Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Cinematic Aesthetics of Martin Scorsese

Whenever you see a Martin Scorsese film, you know it’s a Martin Scorsese film: The fast-moving camera, the sharp editing, the pop soundtrack, etc. Scorsese is both a visual artist and a technical master. Alfred Hitchcock, one of Scorsese’s great influences, loved using pure cinema to tell his stories. Pure cinema, distinct from the “cinema pur“ movement of the 1920s and 30s, is the use of autonomous film techniques (photography, editing, sound, etc.) to create an experience distinct from story. Scorsese has used pure cinema in his films as a way of bringing the audience closer his stories. In the films Casino, Goodfellas and Raging Bull, Scorsese uses pure cinema through slow-motion photography, jump cuts, and/or a pop-song laden soundtrack to put the audience in the mindset of his characters.

A pure cinema moment happens very early on in Casino when Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) watches as a local hooker known as Ginger (Sharon Stone) throw a bunch of casino chips in the air after one of her johns accuses her of stealing. After she throws the third cache of chips in the air, the frame freezes focusing solely on Ginger. The soundtrack starts playing “Love is Strange” by Mickey and Sylvia. We cut to a wide close up tracking in toward Rothstein in slow motion. He’s just staring at Ginger, entranced by her beauty. As we cut to a reverse shot of Ginger slinking away from the scene, the camera pans right and zooms in to a close medium shot of her – all in slow motion - walking through the crowd, occasionally shooting a flirty look to Rothstein. From the freeze-frame to the final pan, in three shots, we definitely know that Sam Rothstein has fallen head over heals in love with Ginger.

In Goodfellas, pure cinema is used to show a mobster’s mind at work. It happens about 3/4ths of the way into the film. Jimmy Conway (also played Robert De Niro) is a ruthless mobster being hassled for money by Morrie Kessler, the man who planned Conway’s recent robbery of Lufthansa airport. As Kessler is about to leave the bar, we cut to a medium shot of Conway at the counter just as the song “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream starts on the jukebox off camera. Watch De Niro’s performance carefully as Conway: The camera pushes in as De Niro’s eyes dart from Kessler to his glass to the man sitting next to him and back to Kessler again. A little bit of a smile forms on his face and then just as quickly disappears before he takes a puff from his cigarette. De Niro’s eyes accompanied by camera’s push in reveal that he’s getting deeper and deeper in thought. The song’s bass-filled opening suggests something ominous. In just one shot, the audience can tell that Conway intends to kill Kessler and keep the money for himself.

Finally, in Raging Bull, pure cinema is used every time Jake La Motta (again, De Niro) sees his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) interact with another man as he suspects she’s cheating on him. When Vicki kisses Jake’s brother Joey (Joe Pesci) on the mouth, Jake suspects Joey. When Vicki is seen talking Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), Jake suspects Tommy (And so on, and so on). One of the ways that Jake La Motta’s suspicions are conveyed is by the combination of slow-motion and jump cuts. When Tommy comes to Jake’s house, there is a moment before they leave in which Tommy kisses Vicki goodbye. We are then shown Jake’s POV: he watches as Vicki and Tommy kiss in slow motion. There are also jump cuts from Vicki to Tommy then to Joey, all within the space of a few seconds. The jump cuts represent Jake’s subjectivity, his selecting of details that add to his suspicions. The slow motion represents his heightened awareness. Both aesthetically convey his sense of paranoia and jealousy regarding his wife.

If you think about, slow-motion photography, fast editing, and a pop song soundtrack aren’t exclusive to Scorsese. In fact, these techniques can be found in many of the action-laden blockbusters that Hollywood turns out from year to year. The only difference is Scorsese uses these techniques not to show off or to simply thrill us but make us empathize with very unlikable people. They are the villains in their world and 99% of the time the audience doesn’t associate themselves with villains but the heroes. Scorsese originally wanted to be a priest when he was young and I suspect he has a special place in his heart for these kinds of villains or sinners. A priest has to have love for the unlovable because, as it says in the Bible, “to err is human, to forgive is divine.”

[NOTE 1-29-13: A very special thanks go to Roger Ebert, not just for his body of work in general, but also for his criticism on Martin Scorsese's films which have heavily informed my analysis of his work as well.]

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