Grotesque Neo-Realism: Discussing Martin Scorsese's Confounding Style
Obscenities, Catholic imagery, self-immolation, blood-soaked killing sprees and falling from grace: what lies beneath the surface of filmmaker Martin Scorsese's distinctive style?
When any eager genrephile, from a rank and file movie-goer to a film scholar, tries to pigeonhole a Martin Scorsese film into a neat category, their attempts are almost unilaterally frustrated. Testosterone-laden male youths view his works as action "flicks" replete with headshot gratification, the older set looks upon his oeuvre as a chain of endlessly amorphous dramas that exposes the underbelly of society, and the 21st century intelligentsia waves the banner of Lyotard and calls Scorsese a filmmaker deeply entrenched in the postmodern aesthetic.
However, I find that Scorsese's work is too complex -- indeed polysemy is the very core of Scorsese's filmmaking -- to be satisfactorily subsumed under such simplistic headings. I posit, as an alternative, that Scorsese's cinema is an admixture of distinct renderings of each of his respective narratives: that of hyperrealism and that of neo-realism. Through a mosaic of simulacra, a hyperbole, a-canonical plot structure, and a salient omission of clear protagonist antagonist demarcations, Scorsese creates what a sort of "grotesque neo-realism". The dualistic nature of this style is precisely what has allowed Marty, as he is affectionately referred to by fans, to sit astride the division between popular and art filmmaking, and endlessly confound viewers who try to reduce his work to a singularity.
Here I pause to address a possible concern with my terminology. Some may object that hyperreality is dissimilar to the grotesque. Sherwood Anderson defined the grotesque as people who devote their entire life to a single truth and, in doing so, become caricatures of themselves (Winesburg, Ohio). In this context, it becomes clear that the standard explication of a postmodern society, one in which the populace caricaturizes itself daily in parades of images bereft of signification, is strikingly similar to the canonical description of the grotesque. Truthfully, postmodern hyperreality appears to be a pandemic of the grotesque in which entire societies have repopulated themselves with Andersonian caricatures devoted to image. This is reflected in our proclivity for trends, celebrity, etc. Obsessed with the 'truth' of appearance, the hyperreal character is grotesque.
As my proposed classification for Scorsese's work has two parts, I'll examine each half individually. Fortunately, the way in which his style manifests itself is divided such that it parallels the split of the semantic dyad "grotesque neo-realism". The hyperreality of the grotesque becomes visible through Scorsese's mise en scène and the neo-real is most conspicuous in Scorsese's narrative form. It should be noted that these characteristics are in no way limited to the vehicles through which they become salient. If either the grotesque or the neo-real were restricted to their respective methods of expression, Scorsese's films would seem to be generic mash-ups or crude amalgamations of influences rather than the smoothly blended masterpieces with which audiences are familiar.
With regards to the former component of this stylistic conflation, Scorsese's pervasive use of simulacra underpins his hyperreal constructions; Marty's diegesis are populated by a wealth of disassociated signifiers. Religious icons and generic specific semantic elements serve to exemplify this simulated hyperreality, while Scorsese's fixation on the media and pop culture addresses the phenomenon directly. In revolving his filmic universe around hollow valences (superficial levels of appearance), Scorsese elegaically addresses a society no longer capable of summoning meaning, trafficking only in appearances.
The characters of Mean Streets are amoral as best, motivated almost entirely by self-interest and works of redemption are foregone in favor of a causal chain of decay.
Despite the extensive usage of simulacra in the films, those of a religious nature have been afforded the greatest amount of study and concentration. This is a reasonable trend as the majority of Scorsese's films are brimming with Catholic iconography, albeit completely severed from any normative Christian message. Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets marks the beginning of his fixation on the theological aesthetic. The households of the film are decorated with crucifixes, rosaries and portraits of Jesus. However, the most memorable instances of Christian imagery are Charlie's (Harvey Keitel) repeated mortifications of the flesh, where he immolates the fingers of his hand in various flames from votive candles, gas ovens and the like. Mary Pat Kelly explains that this action is performed to "…remind himself that the fires of Hell burn with infinitely greater intensity" (Martin Scorsese: a Journey). Furthermore, Charlie is seen in constant communication with God, repeating 'Hail Marys' and 'Our Fathers', or requesting divine signs, and using similar informal rhetorical apostrophe.
However, Scorsese makes it clear that religiosity is not to serve as the angel on Charlie's shoulder, warring with the contradictory impetuses of Charlie's life on the 'mean' streets. When Charlie prays he is not asking for moral amelioration; when he burns his hand he is not trying to better his spiritual constitution through strict penance. Rather, these practices have become ritualistic. He needs to remind himself of hellfire, not to rectify his ethical trajectory but to construct his character as someone who fears hellfire. As long as Charlie can achieve salvation of the signifier, he is saved in this world of simulacra. Instead of Catholicism morally elevating Charlie, it mollifies the demands of virtue. In this way, religion obtains an exchange value and in doing so is stripped of meaning. Were this not the case and if Charlie was legitimately wrestling with split demands on his person, we would observe fiercely visceral responses to religious elements. Instead, Charlie's mortification is done coolly and his dialogue with God is taken in stride.
The gap between signifier and signified in Mean Streets, though, is much smaller than the divide present in Raging Bull (1980). Furthermore, Scorsese's inclusion of Catholic iconography is commensurately more subtle. The audience is not presented with lofty theological discourses and characters with heads bowed and hands folded. Instead, Christian symbolism is carefully enmeshed with the scenery and cinematography. As Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) indulges in adultery with the buxom Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), Jake's body is portrayed as that of a flogged Christ, complete with a wound which mirrors Jesus' famed spear piercing. Their intimacy recalls the Stations of the Cross in which Christ's lesions are kissed and eventually the couple is book-ended by portraits of Jesus and Mary. Later in the film, halo-effect lighting again changes a brutalized Jake into a Christ figure at the boxing-gloved hands of the satanically rendered Sugar Ray (Johnny Barnes). Finally, after Jake has been incarcerated, the camera hugs his figure as he mortifies his flesh, punching a cement jail cell wall until he can no longer bear the pain.
Raging Bull - Trailer
Whereas in Mean Streets, Charlie possessed at least some conception of the religious underpinnings of his environment and actions, Jake LaMotta is completely blind to any theological concerns. Jake is significantly more morally bankrupt as well, beating his wife and brother, fostering a lascivious preoccupation with carnality, and verbally abusing nearly the entire cast of characters. However, beyond Jake's conspicuous separation from the Christian symbolism which envelops his narrative, there is no character or act which may be seen to correspond with the iconography. The characters are amoral as best, motivated almost entirely by self-interest and works of redemption are foregone in favor of a causal chain of decay.
Rather than being a polarizing agent, Christian imagery serves to establish the diegesis as a conglomeration of appearances, mirroring Jake's constitution: Jake tries to play the role of the tough guy, the smooth lover, and the championship boxer but rather than investing his essence in these pursuits he is content to merely appear to be each of these. Thus, Jake amasses the traits of these personas but it only ever appears as if he is acting from a script for each of the characters. In this way, the mosaic of Catholic simulacra parallels Jake's superficial constitution. Disassociated symbols of religiosity become standards, marking Jake as an empty combination of appearances.
Although religious iconography is the most celebrated use of simulacra in Scorsese's filmmaking, Marty often masterfully retexturizes elements of generic signification to create his hyperreal diegeses as well. The process by which this occurs is counterintuitive. Scorsese adapts a genre's semantics as faithfully as possible and overlays them on the neo-realistic narrative form (to be discussed later). Separated from their traditional plot structures, these elements engender a sense of generic insincerity. This disconnect actively transforms these generic constituents into simulacra complementing the grotesque hyperreality.
Mean Streets - Trailer
Scorsese frequently steeps his films in blood, casually drawn at the barrel of any number of firearms (and occasionally blunt objects).
In Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese utilizes the classic components of gangster films: guns, police, larceny, a 'godfather' character, etc. However, he severs these elements from their usual context. Typically, gangster films chronicle the rise of a thug to the highest ranks of organized crime until he commits a misstep at which point he is usually killed. In Goodfellas, the ascent of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in status occupies less than a third of the plot, with the majority of the film detailing his painfully slow and consistent fall from glory. Furthermore, death does not provide the customary capstone to the film, with the ending portraying a safe relocation to a witness protection program. Genre depends on the dialectic synthesis of its semantic and syntactic elements to wholly functional as a recognizable genre. (It should be noted that the division of genre into semantic and syntactic components is an allusion to Rick Altman’s genre theory presented in his book Film/Genre.) Altman defines a genre’s semantics as the atomic signs of the genre such as its iconography and traditional stars. A genre’s syntax, on the other hand, is the genre’s recurring plots and themes. With only the appearance of a gangster film as a skin on a neo-realistic framework the conventions borrowed from such early genre standards as White Heat (1949), Scarface (1932), and the like are decried as vacuous and the diegesis becomes a grotesque simulation.
Such a technique is reprised in The Age of Innocence (1993) where the costume drama becomes the genre which has its imagery appropriated by the deft hand of Scorsese. The mise en scène of The Age of Innocence is as mimetic a citation as one can achieve, seamlessly employing ornate dresses, lavish interiors, and perfectly coifed hair to blend with the canon of films centered around ballrooms and aristocracy. The performances are plucked directly from a Visconti piece; Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer deliver highly affected and austere portrayals of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. However, just as in Goodfellas, this movie does not fit neatly into the category which it might initially appear to: the patrician period film. Instead, these components are divorced from the syntactic architecture to which they traditionally refer and left to float freely as generic simulacra. Missing from The Age of Innocence is the perspectival interiority necessary to maintain the diegesis of the costume drama.
Most other works in this vein (The Forsyte Saga, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) deal with problems within the upper-class social circle viewed from firmly within that circle. Problems must be solved in the manner which aristocratic tradition dictates; operating within this premise identifies pieces depicting this period. However, Newland and Ellen are both instantly posited out of the sphere looking in, desiring, on some level, to break away from their aristocratic lives. Thus, both act as outsiders transplanted into a world alien to their natures. Furthermore, the prevalent third party voice-over narration creates a level of dramatic irony which suspends the viewers outside of the world of the 19th century elites. The ubiquitous influence of Martin Scorsese becomes salient in this fashion and the costume drama is revealed as just another skin for the movies Scorsese has been making since his film career began. The artifacts of the genre, the valence of the genre itself, are bereft of generic signification and engendered is a sense of a diegesis that is virtual, that is hyperreal.
As referenced earlier, Scorsese approaches the hyperreality directly as well, focusing (particularly in his early films) on pop culture and media hegemony. Both of these forces are integral in defining a world without whole signification as pop culture digs up past signs and gives them new life as simulacra and the media raises questions of truth vis-à-vis its powers of legitimization. Scorsese's 1983 The King of Comedy is the filmmaker's pithy discourse on pop culture and, more specifically, the phenomenon of celebrity. Centering on a deranged admirer's obsession with Jerry Langford (Jerry Lee Lewis), an immensely famous talk show host and comic, The King of Comedy traces the path of Rupert Pipkin (Robert DeNiro) from stalking Langford, to kidnapping him, to becoming famous as a result of his actions. In this way, the movie highlights the caprice of star/fan-dom and decries the construct of celebrity to be completely hollow. Furthermore, by painting our world as a mosaic of vacuous icons and admirers, Scorsese suggests that the modern landscape is ridden by a geography of empty images.
Scorsese's conceptualization of the news media reinforces this picture of the modern (or rather post-modern) world. In Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese demonstrates the ability of the media to transform Travis Bickle's (DeNiro) cold-blooded homicide into a sterling example of vigilante justice. In doing so, the audience is confronted with the tenuous identity of truth -- if media controls the truth, then is objectivity a fallacy -- and Taxi Driver becomes a filmic translation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 book The Postmodern Condition. By undermining reality in this fashion Scorsese grandstands the fraying connections, governed by truth, between images and that to which they refer; if the world is governed by subjectivity, architectures of signification must be equally variable.
However, were Scorsese to content himself with creating hyperreality in this way alone, his films would become overly scholastic, post-modern experiments targeting fans of Baudrillard and his ilk. Needless to say, this audience would not be a large one. However, Scorsese's brilliance lies in his ability to wield high-brow filmic discourse with an appeal to the average viewer. Furthermore, his schema is actually complemented by this appeal. The main device Scorsese uses for this effect is hyperbole. As exaggeration in the form of caricature is the primary element of the grotesque, such an element may be sewn nicely into Scorsese's hyperreal tapestry.
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Scorsese's prime medium for this exaggerated filmmaking is violence. Often maligned that his diegeses turn into abattoirs, Scorsese frequently steeps his films in blood, casually drawn at the barrel of any number of firearms (and occasionally blunt objects). I find error not with this assessment of Scorsese’s films but rather with the argument that this violence is merely exploitative. The penultimate scene in Taxi Driver portrays Travis Bickle ensanguine a tenement staircase, unloading a surplus of ammunition in the pimp Sport, his doorman, and a client patronizing the prostitute played by Jodie Foster. In the melee, Travis too is wounded in the neck, further contributing to Scorsese's bloodied canvas. It is not enough that a multitude of casualties are incurred. Scorsese makes his characters painfully hard to kill and concentrates his camera on the grisly repeated mangling of the bodies by a hail of bullets. Once the police finally arrive, viewers are treated to a bird's-eye tracking shot which surveys the excessive carnage.
Such displays are reprised in Goodfellas, Casino, and Gangs of New York (to name only a very small portion of Scorsese's violent oeuvre). Perhaps the most salient exhibition of brutality occurs in Casino as the audience watches Joe Pesci and his character's brother first bludgeoned with baseball bats and then buried alive. Contrary to popular belief, this overkill is not gratuitous. Rather the hyperbolic character of Scorsese's violence functions to caricaturize his diegeses, branding them with a stigma of virtuality. As the grotesque comes to light and pathos is frustrated by unsympathetic characterization, violence is rent from any signified material. Bloodshed becomes merely the crimson material from which Scorsese erects his hyperreal arena of action.
When repeated 398 times, "fuck" loses its meaning.
In concert with violence, Scorsese wields foul language rather fluidly. To this day, Casino boasts the third most occurrences of the word "fuck" in movie history (398 instances to be exact). Goodfellas is ninth with 300 f-words and The Departed lags at 23rd with a scant 237 occurrences (FMG). Sources, including flustered mothers and bible-belt critics, slander Scorsese's profanity as unwarranted, and guilty of mottling otherwise strong scripts with irredeemable obscenity. To be fair, Scorsese is not his own screenwriter and he cannot be given complete credit for the verbal crassness which punctuates his movies. However, the consistency (and my admitted inclination towards an auteurist schema) with which his films feature foul language suggests Scorsese has some hand in the profanity. Furthermore, Scorsese need not have his stamp on every aspect of his film to discuss these elements in the context of his body of work.
Foul words operate in much the same way as violence. In the needlessness of its excess it counter-intuitively becomes purposeful. Verbal obscenity elevates language to the same grotesque plateau as violence does the mise en scène. In doing so, speech is deconstructed, broken down into atoms which mean essentially nothing. When repeated 398 times, "fuck" loses any meaning (its denotation innately tenuous) in much the same way as a child repeats a word ad nauseum until it begins to sound like nonsense. Scorsese's profane semantics confront phallogocentrism and liberate the word as merely an utterance. This is not to say both obscenity and violence are afforded some generous apportionment of objective legitimacy. Rather, both are cast into a post-modern morass of universal subjectivity. Language has lost is communicative function and is merely an expression of obscenity in Scorsese's hyperreality.
The performances of Scorsese's actors, the agents wielding violence and dirty language, are commensurately hyperbolic. DeNiro's portrayals of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver come across as thinly disguised spasmodism. Johnny Boy skitters across rooftops and fire escapes while wildly gesticulating and Travis Bickle's acrobatic rehearsal of his assassination is a long-winded, elliptically-edited paroxysm. Joe Pesci, as well, is absolutely larger than life, perennially incoherent and prone to violent outbursts. In Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) launches into a relentless harangue -- albeit eventually for humor's sake -- after he is refered to as 'funny'. Later, he discharges his firearm into the torso of a youth who he feels has slighted him and cattily denies he has done anything wrong.
A true taxonomy of every outrageous performance in a Martin Scorsese piece would rival the length of the combined credits of his oeuvre. Directing actors to play their characters in this manner, Scorsese's players become archetypal grotesques. His figures play parodies of themselves and their baroque identities flesh out his diegeses as hyperreal. For virtuality to be fully constructed, it is insufficient for the world alone to be markedly simulated. The characters must be as well. In this way, Scorsese points his discursive finger at his viewers and safe-guards his schema from being misinterpreted as reifying the world as hyperreal. Rather, Scorsese shows his manifold of simulacra to be progeny of the figures which people his diegeses.
Here we will break from the topic of the grotesque and advance to that of the neo-real. This latter component rescues Scorsese's films from the threat of absurdism and masterfully transfigures his exaggerated worlds into ones which viewers may relate to. This is not to say that Scorsese's wielding of neo-realism immerses the audience in the diegesis and welds their humors to the sentiment of the film; spectators are rarely emotionally attached to Scorsese’s works. Rather, viewers are safely distanced from empathy by characters who are boors at best and alien environments such as the world of taxi drivers and aristocratic 19th century New York. However, the true faculty of Scorsese's neo-realism is to ground his otherwise baroque narratives in some semblance of humanity. This serves as the bridge between the hyperreal and the everyday experience of members of the audience. As imitation of their reality, the neo-real aspect suggests that perhaps the hyperreal (with which it is conflated) is also a mirror of the viewers' world.
The neorealist ethic is simple: focus on melancholy aspects of lower class life and present reality in a verisimilar fashion by shedding the literary conventions of canonical plot and predominance of narrative advancement. 'Real' life is often not glamorous, with most existences revolving not around an ascent to a climax but rather a steady repetition of everyday events, and the average action is perfunctory, not profoundly causal. Scorsese was strongly influenced by this tradition and borrows heavily from it, his predilection for neorealist cinema expressed in his 1999 Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy).
It at first seems counterintuitive to assert that Scorsese's work fits into the neorealist aesthetic, his films often centering on wealth, not poverty (see Casino, The Age of Innocence, and Kundun). To this objection, I offer two replies. Firstly, while there may be a handful of Scorsesean casts placed in the social strata of affluence, the average Scorsese film does, indeed, train its camera on moderately impoverished (both financially and spiritually) individuals. The beginning of Marty's career is marked by a ubiquitous concentration on the lower ranks of society. The eponymous protagonist of Boxcar Bertha (1972) is a homeless train robber and fugitive, while Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) chronicles the plight of widowed Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her child as they struggle to survive on the low income earned in waitress and bar jobs, and Taxi Driver (1976) features Travis Bickle who subsists in a world of tenements, filthy taxis, and junk food. Secondly, although the characters generally become more well-to-do as their careers progress, I argue that gangsters, despite any wealth they have acquired, are immutably mired in the 'groundling' aspect of society. Any money stolen, coerced, or otherwise illicitly gained is merely gilding on indisputably canaille ranks, as evidenced by their crude sensibilities and unrefined speech and behaviors.
Scorsese's humanist trend toward the masses is further revealed through his refutation of Nietzschean individualism. There is not a single character in Scorsese's entire oeuvre that can be said to be exceptional; rather his leading figures appear to be merely manifestations of the particular permutation of pedestrian attributes which Scorsese has chosen to highlight. Even Scorsese's Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ of 1988) is common. This Christ (Willem Dafoe) is not the radiant avatar of iron-clad faith as he is traditionally depicted. Rather, he is often ill-tempered, dirty and haggard, and gives into Satan's temptation until the very last moment of his life. It may be objected that Travis Bickle is an exception to this rule, a mohawked, perverse superman. However, I find this claim to be substantiated only superficially. Although his training and equipping of weaponry does recall the armament of a comic book protagonist, one must examine the results of this spectacle. He not only completely fails at an assassination attempt on Senator Charles Palantine but the dénouement of his preparation is anything but awe-inspiring. He shoots a surprised pimp (failing to kill him) and guns down an older, overweight doorman (who he again fails to kill for several minutes). The cleanest kill of Travis' rampage is the nonplused man patronizing Jodie Foster's character's services. This vigilante spree is not only shoddily executed but the righteousness of his motives are tenuous at best. These are not the marking of an übermensch as the apotheosizing media within the film would have you believe. Travis is a painfully regular individual whose fragile mental constitution drives him to sloppy homicide.
Taxi Driver highlights what may be termed a neorealist morality, a prevalent aspect of Scorsese's work. The demarcation between good and evil, protagonist and antagonist is blurred beyond all recognition -- interestingly much of postmodern cultural output shares this characteristic. Without grand narratives of good and evil, we have no meter by which to measure our actions. Neorealism in its devotion to truth argues that in everyday life the binary opposition between right and wrong is much more obscure than popular cinema would have one believe. Thus, Scorsese's films do not have heroes and villains but take cues from such Italian cinema classics as Rome, Open City (1945) and Umberto D. (1952), populating the world with characters whose motives vacillate from acceptable to ignoble. It bears noting that saying that Scorsese’s oeuvre is somewhat devoid of heroes does not mean it is devoid of protagonists.
While the two terms are similar, a 'protagonist' embodies the central character, who is the main focal point of a piece; a hero must in some way be sympathized with or rooted for. Furthermore, whereas directors often use the point of view of the camera to identify the audience with the protagonist, Scorsese's films utilize the camera's point of view for means of investigation, plumbing the psychological depths of the individual whose perspective the audience is imparted. Jake LaMotta is not the hero of Raging Bull, he is the phenomenological vehicle of analysis. Although the camera focuses on LaMotta, his utterly unsympathetic characterization as a jealous, violent womanizer forces the audience to connect, instead, with the constellation of persons mistreated by him. Jake is viewed as a choleric test subject who Scorsese attempts to dissect with a camera which encircles his figure. Often Scorsese’s lens lingers on fragments of LaMotta’s form—a muscle, an expression, a wound—taking the man apart with its attention to detail.
Most of Scorsese's films avoid a strict hero-villain bifurcation by simply not including an antagonist. This cast construction is a staple of neorealism; one need only to look at the hallmark neorealist film, The Bicycle Thief (1948). The film's succinct message is that in times of poverty everyone steals to survive. Thus, protagonist versus antagonist is not an ossified relationship but rather the reciprocal nature of the everyman under the weight of financial depression. Goodfellas has some characters more morally bankrupt than others (Tommy DeVito, for example) but there are no actual villains. The lead, Henry Hill, has moments of virtue such as when he, as a boy, bandages a bleeding gunshot victim. However, the overwhelming laundry list of felonies in which he engages in his adult life exposes man's morality to be inconstant. This film's concern is not to uplift its audience by engaging them in a diegesis in which issues are black and white and by allowing them to champion the clear-cut hero. Goodfellas rather endeavors to explore the social architecture which spawns the mob and makes their protracted existence viable. Humanism vis-à-vis neorealism is not used as a glossing agent but as an archaeological one, uncovering hidden social substructures.
While a metaphysics of morality is an important concern of neorealism, its most salient characteristic is its formal replication of daily existence. Although typically accomplished through dead intervals (which do have some presence in Scorsese's body of cinema), Marty prefers to achieve filmic credibility through narrative form. Scorsese's works combat climacticentricism, the practice of orienting plot around one moment of intense conflict preceded by ascending stories and followed by falling action. The model which Scorsese adopts commences with a brief rise (although sometimes this stage is skipped), usually a main character's waxing celebrity, succeeded by the majority of the film detailing that figure's gradual self-destruction or fall from glory. To recourse to geometrical analogy, without a climax the slope of the plot's trajectory is much smaller than the canonical narrative retarding the film's pacing. This creates a subtle effect of dead interval further generating the neorealistic milieu.
Although the beginning of Scorsese's career hints at such patterning, Raging Bull is the first instance of neorealistic formal maturity (which continues most similarly in The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, and Casino). Furthermore, the boxing epic is a warhorse of cinema, the regularity of its structure making Raging Bull easy to analyze through the manner in which it departs from the usual fare. Typically, these texts begin with a nobody fighter who trains incessantly until he get a shot at fame on which he capitalizes. This slingshots the boxer to glory. However, such a plot is entirely fantastic and divorced from a reality which dictates that the individual is rarely, if ever, subject to such peripety. Raging Bull, though, does not turn the traditional plot on its head, rather it makes subtle adjustments to the canonical plot by stretching out the falling action.
The reverberations of this minor change push the film out of the classic action flick genre and into neorealistic territory. LaMotta does receive his break and he does become the middleweight world champion. The fight which wins him this celebrity only receives a very small portion of film time and his achievement is tinted with failure from the beginning as LaMotta laments that "his small hand" prevents him from ever contending for the heavyweight title. Additionally, a large part of the movie is dedicated to watching LaMotta's defeat and loss of the championship belt and his ensuing corpulent weight gain and eventual incarceration. This mournful epilogue (which comprises roughly an hour of screen time) and the relatively minute amount of film spent on his success robs his championship victory of climactic status and transfigures the film from one about a world-class boxer to one about the universal flaws of man. Such is the schema of neorealist filmmaking: underlining the common denominator.
The Hyperreal and the Neo-real
With both halves of Scorsese's style fleshed out, it becomes necessary to turn our attention to the conjunction of his style, how the grotesque operates in concert with the neo-real. As posited previously, if these qualities were discrete and not blended, Scorsese's style would seem fragmented and his films would be mired in formal ambivalence. Scorsese, though, avoids such a condition through his realization of the innate interconnectivity between the hyperreal and the neo-real. Scorsese brandishes the deconstructive character of the grotesque but repurposes it. Whereas traditionally such postmodern devices are used to strip away appearances and expose absolute nothingness beneath, Scorsese peels back the shroud to reveal a nothingness underscored by the universality of the human condition.
Instead of mere posturing or bemoaning the farcical parade of signifiers in our society, Scorsese entertains the hyperreal to show that our systems of religion, reputation, capitalism, etc. are empty placeboes to pacify participants. By exposing these orders as simulacra, Scorsese paints Catholic icons, the tough guy image, and economic jockeying as token currencies. Beneath this superficiality though, Scorsese's neorealism asserts an indisputable relationship between men, both humanness and the common abandonment to hyperreality. Rather than proffering hopelessness, Scorsese suggests that in the omnipresent intoxication with image, our postmodern society has found new ground on which to relate.
While masterfully commanding this contemporaneous overarching denudation and discreet summoning of hope, Scorsese's mixed style also accounts for frequent misunderstanding in the perceptions of critics and viewers. This failure of appraisal almost always occurs when an element expressive of one half of Scorsese's form is fixated upon and separated from the full scope of Scorsese's technique. Most often this critical cathexis targets Marty's violence or language. While fully justified (when considered holistically) as emblematic of Scorsese's hyperreality, these excessive features are repeatedly censured as smacking of exploitative filmmaking; Scorsese is misconstrued as an author of spectacle cinema, transgressing to draw an audience attracted by taboo.
Such a dismissal of Scorsese's work and equation to B-filmmaking is a tragic delusion. If Scorsese's violence or language was muted, the grotesqueness which underlines his hyperreality would fade as well. Diminished in intensity, this half of his style may go unnoticed to viewers untrained in postmodern thought and the identification of simulacra. With a diluted or missing hyperreality, Scorsese's works would read as modernized yet anachronistic apings of filmmakers like De Sica, Rossellini, etc. It is precisely Scorsese's firm hold on the hyperreal which places the filmmaker in the vogue contemporary consciousness still preoccupied by postmodern thought. It is the interplay of the hyperreal and the neo-real which makes Scorsese's cinema absolutely fresh.
The blended dualism of Scorsese's craft is, without doubt, the source of Marty's films' deft balancing on the boundary between art and popular cinema. As the preceding text of this essay would suggest, Scorsese's entrenchment in an avant-garde philosophical aesthetic garners him the respect of the art house. Both hyperreality's postmodernity and neorealism's humanism are, insofar as their theoretic nature, the province of the scholar rather than the casual audience. Such a filmic affectation does little for mass appeal, the high-brow often warding off the rank-and-file who are repulsed by any trappings of pretension. Scorsese, though, is not endeavoring to make esoteric films, descending as he does from a blue-collar Italian lineage and being intensely concerned about issues of community. Thus, beyond the more rarefied components of Scorsese's cinema, there are relatable casts, stimulating action, and dialogue which is often humorous and always pedestrian. Neorealism affords the universality of the characters and the grotesque, in its celebrated hyperbole, is visually compelling. Thus, just as the hyperreal and the neo-real bleed into each other in form, this dyad is blended in drawing viewers as well; one cannot assert that the grotesque makes Scorsese's films art and the neo-real makes them popular.
Why does The Departed feel so markedly un-Scorsesean?
Until this point, Scorsese's latest film, The Departed (2006) has gone all but unmentioned. The rationale behind this neglect is that just as The Departed serves as a postscript for Scorsese's style, so should the discussion of the film serve as an afterword for this essay. Scorsese has commented that this film was his first to have a plot. Immediately, such an admission should indicate inclemency for Scorsese's grotesque neorealism. Technically speaking, all of Scorsese's films have a plot. Thus, the subtext of Scorsese's self-commentary is that The Departed is the first of his films to have a canonical plot. This appraisal is an accurate one. The Departed lacks the traditional Scorsesean quick rise and protracted descent of narrative, substituting climax and causality for neorealistic form. For the first time, Scorsese resorts to the panacea of popular cinema to drive his story forward: plot twists. Marty sacrifices much of his traditional neorealism, and The Departed becomes something of a blockbuster with a vaguely artistic grotesque character. As suggested earlier, neither component of Scorsese's grotesque neorealism can sustain the overall milieu without the other, and The Departed feels markedly un-Scorsesean.
Is this proof, as many critics have suggested, that The Departed is merely a (successful) play at an Oscar win? While I cannot purport to have access to Marty's motives for making this film, I propose that The Departed marks an evolution in Scorsese's style in which he utilizes a metatextual adroitness to complement his hyperreality. By conspicuously adding a canonical plot, (perhaps for the purpose of an award) Scorsese's label of simulacra is extended to include purely formal elements such as the plot itself. If the plot is not intended to serve the story but, rather, to attract Oscar panel attention or invite some other reward, what meaning does this construct really have? His film, thus, simultaneously announces a parade of disassociated signifiers, as per usual, and is one itself. In this way, The Departed becomes a sterling example of post-modernity in the world of the viewers; Scorsese begins to author the reality of not only the diegesis, but the real world as well. Grotesque neorealism is given the faculty to transcend its original celluloid medium and the reality of the audience, our reality, becomes incipiently grotesque.