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OBSESSION : Martin Scorsese Eats, Sleeps, Breathes and Dreams Movies, Shot by Shot

September 23, 1990|T. J. ENGLISH | T. J. English is the author of "The Westies: Inside the Hell's Kitchen Irish Mob," published this year by G. P. Putnam

When Martin Scorsese was 8 years old, he drew. Sketches mostly, elaborate shot-by-shot renderings of flicks he'd seen at the local movie theater. Sometimes they were movies that existed only in his imagination, to be recreated on paper. Drawn in pencil and crayon, they were often titled "Directed and Produced by Martin Scorsese." By the age of 12, Martin was drawing colorful Bible epics and Westerns, grappling with how to compose his comic-book panels so as to achieve maximum visual effect.

"I wanted them to be really big," he says now, laughing at his own precociousness, "but I was having trouble drawing close-ups in the 70-millimeter format. To this day, directors still have this problem."

Scorsese is on his home turf, New York City, seated in his office in the Brill Building in the heart of Times Square. Talking about his earliest attempts to interpret the world in a visual form seems to bring him great pleasure. His eyes are alive and his face animated, an expressive look accentuated by the fact that he has recently shaved his familiar black beard. Gone is the dark, Mephistophelean character who, from the back seat of Robert De Niro's cab in "Taxi Driver," rhapsodized about murdering his unfaithful wife with a .44 magnum. The devilish black eyebrows are still in evidence, but his features are smooth and accessible now, making it a lot easier to picture the 8-year-old Martin bringing his memories and fantasies to life frame by frame.

As Scorsese remembers it, the years passed and his sketches were set aside. A somewhat sickly kid with asthma, he watched the world unfold from the window of his parents' apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. Restricted from playing outdoors with other kids because of his condition, he developed the eye of an outsider while living in a tough neighborhood.

Eventually, Scorsese ventured out on his own, and the rest is an oft-told story: the months spent in a seminary studying to be a priest; his years as a wunderkind student filmmaker and, later, a teacher at New York University, and the beginnings of his career in the film business as an editor and then a director.

Most of all, there were the movies: "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ." Certainly Scorsese's work has received accolades--Oscar nominations for Best Director ("Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and Best Picture ("Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver") and the highest praise from his peers. "Raging Bull" was selected in critics' polls by Premiere, USA Today and others as the best film of the last decade. At age 47, Scorsese was profiled on the PBS program "American Masters," an honor that put him in the category of such national treasures as Billie Holiday, Jasper Johns and Arthur Miller. Among cineastes here and in Europe, Scorsese is generally considered the most interesting and talented director in America, if not the world.

Yet, his success has not spared him the unhappy vicissitudes of life. In fact, some have observed that Scorsese's total devotion to his work--his downright obsessiveness--has often been destructive to his personal well being. He's seen two wives come and go. His health has frequently suffered, with various stints in hospitals for mental exhaustion before and after shooting some of his films. And even though he is acknowledged as a brilliant filmmaker, getting financial backing for his occasionally provocative projects is never easy. Despite the critical acclaim, his films do not bring in the receipts of those by Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas.

"The money people respect Marty. They like his movies. But he makes them uneasy," says his longtime producer and friend, Irwin Winkler. "They never know what to expect from one of his pictures, and that's not considered good business."

Sometimes, Scorsese admits, the burdens of filmmaking can lead to a kind of emotional isolation, much like that experienced by the main character in one of his favorite movies, Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom." Released in Great Britain in 1960, it tells the story of a man whose obsession with filmmaking causes great tension in his life. Eventually, the man begins filming himself murdering people by stabbing them with the tripod of his 8-millimeter camera. In this movie, Scorsese says, "you can see the danger of filmmaking, at least for the people who express themselves through film."

So why does he continue to plunge deeper and deeper into his art? There is the sense that he really has no choice. The way he sees it, his current vocation is the inevitable extension of what he's been doing since he was 8 years old: taking his accumulated experiences, imagination and personal anguish and putting them all together, shot by shot.

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