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March 25, 2011

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Stephen Whitty

Thank you very much for this, Glenn.

Saw this again -- for the first time in a theater in years -- at a great event at the DGA (nicely moderated by Kent Jones) and I loved it as much as ever. And it was terrific to hear Scorsese and Schrader detail Bresson, "Notes from Underground," and all the things, including their own dark feelings, that went into this.

It was fascinating, too, to read here Scorsese's description of that shot in the hallway. Whenever I've seen it, it's always struck me as the camera literally looking away out of embarrassment. Sort of -- ohmigod, this poor mook, listen to him get shot down here, I can't watch this, I just can't...

Michael Adams

In defense of Kael's reaction to Raging Bull, I've always felt the same way. Although I love Scorsese, DeNiro, and most boxing films, there's some emotional/psychological impasse I can never overcome. There's no such barrier for the characters in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. I just don't feel LaMotta's pain and become annoyed by all the shouting. Call me a philistine.

Glenn Kenny

@ Michael Adams: I won't call you a philistine. If that's your reaction, that's your reaction, and there's nothing anyone can do about that. But subjective reactions, while they no doubt spur critical arguments, aren't critical arguments in and of themselves. Also, Kael's way of stating her reaction has a not-so-faint-stench of "Not our kind, dear," snobbery. Maybe that's just my Italian American heritage taking umbrage.

Kent Jones

Glenn, I think that it's an Italian-American "thing" (part of my own heritage - Abruzzese), but it's also something else. The idea of leading a life based on suffering, carrying around that kind of guilt - for some people it's like speaking in tongues. I think that Kael instinctively reacted against it, often violently. You can feel it in her rejections of HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, FIVE EASY PIECES, RAGING BULL and - infamously - SHOAH.

In the "Not our kind, dear" department, MS was referred to as "the paisan with his nose pressed up against the window" when he made AGE OF INNOCENCE.

Dan Coyle

Didn't Kael also sneeringly dismiss the above shot from Taxi Driver as Scorsese borrowing from Antonioni, or am I misremembering?

Tom Block

I always took the list of "impossibles" to be icing on the cake of the essay's substantive rags on the movie; the overall push-me-pull-you effect feels like F. and P. each wrote a solo piece and then spliced them together in alternating paragraphs. I just happened to watch the movie again last weekend--and Jesus, what a beautiful thing it is to look at--and for the millionth time I was struck by all the niggling inconsistencies in Travis' character, some of them written but mostly in the performance. Schrader once described De Niro's turn as deliberately polyglot--that he decided to make Travis as interesting as he could within each individual scene without worrying about the pieces fitting together. (It bothers me less than the character of Iris, who I've never believed for a second, and who--probably not coincidentally--is in all of the scenes that drag for me).

Incidentally, Glenn, I noticed Travis mails the money for Iris to 240 E. 13th Street. Do you know if that's anywhere close to the actual tenement they used? (I pity the postman whose job it was to locate the unit she lived in; Travis could have helped him out by addressing the letter to "Little Piece of Chicken".) I heard somewhere, maybe in a commentary, that the building was already condemned when they shot the movie, but when I Googled a street-view of that address, the row of buildings that showed up could very well have been the ones.

Graig

Great piece on a great film, Glenn. Thanks.

The youtube of the scene you discuss is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2WwDCqdT04

Every time I watch the scene I am always taken with the simplicity and audacity of that dolly move.

Tom Block

Ack, I forgot to mention what I set out to post to begin with. About 10 years ago Letterman showed that shot--it was taken in part of the RCA building, I think--and followed it with a then-contemporary shot of the same hallway, all remodeled and spiffed up. I don't remember why Late Night gave itself such a weird little detour, but it has stuck in my head all these years.

Also: Kael just wrote some crazy shit sometimes. There's no explaining some of her views.

warren oates

I have a copy of "The terrible schlock novel" Farber mentions. It's a quickie paperback tie-in novelization of TAXI DRIVER and for the strangeness factor alone it is far and away the highlight of my tiny rare book collection. The conceit of the book is to do as books do best and to give us access to Travis Bickle's inner thoughts. I haven't been able to make it past the first few pages.

EOTW

Kudos to GK for this. TD was THE FIRST film to make me so uncomfortable, mostly for the whole porn date sequence and also for the openly frank way that Travis talks to Jodie Foster, among other things. I was just a kid and it freaked me out and yet it was a film I was drawn to over and over again. Day One purchase for me.

Aaron Aradillas

Yes, Kael didn't much care for the shot of the camera looking away from Travis. She thought it was an Antonioni touch. I love the shot, but freely admit it is the one shot in the entire film that explicitly calls attention to itself.

Kael also wasn't a fan of the score. She felt it played off the film noir tropes of the story. It is interesting to consider how the movie would play if Scorsese had used only source music. The Jackson Browne song is so starling that the movie momentarily enters some kind of dangerous pop nightmare.

Brian Dauth

Michael: if you are a philistine, then so am I. The problem for me with RAGING BULL (and some other Scorsese films) is the creepy sense of admiration I feel he has for his het male characters even when they are at their most monstrous. As a queer spectator, I find it difficult to negotiate the inordinate sympathy Scorsese shows toward them. He successfully limns how the systems they create eventually rebound upon and cannibalize them, but he presents these events as possessed of a tragic dimension which they utterly lack in my eyes (I think Scorsese inherits this understanding from Kazan in whose films it can also be found). CASINO is one exception for me, where I feel he distances himself more from his characters and does not engage in any special pleading. Scorsese seems to channel Mankiewicz more than Kazan in his filmmaking here, and JLM’s more distancing approach allows space for a queer viewer to enjoy the show without having to fend off continual entreaties to identify.

TAXI Driver is also enjoyable since Scorsese deconstructs the social matrix of male heterosexuality: I had never heard what Tom posted regarding how De Niro approached the role, but it makes sense. Travis is composed of the shards of maleness with the glue no longer working: there is a certain glee in watching him fall apart – the quintessential gay basher committing seppuku with his own fragments.

As for the corridor scene, when I saw TAXI DRIVER at Film Forum recently, I thought of the corridor in EAST OF EDEN Scorsese talks about in his and Kent’s Kazan documentary. It is as if the camera were suddenly bored with Travis’ self-pity and lack of self-awareness, and was pro-actively moving to its next position to hurry things along, beckoning Travis to end the call since his cause was hopeless.

Kent: as always you clarify things for me. Having accepted at a tender age my desire for sex with my own kind and determining not to feel guilty about it, the idea of living a life saturated with suffering and guilt is alien to me. Glitter and be gay, I say, and those who wish to contemplate sin, please do so in the most fabulous hair shirt possible (made from all natural fibers if at all possible!). I always want to like a Scorsese picture, but he sometimes makes it difficult for those not on his wavelength to do so.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Brian and Michael, I think: I don't think the "problem" with RAGING BULL, such as it is, is glorification. Rather, it's the opposite. The annoying thing about Kael, as usual, is more her tone than what she's saying, because what she's saying isn't entirely wrong. LaMotta is consistently presented as a mean, stupid, charmless man, and for the first 90 minutes of the movie, Scorsese makes no attempt to tone that down, justify it, or even to offer a second of real human connection between LaMotta and anyone to givethe viewer a way in. Don't get me wrong---I love RAGING BULL, and watch it frequently, and I think the jail cell scene and its aftermath is all the humanizing you need---but I can definitely understand how someone who wants to watch movies about admirable, heroic, or at least interesting characters might find BULL's learning-averse, ugly, mean, unfunny protagonist to be someone you just don't wanna spend a couple hours with.

This is actually an instructive contrast to TAXI DRIVER, which is made chilling in part because Travis is a genuinely charismatic, likable fella. If Bickle was presented as an actual disconnected schizophrenic, Betsy would seem like a fool for hanging out with him. But Travis is a soft-spoken, good-looking guy, and a seemingly attentive listener besides (certainly more so than her way less sexy co-worker), which makes her sense of betrayal at the porn theater understandable, rather than idiotic. Perhaps this is more of DeNiro's fragmented persona---the Travis we see in those early diner scenes is a more presentable Billy Jack, a boy you'd be proud to bring home to mother. Consequently, Betsy seems like a smart woman making a mistake (and getting out the instant she realizes it), as opposed to Vicki, who's a dim-bulb too young to know better.

christian

Brilliant filmmaking aside, I'm of the notion that Scorcese admires these louts, deifying their physical power and bullying. At least with Jake La Motta, there's a real person under scrutiny or examination; in CASINO (and even GOODFELLAS), I have no idea why I should care about any of these venal characters. It's a recurring theme in modern art, that "dark" has so much more depth than "light."

John Carpenter slags on TAXI DRIVER in his Cinefantastique interview from 1980: "Depth? What depth?"

Pscriswell

You just brought back vivid memories of Summer 1995, when I hauled home a lightly used Pioneer laserdisc player and a stack of CLV Criterions from an estate sale in the hoity-toity part of town. Along with a near mint Taxi Driver there was, among a host of others: Rebecca, Magnificent Ambersons, Blade Runner, Breaking the Waves, King Kong, Singin' in the Rain, Ghostbusters, Boyz N the Hood, Forbidden Planet, Raging Bull and two copies of 2001.

The former owner was obviously a late adopter of the technology. Aliens and the lavishly packaged Original Star Wars Trilogy were the only CAV discs I could dredge up from crates and crates of mainstream garbage (like a shameless, piss poor fullscreen VHS-quality version of Road Warrior) and Disney stuff.

Long story short it's a decade and a half later, the motor on my turntable broke, my bulky LD player is home to a colony of spiders, and I still haven't bothered to make the hi-def plunge yet.

Does anyone know where I can get this brick fixed?

Jay

Excellent piece as always, Glenn! I would love to see a theatrical print show up in my neck of the woods, but that's highly unlikely. I will happily settle for the new blu-ray and the Criterion commentary track!

Brian Dauth

FB: the problem with the "humanizing" in RAGING BULL is that it does not take for me. When LaMotta cries out: "I am not an animal," I feel like doing a call-and-response and telling the screen: "Oh, yes you are." LaMotta is presented as possessing all the traits and constructs of a violent, heterosexual male. While Travis' coming apart has a element of the comedic, Scorsese presents LaMotta as a tragic hero/victim. The problem with this approach is that LaMotta's pathology becomes his tragic flaw which doesn't work (THE AVIATOR has a similar problem in its construction). What is great for me about CASINO is that Scorsese scrutinizes the pathologies on display without ever trying to elevate them to the level of the tragic.

Oliver_C

John Carpenter has slagged lots of major movies, '2001: A Space Odyssey' included. At least when he gave that Cinefantastique interview he was still capable of making a few himself.

Aaron Aradillas

Travis Bickle is not the most charismatic character in the film. That honor goes to Sport the pimp. Kael was right when she described him as funny and likable.

Scorsese seems to admire any character who is ture to his or her nature. We like Henry Hill because he wants what most of us want. He wants a life of comfort. The only problem is that he has to break the law for that comfort. He knoww this. We know this. Scorsese knows this. We're all on the same page. And there's a price to pay for that level of comfort. Scorsese knows this, too.

The idstancing one feels in CASINO is what makes it an underrated masterpiece. Unlike GOODFELLAS, which ends on a coke high, CASINO is a slow decline into regret, murder, and madness.

Scorsese rarely judges his characters, but he will judge their actions.

Jason Melanson

@Brian- I think just because Scorsese may try to elevate LaMotta's pathologies to the level of tragedy does not mean he is not scrutinizing them. I agree that Scorsese clearly does have empathy for LaMotta(not to bring up the empathy issue again) but I feel he is very clear eyed about the fact that LaMotta brings his ultimate downfall upon himself. One could argue that perhaps a more detached approach may have illustrated that point more clearly, IMO the film woudn't be as powerful but that's another issue, but it seems obvious to me that Scorsese is scrutinizing LaMotta.

Jason Melanson

I forgot to post this in my last post, but Rosenbaum seems to have a a view of TAXI DRIVER that is similar to Farber's and Patterson's. He starts his review of the 96 re-release with: "Perhaps the most formally ravishing — as well as the most morally and ideologically problematic — film ever directed by Martin Scorsese, the 1976 Taxi Driver remains a disturbing landmark for the kind of voluptuous doublethink it helped ratify and extend in American movies." I am personally a big fan of TAXI DRIVER, but this piece gave me a lot to chew on when I first read it. I would love to read the Farber/Patterson piece, this is now another reason I need to buy Farber on Film.

Kent Jones

Dan, I believe the phrase in question is "an Antonioni pirouette." Back in those days, citing "influences" and "homages" was pervasive. Sarris detected "mists of Murnau" in the opening shot. Manny and Patricia reckoned that MS had "ravish[ed] the auteur box" with references to/steals from FRENZY, WAVELENGTH, Godard, Peter Emmanuel Goldmann, etc. The great unasked question, though, was what place these gestures had in the story.

You should hear John Carpenter on the subject of John Ford in general and THE SEARCHERS in particular.

Brian, on the subject of MS, EAST OF EDEN and hallways, take a look at the scene where De Niro is kicked out of the club in NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

This question of venerating and glorifying and romanticizing people is intriguing because it comes up so frequently, particularly in relation to the Coen Brothers. I find it more and more mystifying as I get older. I can certainly understand having a negative reaction to certain lifestyles or types of behavior. On the other hand, I don't think those reactions have any place in criticism.

Is Jake La Motta "tragic?" Hmm… Maybe it's more useful to look at the film from the other end of the telescope. Personally, I think that everything and everyone under the sun is worthy of being described and portrayed in art. I see no special value in making movies about people who veer toward the light as opposed to the darkness - in fact, aren't most people who live in the shadows where they are because of luck and circumstance? And, if you're going to make a movie about something - anything - if certainly follows that you have to have some kind of affinity for whatever you're filming. MS has made quite a few movies about people who are raised to believe that suffering and life are one in the same, or who see no alternative but to live as venally as the people in GOODFELLAS or CASINO (both of which are also based on 100% real people, Christian - in fact, there's probably more license taken with La Motta than there is with the people in the Pileggi books). Such lives exist, such everyday suffering and brutality and venality are everywhere. And if you have affinity for whoever it is you're filming, you're obviously going to run the risk of appearing to make a case for their actions. If you're showing the attraction of violence, you're running the risk of making it look attractive or "glamorizing" or "valorizing" it, to use two exhausted words. That's a very fine line to walk, and it's a very different strategy from the de-mythologizing and de-dramatizing that everyone once thought was the answer to everything. Trying to reduce the movies under discussion here to sublimated admiration seems hopelessly reductive to me - they're way too complex for that. Romanticization? Try Michael Mann. Does MS make it "difficult" to like some of his movies if you're not on his wavelength? You bet. I can think of several other great filmmakers who do likewise.

Kent Jones

Jason, "The Power and the Gory" is also available in the newer paperback edition of NEGATIVE SPACE.

Ian W. Hill

"Incidentally, Glenn, I noticed Travis mails the money for Iris to 240 E. 13th Street. Do you know if that's anywhere close to the actual tenement they used?"

Not Glenn, Tom, but the address of the actual exterior is 226 East 13th (you can see the number over the door in the pullback after the shooting - not sure why they put the wrong one on the envelope). And it's still there, but all the interiors were in a different building uptown that was indeed scheduled to be demolished (which is why they were allowed to cut a giant trough in the floor/ceiling to do the big overhead shot in that same scene). Travis' apartment was shot in the same now-gone building.

I used to rent laserdisks from a great shop at the corner of 13th and 3rd, and after getting the Criterion TAXI DRIVER disk was much amused to discover you could see the doorway where Sport is shot from inside the store (that door and building have been completely redone, along with the Variety Theater and unpainted furniture shop on 3rd that were still the same in 1990 as when the film was shot).

Craig Simpson

What with all the Pillorying Of Pauline, perhaps it should be mentioned that her review of "Taxi Driver" is a glowing, adoring rave. She didn't like the Antonioni thing, or Hermann's score, but however debatable those points may be, she loved the movie on the whole, praised it to the skies.

As for Kael's alleged anti-Italian-Americanism - or anti-guilt or whatever - I'm not sure how that jibes with her raves for "Mean Streets" or the first two "Godfather" pictures ("possibly the greatest movies ever made in this country," she said) or "The Last Temptation of Christ" or her ceaseless admiration for De Palma or her statement (to Roger Ebert, I think) that Catholics were making the best movies (Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma and Altman cited in the mix) due to "the sensual richness of their backgrounds" and other qualities she found admirable.

Lastly, and this is slightly off-topic, but whatever faults she may have found with "Five Easy Pieces," her calling it "a striking movie...eloquent, important, written and improvised in a clear-hearted American idiom that derives from no other civilization" doesn't sound like a flat-out rejection to these ears.

christian

If you were to go back and read the major critics of the day (as I often do thanks to my revered shelf of published reviews from the National Society of Film Critics) - you might be surprised at how many 60's/70's "classics" were not always regarded as such. Kael could be visionary, as when she noted that THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was one of the most phenomenal directorial debuts ever, and way way wrong when expressing the notion that Flip Wilson might join the ranks of entertainer pantheon. I love John Simon's bitchy review of her gushing review of Toback's FINGERS...

Glenn Kenny

@ Craig Simpson: Rather surprised to see you weighing in here, given your estimation of my person and works. I shall try to contain my emotions.

Just to note, for accuracy's sake, that I was not accusing Ms. Kael of "anti-Italian-Americanism." I made a mildly jocular remark about why her much-lauded line concerning "dumb f--ks" in "Raging Bull" got my back up a bit. Kent Jones amplified it with his rather more damning citation concerning the "paisan" crack in her "Age of Innocence" review. I didn't know Kael, don't know how she felt overall about Italian-Americans, and am not really all that concerned about it. I was merely talking about her writing, mode of argumentation, and my reaction to it. That is, objectively, or as objectively as I can muster, I believe that the "dumb f--ks" line is snobbish. The "paisan" line is something else again, but again, I'm not all that concerned with it. That is all.

Kent Jones

Glenn, sorry if I made things confusing. That wasn't Kael who made the paisan "observation." It was Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Christian, what you say is not only true of the 70s but of every era. Confronting something in your own time when it's brand new is different from looking back at it from a distance.

Kent Jones

Craig Simpson, I am eating my words about FIVE EASY PIECES. Must have been dreaming.

Speaking for myself, I don't want to "pillory" Pauline Kael. Just making an observation. I certainly don't think she was anti-Italianamerican. Nor is Rosenbaum.

Hollis Lime

In regards to the ability to relate debate going on above:

I always sort of resent this topic, because it invariably, eventually becomes a platform for narcissism (not that that's happened yet here), I.E. "I can't relate to that character because he's too bad" or it becomes a topic about "humanization". Frankly, I'll admit that I absolutely can relate to the characters in Scorsese's films. It was the initial attraction to them when I was 15 and saw Mean Streets for the first time and could feel what Charlie was going through in dealing with religion and with someone like Johnny Boy, who reminded me of people I knew growing up. I can relate to LaMotta, and to Hill, and even to Bickle and Pupkin (as much as that is hard to admit, especially in the latter case). I don't see what's so "unhuman" about self-loathing, greed, isolation, jealousy and the divide between the internal and the external. Quite the opposite, I think.

One of the things that makes Raging Bull, and all of his films, for that matter, so moving to me is because Scorsese doesn't put any distance between himself and the subject. We feel their lives from the inside out, and his films are always emblematic of the lesson I think every human should live by, which is: Be careful about judging anybody, because you don't know what's going on inside of them. There is no question to me that LaMotta is a tragic figure. There is nothing more tragic than the man who can not articulate.

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