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Scorsese Retrospective from The Aspect Ratio

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  • The Vision Quest
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on: October 20, 2006, 03:52:42 PM

Three by Scorsese (Shorts)
by Lons

This hard to find Laserdisc release probably won't be coming to DVD very soon, mainly because one of the films is a brief little film school oddity and another features Scorsese and some other notable individuals doing drugs and hanging out in a flophouse with apparent lowlifes.  This is too bad, because the movies are fascinating for Scorsese fans looking to gain some insight into the themes that would drive his later work or anyone interested in highly personal, and confessional, documentary filmmaking.
All three documentaries deal with the frequent Scorsese theme of self-regard.  In what's probably the guy's single most famous scene ever, Travis Bickle admires himself in the mirror, wearing his newly-holstered guns, and then begins to verbally challenge his reflection.  ("Are you talkin' to me?")  These films analyze and unpack Scorsese's idea of self in different ways, but the end result is always the same - an attempt to glean something meaningful about his own life through memories, images, and anecdotes.

Here, Scorsese interviews his parents on a sunny afternoon in New York, spending most of the time discussing food.  During the interview, his mother cooks her own recipe for marinara sauce, the father recalls all the different delicacies prevalent in his old neighborhood, and they both reminisce about Italy while displaying photos taken at landmarks and in various restaurants.
The food represents a connection to the Old Country, I suppose, a living part of the culture that came intact to America with the immigrants.  Charles' and Catherine's pride in their Italian upbringing comes through in their stories.  They recall the ingenuity of their parents, making wine in their basements because it was cheaper than buying it in the store.
The neighborhood, according to Charles Scorsese, was once exclusively Jewish and Italian, and as he remembers the good old days, when the street was bustling and prosperous, we see footage of the New York streets of the film's present (1974).  It doesn't appear too different than the scene he's describing (albeit more racially diverse and more run-down), but from the tone of his voice, the feeling of something precious that has been lost still hangs over the sequence.
Good or bad, memories of the past inevitably lead to nostalgia.  We always romanticize our backgrounds, remembering positive experiences fondly while overlooking the suffering.  It's a neccessary defense mechanism, but also keeps us from ever having a clear view of who we are and where we come from.  At the film's conclusion, Catherine Scorsese complains about the mess the film crew has made in her apartment, and then finds out they'll have to come back and mess it all up the next day for reshoots.  Such is the cost of documenting the past - it makes the present more messy.
The Big Shave
In this brief short, a man (Peter Bernuth) walks into a sparkling clean, white bathroom and begins to shave. Unfortunately, he seems to have the method wrong, and begins to cut and slash at his face, producing copious amounts of blood.  The film's subtitle, Viet '67, seems to indicate that it's a political critique.  Just as the country continued fighting in Vietnam long after it was obvious the war was an unwinnable quagmire, so the man keeps right on shaving his face even after all the hair and the first few layers of skin have been removed.
A variety of other readings are possible.  Like Travis Bickle looking at himself in that mirror, or Henry Hill staring at his coked-out visage in Goodfellas, this anonymous man regards himself and comes away unsettled by the experience.  Perhaps he cuts to atone for some unspoken sin, like Keitel's Charlie holding his hand over a flame in Mean Streets.  Or it's an even more blatant Christ allegory, a man despoiling himself for the benefit of us, the viewer.
American Boy
An interview between Scorsese and actor Steven Prince conducted over the course of several nights in the Hollywood home of actor George Memmoli, American Boy opens as a charming chronicle of a storied and exciting life.  Prince is a wild man, and the movie dives into his life story with furious energy, fueled by stomping Neil Young rock songs on the soundtrack.  Prince had been a tour manager for Neil Diamond, a drug addict, an actor and a teenage entrepreneur, frequently all at once, and he recalls some of his most amusing anecdotes in a raucous party atmosphere.
Perhaps the most entertaining story involves his alcoholic uncle getting the entire family stranded during a 4th of July boating trip.  Another anecdote involves a run-in with a 700 pound silverback gorilla.  Prince is a lively, funny guy with a real gift for telling stories, and many of the movie's individual sequences have been borrowed by other filmmakers.  Richard Linklater includes Prince retelling a story about killing a maniacal thief while working at a gas station in his animated head trip Waking Life.  Quentin Tarantino lifts Prince's story about reviving an OD'ing girl with an adrenaline-filled hypodermic needle to the chest plate in Pulp Fiction, pretty much verbatim.  (This is possible in part because Prince's stories are so detailed and engaging.  He remembers little things like the black medical book stored in the refrigerator.)
As the film continues, the stories get darker and so the filmmaking gets more personal and intimate.  Prince is a charming, self-effacing and obviously brilliant guy, and then through his life stories, we slowly start to see the disappointment and the frustration of not fulfilling all of his true potential, as well as some of the trauma that may have held him back.  By the end of the film, Scorsese holds on Prince's face in tight close-ups, and the fatigue and desperation evident in his face just keeps getting more and more pronounced.

This is self-examination as horrorshow, a man afraid to look too closely at his failures who does so anyway for the purposes of a film.  Most of these stories end in some form of tragedy, but the film seems to insist that they're still worth telling.

Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1967)
by Scott

The seeds of talent can usually be found in the early work of great directors, sometimes more prevalent than others. Often times, debut features can come off as a jumbled amalgam of ideas, techniques, and influences. Sort of like the eager college student who wants to impress the professor on the first paper by using fancy words like "sycophantism," but then forgets how to cite his sources properly. In a way, Martin Scorsese's first outing, Who's That Knocking At My Door?, has a tendency to fall victim to such debut clichés. However, that is what makes it so interesting and fascinating to watch, especially after having already seen what Marty can do when he moves onto Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc. This film is Scorsese at his loosest, his most European, clearly drawing on a wide variety of influences (Cassavetes comes to mind). It is less concerned with plot and more preoccupied with piecing together interesting sequences, but in the end that is why it shines.

Made over the course of four years, the film began as a student project at NYU with such titles as "Bring On The Dancing Girls" and "I Call First." One of Who's That Knocking at My Door's most abstract and risqué sequences is a fantasy sex sequence that shows Harvey Keitel cavorting with numerous women set to music by The Doors. The scene was shot a few years after the rest of the film (a distributor wanted more skin), so Keitel looks noticeably older. This change winds up working for the scene because he's meant to be fantasizing himself as someone more suave and mature. There is also an extended slow motion sequence in which Keitel's character J.R. and his friends playfully toss around a gun, frequently pointing it at each other just for kicks. The wannabe film theorist in me is trying really hard not to read into the homoerotic subtext of this. Anyway, at the end of the sequence, sounds of gun fire are heard over still images of John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo. Then, we see J.R. and The Girl (Zina Bethune) exiting a screening of the film. This is one of a few moments in which Scorsese appears to be commenting on the influence of cinema on his character's lives (as well as his own).

J.R.'s first meeting with The Girl is one of the standout moments of the film. He is able to obtain her interest by striking up a conversation about Westerns after seeing a picture of John Wayne in the newspaper she is reading. Once they start getting deeper into the conversation, the scene is covered from numerous different angles, refusing to follow standard shot/reverse shot techniques. It's a ballsy move for a first time director, one that would have more than likely been fumbled in the hands of a lesser talent. It's also a moment in which Keitel might as well be playing a character named Martin Scorsese, since he appears to be echoing the director's mannerisms, speech patterns, and philosophies. From this point on, J.R.'s relationship with The Girl becomes the central focal point of the story.

Zina Bethune's deliberately unnamed character "The Girl" represents that one girl (or one of several) that comes along and breathes fresh air into your life. She's not quite from the same background as you, but she's interested in the things that you like and there's a genuine connection. Naturally, this girl is way too good to be true. In J.R.'s case, she's not only hesitant to marry him, but also reveals a shocking incident from her past that J.R. can't seem to live with.

If the seeds of talent were merely being planted in Scorsese's first film, he sure as hell did an excellent job of making them grow. Forced metaphors aside, Who's That Knocking At My Door? is a striking debut feature that provides the viewer with a lot to look forward to. Scorsese is unafraid of being personal here, and his interest in themes including the complex interplay between sex, violence, and religion are on full display. It can also serve as inspiration to aspiring filmmakers that may be having trouble getting that first one in the can. If Marty takes four years to finish his first film, just be glad if you get yours made this century.

Boxcar Bertha (1972)
by John

Fake-looking blood, gratuitous nudity and violence, and acting that ranges from over-the-top to nonexistent: 1972's Boxcar Bertha may be directed by Martin Scorsese, but through and through, it's a Roger Corman picture.

This certainly is not to say that Scorsese's influences are to be dismissed. The internally conflicted male protagonist, the obsession with violence, the deep gaping spiritual wounds—all these Scorsese trademarks can be found in Boxcar Bertha, just in a more clumsy, almost prenatal form. This makes it an interesting early work for the director, but an overall forgettable film.

The film depicts Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) and "Big" Bill Shelley (David Carradine), lovers living somewhere in the South during the Great Depression. Both Bill, Bertha, and fellow stragglers Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and Van Morton (Bernie Casey) get caught up in various misadventures, involving either robberies, grand thefts, or murders. Soon enough, this quartet become fugitives from justice, and the story follows each of them as they split up, regroup, and struggle to survive.

Largely because Scorsese had to work within the limiting confines of a Roger Corman production, the quality of the storytelling is uncharacteristically poor. The director does what he can, however, and does a reasonably
admirable job. The opening credits are interspersed with Depression-era footage, revealing Scorsese's interest in history. He effectively captures the terror of extremely violent acts through rapid cutting and tight close-ups of key details. An interesting shot of the main characters down a long hallway, however, bears Scorsese's creative trademark.

The Northerner Rake seems transplanted from a later Scorsese film, his thick New York accent and neurotic behavior more at home with the director's sensibilities than almost anything else in the film. The violence is unrealistic but unflinching, and almost always gratuitous, as the scene involving a train crashing into an exploding car, or the climactic crucifixion and resulting shoot-em-up in the film's final scene, clearly show.

The dialogue, acting, characterizations, and plot development all bear the hallmarks of hopelessly shoddy writing, and a broadly conceived class struggle between working and privileged classes that exists mainly to provide the fuel for numerous fist fights and gun battles is unadulterated shlock. Many of the scenes are bizarre and go nowhere, such as the elderly whore house patron who eats a glass bottle, as well as another customer who claims to be an anthropologist studying Bertha. Scorsese also makes an appearance as one of Bertha's clients, even in this early work, sweetly uttering the line: "If I give you, uh, fifteen dollars can I stay? I don't want to sleep alone tonight."

Which is to say, rent this film if you'd particularly enjoy seeing the director make one of his lesser-known cameos (in other words, if you're a fan of Scorsese). Otherwise, this is a Corman production you just don't really need to see.

Mean Streets (1973)
by Yuki

Scorsese's Mean Streets is a profound look at the working class world of organized crime in New York's Little Italy.  Released in 1973 near the start of Scorsese's carreer, it's easy to see how this film established him as a director to look out for.  The film is mesmerizing in all of its violent glory and tragically flawed characters, it feels intimate, and at times, almost warm. Scorsese takes pains here to descend into the seedy grittiness of this world, but revels in the beautiful energy and glamour of it as well.

The opening sequence is done in the style of old 8mm home movies set to the blissful beats of Motown. It is perhaps a bit too painted in nostalgia, but nevertheless enchanting, and it provides a nice contrast to many of the scenes to come.  The sequence introduces us to our characters, a close-knit group of first generation Italian Americans who grew up together and are now young adults trying to form their own identities within this hermetic community.

Scorsese's emerging vigorous and dynamic style is present in several gorgeous shots.  Charlie Cappa, played by Harvey Keitel, is the central character on the verge of a moral crisis as he is torn between his personal needs and those of the crime world he was born into.  In an early shot, the camera follows Charlie into Tony's bar, the meeting place for his group of friends.  His back is to the camera, his torso drifts, arms flowing back and forth to the music.  He feels like an aperture of the camera leading us into his world.  In a later shot, we see the lights of Little Italy dotting the main street in repeating arches, running down the black screen like teardrops or a constellation of stars.  We don't see it within the sea of lights of New York City.  It truly looks like its own universe, isolated from the outside. 

Scorsese succeeds wonderfully in creating a visual language of the New York Street.  The sidewalk and alleyways, rooftops and stairwells are the public spaces of the city, but to his characters, it's their world.  As the narrator says in the beginning of the film, "you don't make up for your sins in church, you do it in the streets."  These characters know the streets intimately, and it is as much a part of their past as it is their future.  Scorsese defines the street by placing it in opposition to the spaces that surround it – the Church, the restaurant, the uncle's business where the upper level mobsters discuss the fate of the younger generation – these are formal spaces that are also rather opulent, but comparatively stagnant and drained of energy.  Indeed much of the action and plot twists take place in the streets, and even though it is clear that these boys grew up together in the same neighborhood (and probably still all live with their parents), the movie is eerily absent of warm domestic settings.  There are no parental figures except an odd scene where Charlie comes home to find a new shirt folded on his bed with a note from his mother, but we never see her.  Charlie's deceased father is only mentioned in passing.  The only guiding principles that seems to have any affect on these boys are the inherently conflicting figures of the mob bosses and the Church. 

Some of Scorsese's most successful scenes are when he makes us look long and hard, as though the sole of his shoe were pressed to our head, at his characters.  After he is first introduced, the delinquent Johnny (played by Robert DeNiro) tells Charlie an incredibly long and drawn out excuse for not making his payments on time to their friend Michael. The two are standing in a claustrophobic, barely-lit back room of Tony's bar.  The story is obviously a lie, but it is told artfully and elaborately, and at such length that we get lost in it. 

In another excessively long take, Michael and the gang make an afternoon visit to a neighboring pool hall, whose owner has slacked on his payments.  The confrontation starts out in feigned friendliness with a round of shots, but quickly erupts into a fight that draws in everyone in the hall.  There is a real desperateness and sloppy quality to the brawl; nothing feels choreographed and it is almost slapstick.  We focus on two men pummeling each other along the edge of the wall, charging through chairs and cue racks while traveling around and around the room, with Scorsese's insistent camera always a few steps behind.  When the brawl is finally broken up, they make amends with another round of shots, which starts the cycle of violence all over again.  The scene reveals the absurdity and the ease with which violence is used. 

For me, these shots are the most effective moments of the film. As Scorsese himself admitted, Mean Streets is semi-autobiographical, and is based on his childhood friends.  His compassion for his subject matter shows in this persistent camera work.  Even though Johnny and Charlie seem to willingly leap into a self-destructive paths, we cannot help but feel for them. This sense of immediacy and confinement, evoked by Scorsese's refusal to cut away, is revelatory of the oppressive and insular society they inhabit, which offers few options outside of crime. 

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
by Yuki

The heroine of Scorsese's 1974 film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a dutiful housewife approaching middle age who is abruptly forced to initiate a new life. Alice Hyatt is of that generation of women who forged their own identity just before the brink of the sexual revolution.  Because she lacks the intellectual support of a social movement –  and because her journey is one of circumstance rather than choice – Alice's story is refreshingly unfiltered by ideology, focusing on her personal awakening. The film is undoubtedly feminist, but more appreciably, it's a beautifully told story from a woman's point of view. 

When her tyrannical husband dies in an accident leaving her penniless with a 12-year-old son, Alice turns towards the only things she knows: her childhood home in Monterey, and her former dreams of being a singer.  She sells what she can and takes off down the road with her nerdy, precocious son, promising to get him to Monterey before school starts.  Alice's bond with her son, Donald, is incredibly close.  They both share a quirkiness and sarcastic sense of humor that is obvious from the first scenes.  She responds to his foul-mouthed, smartass comments with equal sting and sarcasm, like "That's wonderful dear, how would you like the living hell kicked out of you?" Their uninhibited interaction are often hilarious and poignant, as all they have is each other.  In a way, Alice is like a child herself, having grown up in the sheltered times of the Forties and Fifties, when women were truly considered the auxiliary to men.  The opening scene and credits are done in a style that harks back to this era by using stereotypical images, like a rumpled satin backdrop to the credits.  In a strange sort of prelude to the film, we first see Alice as a young girl carrying a doll and singing outside her house.  The scene is clearly shot on set in a studio, bathed in red light, evocative of the images of Dorothy's home from the Wizard of Oz.

The ironic nostalgia of the prelude is quickly brushed aside, and the rest of the film is comparatively free of any noticeable visual style, perhaps because Scorsese recognized that the originality of his characters is the gem of this film.  Scorsese compliments their natural, conversational dialogue with some subtle atmospheric choices.  On their first stop in Phoenix, Alice spends all day walking into smoky bars looking for a job as a singer.  She gets a perm and buys cheap dresses and heels.  Though she has partly realized her dream of being a singer, she is isolated at the piano in the smoky spotlight, unable to let her guard down in this seedy environment.  But Burstyn's acting is so enchanting, and her character is too impudent to let these scenes run pitiful.

Harvey Keitel's performance as Alice's young lover, Ben Eberhart, is one of the most explosive and surprising I have seen in a long time.  He first approaches Alice in the piano bar and is adorably smitten by her, laughing goofily with wide-eyes when she coldly brushes off his advances.  She finally caves and they begin an affair, only to be confronted soon after in her motel room by Ben's distressed young wife.  Just as Alice reassures her their affair is over, they are interrupted by an enraged Ben, pounding on the door till he breaks through the glass and threatens both Alice and his wife.  Scorsese moves swiftly past the traumatic act by following it with a slapstick scene with Alice and Tommy frantically packing their room, falling clumsily over each other.

In Tucson, their next stop, Alice begins to awaken to the realities of life, trading in her dream of supporting herself as a singer for a humbling and grueling job as a waitress at busy local diner.  The work forces her to interact with others in a way her previously sheltered life never allowed, and she begins to take pride in her labors.  She waitresses alongside tough talking Flo and the strange, introverted Vera played with incredible comedic timing by Valerie Curtain.  She also encounters Kris Kristofferson's character David, a stoic rancher who challenges her to decide what she really wants out of life. 

Alice gets to relax into her life here, shedding the superficial exterior she had in Phoenix.  The atmosphere also opens up, and the film seems to take a deep breath for the first time.  Scorsese adds shots of Alice and David on his expansive ranch under wide blue skies.   In one subtly poignant scene, Alice and Flo are sitting outside sunning themselves side by side, chatting.  Scorsese shoots them close up from the side.  The content of their conversation isn't too important; what you get is two sloping profiles echoing one another, a simple image that shows the camaraderie of these two women.  It is the first true friendship Alice has formed since her husband's death, and an unlikely one.  Up close, it looks as though they were on the beach, miles from civilization.  Then Scorsese cuts for a second to a far shot, and we see that they are in  their work uniforms sitting behind the diner next to the dumpster, a tuft of dust floating by.  The realism and beauty of the image is telling of Scorsese's admiration of the Italian Neorealist filmmakers. 

The strength and originality of Alice's character is due in large part to Burstyn, who chose to take on Alice after rejecting a slew of scripts with marginal female roles, and chose Scorsese to direct it at Francis Ford Coppola's suggestion.  When Burstyn met the young director, he had just come off of Mean Streets, a film noticeably devoid of female characters.  Burstyn asked him what he knew about women, and Scorsese replied, "nothing, but I'd like to learn."  Their collaboration resulted in a film that is unique amongst Scorsese's body of work, and is furthermore one of the most remarkable "feminist" films around.

Taxi Driver (1976)
by Scott

In the past month or so I've been pondering whether or not Scorsese's ultimate masterpiece is Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, or Taxi Driver. They all have quite a bit to offer, each one representing a particular look at what makes his work so damn good. Though I'm still not quite sure which one to pick, Taxi Driver seems to startle me the most, even on repeat viewings. It also offers probably the most intriguing character in any Scorsese film in Travis Bickle.

Travis is a product of the Vietnam War. He is trained to kill, a dangerous thing to be when one is as psychologically unstable as he is. But was he that way before the war? We'll never know, and either way he is what he is and that's all that matters. This fact appears to be underlined by the conversation that Travis has with veteran cab driver Wizard. In this scene, Wizard brings up the notion of one becoming what he or she does for a living and whether or not that is a good or bad thing. It comes at a time when Travis is right about to begin his plunge over the edge.

Travis is a racist. It mostly boils under the surface, but it's there. It was the mid-70s after all, and cinema was far from the blatantly overwrought depictions of race relations that we see in films today such as Crash. As Amy Taubin describes in her book about Taxi Driver, "It's there in his body language when he's hanging out with a group of cab drivers, one of whom is black; it's there in his eyes when he's looking through the window of his cab at the action on the street. It is there, most overtly, when he shoots a skinny black junkie who's trying to hold-up a neighborhood deli." Sure, Travis winds up hating just about every despicable person that he comes across, but his potential racism adds extra depth to his hatred. Another interesting moment dealing with this issue comes during the scene where Martin Scorsese makes his notorious cameo (oddly enough, he can also be seen in the background as Betsy walks into Palantine headquarters the first time Travis sees her). Scorsese's cab fare character has been driven to murderous intentions ever since he found out about his wife's affair with a black man. It is also the scene in which the frighteningly powerful .44 Magnum pistol is first mentioned. When Travis goes to purchase his gun arsenal, it is the
first thing he asks for from the shady dealer.

Most importantly, Travis is lonely. He doesn't know how to interact with people. Each time Travis is seen in conversation with another person, he appears to be completely incapable of coming off as normal. He can't seem to put on the façade that everyone else does. As he more or less says after realizing he has failed with Betsy, "I see now that she is just like the rest of them." Perhaps this is the point where Travis realizes that he will never be like the rest, which further adds to his confusion over what exactly his purpose is in life. His voice-over/journal entries start to take a darker, more disturbing turn after this. One particularly interesting voice-over is a letter Travis writes to his parents in which he lies, telling them that he is working a top secret job for the government and enjoying a healthy relationship with Betsy.

Eventually, Travis begins to think that his purpose in life is to help Iris, the precocious twelve-year old prostitute played by the young Jodie Foster. As anyone who has seen the film knows, this leads to the famously violent climax. Ironically, Travis is lauded as a hero, which brings forth an entirely different commentary on the society that Travis had come to condemn. A lot has been made of this ending, and questions have arisen as to whether or not the denoument is all just a figment of Travis's imagination in which everything turns out relatively close to the way he wanted it to. I personally don't find this to be true. The entire film occasionally drifts into surreal, dream-like territory because of the way Scorsese chose to shoot it. As a result, it's understandable why some people may jump to such a theory, particularly after the awe-inspiring overhead tracking shot that follows the hotel massacre.

What really seems to shock me the most about Taxi Driver is how relatable Travis becomes, despite his psychopathic flaws. We are all lonely at heart, or have been at one point or another. Most likely, we've all had thoughts of wanting to wash away the evils of society. Travis simply acts upon these feelings in a way that makes sense to him. It's a testament to the work done by Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Robert DeNiro, that one can see himself in Travis Bickle at one moment, then see just how easy it is to slip over the edge two or three scenes later. As far as I'm concerned, Taxi Driver is one of the finest films ever made and plays an instrumental role in the declaration of Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest filmmakers to ever work in the cinematic medium.

New York New York (1977)
by Ari

New York New York is a glorious movie, arguably the most underrated film of Scorsese’s career. A celebration of romance, love, and music, and Scorsese’s tribute to the grandiose Hollywood musicals of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, New York New York is a wonderful mixture of the director’s many sensibilities and interests. While grit and gore is most synonymous with Scorsese’s name, the director’s more opulent efforts, like The Age of Innocence or The Aviator or this film, still manage to represent his truthful and realistic essence as a filmmaker. New York New York develops a wonderful and rich relationship between two talented musicians and their joys and follies of being individual artists while maintaining their bind as lovers. It’s a realistic emotional journey set within the theatrical and artificial elements of the musical genre, and while the mixture oddly clashes at times, the overall effect is still sensational. New York New York is lively and fun - a blissful and moving entertainment that holds a special place among his early works as being different, unexpected and glamorous. And my god does it sound good.

It’s the end of World War II and saxophone playing, fast-talking, high-spirited Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) is out and looking for fun, celebrating the end of the war and looking for some female companionship. He sets his sights on the lovely and beautiful Francine (Liza Minnelli) and moves in with his usual smooth-talking routines to hopefully sweep her off her feet. Of course, Jimmy isn’t exactly the most charming of gentleman, more like a persistent, irritating twerp who does whatever he can to get whatever he wants. The opening act is some of the most amusing material in the film, a hilarious meeting of two complete opposites who just so happen to be a perfect match. Scorsese allowed the actors to improvise dialogue greatly, and the result is some of the loosest, most enjoyable banter Scorsese has directed. There’s a joy in the air, and it’s infectious. They discover each other's love for music, Jimmy with his saxophone, Francine and her singing, becoming a success and eventually leading a hot band that tours across the country.

The first noticeable aspect of New York New York is the decorated and theatrical production design, a vibrant love-letter to the musicals that inspired Scorsese. The sets are purposely artificial, the sort of glamorous design found in the best of the period. Scorsese lovingly films his actors in these environments, creating one of his most visually assured works. The first half is filled with several laugh-out-loud moments, from Jimmy and Francine’s meeting to eventual marriage. The dialogue is quick and fun, the sort of fast-talking hilarity that defined many comedies of the studio-system era.

Jimmy: I know you from someplace.
Francine: No.
Jimmy: You don’t remember me? You don’t remember we met a few years ago, it was at a party or a dance? We had a long conversation. You can’t remember that?
Francine: No.
Jimmy: I just want to explain to you..first of all...my parents are over there, my mother and father, and brother and sister, so I gotta see them in a minute. I was just in three years of the service, so you know, they haven’t seen me. Now I want to get your phone number so I can tell you tomorrow what I was thinking about, something very very important I need to talk to you about.
Francine: No.
Jimmy: No what?
Francine: No.
Jimmy: No?
Francine: No.
Jimmy: No, no, no. You don’t understand.
Francine: No.
Jimmy: Look, give me your number. You gotta pencil or something?
Francine: No.
Jimmy: Alright, well I have a photographic memory. Just give me the number and I’ll remember.
Francine: No.
Jimmy: Yes!
France: No.
Jimmy: Yes!
Francine: No.
Jimmy: I’m serious.
Francine: I know....no!

Robert De Niro is something astonishing in one of his most entertaining performances. His comedic timing is impeccable. Liza Minnelli looks like she’s trying her best to keep up with his pace most of the time, but she has a classical beauty and elegance that makes her perfect for the role. Plus, her character sings, and she does that quite well, too.

When Francine gets pregnant, their relationship begins to slowly crumble. Each of them have their musical interests, and Jimmy in particular is split between his responsibility as a husband and his own artistic wishes. The second half takes a new direction, becoming more intimate and emotionally raw. The period and glamour remain, but the emotion is turned up considerably. Jimmy and Francine struggle to maintain their stability, but his constant insecurities damage their relationship too deeply. Scorsese has stated that the idea of two artists who have so much in common but can’t live together is something he finds particularly appealing, and like all of his best movies, his personal approach to the drama makes it so effective. The dramatic arc of the characters is more reminiscent of his own personal works than old Hollywood productions, making the collision of realism and theatricality often times bizarre. But it’s strange in a good way, a film that dwells between genres and defies expectation, something that continuously interests and entertains for its entire 163 minute running time.

And that's just part one...