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Martin Scorsese was recently awarded a gold medal by the University Philosophical Society of Trinity College. Michael Lee shines a light.
On the evening of Friday the 24th of February, acclaimed cinematic auteur Martin Scorsese (74) was to be awarded the Gold Honorary Patronage medal by the Trinity College Philosophical society. With some scant research I’d found out, Trinity College Philosophical society was founded in 1683, and is the oldest debating society in the world, and has housed debates from some of the most esteemed and radical intellects over the centuries. Notable members of the society include Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. Scorsese had recently been in London where he gave a powerhouse speech to the British Film Institute, and rounding out his trip this side of the Atlantic, Scorsese dropped into Ireland. It was the first time the director had been in Dublin since 1998, when he gave a directing workshop in UCD, before leaving to chair Cannes film festival.
With what little sleep I’ve had, I awake with a blast of optimism and wipe the sleep from my eyes. Today’s the day I’m going to meet Scorsese. I can feel it in my bones; I’m going to see a walking talking idol in the flesh, and try to hustle an interview. I stuff my creased edition of the Goodfellas screenplay in my back pocket, grab a biro and race out the front door.
I arrive at Trinity a little after 4, which makes me over an hour early for the main event. It’s probably going to be a long haul, but who knows what’s going to happen, or when or where Mr. Scorsese’s going to come from. I’ve heard spontaneity is key, hence my premature arrival. Scorsese had been rumored to take a photo in front of the iconic Campanile bell tower beforehand. But as I walk into the front square he’s nowhere in sight. I wait for a few minutes but decide to take my chances inside the venue first and see if I can catch him hanging around afterward.
To my right, there’s a noisy queue of around 200 students queuing up outside the stately looking exam hall. There’s a wild mixture of faces, with everything from gaping grins, to looks of sheer terror, and even boredom. The prospect of having to wait in line filled me with that kind of nervous dread distinctive to queuing for a big event. What if I don’t get in? How will I write an article? I approach the head of the queue and am speedily directed to the press area. I climb a winding wooden stairs up to an empty balcony and take my pick of the few chairs there.
The Trinity exam hall is an austere surrounding, and it’s filled with a sea of function seating. At the end of the hall on what’s like a slightly raised stage or proscenium, there are two large antique chairs set facing the crowd, one slightly more throne like than the other. Decadent renaissance style oil paintings of regal looking intellects hang high on the walls. As they stare out through the canvas with their pompous looking haircuts and curly mustaches, it’s easy to imagine that they are probably former deans or patrons of the college. There’s a freshness to the hall without it being exactly cold. Down below volunteers direct the remaining students and guests to their seats. The crowd anxiously awaits Mr. Scorsese. A biting tension isin the air, an electricity. And every time so much as a footstep or a muffled voice is heard coming in the door, a rapt silence sweeps across the hall and necks creak around at awkward 90-degree angles; only to be brutally disappointed by the sight of college personal. Of course, the collective whispering resumes immediately, charged with a building expectation; until the next footstep, and all sound momentarily stops again.
At 5:45, Scorsese makes his way up the centre aisle, accompanied by an enthusiastic applause. When the clapping finally comes to a close, Scorsese is presented with his honorary medal and he sits down with little fuss, his small figure enshrined by the decorative wooden backing of the throne.
The Gold Honorary medal is given to people who have made a profound contribution in their field of expertise. And Scorsese no doubt fits the bill for sure. He’s a multiple Bafta winner, check. Oscar winner, check. Golden Globe winner, check. DGA Lifetime Achievement Award winner, check. And now, Gold Honorary Patronage medal awardee, and soon to be recipient of the John Ford award, check. But it goes further than mere accolades; Scorsese has made some of the greatest American films of the last 50 years; from the biting realism and violence of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas to The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street and most recently Silence. Taxi Driver might have changed my life. I might have been 15 when I first saw it and was just torn apart by the angst and frustration of the Travis Bickle experience. There was a real humanity there, and it struck a nerve. I mean Travis is so lost and confused; you just want to reach out to tap him on the shoulder and tell him, but somehow you never can. And all this is topped off by Bernard Herrmann’s spellbinding score.
Scorsese is poised comfortably in the throne; it’s safe to assume that it’s his chair. He’s a man seasoned to public life and clearly knows how to handle it. He looks out at the audience with ferocious enthusiasm. From the balcony, he’s basically a white dot donning thick glasses and a dark suit, but it’s easy to imagine his friendly old face creased with lines of wisdom. And somewhere between the endless clicks of cameras, and spontaneous coughs, I realise he’s already started speaking. But the exam hall’s basically an undesignated echo chamber; so his iconic New York accent literally ricochets off the walls. I try to focus solely in on the sounds of Scorsese’s words, and zone out the excess sounds, which proves kind of tricky so it takes a couple of seconds for me to latch on.
The young interviewer, Matthew Nuding, who’s also the President of the Philosophical Society, is seated in the other chair to the left; he addresses Scorsese with a brisk confidence. Nuding notes that while Scorsese always seems to have been drawn by character, he famously stated that The Departed was the first time that he felt he did a movie with a plot. Nuding is keen for the Hollywood legend to elaborate. But when Scorsese talks about it, he emphasises his fascination with the scripts ending. He says he had just come off of two big spectacle pictures in a row, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, and he explains his initial impulse coming out of that kind of experience was to do the opposite. So basically he wanted to try and make something on a simpler production scale, and which was also a chance to experiment with plot. There’s a traditional type of Hollywood movie that uses plot, and Scorsese felt that he’d never really approached story that way; he’d always worked through the characters. Scorsese expresses his endearing affection for some of these movies, and mentions his lifelong fascination with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It was with The Departed that he was presented with opportunity to explore this territory. But Scorsese’s approach to plot in the film isn’t how he normally works as a mode of direction, and this proved challenging in the making of the film. Eventually, he just decided to follow the characters’ perspectives. And his decision worked perfectly, finally bagging him the coveted Oscars for Best picture and Best director. I think the point Scorsese’s trying to illuminate here, is that contrary to how he may have been interpreted before regarding plot; for him plot essentially has to come out of character, and not vice versa, and that in truth they’re inseparable. Of course by now, I really regret not having a Dictaphone or a sound recorder in my arsenal, as every word coming out of Scorsese’s mouth seems to be pure cinephile gold. So I’m winging it and saving as many quotes as I can possibly fit in my trusty old Nokia.
Given the current political climate it’s not surprising that Scorsese is asked to address the place of his films in this modern climate. The interviewer ask’s Scorsese point blank how his 70’s films relate to the current political climate “It’s a scary time,” Scorsese openly declares. This is coming from a guy who’s lived through the political nightmares of the Cold War, McCarthyism, Vietnam and Watergate. In reference to the first Gulf War and 9/11 Scorsese says, “I knew it would be a never-ending situation,” which seems to suggest everything from Iraq to the current Middle Eastern crises. He doesn’t skirt around the issue, he answers it honestly and without any sense of fear or negativity. But he courts the issue delicately, as if he doesn’t want to be sucked into the all-consuming political rabbit hole, and it’s hard not to admire him for this. He elaborates a little further stating that, “I like to read a lot of history” and regarding the current climate, “it reminds me a lot of the 20’s and the 30’s”. And for anyone who’s dusted off their old history books, it’s hard to deny a similarity in the global shift towards aggressive right wing politics. Scorsese never states directly whether he’s talking about America alone, or the larger world, logically it’s probably safe to assume both.
Scorsese goes on to relate the current mentality to that of Travis Bickle, the tragic antihero of his 1976 classic Taxi Driver. It’s easy to see why; Bickle is the classic outcast figure, a disillusioned Vietnam veteran, who’s completely alone in New York and trying to find meaning. Bickle tries first in the usual ways, through the job and through the girl, Betsy. But when these traditional avenues fail him Bickle wields his anger towards the society that he believes let him down, and sets out to “clean up the filth” through aggressive force. According to Scorsese, “There’s thousands of Travis Bickles” in the world right now. These are, to paraphrase Travis, “God’s lonely men”, the outcasts, the misfits, the angry white men. It’s a testament to the supreme craft of Taxi Driver, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, that it’s somehow, perhaps more pertinent than ever in 2017.
On Taxi Driver, Scorsese clarifies that he really got to develop his working relationship with Robert DeNiro, and admits he established a much greater trust with the actor on that collaboration than he did on Mean Streets. Scorsese explains the benefits of this improvement, while recounting how, during the shooting, DeNiro would approach him with new ideas on set before takes, and, after a few times, Scorsese turned to DeNiro and said, “Don’t tell me, show me.” This is emblematic of Scorsese’s sense of collective creativity and his appreciation for film as a team sport. He makes it clear that he wants to be surprised by actors, because those little surprises, the things he doesn’t always think of, or expect, are according to Scorsese, what bring it to life and keep it engaging. Scorsese’s work makes a convincing case for how inclusion of those kinds of actors in the creative process, is extremely beneficial. He briefly cites Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Departed, and how Leonardo di Caprio opened a car door with his leg in The Wolf of Wall Street before the conversation swiftly moves on.
Speaking in relation to what draws him to a script, Scorsese says with an illuminating simplicity, “It has to sound right.” Scorsese highlights that he’s limited by his own personal experience, which he states is local to the North East Coast. “That ear really only goes as far as the north east.” This isn’t exactly a fact that he conceals, repeatedly in interviews he has drawn attention to how his childhood experience in New York shaped him as a filmmaker and is a constant source of inspiration for his films, Mean Streets being a prime example of this.
Scorsese candidly admits looking up to cinematic new-wave icons Fellini and Godard and of having aspired to some level of that fame. But he makes it clear there’s a trade-off, a compromise, and that comes at a personal cost. There’s a humbleness to his tone, that seems by means of osmosis to let you know he was talking from personal experience. “Celebrity culture is in a way a serious illness,” and he explains that celebrity poisons people; it eats them up and spits them out, luring them away from meaningful ambitions. In the long run, Scorsese contests, “It’s the work that matters,” and it’s important to aspire to making something meaningful. “It has to come from here”, the man places his hand over his heart.
The pressures that arise from the studio and from the concept of celebrity are obstacles created by the Hollywood machine, which Scorsese suggests can compromise your vision, he advises “To not let the machine dissuade you” and emphasises “you just have to keep punching away.” Scorsese’s artistic instincts seem to be aligned with an uncompromising sense of honesty. “Comic book stuff, it’s not for me.” He jokes that they, ‘they’ as in the studio, should keep making movies like The Revenant. His example of The Revenant seems apt, as it’s a big budget studio movie that readily exemplifies how it’s possible to make a commercial film and also maintain a certain sense of integrity with regard to the artistic vision. He briefly alludes to the future of cinema and the complexities of telling stories through Virtual Reality. Scorsese smiles brightly and jokingly muses that, he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore because, “I’m on the way out”. And with that, it’s over and Scorsese’s hurriedly escorted out a back door.
Seconds before the crowd begins to disperse, I push by, and race outside. But there’s no sight of Scorsese. I walk around the back of the hall. Security patrol the back, so any chance of meeting the man seem slim to none. A few seconds later a Mercedes minivan with tinted windows shuttles past. Scorsese no doubt inside. Any chance of an interview now safely up in smoke. I’m hit with a momentary sense of depression before thinking back to his comment on celebrity culture, and briefly consider that this might apply to me, but not exactly sure how, I decide instead to call it a night.
On the 25th of February Martin Scorsese was also awarded, the John Ford Award, by IFTA and John Ford Ireland. The award was presented by president of Ireland and champion of the arts Michael D. Higgins.