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Among the stellar names in the film directing profession in the world, Martin Scorsese’s is most likely near or at the very top of the list—as bright as the city he has chosen to showcase in most of his career pieces. Using New York City as his backdrop, Scorsese has created landmark films that explore the intricacies of specific human qualities, tightly connected to themes of identity, religion, and psychology.
Three of his films—Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Life Lessons—bear the distinct signature of an artist with an immediate message, which is clearly influenced by the dynamics of the inimitable lifestyle of New York City.
A native of Flushing, New York, Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese started planning his life as a priest—which is not at all surprising, considering his Italian and Catholic upbringing. However, he shifted goals at some point and graduated with a film degree from New York University in 1964, when he was twenty-two.
Soon after that he became involved in film productions under the tutelage of several directors and producers, and finally emerged with his first notable feature film, Mean Streets (Brown, 1996).
This particular work signaled the birth of Scorsese’s iconic style, which is defined by idiosyncratic characters and their internal struggles, marked by various circumstances exposing violence, racism, and oppression. Religious topics and details are also common in Scorsese’s work, which, in the past, received the ire of staunch religious groups.
Scorsese is also known for building the careers or collaborating with specially-chosen actors, such as Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and, in recent years, Leonardo DiCaprio.
Each of these actors has starred in at least one iconic Scorsese film: De Niro and Keitel in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and DiCaprio in The Aviator and Gangs of New York. Common among most of these films is still the appropriation of New York City as the influential setting in playing out each character’s goal and dilemma.
Credibility and accuracy in portraying the life inherent in New York City are integral in Scorsese’s work, and the nature of the city as a melting pot of cultures and its reputation for being the end goal of all personal ambition provide more than enough motivation and reason for the many twists and turns that take place in the characters’ minds and on the streets. II. Living the Gangster Life: The Italian Identity in Mean Streets
One of the most definitive of New York City’s life and color is the presence of a multitude of cultures; this is largely caused by the representation of immigrants from all over the world, who have brought with them the distinct traditions and values of their countries of origin. The Italian community is mainly known for its influence on New York City cuisine, religion, and, as historically documented, organized crime in the form of the Mafia. Mean Streets is inherently Italian in identity, as it is set in New York’s Little Italy in the early 1970s—the territory and environment of most known Mafia-gangster groups.
The portrayals of Charlie and his friend Johnny Boy—Keitel and De Niro, respectively—are excellent examples of life within the gangster reality, of non-negotiable orders, surprises and sudden decisions, the possibility of assault and instant death. This kind of life, however, is not always chosen by those who find themselves in it; Charlie, for one, lives by the dictates of family and religion, and refuses to take a stand on anything—even if he is plagued by his own guilt.
Johnny Boy, on the other hand, is the quintessential gangster, the product of family legacy and history and his pleasure in romanticizing violence and aggression. These two personas reveal some of the most prevalent yet opposing attitudes regarding life in New York City—the struggle to accept a predetermined career, and the assertion of identity based on others’ experience. New York City is indeed a complex mixture of culture and identity, and these are often appropriated by those who desire to make their voices heard in the din of success, failure, and everything else in between.
Religion, ethnicity, family, and other inherent traits that contribute to create an identity that can set one apart from the faceless rest are apparent means for survival, which is essential in the midst of such an unforgiving address. III. Left Alone and Unnoticed: Idealism, Racism, and Violence in Taxi Driver De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver symbolizes the outcome of a person left to survive on his own in the complicated maze that is New York City in the mid-1970s.
What begins as a man with fervent dreams of success and fulfillment in the capital of realized wishes can end in cynicism, hopelessness, and despair. Idealism sets the pace for the ultimate acts of violence and racism, played out by succeeding episodes of rejection and perceived injustice—specifically in the context of sex and acceptance. Bickle’s downward spiral into madness is caused by his own set of values, which includes his idealization of women, superiority of race, and self-entitlement coming from the war experience.
Finding himself in a world where he is rejected by a woman he admires, where immorality and child prostitution exists, and where blacks are shown to call the shots through violence and extortion, are enough to shape Bickle’s concept of reality and purpose. Ultimately, he decides to take matters into his own hands, in a defining act that finally pronounces his voice and presence. Rejection and disappointment are part of the New York City lifestyle, given the constant struggle and competition naturally occurring within such a lucrative environment.
Likewise, the reality of prostitution and other forms of immorality are necessary effects of the ongoing tests of one’s desired fate, since negation and failure will always need a stopgap measure and means for release or revenge. This complicated economy may not always be easy to comprehend, much less seen as one’s way of life; that Bickle is established with traits akin to surreal idealism makes New York City a symbol of both fulfilled dreams and unrealized goals. Bickle’s persona is common among many who have decided to find their success in the city yet is only armed with traditional ideals of morality, justice, and equality.
Race is an evident issue, particularly if it figures in the equation of opportunity and chances for success; blacks, to the white Bickle, represents all things he finds wrong in the city. Finding people of a different set of morals is also a trigger for Bickle’s downfall, since he finds himself unable to impose his own ideals on them. New York City is shown here in its element, with the images of political action and objective during the day and graphic evidences of violence and the sex trade at night.
These two pictures of the city plainly show that it is not for the weak, nor for the idealistic; what is essential is toughness and open-mindedness in order to understand the nature of New York City as a place where everything can and will happen. IV. The Master and the Servant: Creativity and Political Economy in “Life Lessons” This installment in the bigger project that is New York Stories is Scorsese’s contribution to the collective efforts made with fellow film icons Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen.
“Life Lessons” is a simple story about artist Lionel Dobie, played by Nick Nolte, and his lover/apprentice Paulette, portrayed by Rosanna Arquette, who both engage in the literal and figurative significance of a two-way relationship. Dobie, being a famous abstract artist, imparts his knowledge, skill, and social connections to Paulette, who in turn repays him by serving as his muse and sex partner. Their relationship comes to a turning point when Paulette decides to move on and see other men, which causes Dobie to become insanely jealous.
But it is this jealousy that eventually drives him to create his best work, and thus he forces Paulette to stay with him by selling her on the idea that New York City is the only place for an aspiring artist like herself. Evidently, Dobie lives on his negative emotions to survive, and has done exactly the same in his past relationships. In the end, Paulette makes good with her original decision and leaves, and soon Dobie is shown meeting another young female artist whom he convinces to become his new apprentice.
This scene is shown with much sexual connotation, leaving the viewer to conclude that Dobie has once more found his muse. Art is never just for art’s sake in New York City; while some of the best minds are indeed residents of the locale, the competitive conditions and social norms that define it are also necessary factors to consider in appraising one’s success. Talent is never just the sole requirement in making it big in New York City, mainly because of the sheer number of individuals of excellent gifts trying to make names for themselves.
Thus this brings about the reality and importance of social connection and status; in order to succeed in a place abound with skill and opportunity, one must look beyond the singular benefit of talent and employ all possible elements that can directly or indirectly help realize his or her goal. In this kind of situation, not everyone asked to assist will want to do so without claiming anything back—after all, the brand of opportunity existing in New York City is essentially available whenever and wherever one sees fit to call it forth.
Intrinsically, New York City is probably the one significant environment where making and dealing transactions is the name of the game; to participate, one must have something to sell and/or buy. V. Conclusion Martin Scorsese’s depiction of New York City in the three films mentioned is, quite understandably, based on his own perceptions and experiences. These bases, however, are truly authentic and real—enough to convey a significant concept of New York City, as well as its nuances.
The appropriation of identity in Mean Streets, idealism in Taxi Driver, and creativity in “Life Lessons” is truly apt and relevant, considering that these three themes are probably the most prevalent notions that define the city, albeit taken to each theme’s extremes. New York City may result in an assertion of identity or its eventual loss, depending on a person’s chosen path or decisions. It could progress the concept of idealism to its highest degree, particularly when success is met and values are replicated, yet it could also result in the erosion of idealist thinking, if all experiences are negative and disappointing.
Lastly, the New York City experience can stimulate one’s creativity, since it is the one of the world’s capitals of art, yet can also diffuse the fire that burns one’s passion, if the right connections and exposure are not met. Nothing can be simply in the middle ground with regard to life in this city, as most things either fulfill or destroy existing beliefs and objectives. New York City is truly an enigma, a place that exists both in the mind and in its physical sense; while these two spaces may not always have the same traits or premises, the fact remains that it is an aspiration, where one should ‘make it’.
Scorsese’s attempts at putting together a credible representation of New York City is laudable, but in truth, many more interpretations are still waiting to be conveyed. Such is the meaning of convergence, where anything and everything is possible. References Brown, M. (1996). “Martin Scorsese”. God Among Directors. Accessed on 10 April 2009 from http://www. godamongdirectors. com/scorsese/index. shtml Scorsese, M. (dir. ) (1989). “Life Lessons”. New York Stories. Touchstone Pictures (1973). Mean Streets. Taplin-Perry-Scorsese Productions. (1976). Taxi Driver. Bill/Phillips.
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