Many years ago Empire magazine published a supplement of the great Screen Couples. Alongside the usual suspects – Bogart and Bacall, Burton and Taylor – they cited Woody Allen and Manhattan. If ever a filmmaker and a city carried on a decades-long courtship, it’s this pair. And for many, Allen is still the first filmmaker they associate with New York City.
Yet theirs is a romance – and one that, for all its charms and insights, is largely an affectionate, nostalgic look at a very specific area (Upper Manhattan) and inhabitant (white middle-class intellectuals). For a more rounded, complex, critical take on his hometown – a relationship in all its ups and downs, love and hate – the filmmaker one really needs to look at is Martin Scorsese. Though most famous for representing those Italian-Americans who shared his geography, era and heritage, Scorsese’s efforts to reach back into history, and to step outside his comfort zone – from the Gilded Age elite of The Age of Innocence (1993) to the ruthless streetwise profiteers of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – elicit arguably the broadest portrait of a city by any single filmmaker.
There are, of course, great Scorsese pictures set far from NYC, be they American crime epics like Casino (1995) or The Departed (2006), or Eastern spiritual odysseys like Kundun (1997) or his latest, Silence. But something about this city – and it features in many of his shorts (It’s Not Just You, Murray!, 1964), documentaries (Italianamerican, 1974), even his music video for Michael Jackson’s Bad (1987) – energises him like nowhere else.
This video essay focuses exclusively on Scorsese’s features and argues that, in his hands, the physical place transforms into psychological space: an X-ray not just of a city’s psyche, but of a nation’s soul. It makes for often brutal viewing, rarely indulging the aspirational side of the American Dream (does the Statue of Liberty feature even once in a Scorsese film?); but few can deny its authenticity. And for all the justifiable claims that Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio are Martin Scorsese’s greatest onscreen muse, surely that honour goes to the city that helped shape him – and which he’s done more than anyone else to stamp on our collective cinematic consciousness.
Martin Scorsese on The Irishman: the Sight & Sound InterviewMartin Scorsese on The Irishman: the Sight & Sound Interview
“What, are you crazy, move the camera? Just leave it there!” Martin Scorsese on The King of Comedy
By Terrence Rafferty
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Originally published: 3 February 2017