Scorsese by Ebert

By Roger Ebert


Copyright © 2008 The Ebert Company, Ltd.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-18202-5

Chapter One


When Mardik Martin discusses the budget of Martin Scorsese's first feature, he doesn't mention dollars. "Pennies!" he says, in the short documentary The Making of "Who's That Knocking at My Door," which is included on the DVD. Scorsese started the film as Bring on the Dancing Girls while still a student at New York University and then rejected much of his original footage, keeping only some shots of Harvey Keitel, and starting again. His professor, Haig Manoogian, noticed his determination to make films, and was so impressed by his early work that when I Call First, as it was originally titled, went into production he actually supported it with some of his own money, and funds he was able to raise. Still, "pennies." Yet it was shot on 35 mm, because for Scorsese that was the medium that counted. In some of the shots, Manoogian said, Keitel is three years younger, but nobody ever picked up on that.

For this and much of the information in this section I am indebted to Martin Scorsese: The First Decade, by Mary Pat Kelly, who met him after writing him a letter in the 1960s from St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. (The "Kelly girls" were all beauties, and popular in Chicago; another sister, Mickey, became Bill Murray's first wife.) He responded with pages of advice, she recalled. Kelly became a nun, then left her order after ten years; her Catholicism connected with Scorsese's. Her book includes long interviews with Scorsese and Manoogian, who died in 1980.

Martin, a lifelong friend and collaborator, said he was impressed that even on I Call First Scorsese seemed to have an instinct for where to place the camera, how to frame a shot, and how to get exactly what he needed. His cinematographers were Richard Coll and Michael Wadleigh, whom he met at school, and his editor was Thelma Schoonmaker, universally known as "T." Wadleigh would go on to direct Woodstock, hiring both Scorsese and Schoonmaker. Scorsese would work with Schoonmaker for the rest of her career, during which she would win three Oscars and be nominated for three others.

The first film was all based, Scorsese told Kelly, on guys he grew up with, in some cases playing themselves in the film. It was intended as part of a trilogy; the first section, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, involved a retreat at a seminary and a playing out of images associated with the stations of the cross. It was rejected by all potential producers as too involved with religion. The third, titled Season of the Witch, became Mean Streets-again, based on childhood friends and observations. To the degree that the hero, J. R., later called Charlie, was autobiographical would have been because of his guilts and religious feelings, not his quasi-criminal actions.

I Call First was a long time being seen. It was rejected by many film festivals, Manoogian recalled, before being accepted by Venice-only to have the print languish in a loading area at the Rome airport so long it did not qualify for the festival. Michael Kutza of the new Chicago festival saw it in New York, invited it, and it had its world premiere on November 15, 1967, when I saw it and was so deeply impressed by it. A little less than a year later, having gained a nude scene and the title Who's That Knocking at My Door, it opened in New York to mixed reviews. (The title should correctly never end in a question mark; film-industry superstition teaches that question marks in titles are bad luck.)

After Knocking came the Woodstock experience, and then Boxcar Bertha (1972), with Roger Corman as producer. The Internet Movie Database has it that Scorsese showed the finished film to John Cassavetes, who hugged him and said, "Martin, you just spent a year of your life making shit!" That bad it wasn't; despite his poverty-row budget, Scorsese prepared thousands of storyboard drawings, and his visual confidence is always evident. But it was commissioned as an exploitation film, and Scorsese treated it as a learning experience, using much the same crew for Mean Streets. The scene involving the crucifixion of the David Carradine character was one of the elements that interested him in the screenplay.

Cassavetes had told him, "Make films about what you know." Manoogian advised him, "No more films about Italians." Scorsese went with the advice from Cassavetes, whose own Shadows (1959) had essentially founded the school of filmmaking that engendered I Call First. In Mean Streets, Scorsese told Kelly, "I put in all the stuff I left out of Who's That Knocking." It opened at the 1973 New York Film Festival, and earned its historic review by Pauline Kael, who announced the arrival of a great director.

According to Pauline Kael, "The clearest fact about Charlie is that whatever he does in his life, he's a sinner." Those not raised as Catholics might miss some of the film's specific references to the religion, although Charlie's obsession with holding his fingers above flames is a clear enough evocation of hellfire. Another shot, however, in which Charlie asks for a shot of whiskey and has the bartender pour it over his crossed fingers above the glass, is a literal reenactment of what the priest does when an altar boy pours water and wine over his fingers holding a chalice.

Although he has certainly had a hand in the writing of all of his films, the screenplay credit for Mean Streets, shared with Mardik Martin but based on a Scorsese original, would be the last time he took a writing credit until GoodFellas, seventeen years later. And that film also opened with a voiceover drawn directly from Scorsese's early memories. The earlier v.o. involved the church, then later the mob, and those were the two poles between which Charlie was torn. What is crucial, as I point out in my second review of Mean Streets in this book's "Masterpieces" section, is that for Charlie the crimes of gangsters (extortion, beating, killing) were insignificant compared to crimes involving sex. He felt more guilt about his lust for the girl Teresa than for taking a man's restaurant, his family's livelihood, away from him.

Mean Streets stands at a divide in Scorsese's life. It comes at about the end of his interaction with the street culture it celebrates, and at the beginning of his emergence as a successful, then honored, director. It was a film written before the flowering of his career, and released to stunning acclaim. ("An unequivocally first-class film," Vincent Canby wrote after its New York Film Festival premiere.) Boxcar Bertha, between, is insignificant in this progression except as a journeyman piece and a way to gain experience with a Hollywood crew. A year later came Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), with its three nominations, its Oscar for Ellen Burstyn, and the spin-off TV series Alice, and Scorsese, barely into his thirties, was solidly established as a successful and respected professional. The arrival of Taxi Driver in 1976 is hard to describe. It was, and is, such a passionate, challenging, raw, and powerful film that it created a space of its own. In screenwriter Paul Schrader, Scorsese found a lifelong soulmate, one whose own fundamentalist upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church supplied him with religious obsessions to equal Scorsese's own. Schrader wrote the screenplay, he told me, in two weeks in a Los Angeles hotel room, and it became the first of his "man in a room" movies, beginning with a man in a room girding himself to face the world. Some of these he wrote for Scorsese (Raging Bull), others he directed himself (American Gigolo).

Their Travis Bickle remains one of the few movie characters most moviegoers know by name. De Niro, who had worked steadily since De Palma started using him in the 1960s, was nominated for best actor, and the film got three more nominations: best picture, supporting actress, and score. Jodie Foster was thirteen when she made it, and fourteen when, with cool confidence, she acted as the translator for the film's press conference after its showing at Cannes. I recall the tumult of that conference; the Europeans embraced the film, and the festival gave it the Golden Palm. The award came ten years after the premiere of I Call First.

There is a buried connection between Scorsese's first film and Taxi Driver. In Who's That Knocking, J. R. describes the plot of Ford's The Searchers in great detail to the girl he meets at the ferry terminal. The plot of Taxi Driver is in broad outline the same story, of a hero rescuing a girl from "Sport," the nickname for Keitel's pimp character. The admiration for The Searchers is another link between Scorsese and Schrader, whose own Hardcore also owes a lot to the same plot.

Taxi Driver has held up well, Schrader told me on its twentieth anniversary. "It was massive serendipity. Particularly very early in your career, to have that weight lifted off of your shoulders-the question of, will I ever do anything worthwhile? You know you've done something worthwhile and now you can get down to working. People said it must be terrible, knowing I had to top it. I said, no, it's just the opposite. You're free from feeling that you're never going to accomplish anything."

Then came the mixed results of New York, New York, Scorsese's most ambitious film to date, embracing the studio style of the 1940s and 1950s that he loved. I discuss the film here in a "reconsideration" after my original review. A year later, he filmed The Last Waltz, abandoning the usual one- or two-camera style of most concert films, and using and improving on what he had learned and practiced during Woodstock, choreographing several cameras and working from detailed shot sheets so he knew where every camera should be at any point during a song.

Scorsese had gone from a classroom to the red carpet at Cannes. There was never again the slightest doubt of his stature. In the period between this success and the commencement of Raging Bull, however, he would pass through the greatest crisis of his life.

I Call First

NOVEMBER 17, 1967

Editor's note: Martin Scorsese's first feature, reviewed here for a festival showing under the title I Call First, was released theatrically as Who's That Knocking at My Door.

There has been a long wait for an American film like Martin Scorsese's I Call First, which made a stunning impact in its world premiere Wednesday night at the Chicago International Film Festival.

As a film, it has something to say to everyone. As a technical achievement, it brings together two opposing worlds of American cinema.

On the one hand, there have been traditional films like Marty, A View from the Bridge, On the Waterfront, and David and Lisa-all sincere attempts to function at the level where real lives are led and all suffering to some degree from their makers' romantic and idealistic ideas about such lives.

On the other hand, there have been experimental films from Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and other pioneers of the New York underground. In The Connection, Shadows, and Guns of the Trees, they used improvised dialog and scenes and hidden and hand-held cameras in an attempt to capture the freshness of a spontaneous experience.

Both groups have lacked the other's strong point. The films like Marty are technically well done and emotionally satisfying, but they lack the flavor of actual experience. Films like Shadows are authentic enough, but often poor in technical quality and lacking the control necessary to develop character and tell a story.

I Call First brings these two kinds of films together into a work that is absolutely genuine, artistically satisfying, and technically comparable to the best films being made anywhere. I have no reservations in describing it as a great moment in American movies.

Remarkably, writer-director Martin Scorsese is only twenty-five years old, and this is his first film. He tells a love story about two different kinds of people. His young man is from New York's Little Italy, has a strong Roman Catholic background, is intelligent but not very well educated and divides the women of the world into "nice girls" and "broads." The young woman is a college graduate, well read, more sophisticated, and has probably had an affair or two. She loves him enough to try to explain that she is a "nice girl" but not a virgin. The divergent views of love and morality come into opposition, but they make a tremendous effort to understand and respect each other. In the end, they fail. Their story is told against a poetically evoked background of the young man's life with his friends, who were probably his high school and army buddies and will probably be his old age cronies. Two scenes-one in a bar, another at a party-are among the most evocative descriptions of American life I have ever seen.

I want to comment at length on the performances and details of the plot, but I will have to wait until the film begins its commercial run here. I hope that will be soon.

Who's That Knocking at My Door

MARCH 17, 1969

The possibilities in creating an independent feature film in this country are abundantly illustrated by Who's That Knocking at My Door, a first work by Martin Scorsese that has been knocking around for nearly two years now. I first saw it in November 1967, at the Chicago Film Festival, when it was titled I Call First. I found it a marvelous evocation of American city life, announcing the arrival of an important new director.

To be sure, Scorsese was occasionally too obvious, and the film has serious structural flaws, but nobody who loves movies believes a perfect one will ever be made. What we hope for instead are small gains on the fronts of hope, love, comedy, and tragedy. It is possible that with more experience and maturity Scorsese will direct more polished, finished films-but this work, completed when he was twenty-five, contains a frankness he may have diluted by then. The movies, in their compulsion to be contemporary, too often give us an unreal picture of "swinging youth." We get discotheques, anti-establishment clich��s, New London fashions, and Christopher Jones being cooler at twenty-one than we hope to be by fifty. If we like these films, it is because we identify with them-not because they understand us. In Who's That Knocking, Scorsese deals with young manhood on a much more truthful level.

Here are no swingers making it with Yvette Mimieux, no graduates seduced by Anne Bancroft. Instead, we enter a world of young Italian Americans in New York City who sit around and kill time and look at Playboy and cruise around in a buddy's car listening to the Top 40 and speculating aimlessly about where the action is, or might be, or ever was.

Occasionally on Saturday night they get together at somebody's apartment to drink beer, watch Charlie Chan in a stupefied daze, and listen to some guy who says he knows two girls whom he might be able to call up. In this world, still strongly under a repressive moral code, there are two kinds of girls: nice girls and broads. You try to make the broads and you place the nice girls on an inaccessible, idealized pedestal.

The hero of Who's That Knocking comes from this world but is not entirely of it. One day on the Staten Island ferry, he meets a nice girl, a blonde, who is reading a French magazine. She's taking the ride for fun-something the young man cannot comprehend. They get into a conversation about John Wayne, and reading French, and what their ambitions are. It is a marvelously acted scene, much of it shot in one take to retain continuity as the two people get over their embarrassment. The boy asks the girl for a date, and she accepts.


Excerpted from Scorsese by Ebertby Roger Ebert Copyright © 2008 by The Ebert Company, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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