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Martin Scorsese Doesn't Live Here Anymore and More's the Pity

17/03/2014 14:54 GMT | Updated 16/05/2014 10:59 BST

The question is, where has he gone? These words don't come easy, but Martin Scorsese, at this current juncture in cinematic history, has disappeared. Once a maestro film-maker who advocated anarchy of the soul - see De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets or Joe Pesci in GoodFellas - Scorsese delighted in holding up a mirror to America's underbelly, and he did so with that most subversive of narrative tools: humour. 

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As a one-time film student of Scorsese at New York University, Oliver Stone was inspired by his teachings, recalling him as "a wild-haired, fast-talking New Yorker with a passion for film".

Both Stone and Scorsese subsequently went on to occupy somewhat incongruous positions in Hollywood where they successfully smuggled subversive ideas into the mainstream; Taxi Driver (1976) saw Scorsese examine social squalor and political corruption via Paul Schrader's story of an unhinged Vietnam veteran. He was not one to shrink from the ugly truths about America.

But today he does shrink. Today he makes 3D kids films (Hugo) and is joined at the hip with everybody's favourite, Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who does not possess the necessary menace or gravitas to make collaborations with Scorsese as memorable as De Niro once did.

The reason we love Scorsese is because of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy and GoodFellas. Not because of Hugo. Not even because of The Aviator or the gangster-lite The Departed. And you may think the maestro is above criticism, but no one is.

Instead of shining a light on America's, and in particular, New York's inadequacies whereby he had always been prepared to offend, upset and challenge, he now seeks to merely entertain.

 

His latest offering, The Wolf of Wall Street, is the work of a director on auto-pilot who no longer seeks a freedom to make the type of film upon which his colossal reputation has been built.

 

Like the rock of Manhattan, Scorsese's body of film work in the '70s and '80s supports a sky-scraping career of undiluted genius. As a second generation Sicilian and lone auteur able to critique American society like no other director, he emerged as part of the new wave of firebrands in the 1970s which included Hal Ashby, Spielberg and Coppola.

Scorsese understood the inequable nature of American society, but this held him back in the early days. In 1976, Taxi Driver was overlooked in favour of Rocky by Hollywood mandarins when it came to the Oscars. He was considered a genius upstart and was held at arm's length.

 

Then as he reached a point of critical mass and, arguably, became as dangerous in America with Gangs of New York as Pier Paolo Pasolini had in Italy with Salò, something happened.

 

A possible scenario is this: with Gangs of New York he asked one too many uncomfortable questions of the American establishment at a time when US politics was busy preparing for the voter-friendly Obama.

The resultant meddled-with film was a sanitised examination of New York's Irish gangs of the 1860s instead of the sly critique of American political corruption he'd wanted it to be. Is this the moment when Scorsese had his wings clipped?

With his cinematic energy dissipated, he appeared tamed and accordingly was awarded the best director Oscar that had been wrongly kept from him for too many decades. The budgets of subsequent films ballooned, and perhaps he thought he could make the films he had always wanted to, but he ended up making films that would only turn a bigger profit. Ergo, The Wolf of Wall Street.

But this is the American way. Rather than martyr iconoclasts these days, the establishment instead indulges them. In the UK, they hand out trinkets in the New Year honours list. In the US, they gift you a statuette and watch you bloat under the lights.

What has occurred should stand as a warning to all young auteurs who kneel at the high altar of film-making. You may first seek a film deal, only to finally sign a Faustian pact, and if an artist like Scorsese is not immune to the taint of big business, then no one is.

   

Last month's Bafta awards in London saw Scorsese get lost in an air-kissing frenzy. Manhattan was a very distant country that night. Has he lost his taste for pasta scungilli in favour of white bread? He has, after all, lived the American dream, but in doing so has been defanged and made safe.

But that may yet prove to be an unfounded assertion because a safe Scorsese no one wants. And as any Sicilian might feel the need to tell you, revenge, undoubtedly, is a dish best served cold.

Caricature by Nicola Jennings