Mind Theater

Scorsese’s Guilt | Video Essay

November 14, 2022 Ayo Akingbade Episode 77
Mind Theater
Scorsese’s Guilt | Video Essay
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Show Notes Transcript

 Scorsese’s Guilt

  1. “More of a class exercise than a commercially sound film.“His script and directions lack any dramatic value and give far too much exposure to sexual fantasies on the part of the boy.” - Variety
  2. “Hasn’t succeeded in making a drama that is really much more aware than the characters themselves. The result is a movie that is as precise and as small as a contact print” - The New York Times
  3. “Unmotivated and practically slapped into the middle of the story, its overactive camerawork and editing are out of place and annoying.”- tvguide
  4. These reviews are damning to say the least and they would be hard criticism to stomach for almost anyone’s directorial debut. At first brush they sound like they’re about some low level B-movie director who was probably so ashamed at the response to their first true cinematic project that they never made another a movie again. At Least I wouldn’t have. But they're actually about a rather familiar name and face. One Martin Scorsese and his directorial debut “Who’s that Knocking at My door.” Even genius has to start somewhere. And for scorsese that start was unremarkable. In almost every way.
  5. The plot of Who’s that knocking is razor thin, almost non-existent, the intensity of the conflict is muted and the internal messaging lackluster, the characters lack that signature scorsese dynamism that would go on to define his style in movies for decades to come. It’s in this rudimentary era, before Scorsese met DeNiro that we bear witness to a novice at work, still trying to define his style, and lay a directorial foundation. We still do see bits of modern Scorsese hiding in fragmented pieces within the old. None more prevalent than the interest that early scorsese had in exploring and depicting his faith through film. In a lot of ways who’s that knocking serves as a predecessor to some of his later works imbued with catholic imagery and messaging from Mean Streets and Raging Bull, to blatant examples like The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence..
  6. Scorsese’s filmography is one that explores Catholicism in both the overt ways and the subtle ways. A movie like mean streets which is this brooding mediation on guilt, honor, and redemption places Charlie in direct conversation with God as he’s caught between his internalized religious responsibilities and his mafia ones. To The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that was so bombastic and naked in its depiction of Jesus that took quite a few liberties from the evangelical texts. that it couldn’t be made in 1983 but was finally made in 1988 still to the dismay of christian fundamentalist groups who set fire to a theater it was screening in Paris, injuring numerous people.
  7. Even when Catholicism and religion isn’t the main focus of Scorsese’s work it’s an undercurrent that he always finds a way to examine. So often this appears in the little details. That appear in his costume and set design. From the abundance of crucifixes that appear throughout his work, to bible verse tattoos in cape fear, to the different religious sects in gangs of new york, to the overwhelming visual imagery of BLOOD, tying in Scorsese’s pension for depicting visceral portrayals of redemption through violence with his faith which understands blood as a symbolic representation of the blood of Christ.
  8. It’s through Scorsese’s cinema that he explores not only faith but the way faith and the divine intersects with the material world. One of the.greatest way he does this is in the sanctity through which he depicts religious objects, what film critic David Roark describes as a kind of sacramental cinema., citing the new Advent Catholic encyclopedia
  9. “Sacraments exist as outward symbols and embodiments of invisible grace, from baptism , to penance, to the holy eucharist. They are not mere signs, they don’t signify divine grace, but in virtue of their divine institution, they cause that grace in the souls of men.”
  10. It’s here that DAVID ROARK describes a personal kind of connection to faith that Scorsese makes within his cinema. His camera blurs the lines between the mythmaking that is a part of cinema and creating cinematic images with his central belief in the divinity inherent in all things. These symbols don’t just represent an idea, the symbol is the actuall thing causing that divine feeling because the symbols themselves are divine, touched by the grace of Lord. This is very different from how cinema typically operates, with symbols making themselves clear to be representations of ideas and themes - not the actual idea itself. For Catholics however, Scorsese in particular, the entire world is divine, intimately crafted by a creator who luxierates over the details more than even the greatest filmmakers do.
  11. Film is a medium that loves to luxuriate over the details, over shot composition, and lighting, to the placement of ordinary objects within a scene. To reveal that a scene’s lighting or objects are infused by the divine not only imbues the movie with a more profound thematic idea, but it’s a thematic idea that translates differently to different kinds of viewers.
  12. For non-believers, a film (or any fictional story) which is then imbued with religious imagery or iconography instantly becomes more fantastical, more mythical as a work of literature, more of an escape from reality. For believers however, the addition of religion to the fictional narrative of a film works to ground that film even deeper into our reality. It creates a cinematic touchstone that connects our material world to the spiritual one.  For Scorsese there is god in all things, and his light is capable of being experienced by the profane and sacred alike who are both a long way aways from reaching the sanctity of Christ and encompassed together embody both his complete humanity and complete divinity. A duality that we see contained within Scorsese’s films, often juxtaposing deeply religious and sacred imagery with violence, death, and destruction.
  13. As a self-defined lapsed catholic, this ability Scorsese has to speak to the profane and the sacred, to the sinner and the saint, the non believer and the believer through his films is one of the most powerful tools that Scorsese has in his arsenal. He understands, probably more than anyone, the grueling task it is to, as a religious man, keep yourself aligned with the ideals of your God. Maybe that's why scorsese protagonists always find themselves in either a place of facing judgment or seeking redemption for their actions, as well as why he stresses so much importance on showing characters with imperfect relationships to Christ, an imperfection that mirrors his own and so is worth examining on an introspective level.
  14. “The most important legacy of my catholicism is guilt. A major helping of guilt, like garlic.”
  15. For Scorsese film is as good a tool as any to help in wrestling with ones guilt. And I use the word wrestle because it can be an inherently violent and physical battle. In the catholic tradition guilt can be depicted as black and white, as good and evil. Film, Scorsese’s films in particular reveal the greyness of that guilt, interested in depicting even the most violent and cruel of sinners as being illuminated by the light of the divine. 
  16. Even if you don’t believe that God exists in our world, he does in Scorsese's which gives his film a similar mythical tragic quality to them as the stories, myths, and tragedies that have existed for centuries, that have come to define our relationship to literature as humans. But unlike those myths of old, we as an audience have more access than ever before to the true inner workings of what makes our storytellers tick. And for Martin Scorsese it’s a force beyond most people’s comprehension or understanding that within the walls of his films, becomes illuminated. 
  17. Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter, IG, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support, the kofi link is in the shownotes, Thanks for listening, I’ll catch you next time.