Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese.
Albany: SUNY Press, 2013.
(Review copy supplied by SUNY Press)
Few contemporary Hollywood directors are as skillful as Martin Scorsese at activating an auteurist fable with the release of each new film. Lifetime cinephile, passionate preservationist and informal film historian, Scorsese has remained uncommonly eager to invoke an entire cinematic inheritance when discussing his own work. Not surprisingly, popular critics in turn typically tend to receive Scorsese’s films as the very embodiment of ‘cinema’. Whatever else it may be, Shutter Island (2010) is, Peter Travers writes, the work of one who “makes movies as if his life depends on it […]. Cinema is in Scorsese’s DNA […]. No one who lives and breathes movies would dream of missing it.” Similarly, Travers’s review of Hugo (2011) can’t resist the complete equation of director and film history: “Film history is part of Scorsese’s DNA.” And Roger Ebert, a lifelong Scorsese supporter, was quick to invoke the auteurist parable when reviewing Hugo: “There is a parallel with the asthmatic Scorsese, living in Little Italy but not of it, observing life from the windows of his apartment, soaking up the cinema from television and local theaters, adopting great directors as his mentors.” Scorsese’s latest films apparently arrive to spectators as already preserved historical objects, their status as exemplars of a tradition of great cinema largely unquestioned. Ensconced in this wholly cinephilic discourse, the director’s films are as a consequence customarily divorced from contextual considerations and instead received as pure expressions of cinema. Scorsese, it would seem, has developed a singularly irreproachable critical reputation at this point, especially when compared to many of his now nearly invisible New Hollywood cohort.
Marc Raymond’s Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese is framed by two relatively recent public demonstrations of Scorsese’s exceptional contemporary prestige. The book begins with a very brief account of Scorsese’s 2006 Academy Award victory for The Departed, a theatrically staged embrace and celebration of the director – a self-identified ‘outsider’ – by industry insiders. According to Raymond, this event could be seen in part as Hollywood’s belated public recognition of the director, his recent commercial concessions, and his attendant willingness to risk some of his cultural prestige for the Academy’s acknowledgment; but it was also the culmination of Scorsese’s decades-long effort to locate himself and his work in the long, “great tradition” (1) of Hollywood filmmaking. Scorsese the filmmaker, curator, and tireless advocate of film preservation could now presumably claim his place in a revered auteurist pantheon. The book’s short concluding chapter revisits a comparable, earlier episode in the public confirmation of Scorsese’s reputation: Esquire magazine’s ‘The Next Scorsese’, a critical evaluation of promising young filmmakers and their potential to inherit Scorsese’s auteurist legacy. Once again, the question of patrimony is paramount, though in this case Scorsese is a measuring stick, his work and legend establishing the evaluative criteria in each critical piece: he is a “risk taker,” the embodiment of fearless “filmmaking flair” and audacity (202). For Raymond, these two episodes ultimately reveal an “insider-outsider dynamic” (202) that is a key to understanding Scorsese’s current critical reputation and his possession of “cultural capital” (203). The intervening chapters of Hollywood’s New Yorker seek to examine and explain the formation and negotiation of Scorsese’s reputation, his current status as a “cultural figure” (2), and the way a range of extratextual factors have helped to construct the discursive entity known as “Scorsese.”
As the title of Raymond’s book is clearly meant to indicate, Scorsese’s critical reputation is linked to the cultivation of his “liminal status” (200): he appears to be both inside and outside of Hollywood; in the cultural imagination, he resides somewhere between New York and Hollywood, or Europe and America. This liminality has allowed him to accumulate the cultural prestige of an independent outsider, while at the same time working primarily as a commercial filmmaker within the Hollywood establishment. Raymond’s study thus attempts to explain how the director has come to successfully occupy – or “negotiate” (2) – this position. Given his emphasis upon “prestige,” “culture,” and “reputation,” Raymond is understandably less interested in the films as textual or aesthetic objects than he is with the their “general reception” (2) and Scorsese’s relationship to a broad range of cultural institutions. Not a traditional auteurist study in this respect, Hollywood’s New Yorker instead examines critical discourse, changes in reception over the course a historical period, and the “social and cultural roles” (6) performed by Scorsese-as-author. The book’s ‘Introduction’ outlines these methodological priorities and frankly acknowledges its reliance upon “sociological models of aesthetic taste” (3) to understand the full breadth of Scorsese’s cultural output.
This sociological orientation and its emphasis upon “cultural capital” and “aesthetic taste” take Pierre Bourdieu’s work as a major theoretical resource. Raymond’s desire to move “beyond aesthetic categories” (5) (in his view, a shortcoming in existing studies of the director’s work [5-6]) compels him to share Bourdieu’s deliberate refusal of aesthetics in favor of a “radical contextualization” (5) of the artifacts and practices in question. Consequently, Scorsese’s work as a filmmaker, curator, and popular historian is placed in the broader cultural field in order to explain the various functions it fulfils. How has Scorsese managed to accumulate this so-called cultural capital? How has he been able to activate the symbolic power of prestige while also cultivating his singular reputation? How did he, in shifting historical circumstances, negotiate various contingencies (industrial, critical, institutional) to reach his current state of canonization?
Although it aims to distinguish itself from “conventional authorship” studies (8), Hollywood’s New Yorker nonetheless surveys the director’s career chronologically. After a short explanation of its methodological priorities, the book turns to Scorsese’s time at NYU as both a student and instructor in the 1960s. The customary auteurist preoccupation with Scorsese’s ethnicity and religion, however, is elided here in order to examine the director’s work in the context of what Bourdieu would call a “restricted” field of production. Surrounded by proponents of “underground” cinema and various avant-garde practices, Scorsese is revealed to have been constantly negotiating his position within this esteemed institution throughout the 1960s. On the one hand, as an instructor he was instrumental in helping to legitimize the serious study of popular, Hollywood cinema (the field of ‘large-scale’ production) at NYU. On the other hand, however, as an aspiring filmmaker, his student work was invariably situated within a symbolically different, competing field of practice. The world of student filmmaking, its awards and their attendant prestige or symbolic power constitute a “restricted field”, and Raymond allows us to see a different Scorsese functioning in said field. Scorsese’s years at NYU are therefore characterised by a negotiation “between the two extremes of Hollywood and the avant-garde” (24). According to Raymond, this is especially true of Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968), Scorsese’s independently produced feature length debut: “Read retrospectively, the film is much more interesting as an example of the kind of high art/low culture negotiation of the period than as a simple fledgling tale in the saga of an auteur” (25). Even at this early juncture and in this narrow institutional context, Raymond reminds us, Scorsese was negotiating his place within multiple – and apparently incompatible – fields of film production. At NYU, the terms of his “liminal status” and subsequent critical reputation were already being set.
Raymond’s account of the director’s years at NYU relies upon extensive first-hand testimony from Scorsese’s former students, and as a result he provides a detailed and illuminating account of the director’s days as a university instructor. Scorsese’s early student films have already been thoroughly examined and contextualized in Leighton Grist’s excellent The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1963-77: Authorship and Context (2000). Raymond only slightly refines our understanding of Scorsese’s student film productions and their institutional context, yet his personal interviews with the director’s former students yield an undeniably substantial contribution: an extended discussion of the rarely seen documentary, Street Scenes 1970 (1970). On its surface, Street Scenes appears to be an anomaly in Scorsese’s oeuvre, and his reluctance to allow it to circulate publically since its initial release only confirms its wayward status. Collectively made and politically engaged, Street Scenes has typically been marginalized or ignored in most Scorsese studies because of the director’s dismissal of its supposed political naïveté and reticence to permit its distribution. But Raymond’s interviews with NYU students Harry Bolles, John Butman, Peter Rea, Ed Summer, Nick Tanis, and others reveal a politically committed Scorsese, a figure in the middle of campus demonstrations and engaged filmmaking: “Scorsese was regarded as the instructor most sympathetic to those on the political left” (35). Curiously, Street Scenes’ eventual entry into the New York Film Festival deliberately elided this politicized, collective dimension in its conception and creation, and instead attributed the entire film to Scorsese in its program notes (41-42). As Raymond convincingly demonstrates, the ensuing – and lingering – controversy over its authorship probably best explains Street Scenes’ subsequent suppression in Scorsese’s auteurist legend. At no other point in Hollywood’s New Yorker are the real vicissitudes of Hollywood film authorship more plainly evident.
Street Scenes 1970 was the last of Scorsese’s NYU-related works – he would leave for Hollywood shortly after its completion. In the following two chapters Raymond therefore revisits the familiar terrain of Scorsese’s feature fiction filmmaking, the works that “formed” his “critical reputation” (47) in the 1970s and allowed for its perpetuation through the lean years of the 1980s (“Fall of the Hollywood Renaissance” ). At this point the potential shortcomings of Hollywood’s New Yorker’s “radical contextualization” of Scorsese’s films begin to make themselves evident. Raymond’s attention to contextual matters is always laudable, of course, insofar as it aims to distinguish Hollywood’s New Yorker from classic auteurist studies of Scorsese’s films like Robert Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness (2011) or Robert Casillo’s Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese (2006). But the clear retrospection of Raymond’s contextualization has a potentially negative consequence: each of Scorsese’s films appears to be the product of an exceptional careerist calculation, and assumes its proper place in the “cultural field” with unerring inevitability. So, for instance, sensing that he may risk being cast as an “ethnic filmmaker of sociological films” (67) after the critical success of Mean Streets (1972), Scorsese makes the “calculated move” (ibid.) to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), thereby taking a considered gamble with his burgeoning prestige in order to (successfully) further his reputation and “eventual canonization” (68). Every film from this decade, even purported ‘failures’ like New York, New York (1977), is thus somehow characterized as a wholly positive step (79) in the inevitable creation of the director’s critical reputation.
This becomes especially true – and problematic – in Raymond’s account of Scorsese’s work in the 1980s. In the nadir that follows the commercial failure of The King of Comedy (1983) (Raymond rehabilitates the film as prescient “smart cinema” in Chapter 5, “What is Scorsese?”), we see Scorsese first enter the world of ‘independent’ film production with After Hours (1985), and then turn to the frankly commercial Hollywood endeavor, The Color of Money (1986). The latter is generally regarded as the director’s artistic low-water mark, but Raymond is able to recast it, along with After Hours and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), as a key contribution to the growth of Scorsese’s prestige during this decade. After Hours, we’re told, is a “successful negotiation of both cultural and economic capital” (110); and in terms of “cultural capital, it is hard to overestimate the positive impact” (124) of The Last Temptation of Christ. Once again, each of Scorsese’s works has an entirely “positive value”, and every decision invariably increases the director’s standing in the cultural field. Raymond is frequently critical of the teleological impetus that he sees driving many traditional authorship studies, but at these moments his account’s confident retrospection has exactly the same effect: having started with the indisputable fact of Scorsese’s current canonization, each film and public endeavor are subsequently placed in relation to an inevitable careerist trajectory and endpoint: the director’s accumulation of prestige is a fait accompli, and everything about the past must be cast as evidence for this fact. Furthermore, in these cases Raymond’s contextualization risks appearing tautological, insofar as it repeats what are essentially a series of industry truisms: Scorsese had to (successfully) “prove” himself “while working quickly and cheaply” (110) on the independently produced After Hours, while the Hollywood craftsmanship on display in The Color of Money was instrumental in further “reestablish[ing]” (112) the director’s credentials with industry insiders after his recent commercial failures. Raymond’s “postmodernism” aims to withdraw the “humanist […] individual subject (203) from auteurist studies, yet he nonetheless appears to reinvest it in these teleological descriptions of Scorsese’s redoubtable careerist savvy and business acumen.
In addition to reestablishing his commercial credentials in the 1980s, Scorsese also becomes increasingly involved with the various institutions that allow him to “survive the decade with his cultural capital intact” (88) – color preservation campaigns, alliances with museums (MoMA) and archives (George Eastman House), a general curatorial relation to the history of cinema. The historical orientation of these endeavors leads to Hollywood’s New Yorker’s very welcome consideration of ‘Scorsese as Historian’ (127) in Chapter 4. Raymond is surely correct to identify an overwhelming preoccupation with history and historiography in the director’s work: “As Scorsese moved into the role of film historian in the 1990s, this was reflected in his feature films, all of which have been concerned with past worlds. Throughout the decade, these cinematic histories have provided a unity to Scorsese’s work on otherwise diverse and divergent material” (151). We should be grateful for this extended discussion of Scorsese’s considerable interest in both documentary and history, though the results here are somewhat mixed. Raymond is always attentive to how this cultural work is crucial to the ongoing to development of Scorsese’s prestige and accumulation of cultural capital throughout the 1990s and beyond; but his analyses of the documentaries and brief mention of the historical fictions are too disengaged from recent work by film studies scholars on historical filmmaking, and perhaps too timid in their infrequent appeals to film theory when addressing these matters. The intersection of author, historiography, history, and historicity in these works is the site of a discernible formal problem – how to render and comprehend an account of the past in audiovisual images? How does a filmmaker appropriate this medium for the construction of audiovisual histories? How does s/he construct a film’s subject matter in the very process of envisioning it with filmic forms? Is there, in other words, something like a “poetics” of historical filmmaking? Marcia Landy, Philip Rosen, William Guynn, Antoine De Baecque, and Vivian Sobchack, to name just a few, have addressed these questions, but they are altogether absent from Raymond’s discussion of history and film. The representation of history on film remains an engaging question in film studies and is especially pertinent to any thinking about Scorsese’s undervalued output since the late-1980s, both fiction and non-fiction. Raymond’s contextual analyses might have been usefully supplemented by a more thorough consideration of this extensive body of scholarly work and its relation to Scorsese’s own preoccupation with history and film.
In the final analysis, these are perhaps small quibbles with what is an otherwise useful addition to the already extensive body of work devoted to Scorsese. Along with Ellis Cashmore’s Martin Scorsese’s America (2009), Hollywood’s New Yorker in fact joins a recent wave of sociological studies that has produced novel insights into this filmmaker’s work and its wider cultural implications. Arriving at a moment wherein Scorsese’s relevance as anything more than a contemporary commercial Hollywood filmmaker is frequently doubted, Raymond’s book repositions the director as a culturally significant figure, and in so doing broadens our understanding of his films as well as the various vicissitudes of authorship in today’s Hollywood context.
Ellis Cashmore, Martin Scorsese’s America (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).
Robert Casillo, Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).
Roger Ebert, “Hugo.” Chicago Sun-Times. November 21, 2011.
Leighton Grist, The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1963-77: Authorship and Context (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, Fourth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Marc Raymond, Hollywood’s New Yorker: The Making of Martin Scorsese (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013).
Peter Travers, “Shutter Island.” Rolling Stone. February 19, 2010.
—. “Hugo.” Rolling Stone. November 21, 2011.