“Martin Scorsese is an extremely spiritual man and filmmaker who has been concerned with moral issues since childhood. The majority of his films concern characters who are forced through an ordeal, a mythical journey, and thereby offered a chance to face and embrace their whole selves. These characters reflect sides of all of us, and Scorsese’s films touch us in places we may not necessarily like to be touched. They delve into caves where we have hidden things we do not want to look at. They hold up a mirror in which we are confronted with our darkest, most unflattering sides.” – Annette Wernblad, The Passion Of Martin Scorsese [preface]
The numerous books, articles, and treatises examining the work of American film director, Martin Scorsese, attests to his artistry and influence within the cinema world. Scorsese himself is all too happy to discuss his dedication to his craft and his prolific cinema knowledge, much to the joy of all his fans. One such outstanding book is the ongoing amended edition of Scorsese On Scorsese, published by faber & faber, edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie (which my own personal copy only goes up to 1990’s Goodfellas). It is filled with in-depth interviews with Scorsese on each of his films, so you are hearing it directly from the artist himself. This is all well and good, but one soon discovers that even the artist will not divulge all of his/her secrets. And why should they?
A critical view of his films in book form may seem a dime a dozen, but one particular book takes a view of Scorsese’s world by throwing a mirror onto us that is tantalizingly original and reveals themes otherwise not discussed by past writers. I am referring to the 2011 critical study The Passion Of Martin Scorsese, by Annette Wernblad. This is a scholarly piece of work on the films and life of Scorsese, but accomplished in such an entertaining way for any fan to relish. Wernblad executes the seemingly gargantuan task of analyzing all of Scorsese’s films (up to 2010’s Shutter Island before publication) and presents clues, symbols, recurring themes and links within each production. Swirling within all of this fascinating material is Wernblad’s argument that Scorsese is actually holding up a mirror to us with these stories.
Scorsese never uses the horrifying images to get cheap thrills. Neither is violence in his films simply literal, physical violence. It belongs, to use Campbell’s (author Joseph Campbell) words, within “the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams.” Like in the Catholic liturgy, blood-letting in Scorsese’s work is part of a subtle, ritualized process meant to bring forth spiritual enlightenment, catharsis, and redemption.
Scorsese shows us that—like it or not—we all are barbarians somewhere inside. The sides of us that are hidden in the dungeon do not go away, and unless we acknowledge and own up to them, we ill invariably act like barbarians. [Wernblad, page 7, Chapter 1 Something Being Done In Front Of The Altar]
Wernblad contends that this mirror is for audiences to recognize our “shadow self” (to use her reference) which houses the dark leanings within us all. Her book details many such examples from Taxi Driver (a seminal piece of work) to Raging Bull to Casino (which I personally consider one of Scorsese’s masterpieces) and how the films interconnect with each other. It is surprising to discover clues, uncovered by the author, which gives a new slant, perhaps an all new interpretation to some of his films. In The King Of Comedy (one of Scorsese’s most underappreciated works), Wernblad cements the protagonist Rupert Pupkin’s (played with gusto by Robert DeNiro) inability to discern his carefully built fantasy with the reality around him by example of his mother.
The mere fact that he still lives with his mother in his mid-thirties suggests a regressive personality. Throughout the film, Mother yells admonitions to him, but, in fact, we never see her. The reason for this, I would propose, is that she is dead and the voice from above is only in Rupert’s head. In his comedy routine he says, “If she were only here today, I’d say, ‘Hey, Mom, what are you doing here, you’ve been dead for nine years.'” Even after Mother has been gone for almost a decade, Rupert needs her to be present to the point where we can hear her, always criticizing him, the same way we could hear the late Mrs. Bates yelling at Norman. [Wernblad, page 94, Chapter 4 Through The Looking Glass]
It is not only a clear understanding of Martin Scorsese’s life and work that the reader is given in this book, but a depth of knowledge for the history of cinema that gels seamlessly with the arguments presented. This is a goldmine for any serious or casual cinema buff. You are also given the psychological coloring necessary in understanding what Wernblad believes Scorsese is attempting as an artist. This may sound very dry as some old high school history book, but Wernblad draws you in with a unique voice by starting off with a personal story of a record recording of Little Red Riding Hood that brilliantly casts the reader into the theme at its purest form. It is entertaining, humorous, and opens the door into the author’s mind and her basis for writing this book.
The mythological journey, which Wernblad states again and again, consumes most, if not all of Scorsese’s main characters in his films. The chance for redemption, enlightenment, or a catharsis is something we all harbor inside ourselves, though we may not recognize it. From Travis Bickle, to Jake LaMotta, to Rupert Pupkin, to Charlie, to Paul Hackett, to Lionel Dobie, to Henry Hill, to Sam Rothstein, to Newland Archer, to Amsterdam Vallon, to Howard Hughes, to Teddy Daniels; each of these characters seem to share a connected journey. It was not clearly seen (by yours truly) how this journey was consistently presented by Scorsese in all of his films until this book opened that door. It begs a revisit to all of his films, which is a credit to Wernblad’s skill in presenting her ideas.
“The idea of cinema as part of an ancient quest, of Martin Scorsese as a man with a vocation whose films are ritualized stories that take place in front of an altar and affect us on deep spiritual levels, forms the very essence of what this book is all about.” [Wernblad, page 21, Chapter 1 Something Done In Front Of The Altar]
It is a journey worth taking upon repeated times and a book certainly worth reading for even the casual movie goer, for it may open the eyes to all those layers a filmmaker intentionally places within their stories. When eyes are opened, a whole new world rises up for discovery.
The Passion Of Martin Scorsese, 2011, Annette Wernblad
[pictured author Annette Wernblad]