25 Nov

Polityblogger on Ellis Cashmore’s latest book Martin Scorsese’s America

Posted By Politybooks

 “In this country, it doesn’t add inches to your dick to get a life sentence” Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed

America is a country where success is measured by how long you have to wait in line to get served. The shorter the wait, the more successful you are. This is one of the lessons Martin Scorsese teaches us.

In his new book Martin Scorsese’s America, Ellis Cashmore has anatomized Scorsese’s film, not just his dramas, like GoodFellas and Raging Bull, but his documentaries like No Direction Home (about Bob Dylan) and his television program “Mirror, Mirror,” which he directed for Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. This is the first comprehensive examination of Scorsese’s entire oeuvre and the first attempt to explain the clasp Scorsese has had on the hearts and minds of filmgoers.

“This city doesn’t discriminate: it gets everybody
Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) in Bringing Out the Dead

Cashmore, author of Tyson: Nurture of the Beast and Beckham (now in its second edition), begins from the understanding that films have no power to entertain us unless they educate us too. In his own fashion Scorsese has taught us more about America than any living filmmaker. Indisputably one of the greatest living directors, Scorsese has, over four decades, provided us with a body of work that reveals the story of America.

“We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges … we were treated like movie stars — with muscle … we had it all
Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in GoodFellas

“What give Scorsese’s film reverb is their sense of engagement with American issues. His themes are big and resonant. The manic pursuit of the American Dream of success, the moral and cultural decline of the cities, the hopelessness of romantic love, what it means to be a man  – these are the kinds of issues that pulse through Scorsese’s films.

And, yet Cashmore asks whether, for all his daring and ingenuity as a director, if Scorsese is a conservative filmmaker: there are traditional values and attitudes that go unchallenged, and cautiousness about radical change, especially in relation to gender, politics and religion. Women are frequently compliant doormats who give men license to philander just as long as their credit card bills are settled every month.

“All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies”
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s America is a place where everyone obsesses over something, where lives collapse and are rebuilt, where women willingly submit to being doormats and license their man to philander.

 “American culture, for Scorsese, is a proving ground for manhood: in every movie, he makes his audience familiar with the brutality of manhood, not always in a physical sense either. Scorsese’s anti-heroes can be smooth-talking charmers one second, blood-curdling fiends the next.”

 “Should I fuck him, or fight him?”
Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) in Raging Bull

Yet for all his daring and imagination, Scorsese is, on Cashmore’s account, a conservative filmmaker. “He respects the nuclear family, never challenges the preeminence of men and seems to admire the maneuvers of career criminals, who exploit the weak for their own gain.”

In Scorsese’s America, there are no moral signposts signaling the roads to redemption or damnation. The police are criminals in uniforms and criminals seldom taste the costs of their behavior. Yet, somehow, Scorsese has held his finger to the pulse of the nation in a way that arguably no other director has managed.

“How could he write ‘how many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man’? This is what my father went through: he was the one who wasn’t called a man.” Mavis Staples [on Bob Dylan], in No Direction Home

Cashmore argues that Scorsese has produced a comprehensive portrait of America. “No living filmmaker can boast such a range of subjects and such historical depth,” says the author. “Scorsese’s America starts in the 1860s and brings us right up to date, examining what Scorsese sees as a society that continually rips itself apart then repairs itself.”

For Cashmore, Scorsese’s epic tales warrant comparison with Tolstoy, his explorations of the city are worthy successors to those of Dickens and his sympathetic yet authentic portrayals of disillusionment rank with those of Steinbeck. And yet, the nagging doubt remains: is Scorsese a reliable chronicler of America, or merely a visionary filmmaker?