Martin Scorsese Man of the Streets
Martin Scorsese has continued to keep a high level of achievement through the whole of his professional life. By the 1990s the filmmaker had reached the highest point of American cinema and was regarded as the greatest director of his time. Martin Scorsese is probably best known for his Italian American films. Scorsese’s movies became his home movies where the city and streets remain his most fertile and persistent ideas. Scorsese’s movies show clash of social development and streetwise experience. Mean Streets (1973), the first film that brought Scorsese worldwide attention, is set in New York’s Little Italy, where man of the streets grew up. His movies have been inspired by social and cultural heritage of man of the streets of Little Italy.
Martin Scorsese Man of the Streets
Martin Scorsese became adult and developed in the Sicilian district of New York City’s Little Italy, Elizabeth Street. His parents were employed in the clothing industry and were the children of immigrants. As a child, Scorsese’s asthma impeded physical exertion requiring the use of great energy and effort, so he was involved deeply in the movies. A passion for and intimate knowledge of the moving objects photographed by a camera he saw in his childhood would considerably mark his own work.
Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) is set in the Italian-American milieu of his childhood that he had already chronicled in his first feature and that he would return to throughout his career (in Raging Bull, 1980; GoodFellas, 1990; and a documentary about his parents, Italianamerican, 1974). Mean Streets is violent, realist exploration of the streets and its characters, focusing on Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and his relationship with the reckless Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro in his first role for Scorsese) (Elsaesser, Horwath and King 150).
In his movies, Scorsese has created an expressionist film style that captures the contemporary sense of menace, anxiety, and social anomie of man of the streets. Taxi Driver (1976) presents nightmare visions of streetwise experience in decay: a world of impatience, random violence, and hostility in which people do not communicate or are willing to assist, but edge around each other with animal-like craftiness and forethought. These qualities haunt man of the streets with their fascinating aggressiveness. They were and are characteristic moods of Scorsese’s life. Like The Godfather directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the movies of Scorsese link their visions of street violence to a corresponding home sphere. They show strong “anti-family” attitudes; they portray the transition and resistance in family and street life as a result of, and as a factor in, the corruption of among human beings.
Together with the expressionist scenes of intimidating streets, there are also scenes of detailed facts and necessities of life, showing the working‐ class neighborhood in which Scorsese grew up and spent his daily life. But where Mean Streets suggested that it was working-class poverty that “caused” crime and violence, Raging Bull (1980) emphasizes the hollowness of this “liberal” attempt at superimposing an artificial patina of “redeeming social value” (LoBrutto 170). Scorsese shows the detailed reality of working-class men of the streets, cultural life with no comment.
Scorsese peeled away the false layers of civilized social concepts and revealed the sheer brutality and devastation underneath. Now that no “future” exists to give power to personal growth, order, and responsibility, viewers see human nature left to its own tools, developing into lower and lower forms of bestial behavior. Scorsese’s static films are burrowing deeper into human depravity seeming to have no end. Raging Bull takes the decadent street setting as a given, and projects it onto the realm of domestic life. Raging Bull relentlessly depicts the failure of middle-class morality, self-love, and the excess of self-justifying violet behavior.
The explicit politics of this filmmaker come through most evidently in Taxi Driver. The film is about isolated man of the streets. The plot revolves around the tragic and absurdly incongruous destiny that befalls the hero, largely because of his moral firmly held beliefs, worry about others, and commitment to the principle of fairness and personal honesty. Travis in Taxi Driver is drawn to symbols that represent the now-dead American value complex construction.
These two movies are in particular interesting from a political perspective because in both cases the isolated men of the street are the moral centers of the movies. Taxi Driver is seen from Travis’s point of view and the ability to see the world. This character attempts to act upon the sense of extreme terror and impotence most of viewers feel about the increasingly aimless physical force and general moral lawlessness of urban street life. Man wants life and people to be different. Man of the street dreams of a better fortune. But he is lacking strength, isolated from contact with the world in which he moves. He is helpless to act in any way that would make a significant change in this situation. Man of the street works at job that allows him to wander aimlessly, and in social separation, through the dark lonely city streets, making observations of and “recording” the nervous, dangerous night life. And man of the street, in the end, performs an act of astounding violence that changes nothing but is emotionally destructive.
Although Travis is “working man,” he can with difficulty be said to exhibit the characteristics of “the working class.” Nor is he in any way associated with the degraded individuals he resists to. Scorsese supposedly present him as “man” on the street. The sense of middle-class uneasiness that Travis shows is rooted in an intense fear and suspicions at least partly born of fault and painful emotions resulting from an awareness of having done dishonorable things. The American Dream has failed to deliver the wealth and goods and those men who “got in under the line” are isolated in their expensive high-rise cages of night streets.
Martin Scorsese: What Mean Streets Mean
Scorsese had grown up in Little Italy. Mean Streets was the first time many people all over the world had seen the world of Little Italy represented in a work of art. Watching Mean Streets, Raging Bull, or GoodFellas is like looking through an album of photographs from Little Italy disappearing into a world of specific time. The film shows that human beings are usually the product of where they originated from. Whether one come from a small farm or dangerous district. The bonds one made, the codes that were there, all have a certain influence on later life. One can reject them and can say, “Okay, those codes don’t exist for me anymore because I am not of that world anymore,” but the reasons for those codes are very strong. The most important reason is survival. That struggle of the human form, the corporal, the flesh, to survive – anything to survive. And people learn in each society it is done a different way. In each subculture there is another way. And all these rules are set up and one learns them and they never really leave the person. It is what Martin Scorsese learned when he was a kid in the street. Those things he carried with him into his movies.
For Mean Streets, viewer would have to go to the roof and look the other way, behind privileged New York streets, down toward Little Italy, the Italian ghetto on the Lower East Side where Scorsese came of age in the fifties and sixties. Scorsese returned to that neighborhood – or at least to a virtually identical neighborhood in the East New York section of Brooklyn – with GoodFellas, which is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, the story of the middle-level Irish-Sicilian mobster Henry Hill and his twenty-five-year career in the criminal underworld (LoBrutto 150).
The movie reunited Scorsese with his homeboy, Robert De Niro, for the first time since The King of Comedy, in 1982, and assembles a veritable who’s who of superb Italian-American film stars, including Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and Paul Sorvino. Scorsese himself wrote the screenplay with Pileggi. Grisly, funny, violent, and riddled with moral questions posed by matters of loyalty, betrayal, and personal honor, GoodFellas also returned Scorsese to the themes that pump at the heart of some of his most urgent films, most notably Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull (LoBrutto 155).
Scorsese made Mean Streets, like, an anthropological study; it was about him and his friends and relatives. The film depicts Italian-Americans on the everyday scale – not the Godfather, not big bosses, but the everyday scale, the everyday level – this is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did in the early seventies and late sixties. Early sixties even. This was the life-style (Lagumina and Cavaioli 27).
Taxi Driver (1976)
Although extremely controversial for what some saw as a celebration of violence, Taxi Driver is a much honored film. All-night taxi driver sees the New York streets at their worst, increasing his sense of great loathing and distaste aroused by the world that surrounds him. Through his eyes, viewer sees the dark side of contemporary society, meeting a variety of capitalism’s vagabonds and losers – men of the street not suited in behavior to contemporary social environment. Eventually, the hero turns to violence as an expression of his growing intense anger, but, tellingly, he receives nothing but approval from the society around him for his behavior.
In Taxi Driver, “Other” is recuperated in the urban landscape as mindscape, where gender and race portray boundaries of self. Whether the hero describes his enemies using sexual language (“you fuckers, you screwheads”) or by race (“Some won’t even take spooks,” he says, “but it don’t make no difference to me”), Travis emphasizes the difference it does make. But gradually that difference is made incapable of being clearly distinguished from external madness. As the “New Guy,” newcomer cabbie Travis keeps his space isolated from “Others”, observing the night; but more and more he is absorbed into the complete disorder of the streets, integrating the unlawful and unmoral behavior he observes (Lagumina and Cavaioli 29).
Taxi Driver begins with a scene that at the same time establishes and dislocates its time and place: a taxicab drifts through the terrible vapor of New York at night. Viewer recognizes the city and the mood of impending evil, but, as Robert Kolker notes, this “credits sequence [is] outside the narrative proper – out of time, a kind of perpetual state of mind that diffuses itself over the film” (Kolker 191).
The tension between the internal and the external is one of techniques used by Scorsese. The film is told entirely through Travis driving and roaming through the streets of New York. The focus on the internal and on the hero’s engagement of the external naturally puts in a special mood the functions of setting and atmosphere. Travis’s contempt for those whom he perceives as different from himself (figured by gender and race) leads to a paradox: while immersed in the nightscape he reviles (“I’ll go anytime, anywhere”), he insists on its absolute “otherness.” Travis defines himself by opposition to the Other as enemy (through his use of derogatory obscenities, for example), and we are limited to his perceptions; hence, his increasing similarity to that corrupt Other becomes the film’s inability to contain its difference from itself.
An “aberration” adrift in an aberrant environment, Travis’s “significance” lies in his internalized collapse of political, social, moral, and representational boundaries. His confusion mirrors the external world, where language does not signify, where representations float without referents. One of the film’s critical metaphors is Palantine’s campaign slogan. The candidate’s eyes look down from his presidential campaign poster onto the quotation beneath, which reads, “We are the people.” The ambiguous pronoun “we” (as opposed to the exclusive group named by the defective campaign buttons that say “We are the people”) allows a play of meaning, a signifier determined by its speaker (or listener). The campaign aims, of course, to capitalize on this representative transience: the reader/viewer assumes membership and pledges a vote for “us.” But how are “we” defined? Against those who are not the people? As language disperses, meaning becomes unfixed and binary determinations of difference also dissolve.
The ferocious ambiguity of Travis’s language – general obscenities and broad abstractions–coincides with the unrepresentability of the war, which Travis never mentions. “I don’t know,” he tells Wizard ( Peter Boyle), “I got some bad ideas in my head.” These “deas” are not in themselves indicative of Travis’s specific emotional state (except that they are “bad”); his stumbling language does not refer to the world nor does it express his pain’s “feltcharacteristics.” Caught in a limbo of unrepresentability, Travis cannot name the action: “I just wanna go out and really . . . really do something.” Ironically, Wizard’s response insinuates the disintegration of self that Travis fears: to “do something,” even if undefined, defines one: “You do a thing and that’s what you are. You got no choice anyway. We’re all fucked, more or less, y’know.”
“More or less,” Travis understands this: ready for the assassination, he writes, “Now I see clearly my whole life has pointed in one direction. I see that now. There never has been any choice for me.” Paradoxically, his “clear” vision determines his lack of choice; his self-definition depends on his relation to an external Other. Travis names himself in opposition to his enemies, but this same representational gesture links him to them. Increasingly trapped in a relentlessly self-referential subjectivity, Travis’s difference from the Other becomes unrepresentable as that Other is internal(ized). Sleepless, he prowls his own relentless nightmare (Leitch 67).
Travis’s New York night still belongs to an objectified Charlie. And here, as in Vietnam, sex and violence are continuous. Travis writes, “Each night when I return the cab to the garage I have to clean the come off the back seat. Some nights I clean off the blood.” Yet while he condemns the couples he sees on the street or in the back of his cab, Travis yearns to “become a person like other people.” His radical decentering into violence begins with his attempt to derail his “morbid self-attention” through association with the self-threatening Other, named and mastered, as it was in Vietnam, through the mythology of mission (Orr 77).
This unreality is precisely the point. For the film absorbs and repels the legacy of Vietnam by its representation of violence and the very violence of that representation. Instead of attempting to represent the extreme violence of experience, the film presents its Otherness as same. And here, finally, is Taxi Driver’s most profound understanding of Vietnam: to represent the body is to violate it, and the embodiment of the war can only be its dispersion (Leitch 67).
Scorsese creates a social setting in an interesting and amusing way that is expressionist in its impact. Sophisticated use of camera makes Scorsese’s city, like, a world of mean streets; glaring illumination; ghostlike, menacing store-window mannequins on the streets; vapors rising eerily from manholes; and frightening shadows moving stealthily around each corner. It is a world of human decline in which no fruitful work goes on, no human feelings exist except anger, strong desire for sexual gratification, dismay, and fear of survival. Each person or thing is a potential fraud or enemy, and all things that represent American political institutions and codes are jokes characterized by irony. Viewer finds oneself in an emotionally vivid, if troubled, streets. Scorsese’ films have had the greatest impact on human collective consciousness and sense of national self-image.
Elsaesser, T., Horwath A., and King, N. The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s. Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, 2004.
Kolker, R. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, 2d ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Lagumina, J., Cavaioli J. The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia. Garland: New York., 2000.
Leitch, T. Crime Films. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, 2002.
LoBrutto, V. Becoming Film Literate: The Art and Craft of Motion Pictures. Praeger: Westport, CT, 2005.
Mean Streets. Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1973.
Orr, J. Contemporary Cinema. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 1998.
Raging Bull. Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980.
Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976.