THE KING OF COMEDY: We Stan A King

Subscribers on Patreon get exclusive content, like this piece about The King of Comedy. Here is the beginning of the piece; to read the rest subscribe at the $10 level at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.

There’s a familiarity that comes with celebrity. We know our celebrities; we know their lives, their loves, their traumas and their peculiarities. We know stories about their private moments and in the 21st century we’re often privy to those things in a first hand way. We watch them on Instagram live, we enjoy their streams, we tweet with and at them. 

Over the past two decades the definition of celebrity has expanded; Warhol’s corny 15 minutes came true not because more folks got on TV but because being famous metastasized into the driving force of our culture and all of a sudden there were more avenues to pursue fame. There are nobodies who are famous for their Twitter accounts, Instagram influencers with more followers than Jesus Christ could have imagined in His lifetime, podcasters who in another era would have been cranks on the corner are now speaking to millions. 

Continue reading “THE KING OF COMEDY: We Stan A King”

Living it in the Streets: The Religious Films of Martin Scorsese

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
– Charlie, Mean Streets

We all know that Martin Scorsese is a gangster filmmaker. We all know this, it’s the general vision of Scorsese, it’s what people harrumphed about when The Irishman came out last year. “Oh great, another gangster movie from Scorsese.” Ask someone about Scorsese and they’ll tell you – he makes gangster pictures. 

But he doesn’t. I mean, he has, but he’s not a gangster filmmaker. He’s made a few, but they’re strung out across his career. If you count Mean Streets as a gangster picture (which it isn’t, but let’s be open hearted here) he would go from 1973 to 1990 without making a gangster picture; in the 30 years since Goodfellas he’s made three gangster films. (No, Gangs of New York does not count) By a reasonable reckoning Scorsese has made five gangster pictures in a 53 year career spanning 25 films. 

I get why we talk about him in terms of the gangster picture – Goodfellas is probably the greatest gangster movie ever made (yes, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are better films, but Goodfellas captures something about gangsterism and its allure that the epic saga of the Corleones cannot), and his four other gangster films range from astonishing to really good. I’ll let you argue about which is which, but the important thing is that they’re all fun, except maybe The Irishman, which is repudiating the fun of his previous gangster films. 

But these movies, as great as they are, don’t feel to me like the quintessential Martin Scorsese movies. These are terrific films, films I watch a lot, films brimming with innovative and exciting style. And while they contain elements of thematic concerns that I think are central to Scorsese himself (there’s a reason I started this piece with a Mean Streets quote), they don’t grapple with them in the way that his religious films do. They don’t speak as plainly, as bluntly, as specifically to his personal spiritual concerns as the trilogy of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence do (with Mean Streets as the prologue to the whole thing). These three films are about something that has consumed Scorsese since he was a kid: the question of how to be a person of faith and still live in the world. 

Scorsese was born and spent his first few years in Corona, Queens, best known for being the home of the Lemon Ice King (seriously, if you ever get to New York in the summer head out to Corona and visit The Lemon Ice King of Corona on 108th street). But when he was about seven his parents moved the family into Manhattan, into Little Italy, and young Scorsese – who was already an awkward and nerdy kid – found himself uprooted from the world he knew and thrust into a totally different environment. 

Little Italy of the 1950s was a tough neighborhood, a lower working class neighborhood made up of laborers and a couple of generations of Italians, consistently in conflict with the neighboring communities and ethnicities. And here was little Marty, asthmatic and not very physical, stuck inside unable to play sports and hang out with the rough and tumble street kids. They’d open up fire hydrants in the summer, but sickly Scorsese wasn’t allowed to get wet; instead he sat at the window and watched it all, developing the voyeur’s eye all filmmakers must have. 

It was here he discovered movies, first going uptown to the theater with his father and then finding movies on TV.  But before that he discovered the church. His family wasn’t religious – they were religious in a very specific 20th century Italian Catholic way, in that the home had plenty of religious iconography, statues, crosses, but the family rarely went to church. They did holidays, the big ones, but not weekly masses. 

Young Marty traveled down the street more often, visiting Old St. Pat’s on Mulberry (but the entrance is on Mott, if you want to go visit it today. To give you a sense of how the neighborhood has changed that church, which did mass in Latin before Vatican II, now holds liturgies in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese). There he was stunned by not only the beauty of the cathedral, built in the early 1800s, New York’s second Catholic church, once the center of a hardscrabble Irish community the Italians would eventually push out, but he was also taken by the theatricality of the Catholic mass. He fell in love with the pageantry and the intonations, the swinging incense censers on chains, the robes and the methodical standing, sitting, kneeling. 

He knew he was drawn to imagery, and so initially he wanted to be a painter. A little kid, he’d draw the Stations of the Cross in class and the nuns who taught his school, Sisters of Mercy, they’d love it. They’d love him, this little fast-talking energetic Italian kid drawn to the imagery of the church. But he soon figured out he wasn’t a painter, and he began thinking about becoming a missionary – which the nuns really loved – and then he decided he wanted to become a priest. 

This is where his thematic obsessions began. In an interview in the book Once A Catholic, Scorsese relates his thinking at the time. 

“And I started to say, Well, at least with a religious vocation a priest or a nun might have more of an inside line to heaven – into salvation, if you want to use that word. They might be a little closer to it than a guy on the street because, after all, how can you practice the Christian beliefs and attitudes you are learning in the classroom in your house or in the street?

“So how do you practice these basic, daily Christian – not even specifically Catholic, but Christian – concepts of love and the major commandments? How do you do that in this world?”

He made some steps towards a religious vocation, but Scorsese soon came to understand that this wouldn’t be in the priesthood – this would be in filmmaking. 

“[My vocation] was harder,” he said. “I had to do it in the street. I had to do it in Hollywood.”

This became the driving question at the heart of his religious films. Religion permeates all of his movies – Who’s That Knocking At My Door’s protagonist, JR (intended, by the way, to be the hero of an Antoine Doinel-like trilogy which would finish with Mean Streets and was intended to begin with a still-unproduced script called Jerusalem, Jerusalem!) is riddled with Catholic guilt and even visits Old St Pat’s – but his three specifically religious movies (and the prologue, Mean Streets) wrestle endlessly with exactly the problem young Scorsese identified – how can you be a good Christian and still live in a world like ours? How can you navigate those things?

To read more, become a Patron at the $10 level at the Cinema Sangha Patreon.

The Ending Of THE IRISHMAN

As the headline indicates, this will mention the ending of The Irishman, but it won’t be too specific. It will, however, touch on the general events and tone of the end of the film as context . 

Yesterday I was talking to a guy who isn’t a movie guy. He’s a working class guy, likes to spend time at the gym, keeps himself busy. He doesn’t make a lot of time for movies or TV, but the holiday weekend being what it is – his family lives out of town – he found himself watching The Irishman on Netflix.

He didn’t watch it in one go. Even when he had nothing else happening he couldn’t sit still for the whole three and a half hours, so he watched it in chunks over a few days. And in the middle of the chunks he got news that his father was dying. His father was living alone and he had fallen, and he had laid in a puddle of his own vomit for two days. Now he was in hospice and dying. 

This guy didn’t tell me his whole relationship with his father, but he didn’t have to. It was on his face. It wasn’t an easy relationship. 

So this guy watches the end of The Irishman, puts on the last hour and figures he’ll get his mind off things. Except… well, if you’ve seen The Irishman you know it didn’t get his mind off things. Exact opposite, in fact. 

Continue reading “The Ending Of THE IRISHMAN”