The Luncheon Society/Dean of Film Writers, Richard Schickel, on Martin Scorsese/San Francisco—Fior D’Italia/May 9, 2011/Los Angeles—Napa Valley Grille/September 10, 2011

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It is fair to say that “Conversations with Scorsese,” places one of the best film writers aside one of the industry’s best directors. Over the past four decades, Martin Scorsese has delivered gem after gem on the screen and having our old friend Richard Schickel talk us through his career helps to better understand his artistic genius.

Thankfully, Scorsese likes to talk. We’re ever thankful that Schickel loves to ask penetrating questions. Together they create a 400 page oral history that sums the director’s career thus far. At the end, you have the feeling that you’ve been riding shotgun at every location shoot; that you’re there at every tortured edit; and you’ve been present for both the good and the tough times.

For the past four decades, spanning his tenure at Life, then Time Magazine, and now at Vanity Fair, Richard has given readers the best seat in the house when it comes to the movie industry.  When he joined us last year for lunch at Chez Mimi in Santa Monica to discuss his book about Clint Eastwood’s relationship with Warner Brothers, it was oneHollywood story after the next. On a sunny afternoon in May, Richard delivered in San Francisco and did it again in early September in Los Angeles.


Richard Schickel brings them alive.  Nobody knows the industry like the Dean of Film Writers.  Richard has written over 40 books, created over 40 films, and has narrated the filmmakers comments for countless DVDs. His film, “You Must Remeber This,”  serves and the unofficial history of Warner Brothers.

The book jacket begins, “Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The Departed, The Aviator, Shutter Island: these are just a few of the critically acclaimed films, startling experimental works, and spectacular commercial blockbusters with which Martin Scorsese has forever enriched American cinema. Here is a rare and wonderfully insightful chance to experience all of these films, and the history and process of moviemaking in general, through the words and wit of the master director. Offering a deep look into the aesthetic, technical and commercial realities of filmmaking, Scorsese provides intimate details about the making of his acknowledged masterpieces, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed, for which he finally received Oscar recognition. But he is revelatory about his more troubled and misunderstood productions, notably New York, New York and The Last Temptation of Christ, the latter of which set off a firestorm of criticism in religious circles. That controversy is strikingly ironic in this context, since Scorsese presents himself, in spite of the extreme violence of much of his work, as an artist whose principal subject is spirituality; Kundun, about the Dalai Lama, is one of his favorites among his own films. The director’s church-bred point of view is sometimes met with respectful skepticism by Schickel, an avowed atheist, and Scorsese emerges as a fascinating, obsessive, complex guy. He has always seemed the most companionable of film artists, and, except for his own expansive, autobiographically driven documentaries on American and Italian movies, this is the most probing and enjoyable explication of his accomplished career.”

Each chapter within Richard’s book focuses on one project or film and they open in chronological order.  As the oral history progresses, cinevistas can better understand the artistic trajectory of Scorsese, how what took place in Mean Streets paved the way for other films like Raging Bull, Casino or Gangs of New York, the latter which nearly ruined him financially and emotionally.

Scorsese, perhaps representative of the auteur movement of the 1970’s, is usually present at the creation of his scripts. Raging Bull came to Scorsese through Robert De Niro and for the next couple of years, they pounded out the screenplay and transformed the downer of a memoir into something still endures as a film classic, thanks to basic cable and the DVD marketplace.  

Scorsese appears best when he works with Nick Pilleggi and Paul Schrader on the script and story while working with De Niro, Harvey Keital, Daniel Day-Lewis, and now Leonardo Di Caprio in front of the camera. The latter reflects the changing constant of Hollywood as one generation of leading men give way to the next. 

“Show Business,” like Larry Turman like to say, comprises of two opposing words, “show” and “business. Scorsese’s films have taken awhile to become engrained in the national fabric and few have ever received the “Feel-Good Movie of the Year” review that provides an updraft at the box office.

However, many Scorsese movies are tough to watch but impossible to turn away.  The violence in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver continue to shock a generation after its release and the visceral nature found in the brutality of Raging Bull makes it an American classic.  However, each of the films, while praised for their honesty and the splendor of the intersection between story and acting, failed to overwhelm at the box office.  In fact, Scorsese worried that after Raging Bull’s failure to ignite, it might be harder to finance his next project.  It may have lost out to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, but Raging Bull continues to echo.

When people walk into a Scorsese film, they know it’s not “Girls Night Out” but a series of dark portrayals of men and women who face tough choices. Boiled down to its basics, the sum total of his work is the equivalent of the long shot of Ray Liotta’s voice-over in Goodfellas when Henry Hill walks through the Copacabana to meet his associates.  Instead of Freddie No-Nose, Pete the Killer, Nicky Eyes, and Jerry Two Times, it’s Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

Contrasted against Clint Eastwood, another subject of Schickel in years past, Scorsese might create a more artistic vision, but Eastwood better understands the relationship between art and commerce. Eastwood will find a script and bring a shrewder approach to the game.  His films are shot reasonably quickly and come under budget.

You can merely choose to watch movies as they are delivered to you at the theater or else you can delve into a compelling back-story of how his vision came to fruition. However, in the case of Scorsese, the budgets and shooting schedules might be long gone, but the majesty of what he has created makes him an enduring Hollywood icon.

To read more about Richard Schickel’s take on Scorsese as well as the film industry, here are some great links

    The Luncheon Society™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and now Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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