Film

'Shutter' Speed: 10 Seminal Scorsese Moments

He doesn't have a definitive "style". Mostly, his work seems stuck in an aesthetic no man's land, lost between Golden era Hollywood acumen and post-modern revisionist rebellion. He strives for art and almost always succeeds. Yet his mainstream profile is often pitted with complaints of high brow brazenness and an addiction to cursing, crime, and violence. Both may be true, but not completely illustrative of this amazing American auteur. Instead, he reinvents himself with every film, following his own unique ideals while constantly staying cemented in the language of the artform.

Now, with his latest film Shutter Island set to be released after a seemingly unnecessary six month delay, SE&L looks back on ten terrific films by Martin Scorsese, arguing that in almost every one of his many movies, there's a pivotal point of clear cinematic polish (sometimes, more than one - many more). While not nearly all encompassing, it highlights how, often, one singular scene can redefine what appears to be a standard genre offering. In Scorsese's case, it happens so regularly that it’s almost ridiculous to point them out. We begin with one of his most underrated masterworks:

Rupert "Rehearses" His Talk Show

[The King of Comedy (1982)]

Geeks of the world, rejoice - here is your real deal role model in all his bad suit and wry moustached mannerism. As a basement dwelling fame whore desperate to connect with his favorite late night host, Rupert Pupkin represents the soon to be omnipresent nerd, the obsessive given over to cardboard recreations of his possible panel time, as well as dreams that wander dangerously over into dementia. While comedienne Sandra Bernhard would illustrates the price one pays for taking such passions to extremes, DeNiro's star stalker savant gets perilously close as well.

Christ "Succumbs" to the Last Temptation

[The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)]

While many argued over its blasphemous nature, the truth is that Scorsese's illustration of Nikos Kazantzakis primary hypothesis - that Christ's death was a mandatory "good" for the world - remains as holy and sacred as any Gospel. Indeed, had the writers of the Bible understood the very nature of the myths they were creating, they would have included something like this amazing epiphany as well. Forget all the Fundamentalist naysayers who struggle to find fault with what is basically proof of Jesus' destiny. Simply sit back and enjoy a deeply religious man's take on the faith that has formed so much of his creative spark.

Tommy Hyatt Tries to Tell a Joke

[Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

In a wonderful, warm scene between mother and son, runaway widow Alice Hyatt tries to connect with her rock and roll riddled offspring. The shortcut to such a bond becomes a bad joke about hunters, a trained hound, and a man's testicles. As our underage stand-up tries over and over again to convince his mother of the story's humor, he finally lets out an exasperated query. "You do know what balls are, right?" "Yeah, nuts…" says Alice, establishing a link that will last throughout the remaining ups and downs of this feminist journey of self-discovery.

Travis Takes Down Sport

[Taxi Driver (1976)]

Moral incongruity as bloodsport. A Messiah with a mohawk, a hand gun, and an ethical death wish. When Robert DeNiro's self-proclaimed savior of the New York streets takes on the pimp pushing a teenage Jodie Foster further and further into an irredeemable future, he does so with weapons literally blazing. For mid '70s audiences it was shocking in its graphic nature. Thirty plus years later, it's still startling, but also argues for the mixed message meaning of the era. Travis Bickle remains the most enigmatic anti-hero in the history of cinema, so his actions aren't unexpected. But even in victory, his gore-drenched designs defy easy description.

Lionel Dobie Paints a Masterpiece

[New York Stories: "Life Lessons" (1989)]

As Bob Dylan literally growls out a guttural rave-up version of his classic "Like a Rolling Stone", Nick Nolte grabs a paintbrush, an aluminum pie pan filled with colors, and attacks a massive canvas with creative abandon in what is, without doubt, the best sequence in a trio of short films that are more ambition than actual payoff. Still, no one has captured the skill and magic of making art better than Scorsese, who uses washes of tint and blending mediums to argue for the intrinsic talent in some people, and the problem they often face in getting it to translate to the masses.

Dylan Goes "Electric"

[No Direction Home (2005)]

In this brilliant documentary on the rise of the '60s iconic folk singer, Scorsese flawlessly illustrates the exact moment when one Robert Zimmerman went from protest insider to rock and roll outsider. Using expert stock footage and varying viewpoints from those in attendance, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival becomes the turning point of the decade, a moment where innocence twisted to irresponsibility, when a search for peace and humanity morphed into a headlong leap into hedonism. Dylan's intent may have been pure, but his feedback laden performance redirected the course of US history.

The Elevator Double-Cross

[The Departed (2006)]

It's one of those twists that come out of left field, a Hitchcockian turn where a star sees his fortunes turn in the flash of a gun muzzle. Up until this point, it looks like Leonardo DiCaprio's undercover cop is going to get away with his informant ruse. Simultaneously, Matt Damon's corrupt officer appears ripe for exposure. It all seems to be falling into place - and then an unexpected stop on the second floor leads to one of the most shocking gunshots ever offered in a Scorsese film. It's a moment that resonates with multiple layers of betrayal…that is, until Mark Wahlberg shows up to set things right.

Nicky Santoro Gets "Interrupted"

[Casino (1995)]

For nearly three hours, it's been a battle of conflicting narrations. On the one side is professional gambler (and mafia front) Sam "Ace" Rothstein. On the other is a Las Vegas mob enforcer and all around incarnation of evil. As he spirals out of control, Nicky defends himself over and over again, complaining of his treatment at the hands of the bosses and his backstabbing buddy Sam. Then suddenly - WHAM! - a baseball bat clips the crook behind the knees. Without warning, Nicky is set up: first, to watch his brother almost beaten to death; the next, to bear witness to his own date with a buried alive destiny.

Jimmy Wants Karen to "Pick Out Some Dresses"

[Goodfellas (1990)]

In a film overflowing with cinematic perfection, it's hard to single out a solitary seminal moment. That being said, the tension in this exchange between DeNiro's suspicious mobster and Lorraine Bracco's scared moll is enough to make every last hair stand up on the nape of your neck. What exactly where Jimmy's motives, and what fate awaited Karen if she did wander down that deserted street and into that sinister shop doorway. We'll never know - and that's what makes this sequence so special.

Jake Has a Question

[Raging Bull (1980)]

"Did you f*ck my wife?" He asks it over and over again. His brother won't "legitimize" such a "sick question" with a response, only making matters worse. Of all the great moments between DeNiro (as fallen boxer Jake LaMotta) and Joe Pesci (as his befuddled brother Joey), this one is the most electrifying. That Scorsese would trump the moment to amplify it in a similarly styled clash between LaMotta and his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarity) argues for his brilliance as a filmmaker.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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