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This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film 
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Post This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Borrowing a cue from JamesKunz, I've decided to devote the entire month of March to watching every Scorsese film from the first to the last. Considering I've not seen about 60% of his filmography - nearly all films except the masterpieces - I expect this to be a great undertaking. Up first:

Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967) - 3 out of 4

Scorsese's first feature is semi-autobiographical as it follows an aimless New Yorker named J.R. (Harvey Keitel) as he falls in love with The Girl (Zina Bethune) and experiences conflicting emotions. Funnily enough, this one was unavailable through most other options, and I ended up buying a DVD with some Special Features. The film itself is definitely interesting as it gives us insights into all these tropes we associate with Scorsese now - Catholicism and the guilt associated with it, the usage of pop/rock songs in important scenes, the usage of slow-mo/long takes/sequence shots (most notably in the first meeting between JR and the Girl) and other stylistic flourishes that have become a hallmark of all his other films.

But the backstory of the film's making is even more enlightening. Scorsese claims that his original storyboards were much different from what made it into the movie; he claims he had difficulty transferring his thoughts into concrete images via a lens, understandable for a film student taking an independent feature. But more importantly, what comes across in both the film and the commentary is how much thought Scorsese put into the film's presentation, even at that age. Some of the storyboards shown as part of the special features (where Directorial Assistant Mardik Martin explains how the film was made over the course of 5 years) are surprising in their attention to detail. Scorsese himself explains about a party scene which was one of the first ones he shot in 1965. It definitely comes across as one of the best scenes while watching the film because of how smoothly it flows and how neatly the slow-mo is incorporated. And hearing Scorsese's thought-process behind the camera movements and the usage of rock songs tells us why. At times, Scorsese does ramble but it was very intriguing to hear how he got what was an independent film at the time to be distributed. In the end, he accepts that without making all the mistakes he did in Who's That Knocking..., he wouldn't have been able to make Mean Streets.

As a film on its own, I found Who's That Knocking... a surprisingly strong watch. There is a rawness to the film which is understandable given its history, but it also shows how ambitious Scorsese was as a filmmaker right from his first film. Nearly every other filmmaker would love to have a film like this as their debut, or even just on their resume. (Hindsight tells us that Roger Ebert was the first one to notice the behemoth hidden beneath this kid right out of film school.)

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Fri Mar 01, 2013 5:01 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Looking forward to this thread and reading your thoughts. This should be a very worthwhile endeavor.

Who's That Knocking At My Door is one of the very few Scorcese films I haven't seen yet. Sounds like it's worth seeing.

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Fri Mar 01, 2013 5:35 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Don't forget the short film he did when he was in school, called The Big Shave.

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Fri Mar 01, 2013 6:26 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
This sounds awesome Balaji.

I'm curious if you're going to tackle his documentaries, as well? There is that one that's almost four hours long.



By the way, happy birthday brother...

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Fri Mar 01, 2013 7:08 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Ken, Thanks for the link. Scorsese mentions a couple of other short films in his commentary on Who's That Knocking...: What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It's Not Just You, Murray! They're both fully narrative films, and it sounded like he enjoyed doing them. I wasn't paying too much attention to Shorts, but now that you have brought it up, I might as well see and jot down thoughts on them as well.

Ram, Thank you! And being the obsessive completionist that I am, I will be watching any and all Scorsese film I can get my hands on. So it includes documentaries as well, though some of the earlier ones aren't available anywhere.

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Sat Mar 02, 2013 1:21 am
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Balaji Sivaraman wrote:
Ken, Thanks for the link. Scorsese mentions a couple of other short films in his commentary on Who's That Knocking...: What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It's Not Just You, Murray! They're both fully narrative films, and it sounded like he enjoyed doing them. I wasn't paying too much attention to Shorts, but now that you have brought it up, I might as well see and jot down thoughts on them as well.

Ram, Thank you! And being the obsessive completionist that I am, I will be watching any and all Scorsese film I can get my hands on. So it includes documentaries as well, though some of the earlier ones aren't available anywhere.

If you can find Italianamerican somewhere, it's a great watch. His parents are delightful and they have the sauce recipe at the end!

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Sat Mar 02, 2013 12:22 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
The First Three Shorts (Wikipedia lists a short named Vesuvius VI (1959) but even Googling didn't help me find that one.)

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This (1963) - A funny and weird film with no straightforward plot in sight. The Friend character who delivers all his lines with deadpan accuracy is the best thing about it. I've not seen a lot of shorts, so I cannot judge this one on how well it fares in general, but it's bizarre structure is demonstrative of how Scorsese wasn't one to be satisfied with banality.

It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964) - There's a startling amount of craft on display here from a 22 year old Scorsese but what is even more striking is how much the film is a part of the Scorsese ouevre, especially Goodfellas. Indeed there are a number of scenes in INJYM that, although tonally different (here they come across as jocular), serve as direct precursors to how Scorsese handled similar themes in his 1990 masterpiece. It also struck me as being markedly better than his first full-length feature Who's That Knocking... There's an assuredness in the direction in INJYM that is lacking with the latter film. A must-watch if you haven't seen it yet.

The Big Shave (1967) - Woah! I had no idea what to make of that one before I read it up on Wikipedia. The film's alternative title makes the metaphors explicitly clear, but I felt there's not a lot to take away here besides that statement, unlike INJYM.

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Sun Mar 03, 2013 2:15 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Right on Balaji!

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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Balaji Sivaraman wrote:
The Big Shave (1967) - Woah! I had no idea what to make of that one before I read it up on Wikipedia. The film's alternative title makes the metaphors explicitly clear, but I felt there's not a lot to take away here besides that statement, unlike INJYM.

I find Wikipedia's summary reductive. (A summary, reductive? Surely I jest!) What I see in The Big Shave is an early presentation of ideas that would come to define Scorsese as an artist, present here perhaps in their rawest form. We have a man who hurts himself, who continues to hurt himself, and whose inability to stop himself allows the situation to go well beyond the point of serious consequence. We have an urgent, expressive style of shooting and cutting that brings out the increasing discordance of the images, rather than simply creating false editing room "energy". We have the dissonant combination of a pleasant, upbeat soundtrack with gruesome imagery, which creates a very non-literal, almost purely emotional and visceral experience.

As Ebert might say, The Big Shave works like music, not drama. I don't think the metaphorical significance that regularly gets attributed to it is really necessary to understanding it, though it might add in another layer to this espresso double-shot of early Scorsese.

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Sun Mar 03, 2013 9:20 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Ken, Thank you for the insightful analysis of The Big Shave. I must admit I don't think I can watch it again, but your analysis did shed some new light on things.

Boxcar Bertha (1972) - 2.5 out of 4 (SPOILERS!)

I guess the only way of looking at this film is that it would've turned into an all-out exploitation flick in the hands of another director. Scorsese was probably the only reason I was able sit through this mess of a script. There are moments that give you a glimpse of Scorsese, the artist, at work. I admired the fact that he had managed to squeeze Catholicism into even a film like this one and particularly enjoyed how David Carradine's Bill, in a shepherd's outfit no less, had been framed with Jesus as the backdrop in one scene which served as a direct precursor to his fate at the end. Then there's the fact that Bertha hops onto every train during the course of the film but misses the one she really wants at the end. (There might be some subtext there I am not getting.) As for the sex scenes, I read James B saying somewhere that the actors admitted to having sex on camera, and that made things a lot clearer since that is exactly how I felt when watching certain scenes. Still, with Scorsese at the helm, I got the feeling that none of it was played for gratuitousness.

Most importantly, I loved how Scorsese seemed to be honing his skills as a director, especially in the manner in which he had employed certain stylistic flourishes (such as playing around with zoom when the gang is in a tunnel and even in the fight scene during the climax). I got the feeling I was watching a kid who had been handed some really interesting toys to play with. (On that note, I found this really insightful article on the film.) Hey, I am not complaining because it is a film like Boxcar Bertha which eventually led to Mean Streets, the film that finally put him on the map . (I'll probably squeeze that in tomorrow.)

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Tue Mar 05, 2013 5:49 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Cool stuff, Balaji. Keep it up. This is a pretty daunting task for one month.


Wed Mar 06, 2013 9:21 am
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
PeachyPete wrote:
Cool stuff, Balaji. Keep it up.


Echo.

Yeah, looking forward to these man.

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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Balaji Sivaraman wrote:
Ken, Thanks for the link. Scorsese mentions a couple of other short films in his commentary on Who's That Knocking...: What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It's Not Just You, Murray! They're both fully narrative films, and it sounded like he enjoyed doing them. I wasn't paying too much attention to Shorts, but now that you have brought it up, I might as well see and jot down thoughts on them as well.

Ram, Thank you! And being the obsessive completionist that I am, I will be watching any and all Scorsese film I can get my hands on. So it includes documentaries as well, though some of the earlier ones aren't available anywhere.


You should check out his segment of "The Blues," which is excellent. I haven't seen his Bob Dylan doc (yet). "The Last Waltz" is great, but I didn't like "Shine a Light."

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Thu Mar 07, 2013 12:43 am
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Pete, The "month" part is only a target. It's not as if you guys are going to sue me for misinformation if a few movies squeak over the line to April, is it?

Mean Streets (1973) - 3.5 out of 4

When I saw Who's That Knocking... and heard the director commentary, it definitely came across as a semi-autobiographical film. Mean Streets, on the other hand, feels as if it is completely autobiographical. This feels like the locality Scorsese grew up in and the kind of scenes he was privy to on an almost daily basis. I think both of Ebert's reviews really sum up the film for me. It felt to me as the most accomplished of Scorsese's films up to that point, but seen through the prism of history, it definitely looks unpolished compared to his masterpieces. But that isn't really a negative in any sense more than an observation of how good those other films are. Taken on its own, Mean Streets is arguably one of the best street films I've seen, and I got the feeling that it directly influenced Goodfellas which definitely feels like a superior cousin to this one. And unlike Who's That Knocking..., Scorsese, with three films under his belt, seems to be more assured in his direction here. There was an aimlessness in that film which was completely absent here. With Mean Streets, there's a coherent narrative that ties everything together, and there are characters who I can sympathize with. The clash of cultures theme which is explored in his first feature with Keitel's character is present here too. (Charlie's girlfriend Theresa keeps asking him why he cannot move with her up North, and he keeps telling her that these streets, Johnny Boy, and his uncle are all that're keeping him afloat in life.) And obviously, Catholicism permeates the film's every frame. As for the presentational style, I felt that Ken's analysis of The Big Shave was spot-on and could directly be applied to Mean Streets. The visual style, camerawork, and choice of music all result in kinetic film where almost every character feels like they're one push away from an act of major violence which is what the film chooses to end on. This is definitely a film I'd like to revisit a lot in the future.

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Fri Mar 08, 2013 5:13 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
I've seen (and own) everything Scorsese's ever made, with the exception of his short films (which Criterion has been long promising to release as an anthology... to which I say, Hurry the fuck up! :| ).

"Who's That Knocking at My Door" is probably his most underrated film (next to "The King of Comedy" and "After Hours"). Though it's often dismissed as a "Mean Streets" prototype, there's definitely still an auteur-in-the-making vibe that's undeniable. It also almost has a bit of a Cassevetes feel to it.

While "Boxcar Bertha" is hardly a masterpiece, it still has its charm despite following the 'fugitive couple' formula set into motion by "Bonnie and Clyde." (Oddly enough, Steven Spielberg's sophomore effort, "The Sugarland Express," ["Duel" DID get a theatrical release in Europe, so it DOES count as his debut, IMO] would also be a fairly standard fugitive couple drama. :ugeek: ) Still, this felt a bit like a marking-time effort on his still-blossoming filmmaking career.

Third time was a charm with "Mean Streets," the film that made not only Scorsese himself a breakout star, but his two leads - Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro - as well. And I still consider it (as well as "Who's That Knocking") superior to the vastly overrated "GoodFellas." :P


Fri Mar 08, 2013 8:27 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Pedro made me watch Italianamerican.

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Sat Mar 09, 2013 4:11 am
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Assuming Balaji intends to continue going in order, he's only one film away from Taxi Driver. I'm so excited for him!

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Sat Mar 09, 2013 9:15 am
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Italianamerican (1974) - 4 out of 4 (Thank You Pedro!)

A night out with the Scorsese family, and it is so delightful you want to spend more time with them. Catherine and Charles Scorsese are absolute delights and lend proof to the fact that our forefathers were always great storytellers because of the absence of instant entertainment like we have. (This is actually highlighted in the film itself.) Scorsese's mother especially is so endearing with the way she speaks. Although they are both charming, I also felt Martin Scorsese asked all the right questions and got them to open out about the hardships Italian immigrants faced in the US in those days. Really a personal and charming film from Scorsese, and one I'd be happy to return to once again.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) - 3.5 out of 4

I think a film like this is proof that the whole "Scorsese needs angst, crime or drama to get the best out of himself" is a total myth. Ellen Burnstyn's marvelous performance is clearly the film's highlight, but I definitely enjoyed this one a lot besides that as well. It was a really pleasant film but one with characters I could empathize with. When Kris Kristofferson's David has a go at Alice at the end, oddly enough there's more than a hint of truth in his statement. That is almost the kind of feeling I've "never" gotten with similar films in recent years. I just got the feeling that although it was straightforward, the film never felt cliched or formulaic, and that is what made me rate it so highly.

And Ken, you're excited, it is 3 AM here, but I wanted to get through both those films tonight just so I could see Taxi Driver tomorrow. Hell yeah, bring it on I say!

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Mon Mar 11, 2013 5:14 pm
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
I'm glad folks are peepin' Italianamerican. It's literally the only good thing that came out of my university documentary class. I think I'ma watch it in the next day or two because it's been a while and I need a pick-me-up.

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Tue Mar 12, 2013 12:43 am
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Post Re: This month...I am watching every Martin Scorsese film
Taxi Driver (1976) - 4 out of 4 (Anything less and I would have been in mortal danger. Ken knows where I live and how I look. I also turn your attention to his review of the film which is a great read.)

To begin with, I don't know how to put my thoughts into words as far as this film is concerned. I will start by saying that I thought it to be such an introspective film. At the end, I was thinking about the fine line that separates many of us from becoming a Travis Bickle. It is a weird coincidence that I got to see this film at this point in my life. Believe it or not, everyday I scream my lungs out at the amount of corruption in my country. Almost every lunch hour, I discuss jokingly with my friends that I wish I could wipe out the entire Indian bureaucracy with a single bomb. Obviously I am not going to go out and do it, but there's a very real rage that has built up over time. I spew bile and hatred to my heart's content because that's the only thing I can do, and then get back to real life because I have one. It is all part of it: education, sophistication, love of family, responsibility, fear of law or whatever, but a combination of all those aspects is what separates me from becoming a Travis Bickle.

Taxi Driver, to me, was, on one level, about this fine line. When Bickle takes a girl he likes to a porno, it shows his lack of sophistication, understanding of the basic conducts of society. When he tries and fails to elucidate what exactly is going on inside him, it shows his lack of education. When he writes a letter to his parents and cannot remember their anniversary and birthdays, it shows a distinct lack of family in his life. Of course, in Scorsese's vision of New York, there might as well be no law. Stripped of every one of those aspects that I, and indeed many of us, take for granted, and made to be as lonely and insufferable as Bickle, we might well be pushed over the edge to commit acts of violence we were never capable of.

"Are you talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here." Roger Ebert calls this the truest line in the film, and I agree. Before I saw the film, I remember reading somewhere that International audiences may not get Taxi Driver quite like New Yorkers. I wanted to call out bullshit on that, but somebody else already did. To me, the foremost quality required of someone watching a film like this is empathy. Take the above scene for example, we've all done crazy stuff in front of the mirror. Hell, when I was alone in my apartment in Dubai for a year, I used to talk to myself all the time while doing mundane activities. In this day and age, we're never lonely because of the Internet, but there were days when I'd have been in such an off-mood that I resorted to having internal monologues. Given that I've done it a lot, it was not difficult for me to empathize with Bickle's need for someone, anyone, to talk to in his desperate loneliness.

Taxi Driver was also a film of pure genius from everyone involved. Until I read Ken's review, I didn't know that a lot of what is shown in the film is actually Schrader's externalization of his internal conflicts. It really is a terrific script where not one of the characters comes across as an archetype. Even secondary characters like the pimp and Bickle's driver friend Wizard have an uncommon depth to them. They seem so real, and that is what makes the film work. I am not sure I understand the nuances of filmmaking enough to comment on Scorsese's direction, but I do know that any film that can have me on the edge of my seat without having to resort to fake energy like they do nowadays is brilliantly directed, so that's that. In other words, I know it is a masterwork in direction, I just don't know why. Bernard Herrmann always comes across to me as one of those unique composers. I'd heard him a handful of times before, mostly in Hitchcock films and Citizen Kane, but the moment that score began to play, I knew whose work this was. I think the sort of music he used served as the perfect counterpart to Scorsese's images.

And finally, Taxi Driver is a masterpiece because of De Niro's masterclass in acting. I've already noted somewhere else that I saw this in my very early teens on TV when I didn't even know what cinema was. The only aspect I remember from that viewing is De Niro. The reason it is a work of genius is that none of it is in your face. To borrow a line from Ken's review, "They internalized it. The characters didn't need to talk about contradictions, because DeNiro became the contradictions." The scene where Bickle takes Betsy to the film after taking her out for coffee is one of the brilliant visual demonstrations of these contradictions. I always feel that De Niro is one of the few actors who can quite simply suggest emotion. The scene towards the end where he takes a walk through the crowds is an example of this. You don't see his eyes due to the non-reflective glasses, but you know the menace he conveys with just a simple smile. It was a chilling moment. Another similar scene is the one where he has the conversation with Keitel's Matthew. One moment he gives a sly smile towards the pimp, but when he turns you can see the disdain on his face. (And he wears the glasses in that scene as well.) To borrow an oft-used cliche, no number of superlatives can do this performance justice.

One of my personal methods which I use to judge how much a film affected me is to think about how long it took after the credits rolled for me to gather my senses and speak my first word. Granted it is 2AM here and everyone around me is asleep, I still haven't uttered a single word (if typing this long wall of text doesn't count). When a film leaves me in a daze like Taxi Driver just did, I know it is a masterpiece and one that I will rate highly for years to come.

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