I don’t really remember exactly when I “discovered” Scorsese, so to speak. One would think that I would immediately know the first Scorsese movie I saw, but I honestly can’t say. My only explanation is that since that initial viewing, whatever it was, Scorsese’s films have captivated me in a way no other filmmaker’s resume has. After recently seeing Shutter Island, my love of Scorsese has once again been vindicated. He’s truly one of the greatest living filmmakers of all time. Arguably, he is the greatest living filmmaker. To me, it’s no argument.
For years I’ve wondered why I find such a fascination with Scorsese’s films. Firstly, of course, they’re well made. I’ve always been a person to appreciate the technical aspects of a film, from the camerawork to the sound design to the art direction. On film after film, Scorsese never lets me down. But I think what really makes me love Scorsese so much is his attention to character. His films, by and large, deal with fascinating individuals, from the iconic Travis Bickle to Henry Hill. Scorsese often deals with individuals who are on the “outside,” so to speak.
Travis Bickle is the perfect example of this, perhaps because Taxi Driver so directly deals with an obsessed and obviously mentally unstable person. He’s the epitome of someone stuck on the outside, and not simply of a specific group of people, but of society itself. He’s not just a loner in the clichéd sense, but an individual who truly exists within himself. The classic scene of him speaking in front of a mirror exemplifies this. The scene is, in essence, Bickle’s very soul. His only mate in life is himself, despite his apparent desire for something more. The fact that he wants more is not at issue. The very fact that he exists in a position to want more is what makes him a fascinating character, and a paradigm of the kinds of characters Scorsese is interested in.
While Bickle may be the perfect example, he is by no means the only one. Notice how Goodfellas focuses on Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill. From the very beginning of the film, he explains to us how he’s half Irish, so no matter how much he does, and how long he’s in with the boys, he’ll never be a made man. The idea of becoming a made man is one that exists throughout the film. Being made means truly being a part of it all. Despite Henry’s continued loyalty and respect, he’s always on the outside. But again, as with Travis Bickle, who appears to have a desire to break free, Henry Hill makes it clear that’s what he wants, that he wants to be a wiseguy. It’s this desire that drives him as far as he goes, but it’s perhaps also his downfall in the end.
The list goes on, and I think with close enough analysis, one finds that that this is true for most of Scorsese’s movies. Granted, I haven’t seen everything he’s made, but the trend tends to be true. Look at Gangs of New York, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character places himself in a position to be the outsider. The same is true, only exacerbated, in The Departed. Raging Bull is all about a man on the outside, a man whose flaws keep him there. The last scene of that movie is so telling of this fact. Or think about his choice to make a biopic about Howard Hughes, a man who locked himself into his room away from the world and saved his pee in glass jars. Shutter Island fits into this mold as well, though to explain would be to spoil, and I dare not.
This is also why, coupled with the success of Shutter Island, I’m intrigued about his plans to remake the masterful Caché. It’s another movie that deserves to be seen without spoilers. But it’s a movie that in many ways fits into the mold I’ve laid out. One of the things that make Scorsese’s characters the way they are, as “outsiders,” is the fact that they all really hold flaws, secrets, and demons within them. Given Scorsese’s background in Italian Catholicism, this is no surprise, and it’s one of the most discussed aspects of him as a filmmaker.
There are, of course, other things about Scorsese’s films that interest me. It’s difficult to say they’re not (for the most part) brilliantly directed, staged and realized. And his films certainly involve more than just the idea of the “outsider” finding a way in, or desiring to be on the inside. But that’s one aspect of his films that I’ve found I’ve become attached to in his filmmaking. Regardless of whether you love or hate him (and thankfully I’ve yet to find someone in the latter camp), it’s hard to say he doesn’t craft compelling characters.