Rough Cut: A View From Elizabeth Street
Art is Nature filtered through a temperament.
I can do this
CUT TO W. SCOTT OLSEN:
There is a profound yet subtle difference between the essay and its cousins fiction and poetry, even though they share many rhetorical strategies. Fiction and poetry attempt to make a reader intimate with an other, with conflicts and resolutions and desires that do not necessarily depend on communal understanding between an individual author and an individual though imagined reader. The essay attempts to make the reader intimate with a possible version of the self, with a history or ethic or place that not only invites but sometimes depends upon a shared understanding.
I can see this the drunk on the bowery the priest of the invisible
CUT TO JOSEPH EPSTEIN:
The personal essay has this single quality of difference from fiction: it is bounded — some might say grounded — by reality…. The trick of the personal essay — I call it a trick, but I really think true magic is entailed — is to make the particular experience of the essayist part of the universal experience.
CUT TO GREIL MARCUS:
A matrix of happenstance and possibility, inheritance and creation, error and serendipity, desire and realization, surrounding any work of art worth talking about.
What interests me about movies — what Jon Green calls the “total art” as it involves photography, music, literature, drama, sometimes dance — is the search for that point at which film “authorship” meets “authorship” in a different genre.
For such a self-avowed poor reader, which he blames in part on the cultural conditions of his upbringing (his uneducated parents read nothing but the Daily News and the Daily Mirror in their Elizabeth Street home in Little Italy where the director was raised), Martin Scorsese laces many of his films with literary references and influences.
There has always been the tyranny of the word over the image: anything that’s written has got to be better. Most people feel it’s more genuine if you express yourself in words than in pictures. And I think that’s a problem in society.
Despite his aversion to “the tyranny of art with a capital A” as Scorsese puts it, his films are lush and painterly, literary. Cinematic variations on, explorations of, the personal.
CUT TO SAMUEL BUTLER:
Every man’s work…is always a portrait of himself.
Humankind has long struggled to understand its own story in the shape of language, and the personal essay has been around for centuries. As long as there has been humankind’s compulsion to write the story of the self as a nonfiction — read, “real” — character, constructed or otherwise, embellished or not, there have been elements of the personal essay in most literary endeavors.
CUT TO MICHEL de MONTAIGNE:
Every man has within himself the entire human condition.
CUT TO JAMES OLNEY:
An agonized search for the self, through the mutually reflexive acts of memory and narrative, accompanied by the haunting fear that it is impossible from the beginning but also impossible to give over, is the very emblem of our time.
DVD, SPECIAL FEATURES (ACCESS FROM MENU):
“A Brief History Of The Personal Essay From Antiquity To The Present”
CUT TO V.S NAIPAUL:
No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing it…
There are few directors working now whose films navigate as stubbornly as Scorsese’s the conjunction between the ecumenical and the personal.
CUT TO MICHIKO KAKUTANI:
More than any of his contemporaries…Scorsese has been concerned with using film as a means of exploring his own behavior and preoccupations. The random violence in his movies, the sense that anything can happen, stems from the aimless street action the director witnessed as a child growing up in Manhattan; and the fact that all his heroes…are outsiders, afflicted with guilt and hungry for recognition or human contact, also has autobiographical roots.
CUT TO SCORSESE:
The man with his face to the wall in the cell is me.
DOUBLE CUT TO SCORSESE:
You know, you think you’re important so you do a film about yourself.
I mean why does anybody do anything?
He’s often criticized for his intensely personal style. In A History of Narrative Film David A. Cook writes that Scorsese suffers from self-consciousness. Cook lumps the director with the late-Sixties/early-Seventies “brat filmmaking” group of Coppola, Spielberg, DePalma, et al, often noted as the first group of filmmakers to have gone to film school. “This highly specialized training,” Cook argues, “produced a generation of American filmmakers whose visual and technical sophistication is immense but whose films are sometimes so painstakingly calculated for effect as to lack spontaneity.” Cook (compellingly) observes that New York, New York “seems more like a scholarly article than a feature film.”
And Scorsese is criticized at times for failing to transcend his obsessions, for overestimating his audience’s interest in his themes, for relying on virtuosic filmmaking in an attempt to mask the inherently narrow focus of his subject(s), for alienating a potentially larger audience. For every Age of Innocence or Shutter Island or Kundun there is The King of Comedy or Mean Streets or Raging Bull. Are Scorsese’s concerns of the Outsider-versus-Community and secular redemption narrow? Too personal? Scorsese’s built as a personal artist; his only way into a film that he’s creating (not necessarily a film he’s watching or studying) is to find where he intersects with the subject matter on a familiar, often autobiographical, level. This life-writing impulse shapes many of his films, from 1968’s Who’s that Knocking at My Door? and 1980’s Raging Bull, to 1991’s Cape Fear and his revisionist insistence that this remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1961 film noir introduce fractured, dysfunctional domesticity as subject and theme.
An asthmatic young boy’s fantasy? A scene from early in Who’s that Knocking at My Door?: a long-take POV shot from an apartment building window of two men strutting down a street in Little Italy and entering a social club’s door. An asthmatic young boy’s nostalgia.
Not as it is now. Bringing Out the Dead. Scorsese sets the film in the early-1990s because that was Hell’s Kitchen as he remembers it.
What interests me in thinking of Scorsese as a kind of personal essayist is the malleability of the genre itself; its essential form is voiced into shape by the writer, usually independent of subject matter and received form. In the personal essay the treatment is the thing, the success with which the author manifests the essential spirit of his subject and its relevance in being narrated, shared with a reader. The “I” can be in the center, the “I” can be offscreen. The “I” can filter.
Such a treatment transforms Annie Dillard’s brief essay “Living Like Weasels” — in which Dillard dramatizes and then reflects upon a potentially trivial incident in which she momentarily locks eyes with a weasel while in woods— into something enormous:
We can live anyway we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — even of silence — by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t ‘attack’ anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.
In three pages Dillard coaxes from the reader an essential agreement: yes, I should live like a weasel, a great surprise of recognition, and subversion. In the end, Dillard’s talking not merely about the benefits of close observation but about writing, living; substitute “filmmaking” for “writing” and you have the essential components of Scorsese’s great personal films.
Does Scorsese coax from us an agreement at the end of Raging Bull: that yes, I should live like Jake LaMotta? Or like Johnny Boy in Mean Streets or Henry in GoodFellas or Amsterdam Vallon in Gangs Of New York? Through his treatment of difficult, highly personal subject matter — and Scorsese’s “difficult” subject matter is analogous to Annie Dillard’s “trivial” subject matter, or perhaps more fairly, “quotidian” subject matter, in her essay — he embraces human nature and its complexity, ineffability, and unanswerable questions.
usually he is examining his own nature in the process even then he struggles
In “In Search of the Centaur: the Essay-Film” Phillip Lopate asserts that “the camera is not pencil, and it is rather difficult to think with it in the way an essayist might.” He attempts to “define, describe, survey and celebrate a cinematic genre that barely exists.” He goes on to cite the work of director Chris Marker and a film such as Letter From Siberia (1958) as “pure” essay-films, but concludes by suggesting that his definition of the essay-film is likely too impractical or restrictive to succeed as cinema
Though in “What Happened to the Personal Essay?” Lopate offers the following overarching and solid definition of the personal essay that leaves far greater room for filmmakers than he might think:
The personal or familiar essay is a wonderfully tolerant form, able to accommodate rumination, memoir, anecdote, diatribe, scholarship, fantasy, and moral philosophy. It can follow a rigorously elegant design, or — held together by little more than the author’s voice — assume an amoebic shapelessness. Working in it liberates a writer from the structure of the well-made, epiphanous short story and allows one to ramble in a way that more truly reflects the mind at work.
OVERHEARD STORY CONFERENCE:
“Rumination, memoir? Anecdote?”
“A rigorously elegant design?”
“An amoebic shapelessness.”
CUT TO GRAHAM GOOD:
Ultimately, the essayist’s authority is not his learning, but his experience. The essay’s claim to truth is not through its consistency in method and result with an established body of writing. Its method is not collaborative and its findings do not need corroboration. Its claim is to yield flexibility to individual experience. Instead of imposing a discursive order on experience, the essay lets its discourse take the shape of experience.
Discourse take the shape of experience. In his personal films Scorsese often eschews meticulous plot and linear narrative for sensation and atmosphere, a love of vertical instead of horizontal time. Mean Streets’ plot — Charlie looking after Johnny Boy — is strung loosely together over a series of scenes dramatizing and thinly fictionalizing actual events from Scorsese’s Lower East Side youth.
TRIPLE CUT TO SCORSESE:
I had worked on Mean Streets for so long, it was so close to me, that I knew almost word for word what the characters had to say, the way they had to dress or to move.
Mean Streets was a fragment of myself.
I was Charlie, the lead character…. The conflicts within Charlie were within me, my own feelings.
ONSCREEN (Mean Streets):
Flame. The hand in the flame. You do your penance in the streets. Those guys. Those guys from the window. You do your penance. I am not worthy to receive You. I am not worthy to receive. You are not worthy to receive Me. Hand in the flame. Hand in hand. Such a cavernous church, remember. A holy silence. The poet is the priest of the invisible you do your penance on the noisy streets the mean streets the hand in the flame Johnny Boy, oh Johnny Boy you do your penance
CUT TO PHILLIP LOPATE:
…held together by little more than the author’s voice [assuming] an amoebic shapelessness.
MATCH CUT, SCORSESE:
I like meandering — it’s very often thrown at me as a criticism — but to me it means character. For me, it means atmosphere. That’s what I like to do. I like to be able to meander, as they say, within a structure.
CUT TO GRAHAM GOOD:
The sensibility described here, with its ability to find significance and beauty in the detail of a small world and little-regarded people and things, is often found in the essay, which turns aside from the grand design and the imposing statement for minor truths.
OVERHEARD STORY CONFERENCE:
“Mean Streets, right. Petty thugs. The minor, Little Italy milleu….”
Scorsese and Robert De Niro are rumored to be collaborating on an autobiographical film based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, the story of mobster Frank Sheehan, who is believed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese and De Niro have an ambitious plan to make an epic two-part film — or possibly two films — in the spirit of 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita, a biographical and semi-autobiographical story based on experiences the Scorsese and De Niro have experienced over the decades, overlapping the making of Sheehan’s story and their own, a personal excursion into movie- and memory-making.
CUT TO GRAHAM GOOD:
The heart of the essay as a form is this moment of characterization, of recognition, of figuration, where the self finds a pattern in the world and the world finds a pattern in the self. This moment is not the result of applying a preconceived method, but is a spontaneous, unpredictable discovery, though often prepared by careful attention and observation. This discovery can be about the self or about the world, but is mostly a combination of both.
Scorsese’s obsessive attention to detail and atmospheric immersion, and the improvisation he encourages in his attentive and grateful actors are two oft-celebrated hallmarks of his films.
ONSCREEN (Mean Streets):
I remember don’t you what do you mean what are you doin? what are you doin to me huh? what do you mean? michael’s been at my back all night he’s botherin me why didn’t you make your payment last tuesday? what do you mean I made my payment last tuesday what are you talkin about? you paid him last week? yeah I paid him last week c’mon what’d he say he say I didn’t pay him he’s a fuckin liar where is he? you paid him? yeah I paid him last week? yeah last tuesday? yeah charlie you don’t know he’s here where? out front he’s here? yeah so what do I care? ok lemme go get him we’ll straighten this thing out alright hey wait a minute wait a minute charlie wha yeah you’re right I’m right yeah last tuesday? yeah that’s the tuesday that was last week that’s before the one that’s about to come up my mistake I’m sorry forgive me it was last week the week before then I was thinkin of yeah oh yeah it was yeah that’s right what’s the matter with you johnny wha you can’t go around bullshitin people that way you give your word of mouth about something you got to keep it you don’t know what happened to me I’m so depressed about other things I can’t worry about payment you know what I mean I come home last tuesday I have my money in cash you know blah blah bing bing I walk home I run into jimmy sparks I owe jimmy sparks seven hundred for like four months I gotta pay the guy he lives in my building hangs out across the street I gotta pay the guy right yeah so what happened I had to give some to my mother then I wound up with twenty five at the end of the week and then what happened today you’re not gonna believe because it’s just incredible I can’t believe it myself wha I was in a game I was ahead like six seven hundred dollars right ya gotta be kiddin me yeah on hester street you know joey clams? yeah joey scala yeah I know him too yeah no no joey scala’s joey clams right right they’re the same person yeah eh eh so I was in there playing bankers & brokers all of a sudden I’m ahead like six seven hundred dollars I’m really winnin’ all of a sudden some kid walks in and the kid yells that the bulls are comin right the cops are comin everybody runs away I grab all the money I go in it was an excuse that I could get away right you know and I’d give everybody the money back later and that way I get out I don’t get into the game get a losing streak goin and all that what happens I come out in the yard and I don’t know this building I don’t know nothin I couldn’t get out it was like a box bing like this so I gotta go back in not only do I go back in but this kid says it’s a false alarm can you imagine that I wanted to kill this fuckin kid I was so crazed I wanted to kill this kid meanwhile I get back in the game bing bing bing I lose four hundred dollars meanwhile frankie bones is over there frankie bones I owe him thirteen hundred for like seven eight months already he’s after me I can’t even walk on hester street without duckin that guy he’s waitin for me like I can’t move you know and he sees that I’m losin right so he’s waitin for me here so he’s tappin me on the shoulder and he says hey tappin me like this like a hawk hey get it up you’re losin now gimme some money I says hey frankie c’mon ya know gimme a break over here lemme win some back you know I got debts I mean I’m in a big hole he says never mind gimme the money so gave him two hundred meanwhile I lost the deal I go outside I’m a little depressed now anyway I wanna cut this story short
Mean Streets, memoir, anecdote. Lopate also mentions “fantasy.” Scorsese fictionalizes his own past, in Mean Streets but also in Raging Bull and GoodFellas by calling upon specific notions of mood and surroundings manifest in his heritage and in the tall-tales and stories prized from his childhood. This fictionalizing of his own past is fantasy, fictional invention bodied forth by the director’s knowledge, memories, love of a certain cultural landscape he calls — called — his own.
CUT TO INTERIOR, NEW YORK CITY CAB:
Scorsese enroute to an interview with Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone, circa 1991. In midtown two men start fighting on the curb near the cab. Their altercations spills into the street and they struggle and engage in fisticuffs onto and over the hood of Scorsese’s cab. Eventually, the cab moves on. The men disappear.
CUT TO JOCELYN BARTKEVICIUS:
So-called fictional techniques in memoir are neither lies nor embellishments. The real self dreams and imagines, and thus, so does the self depicted in memoir.
From Lopate: “moral philosophy” in the personal essay. Look at Raging Bull for Scorsese’s — filtered through longtime collaborator Paul Schrader — philosophy on LaMotta’s morality: redemption through bodily sacrifice. Lopate describes the personal essay as having room for scholarship. Bob Reis, quoted in Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction: “Nothing will destroy your piece faster than thinking that writing will be enough to overcome incomplete research.” Scorsese does his research. Films such as GoodFellas, Casino, and Gangs Of New York assume a near-documentary look and feel, as Scorsese immerses himself in environments, in cultural climate. About GoodFellas, Scorsese said, “I was hoping it was a documentary…. Really, no kidding. Like a staged documentary…
jimmy and tommy and me and anthony stabile and frankie carbone Come Si Va? and then there was mo black’s brother fat andy and his guys frankie the wop freddie no nose and then there was pete the killer who was sally balls’ brother then you had nicky eyes and mikey franzese and jimmy two times who got that nickname because he said everything twice” ah the bamboo lounge a long glide through the past track the camera memory sifts the past for content do i remember this or did i make it all up track the camera in a slow beautiful glide of watching the hundreds the hundreds
…the spirit of documentary. As if you had a 16mm camera with these guys for 20, 25 years; what you’d pick up.” Later in the same interview Scorsese describes GoodFellas as a kind of “anthropology,” close to a clinical, objective study of social relations and cultural characteristics.
or did i make it all up? track a camera in a slow beautiful glide of watching like the hundreds the hundreds of coins on the conveyor belt as slow as glass a glide as slow as sex the sorting machine rolls of coins on a lower conveyor find an employee’s hands this is at Tangiers Casino cash tons of it in small suitcases to the cashier’s cage “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” “NOTICE — KEEP OUT” follow me around spectator look closely the soft count room counters in white shirts gathered around a glass table counting sorting paper money clerks empty boxes like sacrament like church the most sacred room in the casino the place where they add up all the money the holy of hollies the monsignior count room executive writing on a master list short counts & fill slips drop boxes and the IRS satisfy the jag-off guard with an extra c-note “i mean it’s routine” now that suitcase now going straight to one place right to Kansas City and the Midwest bosses who secretly controlled Las Vegas the kingdom of manmade wonders and details that shine like coins and knowledge oh tenderly tendered God God in the details
An ambitious, decades-long personal essay. Consider that Scorsese approaches each film, even his less overtly personal experiments (the genre or “Hollywood” pictures, i.e., Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Color of Money, The Departed, Shutter Island) as an extension of himself.
CUT TO: EXTERIOR, ELIZABETH STREET, SCORSESE’S CHILDHOOD APARTMENT
When Scorsese released Raging Bull in 1980 he was convinced that it was going to be his last Hollywood picture. He threw himself into the making of that film in a fever pitch, later infamously and consistently characterizing the shoot as “kamikaze filmmaking.” In the process he enacted revenge on those personal demons that had haunted him for years — in particular the uneasy identification he felt with the film’s brutish and ugly protagonist, and the general oil-&-water-mix of Man and Woman that Scorsese felt nearly overwhelmed by at times in his personal life. The result was a work of art many critics regard not simply as Scorsese’s greatest achievement, but as perhaps The Film of the Eighties, and one of the best of all time. I wonder what might have become of Martin Scorsese the artist had Raging Bull not struck the chord it did — and does — with sympathetic viewers and critics. “I put everything I knew and felt into that film and I thought it would be the end of my career,” he once said.
Scorsese was convinced that he would spend the 1980s “living in New York and Rome,” making “documentaries and educational films on the saints…”.
I mean why does anybody
Scorsese the Documentarian. Perhaps this genre would allow him the best opportunity to broach the personal in and as cinema, interweaving — as undoubtedly he’d feel compelled to — exterior and interior lives, objectivity and subjectivity, biography and autobiography, tensions between “I,” “you,” “us” at work in many of his films.
I mean why does anybody do anything?
Some Notes On “Rough Cut: A View From Elizabeth Street”
My responses to Martin Scorsese’s movies (“pictures,” as he calls them) have always been deeply personal. My Italian heritage and Catholic upbringing have a lot to do with this, but I think what I’ve reacted to the most has been the way in which Scorsese’s best movies feel like urgent extensions of his character, not only in the formalist auteur sense but in the sense that his personality, lively, curious, and intense, shaped as much by his Little Italy as by his DNA, seems to exist inside of his movies, seeing and voicing every moment. His movies become intensely personal, become filters for him.
My way into a subject is usually autobiographically. I’ve been writing personally for many years, and for just as long I’ve been thinking about the autobiographical aspects of Scorsese’s movies (his fictional work, not his documentaries). I wanted to place the personal essay — its strategies and qualities — on top of the Scorsese canon, and see where the two might overlap. An attempt. I like to compare creative modes of expression wherein initially the correspondences seem to be at wide intervals; this way the comparison, if it’s valid, has to stretch, elongate, ideally offering some surprising discoveries. Scorsese doesn’t make purely “I”-centered films — the voiceovers in his movies are his fictional characters’, not his own — but his way into his subjects is almost always autobiographical. Zola’s temperament filter. I wonder: can we view Scorsese’s movies as a kind of extended quasi-autobiography? Maybe autobiography as prism? Where does the personal end and the fiction begin? ♦
Joe Bonomo is the author of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and numerous essays and prose poems. He’s currently editing Conversations With Greil Marcus, forthcoming in 2012 from University Press of Mississippi. He appears online at No Such Thing As Was.
Photograph of 253 Elizabeth Street by Joe Bonomo. Banner image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.