MOB MEN­TAL­ITY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

Scors­ese Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age, Mel­bourne, un­til Septem­ber 18.

Martin Scors­ese’s doc­u­men­tary My Voy­age to Italy (1999) takes its ti­tle from Roberto Ros­sellini’s Vi­ag­gio in Italia (1954), the story of an English cou­ple (Ge­orge San­ders and In­grid Bergman) whose trip to Naples first re­veals the flaws in their re­la­tion­ship, then un­ex­pect­edly re­forges it. Scors­ese’s four-hour film is a bril­liant in­tro­duc­tion to the work of the great Ital­ian di­rec­tors, but it also has an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal di­men­sion, re­lat­ing how his own dis­cov­ery of Italy be­gan in a mod­est apart­ment in the Ital­ian quar­ter of post­war New York, where the mas­ter­pieces of Ros­sellini, Fellini, Vis­conti and oth­ers were first en­coun­tered in scratchy black-and-white ver­sions on late-night tele­vi­sion.

Scors­ese’s dis­cov­ery of Ital­ian cin­ema and the tight-knit but cor­re­spond­ingly nar­row­minded social world of Si­cil­ian im­mi­grant fam­i­lies within which he grew up were sem­i­nal to his work as an artist, and it is ap­pro­pri­ate that the fas­ci­nat­ing sur­vey of his work at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age in Mel­bourne be­gins with an ex­tract from this doc­u­men­tary. The se­lec­tion screened, in fact, is not so much about Ital­ian cin­ema — with its am­bi­tious aes­thetic vi­sion — but about the world of his child­hood, whose hori­zons were very limited.

Scors­ese’s par­ents came from the re­gion of Palermo in the north­west of Si­cily; not from the el­e­gant baroque cap­i­tal that Goethe had ad­mired — so badly dam­aged by Al­lied bomb­ing in World War II and never fully re­stored — but from out­ly­ing vil­lages, home of the in­sid­i­ous mafia cul­ture that arose among the il­lit­er­ate and ex­ploited peas­antry be­fore spread­ing to be­come a bane to the whole is­land.

The Si­cil­ians who mi­grated to the US, as Scors­ese re­lates, re-cre­ated their cul­ture in the streets of New York, from social and fam­ily cus­toms to re­li­gious pro­ces­sions to crim­i­nal or quasi-crim­i­nal net­works of cor­rup­tion. They even re­mained clus­tered to­gether in vil­lage groups, so whole build­ings would be in­hab­ited by mi­grants from the same vil­lage, who brought with them their age-old mem­o­ries of loy­al­ties, ri­val­ries and re­sent­ments.

This was the world of Scors­ese’s child­hood, the en­vi­ron­ment from which he could es­cape, through the cin­ema, into the en­tirely dif­fer­ent and in­fin­itely more so­phis­ti­cated mi­lieu of jour­nal­ists, in­tel­lec­tu­als and celebri­ties in Fellini’s Otto e mezzo (1963), or the re­fined but amoral bour­geoisie in An­to­nioni’s L’Avven­tura (1960), or the in­tel­lec­tual and world-weary aris­toc­racy in Vis­conti’s Il Gat­topardo (1963), a great film based on Lampe­dusa’s 1958 novel about Si­cily at the time of its de facto an­nex­a­tion by the newly formed king­dom of Italy.

Yet how­ever much these films opened his eyes and helped to make Scors­ese the artist he is, he has rarely at­tempted films about the up­per classes, in­tel­lec­tu­als or aris­toc­racy. His char­ac­ters re­main those of the world in which he grew up, am­pli­fied and ex­ag­ger­ated no doubt, turned into pro­tag­o­nists of his own kind of moral­ity play, but none­the­less at bot­tom il­lit­er­ate Ital­ian peas­ants with prim­i­tive moral in­stincts. In fact, Scors­ese seems al­most fix­ated on a cer­tain kind of char­ac­ter who is not only a mo­ron but a psy­cho­path­i­cally vi­o­lent mo­ron.

Nor are his films set in Italy; they are in the US, mostly in New York, and they are in some deep sense about Amer­ica. Per­haps that is ul­ti­mately why they are so vi­o­lent, be­cause few of the great Ital­ian films he ad­mires, even Ros­sellini’s Roma, Citta aperta (1945) or Vis­conti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960), are any­thing like as ex­plicit in their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of phys­i­cal bru­tal­ity. We don’t need to be re­minded about the at­tach­ment of Amer­i­can lower classes to their firearms — some­thing in­con­ceiv­able in any other mod­ern so­ci­ety — but it is in­struc­tive to con­sider their rep­re­sen­ta­tion in cin­ema: for it is as rare to see an Amer­i­can film with­out a gun as it is to see a Euro­pean film with one. You don’t carry weapons in a civilised so­ci­ety that is prop­erly func­tion­ing un­der the rule of law. Nor do you go about armed in a com­mu­nity of fel­low cit­i­zens that you trust. In hap­pier times, even po­lice­men in Bri­tain and Australia were un­armed. Car­ry­ing weapons ar­gues not only para­noia and dis­trust but ul­ti­mately a lack of faith in the social struc­ture as a whole.

It is this sense of social col­lapse and the ev­er­p­re­sent threat of the out­break of pri­mal sav­agery that Scors­ese must de­rive from the Amer­i­can en­vi­ron­ment.

Yet he most of­ten chooses to see all this through the Ital­ian world to which he feels vis­cer­ally con­nected: thus he re­turns to his Ital­ian mob­sters, but they are Ital­ian mob­sters in the US and they speak of Amer­i­can anx­i­eties. They also al­low him to lend a sharper moral edge to these fears. Count­less Amer­i­can mass entertainment films re­hearse sce­nar­ios of para­noia and bloody re­venge, but the threat usu­ally re­mains two-di­men­sional and ex­ter­nal. Scors­ese’s char­ac­ters, linked by in­ti­mate fa­mil­ial or tribal bonds, al­low him to evoke a more in­ti­mate and per­sonal level of vi­o­lence and cru­elty.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, even most of his reg­u­lar ac­tors, such as Joe Pesci, are Ital­ian, apart from some such as Har­vey Kei­tel, who was a friend from film school. Robert De Niro ap­pears in many of Scors­ese’s most im­por­tant films, in­clud­ing Taxi Driver (1976), Rag­ing Bull (1980), Good­fel­las (1990), Cape Fear (1991) and Casino (1996). De Niro can even play char­ac­ters who are not meant to be Ital­ian, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Max Cady in Cape Fear, sub­tly bring­ing them back into Scors­ese’s imag­i­na­tive world.

That world is one in which men are iso­lated and con­se­quently de­ranged, as in these last two films — one a kind of twisted ide­al­ist and the other a psy­cho­pathic mur­derer — or in­volved in a tight, even tan­gled net­work of fam­ily and tribal re­la­tion­ships. The point is em­pha­sised in the wed­ding scene in Good­fel­las, where the

bride is over­whelmed by the num­ber of rel­a­tives she is meet­ing. The fam­ily is al­ways by def­i­ni­tion ex­tended; there are al­ways dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions at the ta­ble, al­ways the nonna mak­ing co­pi­ous quan­ti­ties of food, even if there are telling scenes, sug­gest­ing the fray­ing of tra­di­tion, such as De Niro’s char­ac­ter pour­ing bot­tled tomato sauce over the pasta be­fore pro­nounc­ing it de­li­cious in Good­fel­las.

Apart from home life, the men spend most of their time to­gether, man­ag­ing the busi­nesses of or­gan­ised crime or sit­ting around drink­ing and play­ing cards. Scors­ese has an un­canny feel for the kind of ex­cited, ner­vous so­cia­bil­ity of mo­rons boast­ing about acts of thug­gery to im­press their com­pan­ions, and for the ex­act tone of the ban­ter that sur­rounds these tales. There is a fa­mous scene in Good­fel­las when the young pro­tag­o­nist doesn’t quite get that tone right and the ban­ter turns sud­denly to men­ace.

It is a favourite trope in Scors­ese’s films to have sud­den, of­ten lethal vi­o­lence arise out what seemed to be con­vivi­al­ity. One mo­ment a clap on the shoul­der, laugh­ter at a joke, the of­fer of an­other drink, the next a bul­let in the head, a knife in the belly or a nee­dle through the back of the neck. Mur­der is al­ways treach­er­ous; the de­ci­sion to kill an­other may be taken long in ad­vance and hid­den be­hind laugh­ter, jokes, brutal ban­ter about oth­ers, un­til it is the right time to strike.

This para­dox of tight-knit fam­i­lies and seem­ingly tight-knit net­works of friends who in prin­ci­ple must be trust­wor­thy and trust each other, yet at the same time of ut­ter bru­tal­ity with no ves­tige of pity or fel­low feel­ing, re­veals the es­sen­tial na­ture of this social en­vi­ron­ment. These peo­ple recog­nise no civil so­ci­ety: they live in a tribal com­mu­nity, prey­ing on so­ci­ety as par­a­sites. And they have no more idea of hu­man­ity than of civil so­ci­ety; you ex­ist merely as a func­tion of the tribe and the only way to leave it is as a corpse.

The mem­bers of these crim­i­nal tribes can­not, by def­i­ni­tion, be very con­scious or self­aware. But it is not interesting to make films about peo­ple fixed in a state of un­con­scious­ness be­cause there can be no de­vel­op­ment. Some of those who be­come prom­i­nent in these un­der­world com­mu­ni­ties, how­ever, have greater com­pe­tence and cun­ning, and per­haps even a mea­sure of in­sight into what they are do­ing. These are the char­ac­ters who be­come the pro­tag­o­nists of the films.

They are of­ten out­siders, too, who are not fully ac­cepted into the tribe and whose rise will there­fore in­evitably be fol­lowed by a slide into moral de­cline or self-de­struc­tion. In the most dra­matic case of all, Travis in Taxi Driver, who is iso­lated with no tribe to sup­port him, be­comes more and more alien­ated from his world and in­tent on de­stroy­ing it but suc­ceeds only in de­stroy­ing him­self.

Scors­ese’s sto­ries of break­down, with their roots in the an­cient Mediter­ranean cul­ture of Si­cily, some­times re­call Greek tragedy, ex­cept that there is less moral clar­ity at the out­set and less ex­is­ten­tial recog­ni­tion gained in the end. In­stead, the so-called tragic flaw has been re­placed by a sense of sin and guilt in this is­land that is so deeply Catholic, or at least trib­ally and rit­u­ally Catholic: the huge painted images of the Vir­gin Mary and the dead Christ that are car­ried in pro­ces­sion on Good Fri­day re­call the mother god­desses and dy­ing gods wor­shipped in the East for cen­turies be­fore the clas­si­cal age.

In this world, the pro­tag­o­nist is part tragic hero and part scape­goat who must suf­fer and die to ex­pi­ate the deep-rooted sins of the tribe. The fi­nal, ap­palling fight scenes in Rag­ing Bull, when Jake La Motta is all but killed by his op­po­nent and can no longer of­fer any re­sis­tance, re­call a rit­ual sac­ri­fice, and it is no sur­prise the di­rec­tor later (in 1988) filmed Nikos Kazantza­kis’s story of the death of Christ.

So we can see why Scors­ese’s films are so vi­o­lent: they are ex­treme, cathar­tic vi­sions of social break­down, us­ing mob life as a metaphor for a wider re­flec­tion on the world. The ef­fect is ex­tremely skil­ful and, as the later part of the ex­hi­bi­tion em­pha­sises, owes much to the bril­liant edit­ing of Thelma Schoon­maker, who has worked with him since Taxi Driver.

But for all that, an ex­cess of vi­o­lence leads to de­sen­si­ti­sa­tion rather than con­vic­tion. Scors­ese’s treat­ment of sex­ual ten­sion, in com­par­i­son, is far more al­lu­sive and thus more ef­fec­tive. To take only one ex­am­ple, Cady’s hyp­not­i­cally sin­is­ter en­counter with the young daugh­ter of the fam­ily in Cape Fear is ex­tremely re­strained, al­most all ver­bal un­til he puts his fin­ger be­tween her lips, re­duc­ing her to sub­mis­sion and self-abase­ment. The mo­ment is breath­tak­ing in its econ­omy and dis­turb­ing in the way it draws the viewer in by tap­ping mem­o­ries and as­so­ci­a­tions, forc­ing us to be­come com­plicit in and thus un­com­fort­ably aware of a trans­gres­sion of de­cency.

From top, Martin Scors­ese with Asa But­ter­field dur­ing the shoot for 2011’s Hugo; Scors­ese and Good­fel­las stars Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino and Joe Pesci (1990); the film­maker with his par­ents, Charles and Catherine (1974)

Jodie Fos­ter, De Niro and Scors­ese on the set of Taxi Driver (1976), above; props from Gangs of New York (2002), above right

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