Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob

Mark Nicholls,
Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob.
North Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia, 2004.
ISBN: 1 86403 156 5
191 pp
Au$29.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Pluto Press)

The front cover of Mark Nicholls’ Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob  features a series of differently shaded silhouettes of male characters from Scorsese’s films. Within the largest of these symptomatically imprecise figures is placed a photographic image of Scorsese pensively rubbing his furrowed brow, a camera placed slightly behind and to the side of his troubled gaze. This cover image neatly but schematically encapsulates the underlying premise of Nicholls’ book. Without ever adequately discussing his debt to earlier forms of auteurist film criticism, Nicholls reads a selection of Scorsese’s films in terms of recurrent themes (or single theme, really) and characterisations. The implication of the cover image is that these characters and themes emanate from the consciousness and – more likely, if not more persuasively – subconsciousness of the director. Although Nicholls relies heavily on the largely outmoded and now often neglected framework of psychoanalytic film criticism, an equally hackneyed and inflexible conception of authorship is not adequately tested or questioned by his analysis. In many respects, this book can be considered as a disavowal of old-fashioned auteurist criticism while still devoutly exemplifying it – it is theme and character driven, highlights the repetitions and similarities between films (and neatly avoids many differences), has little to say about the actual conditions and realities of production, and is largely inattentive to questions of cinematic style.

Scorsese’s Men  reads a sample of the director’s films through the framework of mainly psychoanalytic theories of male melancholia. Individual chapters are devoted to such core Scorsese works as The Age of Innocence  (US, 1993), Raging Bull  (US, 1980), Taxi Driver  (US, 1975), Goodfellas  (US, 1990) and Cape Fear  (US, 1991), and concludes with a final chapter that too quickly glosses and compartmentalises the feature films that Scorsese has made in the last ten years and summarises the overall influence of his work (Nicholls has nothing to say about the broader range of the director’s work, his including his documentaries). This final chapter highlights a basic limitation of Nicholls’ analysis. Plainly, this is a book whose genesis occurred some time ago, and its reliance on psychoanalysis and the three films the director made in the early 1990s (arguably Scorsese’s richest period, I admit) appears insular and somewhat out of date. In his introduction Nicholls opines the lack of film writing devoted to the study of melancholia in the cinema, particularly in relation to Scorsese’s work. He makes a very valid argument for why a study of melancholia is appropriate to Scorsese’s films and cinema more generally. Nevertheless, Nicholls’ application of these theories is very circumscribed in its scope, focusing almost exclusively on how central – male – characters can be read and “analysed” as melancholiacs. He has very little to say about the relation of these theories to broader conceptions of the melancholic nature of cinema, or to how they may actually be discussed in relation to Scorsese himself – a difficult task but important considering the director’s role as a self-appointed guardian angel of film history. There is much to be said about the melancholic nature of cinematic experience (and its “apparatus”), but Nicholls almost never discusses Scorsese’s cinephillia, what might have drawn him to a particular subject, or what the audience might actually do with the films that the director has made.

This book is made up of extensive description and analysis of characters and their motivations, but actually gives the reader little sense of what it is like to actually watch and experience these films – or ultimately what might have driven the writer to complete this somewhat misanthropic book. The majority of Nicholls’ analysis is devoted to a reading of Scorsese’s central characters. In this respect his choice of films is appropriate, revealing and convenient, and he chooses the most obvious examples to basically support his central thesis. Thus, there is very little discussion of films that might question and stretch the basic tenets of the writer’s thesis (and that is very much what it is – athesis). I would have liked to read what Nicholls had to say about such films as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore  (US, 1974), The Last Waltz  (US, 1978), The King of Comedy  (US, 1982) or The Last Temptation of Christ  (US, 1988) – beyond the cursory and questionable interpretations spotted throughout.

Although Nicholls does have many insightful things to say about individual scenes and the commonalities of character and theme that run across many of Scorsese’s films, he also seems too ready to slightly misdescribe or misread a scene in order to support his central premise. In general, this is less a case of wilful misreading than omission and judicious selection. For example, Nicholls argues that Jake’s journey in Raging Bull  is a descent into melancholia, a relentless attempt by the character to separate himself from the “mob”. This reading produces some interesting and provocative analysis but it is seldom attentive enough to the textual detail and varied style of the film.

Nicholls does not address the full implications of the change in Jake’s character that occur in the final scenes of the film, the quotation from The Bible which startlingly concludes it, or the struggle with his own body that constitutes its central drama. He fastens too readily onto the conflict between Jake and the Mob, but in many ways this is secondary to the more complex and ambiguous drama played out across and within Jake’s body itself. As in many Scorsese films, we read and experience this world largely through this body. Nicholls also gives little sense of the varied style of the film, its boxing scenes in particular. As in many parts of the book, he is too ready to take psychoanalytic approaches to the film on face value, treating the characters as if they are actual people, and adopting somewhat notorious readings of the films – such as Robin Wood’s discussion of Raging Bull’ s “homosexual subtext” – as if they are accepted truth or fact (without establishing that many of Wood’s observations are self-consciously over-strident and deliberately provocative). In general, a more fine-grained and expansive analysis of Scorsese’s cinema would have better supported Nicholls’ approach. It isn’t that psychoanalysis and theories of melancholia have nothing to tell us about Scorsese’s cinema, but that they are witheringly restrictive approaches when taken up and applied in “isolation”.

So where is this book situated in terms of the body of critical work devoted to Scorsese? Somewhat surprisingly, Scorsese has been the subject of few book length studies. Moreover, many of those that have been published take a very conventional approach that discusses the films chronologically in relation to production detail, interviews with personnel and adopts a hackneyed understanding of the director’s autobiography (his Italian-American heritage in particular). Thus, Nicholls’ book does provide an uncommonly focused and somewhat refreshing analysis of Scorsese’s work. In this context, it is surprising that two books have been written by Australian academics that significantly expand upon the conventional approaches usually taken to Scorsese’s cinema. In many respects, and despite the positive things Nicholls has to say about it, Lesley Stern’s 1995 book, The Scorsese Connection , is a study in contrast to Scorsese’s Men. Whereas Nicholls’ analysis is troublingly insular but appropriately “neurotic” (but seldom directly personal), Stern’s book is wilfully expansive, drawing on an extraordinary range of writers, theories and other films. While Stern somewhat indulgently incorporates herself into her analysis, Nicholls is rather tight-fisted in revealing the ultimate motivations and passions that fuel his investigation. Like much psychoanalytic criticism, Nicholls’ analysis finds it difficult to communicate a genuine love or even liking of cinema. Rather, he treats it as a neurotic object and aesthetic pursuit to which psychoanalysis may proffer a cure (a key to why it is has ultimately fallen out of critical fashion). I think this is perhaps why Nicholls has little to say about Scorsese himself (and his genuine passion and love for the cinema), the content of his films more generally – beyond his characters – or the audiences they attract and the affective relationships they form with them. Nicholls’ analysis seldom moves beyond this narrow framework of character, theoretical model and carefully chosen film. Stern’s book attempts to read Scorsese’s cinema through an extraordinarily vast intertextual web (not always successfully). Nicholls’ book can almost be seen as antidote or riposte to Stern’s, rarely moving beyond its set agenda or buttoned-down character analysis. This insularity is extended to how Nicholls’ reads these characters and his unwillingness to discuss the films’ incipient intertextuality.

Ultimately, Nicholls’ analysis relies upon a frequently discussed aspect of Scorsese’s cinema – central characters who largely filter the representational world. Again, Nicholls takes this aspect of Scorsese’s cinema too much on face value and does not adequately discuss how this ultimately bifocal point of view actually works in the films. Thus, he has much to say about how the world represented in The Age of Innocence  is filtered through Newland’s consciousness, but little about how the film relies upon a deliberate blurring of subjective and objective perspectives. Scorsese’s films constantly move between embodied and detached viewpoints, often relying on specific stylistic techniques (marshalling an extraordinary range of audio-visual forms) to draw us into and away from their characters. In this regard, it is not surprising that Nicholls discusses Travis’ voiceover narration in Taxi Driver  at length, but writes little about the function of the female narrator in The Age of Innocence.

Thus, Nicholls has interesting things to tell us about the motivations of Scorsese’s characters, but this is often devoid of analysis of how these characters are truly presented to us. Nicholls also claims that the social and cultural worlds represented in the films are mostly of interest in relation to the ways in which they “reveal” and situate the characters. Nevertheless, some of the best passages of Nicholls’ book and Scorsese’s films are those devoted to description and itemisation of anthropological detail (sequences which act to inculcate both the central character andaudience into a particular world). Yet again, Nicholls provides some provocative but selective analysis of these elements of mise-en-scene. Thus, he presents an astute analysis of the painting situated over Ellen’s fireplace, but pays little attention to the complex web of signification that objects (and paintings in particular) create across the film (they are used in multiple ways by the characters). Thus, Scorsese’s films often present a fascinating portrait of a particular time, place and social milieu. Nicholls has only very limited things to say about these portraits, preferring instead to minimise difference, and the bifurcated perspective of individual films, in order to contain each film within the reductive (and largely inappropriate) theoretical model he is promoting.
The final chapter’s discussion of Kundun  (US, 1997) is particularly guilty of this – failing to consider whether the discussion of melancholia and psychoanalysis might be a little problematic in relation to the representation of vastly different cultures and somewhat humanised deities – but it is an underlying tendency.

Despite the author’s claims that this book was inspired by his initial viewing of The Age of Innocence  (which I’m sure is true), it is less the films than the theoretical approach that takes precedence (which again dates the book’s underlying approach). In the process of applying this theoretical model to the films, much of their complexity and ambiguity is lost. The messiness and uncertainty of Scorsese’s cinema is corralled into an all-encompassing and, in the author’s eyes, privileged theoretical framework. Despite the glow of nostalgia that emanates from such a fixed (and old-fashioned) perspective, I can’t help but thinking that a more open, mixed and expansive approach to these films would have produced a much more nuanced reading. This is the approach commonly taken in much of the best contemporary auteurist criticism (and in Stern’s book).

Although it is marred by numerous typographical, grammatical and factual errors (of dates and titles in particular), Scorsese’s Men  does contribute significantly to our understanding of the director’s work. I cannot recommend it as a stand alone discussion of Scorsese’s cinema, but if read in conjunction with other, more expansive accounts of his work it does provide a small-scale but focused account of character and theme in a number of his films. The final, somewhat unsatisfactory and piecemeal chapter (very common in books of this nature) does nevertheless illustrate that the analysis could have been much more succinct, allowing space for other approaches and a more comprehensive discussion of the director’s work.

Adrian Danks.
RMIT, Australia.

Created on: Friday, 3 December 2004 | Last Updated: 3-Dec-04

About the Author

Adrian Danks

About the Author

Adrian Danks

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published widely in a range of books and journals including: Senses of Cinema, Metro, Screening the Past, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Australian Book Review, Screen Education, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Traditions in World Cinema, Melbourne in the 60s, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Contemporary Westerns, B is for Bad Cinema, Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, Being Cultural, World Film Locations: Melbourne and Sydney, and Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films. He is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley, 2015), co-editor of American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave, 2018) and is currently writing several books including monographs devoted to 3-D Cinema (Rutgers) and "international" feature-film production in Australia during the postwar era (Australian International Pictures, with Con Verevis, to be published by Edinburgh University Press)."View all posts by Adrian Danks →