Martin Scorsese has stopped moving. The whirling, volatile camera of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver has been slowing down gradually over the years, steadying itself, settling into the fixed position it finally assumes in The King of Comedy: an almost classical mise en scène, cut to the stately, regular editing rhythms of the traditional American narrative film.

The King of Comedy isn’t a dull movie: the story of an aggressive aspiring comedian named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) who besieges talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in the hope of landing a spot on his show, it has – like Taxi Driver – a built-in, grotesque fascination, and Scorsese’s newly stripped-down style serves it well. But it’s a static situation.

Scorsese explains his conception of the film this way: “I can make each shot moving, but I didn’t find any reason for it. Everybody in this movie is impassible, they’re like rocks: Lewis is here, he ain’t going to budge; Rupert is here, he’s not going to; Shelley Hack [who plays Jerry Langford’s assistant] is here… Everybody’s so rigid that just a medium shot of them talking to each other would do.”

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This fixed quality isn’t new in Scorsese’s work, but in the past it has been his characters’ final state – the earlier films’ furious movement often culminated in stasis, immobility, even death. In the new film, the characters are dead right from the start. The King of Comedy is a message from beyond the grave of ambition, from the afterlife of achieved success.

Scorsese describes the new film as a “reassessment”. “It’s like looking back on the years before. Jerry Langford is what I am now, to a certain extent. The film is a kind of bridge – to where, I don’t know. It’s like starting all over.”

Though The King of Comedy doesn’t feel as passionate and personal as Scorsese’s description – it seems more an epilogue than a climax – the film does recapitulate the themes of the director’s post-Taxi Driver work: the establishment of identity in public and the ambiguous relationship of self to performance.

Scorsese with Robert De Niro on the set of Raging Bull (1980)

The real climax of the story that Scorsese has been telling in his recent work is the complex, unnerving final scene of Raging Bull, in which the retired Jake LaMotta, encased now in evening clothes and his own massive flesh, sits before a mirror in his dressing room rehearsing a speech for his one-man stage show. The reading is Brando’s famous taxi-cab scene from On the Waterfront, the eloquent monologue in which Terry Malloy accuses his brother of ruining his career by encouraging him to throw a fight.

It’s a scene that LaMotta has lived through – he, too, has taken a dive, sacrificed his pride at the instigation of his pragmatic brother – but there’s no conviction in his reading. LaMotta is an entertainer now, a glossy abstraction of his former self, his fighter’s body gone to comfortable flab, a cushion against the pain and punishment that have defined his life. His flat reading tells us that he’s not feeling the pain any more, but is simply alluding to it, using it because it’s what the audience expects, it’s how they recognise a ‘Jake LaMotta’ who’s nearly unrecognisable otherwise.

Scorsese refers to this as the ‘redemption scene’ in Raging Bull. “We should all have such peace,” he says, and it’s true that there’s a resignation in LaMotta that contrasts sharply with the uneasy, combative persona of the younger man (and that contrasts, too, with his transitional stage as night-club owner and comedian, making hostile, unfunny jokes based on his own sexual paranoia and his contempt for the audience).

But the toneless reading, the distance from reality (De Niro as LaMotta as Brando as Terry Malloy, reading a movie-script version of one of the most painful experiences in the fighter’s life), and the vacancy of LaMotta’s slitted eyes, nearly invisible in the fleshy mask of his face – all make this, at best, an ambiguous redemption. LaMotta hasn’t died and gone to heaven; he’s died and gone on stage.

The chill in the last scene of Raging Bull pervades The King of Comedy. The film confines itself to a stifling, hermetic showbiz world: there isn’t a scene in the film that is not related to celebrity and its pursuit. It begins with television – the introduction to Jerry Langford’s late-night talk show; a caricature of Jerry against a hideous purple curtain, an oozing voiceover announcing his entrance before the ‘live’ star walks on – and ends with television, as a stiff, glassy-eyed Rupert Pupkin is introduced as the star of his own show. These scenes are like quotation marks, distancing with irony everything in between them: the ‘real life’ action of the film can’t shake off the insidious, glossy inauthenticity of the images that frame it.

The basement where Rupert spends his time when he’s at home is done up in the bright, anonymous decor of a talk-show set, and he hosts his own ‘show’ there every morning before work, trading showbiz banter with life-size cardboard cut-outs of Liza Minnelli and Jerry Langford, kissing their flat, grinning faces when he’s “gotta run”.

Except for brief bursts of anger at his mother (unseen but very clearly heard) and at the crazed fan Masha who helps him kidnap Jerry, Rupert never slips out of the TV smoothie persona he’s created for himself: his loud clothes (he wears a red, white and blue outfit through the first half of the picture) and hard, manufactured-looking hairdo and moustache are like armour protecting him from the difficulty of the world, from reality itself – the kind of armour that the fat, tuxedoed LaMotta has acquired by the final scene of Raging Bull, after years of standing almost naked in the boxing ring, absorbing punishment.

This anaesthetised quality isn’t unique to Rupert. It’s shared by all the characters in The King of Comedy, including Jerry Langford, the character Scorsese claims is what he is now. Langford seems to have no human relationships; he has only fans and employees. Instead of friends, he has the ‘guests’ at his endless talk-show party – human intimacy only marginally less illusory than Rupert’s cardboard fantasies in his basement.

Langford is as isolated in his celebrity as Rupert is in his illusions of celebrity: the most basic kinds of human communication are missing from their lives, or distorted into parody. When someone knits a sweater for Jerry, it’s not a wife or a girlfriend or a mother, it’s crazy Masha; when Rupert shows Jerry a picture of his “pride and joy”, it turns out to be a dumb joke, a wallet-size picture of the furniture polish Pride and the dishwashing liquid Joy.

De Niro and Diahnne Abbott as Rita Keane in The King of Comedy

And every stage of Rupert’s courtship of Rita, the girl he had a crush on in high school, is mediated by his showbiz obsessions: on their first date, he shows her his collection of celebrity autographs; their second date is a trip to Langford’s country home, where Rupert thinks he has been invited for the weekend; their last meeting, in the bar where Rita works, consists of watching Rupert’s monologue on the bar TV. Langford’s Manhattan apartment is as elegantly desolate as his talk-show set or his corporate offices where Rupert waits to see him. For company, as Langford sits down to dinner, he has a TV set (showing Pickup on South Street with the sound off); when he answers the phone, it’s Masha.

Scorsese calls attention to the absences, the vacancy of these lives through the absence of his characteristically extravagant visual and narrative techniques. It’s a far cry from the teeming, anecdotal narrative of Mean Streets, the camera that wouldn’t stay still, framing and reframing the action as if it couldn’t see enough.

In The King of Comedy, Scorsese operates from a minimalist aesthetic, taking more and more away until only the barest plot, the most functional and abstract compositions are left. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Maybe I should move the camera. People are going to say I didn’t direct this because the camera’s not moving.’ And then I said, ‘Don’t be a schmuck, the director doesn’t have to be a person who moves the camera.’ You have to know when not to move the camera. I wanted the material and the characters to carry the depth of the story – the size of the frame, too. The camera moves with people, either tracks or pans, but that’s about it. I wanted the characters to hold the frame.”

And just as camera movement is reduced to a minimum, so is narrative information. Scorsese admits, “I had trouble with the film because it was a straight storyline. I had difficulty directing certain key story images to help the story along, and sure enough a lot of them were cut out of the picture… At times I couldn’t understand why I had to take a shot of a guy walking through a doorway to explain that he was in there. Certain connective shots bother me, they bother me.”

Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford and De Niro in The King of Comedy

So he keeps reducing, abstracting, eliminating even crucial information, like what kind of performer Jerry Langford is: “I shot a [Jerry Langford] monologue, but I took it out. If you show him performing, if you show any real comedy in the picture, you’re testing what’s funny to me and what’s funny to you. I mean, I may find a Jerry Lewis monologue funny and the film audience may not; and that may take away from the validity of the main character, Rupert Pupkin, who idolises this guy’s comedy. The audience may say: ‘What do you want to be like him for? We don’t like his jokes.’ So I thought I’d take any chance of that away.”

So it “doesn’t matter, not at all”, whether Jerry Langford’s funny or not – all that’s left, then, is that he’s ‘Jerry Langford’, a star, a fully achieved, self-contained rock-like identity. That’s paring it down pretty far.

Scorsese’s techniques in The King of Comedy produce a world in which everything and everyone is hard, inscrutable, opaque. There’s nothing for the camera to search out, nothing more to tell us about the characters or the culture they live in, nothing that matters beyond the placement of objects and bodies in the fixed frame.

The most memorable image in the film is of Lewis taped from head to toe, immobile and silent, like a mummy, in Masha’s creepy, candle-lit, opulent town house. Masha circles around him, caressing, crazy, seductive, taking him in from every angle, as the flickering light shows us new, unexpected contours of their faces and bodies.

De Niro and Shelley Hack as Cathy Long in The King of Comedy

Scorsese’s films have always been fascinated by stasis, but he has always hovered around his characters, exploring, playing with them as Masha does, predatory, voracious. But there’s no appetite in The King of Comedy. If Jerry Langford is Scorsese’s metaphor for his current self, then this film’s metaphor for itself might be Jerry’s solitary dinner in his Manhattan apartment: he eats without much interest, picking at his food, in a barren, featureless, too bright room, in medium shot, the only flicker of interest in the background an old movie on TV, deprived of sound, image reduced, unwatched, simply there.

Some of the old movies in the background of The King of Comedy are Hollywood classics – and some are Scorsese’s own. Scorsese is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the old Hollywood, almost reverent: describing a meeting with André De Toth, he refers to him throughout as “Mister De Toth”; he never cites a film without attaching the director’s name, in a kind of academic incantation (“Northwest Passage, King Vidor… Public Enemy, William A. Wellman”).

In some sense, The King of Comedy is an experiment for Scorsese, an exercise in the classical style of the American directors he loves, like John Ford. “From Ford, you kind of notice when not to cut. When it’s so damn beautiful – what’s the sense? What, are you crazy, move the camera? Just leave it there, look how beautiful it is.”

Scorsese’s work in The King of Comedy may be a kind of homage to old masters, but he can’t quite disguise his ambivalence: he holds the camera on his minimalist compositions, the rock-like figures set against stark and cheerless decor, but it’s not because they’re so damn beautiful. This isn’t Monument Valley; it’s Death Valley.

This may be deliberate, or it may not. Scorsese admits that the style of the Hollywood masters is dead: “The way we make films these days is totally different, naturally – different set-up, different systems, different studio system and everything else. They were making three films a year and they never saw the editor, so they had to shoot the film in such a way that the editor wouldn’t use certain cuts.”

We can read the dry, academic style of The King of Comedy as something self-consciously vestigial, a reminder of a tradition that was once vigorous but has lost its energy – weakened by the death of its masters, the collapse of the system that supported it, and perhaps the whole culture’s lack of the shared assumptions necessary to keep a tradition alive. Or perhaps the tradition is a victim of its own success, as Jerry Langford is, turned into something too solid, too perfect, too recognisable to be very expressive any more.

De Niro and Scorsese during the filming of Taxi Driver (1976)

The film by itself doesn’t quite support this reading: Langford isn’t fully articulated as a metaphor for the old tradition – we’d need to see him perform, to have some sense of his place within his own art, not simply his place in the hearts of his uncritical fans. Still, the face of Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy is just the sort of portrait of death-by-success in America that has been the focal point of all Scorsese’s recent films.

Unlike the director’s earlier films, which are concentrated studies of characters in moments of crisis or transition, of identities in the process of definition, the four remarkable films between Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy have included, or alluded to, such moments without making them the sole focus of the narrative. From New York, New York, through the documentaries The Last Waltz and American Boy, to Raging Bull, Scorsese has been working out an idiosyncratic form of film biography based on narrative ellipsis – a form which assumes a huge gulf between the intense, critical moment when an identity is defined and the long haul of living within the definition.

Taxi Driver (1976)

The protagonists of Scorsese’s early pictures – J.R. in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Alice in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Travis in Taxi Driver – have the impulsiveness and volatility of personalities that haven’t quite jelled yet: their responses to experience haven’t taken on the systematic, predictable quality that comes from a solid sense of one’s place in the world. The restless camera, the variable, unsettling editing rhythms of these films are largely a function of their protagonists, characters who can’t seem to find a point of rest within the frame.

There’s a precise moment when Scorsese’s work enters its second phase: it’s the controversial denouement of Taxi Driver. Having last shown us Travis immobile, apparently dying, amid the carnage he has wrought, Scorsese jumps several months forward, panning across a wall filled with newspaper clippings which proclaim Travis a hero, the saviour of a teenage prostitute.

Travis has risen from the dead and been reborn in public, given an identity that we know is purely external, that has nothing to do with his psychotic nature. For the last few minutes of the film, Scorsese lets us take in the effects of Travis’s new celebrity: the respectful attitude of his fellow cabbies; the warily friendly, almost chastened behaviour of Betsy, the blonde dream girl who’d spurned him earlier; the quiet, dignified manner that Travis has now assumed.

Scorsese’s manner in these final scenes is quiet, too, a chilling reserve that allows us plenty of room to consider the gap between the public, heroic Travis and the dangerous sociopath we’ve been watching for almost two hours, plenty of room to ponder how Travis might attempt to live up to his socially approved identity as avenging angel.

From this point on, from the abrupt freeze-frame of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, the image that snaps shut the tight, internalised world of Taxi Driver, the focus of Scorsese’s work shifts to the public world, where identities must be sharply defined, where personal conflicts and confusions resolve themselves into a distinctive music, an act – whose success is determined less by the internal demands of the performer than by the external demands of the audience, by how well the act ‘plays’.

Scorsese’s next film, New York, New York, not only explores these themes, it embodies them: “We made up scenes as we went along,” the director says, “and as our personal lives started to disintegrate also. We’d say, ‘Hey, let’s put this in,’ and in the meantime, the sets were built and we had to work within the sets.” But for all the passionately personal material being worked out on the screen, the film didn’t do well with audiences. “It’s quite ambitious,” Scorsese says, “but it was never marked for amazing success.” It didn’t play.

But New York, New York is one of Scorsese’s richest films, a work that’s almost too dense with ideas. The film intends to be a thorough critique of American values and culture after World War II; Scorsese pours into it everything he knows about post-war society, about movies, music, violence, sex, money, ambition – and does it in a mixture of styles and tones that’s equally varied, encyclopedic.

Of course it doesn’t work – Scorsese admits that, at two hours and forty minutes, the picture is a good half-hour too long – but it has the power, the emotional heat that unresolved arguments often have. New York, New York is like the intense moment of intellectual excitement when all the implications of a question have suddenly come into view, long before they’ve been narrowed down to a manageable conclusion.

New York, New York begins on VJ Day in New York, and introduces its characters in the context of a big-band celebration that consciously evokes the ‘innocent’ style of 40s musicals: a huge studio set with a fake New York visible through the windows; a famous band, Tommy Dorsey’s; the celebration used as backdrop for the meeting of the hero and heroine, as if the setting and the music were merely a pretext for the important thing, the love story. The innocent style suits the characters, who seem newly born into this wild, joyful night – they haven’t even begun to imagine their lives, the people they’ll become.

De Niro as Jimmy Doyle and Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans in New York, New York (1977)

The tone of this long opening sequence is very cunning: Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), out of uniform, makes a long pass at Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) – who is in uniform – and they play out their meeting scene as just slightly exaggerated versions of the optimistic, energetic boy and girl of the 40s musical. He’s brash, aggressive, amusingly persistent; she’s reluctant, but with a highly developed skill at snappy put-downs.

He’s all naked ambition, she’s all armour, and they’re perfect images of American values after the war, values that inform every aspect of the characters’ lives, that determine both their very different musical styles (Jimmy plays jazz saxophone, Francine’s a big-band singer) and the course of their personal relationship. But the sexual antagonism that Scorsese, in the Hollywood tradition, uses for charm and comedy in the opening sequence is progressively stripped of its appeal in the course of the picture until nothing’s left but the antagonism, an unbridgeable gap between individuals in a culture that appears seamlessly connected, a perfect success.

Early in the film, Jimmy Doyle explains his priorities to Francine: music, money and love (or sex; he doesn’t use either word, just mimes a kiss) – not always in that order, he claims, though we never sense that his hierarchy has changed. His music is his expression of self, his identity, but a more fragile identity than his arrogant manner suggests – his dissonant, slightly abrasive, highly emotional style of playing is borrowed from Black music.

He’s in the vanguard, perhaps, but he’s not an innovator, and in some fundamental way he lacks conviction: although he despises the dominant form of popular music, the big-band sound, he can’t stop envying its success. He needs to feel independent and he needs to feel recognised; the conflicting demands give a nasty, competitive edge to his personality, and a reckless, almost nihilistic intensity to his playing. Slowly, his art becomes inseparable from his ambition, his need for a public identity.

Recognition comes more easily for Francine Evans. Her performing self, like Jimmy’s, is an extension of the personality she shows in her first scenes: cheerful, good-natured, unthreatening. She doesn’t stick out in the crowd the way Jimmy does, loudly dressed, moving against the flow of the dancers – she’s in uniform, unselfconsciously and unobtrusively, tapping her foot to the music as if its rhythms were precisely hers. Francine turns out to be a perfect big-band singer, a performer in complete harmony with the majority culture. Her music is post-war America’s song of itself, a confirmation and a celebration of its identity – a music that’s spirited, optimistic, dreamy and clear.

Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans are made to represent quite a lot about America in the 40s and 50s. And what’s most startling about New York, New York’s very complicated structure is that they keep representing even after their story, on the dramatic level, has ended: they persist as metaphors. The narrative reaches its emotional climax when, in a swift, brutal rush of events, Jimmy and Francine have a terrifying fight in their car, Francine goes into labour, their son is born, and Jimmy leaves her even before she’s out of the hospital.

There’s nothing more to say about them, as characters, after this exhausting sequence; the failure of their relationship couldn’t be more final. But New York, New York goes on. Jimmy all but disappears, and Francine just performs, three big numbers right in a row: the first in a recording studio; the second, an elaborate Hollywood production number; the third, a ‘live’ club performance of ‘New York, New York’, the official showstopper. This looks like a serious structural flaw, a shockingly obvious one for a director as meticulous as Scorsese; but it’s also an index of the complexity of his intentions.

The orgy of performance that closes out New York, New York means to tell us a great many things. It wants to say that Francine Evans now exists only as a performer; that public success, in the terms of post-war America, is inevitably an over-determination of identity, the reduction of self to a performing style, a recognisable product; that any human quality, even energy, can be refined to lifeless self-parody, packaged and sold, like Francine’s grotesquely calculated performance of the title song, her body jerking from one exaggerated pose to another, as if electric shocks were running through her every third or fourth beat.

Martin Scorsese

It means to say, too, that Jimmy Doyle’s aggressive style, the rage he borrowed from the underclass, has begun to find its place in the post-war society, transformed, assimilated into America’s optimistic image of itself: the song ‘New York, New York’ is Jimmy and Francine’s collaboration, but it has to be Francine who performs it, who makes it a rousing anthem to the competitive spirit, a love song to success.

What New York, New York means to say, finally, is that the reconciliation of what Jimmy and Francine represent can take place solely on the level of representation, of image, of performance, only after Jimmy and Francine and their tangled personal histories don’t exist any more: the song ‘New York, New York’ is an anthem for post-war America, but it’s an elegy for Jimmy and Francine. The film New York, New York is an attempt at reconciliation, too, a fusion of diverse movie traditions – film noir, MGM musical, documentary, underground-movie realism – that tells the story of our distance from what those traditions once meant: it’s an elegy read over the grave of 50s America.

“It’s a whole world changing,” Scorsese says of New York, New York. “It’s also a goodbye to a certain kind of filmmaking. When Jimmy Doyle sees the two people dancing under the El – it’s finished.” What the world changed into – the next dance – is the subject of The Last Waltz, Scorsese’s record of The Band’s final concert, in 1976, their “farewell to the road”.

It’s an elegy, too: Scorsese jumps forward 20 years from the end of New York, New York, to catch the generation of the 60s at its very end, making its own elegy, its retrospective image of itself. The Last Waltz is a documentary, but there’s nothing accidental about it: the site of the concert, the Winterland hall in San Francisco, was chosen because it was the site of The Band’s first major-league concert in 1969; the guests – Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Doctor John, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and more – were selected to illustrate The Band’s history and the history of the kind of music they’ve made; the stage was decorated and lighted to evoke the faded-ballroom ambience of the ‘Last Waltz’ theme; the camera positions were set, and their moves planned, in advance; interviews, conducted by Scorsese, with the members of The Band were shot to fill in their history and record their reflections at the end of the road; and three additional numbers were shot in a studio.

The Last Waltz is a calculated document, as conscious and reflective as Woodstock was unconscious and immediate. The Woodstock festival in 1969 was the rock culture’s definition of itself at its peak; The Band and many of their guests had been there, and Scorsese was one of the editors of the film that emerged from the concert.

In that film, the rural openness, the torrents of music, the overflowing crowds merged into a single definitive image: a huge community drawn together by its music, a culture overwhelming in size and dedicated to the experience of being overwhelmed, of losing personal identity to a transcendent group identity. What Woodstock gave a name and an image to was the set of values that succeeded the ones frozen in place at the end of New York, New York.

The Band performing in The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz doesn’t find this image in the audience; the performers will it into being on the stage, and Scorsese fixes it on the screen. The audience might almost not be there: we hear their applause, faintly, and the brief glimpses of them at the beginning and the end of the concert are ghostly, indistinct.

The calculated mise en scène tells us that the values celebrated by Woodstock no longer bind the performers to the audience, but only bind the performers to each other. The group identity is all on stage now, it’s The Band and their guests, now no longer an image of community so much as a community of images, perpetuating on stage what recently existed on a much larger scale beyond it. What The Last Waltz is celebrating, after all, is the end of The Band’s ‘live’ relationship to the audience.

Their connections to each other, however, are still alive: that’s what distinguishes the exhilarating performances in The Last Waltz from the deadening numbers that end New York, New York, and that’s what Scorsese focuses on in the confined space of Winterland. His camera is as mobile as Mean Streets’, his editing as quick and precise as Taxi Driver’s, sometimes with the rhythm of the music and sometimes with a rhythm entirely its own, framing the members of the group individually, as a whole, and, it seems, in every possible combination.

The wide shots place the musicians in their elegant, elegiac setting; the two-shots catch the fast, mysteriously familiar messages that pass between them; the close-ups record their exhausted, end-of-the-party joy. Scorsese’s portrait of the group performing at Winterland is both lyrical and thoroughly analytic, a triumph of style for him and his team of cameramen that matches the musicians’ triumph on stage.

But Scorsese is also telling a story in The Last Waltz, in his elliptical, retrospective manner, the story of what happened to everybody between the 50s and the 70s. As in New York, New York, he’s telling the story of a culture and he’s again locating the culture’s defining image at its endpoint, the point of exhaustion, of death.

His interviews with The Band impose a rough biographical structure, but everything we see is in the present, a re-creation, a copy with no original to compare it to – or an original that exists only in our own memories. What Scorsese is trying to create in The Last Waltz, in all his films since Taxi Driver, is a narrative of inference: he gives us the images, the re-creations, the achieved identities, and we tell ourselves the story. For this purpose, of course, the best images are those that are densest with associations, the best identities those that are highly defined. 

Muddy Waters performing with The Band in The Last Waltz

When Bob Dylan appears on stage in The Last Waltz, a small, opaque presence, his face half hidden underneath an incongruously dandyish white hat, our story-making machinery goes into high gear. We tell ourselves how his stardom – based on his ability to articulate the audience’s feelings, the ideas they can’t quite articulate themselves – has isolated him from the audience, made him unreachable, has isolated him, it seems, even from The Band.

They seem to disappear behind him, as if they were still his back-up band. The Band play modestly behind Dylan, and they’re mostly outside the frame – although the camera does catch Robbie Robertson, the obvious leader on every other number in the film, shooting wary glances at Dylan, watching him, trying to follow. And looking at the film now, we can read another story in the songs Dylan performs at Winterland – an old blues by the Reverend Gary Davis, and two yearning, prayer-like compositions of his own, ‘Forever Young’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. We can read in them the story of Dylan’s next public incarnation, as an evangelical Christian.

This method of isolating a face, a performance, a moment of identity that implies a story, that embodies the experience that created it, is a natural technique for documentary: since real stories can’t always be filmed in progress, and often can’t even be identified as stories until they’re over, documentary filmmakers inevitably tell many of their stories retrospectively. This technique – which depends on establishing the audience’s perception of a gap between the person or image we’re watching on the screen and what the person once was, what the image once meant – in Scorsese obviously goes beyond the demands of documentary: he builds these gaps into his fiction films as well.

De Niro in Raging Bull

In his next feature, Raging Bull (which he once referred to as “a documentary with actors”), he creates a narrative gap even more radical than New York, New York’s: when the camera again picks up LaMotta, years after the end of his boxing career, he’s so totally transformed that it takes us a while to recognise him. And in The King of Comedy, Scorsese has taken the next step, showing us only the transformation, the recreated image, the final state of identity that’s self-defining and self-parodic.

The only references to the pasts of the characters are glancing and allusive, as in a documentary: Rupert Pupkin’s childhood is somewhere in the shadows of his climactic monologue, like the stories of The Band and Dylan and Woodstock in the music of The Last Waltz; Jerry Langford’s story is present on screen only in a brief pan across the photos on his mantelpiece – like the home movies of the boy Steven Prince which punctuate Prince’s sordid, disturbing monologue in Scorsese’s documentary profile American Boy.

With The King of Comedy, Scorsese completes what he began in New York, New York, moves beyond elliptical, discontinuous narrative to a form that isn’t really narrative at all, but a kind of still life. The gap between a character’s, or a culture’s, past and its frozen, definitive identity in the present doesn’t exist any more, because Scorsese has stopped representing the movement of the past on screen, has eliminated the process of becoming: now the gap is between the film and the audience, between our own memories and associations and the fixed objects of contemplation on the screen. 

When Scorsese cast Jerry Lewis, he already had the actor framed: “Lewis brought to The King of Comedy a fuller entertainment, showbusiness character than real talk-show host Johnny Carson, who was considered for the part. He’s been an actor, a director of some note, a stand-up comic, a comedian in skits, part of an act, the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis act… he’s the epitome of the Las Vegas entertainer. He’s a philanthropist, with a national image as that [as host of the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation’s annual fund-raising telethon] – a national image as a man who’s a philanthropist who, pushed far enough, could go over the deep end on television, right in front of you. That tension, I think, is real in him. In his telethon, that’s part of the thing that gets the money, therefore it has to be pushed – and he can act it, but I think it’s real. At a certain point, you get so tired you let all your guard down, and you just let it be seen, what you are, how you’re feeling at the moment… And that alone is amazing, that tension: the way he turns, the way he looks, the way he glances at people…”

Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy (1982)

None of this background is actually represented in the film, but it’s all supposed to be there somehow, incarnated in Jerry Lewis. He is the most interesting thing in the movie: his scenes are like pieces of a documentary on Jerry Lewis – which is, perhaps, the film Scorsese really wanted to make.

But it’s De Niro as Rupert Pupkin whose face holds the screen for most of The King of Comedy, right up to the final image, and it’s a face with no history, nothing to document: the gap we’d have to cross to find Pupkin’s story is nearly infinite, like the long, bare corridor we see him standing at the end of, fixed before a photo of the audience.

If there’s a story to be read in the frozen features of The King of Comedy, it’s a story of exhaustion: the exhaustion of its creator translated into a vision of a whole culture’s exhaustion. The key scenes in this story are New York, New York and The Last Waltz. New York, New York was Scorsese’s try for a masterpiece, a work he kept putting more and more into in the attempt to overwhelm the audience – and it didn’t play.

He speaks of it now as “a big lesson”. “It’s a good movie, I just think it’s a little meandering at times. All the scenes have to be there in order to tell the story fully, but I wish we’d found ways to combine two or three scenes and make one scene. That’s the trick, that was the thing to do. But that’s the way we learned.”

He learned to tell his stories within tighter structures, yes, but he also learned to put less of himself in. And he learned to abandon the exploratory attitude and style of the earlier films in favour of a style that brutally appropriates faces and images for a preconceived end.

Steven Prince in American Boy: a Profile of Steven Prince (1978)

One of many fascinating things in American Boy is Scorsese’s unusually honest portrait of himself as director: we see him prodding his subject to tell this or that story; we see him, at one point, wearily motioning the camera off himself, directing it back to Prince; and we even see him, at the end, cajoling his subject into two extra takes of his final anecdote, forcing him to tell the story just as he told it to Scorsese before the filming, so it ends with just the words the director wants.

We end, in American Boy, with an identity that’s rock-hard and totally ambiguous in its origins: a ‘Steven Prince’ who’s created himself, or been created as product by his culture and his times, or been created by the director. There’s no telling, and Scorsese – and, for that matter, Prince – probably don’t know, either.

It’s the sort of question that New York, New York struggled with, groping, improvising, exploring its way toward answers that weren’t, finally, fully coherent. The Last Waltz, which attempts to create a final image for a restless, improvising, exploratory period in history, and for a music which had tried to weave every popular tradition into one overwhelming sound, is also Scorsese’s final image of the large, inclusive, energetic spirit that failed him in New York, New York. It’s The Band’s farewell to their diminished audience, in a culture that’s simply worn out from the effort of making itself up as it goes along, exhausted with its own experiments. 

The Band are tired after all the years on the road, too tired to keep knocking themselves out for an audience that doesn’t respond the same way any more. They’re tired and disappointed, and so’s the culture, and so’s Scorsese, but the recognition that it’s all over seems to energise everyone: this is it, no more road beyond this, there’s no sense holding back.

Martin Scorsese

The Band and Scorsese built a frame for their final image, carefully – but once they’ve placed themselves inside, they just let it rip. The music is alive, and very moving; so is the filmmaking. Scorsese holds to the frame and provides The Band with its defining image; since their essence is movement, the frame, to be true to its subjects, has to keep moving with them – and when it moves, it defines the filmmaker’s identity as well.

In The Last Waltz Scorsese is too busy being himself to worry about the origins of identity, the source of images. But from then on, the question takes on some urgency, since the films have gradually closed in on themselves, like LaMotta huddling in a corner of the ring, protecting himself from his opponent’s blows; they’ve stopped providing the images of process or development that might explain where the rock-like identities come from.

Raging Bull gives us a little – at least the ‘bull’ LaMotta gets to snort and stomp around a little within the ropes – but The King of Comedy yields nothing, just characters defined by a culture grown so dense, so overpowering, that the very idea of development seems ludicrous. It’s all imitation, repetition, and Scorsese is content – or perhaps feels doomed – to imitate the flat, plain style of Hollywood’s overpowering tradition. “It plays,” Scorsese says of his latest film. “It plays with an audience.” But what audience is it? The same audience that rejected the explorations of New York, New York? The same audience that laughs at Rupert Pupkin’s jokes?

If we try to read Scorsese’s story from the temporary endpoint of The King of Comedy, we’d have to read it as a story of fatigue, disillusionment, and finally disgust with the culture for which he produces images. We could choose, as his defining image, his own brief scene in the picture, playing the director of ‘The Jerry Langford Show’ who records the static, blurry video image of Pupkin that goes out to America.

Or we could choose to define Scorsese by his peaks, like The Last Waltz, and choose an image like The Band’s Levon Helm beating furiously, ecstatically on his drums while he sings, with unaccountable exuberance, “Why do the best things always disappear?” – an image of Scorsese’s work that hasn’t lost its meaning yet, that resonates across the gap.

Further reading

Blood and redemption: Lizzie Borden on Raging Bull and male inhibition

By Lizzie Borden

Blood and redemption: Lizzie Borden on Raging Bull and male inhibition

The filth and the fury: Taxi Driver, the Ramones and the spirit of 76

The filth and the fury: Taxi Driver, the Ramones and the spirit of 76

How to tell a true war story: from Taxi Driver to Cutter’s Way

By Nick Pinkerton

How to tell a true war story: from Taxi Driver to Cutter’s Way

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