodies and disemboweling of people, so that you can see every frame of disemboweling. That's something else. I can't think about that. I don't know what that is.

AD: Living in New York, obviously violence is around you call the time.

MS: Oh come on. I just took a cab on 57th Street, we're about to make a turn on Eighth Avenue, and three Puerto Rican guys are beating each other up over the cab. Over it — from my side, onto the hood, onto the other side. now, this is just normal — to the point where the cabbie and myself, not a word. We don't say anything. He just makes his right turn and we move on. It's at least two, three, four times a year that happens. I'm not in the street that much, but it would happen much more if I were.

AD: But complaints about violence in your films don't bother you?

MS: It's never stopped me. You do the subject matter because you think it's going to make a lot of money — I don't do it. I just don't do it, you know? If I'm making a more commercial venture — I mean a more commercial venture like The Color of Money — it's something else. It becomes a different kind of movie and I think you can see the difference. My new film will be something else. It's a more mainstream commercial film for Universal Pictures.

AD: What are you doing?

MS: It's a remake of Cape Fear, the 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Bob De Niro wants to do it. It's more of a commercial venture. You do have a certain kind of responsibility to the audience on a picture like that because, number one, you have certain expectations from the genre, the thriller genre. You work within that framework and it's like a chess game. You see if you can really be expressive within it. I don't know if you can, because I always have that problem: loving the old films, I don't know if I can make them. You become more revisionist. I mean New York, New York was obviously revisionist. but The Color of Money I went half and half, and it should have been one way, I think.

AD: New York, New York pitted its period style against completely unnerving contemporary emotions in the plot.

MS: The reality of the story. That was conscious. That was a love of the old stylization, you know, a love of those films, but then showing what it really is is like as close as possible in the foreground. That's, I guess, what they call revisionism and that's why the picture — besides being too damn long, it's sprawling — didn't catch on.

AD: Are there any new directions in which you'd like to move your work?

MS: I find I have a lot of things in mind and I want to be able to branch out and go into other areas, different types of films, and maybe some genre films. But there's no doubt, even if I find something that's dealing with New York society in the eighteenth century, I usually am attracted to characters that have similar attributes to characters in my other films. So I guess I keep going in the same direction. I'm fascinated by history and by anthropology. I'm fascinated by the idea of people in history, and history having been shown to us in such a way that people always come off as fake — not fake but one-dimensional. And I'm interested in exploring what they felt and making them three-dimensional. To show that they're very similar to us. I mean, they're human beings. So just because the society around them and the world around them is very different, it doesn't mean that they didn't have the same feelings and the same desires, the same goals and the same things that haunt us in modern society. And in going into the past, maybe we can feel something about ourselves in the process.

AD: It seems like that was a lot of the impetus behind The Last Temptation of Christ, too, a desire to portray Christ in more three dimensional terms.

MS: No doubt. To make him more like a person who would be in this room, who you could talk to.

AD: There's a genuine concern with spiritual issues in your movies, at the same time that there is also a brutal physicality. How do you square that?

MS: It's just the struggle, that's all. The struggle to stay alive to even want to stay alive. Just this corporal thing we're encased in and limitations of it and how your spirit tries to spring out of it, fly away from it. And you can't. You can try. people say you can do it through poetry, you can do it through the work you do, and things like that. Thought. But you still feel imprisoned. So the body is what you deal with, and it's a struggle to keep that body alive.

AD: You spend a great deal of time thinking about the world that you grew up in. But you are no longer part of that world. Does that create any complexities for you?

MS: Oh, because you left it behind doesn't mean you don't have it. It's what you come from. You have an affinity to it and very often you have a love of it, too. I can't exist there now. I don't belong there anymore. But I can damn well try to make sure that when I use it in a film like GoodFellas, I make it as truthfully as possible. What's wrong with that? It's part of your life, and if you try to deny that, what good is it? A lot of what I learned about life came from there. So you go back and you keep unraveling it. For some people it was the family, for other people it's the state. I don't know. Me, it was the subculture.

AD: What things do you learn there?

MS: People are usually the product of where they come from, whether you come from a small farm in Iowa and you had your best friend next door and you went swimming in an old swimming hole — in other words, whether you had an idyllic American childhood — or you were a child in Russia or you were a child on the Lower East Side. The bonds you made, the codes that were there, all have a certain influence on your later in your life. You can reject them. You can say, "Okay, those codes don't exist for me anymore because I'm not of that world anymore," but the reasons for those codes are very strong. The most important reason is survival. It's very simple. Food, safety, survival. It comes down to that. That struggle of the human form, the corporal, the flesh, to survive — anything to survive. And you learn in each society it's done a different way. In each subculture another way. And all these rules are set up and you learn them and they never really leave you. It's what everybody learns when you're all kids in the street or in the park. I think those things you carry with you the rest of your life.

And then, of course, it causes problems in that your response to certain stimuli at that time was one way, and when you get the same sort of stimuli now, you've got to be very careful you don't respond in the street fashion. Because they're different people. They don't really mean it. It's something else entirely. It's very funny because, you know, it's like I've seen people do things to other people that I said, "My God, if a guy did that, if that woman did  that to me or friend of mine back in 1960 or in that neighborhood, they wouldn't be alive." And you have to realize it's a different world.

You just learn your way in and out of it, how to get in and out of the moral inlets of this new world, whatever the hell it is. I don't know what it is. Basically, I'm here, in this building. I stay here. Here in this chair. That's it. I answer the phone. They let me out to make a movie. People come over to eat. That's it. I mean, I just do my work and see some very close friends. That's all. So that's what it comes down to. So in a funny way all the trauma of trying to find the new ways to react to the same stimuli in these new societies, it's kind of past me, I guess. I'm past that, which is good.

If you go to a cocktail patty, someone comes over to you...like I don't know, some strange insult occurs. You know, "How dare you!" You know, in the old days, in those neighborhoods, if you stepped on the guy's shoe, you could die, let alone come over and insult him. He'd kill you. It's so funny. Oh, you'd be surprised how the insults come — it's just wonderful what they do. And people wonder why you don't want to talk to anybody. But it's fascinating. One person in a university, in the academic world, was introduced to me. We were having a few drinks after the David Lean American Film Institute dinner, and the woman said, "I must say I'm an admirer of some of your films, because, after all, I am a woman." Who needs it? Who needs it? Who needs it?

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