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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

Oddly enough, what might disturb viewers most about the violence in "GoodFellas" is that it's so unnervingly funny. Many will call the film a black comedy because of its unusual mixture of humor and near-slapstick mayhem. The starkest example of this is its opening, pre-title scene, a giddily shocking bit of brutality that culminates with the film's tag line, spoken in voice-over by Ray Liotta: "As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster."

When Scorsese is told the film's opening might be the most dynamic since Sam Fuller's "The Naked Kiss," he laughs. "Come on now, 'The Naked Kiss'! That's the ultimate."

Fuller is one of Scorsese's major influences, and the opening of "The Naked Kiss" is one of the most startling in movie history. While loud, frenetic jazz music plays, a tall, blond hooker whips the daylights out of her pimp with a telephone. The pimp reaches up and pulls her wig off--and then it's a bald hooker whipping the daylights out of her pimp.

Scorsese is excited now, his eyes twinkling as they often do when he talks about movies he loves. "But you haven't seen 'The Street of No Return.' It's Fuller's latest picture. We hope to get it here in America in January or February. The opening may be as strong as 'The Naked Kiss.' "

Really?

"Yeah, maybe. But there's not a woman in it. That's why I think 'The Naked Kiss' is still the strongest opening."

A bald woman.

"Yeah. A baldheaded woman. You know, I don't even want to begin to question what that might be all about."

SCORSESE'S DEEP, impassioned affection for movies and his willingness to invest so much of his inner life into his own filmmaking beg the question: What becomes of a little boy who is already story-boarding at the age of 8?

Scorsese's total immersion in the culture of cinema, both as a viewer and a filmmaker, often amazes those who know him. Mention any obscure film, American or otherwise, and he can probably tell you the director, the studio and the year it was made. Since 1980, much of his free time has been devoted to the issue of film preservation, in an attempt to save color films of the '40s and '50s from falling into disrepair.

Now, his days are consumed with preparing for his next project, an updated version of the 1962 film noir, "Cape Fear." After that he will be working again with Winkler on a long-planned film biography of George and Ira Gershwin, which promises to satisfy once again his fondness for period recreations.

Scorsese's total love of film is apparent in his work. When combined with his penchant for intense personal exploration--and his ability to weave it all into the tapestry of his stories--his best movies exist, for many, on a kind of transcendental level far above the commercial fray.

There is, of course, a downside to all this, one that Scorsese sometimes appears reluctant to accept. When asked on the "American Masters" profile broadcast last July whether or not his entire life was rooted in film, he got testy. "Doesn't that make you a one-sided person?" he snapped. "It's just ridiculous, don't you think? If all I know is film, what other interest is there? Why are you talking to me? How could you be interested in what I'm saying? I have some thoughts about life, people, also."

Now, in his office weeks later, Scorsese is less defensive. The words "spirituality" and "salvation" pop up in his conversation a lot and it becomes clear that for him filmmaking has become a kind of religion. He willingly admits that, in retrospect, he may well have become involved in making movies for the same reasons he initially studied for the priesthood. "I didn't set out specifically saying that I can put whatever emotions or passions I had for the priesthood into filmmaking. That happened. Would the same themes and ideas that I was interested in come across in theology or in preparatory seminaries? Possibly, I don't know. But evidently, yeah, they've stayed for a long time."

The key to understanding his theology, Scorsese says, is the English director Michael Powell. Like Cassavetes, Powell helped Scorsese comprehend his own all-consuming love of film. And, like Cassavetes, the 84-year-old Powell died recently, leaving a void in Scorsese's life. A vastly intelligent and erudite thinker, Powell was once quoted in an interview as saying: "I am not just a director with a personal style; I am cinema."

When he is asked to interpret that remark, Scorsese grows quiet. One can hear horns honking and sirens wailing through Times Square.

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