© Jane Freebury
When he notched up 18 years as director of the Sydney Film Festival, David Stratton became a founding father of movie culture in this country. He needs no introduction. While he was a TV film critic opposite Margaret Pomeranz for the next three decades, their opinions mattered to people across the generations and it is likely they are still missed.
Over the years, Stratton would have seen countless filmmakers, actors and movie trends come and go, and re-invent themselves. So a season of the work of Martin Scorsese, one of the best filmmakers of the last 50 or so years, curated by Stratton, is an especially happy coincidence of film buff critic and film buff director. It would be great to see them go head to head, but we have instead, during July, a season of 17 films from the oeuvre of Scorsese. ‘Scorsese by Stratton’ is on at Arc cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive during July.
Stratton’s views and opinions are probably better known in this country than the oeuvre of Martin Scorsese. It is something of a paradox.
The name Scorsese stands as a shorthand for the violent, masculine drama that lets rip in Casino and Goodfellas, yet the diminutive and softly spoken Italian-American is a far more versatile filmmaker than he is generally thought to be. We may think we are pretty familiar with movies. Who hasn’t heard of his infamous protagonists, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street? We certainly know the Scorsese name and that his films are about what it means to be a man in the modern world, but when it comes down to it, how well do we know his body of work?
It’s not so much that his films have pulled in massive crowds, either. It’s that he happens to make the landmark movie, a sort of summary statement, or first telling observation or last word. And everyone recognizes the quality of his work, the thought that has gone behind it, the knowledge of cinema that supports it, and the skill and sensitivity that has gone into his images, choice of music and use of sound, or silence, as in Raging Bull. Scorsese is the filmmakers’ filmmaker. He has received the most Academy Award nominations for best director of anyone else alive, and has won once, for The Departed in 2007.
Two films by Scorsese, Kundun a drama about the Dalai Lama and The Last Temptation of Christ, deal directly with religion. Not exclusively, as religion comes up in his films again and again. The former altar boy and trainee priest still seems to be working things through. You can’t miss the crucifixes and other religious iconography in films from Raging Bull (one of his best ever), to Cape Fear (not included in the program), but you can expect to find recurring allusions to religion scattered everywhere throughout in his work. And Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, due for release this year, concerns Jesuits in Japan.
Since being engrossed in the theatricality of church ritual, Scorsese seems to have been ruminating on the difference between good and evil for his entire career. ‘Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane,’ writes Stratton in his accompanying film notes.
A less familiar Scorsese character will be Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in King of Comedy, another film that belies Scorsese’s reputation for gangsters. In this film from 1983, Pupkin (not Pumpkin!), a mama’s boy who re-enacts interviews in his basement with life-size cut-outs, tries to kidnap his idol, a celebrity talk-show host played by Jerry Lewis. Billed as a comedy that is ‘no laughing matter’, this off-kilter caper is a weird and singular experience.
Scorsese is also held in high regard for his treatment of music, as audio to his vision or the subject of his work. A significant number of his films are about music makers. He is responsible for one of the best-ever rock documentaries, The Last Waltz, a doco on the last concert given by The Band, along with some of their famous friends. Other terrific muso documentaries include the more recent Shine A Light, a Rolling Stones concert plus interviews, George Harrison: Material World, and Bob Dylan: No Direction Home.
Cate Blanchett is said to have asked Scorsese when he was going to make another film with a woman in the centre. Undoubtedly others have asked the same question.
Liza Minelli made music with Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s New York New York and Ellen Burstyn invited Scorsese to direct her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but the lavish and subtle Scorsese film about a 19th century socialite, played by Michelle Pfeiffer opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, was a revelation that we haven’t yet seen repeated.
The Age of Innocence of 1993 turns on obsessive, repressed desire. It explores the dilemma of a lawyer, destined for a socially approved match, who becomes infatuated with another woman. Their affair shakes New York society to its foundations. It is great to see this film has a spot in Stratton’s ‘top ten’ personal Scorsese favourites.
Scorsese shot to prominence in 1974 with Mean Streets. He had made it for $550,000, premiered it at Cannes, then showed it at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney. ‘The rest,’ notes Stratton, ‘is history.’
The NFSA, in association with the Sydney Film Festival and Australian Centre for the Moving Image, is screening this season of Martin Scorsese films (including ten of David Stratton’s favourites) at Arc Cinema during July.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times: