Martin Scorsese’s AmericaMartin Scorsese must be one of the most omnipresent filmmakers today. As well as an impressive roster of cinema productions, he has made documentaries, shorts, television pilots, and advertisements. He has produced many works for other filmmakers, promoted the preservation of major cinema classics, and, it seems, appeared on more DVDs than any other person – critic or filmmaker – with a commentary or an introduction. More than anything, he communicates his great love and his great knowledge of the cinema.

Scorsese has inspired several library shelves of books ranging from interviews, via a cookbook or two, to academic analyses of his work. There is enough richness in Scorsese’s oeuvre for very little overlap. Two recent books add to the shelves with very little duplication. One sets out to explore Scorsese as the “creator of a vision”. The key question for Ellis Cashmore, in Martin Scorsese’s America, is “can he enrich our understanding of America’s history, the values that unite it and the divisions that cleave it apart?” (p. 2) The other book, Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars by Thomas R. Lindlof, explores one film only: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the circumstances surrounding its making and exhibition, and what these reveal about America and (to reuse Cashmore’s words) the values that unite it and the divisions that cleave it apart.

Cashmore does not set out to do a chronological film-by-film study, but rather, approaches his task by looking for important themes, interests or even obsessions that emerge sometimes in films made many years apart. In his introduction, Cashmore outlines the rich veins he wants to mine in Scorsese’s work. If Scorsese is a chronicler of American society, that society is one full of potential riches for contemplation. There is its past – The Age of Innocence (1993), Gangs of New York (2002). There are those who have chased the American dream by resorting to crime – Boxcar Bertha (1972), Goodfellas (1990), or through sport and games – Raging Bull (1980), The Color of Money (1986). Sometimes his subjects are “little people” – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), After Hours (1985). Howard Hughes’ life (The Aviator, 2004) is possibly the archetypal American success story.

Perhaps Scorsese never set out to chronicle America, but his work can certainly be studied in this light. For Cashmore, there are several important questions: “If Scorsese can be approached as a social commentator, we should ask whether he is a good one.” (p. 20) In this role as commentator, is Scorsese “a conservative commentator, or a commentator on a conservative society?” (p. 24)

“Be successful” sometimes seems like the eleventh commandment for Americans. It is the American Dream – and Cashmore sees the search for this Dream as part of virtually every Scorsese film. But sometimes the dream goes toxic, as in Goodfellas. The promise of the easy life and the affluence also promoted “an ethic of hedonism and possession, which usurped the values of thrift, hard work and self denial.” (p. 40) In discussing Scorsese’s representation of law and order in America, Cashmore claims that there “are no good guys or bad guys in America: just people who see themselves as the former, but whose actions suggest they are the latter.” (p. 9)

There are other rich themes Cashmore identifies in Scorsese’s work. The “lonely man in the crowd” is most strongly personified by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (1976). There may be few coloured characters of importance in Scorsese’s films, but issues of ethnicity or racism have been part of the work – Gangs of New York is possibly the representative film here.

Gender issues are perhaps strongest in Scorsese’s exploration of what it means to be a man. Men are privileged in society – and Jake La Motta (Raging Bull) provides a classic case study of a man grappling with what it means to be a man. But there are deeper things at work. “Man-woman relations are rarely harmonious affairs in Scorsese’s work. In every film there is a lesson on how women contrive to bring about their own unhappiness.”(p. 15)

These are rich ideas, and raise many questions that can lead to worthwhile reflections on American society, and on aspects of Scorsese’s films. But where is Scorsese, the filmmaker? Cashmore seems to have no sense at all of these works as films. They are texts, not pieces of cinema. Read the discussion on Taxi Driver and there is very little sense of what makes this work as a film. Of how the cinematography or the music carry so much of the approach to the material. Of why The Departed (2006) is so operatic, not only in some of the music so obviously and tellingly chosen by Scorsese, but in other elements such as Jack Nicholson’s performance, or the way some scenes play out as duets or ensembles.

Cashmore makes a point of telling us how careful he has been in sourcing all quotes from the actual films themselves. “Before readers rush to Scorsese’s film scripts and challenge my quotations, I should point out that I have extracted dialogue from the films themselves, not the scripts.” (p. 24) What he hasn’t done is extract the essence of the films, of why Scorsese, so obviously an articulate man, chooses to make films rather than write novels or even be a professional film critic. Cashmore’s ideas are often persuasive, but ultimately not persuasive enough because they have not come from an understanding of how ideas are expressed in cinema.

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Hollywood Under SiegeIn a way, Scorsese is also missing from Lindlof’s study of the making and release of The Last Temptation of Christ, though he is more of an invisible presence. Interestingly, Cashmore excluded The Last Temptation of Christ (and Kundun, 1997) from his study, because “neither sheds light on its director’s conception of America.” (p. 25) That may be so, but Lindlof’s work shows that this film and the events surrounding it shed an enormous amount of light on many aspects of American society, not just the entertainment industry.

Scorsese at one time had contemplated becoming a priest, his ambition killed more by failing grades than a loss of vocation. But Scorsese’s faith has always been important, and Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, The Last Temptation of Christ, published in 1960, was a work which had been meaningful to him, in exploring his own understanding of the dual nature of Jesus, as a mortal man as well as son of the Divine Father.

In both book and film, this is worked out by including a dream – an hallucination induced by extreme pain? – when Christ on the cross is tempted by Satan with the promise of a long married life if he uses his divine powers to come down from the cross. Christ is almost swayed, but ultimately takes the road of supreme sacrifice. It is choosing this path that makes his sacrifice more meaningful, because he knows what he is renouncing in order to fulfill God’s will.

This thought resonated with Scorsese, and with many readers of the original book. According to Lindlof, “[the] book’s defiance of Christian dogma resonated with the ferment of the sixties” (p. 19), at a time when the “counter culture” was leading many to new explorations of spirituality, through writers as diverse as Herman Hesse, J.R.R. Tolkien and Carlos Castaneda. But it also stirred other feelings, with representatives of different churches petitioning towns to remove the book from their libraries, on the grounds of blasphemy, or offence.

This fear and loathing of the book resurfaced when Scorsese announced his hopes to make a film adaptation. Lindlof has a fascinating story to tell of the uproar that the news caused, and the way that right wing, conservative groups started to stir in opposition. The film was first attached to Paramount. Mounting protests ultimately led Paramount executives to put the film into “turn around”, the euphemism for cancelling it, despite over $3 million already having been spent.

But the film didn’t die; instead, it found a home at Universal Pictures. It seemed like a miracle when, in October 1987, Scorsese began principal photography in Morocco. Original plans to film in Israel had to be shelved, due to both budget and security concerns. By January of 1988, he was back in New York, working on post-production, with his team including editor Thelma Schoonmaker. For the next few months, in Lindlof’s account, Scorsese almost seems unimportant while the storm he set off swirls across the continent. Universal executives continued to actively support the film, and plan strategy for its release. One upshot was that Scorsese had to rush final post-production, and he was not given time for the fine cut he would have liked to do.

The next phase of the story is also fascinating; how Universal organised “advance troops” to go into the areas where the film was booked, to liaise with press, police, exhibitors, and the public. Many of these advance people were experienced political campaigners who had just worked on the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. They were adept at managing these emotionally charged situations, often containing potential violence through making sure that demonstrators were kept in check, yet made to feel they were being listened to. These Universal support troops would organise photo opportunities especially for the demonstrators, or arrange priority areas for the protestors close to the cinema. Even so, there were instances of violence and property damage – in Denver, a cinema had its screen slashed overnight and the film stolen from the projection booth.

Lindlof’s story is a rich narrative, and he explores its roots in American conservatism and religion. As well, he speculates on some of its impact. The protest did not stop the film being made or shown. But the protestors learnt about the impact of grassroots action, mobilised through small, local radio stations or church pulpits. Some evangelical preachers found that their opposition to the film was more successful as a fundraising focus than previous campaigns. This new resurgence in the Right may have resulted in the mobilisation of grassroots conservatism that put George W. Bush in the White House a bit over a decade later.

An affair like this obviously stirs passions. It is a story of fervour, and temperament – but Lindlof keeps his account cool and temperate. At times, I almost wanted the passion, perhaps even the bias, of a novel. With the maelstrom swirling about Scorsese and his film, I would have liked to have got more inside his head – in particular, how he felt emotionally through all this. This is, of course, not the territory for an account like this, but it is a story waiting for a novelist’s imagination and insight.

If all the participants are treated even-handedly by Lindlof, it is interesting that one usually maligned group emerges with perhaps the most honour – the executives of Universal Pictures. They took on the project knowing the passions it had already stirred. When the threats became personal, they didn’t drop it, or “sell it on” to a smaller subsidiary. They planned strategically for its release into a volatile community, incurring high extra costs. Some executives weathered with calmness and restraint the personal attacks to which they were subjected, including some nasty anti-Semitism. And in taking this line of action, they were not expecting to make a commercial killing. It was clearly a small film, more arthouse than multiplex. But they stood by it as the work of an artist of integrity. They defended it on a matter of principle – the right of any person to express themselves and not be subjected to the censorship of any self-interested group, no matter how large or right or righteous that group may be.

The event certainly drew out some of the uglier undercurrents in American society. But it also showed some of the strengths of American creators, individuals and corporations. Lindlof’s book is a very readable, revealing account.

Martin Scorsese’s America, by Ellis Cashmore, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2009.

Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars, by Thomas R. Lindlof, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2008.