Once upon a time, Martin Scorsese’s occasional dabbling in genre filmmaking would come packaged with a twist. Indeed, looking back over his oeuvre, one can spot the musical, the sports picture, the comedy, the horror film, (and, yes, the gangster film). Yet the final product was so far afield from such strictly designated categories that one would never dare reduce them. New York, New York (perhaps the film that most baldly evokes common movie tropes) transcends imitation in its raw performances and abnormal scene duration, in the chilling brutality of its palpable, almost Cassavetes-like marital spats; Raging Bull, of course, never was your grandfather’s boxing picture, an intensely personal and nearly ethnographic dissection of a lone brute; The King of Comedy’s thin veneer of slapstick barely conceals some of the most terrifying pathologies put onscreen in the Eighties; Cape Fear’s monster slices through the screen with agonizing, suspenseful precision, yet it’s that rare depiction of a family’s dysfunction that truly frightens, wrenching ideas of good and evil out of their comfort zones. To praise these films is not to instantly assume that such genres necessarily need to be scrutinized or eviscerated, but to acknowledge Scorsese’s imbuing of common narrative fallbacks with his seeking, passionate artistry, which often has manifested not merely as technical bravura but as part of a individualistic journey, both through film and his own tenable life philosophies.
Of late, many of Scorsese’s most ardent admirers have been dubious, and his detractors have been able to add coal to their furnaces, perhaps because Scorsese’s relationship to genre seems to have altered. Read Michael Koresky’s review of Shutter Island.