Definitely a Guilt Thing

by Chad Perman & Elizabeth Cantwell

©Warner Bros.

©Warner Bros.

What you are about to read is the transcript of an online conversation between two individuals regarding Martin Scorsese’s first major film, Mean Streets. One of these individuals (Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief of Bright Wall/Dark Room) knows a whole lot about Scorsese, and was watching Mean Streets for the fourth time. The other individual (Elizabeth Cantwell, Managing Editor of Bright Wall/ Dark Room) somehow managed to get through life without ever learning much about Scorsese’s films, knew nothing about Mean Streets, and watched the film for the very first time the night before this conversation. This is their story.

(Where necessary, typos and grammar have been cleaned up; in other places, we have left remnants of the instant/unpunctuated nature of internet chatting. In addition, links have been inserted where appropriate, to provide additional context.)

Elizabeth Cantwell: Let me start by asking you: What is the plot of Mean Streets? Because I have no idea. You just start telling me about the plot, and I'll interrupt you when I need to.

Chad Perman: Well, I saw your tweet last night that you were halfway through the film and had realized it had no plot, so I was somewhat expecting that question - though the second half is a little more straightforward plot-wise, didn't you think? Johnny has to pay money to the loan shark, Charlie has to keep Johnny out of trouble, fails, car chase, shooting, aftermath, goodnight.

EC: I was trying to envision how this movie would be pitched and all I could come up with was "There are these drug dealer guys or mob guys or maybe mob guys who deal drugs, and one of them is crazy."
"And he has to pay money but he doesn't"
"The end"

CP: Haha - well thankfully Scorsese didn't really have to pitch it much. John Cassavettes basically commanded him to make a more personal film, after he was a director-for-hire of sorts on the previous film he'd made for Roger Corman (Boxcar Bertha). Scorsese had the script—he'd been working on it off and on for over seven years apparently—and said, OK, i'll try to make this then.

I don't think Scorsese ever envisioned it as a straightforward plot type of film; he was going after a much more episodic, free-form approach.

EC: Yeah, that was what I loved about it - that it felt almost Malick-y to me in its disregard of linearity and its willingness to be just sort of surreal and outside of the concerns of plot. Also if this is a personal film, I'm sort of scared of Scorsese.

CP: Yeah, you should be a little scared of Scorsese - this is mostly all taken directly from his life growing up in Little Italy - the Keitel character is essentially a stand-in for him. At first Corman was going to put up the financing, but only if Scorsese made it with an all black cast, so Corman could sell it as a blaxploitation film (which were popular at the time, Shaft, Foxy Brown, etc.). Thankfully, that film never happened. And thankfully, this film did instead, because it set Scorsese off on the career he's had since, plus introduced him to De Niro.

EC: Yeah, I loved De Niro in this! I also loved how the whole thread with the epileptic woman - Theresa? - isn't even introduced until like an hour into the movie. Also she's the one who kills that drunk guy at the urinal, right? Or is that just a random woman? Either way I have no idea why that happened. Also I always thought Harvey Keitel was fat. Is he fat now?

CP: Did you know Scorsese is actually IN the movie?

EC: No?


EC: WHOA WHAT? That's crazy!

CP: He's the loan shark's goon/henchman.

EC:That's also funny because, like
he's SHOOTING the movie
get it

CP: I am not responding to that.

EC: No I bet that was in his head, though.
I bet he was like "GUys this is meta"
he's super into meta shit (that's what I know of Scorsese)

CP: I thought you were gonna go deep - "he's actually the guy playing the guy who shoots his own onscreen persona!" But you went with the puns.

I remember raising my hand in a college film class with that comment (Scorsese's character shoots at Charlie, who is supposed to be Scorsese!) and thinking I was going to get comment of the decade appreciation from the professor. And it went NOWHERE. He was like "Yeah, I guess." And the class just stared at me. I was the worst in film classes.

EC: If I seriously had to list what I know of Scorsese it would be: he's super into meta shit (he likes putting movies in his movies) and he likes making movies about gang guys and lone psychos. That's about it. They do go to the movies in Mean Streets (twice).

CP: Yep! And both of those films were specific nods by Scorsese. The first movie was a Roger Corman movie, since he owed him for starting his career, and the second clip near the end is from The Public Enemy, an old William Wellman film that influenced Mean Streets. (see, told you i knew too much about this)

Scorsese's voice is in the film too - he does the opening voiceover and a couple of other voiceovers. Sometimes it's Keitel in those, other times Scorsese.
aka meta shit

EC: Update, you guys: I just google imaged Harvey Keitel and he was never fat, so I don't know why I thought that. He's actually super cut in this movie. Anyway so wait was Scorsese dealing drugs before he made movies?

CP: Keitel was definitely a different guy in the 60s and 70s for sure. And Scorsese wrote the film with Keitel in mind.

EC: Are they even dealing drugs in this movie? Or are they just generally Bad People?
Do they have an underground black market for smuggled tigers?
Is there a gambling mob? Maybe they're gamblers

CP: I think drugs are assumed? I'm pretty sure the mob did a bit of everything. Though that's entirely based on watching The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino. I don't really get the tiger part though. Except that it allows Keitel to call the guy "William Blake" later.

EC: The tiger part was the BEST SCENE in the movie
Have you seen Manhunter? Because that movie also has a KILLER tiger scene.

CP: I have seen Manhunter. I remember no tigers.

EC: oh man WHAT
you have to rewatch it
it's the blind lady, and she feels the tiger
she feels its face and stuff
I think the tiger is under anaesthesia

CP: I don't doubt that that happens.

EC: I feel like the tiger in this movie was so perfect, because the whole movie was, like, these caged people, people who have these immense bottled up physical expressions, and on the one hand they just want to be cuddled, they want to purr...

CP: Wait, I just realized I never responded to how little you know of Scorsese in general. How is that?
I am directing us away from tiger purrs

EC: they want to be fed small snacks, but on the other hand they have this underlying ingrained instinct to kill


EC: I never learned about Scorsese! I am focusing! The tiger analysis is the best I can bring to this conversation. Also, in Blake, the tiger is burning bright but that also implies, to me, that it's going to burn out.

CP: But I mean, just from being in America for the last however old you are (48?), how did more things not just seep in by osmosis?

EC: I don't know, I don't have cultural osmosis. I also still get confused on which Star Wars it is where they are on the ice planet
but I've seen Star Wars like 50 times
Are you sure you don't want to talk more about the tiger?

CP: Save it for the tiger essay I'll let you write for our sure-to-be-a-bestseller "Animals" issue

EC: Don't joke, I'll write that

CP: I'm not joking! It can have that Bill Murray movie with an elephant, and that Cameron Crowe disaster where they buy a zoo. Plus something on Raging BULL – boom, Scorsese connection. Plus, in lots of Scorsese films, the men are basically animals.

EC: See, that's what I was saying. They're like these caged cats.

CP: So, you liked Mean Streets?

EC:Yes! I think so! I liked Charlie, but then I was thinking about it, and, like, he's probably not a good guy.

CP: He is good! But he's also not, at times. That's the point/conflict to the whole movie, I think...

EC: I mean, he tries to take care of Johnny no pants or whatever his name is.
Johnny Two Times.
What's his name?

CP: Johnny Boy.

EC:He tries to take care of him, but then you're also like, "why are you in this business, dummy" "if you want to take care of people, you should go be a social worker"

Also, when Theresa is having an epileptic fit, he just runs away and leaves her with the old woman on the stairs. WHAT THE HELL, CHARLIE.

CP: That old woman is Scorsese's mom!
The main thing about Charlie/Mean Streets is guilt - did that come through for you? He's in a shit world, with insane people doing bad things, and he's still trying to have this moral code...

EC:Yes, but he's in a world where that's impossible, so it's almost like he's in a way shooting himself in the foot.

CP: It's impossible, and it's also not entirely altruistic how he's trying to be good to everybody - because like Johnny Boy says to him near the end, he's not doing it for him, he's doing it to feel good about himself.

EC:Yes, exactly!

CP: But that's the world Scorsese felt he came out of - he knew all these people, was some version of them himself (though a fairly weakly, asthmatic version who stayed in bed or went to the movie theater more than anything else). And they have no chance at getting out of that world, was what he was thinking growing up.

EC: Obviously the catholic religious symbolism is out of control

CP: That's all Scorsese - he wanted to be a priest. Went to seminary and everything. Got kicked out.

EC: Oh, that makes total sense. I don't know if he could have put many more statues of Jesus in this movie. Also that restaurant had ceilings that were vaulted just like a cathedral's.

CP: That's the dichotomy again - it's got more crosses and Jesus statues than any film around, but it also (at the time) had more violence and profanity (literally) than any other film ever
I read some quote somewhere that he felt like the three options you had back then were: become a gangster/criminal, become a priest, or try to get to an education and get out.

EC: Were they poor? Are we supposed to see them as really underclass? Or just held down by cultural expectations?

CP: I think all of it, really. I mean, it was this whole Italian-American milieu they were all growing up in, and it was very hard to get out of the neighborhood, and there were all these old school rules and moral codes, and that's just what Scorsese grew up with.

EC: I like that. I also really liked how the film didn't LOOK slick and expensive (because I know it probably wasn't) - I liked how it looked rough, grainy. That one sequence where Keitel is drunk at the party was amazing.
(and oh man all of the AMERICA! symbolism there)
This was, like, the Vietnam vets were coming home? Is that what it was? And also maybe Fourth of July?

CP: Yeah, I could never figure that out entirely
there were just a lot of parades then apparently
and I mean that opening title sequence!

EC: "There were just a lot of parades then apparently" —Chad Perman, Scorsese Expert, 2015

CP: "I really only know about tigers." - Elizabeth Cantwell, tiger lover
The mix of old home-movie type footage and "Be My Baby" is the best way to start a movie maybe ever. You're just like I AM IN ON THIS ONE.

EC: The scenes I liked the best were: the tiger scene, the drunk scene, the scene where De Niro checks his pants, and the scene where the girl tells him not to look at her as she's getting dressed. That, I thought, was perfect—that weird modesty that doesn't matter anymore. Maybe also a guilt thing?

CP: And the barfight set to "Please Mr. Postman" was pretty damn wonderful, too.
Yep, definitely a guilt thing!
Did you get that basically any time Charlie had sex or did something sexual (stripper part, etc) he did some religious ritual really soon after? So he'd hang out with the stripper, and then put his hand over a flame until it hurt.

EC: Oh yeah! No, I didn't put those things together, but I like that!

CP: Scorsese is all about guilt. And explosive kinetic violence.

EC: Once my uncle put his hand in a candle at Thanksgiving dinner and everyone was freaked out

CP: Clearly he was performing an homage to Mean Streets.

EC: Johnny Boy has no guilt, though.

CP: No, Johnny Boy is ALL id—entirely in the moment, no thought of consequences, blowing shit up and shooting at the Empire State building and fighting Charlie with trash can lids.

EC: Do you think they all have guilt for not fighting in Vietnam? Or do they feel proud of that because people like them would have hated the war? What year was this made?

CP: I think it came out in 1973, so it would have been made in...72?

EC: The trash can lids were also great!! Like Shakespearean fencing, with TRASH, because America has nothing as sophisticated as fencing anymore, we are all depraved and high and sad and lost.
Do you think that Tiger was from asia?
I don't know why I just capitalized tiger.

CP: I am not answering that

EC: Did people like this movie when it came out?

CP: Critics did. I think it was a very modest success - I mean, it was made for very little, so it didn't have to do well to earn money. But also people walked out of it, a lot.

EC: Yeah that makes total sense. It is a baffling viewing experience, but if you're okay with being baffled, it's great.

CP: That level of "anxious violence" and constant swearing was very jarring back then, so people just got up and left.

What baffled you?

EC: Just trying to catch the thread of what was happening, what was the most important thing to be watching for.

CP: hmm

EC: Usually movies set that up pretty quickly: here is your protagonist, and here is his main dilemma, and here is the world he's a part of. But here it's much more fuzzy, the terms keep changing.

CP: Well, this does that. Like in the first scene. Right?

EC: um

CP: Here's Charlie. He's talking about guilt and redemption. Here are some people he knows.

EC: maybe I just didn't get that

CP: Maybe because the main dilemma is internal? I mean there's the external plot - which never moves linearly, like we talked about - but the real thrust of the main dilemma, without sounding too pretentious, is Charlie's soul. He's trying to do good in a bad world, for complicated reasons, and often getting it wrong.

EC: Yeah, at the end there's that part where they're all in the car, and he says "I'm trying, Lord, I'm trying,” and Theresa laughs at him, and it's sort of heartbreaking.

CP: He's messed it all up by the end, for sure.

EC: I also felt like a main thrust of this was: what do you do when you are tasked with taking care of someone who can't, or won't, take care of himself?

CP: Charlie’s the people-pleaser/mediator type, always trying to be the go-between in all these different worlds, and it ends up like it often does for people like that ... you try and make everybody happy, nobody ends up happy.

EC: I thought about alcoholics and true addicts and narcissists and other people like that. And the families and friends who try over and over to reign them in or care for them or do the right thing, and it's thrown back in their faces.

CP: Oh, big time. That's huge in the Charlie/Johnny Boy dynamic.

EC: When he lends Johnny Boy the money, and then Johnny Boy just buys drinks? I wanted to cry.

CP: It's heartbreaking. Even though you know Johnny is gonna mess it up somehow, you keep hoping somehow he'll do something normal and right for once. And of course he doesn't. I mean, for me, it's clear when De Niro blows up a mailbox FOR NO REASON AT ALL and then runs away at the beginning—this guy ain't ever gonna not be a troublemaker.

EC: Oh yeah, I thought maybe he had worked for the post office. That's probably not true, but I thought maybe it was revenge.

CP: No, it was just that he blows things up for fun because he's the kind of guy who does things like that.

EC: That also makes sense.

CP: The title actually comes from a Raymond Chandler quote: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

EC: I've definitely heard that quote before. Didn't put it together in my head, but that actually really helps bring the movie into focus. We should have STARTED with that quote
we did this wrong

CP: He was originally gonna call it Season of the Witch (which thank god he didn't).

EC:That sounds dumb
Also you can’t use Chandler for NY purposes.

CP: It's the internet, we can go back and put this part at the beginning and look like geniuses.

EC: No, that would be lying.

CP: Also, almost all of the film was shot in LA, so it makes it ok to use Chandler after all!

EC: YES, I noticed it was downtown LA at the end—it's so clearly downtown LA—it added to the surrealism of it all. It really messed me up.

CP: All the interiors were done in LA or Hollywood, too. Scorsese had some funny line about "De Niro shoots at the Empire State Building and hits a window in downtown LA."

EC: More meta shit. Because you're made very aware that you're WATCHING a movie that was NOT made where it pretends to be.

CP: It wasn't intentionally meta though, it was for budget/business realities. So Scorsese rehearsed the whole thing for a month in NY, shot a few days there for exteriors, and then everybody flew to LA and did most of the movie there.

EC: Well, but Scorsese had to know "This doesn't look like NY." It's the Eastern Columbia building, it's so clearly back there at the end. I take your "budget purposes" and raise you "genius surreal intentionality."

CP: Way better. The only other thing to add before we wrap up, I think, is that this film basically made Robert De Niro Robert De Niro. Coppola cast him in the second Godfather right after seeing this, based on his performance.

EC: He looks really tall in this movie.
maybe just because Harvey Keitel is short

CP: I think Harvey Keitel is really short
and not fat

EC: Oh, for a minute I thought Scorsese did The Godfather

CP: What's the emoji for “I can't believe you just said that”?

EC: Aren't you glad I'm a managing editor?

CP: We should maybe talk about that.

EC: Were you surprised no one died? I mean of the main characters. 
Wait, did Johnny Boy die? In my head, no one died, which I thought was interesting, but now as I'm typing this I'm realizing maybe De Niro did die?

CP: Nope, nobody died.

EC: Yes! Okay, yes. I thought that was actually a really interesting choice. Because you see Theresa's hand through the windshield, and you see Johnny Boy get shot in what looks like the neck, and the car crashes, and yet all of them walk away …

CP: Scorsese said they would have been better off dead - that it was worse having them all live because they suffered something even worse: humiliation (which says something about Scorsese for sure).

EC: Like an Ethan Frome moment!! He probably read Ethan Frome.

CP: I'll take humiliated and alive any day over being randomly killed in a car shooting.
Whenever I hear Ethan Frome, I literally always picture Ethan Hawke. 20 years that's been going on.

EC: What about Ethan Embry

CP: I never think about him
I think it's the "e" on the end of the last name. So maybe if it was Ethan Embrye.

EC: Okay, give me your summary of how you feel about this film. If I had to do, like, a tagline, I would say: "The American dream is dead. But the tiger's still alive."

CP: I love that. How I feel about the film is: Mean Streets is a lot like real life: strange, beautiful, and confusing—with fantastic music.

EC: Oh I like that! This movie to me is about wanting to be present in a place that doesn’t let you be present. It’s about wanting a visceral experience of some kind in a world that is increasingly distanced and bureaucratized and strange. It’s about wanting to be applauded, and then wanting to be alone.

CP: I'm changing mine to yours.

EC: Is this the end?

CP: Yes! TA-DA! We totally figured out Mean Streets!


Watching and Re-Watching Taxi Driver in a Digital Age

by Lauren Carroll Harris

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

You know you’re in a great film within the first few minutes. Even in a challenging film, it becomes evident fairly quickly that the filmmaker is taking care of you—that the film has a reliable underlying logic in its narrative, its themes, and its characters. Like millions of others, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver struck me as something “great” immediately—in the first few minutes upon my very first viewing. Its ideas and images were so rich and swirling, I couldn’t articulate exactly what I thought it was about—late-capitalist alienation, post-Vietnam fear, 1970s counter-cultural failure, American madness? But something fundamental in the way the opening scenes played out—the deep brass minor chords in crescendo, the explosive billow of subway steam, the city lights reflecting emergency red and blue against Travis Bickle’s darting eyes in extreme close up—instantly reassured me: I was in the right place.

It was with this sense of homecoming that I enthusiastically attended a Friday night showing of Taxi Driver last month in Sydney. Keen to jump on board the city’s present wave of cinephilia and film festivals, the big multiplex in the central business district had just started programming a new stream of classic cult films. They proudly advertised that Taxi Driver was screening in ‘4K’ – a high-resolution digital format comprising four thousand vertical lines. Most films screen in 2K, and the new format promised unsurpassed visual quality.

As I settled into my plush red multiplex seat, the lights went down and that familiar discordant music struck. It was as unsettling as ever. But as the film played out, I realised something was amiss. The out-of-focus street lights did not shimmer. The blues and reds on Travis’ face did not glow. His reflection in his rearview mirror was flattened. The film’s Caravaggio-like division between light and dark—chiaroscuro, in painting terms—was not quite so dramatic in contrast; the paleness of Travis’ face did not leap out from the black night behind him.

I was watching a facsimile of Taxi Driver—the ghost of Travis Bickle. Something intangible had been lost in the process of scanning, converting, reformatting and compressing the original 35mm print. The flickering, glowering quality of the film had given way to a shiny, smooth, lossless video. The scratches and emulsion dirt had been cleaned up, the colours matched and graded uniformly. The film hadn’t been restored, it had been remade: the grainy texture of the real artifact was slicked over with a 21st-century gloss. All those analogue elements that had only registered subconsciously until now suddenly became glaring in their absence; the grit of Travis and Iris’s New York is contained in the very graininess of the original film’s celluloid. No digital format could do it justice.

I had experienced something similar last year at the same cinema complex during the Russian film festival’s screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975). As with the Taxi Driver screening, I lept at the chance to see this auteur’s film on the big screen. And, as with the Taxi Driver screening, something was just slightly off. The colours seemed to oscillate, and the image was off-kilter, as if it were overlapping itself—a pianist playing the left- and right-hand parts out of time. I later found out that the previous screening in that theatre had been in 3D; the cinema staff had forgotten to switch the projector setting back to 2D. Digital cinema has, by and large, made the profession of projectionist redundant and allowed cost-cutting cinemas to rely more on untrained, underpaid juniors to perform the digital basics—now it seems even flicking a switch from one setting to another has become a kind of lost art, too.

At its most basic technological essence, photography is light, and digital and analogue formats process light in entirely different ways. Not only does a 35mm print project about 5000 lines—just ahead of 4K—but it also has distinct material properties: crystals in an emulsion on a silky film strip. Light shines through a digital print. The still images flicker through the projector at twenty-four frames per second, and the imperceptible but tangible gaps in between the frames dynamize inanimate objects onscreen with a subtle flutter and shimmer.

No longer. A digital image is a stable grid of pixels: it’s videoish. Something as simple as the way in which a film is screened and projected changes the very way we experience it. In the world of images, perception is everything. Now that film lives in a laptop or a smartphone as much as it does in a motion picture theatre, it's not just what we watch, but how we watch it that matters.

I fear that the new excitement and convenience of digital technology has rewritten how we watch films by masters like Scorsese; cinemas have already thrown out their 35mm projectors, and distributors emptied their warehouses of archived film cans. A format is not just a malleable vessel for viewing—it’s a concrete container for the films that we’ve canonized and adored and dissected. What happens and what is lost when that format changes?

Has the solace of the darkened theatre been replaced with the pixelated sadness of a digital cinema? Though a private experience at heart, a movie theatre also gives us a sense of community. We’ve all gone to that private/public space for such a reason, sometimes even—like Travis—just to have somewhere to go. A digital screening life might literally be alone. Then again, how many times have I spent the evening in bed with something cheap and trashy streaming off VOD? Probably the only thing worse than a big digital screen is the cold blue glow of a laptop playing something stripped of its 35mm glory.

The scenes in which Travis goes to the theatre really drive home the shortcomings of the digital format. Travis reveals the depth of his social ineptitude in his failure to chat up the candy-bar woman, and in taking Betsy to a dirty movie on their first date (“2 Exciting Adult Hits! Bold XXX Entertainment. Sometime Sweet Susan. Explicit! Provocative!”). In another movie, alone, slumped in the cheap red seats, he peeks like a child through two crooked fingers after aiming them gunnishly at the projector. Bang, bang. We understand that something in him is slipping; his imaginary world is dissolving into his real one.

In these scenes, Taxi Driver betrays itself as a tainted love letter to cinema—to the dives and repertory houses and porn theaters that characterised New York City in its pre-gentrification days. Like so many others, I’ve only come to know that history through cinema itself. That New York is full and busy, but Travis’ place in it is not assured. We understand his need for “total organisation” and “true force” in the chaos. He’s on the periphery of the mob bustle, always looking out of his cab and in on the lives of others: Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere.

No matter the format, the world of Taxi Driver is still convincing – in that theatre, I could almost smell the New York trash and taste Iris’ sugar-on-jam-on-toast breakfast in the diner. Travis’ paranoia was still fearsome, his despair and rage at the sexual exploitation of a girl—a child!—still as understandable, his vigilante righteousness still as bloody and real. The epilogue’s revelation that the media and community have praised Travis’ misanthropy and violence as heroic still horrifies (more than the actual massacre – the film’s great achievement, in my view).

The Taxi Driver I watched that night wasn’t a completely different film—just a flatter, duller version in which our anti-hero’s cheeks weren’t quite so hollow and starved. The only consolation? Travis would’ve hated this digital nonsense! Nothing’s sacred. Another lonely forgotten something, fallen by the wayside. It was just like all those good-for-nothin phoneys and weirdos and sickos, all this change, and for what?

Trust nobody. The world’s gone mad. Shmucks.

Lauren Carroll Harris.jpeg

Lauren Carroll Harris has written about art, film and Australian national cinema for Guardian Australia, Meanjin, Overland, Documentary online, Junkee, Runway, Real Time Arts, Time Out Sydney, Big Issue and Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand 2. She's a contributing editor of Metro, a film studies PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, and the author of 'Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia's Film Distribution Problem' (Platform Papers, Currency House, 2013).

If It Dances

by Brad Nelson

illustration by Amanda McCleod

illustration by Amanda McCleod

There’s a scene in The Last Waltz where Martin Scorsese interviews Levon Helm, drummer and intermittent vocalist of The Band. It’s a rare moment in the film where Scorsese's focus isn’t drawn around Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, who is otherwise responsible for most of the film’s myth-building and exposition. Levon is describing Memphis, the various breeds of music that flowed out of that part of the country in the first half of the 1900s. The only American member of the band, Levon was born in Elaine, Arkansas, which is about 180 miles from Memphis.

“You have Memphis...cotton country, rice country”, Levon says. “The most interesting thing is probably the music.”

“Levon, who came from around there?” Scorsese asks.

“Carl Perkins. Muddy Waters, king of country music. Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash. Bo Diddley. That’s kind of the middle of the country, you know, right there. So bluegrass or country music, if it comes down to that area, and if it mixes there with rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music. Country, bluegrass, blues music, show music.”

“What’s it called then?”

“Rock and roll.”

The Band don’t play rock and roll, exactly. They reduce it to its molecular ingredients, to country and the blues, and then recombine them. Familiar yet irregular shapes emerge from the collisions. In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus describes them as “committed to the very idea of America: complicated, dangerous, and alive.” This sensibility is located in the oblique precision of their rhythm section—the way Helm will sometimes subtract a beat from a chorus, and how its absence folds you into the song, like a fault line. It’s also in how they arrange acoustic instruments around the remarkable, dense, incandescent organ playing of Garth Hudson, which feels broadcasted from the future. The Band’s music, like the country it inhabits, is steeped in tradition, yet fractured enough to radiate a kind of radical possibility.

The Last Waltz conveys The Band’s anachronisms, and they’re often portrayed literally. On many of the songs performed in the film, they serve as “the band” for a constellation of their contemporaries and heroes, among them Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, and Muddy Waters. Between these performances Scorsese threaded interviews and candid incidents that take place in Shangri-La, The Band’s Malibu studio. Most of Scorsese's conversations are with Robertson but occasionally the camera drifts toward the other members. Sometimes the camera settles on pianist Richard Manuel, who, whenever he speaks, looks as if he is emerging from some uneventful inner depth, whether to drowsily elaborate the origins of The Band’s name (for a while they played under the unfortunate name “The Crackers”) or the rich and vast cosmology of girls on the road.

“The road” is a recurring character in The Last Waltz, wedged into the film mostly by Scorsese and Robinson. “The Last Waltz,” a concert that took place on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was intended to herald the end of The Band as a live act after 16 years of performing together. Robertson hatched the idea and hired Scorsese to film it after seeing how thoughtfully he wove music into his 1973 film Mean Streets—e.g. Robert De Niro wading through the gauzy red light of a club to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Robertson spends most of the documentary justifying his decision to end The Band; “the road” destroyed musicians like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, “the road” is no way to live, “the road” takes its toll. “I don’t think I could live with 20 years on the road,” he tells Scorsese. “I don’t think I could even discuss it.” He seems sincere but his descriptions have the painfully gathered romance of exaggeration. Robertson also engages in selective and romantic logic when connecting Tin Pan Alley’s tradition of songwriting to The Band, and then using this connection to introduce both the idea and the nacreous gleam of Neil Diamond.

Besides Diamond, who wades narcotically through his one song, the guests in The Last Waltzadd animation and velocity to the set, and renew the idea of The Band as a backing band of considerable finesse and flexibility. Joni Mitchell performs one of her more complex songs,“Coyote,” the chords of which drift around like shadows, and The Band contribute a woozy, jazzy structure in which it can move unobstructed. On their own songs The Band merge together in a way that’s relaxed yet tightly woven, like the individual notches of a rope, as on “Stage Fright,” organized precisely around Rick Danko’s elastic bassline, or on “It Makes No Difference,” where on the choruses Danko, Manuel, and Helm harmonize in glossy clouds.

As a concert film, The Last Waltz is an effective document of The Band, Winterland, and the time which both occupied. The Band are encompassed throughout the movie by autumnal red light and strange, incomplete architecture rented from a production of La Traviata. Shirt collars are fanned out into excessive geometries. Neil Diamond wears massive sunglasses that do not seem to translate reality. When Bob Dylan finally appears he looks as if some part of his consciousness has flowed into the vastness of his white hat. It’s also, in a way, a document of Scorsese in the mid-’70s in that it’s a very long and ponderous movie; cocaine, a drug that makes each individual idea seem rich, accessible, and worth expressing, flows invisibly (and visibly, tracing Neil Young’s nose) through the structure and the performances of The Last Waltz.

The cameras are drawn mostly to the guests and the overactive buoyancy of Robbie Robertson, but, in contrast to the film’s excesses, their movements have gentle, musical qualities. When The Band play “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” the lens seems subtly driven by Helm’s hammering rhythm. For all its length, Hudson and Manuel barely figure into The Last Waltz—Manuel only sings lead on two songs, “The Shape I’m In” and “I Shall Be Released,” and during the latter he is obscured by clusters of guest singers straining ambitiously toward their microphones. Scorsese only briefly focuses on Hudson, but it’s to draw attention to his strange, ribbony organ tone, which gives even The Band’s most straightforward Americana an alien aspect. Throughout The Last Waltz, I am most captivated by Helm, however, and the fierce but reserved intelligence that radiates from his playing and his speech.

When Levon Helm died in April 2012 I was in New Orleans, enduring an unrelated nervous breakdown. I had fallen for someone who was dating someone else. She didn’t tell me. I figured it out gradually through social media. In this way I had accumulated enough anxiety that it began to bloom electrically through my body. I spent a lot of time trying to will myself to sleep on the couch of my parents' condo. I couldn’t sleep. Small bonfires flowered from the branches of my nerves. The night Levon died I lifted myself from the couch at 2 a.m. and queued up The Last Waltz performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on YouTube. I watched it ten times in a row. Playing the same song and the same scene over and over created a kind of rhythmic and visual continuum, a version of The Last Waltz where The Band only play this sad, swelling song about the defeated Confederacy. Levon totally inhabits it, the perspective of diminished white Southerner Virgil Kane forming almost entirely from the grain in his voice. I didn’t feel any better; instead, the sadness I felt for Levon—along with the more general sadness—acquired new dimension, expanding until it began to feel depthless. Two nights later I hovered outside the blues tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Mavis Staples was singing. “This is for Levon,” she said, and her band gently eased into “The Weight,” which she sings with The Band and her family in The Last Waltz. It’s one of the performances Scorsese filmed on a soundstage after the actual concert; The Band and the Staples are surrounded by a constellation of lights which softly bruise the emptiness around them.

For all its excess and its drifting focus, The Last Waltz is a success in that it complexly expresses the mosaic yet seemingly effortless sound produced by the merging personalities and sensibilities within The Band, just as the seamless blend of blues and country inadvertently generates rock and roll. Robertson is a hideous, clownish avatar for them, but this translates to his guitar as a vast emotional efficacy; his solos open up the songs considerably. When they perform “Caravan” with Van Morrison, they lock into their sound immediately, a kind of easeful swing. Morrison stomps around in some kind of glittering maroon suit, barking out phrases in a sinuous wail. Toward the song’s end, the camera pans across The Band and the audience, the first and only time this happens in the film. The crowd appears gently absorbed by the music. Morrison yells, “Just one more time!” and throws his arms up rapturously, as The Band and their horn section move through the final constellation of notes in the song. “Just one more time!” An enormous smile forms atomically across Helm’s face, and for once it mirrors Robertson’s permanent, self-impressed one. What’s happening on the stage is significant, unrepeatable, immediate on its surface yet containing an enormous depth of feeling. “Just one more time!” Morrison drops the mic and disappears.

Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in Spin, The Atlantic, and the Village Voice.

Escape in New York

by Greg Cwik

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

In 1975, a group of proto-Helen Lovejoys called the Council for Public Safety, comprising, in part, police and firefighters, conspired to pass out copies of a scary-ass pamphlet they created in an effort to keep tourists away from New York City. The group, whose jocular name sort of belied its dubious methods, stamped the words "Welcome to Fear City" on its less-than-subtle literature, which was also festooned with a skull. The list of suggestions for surviving your trip to New York, should you still choose to go after reading the myriad ways in which the city could kill you and your children, included: Do not go out after 6:00 p.m.; Do not walk; Do not take public transportation; and Conceal your belongings. The pamphlet never made it out of the embryonic phase, however, as cooler heads prevailed.

As with Ed Koch's suggestion of siccing feral wolves on graffiti artists to keep the subways clean, the unrealized pamphlet didn't need to exist in a corporeal form to have an impact. Its onerous, oneiric idea of modern New York eventually manifest in a low-budget film crafted by misanthrope par excellence John Carpenter, who conjured one of the iconic nightmare visions of Manhattan as a concrete hellscape. With its penal-colony-as-purgatory depiction of Manhattan, Escape From New York encapsulated outsiders' worst fears about the city that never sleeps, at the apex of its most violent era. And yet, as memorable a dystopian vision as Carpenter conjured, the film wasn't actually shot in New York. It was the product of sound stages and forced perspective, a sci-fi film that created a faux New York instead of capturing the real one. It's the work of an outsider at whom the Fear City pamphlet was aimed.

Martin Scorsese, lifelong New Yorker, is a more accurate chronicler of the Big Apple and its rotten core. Scorsese (born and raised in Hell's Kitchen) spent the first half of his career depicting New York as a writhing pit of the damned, rife with piss-colored taxis, whorls of smoke, and child prostitutes on every street corner. From Taxi Driver to Bringing Out the Dead, the war-waging nationalists in Gangs of New York to the star-fucking lunatics in The King of Comedy, Scorsese has done more to depict New York as a metropolitan purgatory than anyone else. Though he tended to increasingly favor the grand and mythic as his clout dilated and technology advanced (compare Hugo or The Aviator to Raging Bull or Mean Streets), Scorsese made one of his weirdest, most intimate pictures in the mid 1980s, between the initially-derided, now-adored King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ (which is notably not set in New York). In his 1985 cult-favorite After Hours, for which he won Best Director honors at Cannes, Scorsese depicts New York as a hodgepodge of coexisting subcultures: the pimps of Taxi Driver are replaced with punks (the mohawk-sporting variety), the gun-wielding gangsters by abstract artists, and the shattered Vietnam vet by a navel-gazing yuppie who unwittingly acts as an agent of gentrification a decade before gentrification became everyone's favorite buzzword.

After Hours is a great foil to Escape From New York. An apt title could have been Escape in New York, as it follows Griffin Dunne (the "meatloaf" friend in An American Werewolf in London), a word processor and Henry Miller fan, as he desperately tries to make it home one wild night. With his bagel-shaped paperweight and utter ignorance of those around him, he's at once a pusher of the yuppie nightmare and a victim of the Stygian wasteland of Koch-era New York. After Hours explores the personality of a specific neighborhood, SoHo (south of Houston, for the uninitiated), and portrays the city as a living thing fighting back. The arroyo-alleys of SoHo, slick with rain, are like the tendrils of an asphalt jungle creeping through the cracks of a decrepit man-made structure. Think of a derelict ruin lying dormant in the thralls of a jungle, its crumbling walls penetrated by vines and leafy things. Scorsese treats the city, specifically SoHo, as pushing back against the encroaching yuppification of Regan-Era thirty-somethings. Koch's famous quote, "You punch me, I punch back," has become literal.

Dunne's character, Paul Hackett, acts as our tour guide on this surreal jaunt into New York's nocturnal happenings. He bounces from person to place to person to place, making friends, losing friends, making enemies and generally being a nuisance. Accompanied by the inimitable Howard Shore's dreamy cues (Scorsese uses a lot of classical music in the film, so Shore only provided a few themes, each named after the time of night during which they play), we enter a sort of fairy tale nightmare in which Paul becomes trapped. Paul meets a woman named Marcy (Patricia Arquette) in a diner, where they discuss their shared affinity for Henry Miller. Marcy lives with an artist named Kiki (Linda Fiorentino) who makes plaster of paris paperweights that look like cream cheese bagels. Under the pretense of wanting to buy a bagel paperweight, Paul calls up Marcy, who's going through some stuff, and goes to her apartment. Within a short period of a time he tries (and fails) to seduce Marcy, who just wanted to talk to him about her problems; loses his cash (this in the time before iPhones and online banking); pisses off a cabbie who later refuses to drive him home; and, after meeting a generous bar tender (John Heard) who offers to help, clogs the man's toilet and floods his apartment. All of this comes back to bite Paul in the dick. Castration is a prominent theme here, and a crude drawing of a shark biting off a man's massive erection scrawled on a bathroom wall becomes a metaphor for Paul's horrible night.

Soon enough Marcy, who turns out to be the nice bartender's girlfriend, has killed herself, leaving the bartender, who has Paul's keys, despondent. Paul then finds a brief respite from his nightmare when a depressed barmaid who sports a Mad Men-era beehive hairdo offers to help him, until he blows her off, too. By the end of the film, a woman who drives an ice cream truck has riled up an unruly mob that mistakes Paul for a burglar who has been terrorizing their neighborhood. (The burglars are actually Cheech and Chong, of course.)

Almost everyone comes to hate Paul, the sole exception being a lonely middle-aged lady who attempts to aid Paul by sealing him within a paper mâché cocoon, which is then mistaken for abstract art and stolen by Cheech and Chong. The caviling, complaining, better noire Paul remains one of the least likable characters in a Scorsese film, and Scorsese has given us some real pissers. But all of them have some vague redeeming qualities, or in the case of Jake La Motta, are despicable yet undeniably human. Paul is just kind of sleazy, yet you can't help but feel for the guy. He stands in for the kind of people who moved in to and took over Scorsese's New York, but who flock to the art-house cinemas in droves. Paul is he and you are me and we are all together. When Paul wants to take the subway but can't afford the fare (which had been raised just several minutes earlier), it's like the city's splaying five fingers across Paul's face.

Scorsese works within a Koch-era cadre, inserting and welding distinctively New York details into the film while simultaneously playing with outsider expectations. Every New Yorker has, at some point, had to walk a disgusting, foot-blistering number of blocks to get where they're going. The idea of walking never seems to occur to Paul, who, by the film's end, can't even stay on the street under veil of night because every inhabitant of SoHo has set out to kill him. (Happens to the best of us.) The anonymity of New York has dissipated and Paul has become a face plastered on fliers on every wall and every lamp post.

There's a youthful vigor to After Hours, its misanthropy countered by its zany, meandering mind. It looks and feels like a twenty-something yuppie after too many martinis scratching up his car door as he desperately tries to jam the key in. Sort of a mess but relentless in its vision, it remains the closest Scorsese has ever come to pure surrealism (though Taxi Driver and, to a greater extent, Bringing Out the Dead do explore the dreamscape realm of nocturnal New York). With After Hours, Scorsese crafted his weirdest movie. It lacks the cultural significance and stylistic innovation of his most famous film, yet you never question his mastery. It's the work of an artist in a transitional phase, incorporating his penchants into a picture not intended for him: Tim Burton had been slated to direct, but gladly stepped aside when Scorsese expressed interest. (What a weird movie that would've been.)

Not unlike life in New York, After Hours has a Sisyphean desperation to it. It starts where it ends and ends where it starts, an Ouroboros of a film that leaves the viewer lingering like a people-watching creep staring out the window of an artisan coffee shop. Early in the film, Paul sits in a diner with Marcy (who isn't yet dead). She tells him a strange story about an ex-boyfriend who, at the climatic moment of coitus, always shouts out "Surrender Dorothy!" The conversation goes nowhere (akin to the film), and yet it lingers like a fine mist. When Paul runs away from the droves of pissed-off New Yorkers whom he's offended in a multitude of ways, he's become a Dorothy-type figure, though one left without a Scarecrow or Tin Man as a cohort. Is this odd homage to The Wizard of Oz some sort of metaphor? Or a political joke? Or a comment on then-current events? No, it's just a weird digression in a film made up of weird digressions. But maybe that's the best metaphor for New York, which is really just a city of entangled digressions. Paul ends up back at the office, where he brushes the dirt off his shoulders, Jay Z-style, and gets back to work, undaunted, as if he'd experienced nothing more than a heavy night of drinking at some dive bar. That's the brilliance of After Hours: some crazy fucking shit happens one night, and the next morning none of it matters

Greg Cwik writes, often about movies, sometimes for money. He's a regular contributor to Vulture and Indiewire, and his work also appears in The Believer Magazine, Slant, Sound on Sight, Movie Mezzanine, and elsewhere. THE SOPRANOS > THE WIRE.

Whiter Shade of Pale

by Karina Wolf

©Touchstone Pictures

©Touchstone Pictures

When Martin Scorsese asked Richard Price to adapt Dostoevsky's novella The Gambler for film, the art world craze of the late 1980s was at its peak. Scorsese had already explored the absurdities of lower Manhattan counter culture for satire in the film After Hours. What occupies the filmmaker and the screenwriter here is obsession: from the Russian source material, they borrow the story of a man tormented by his mistress. The resulting "Life Lessons," Scorsese's 40-minute contribution to the Woody-Marty-Francis Ford Coppola omnibus New York Stories (1989) is less about poking fun (though there are some simplistic jibes at artists, particularly at Steve Buscemi's performance artist character); and more about self-examination. The short addresses the messy compulsions to love and to create.

As in all Scorsese films, the camera—its movements, the swift and powerful swing of its address—is also Scorsese's preoccupation. The director's concern above all is the plastic element of art, both with regard to painting, the film's ostensible material, and to cinema, Scorsese's lifelong project.

As a filmmaker, Scorsese leans in—his stories are grandly operatic and his fingerprint insistent. Rather than presenting a frame that compels an audience to find the action (as in the deliberate panoramas of Antonioni, for example), Scorsese allows the audience to see only what the filmmaker chooses to display in bold, kinetic flourishes. And because Scorsese's knowledge of film is encyclopedic, he can employ all of cinema's tools when he is inspired.

“Life Lessons” begins with a neat attention grab in the style of the nouvelle vague, a series of iris shots that dilate on points of interest. In this case, we get glimpses of an oil painting by our New York anti-hero, Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) - abstract expressionist, alleged genius, half hobo, entrenched manchild. When we reverse from the canvas, Dobie holds a thousand yard stare—at us, at the work, at his own internal distress, it's impossible to say.

Dobie stands frozen in his studio when he receives a visit from a Gagosian-type suit who wants to see the work he will be selling in three weeks, at the opening of Dobie's next show. Lionel doesn't let the dealer in. Instead, he stamps the down button on the loft elevator, explaining, "I have to pick up my assistant from the airport. Don't know why she can't take a cab like everybody else."

The gallerist understands the statement, like nearly all of Lionel's words, to be a feint. Dobie has no paintings to show or no confidence yet in showing them. "This happens every time. You should get to know yourself!" the dealer shouts when he is sent away. Dobie's biorhythm—as an artist, as a man—requires procrastination and torment (self-applied and inflicted upon others) before he can settle in and work. The chaos is cliched, but perhaps the hallmark of the artist is the haven that the art provides. If the work is tough to produce, it's still less noisome than the outside world, where selfish desires must enter into negotiation with others' needs. (In how many cases of suffering writers and performers have we heard that it was easier to work than to deal with the tangled complications of life?). For Dobie, art is protection; it's a self assertion; it's a crutch.

Into this squall returns Lionel's assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette). He meets her at the airport, not at her request, but in stark contrast to her wishes. She's left her employer (they've been sleeping together, of course) for another man. But this man has found Paulette lacking—what was meant to be a grand gesture, abandoning established Dobie for an edgier artist, has backfired. Now she wants to pack up her things and leave. "Where you gonna go? What can you afford?" Lionel asks her. "You work for the Lion, baby. You get room, board and life lessons that are priceless."

If After Hours reminds us of the petty crimes provoked by the gentrification of lower Manhattan, "Life Lessons" shows us the transgressions that are a piece with headier aspirations of conquering that world. Dobie leverages the most sobering fact of New York life: money means nearly everything. The city is a place for commerce, not for love or artistic ideals. Dollars may follow achievement and notoriety, but first you need to be able to stay there.

As in Desperately Seeking Susan, in which Rosanna Arquette plays a housewife who takes on the persona of a more actualized and supremely charismatic person (Madonna), her Paulette is an I in search of a self. She's also the perfect presentation of inchoate youth. Paulette has desires, values, and priorities, but they seem reactive and impulsive. "What's your name?" a Dobie admirer asks her in passing. "Just Paulette," she replies, as if dropping a surname is sufficient to achieve the heft of a career.

For a short time, Dobie is her compass. He offers the illusion of success via the access Paulette achieves through him. But this is one of Lionel's mostly unintentional lessons—access is nothing without achievement. Standing next to fame or talent doesn't transfer those laurels.

Like Godard's view of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, Scorsese focuses on the details of Paulette's appeal: her extended foot, the fan of her hair. Blatantly objectified, she still manages to generate some emotional torment for Dobie, who craves control of her at least as much as he desires her. But the more Paulette despises Dobie, the more deeply she despises herself. The scope of Dobie’s achievements push Paulette to rely on her paucity of strengths—a sexual allure that is fleeting and replaceable. She strikes out where and when she can.

Most frequently, Scorsese's subjects center on power and individuality within a hierarchy. So in some ways, “Life Lessons” keeps the filmmaker within his established framework—for Dobie and for Paulette, mastery over others is infinitely more reliable than mastery over self. Dobie, "The Lion," is a kind of king of the art world, and needs to maintain his status both as an artist and as a man. Paulette, on the other hand, struggles to be seen. Whether she can achieve this goal—through provocation, aesthetic triumph or trophy partner status—is not yet known. But in both cases, “Life Lessons” teaches us that art is a question of persuasive fraudulence. It’s a showman's act (the performance of being an artist) and a work of actual alchemy—the composite of an individual, a set of circumstances, and what he or she makes of them—with an unpredictable outcome and unknown reception.

"Tell me if I'm any good," Paulette demands of Dobie, when he stands wordlessly in front of her painting. The vaguely figurative canvas is neither good nor lamentably bad. She's too young, too nascent, to predict her outcome as an artist. But maybe her biggest mistake is conferring upon Dobie the status of arbiter. He struggles to give her compliments, but his reply is probably the most useful answer: "What the hell difference does it make what I think? It's yours... It's not about talent, it's about no choice but to do it."

Scorsese has always made great use of source music. Here, Dobie's tape deck reflects his emotional state, whether he's trying to disrupt Paulette's sleep (her bed is in a makeshift loft with a cutout window that Dobie lobs his basketball into when he wants a pretext to talk to her) or attempting to sort out his artistic vision. He plays Procol Harem's “Whiter Shade of Pale” to the point of obsession—this, we sense, is his world, a looping series of preoccupations that worry him until he produces.

Is Lionel the real thing? As an artist, he is filmed persuasively. His work may not fit all tastes, but it is grand, garish, ambitious, and assertive. The filming of the paintings matches their energetic geneses. And Dobie is played aptly by Nick Nolte, who lends to the part a madman's disarray, an actor's sensitivity, and a star's disregard. Dobie is manipulative and self-centered, mostly because he can be. Art is a drug - and for the other characters in the film, Dobie is their favorite dealer. The funny thing about life is that it will keep giving lessons to Lionel and to all the young women who meet him; the question is if Lionel, for all his brilliant output and accolades, is hungry enough to take them.

Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.

Martin Scorsese Makes Movies That Hurt to Love

by Alex Dabertin

illustration by Steve Adams

illustration by Steve Adams

You can love Martin Scorsese movies for the wrong reasons.

The violence, the overt masculinity, the drugs, and the sex plastered across the screen seem to condone terrible behavior and offer a guidebook for anyone looking to do harm. Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver offer no limit to male-centric self-destruction, and the later pictures After Hours, Last Temptation of Christ, and The Wolf of Wall Street give anyone with a moral bent a serious headache. Yet few Scorsese pictures (hell, few movies in general) provoke more moral revulsion than Goodfellas.

But that revulsion is all part of what Goodfellas is trying to do. The movie doesn’t seek to endorse violence or illegal activity, it wants to condemn them—but it wants to do so without letting the audience off the hook. Goodfellas is a deeply nuanced view of how American culture normalizes and reproduces violence, and the film itself actually works to implicate the audience in that violence. Three specific shot sequences, taken together—one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from the end—display both the movie’s view on violence and Scorsese’s expert manipulation of the audience’s experience (and even enjoyment) of that violence.

I. Henry Hill is a Psycho

The shot of Henry Hill as a kid looking out at the mobsters in the pizza place says it all. The image is lifted right from Psycho, the eye bright against a small opening. Here, the object of psychotic fascination is not the female body, but the gleaming car, slick shoes, and bright clothes of the gangsters across the street.

The eye against the little bright hole is the perfect metaphor for watching a movie. We sit somewhere dark and watch something bright—transgressive, fetishized, and torturing all at once. Something we know that maybe we shouldn’t like.

Henry Hill, then, is watching a movie. A mobster movie filled with fetishized cars and male power (a bit homoerotic, but then so are many of Scorsese’s movies); a movie that we have also been watching. We come to this image after the cold open and the credits—after the wonderfully complete statement, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”—so we’re already in Henry’s headspace. We buy into what he is saying because gangster movies are cool, and always have been. But then this shot appears as a warning signal, a huge red flag. It should dissuade us from believing Henry, and make us turn off the movie. Of course, we are not dissuaded, and we don’t turn it off.

We pay so much attention to the cars and the clothes and the killing and the beautiful shots that even if we do get the reference, we most likely would say, “Oh man, this guy’s obviously nuts, this movie’s gonna rock!” But of course Scorsese didn’t lift that shot to tell us, “Hey, watch out, this guy’s a psycho for wanting to be a gangster and a killer.” He lifted it to say, “Hey you, you’re a fucking psycho ’cause you want to be like that, too.” We are watching the same movie that Henry is, literally and figuratively, and we don’t look away. We become complicit in his fetishizing of violence and crime.

But we don’t really grasp that; Scorsese doesn’t let us. Instead, he primes the gangster movie pump with a mysterious and ghastly cold open that contrasts with shots gliding over old cars and snazzy shoes and suits. Nostalgia and style blind us to the warning because Scorsese doesn’t want us to take that warning seriously—lest we should stop watching.

The movie purports to be a true story about how living as part of the mob works—the real life version of The Godfather’s “Great American Mob”—and this shot with the eye tells us all the grand facts there are to say about gangsters and gangster movies. These men are insane. They kill and do drugs and extort people and they like to kill and do drugs and extort people. Watching them in a movie theater and thinking they are cool is just...psycho.

But, again, Scorsese doesn’t want that simple truth to repulse us. The facts of any gangster movie are really simple. They always have been. We know it, but we don’t acknowledge it, preferring to think that the crime and the violence are cool. This shot should be the be-all and end-all of gangster movies in the same way that photos of men shot through the head in newspapers should be the be-all and end-all of mob recruitment. But instead of ending the movie, this shot opens it—showing how bad these guys are without actually dissuading anyone. This image gets all the basic facts out of the way so that the rest of the movie can focus on the complexities of mob life: how we romanticize it; how that aesthetitization and romanticism allows us to normalize horrible violence; and how that leads to ruined lives.

II. Karen Gets Taken In.

We now jump to about an hour and change into the movie. Henry is now Ray Liotta rather than a child actor, and has become a fully-fledged mobster. He steals and drinks and fucks around and he makes a bunch of money doing it. He has fallen in “love” with Karen and has married her. A few years, it seems, have passed, and we see Henry and Tommy hold up a semi.

Directly following the hold up, Karen begins describing her early years as Henry’s wife. The FBI shows up with a search warrant, and then a sequence of the Polaroid snaps begin to pass across the screen. These faked photos make the previous violence seem “all the more normal,” as Karen says. By this point in the movie, we have begun to feel deep down how bad these people are—that we shouldn’t be watching this. Like Karen, we begin to question what previously was fine. But these pictures stop us; they talk us into believing that these people (if still not good) are just normal or silly. They make us feel like part of the family.

Scorsese pulls off that magic trick by drawing on the subtext of the Polaroid snapshot. The Polaroid plays off of nostalgia—the nostalgia of your own family photos and the possibility of looking back on your life. In the photos, all these people—all these murderous gangsters—appear as members of a real community, and they have stories and feelings and everything else that comes with being a person—and of course, that’s true. But when you allow for complexity and humanity, violence either becomes harder to believe, or a necessary tool for that community’s endurance.

Scorsese mixes the subjective input of Polaroid nostalgia with the objective input of visceral violence to temper and play with our reaction. Where the Psycho shot subtly let us know that we were totally doomed on this trip because of how much we innately want to be like those guys—free and powerful—these fake Polaroids ask us to think of these characters as people (and not just any people, tacky people). We are allowed to think we are better than them. “They have terrible haircuts!” we can laugh. We can hear the ridiculous nature of Karen’s statement that she’s “proud to have a husband who was willing to go out and risk his neck, just to get us the little extras.” As we move into the back half of the movie, and see and feel all of the bad shit that goes down, we can reassure ourselves with the thought that we are better than these people—that we don’t do that stuff.

Scorsese almost lets us get away with it.

We feel the weight of poetic justice when Tommy gets whacked. We cringe in disgust at Henry’s philandering and drug use. We feel Henry’s fear and loathing for himself when he has that last bad day. Yet we still put ourselves above the cops, because we are still in Henry’s psycho headspace.

But then the very last shot of the movie comes along.

III. Bang, You’re Dead

The last shot sequence—Tommy shooting straight at the audience—is lifted from one of the first narrative motion pictures, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. That film ends with all the robbers dead—and then, suddenly, one of the bandits appears, shooting at the screen. The sequence surprises us and gives an unexpected final curtain. It also scares us, and provides a perfectly ironic rejoinder for Henry’s statement that normal life sucks. But more than anything else, it kills us.

This last shot closes the story that the Psycho shot opens. If we were psychos for thinking that gangsters were cool—and that their drugs and money were awesome—then we are dead men. Since Goodfellas is a movie, we are only theoretically dead, of course—but let’s stop for a moment and ask why Scorsese wants us to die.

Henry just said that he felt dead because he was no longer in the mob—no longer making massive amounts of money and getting all the head he wanted. What’s more, he “can’t even get decent food,” receiving “egg noodles and ketchup” when he ordered “spaghetti with marinara sauce.” But what do we have to feel dead about? Well, we probably live in a suburban house like Henry—and even if we live in New York City or L.A., then we most likely will get up on Monday and go to our job and then come back home to do nothing but watch TV, maybe read a book. We are dead to Henry. We lived vicariously through these psychotic people to feel more alive than we did before, and now Scorsese wants us to feel dead like Henry. We cannot be left dangling, seeing ourselves as separate from Henry, lest we think, even for a second, that we can live like him. Scorsese kills us so that we don’t go out and live like Henry Hill.

So why don’t people walk out talking about the moral toll of Goodfellas? No one thinks about it because that last shot is also a cultural reference, just like Psycho and Polaroids. It’s normalized. It’s cool. The Great Train Robbery was a hit and it started off the American cinematic tradition of lifting up violent people as heroes—the tradition Goodfellas continues. Scorsese knows this, knows that if he made the movie a maudlin examination of how horrible these people were a) nobody would watch it, and b) it wouldn’t be an honest examination of the life of a mobster.

That is ultimately what Goodfellas does so well; it gets us in Henry Hill’s head. We feel his elation at becoming a mobster; his joy at getting married and still banging everything with a pulse; and, finally, his self-loathing descent into the layers of madness the movie always knew was there, right from that first shot. And Scorsese knows it has all been done before. The robbing and the killing and the glorification are in all the movies and the TV and the “true crime” books that we love. We get off on it, just like Karen. Goodfellas does not endorse violence and avarice. Rather, it shows us how violence and avarice get normalized in American culture. The movie embeds itself in that same process so we can feel that process happening. If someone watches it and does not understand that process—or thinks that those people are truly living—then the movie proves its own point.

In short, Martin Scorsese is cruel. He made a perfect gangster film that crucifies the very idea of gangster films, a beautifully violent movie that abhors violence. He made a film that you cannot love without either hating yourself a little or showing other people how horrible you truly are. Martin Scorsese is a genius, and a Catholic, and cruel.

Alex Dabertin is graduating this month from Columbia University with a dual degree in Theater and Chemistry. He has no idea what he is planning on doing with that either.

Watching Casino, Twenty Years Later

by Lisa McElroy

illustration by Shane Turner

illustration by Shane Turner

In the mid-90s, Martin Scorsese hired my employer, Matte World Digital, to create some visual-effects shots of the 70s-era Las Vegas Strip for his film Casino. It was no easy task. At the time, most of Vegas’ iconic mid-century signage had already been demolished to make way for the architectural monstrosities of today’s Disneyland-like Strip. But the crew at Matte World Digital, high achievers, stepped up to the challenge. Experimenting with architectural software to simulate bounce-light refraction, they produced some stunning and groundbreaking shots for the film. Their most dazzling work—in my opinion—is the establishing shot of the fictional Tangiers Casino, where CG neon light reflects off surfaces and casts shadows in the same manner as real-world light. And, like most every shot of the film, the camera moves—only it’s simulated, and it blew my mind.

Casino continues to blow my mind, twenty years later. It’s an epic; a weighty morality tale about systematic greed, operatic in scope. It would make for a terrific tragic opera with its myriad of music cues as diverse as Bach, B.B. King and Devo. The incredible detail of this world—despite its brutal, realistic gore—rewards multiple viewings. Whenever I happen to find it on TV I can’t turn away, even with commercials, even though it’s three hours long. Has any obsessive Scorsese fan ever made a count of all its shots? Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s brilliant editor/collaborator for forty-plus years, likely remembers — and it must be in the thousands. Thousands of shots to match the thousands of hired extras, playing synthetic-fabric-clad gamblers on the casino floor. For scale, Scorsese filmed on location in the Riviera, but was only allowed to do so in the middle of the night, so as not to hinder the profitable 24-hour gambling throng.

This dogged realism extends to the film's over-sized cast, filled with fascinating Las Vegas faces. Don Rickles, who worked the clubs back when the Mafia ran the joint, is a nearly silent mob enforcer, and never cracks a joke. Real Vegas police officers, flatly efficient, were cast as police. The deadpan blackjack dealer, who Joe Pesci (most likely improvising) calls ‘The Beaut,’ was a local dealer, and according to Scorsese, needed no direction. He simply played himself.

Released in 1995, Casino is Scorsese’s final look at modern organized crime, part of an unofficial trilogy that started way back in 1973 with Mean Streets. Upon its release, Casino suffered critically in comparison to its immediate predecessor, the 1990 masterpiece, Goodfellas. For all its flashy noir allure, it's one of Scorsese’s darkest films, too dire for some—dense with visual, aural, and historical information. But if Goodfellas, with its more personal and linear Henry Hill narrative, had been a template, Casino wouldn’t have been much of a challenge for Scorsese. This time around he wanted to focus on the bigger picture first, before regaling us with another tale of mob misrule. In an almost documentary-style narrative, the first third of Casino relates how the mafia infiltrated Las Vegas and, once they were there, how they orchestrated “the skim” from the counting rooms, before money-lust and unchecked violence led to their banishment by the FBI.

All of this is portrayed in that dynamic Scorsese fashion, with masterful swish-pan montages that never stop moving, leaving you feeling jittery and enclosed, as if within an actual casino environment. The constant camera movement and overhead placement (the perfect angle for a film that heavily features surveillance as a theme) keep a narrative about systems from ever getting dull. This was no small accomplishment on Scorsese’s part, considering that the systems portrayed are massive in scope and include the intricate workings of real estate acquisition, gambling operations and card cheats, legal codes and law enforcement.

In Goodfellas, for all the anxiety and nastiness on display in the neighborhood crime syndicate, we comprehend Henry Hill’s youthful need to belong to something bigger and more powerful than his petty self—he wants to be a big shot. Casino, though, is about career criminals who have reached middle age and are now tackling middle-management problems amid large-scale systematic corruption. Scorsese’s take on this something-for-nothing culture has a visceral element of disgust running through it right from the start, with a car bomb that blows the central character through the opening credits.

Robert De Niro’s falling-man title sequence is poetically rendered by Saul and Elaine Bass as a descent into neon hell (and a precursor to Don Draper’s opening free fall in Mad Men). Scorsese takes the time to show us the machinations behind large-scale larceny, and the vicious penalties enacted against those who try to take from the takers. These penalties involve punishments doled out with chainsaws and mallets in back rooms, down institutional hallways hidden from the surface glamour of the casino floor. In one scene that Scorsese purposefully shot just to bait the censors—who then perplexed him by not taking the bait—a table vice graphically squeezes a man’s head like an instrument of medieval torture. And, while I might wish the censors had done their duty this one time, the point is made: we’re watching some truly wretched human conduct, all of it based on actual stories. It’s modern-day horror and Scorsese dares us to turn away.

Casino is an experiment I’m still studying—a gangster-documentary-horror hybrid—a mixed-genre film that holds a mirror up to our basest instincts. There’s a lot of ugly truth to it. Scorsese and author Nicholas Pileggi were adapting Pileggi’s true-crime book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, while he was actually writing it—an unusual and daring way to approach such a large scale production. Casino’s narrative was built from ongoing interviews that Pileggi obtained once De Niro had been cast in the film. The real-life gangsters featured in Pileggi’s book simply couldn’t bypass a chance to see themselves portrayed onscreen by high-caliber actors. De Niro, Pesci, and character actor Frank Vincent’s multiple voiceovers were composed of dialogue taken verbatim from various interviews with these mobsters. It’s an immersive, uncomfortable experience.

Casino’s main melodrama—the love triangle between Ace (De Niro), Nicky (Pesci) and Ginger (an astonishing, increasingly unhinged Sharon Stone)—doesn’t even begin until nearly forty minutes into the film, following the Mafia/Vegas primer. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal), a hyper-intelligent and profitable odds-maker sent by the Chicago Mafia to run a casino bought from the teamster’s pension fund, is hardly Scorsese’s most dynamic antihero. De Niro underplays him like a willful math professor, yet I love his performance—a humanoid in salmon-hued designer suits. Ace is an automaton, good at laying low and always logical to the extreme. The gears in his head are endlessly cranking away, calculating every outcome. He’s joyless, largely unpleasant to be around, miffed when muffins don’t contain an equal amount of blueberries.

Ace’s tragic flaw is his love for Ginger McKenna, a charming and successful hustler (based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee). When he proposes marriage as a sort of business proposition, settling down to have children, she answers with the film’s most extreme understatement, “You’ve got the wrong girl.” But Ace’s bigger flaw is pride: he wants to be a legitimate casino manager, with a trophy wife and a baroque house-palace, like any big player in Vegas. His mob ties make that impossible though, and when he goes up against the local power players—yokels in bolo ties and cowboy hats—they laconically set the wheels in motion for his eventual ouster. De Niro tamps down his famous onscreen charisma so that it simmers—almost but not quite boiling over. He remains innately sensible, surrounded by turmoil, tilting his head slightly to indicate he’s beginning to lose his cool. When he’s murderously angry, he jabs his finger like a gun, but in the end he’s a number cruncher, grinding his wife down with his need for control.

Ace's boyhood friend Nicky Santoro, played by Pesci at his most shark-eyed, is an anarchic force in the film from the moment he shows up, violently taking what he wants without forethought. If you’re watching Casino for the first time, it’s hard not to compare Nicky to Pesci's iconic Tommy DeVito role in Goodfellas. It’s a similar take on a hair-trigger character. But after two decades, I've come to appreciate that he’s well cast, eerily resembling his real-life counterpart (Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro) in height and appearance. They could almost be brothers. Sure, he’s playing yet another psychopathic enforcer, but Pesci is also naturally humorous and uses his talent as a sort of murderous clown to add an undercurrent of viperous energy to the film that offsets Ace’s analytic calm.

A masterful scene between Nicky and a dealer at the Tangiers illustrates all of Casino’s most prominent themes during a single hand of blackjack. The pit boss calls in a dealer, one of those shapeless, pale guys who looks like he’s been working the floor his entire adult life. Coked up, probably drunk, Nicky hurls insults and cards at the man, whose expressionless calm under duress is as memorable and telling as any histrionic performance. Nicky’s multiple criminal exploits have already gotten him banned from every casino on the Strip. Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” plays over the scene, emphasizing Nicky’s displacement, undercutting his threats with irony and bouncy humor. “Hit me! Hit me again!” he yells, between darkly hilarious onslaughts of verbal abuse. The dealer’s unflappability in the face of sadistic desperation is the face of legalized gambling itself. The pit boss nods at him to go ahead and dole out the losing hand. Neither man says a word. They know the higher-ups are on their way to swiftly take care of the problem—one of many in the casino on any given day or night. Nicky, for all his murderous bravado, has become another sucker on the gambling floor.

The surprise element, still, is Sharon Stone, who devastates as Ginger. She’s inhumanly beautiful in her glittering finery (Stone’s costumes are worth the price of admission alone) but her charisma hides a deeply damaged persona. Her self-destructive power brings chaos among the order, such as it is. There’s not enough money, alcohol or drugs to fill her inner void, and she won’t let go of her first love, Lester Diamond, a total slime-bucket played by James Wood (oozing in ill-fitting leisure suits). After the marriage sours, Ace, the ultimate control freak, won’t give her the money he promised when they wed—millions in cash, stuffed in a banker’s box so full it barely fits into its allotted vault. She turns to Nicky for help and it becomes a clash of the gambling titans. Watching Ginger’s needy, soul-crumbling decline is wrenching. I didn’t know Stone had it in her. She deserved her Golden Globe and should have won an Academy Award—the only nomination for the film. Can anyone possibly top her deconstructed femme fatale?

At times, Casino can be too much with its horrific violence—graphic, because Scorsese wants you to see the authentic result of lawlessness. Still, it’s consistently rewarding viewing, crazy with visual meaning. Freeze-frame the film at any point and you’ll see storytelling imagery you’ve never noticed before. It could be a life-sized (fallen) angel statue behind Ace, who’s unconsciously copying its body language as he saunters into a grocery stockroom full of mob bosses. Or it could be Ace and Ginger’s nanny in the deep background of their sprawling suburban home, caring for their daughter while Ginger drunkenly talks in code to Nicky on the phone, dodging wire-tap surveillance. Every single costume (and there are hundreds) tells the story of a time and a place. You could watch Casino for its art direction alone. It’s a visual extravaganza completely unrecognized by Academy voters. (Has any American director suffered greater injustices at Oscar time than Martin Scorsese? Never forget: Raging Bull lost Best Picture to Ordinary People, and Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves.) Audiences in 1995 may not have been ready to accept the 70s and early-80s as period-film material, but the obsessive research, detail and care that went into the hair, makeup, costumes and set design is evident in every shot.

The blinding hot light from cinematographer Robert Richardson illuminates this pitch-black story, not just with neon and sequins—although there’s a lifetime’s worth on display in one three-hour film—but with white light on its principals. Glowing backlit halos on Ace, as he manages his crew on the gambling floor. Overhead spots bounce off the middle of tables in secret storeroom meetings, creating exaggerated shadows on old mob bosses with incredible faces. Criminals and cops relentlessly watch each other through surveillance lenses and on monitors. Nicky’s car, reflected in Ace’s aviator glasses, kicks up dust in the desert where the city’s secrets are buried. The atmosphere is blinding and stifling at the same time but, despite the excessive stylization, never glamorized.

In Scorsese’s cinematic trajectory from street-level to nationwide crime, Casino is its own hellish masterpiece. There’s a lot to absorb during its three hours; I’m still figuring it out. Twenty years ago, I thought its characters were monsters in human form. Their relationships, based on money, implode in horrific ways, with manipulation and escalating cruelty. These days I’m more fascinated by the corruption on display, from the top down, and these characters that think they’re going to the top but are instead mere cogs in the system. Scorsese presents this system in the most exciting cinematic way imaginable and then makes us realize, in brutal fashion, that any attempt to try and control this profitable arrangement is absurdly delusional. This is likely what Scorsese wanted me to see back in 1995, but I was young and wasn’t ready for that message. Now I’ve had two decades to absorb the workings of corrupt systems—unstoppable patterns, driven by insatiable materialism. And like a great novel or opera—which Casino often is—I’ll probably learn something new from it over the next ten years.

That’s the sign of a great film

Lisa McElroy grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been writing and drawing since she could hold a pencil. Some of her favorite jobs over the years include: film editor, script supervisor, film-history researcher, art teacher (for kids). She writes and edits Wikipedia articles, with a focus on women in film and music. She’s currently writing screenplays and short stories and plays drums in her band, She Mob. Her blog is ten years old. That’s an old blog.

Indoor Kids

by Anna Sjogren

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I can tell you about most any movie that was released between 1999 and 2000. I know because I saw 92 of them, which isn’t even counting the repeats – in the summer of 1999, I saw The Matrix three times and The Mummy twice in theaters.

I wheeled my chair into those movie theatres and, once I was there, I relaxed. I could enjoy myself. In the darkness, I was just like everybody else.

In 1999 and 2000, I had a flurry of leg operations. I was born with an orthopedic disability: my legs are not symmetrical. Everyone has slight differences in length between their legs, but there are a few of us graced with Proximal Focal Femoral Deficiency, (or “congenital short femur”). For me, this asymmetry meant a multiple-inch length difference between one limb and the other, with a grab bag of accompanying symptoms. In short, I needed to be fixed.

My parents and teachers were always cautious of my orthopedic safety. I wasn’t allowed to play most sports. When my third-grade class went on a field trip to the ice skating rink, I sat on the sidelines with the parental chaperones and watched. In middle school, the P.E. teacher gave me the honorary title of “manager” for the seventh grade girls’ basketball team. I rode along in the van to away games and got to wear the team jersey. At the games, I’d sit and halfheartedly cheer my active friends. I have no memory of what I felt about all this at the time: I just assumed that I didn’t belong on the court. Of course, as an adult, I am sad for the myriad physical experiences I missed out on as a child. As for days off and summer vacation, I don’t know what other kids were doing, because I was at the movies.

For a year and half, a large metal contraption held my leg together as it was reconstructed and lengthened. The metal frame was heavy and I was small, so I used a walker or a wheelchair to get around.

My world was not—could not be—expansive. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself. Local restaurants and cafes often had narrow, tricky entrances, and the art museum downtown had a painfully slow elevator. But I soon found that movie theaters are one of the easiest places to navigate in a wheelchair.

And a movie could take me somewhere else for a few hours.


In 2007, Brian Selznick published a remarkable book.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret happily smacks aside genre restrictions and takes up a sizable space of its own on the bookshelves of any children’s section. Although it’s a novel, vibrant black and white illustrations move the narrative forward. Selznick described it as "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things."

Flipping through its pages, you get the impression that an old film has fallen into the pages of the book and that a creaky projector is throwing images onto a screen in front of you.

A full moon shines over a city spread out under the stars. We zoom into the train station through its front doors, we see a boy furtively running through the crowd. We follow him as he crawls into a grate to sneak through the station walls. He peers down on the busy station crowd, watching one old man in particular...

The experience of reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a special one, especially if you love movies. Appropriately, the book is about the earliest days of cinema.

Like many characters from our iconic children’s stories, the book’s protagonist, Hugo, is an orphan. It is 1931. He lives in the walls of Montparnasse Station in Paris, where he tends the clocks. In his lonely attic room, Hugo is kept company by an automaton who sits poised at a small table, a broken robotic man that he once set out to repair with his late father, a clockmaker. Although his repair work is unfinished, Hugo is convinced that the mysterious automaton holds a secret message from his departed father and is dedicated to unlocking its mystery.

Hugo keeps close watch over the mini-universe of Montparnasse. The station has its own ecosystem: a familiar cast of characters who work at shops, a cafe, and a toy stall run by an old man, Papa Georges. Our orphan hero gets by on stolen goods but, in attempt to snatch a little mechanical mouse from the toy stall, he is caught. His punishment from Papa Georges is to work in the stall alongside him, repairing toys.

Soon, Hugo befriends Georges’ goddaughter, Isabelle, who aids him in his quest to repair the automaton. They succeed but, even once they fix it, the mystery is far from solved. When the gears start working and the automaton comes to life, it leans forward on the table and draws a precise image, one familiar to film lovers everywhere: a rocket ship crashing into the eye of the moon. Hugo is upset that the mechanical man does not have a message for him from his beloved father, as he was hoping. Instead, by signing the drawing “Georges Melies,” the automaton unlocks a new puzzle: the true identity of old Papa Georges.

The children learn that Georges Méliès, the toy stall owner they’ve known as Papa Georges, was once a famous early-era film director. He created over 500 films, one of which, the iconic A Trip to the Moon (1902) is captured in the automaton’s drawing. Through the children’s discovery, Méliès is eventually reconnected to the film community he’d left decades ago, and finally paid the respect he deserved for all of his pioneering, visionary cinematic work.


In my wheelchair in those dark theaters, I was in excellent company. As a boy, Martin Scorsese had severe asthma that often kept him indoors. He’d sit at the window and watch as kids on his street played outside. And then, like me, he’d go to the movies.

“I was isolated from everything,” He says. “My parents didn’t know what to do with me. I couldn’t run and play sports... So my parents took me to the movies... I had a very sheltered life until I was 15 or 16. I was sad at times but it forced me to think of other ways to express myself. It made me start to draw and make movies by myself before my parents would come home from work. I’d have that hour and a half where nobody was in the apartment. I could draw and do things. I saw certain films. I was also doing homework. When I read the Hugo book, and how this boy is isolated in the train station and that was a dangerous world, too, I was drawn in by it. I was compelled to read the rest of it. It turned out that the story is resolved through the invention of movies which is interesting.”

Like Scorsese and me, Hugo is an indoor kid. He spends his time peering from behind the clocks of the train station, watching the people go about their lives far below. It takes time for him to find out where he belongs.

It’s only appropriate, then, that Scorsese was the one to turn The Invention of Hugo Cabret into a movie. But when his camera swoops into the train station in the film’s opening moments, it’s almost hard to detect that we’re watching a Martin Scorsese film. We’re shown an old world in bright jewel tones and are quickly immersed in all the old tropes of a classic children’s story. An orphan with tragic parental loss? Check. Bumbling but sympathetic villain? Check. Spunky gal who likes to read? Check. Where is all the bloodshed, the violence, the profanity? Where is Leo? Where is De Niro? With Hugo, Scorsese trades in his more familiar tools for some time travel, nostalgia, and a history lesson.

When Hugo and Isabelle discover that Papa Georges actually has a dynamic background in filmmaking, they head for the Film Academy Library and page through a book of film history. Scorsese takes this time to revel in cinema’s glorious birth. We experience a montage-reel of clips from Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Hugo also marked Scorsese’s first foray into 3D cinema, a nod to all the 3D classics he enjoyed as a youth in the 1950s like Dial M for Murder or Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Here, in this tribute to cinema history, it’s easy to find Martin Scorsese. After all, in 1990, he started the Film Foundation and has spent decades enthusiastically campaigning for cinema preservation. More than half of all films made before 1950 have been lost, and we see vivid examples of this in Hugo. In fact, a huge catalogue of Méliès’s films were destroyed during WWI: the celluloid negatives were melted down to create heels for shoes. We are reminded that movies are cultural artifacts for us, a history worth preserving and screening for the public. To date, the Film Foundation has helped to restore over 620 films and made them accessible through programming at festivals and museums.

Many characters in Hugo serve as stand-ins for Scorsese. He is the lonely boy looking at the world through the window. He is film scholar Rene Tabard, who’s passionately loved cinema since he was a boy. He is Méliès, the master director. And he is the preservationist who revived the story of Méliès for future generations to enjoy.

Scorsese makes a cameo in Hugo as the photographer capturing Méliès’s magical glass-walled studio. In a top hat and spectacles, Scorsese aims the camera at Méliès. Both men look happy to be there, happy to be part of the magic, and thrilled to be sharing it with us. “The most enjoyable time was building an approximation of Georges Méliès’s glass studio,” Scorsese later shared. “We started replicating scenes from Méliès’ films as best we could. We recreated the underwater set for “Kingdom of the Fairies.” With Méliès’s films, especially the hand-colored ones, it’s like illuminated manuscripts come alive. We shot Méliès shooting his films for five or six days. It was one of the best times I’ve had shooting a picture.”

At the end of the film, the camera sweeps us through a window and into an apartment that is bustling with a party. Hugo is still indoors, but now his new friends, the movie-family he has made for himself, surround him. And like him, I was never alone at all those movie screenings fifteen years ago: my father, mother, brother, and best friend were at my side.

Now I walk into movie theaters, but the dark remains as welcoming as always. I survived several more operations throughout my teens and early twenties, and saw many more movies. No matter what was happening in my life, movies were consistently something I could count on, could interact with or be excited by. And that enthusiasm holds steady to this day: with each new film I experience, I am entirely ready to be immersed, to be swept away, to travel somewhere new. Like Scorsese and the young characters in Hugo, I was charmed at a young and impressionable age, and will be a moviegoer for the rest of my life.

Anna Sjogren lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She writes for the Portafilterland coffee profile project and is publishing a memoir this Spring through the Independent Publishing Resource Center's Writing Certificate program. She gets out of town as often as possible, via film, novel, or airplane.

All The Times I Felt Gross Watching The Wolf Of Wall Street

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Michael Hay

illustration by Michael Hay

Do you remember the first time you watched The Wolf Of Wall Street?

Better yet, do you remember the first time you felt uncomfortable watching The Wolf Of Wall Street?

0-38 minutes: I have a relatively strong stomach. Physical violence—blood, guts, limbs being hacked off—makes me queasy, no doubt, but I have a fairly high tolerance for most everything else. I've been a comedian for years now, so I've heard every disgusting combination of words imaginable. I've never really been one to turn away from a sex scene either, which, for the most part, are so brief and unrealistic that I scarcely pay attention to them.

Knowing that, I should say that I can successfully make it 38 minutes into The Wolf Of Wall Street without so much as batting an eye. And that's saying a lot. Martin Scorsese's most recent feature film opens with the title character—the Wolf himself— Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, never better) physically abusing dwarves, receiving oral sex in his car, and snorting cocaine off the, ahem, ass of a prostitute. All of this, of course, includes a relentless string of curse words.

But like I said, I'm all right. The first half hour of The Wolf Of Wall Street is more or less the prologue. As a viewer, we're introduced to the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Jordan, recently married, starting his first job on Wall Street. He's taken under the wing of an older broker: a charming but sleazy Matthew McConaughey (in other words, a Matthew McConaughey type). Under his guidance, Jordan learns what he needs to know to survive on Wall Street. Namely, he's introduced to his future vices: drinking, drugs, and sex.

Throughout the next half hour, Jordan is taken down and rebuilt. He loses his first job and transfers out to a do-nothing sales position in Long Island. There, however, he meets a string of office losers who one day make up his league of perverse gentlemen. At the helm of this team is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, with terrifying false teeth)—a yes man to the core. Donny quits his family business on the spot when he learns how much money he can make from Jordan. Donny's obsessed with Jordan, idolizes him. Donny is the embodiment of greed—marrying his own good-looking cousin so no one else would. Jordan wins you over (maybe) with his charm; Donny is the stuff of nightmares. The two join forces and head all the way back to Wall Street. There, the team founds Stratton Oakmont, the firm that would build and destroy them.

38-40 minutes: It's relatively innocuous, all things considered, but the first time I cringe in this film is when, at the end of a successful sales week, Jordan offers $10,000 to a sales assistant to shave her head. The money, he explains, is going to be used for breast implants. There's nothing particularly graphic about the scene. One of Jordan's goons sloppily takes a razor to the woman's head. It's just the look on her face: struggling to smile along with everyone else as the men around her jeer and chant. "Scalp! Scalp! Scalp!" they holler as she fights back tears. It's a violent, predatory act that she's agreed to. These men more or less strip her, rob her of control of her body and she's expected to laugh along with everyone else. There's a permanent smile on her face throughout the ordeal, but she's cringing. When all's said and done, there are still long strands of hair but the boys have moved on. There are other things to entertain them, and this woman's story ends there.

50-53 minutes: This is the first of one of the most infamous scenes in the movie; Jordan and his crew have a pool party in the Hamptons. It's there that he meets Naomi (an utterly fantastic Margot Robbie), the Brooklyn model who would go on to be his second wife in the film. In the middle of Jordan introducing himself, Donnie bursts into the room, masturbating in front of everyone at the party. It's a gross-out scene, meant to feel over the top, but it goes beyond that. It'd be one thing if played straight for laughs, but Donnie's little outburst follows an uncomfortable moment of Jordan trying to verbally wrestle Naomi away from her boyfriend. The whole scene is about male dominance. It's about saying "look at me, pay attention to me." Naomi leaves without saying a word to Jordan, but the damage is done. She's his.

62-65 minutes: Jordan and his coworkers threaten and assault his gay butler, accusing him of stealing money. It's uncomfortable and it's violent, and it immediately segues into a scene where the guys all go golfing. I'm starting to realize the worst part of all the disgusting parts of this film is how nonchalant they are to the characters experiencing everything. They shrug it off. It's no big deal. It's all for a laugh. They hang a man off of a balcony. They deride him with slurs. They laugh and move on. The victims—and to some extent, the audience—are left with a sense of stammering disbelief.

67 minutes: On the plane to his bachelor party, Jordan and his peers, relentlessly high, have sex with a jet full of hookers. It's gross. I felt gross.

71-75 minutes: At what point do you stop siding with Jordan Belfort? I ask because it's different for everyone. I ask because it's crucial. 18 months after his honeymoon, Jordan's life is miserable. He and Naomi fight daily. They've completely turned on each other.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a film about power. I would argue it's more about power than it is money. It's about who has the upper hand, who's in control, who's on top. I wonder if The Wolf Of Wall Street is like one of those sociopath tests. When do you stop identifying with the heroes and start identifying with the victims? Is it when Jordan installs a camera in his child's nursery and exposes his wife to their security guards? She screams. He laughs. The Wolf Of Wall Street is a comedy.

77 minutes: Donnie swallows the goldfish of a broker (Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch, sneaking in a cameo) who isn't paying full attention out on the floor. Everyone screams and laughs.

98-101 minutes: Jordan sexually harasses some flight attendants on a trip to Geneva to hide his funds in Swiss banks. They restrain him mid-flight. Who has the power?

115-128 minutes: Jordan and Donnie do quaaludes. This is, perhaps, the most famous scene in the film. It's a brilliant piece of comedic acting with credit due to both DiCaprio and Hill. Their characters are slurring, sloppy disasters. They're barely functioning and selling every minute of it. It's modern day slapstick. It's all physical. It's perfect.

But I'm tired. It's about two-thirds through the film and I'm exhausted. This is the point where I'm starting to get anxious and check my watch. This is the point where I start fiddling with my sleeves. Jordan is crawling down the steps of a country club and I'm wondering who's still on board. Who's still beaming, excited, enjoying every second of this film?

147 minutes: Jordan has a yacht party for a friend released from jail, practically throwing naked women at him. I'm ready to be done.

155-165 minutes: Here's where it gets tricky. What is the climax in The Wolf Of Wall Street? I'm asking because I don't really know. You can argue it's the scene previous to this one, in which Jordan and Donnie and Naomi get caught in a storm on their yacht. All Jordan can think about are drugs. There's the distinct possibility that he and his wife and best friend will die, and he asks for drugs. It's certainly one of the most action-heavy sequences in the film. It would make a decent climax.


Right towards the end of the film, Jordan sits down with Naomi in bed. He explains she won't be implicated if he goes to jail. It comes from a place of—well, I don't think it's compassion, but Jordan might think it is. Naomi is dismissive. She's checked out months ago. Jordan pressures her into having sex. What occurs is consensual but reluctant. As Jordan gets off her, she explains she wants a divorce.

They fight because of course they do. The first and only other fight between Jordan and Naomi is tentatively played for laughs. You can laugh at it. That's okay. There are some good lines. There are some good jokes. But this is not played for laughs. This is played for real. Jordan snorts a line of cocaine and they scream at each other over the custody of their children. As he storms through the hallway, he whips around and punches his wife in the stomach.

He punches his wife in the stomach and walks away.

To rewatch that punch makes me so painfully uncomfortable I feel sick. I've seen violence against women in film before. It's not new, no, and I struggle to pinpoint how deeply upsetting and shocking it is to me. Maybe because it's so downplayed. It's not in the forefront of the shot. It's towards the back. It's done in passing. It's not lingered on; Jordan has other places to be. It's a heavy punch. It's a thud. Naomi crumples to the ground.

It's not addressed. It's not brought up. It's brief and it's violent and it's shocking and that's all there is to it. Perhaps that's what makes it realistic and horrifying. This is a thing that happens—not just to the wives of Wall Street billionaires, but to women everywhere. And it's not in the foreground of the conversation. It's off to the side. It's put in the back. It's a thud and a body hitting the ground, and then we're moving on. It's back to business and back to plot.

I'm done. I tag out here.

175 minutes: The real Jordan Belfort cameos in his own film. I don't know anything about the man other than what's presented on screen. He's smiling. I hate him.

178-200 minutes: Many people love The Wolf Of Wall Street, but I'm never sure if they like it for the right reasons. For every person I know like me, who found it relentless, disgusting, horrifying, and tedious, there's a person who found it awesome. That's not to say I don't acknowledge the achievement of The Wolf Of Wall Street. It's brilliant: it lures you under a guise of laughter and boys-will-be-boys and it turns into an all-out orgy of 1%-er nightmares. But not everyone sees it that way. Some find it aspirational. Some find it hilarious throughout. When I've asked people about it, I wait to see what scene they bring up first.

"The scene with the quaaludes—"

"When his wife is in the lingerie and—"

No one seems to point out anything violent or too disgusting. They go for the laughs. They go for the sex. That's fine, if that's what you like. I respect the film. It's gutsy and brazen. It's not apologetic in the slightest. But I can't say I like it. I definitely don't enjoy it, and I'm skeptical of people who sit through the whole thing and laugh and appreciate it. I have a strong stomach but even I have to turn away. I want to know when it gets to be too much for you. The whole thing's a contest, a power struggle, and I want to know at what point you blink.

Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor to Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.