The end of the 1960s represented a watershed for American cinema. The great directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age had, with a couple of exceptions, retired or passed away. The studios that afforded stability and continuity were now in the hands of conglomerates. Box-office receipts had been dwindling since the end of World War II. It was time for a change, and one of the changes was the introduction of a new generation of directors, the first generation to have been raised on the great films of the past, directors who, for the first time, were film buffs themselves. This new wave of young directors included Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Bob Rafelson, Jonathan Demme – and, above all, Martin Scorsese.
Of these, Scorsese was the most passionate. His enthusiasm for the cinema’s past went beyond fandom or buffdom – he was passionately devoted to the rediscovery and restoration of the great films of the past, from any source. His knowledge of international cinema is vast and his memory for detail extraordinary. There’s so much information stored inside him it’s as though he’s bursting at the seams; Scorsese talks in a rapid-fire style as though he doesn’t have enough time to describe everything he knows. He’s like a character in a 1930s movie.
His films are passionate too. His best are explosive in their impact, crammed with information and detail. Take the opening twin narrations of Casino, for instance, as an example of Scorsese’s urge to convey as much information as possible. He’s the cinema’s greatest proselytiser.
Like the character played by Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, Scorsese is torn between the sacred and the profane. On the one hand, his Catholic upbringing leads him to tackle religious subjects (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun) while the Saturday matinee kid in him revels in the trashy gore of his gangster films.
He was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York, but when he was eight, his parents moved to Little Italy in Manhattan. He suffered from asthma, which limited his ability to participate in strenuous activities, but his father took him to the cinema twice a week and his passion was ignited. He toyed with the idea of becoming a priest, but the seductive power of movies – and rock ‘n’ roll – prevailed. He studied at NYU, where he made short films – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, and It’s Not Just You, Murray – in 1965. Soon afterwards, he started making a wholly independent 35mm black and white feature originally titled, Bring on the Dancing Girls; starring Scorsese’s friend, Harvey Keitel. The film finally emerged in 1968 as, Who’s That Knocking on My Door?
After making a couple more shorts and a stint in Europe – where he helped write the screenplay for a Dutch film – he returned home to America to work on the editing of Woodstock. Here he was spotted by the perceptive Roger Corman and hired to direct a Depression-era melodrama, Boxcar Bertha (1972). He followed this with the independently financed Mean Streets, which was made for $550,000 and premiered at Cannes before screening at many other festivals, including Melbourne and Sydney, during 1974. The rest is history.