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Book Review: 'Conversations With Scorsese'

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Above all else, Martin Scorsese is a character.

Brilliant, brazen, engaging, esoteric, reverent, irreverent, ironic — all are qualities that have forged the 68-year-old director into an unqualified master. Much revered, once reviled, Scorsese has created some of the most extraordinary work in modern cinema: the gangster leitmotif of "Mean Streets," "Goodfellas," "Casino" and "The Departed"; the awakening feminism of "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"; the brutal anger of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull"; the unsettling treatise on fame in "The King of Comedy"; the respectful religious provocation of the much-maligned "The Last Temptation of Christ"; and on it goes.

The length and breadth of that work is the starting point for longtime film critic, author and documentarian Richard Schickel in "Conversations With Scorsese," his intriguing, sometimes maddening but ultimately satisfying new book. Though billed as a conversation, it often reads more like a lecture series as the men discuss each of Scorsese's feature films, a smattering of his documentaries, his views on editing, music, color, storyboarding and everything else in the filmmaking process.

As anyone who's ever caught the filmmaker on TV or in person knows, everything about him seems irrepressible — his humor, his passion, that rubber-band grin, the Buddy Holly horn rims and those caterpillar brows. That nature is both the appeal and the conundrum of the book — when to rein him in and when to let him run. Schickel does a good deal of both, though the book would have benefited from more tightening.

The author and the auteur first met in 1973, Schickel writes in the introduction, and he sketches out their encounters over the years and how they came to do this book. From there the book turns to Scorsese's childhood, his Italian American heritage, the Bowery ("I was living virtually on the Bowery, which to this day has marked me in a way. 'The Gangs of New York' — I couldn't even get it close to what I saw on the Bowery"), his asthma and his early love of movies.

There is little, though, of the private Scorsese beyond these early days. Nothing on his marriages (there have been five), a bare mention of his daughters; a glancing blow about his drug issues and how or whether those experiences have influenced the work. Even his feelings about finally winning an Oscar for directing 2006's "The Departed," after multiple nominations that had begun 26 years earlier with "Raging Bull," are nowhere to be found.

But when they turn to the movies, the book is at its most insightful and engaging. Scorsese gets as specific as we want him to be. He admits the mistakes, the ways "Boxcar Bertha" went off track, for one. He describes the Warner Bros. producer who insisted he make "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," telling him, "This is all women, and you should really do it." That "Taxi Driver" contains what Scorsese says is "my reaction against the world I came from." And then there's his pain over "Shutter Island's" mixed reception: "I don't even want to talk about it, because it's like I can't handle any more criticism of it. Sorry."

As in their "Shutter Island" talk, there is a Scorsese versus Schickel skirmish, albeit a polite one, that keeps surfacing in the book. When Scorsese tires of the author's probing about the mafia wise guys of his youth, he counters with, "could we mention my films that aren't gangster films? 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.' To a certain extent 'Taxi Driver.' 'New York, New York'.…"

Scorsese discusses the defining collaborations he has had with, among others, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. The directors who influenced him and helped him early on include two polar opposites: John Cassavetes and Roger Corman. There's a certain satisfaction, he says, that comes in documentary filmmaking such as the rock 'n' roll meditations found in his "The Last Waltz" on the Band.

He also details many memorable scenes, breaking down the angles, the thinking behind everything. The historical roots in his films, and there are many, are exposed: The shot of Manhattan in the credits of "New York, New York," for instance, is "taken from the credits of 'The Man I Love.'" The men also discuss the intricate storyboarding Scorsese does for every film, blocking it out scene by scene, lamenting that the Eberhard Faber ebony, jet black, extra smooth, 6325 pencils he favored are no longer made.

In the time the still-active filmmaker has left, he pines to do a classic love story. "It's not like a test," he says, "but it's like a canon of work that every filmmaker or novelist should be able to do."

Until then, we have the rest and, courtesy of Schickel's conversations, Scorsese's contemplations on it all.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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