Sunday, July 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Scorsese exhibition

I knew the name before I saw a frame. Being a kid awed by movies in the '70s meant that you couldn't get in to see the good stuff. My mental image of The Exorcist was pieced together by what other kids were able to glean from individual scenes: it was a room full of chaotic shocks that didn't hold a story but were just there to terrify. That's almost a better movie. By the time Taxi Driver came out I had another one I had to make up myself.

My grown up sister came back from Babylon (Sydney) one Christmas holidays and reported that the film was so violent she had to walk out. Shaken, she'd sat in the foyeur waiting for it to end when her friends would come out. The usher grinned a sleazy grin and said: "oh, it gets better." Years later I understood that differently. It does get better. It heals. At the time all I could think was that it was a malevolent demon that waited in the gutter to grab your ankles.

I finally saw it as a film student at Griffith University. We had a cinema there but this wasn't being shown there. Someone told me to get up to the editing suite quickly and I did. Well, we did, there were a few of us. I first saw Taxi Driver on a Steenbeck editing desk. The picture was tiny but the Picture became gigantic in minutes. Those near two hours changed everything. At the pub afterwards we pieced together the standout dialogue (Sport and Travis, Travis's monologues, Marty in the backseat) and had routines to last us the rest of our lives. After graduation the well liked Dr. David Saunders approached us but as soon as he heard us doing Scorsese he turned and fled, hoping none of us called him back.

After that Marty didn't disappoint. Until. Everything from Cape Fear to now (apart from Bringing Out the Dead which I still admire but probably because it's old Marty) has left me flat. Sometime after Age of Innocence I stopped seeing new Scorsese films at the cinema and let them appear on free to air tv. I bought into the return-to-form nonsense on a few occasions but each time found myself apologising for someone who had really only done the decent thing by himself and sold out to the money, applying what he could of his art to the high profile.

So, what did I want from an exhibition of Scorsese? Hard to answer without an embarrassing pause. In the end I bought a ticket and took the escalator down to the ACMI underground hoping for nothing but a few artefacts as cruisey as my mood on that pleasantly chilly late autumn Friday off. Well, ok, a few risers of headless mannequins dressed in costumes and a lot of typewriter pages with scribbled pondering and corrections. These are pretty good but feel like they are there to flesh out the absent living subject.

Then here and there things do pop out. De Niro's Taxi driver licence that allowed him to drive a cab around New York for real in preparation for the role stopped me as I imagined him making chit chat with customers or weirding them out with edgy monologues. A wall of congratulatory letters and telegrams for Scorsese's efforts in film preservation is like an index of twentieth century film auteurs (including Leni Reifenstahl!) which feels like a boyhood fantasy that came crashing out of Marty's daydreams.

The commentary comes through your phone's wifi and can take a few stuttering starts to get going. But its works ok once that's done. You see a number on the exhibits and press that on your app and listen. Marty's own clipped and tight tenor takes you through a lot of it but there's also his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker and actor Rachel Griffith to voice you through. I listened to a few of these but gave up relying on it due to the clunkiness.

What I noticed as I walked through and the family portraits turned into artefacts of a nascent film career (pieces and tales of Boxcar Bertha and Who's That Knocking at My Door?) and they turned into the eventual leap into the mainstream and, for me, the end of Martin Scorsese as an auteur of interest. I know, I sound like an undergraduate snob but really all I'm doing is drawing the line between the movies that grab me and the ones that don't.

Everything has exceptions but there are so few in the post Cape Fear timeline of Scorsese that I always have to struggle to remember what they are. Scorsese, like Woody Allen, has been given the return-to-form award for almost everything from the mid-'90s onwards. This means that from that time even his most loyal critics feel they have to apologise for him. I stopped after Cape Fear and stopped seeing everything by him at the cinema after Casino.

So the exhibition for me took on a kind of special plead after about the halfway mark. Almost everything in it was of some interest it's just that when it was associated with a film I'm indifferent to I concentrated on the point of the detail or the anecdote rather than associating it with the flickering worth of the title. I began to speed up at this point but then I realised I'd missed a section behind a wall and backtracked.

The area that celebrates Scorsese's close relation with music and his masterful use of it in his films. This room is the usual whirl of screenings on one wall and exhibits in cases. But it is here that I smiled at Bernard Hermann's manuscripts for the score of Taxi Driver. And then I saw the thing, the real thing, the thing that more than even the artefacts from some of my favourite films. There in a corner was a small red box with a clasp. In it were two rows of tabbed filing separators marked with numbers and on top of this was a sheaf of typewritten lists of every one of the vinyl 45s in the collection. This was from Marty's childhood. These thin black discs in their original paper sleeves had blasted pictures into the little cosmos behind the eyes he closed in passion as he listened. The doo wop and the jazz, the rock and the warbling arias collected here with the retrievability of anything at the New York Library. It was here that the steel trap recall and the songs and riffs that gave him such vision met. This, for me, was the artist Scorsese. Actually, better than that, this was Marty.

It was a cold day outside. I had the day off and it was still morning. Cold but gleamingly clear. Great walking weather. I went to the Kino and saw a movie.

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