Critic's Notebook: In Paris, a Dazzling Multimedia Tribute to Martin Scorsese

Courtesy of Cinematheque Francaise

Martin Scorsese gets an illuminating, career-spanning show at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris — a must for film lovers.

Like most movie exhibitions, the one on Martin Scorsese that opened last Wednesday at the Cinematheque Francaise accomplishes a fairly simple task: It makes you want to watch, or re-watch, the films themselves.

Which isn’t to say that the show — originally conceived at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin by curators Kristina Jaspers and Nils Warnecke — doesn’t offer up its own share of visual pleasures. Each room is filled with dozens of hand-drawn storyboards Scorsese produced throughout the early part of his career; annotated screenplays beginning with the director’s 1967 feature debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and running up to more recent efforts like Shutter Island; and tons of production relics, ranging from costumes for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, to original set drawings for Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, to the fake New York cabbie license issued to Robert De Niro for the shooting of Taxi Driver.

Not unlike Alfred Hitchcock — a filmmaker Scorsese more than admired, working with such Hitchcock collaborators as Saul Bass and Bernard Herrmann, while adapting one of the master’s unproduced scripts for a champagne ad, The Key to Reserva, screened in the exhibition — the New York auteur constructs his films in deliberately pictorial ways, combining meticulous camera movement, lighting, set and costume design, along with rapid editing (by longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker), sound and music (lots of it) to achieve desired effects on screen. As much as his movies tend to underscore the messy, fragmented and sometimes overtly violent lives we lead, they are deftly watertight objects filled with eruptions of pure cinema: dizzying whip pans, creeping tracking shots, a few blazing notes from a Muddy Waters song and performances distinguished by their emotional rawness.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibit is divided into sections with titles like “Crucifixion" and “Brothers," juxtaposing clips from 20-odd films to reveal how Scorsese –—like any major director — has returned to the same subjects time and again in his work, sometimes from highly varying angles. In one passage entitled “Men and Women,” the tender hand-nestling scene from The Age of Innocence is followed by a clip from Casino where De Niro drags Sharon Stone across the floor, shoves stacks of $100 bills in her face and locks her out of her own house.

Many of Scorsese’s best films are marked by such altering moments of grace and violence, as if one were inexorably linked to the other, and in mob classics like Mean Streets and Goodfellas, or in the underrated banker-gangster epic The Wolf of Wall Street, the highs of fast money and organized crime are cut short by the lows of human brutality and self-destruction – although the director has always been keen to show how much violence can provide its own high as well, especially when backed by a Rolling Stones song.

A Catholic artist to the core, Scorsese makes his characters suffer immensely before they reach some sort of epiphany, whether good or bad (usually the latter), and his greatest movies (with Raging Bull still ranking at the top for this critic) tend to feature men driven by compulsions they can hardly control — by an obsessiveness that echoes the auteur’s own consummate desire as an avid moviemaker, a moviegoer and a movie historian/archivist through his various film documentaries (A Letter to Elia, the A Personal Journey series) and preservation efforts.

One part of the show, called “Cinephilia,” underlines just how much Scorsese owes to film, and how much film owes to him, particularly for his long campaign to conserve and restore 35mm prints and other vital pieces of cinema history. The exhibition fittingly closes with a series of responses to the director’s 1980 plea to Kodak to upgrade its archival film stock, with letters from greats like Frank CapraNagisa OshimaLeni Riefenstahl and Joseph Losey commending Scorsese’s rallying cry to save movies, while acknowledging that he may have joined their ranks.

Yet of all the pieces on display in the exhibit, the most memorable may be the colorful storyboard panel — made by the filmmaker when he was only 10 — for an imaginary Hollywood production entitled The Eternal City. Filled with vivid detail, as well as cast and crew credits (stars include Marlon BrandoRichard Burton and Alec Guinness), it’s a young film buff’s dream project laid out on paper with precision and passion, prefiguring what was to come over the subsequent decades — and what's still to come, with the latest feature, Silence, due out sometime next year. One of the title cards reads: “Produced and directed by Martin Scorsese.”

Curators: Kristina Jaspers, Nils Warnecke, in collaboration with Matthieu Orlean
Runs: Oct. 14, 2015 – Feb. 14, 2016
Location: Cinematheque Francaise, 51, rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris, France