Scorsese's Milieu: Where Violence Begets Violence
Posted on: 16/05/2016
For one of cinema’s masters, Martin Scorsese is still labelled from time to time as mobster filmmaker and an exploiter of violence. But anyone who thinks that are simultaneously ignoring a diverse filmography and failing to see the filmmaker is merely holding an unflinching eye to worlds wherein violence begets violence.
The first Martin Scorsese film I ever saw was Casino (1995). I was seventeen years old, and had, or so I presumed, seen all the violence cinema could throw at young man. But one particular scene, in which Dominick Santoro is violently beaten to death in front of his brother Nicholas (Joe Pesci), affected me more than any other instance of screen violence before or since.
Looking back, it’s not an overly gory scene, nor does it hold much of a candle to some of the sadism seen in contemporary horror films, but that one scene has stuck with me ever since, and oddly enough, made me a Martin Scorsese fan.
Falling into his back catalogue, it became obvious violence was common in Scorsese’s filmic milieus, be it the man pushed too far in Taxi Driver (1976), the boxer who can’t keep his violent nature contained within the ring in Raging Bull (1980), or the violence synonymous with a genre synonymous with Scorsese, the crime ridden worlds of Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990).
There no shortage of violence in Raging Bull
Though pigeonholing Scorsese as a violent director would be unfair, its presence can’t be ignored, and the reasons for its prevalence have been queried throughout his career. “I come from an area where, growing up, this was all around me,” he once said. “I saw a great deal of violence, I saw a great deal of emotional and psychological violence, spiritual violence... a thing like that leaves an impression on you, it doesn’t leave you.”
Scorsese’s breakthrough film, Mean Streets, drew heavily on his experience growing up in Little Italy, NYC, an Italian-American area dominated by the Catholic Church. And though there is great sympathy for the young protagonists Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and the volatile Johnny (Robert De Niro), they live in worlds where violence is predominant but rarely lucrative in any spiritual sense despite, their best efforts.
“You don’t make up for your sins in Church,” says Keitel’s Charlie in the opening frames; “you do it on the streets. You do it at home.” As Charlie tries to move his way up the local New York Mafia, he is torn between Church, his ambition, and loyalty to friend Johnny; finding solace in none. The violence he performs as debt collector amounts to little, and his loyalty to Johnny ultimately means their violent fates are bound together.
Scorsese is not so much a violent filmmaker then, but a filmmaker who continues to return to worlds where violence is a factor, and right or wrong, places where “violence was a valid form of expression”.
“If you look at the films I’ve made, the worlds that we are depicting in these pictures... they’re very, very violent. The rules are enforced by the violence of that society.” And that’s true, from Raging Bull, a film that unflinchingly inspects the domestic violence perpetrated by real life boxer Jake LaMotta – violence that ultimately leaves his life in tatters – to Scorsese’s finest and most notorious film Goodfellas.
"Now go home and get your fucking shinebox..."
Like Mean Streets, Goodfellas presents a part of New York where organised crime and Catholic piousness exist, not just side-by-side, but intertwined. Still it is a world where violence begets violence. “The violence that I have in my pictures is not pleasant,” Scorsese has said. “You reap what you sow in the stories I’m trying to tell, and I don’t know any other way to show it.”
If Mean Streets showed us that life is tough for small times crooks on a street level, Goodfellas showed an upper echelon where success is often short lived, even for made men like Billy Batts, who meets the grimmest of deaths, or Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito who is murdered when he thought he was becoming a made man. Protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), despite surviving a 30 year life of crime, ends up in witness protection, near broke, living life as an “average nobody” and a “schnook”. In the world of Goodfellas, everything that goes up comes down dead, in jail, or dispossessed of riches and loved ones.
Ray Liotta in Goodfellas
It’s important to remember Scorsese, with a filmography that includes family films (Hugo), biopics (The Aviator), psychological dramas (Shutter Island, Bringing Out the Dead), and documentaries (Shine A Light), is a director with considerable and far reaching skills. Yet it’s also worth acknowledging his revisiting of worlds of sin, where violence is justified through loyalty or ambition, perpetrated against those who go against the family, the hierarchy, or their friends. This is a world where men seemingly beat and kill without conscience, go to church, and then come home to kiss their mothers on the cheek.
Joe Pesci and Scorsese's own Mother in Goodfellas
Even beyond the limits of Scorsese’s own relatable experiences growing up in Little Italy, these themes continue throughout films like Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006). Both films bulge with violence yes, but religion and allegiances justify the brutality. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan works undercover and tries to build a case against crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), he both revels in and is repulsed by the barbarity he witnesses, and the violence he commits himself. He is bound by a desire to escape the criminality of his heritage, but must become a criminal to prove otherwise – pistol whipping and beating people along the way. Ultimately Billy is in too deep, in more ways than one, to make it to the other side, to redemption.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed
Scorsese is a filmmaker, as David Stratton put it: “torn between the sacred and the profane,” with the latter so often depicted in unglamorous ways, a far cry from the cartoonish violence of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, or the torture porn of Eli Roth. Scorsese’s use of violence is gritty, abrupt, or like the previously mentioned scene in Casino, heartbreakingly calculated and grimy. And although Scorsese is not immune to humanising those violent protagonists like Billy Costigan, Henry Hill or Jake LoMatta, rarely does their violence go unpunished. “I don’t put [violence] up there people to enjoy it,” the filmmaker has said. “And if they are enjoying it, or catch themselves enjoying it, they watch the characters pay for it.”
- Garry Westmore
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Joe Pesci in Goodfellas