The tricky thing with instantly canonized film giants like Martin Scorsese is that the collective interpretation of their work often simplifies their artistry. Especially in North America, he’s too often been pegged as a director of gangster films, violence, a fun stylist. However, Scorsese’s complex visual tapestry as an artist begs for more nuance in approaching his work. In the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin’s famous cinema museum and arthouse, curator Nils Warnecke and his team have assembled the first exhibition on Hollywood’s most respected working filmmaker. Thoughtfully put together, it features an overwhelming variety of 600 or so items on display. The exhibition helps simultaneously complicate and clarify the art of Martin Scorsese.
Divided into several categories, such as “Family,” “Brothers,” and “New York,” the exhibition articulates Scorsese on a thematic level, weaving in objects, photographs, and curiosities, with only very few instances of superficial displays of frivolous memorabilia (though there is genuine pleasure in observing Johnny Boy’s hat from “Mean Streets” and Travis Bickle’s cowboy boots). The real focus here is on Scorsese’s historic and artistic lineage: the elements of his upbringing, as a man, cinephile, and ultimately a filmmaker, with particular care paid to his influences and loves.
Scripts and storyboards with Scorsese’s own handwritten notes, diagrams and other various scribblings give insight into his tenacious method. Crossing out shot descriptions, for example, in the script for “Casino,” and penciling in a detailed series of frames, complete with drawings to communicate the various camera positions — sure, it’s always been obvious, but these details bring out just how precisely Scorsese’s mind works on a visual level. The level of care Scorsese puts into crafting every single shot is awe-inspiring, and the work he clearly invests in developing his scripts makes one wonder how he finds the time to make as many films as he does — other examples, such as a revised draft of “The Color of Money” with Scorsese’s notes, demonstrate this.
In the Family section, pictures of his grandparents, parents, and childhood help convey the director’s origins. One image, taken by Scorsese himself as a youngster from his room, is shockingly close to the famous shot in “Goodfellas” of a young Henry Hill looking through his window at the world outside. Amazing artifacts from all of Scorsese’s films are spread throughout. One memorable instance is the card (“For A Couple of Good Boy Scouts”) that Travis Bickle sends to his parents in “Taxi Driver,” surely one of the most haunting objects in his movies. Other gems include a matte painting from “Age of Innocence,” and Scorsese’s first “storyboards,” drawn at the age of 11 for a Roman epic for which he had Marlon Brando in mind for the lead. One of the most useful parts of the exhibition, from the New York section, is a scaled 3D diagram of New York with accompanying screens that study the locations used in Scorsese’s films. The diagram reveals Scorsese’s concentrated focus on the working class areas of Little Italy and Hell’s Kitchen, and an almost complete avoidance of “rich” New York.
A section simply labeled “Cinema” displays Scorsese’s enduring passion for the medium itself. An assortment of the man’s own collection of movie posters and memorabilia — including, among other things, the actual pair of “Red Shoes” from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic. Also featured in this section is a series of letters from other filmmakers who joined Scorsese’s petition — launched over 30 years ago — against Eastman Kodak’s color film stock, which would degrade and fade after just a few years. Among the filmmakers who corresponded? Joseph Losey, Nagisa Oshima, Akira Kurosawa, Terrence Malick and Leni Riefenstahl. Also from Kurosawa, a beautiful colored drawing of Scorsese as Van Gogh in the film “Dreams” (1990), and that’s not the only piece of artwork in his collection, which also features an original work by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The greatest highlight here may be the finale: an installation created by Warnecke. Composed of four screens with creative use of Scorsese’s own sound and image, Warnecke intensifies his style by spreading multiple images from one scene over another, sometimes mixing films, bringing out motifs and recurring images of guilt, sacrifice, alienation, collectively illuminating Scorsese’s visual ideas.
Clearly the work of someone who understands the filmmaker’s artistry, the installation merely suggests the complexities of Scorsese’s vast world of images. The exhibition makes no attempt to have a final say on a career that’s far from over; instead, it’s like the beginning of an excavation, a digging into the depths of an incomplete oeuvre.
In Berlin until May 12 and set for touring in Turin and Geneva, a North American trip for the exhibition remains uncertain, but those eager to see it in that part of the world should remain hopeful. After all, it’s the part of the world closest to Scorsese’s origins where a different approach to his cinema may be needed most.
For more information about the Scorsese exhibit, visit the official website.