"Conversations with Scorsese" (Knopf), by Richard Schickel: Whether you agree that Martin Scorsese is the greatest filmmaker of his generation, there can be little argument that he’s the most loquacious. His presence in documentaries and on video commentaries about movies, his own and those of others, can seem as ubiquitous as that of film critic and historian Richard Schickel.
Putting them together is a perfect pairing for an epic discourse about the movies.
Schickel’s "Conversations with Scorsese" offers nearly 400 pages of Q-and-A between the two, covering not only Scorsese’s career but, more broadly, the art of making movies and the joy they share in watching them. It’s likely to stand as the definitive source for Scorsese’s views because he is so engaged — and because Schickel knows just the questions to ask.
Scorsese, now 68, reflects on how his upbringing in a Sicilian neighborhood in New York’s Lower East Side influenced films such as "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" and "The Departed." The emotions he felt — anger and rage, loneliness and fear — were muted in life but memorably expressed in the violent confrontations that mark his best-known work.
The young Scorsese found refuge from the drama playing out on the streets and at home in the movie theater and in church. As a child he drew pictures after seeing "High Noon" and other movies. (To this day, Scorsese draws nearly every shot he plans for his films.) Later, as the one-time altar boy took college courses in film, he asked a priest if it would be sinful to watch movies condemned by the Catholic Church (not if it was for his studies, he was told).
The films of Hollywood director John Ford influenced Scorsese, but New York maverick John Cassavetes inspired him when he began directing features. Schickel gives each of Scorsese’s two dozen films their own chapters. Other topics — color and music, for example — merit separate sections, too, making the book reader-friendly without taking away the pleasure of discovering what lies behind Scorsese’s cinematic obsessions.
Significantly, the book is a reminder that Scorsese’s range is wide and deep: comedies ("After Hours," "The King of Comedy"), biopics ("Raging Bull," "The Aviator"), thrillers ("Cape Fear," "Shutter Island") and documentaries ("The Last Waltz," "Shine a Light").
This isn’t meant to be a biography. Most personal matters, such as Scorsese’s five marriages, are passed over and their influence on his films unexplored. Not so the drug use and emotional and physical meltdowns that affected his work.
Schickel makes no secret that he is a fan and a friend. Still, he challenges the director, presses a point and states outright whether a particular film works for him. He also manages to keep Scorsese on topic without missing an opportunity to explore an interesting tangent.
And there are plenty of tangents — just what you would expect in a spirited back-and-forth between two cinephiles at the top of their game.