Martin Scorsese: Using movies to explore the American character

March 29th, 2013

On Monday, April 1, Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese will present the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The annual Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, is—according to the NEH— “the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Past lectures have been given by Wendell Berry, John Updike, Harvey Mansfield, Tom Wolfe, David McCullough, and WSPWH editor Leon R. Kass, among many others. This is the first time, however, that a filmmaker has been chosen to give the lecture, and this presents a great opportunity to discuss with students how films might be used to explore the same questions raised by the best literature or essays. As David Skinner notes in Humanities Magazine, Scorsese’s “preoccupation with American character and the moral contortions it undergoes in the search for fame, glory, and pleasure places him deep in a dark critical tradition stretching back to Poe and Melville and Fitzgerald. A former seminarian, Scorsese has studied the savage side of our moral nature, even as his films entertain the possibility of our redemption.”

Writing in the same issue, Glenn Kenny, the chief film critic for MSN Movies, continues the thought:

Scorsese is a narrative filmmaker, not an abstract one, but were he to work in the latter mode I suspect he would show us the same thing he shows in almost all of his films: closely observed transformation, its consequences, its sometimes ironic lack of consequence. In Taxi Driver, after its climactic bloodbath and the peculiar elevation of the lonely psychotic Travis Bickle into a vigilante hero, there’s a smeary impressionistic shot of Bickle in his cab, and the motion speeds up as Bickle adjusts his rearview mirror. Then comes the sound of an instrument recorded backward in Bernard Herrmann’s emotionally trenchant score, telling the audience that the “catharsis” signaled by prior events was no catharsis at all, and that Travis is back at a personal zero that may lead to another catastrophe. It’s a transformation in negative. At the end of Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta, once a prime physical specimen, appears bloated, with a cauliflower nose and puffy slits for eyes, but he has gained some sense of himself as a person. “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) complains at the end of Goodfellas, having fulfilled his dream of becoming a gangster only to be brought down not just by the law, but by his own piggish, unheeding excess. The aristocratic Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), blinded momentarily by a ray of sunlight reflected off a pane of glass, understands in that simultaneously painful and blissful flash all that he has sacrificed and lost in The Age of Innocence. A small boy plucked from poverty is told that he is the spiritual leader of his people in Kundun. God on earth opts for the life of an ordinary, carnal man, only to reject that vision and accept that he must give up his entire life in The Last Temptation of Christ. Teddy Daniels quietly accepting the end of his life as a self-described “monster ” in Shutter Island . . . the list goes on. Hugo, Scorsese’s most recent fiction feature, a film he made for his young daughter, Francesca, features a more overtly hopeful transformation: an orphan accepted into, made a member of, a family that his intervention helped heal. While there’s real anguish in his films, and sometimes genuine despair, with the exception of the corrosive (and, in a way, genuinely cathartic) The King of Comedy, Scorsese avoids nihilism as conscientiously as he avoids overt judgment.

Though all the tickets for the event have already been reserved, the NEH will be live-streaming Scorsese’s lecture at Continue reading about the director and his role in American film (and humanities) at Humanities Magazine

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