Reel Talk: Scorsese and De Palma

In the 1970’s and 1980’s Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma were really good friends and they were beginning to establish themselves as great filmmakers. They shared ideas and movies with each other, Scorsese even said in the Documentary, Making Taxi Driver that De Palma actually handed him the script for Taxi Driver, and introduced him to Paul Schrader. It is easily argued that Scorsese has a certain kind of prowess over De Palma when it comes to his success in movies, even though De Palma has had the same success. However his consistency of success compared to Scorsese’s is not even comparable. De Palma is often called voyeuristic and misogynistic; his interest in sex and macabre violence in his movies often put people off. While Scorsese’s movies are usually more intellectually engineered revisionist films that are box office successes. When comparing Scorsese and De Palma one mustn’t focus solely on the success of their films but rather the content and how the film was visually displayed.

Martin Charles Scorsese was born on Nov. 17, 1942 and grew up in Flushing Queens in a Sicilian neighborhood. Almost submitting to priesthood, Scorsese gave it up to pursue his true spiritual calling, film making at NYU. This auteur is considered perhaps (besides Hitchcock of course) the greatest American filmmaker of the 20th century. Scorsese is a natural born storyteller, as well as human film “encyclopedia” which exemplifies his innovative narratives. He is often times unconventional with his movies, and most of his movies are often classified as art films.

“‘Marty hates plots,’ Thelma Schoonmaker often says, echoing remarks that Scorsese has uttered along those same lines…What drives a Scorsese tale is his talent for weaving variegated optical and aural and emotional textures, for devising solutions to the paradox that truth and beauty and depravity must share the same frame. Underlying these dazzling gifts is Scorsese’s compulsion to provoke discomfort in himself and his audience… Marty hates plots? It’s a reductive, not-to-be-taken-too-literally way of saying that Scorsese is, among other things, a cultural anthropologist [with an unscientific devotion to the notion that character is destiny](Singer, 2000).”

Most of his works are character studies, thus producing incredible acting, (which includes but not limited to, every character DeNiro or DeCaprio has played in his movies). Scorsese pays quite a bit of attention to period detail like in his later movies about certain time periods such as: The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. However, the content of much of his movies include the motifs of physical or psychological violence through the point of view of the hetero-male psyche. This can be said about Brian De Palma’s point of view of filmmaking as well. Each film they make is told through the eyes of the heterosexual male point of view, often objectifying women and promoting sexual violence (as De Palma was accused of with his movie Casualties of War).

“One of the most compelling features of Scorsese’s work is the humanity he brings to his films. Typically, he chooses protagonists who are outside the mainstream. They are often hard to like, yet Scorsese has chosen to tell their story. It has been said that when people are their least loveable, they are most in need of love. Scorsese shows us these characters’ lives not in a sentimental way, to arouse our sympathy. Rather he shows them in some depth: we see how they often suffer for who they are…Scorsese thus transcends their superficial traits to concentrate on their spiritual condition, their inner anguish and humanity (Connelly 1993).”

Challenging the “normal” genre conventions of storytelling: the humdrum three-part plot line with the same stereotypes and predictable endings, Scorsese rather values the characters actions and behaviors and how they move the audience (even if they make them squirm, and that surely isn’t uncommon in his films). For example, Robert DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle is extremely hard to like in the film Taxi Driver. Despite his other roles as violent and psychotic (I’m referring to his immoral roles like James Conway in Good Fellas, but more specifically Max Cady in Cape Fear, the one fictional person I fear the most) men in high action and drama movies, in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle can be seen as a “victim of society” having fought in a pointless war and now psychologically damaged or he is viewed as a psycho-sociopathic monster who only lives by his racists and narrow-minded views.

DeNiro transformed into Travis Bickle by studying and becoming an actual taxi driver, and his intense research on mental disorders and the disturbed psyche of war veterans. Scorsese gives the actors of his films their own creative freedom, and according to, the famous “are you talkin’ to me” scene was totally improvised by DeNiro while Scorsese encouraged him under the camera.

Brian Russell De Palma was born Sept. 11, 1940 in Newark, New Jersey and was the son of an orthopedic surgeon (where he got his tolerance and interest for blood and gore). De Palma originally studied Physics but soon film called him as he enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College. De Palma is a debated auteur, because criticism of most his films say that he rips off Hitchcock, in an interview between De Palma and Jean Valley in 1980 De Palma smacking down criticism that he takes ideas from Hitchcock’s Psycho to make Dressed to Kill

“’My style is very different from Hitchcock’s,’ he continues. ‘I am dealing in surrealistic erotic imagery. Hitchcock never got into that too much (Valley 1980).”’ However, in my opinion, what makes De Palma a true auteur is his own way of interpreting his influence. Like for instance, Mission to Mars being homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not that he rips off other directors, he is just so inspired by them he tries to, in his own original way, replicates it into his own storyline. Along with his interview with Jean Valley, De Palma expands on his directing techniques,

“ I can tell a story in visual images probably better than anybody. My weakness is that I’ve never done a great character story…but I’m usually so involved in the visual storytelling that the slow rising and falling of the characters’ relationships just doesn’t interest me. But it should. I should do it (Valley 1980).”

This is contrary to Scorsese’s direction with Taxi Driver, in which he mainly focuses on Travis Bickle’s constantly changing psychological state, rather than the action because the action all depends on Travis’ state of mind. However, in Blow Out, the events that precede Travolta’s character, Jack were out of his control and you didn’t really get to see inside his psyche because the action that happens isn’t depended on Jack but on the poorly executed conspiracy by the “over zealous” Burke, who went “overboard” and kept trying to cover his tracks.

“…More often the combativeness of Mr. De Palma’s committed admirers reveals more about the nature of cinephilic ardor than it does about the filmmaker himself. Rock stars have fans; opera singers have worshipers; but movie directors have partisans. Liking a given director’s movies can feel like a matter of principle, not of taste; failing to appreciate them is therefore evidence of cretinism or, at best, a serious moral and intellectual deficiency (Scott, 2006).”

De Palma’s eccentric “taste” in film entertainment is according to Lynn Hirschberg, power, sex, and controversy, which are also his favorite topics. While violence, and sex seem to take precedent in his movies, the women in his films take the short end of the stick. Such as depicted in Dressed to Kill, Scareface and Body Double. Also the portrayal of Nancy Allen (De Palma’s wife during the 70’s and 80’s) and other female actors is almost disgraceful and disrespectful to women as he only casts them in the roles of prostitutes, murderers, and sex crazed “femme fatales” who usually end up brutally murdered. Nancy Allen as Sally in his film, Blow Out, ends up murdered and her last shriek is used as the scream in the horror movie shown at the beginning of the movie.

In the movie Blow Out, which is one of De Palma’s greatest achievements, is a great example of a classic Brian De Palma film. He wrote the screenplay and directed the film and this movie I believe mirrors his own life. The main character that John Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound mixer for low budget horror films. He ends up saving Sally the floozy yet suspicious call girl, and hears a gunshot on his sound recordings that proves that the tire “Blow Out” wasn’t actually an accident. In an interview with Brian De Palma and Carmie Amata circa 1981, she asks, “But does he have to use that final scream in something as bas as a sleazy porno flick?” (referring to the end of the movie where Jack uses Sally’s dying screams for a sleazy, porno, horror flick he was making before all of the events occurred) De Palma replies, “Sure it’s a crazy thing to do but I don’t think he really knows what he’s doing at the end and I also think it has to do with the whole idea that all of those very critical events can be reduced to dirt in the end. That this whole thing can be reduced to just an effect in a movie is essentially what does happen.”

In my own opinion it was almost like closure and a “full circle” type movie that wrapped it all up at the end. However, at the same time it is haunting and one of the last things you hear in the movie and it sticks with you because you do realize that something so serious can be reduced to something so trivial and objectifying.

While Taxi Driver was considered Scorsese’s best movie of the 1970’s and his first real success, Brian De Palma’s 1980 film, Blow Out was one of his successful movies in the late 70’s and early 80’s. These films are similar in their character and plot development as well as the soundtrack and visually striking images. The cinematographer of Taxi Driver, Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond of Blow Out were compelling and dream-like with the camera. One series of images in particular in each movie stuck out to me because of the cinematography, in Taxi Driver, the Bokeh lights and throughout the movie, with the cab sequences one may feel like they are actually in the back seat of the cab. In Blow Out, when Jack is “retracing” his steps and listing to his sound mix he points with his pencil eraser and you see him recreating the memory in his mind and the suspense builds, as the “flashes” of memory goes by faster and music heightens.

The main characters are both “vigilante types” and heroes (even if they are in their own eyes) and also the conflicts in both movies are tied back with corrupt political affairs. Both these films through the use of character development, imaginative cinematography and the mise en sine, turn out to be works of art and are appreciated even thirty or forty years after they were made! It will remain that way because Scorsese and De Palma will forever be appreciated through their form of personal expression through film.


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