When Taxi Driver was released in 1976, the demonically violent final act had early reviewers referring to it as an exploitation film, critical shorthand for an easy couple of dollars for the young director. In an interview with Roger Ebert, director Martin Scorsese was appalled by the idea. “Jesus! I went flat broke making this film!” It’s clear that for Scorsese, violence in his films has always been deeply personal. His relationship with cinematic violence is complicated, wrapped up in moral disgust, aesthetic fascination and Catholic guilt.
At a time when just about every movie has to involve a gun in the protagonist’s hand at some point but the inclusion of blood is still hotly debated, Scorsese remains somewhat of an anomaly: a director of violence who is deeply serious about violence.
Scorsese characters often try to use violence as a cleansing agent, like the Catholic act of penance. The original draft of Taxi Driver actually had a scene featuring Travis Bickle whipping himself with a wet towel, preparing himself for the horrific slaughter to come. That Scorsese captured that slaughter at 48 frames per second, twice the industry standard, speaks volumes. In Raging Bull we watch the tormented Jake La Motta offer up his body in the ring as an almost religious sacrifice, an act of flagellation that fails to prevent the violence from bleeding over into his home life. And never have dead bodies been shot as lovingly as they were in Goodfellas. From the Cadillac to the meat truck, Scorcese’s camera glides to the piano-led outro of Layla, making sure we see the horrific repercussions of violence. It’s disturbing, sure, but there’s no debating it’s weirdly beautiful as well.
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the street,” we’re told at the start of Mean Streets. In Scorsese’s films it seems doubtful that your sins can be made up for at all, but they can at least be witnessed. In the essay The Simple Art of Murder, from which Mean Streets derived its title, Raymond Chandler wrote: “But down these mean streets a must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Scorsese’s films are touched by darkness, but when it comes to violence, he’s brazenly unafraid.
Casino is screening at The Astor Theatre on 2K
When: Friday the 20th November