Scorsese in the land of the intellectuals

NOVA JERSEY - At the 50th anniversary party for the New York Review of Books last week, I walked behind a black curtain hanging over a narrow doorway and saw, as though he were the wizard in the "Wizard of Oz," Martin Scorsese, standing among screens, and microphones, and wires. The legendary filmmaker greeted me warmly, unpretentiously, and told me that he was there to make a documentary film about the legendary intellectual journal. In other words, the great cinematic poet of American violence was making a movie about the epitome of rational, civilized, refined discourse.

Lee Siegel,

10 de fevereiro de 2013 | 01h00

I had no doubt that Scorsese, who has reinvented the genre of documentary, would come up with something remarkable. ("Smartfellas"?) But I wondered how this artist, who captures every aspect of violence the way Picasso captured every angle of the human face simultaneously in his cubist portraits, would react to a wholly cerebral world.

After all, genius is visceral, and Scorsese, a visceral genius if ever there was one, is able to draw out the volatile underside of human intelligence. Just as Freud knew that the libido was not merely sexual, Scorsese knows that violence is not always physical. It is there in the very rhythms of Joe Pesci's speech in "Goodfellas" and "Casino." It is even there in the fluid restlessness of Bob Dylan's identity in Scorsese's documentary about Dylan. Behind the explicit violence of "Raging Bull," the very origin of violence is there in that immortal slow-motion scene where Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro), is warming up, jumping up and down, his face and head entirely covered by the hood of his robe-summoning up, all at once, the monk's cowl at the end of Bunuel's "El," Goya's "El Gran Cabron," and Anthony Quinn at the end of "La Strada," trapped inside his brutish body, clawing the beach in mortal agony.

In that unforgettable image, Scorsese captures the splendor of LaMotta's animal nature, a splendor that exacts as its ugly price LaMotta's rationality..What violent undertones will Scorsese draw out, I wondered at the party as I held my third glass of red wine, from the refined, urbane crowd milling about me, from these embodiments of rationality. Heaven knows, literary life is full of the ego's turbulence, and anyone who moves through intellectual or artistic circles is familiar with La Rochefoucauld's famous epigram: "It is not enough to succeed. One's friends must also fail." Scorsese, whose gorgeous"Age of Innocence" always struck me as even more psychologically subtle than Wharton's novel, will catch that in a nanosecond. But how and in what way will he elegantly, tastefully desublimate all of these professional sublimators?

The literary critic Lionel Trilling once said that the very act of thought, of pulling ideas out of nothing, was violent. He compared creating ideas out of nothing to Plato's parable of the cave, in which people chained in ignorance to the subterranean darkness break their shackles and ascend to the light. I always thought that only someone who had never actually been punched could have written this. There is nothing in the world more antithetical to violence than the act of thinking. To think, to contemplate, to have an idea is freedom; violence is bondage. And to intellectually make sense of violence is the greatest mental freedom of all.

What better time for an artist who understands violence to its depths to make a documentary about people who spend much of their time making intellectual and conceptual sense of violence? It is the perfect fusion of the Dionysian with the Apollinian (which is not to say that the Dionysian Scorsese is not, in the end, a perfect Apollinian himself, the proof being his exquisite comic spirit. Comedy is ultimately intellectual.). America is awash not just in street violence and gun violence; the country is also swimming in layers of meta-violence that are impossible to conceive.

Just this past week, a Vietnam veteran in his sixties kidnapped an autistic boy from a school bus after shooting the driver dead, and held the boy captive in a makeshift fortress until the FBI stormed the bunker, freeing the boy and killing the kidnapper. A few days earlier, the author of a bestselling book describing his real-life exploits as a military sniper responsible for 150 "kills," was himself shot to death at a gun-range by another military veteran. Whenever I read of a bestselling author meeting his demise, I succumb for an instant to a La Rochefoucauldian twinge of relief, but in this case the feeling of "live by the sword, die by the sword" made my cynical response a little more legitimate.

This piling of one layer of violence upon another was compounded by the fact that the kidnapper and the murderer of the sniper both were veterans suffering from post-traumatic -stress disorder. As Homer knew in the Iliad when he made the moment of killing on the battlefield stretch backward and forward in time-describing the fallen warrior's past while imagining his future in the afterlife-violence and its consequences go on, and on, and on, defacing memory, polluting the future. The recent revelation that Obama authorized targeted killings of Americans suspected of terrorism casts a penumbra of violence around the entire country. Even as Spielberg's "Lincoln," which celebrates a war that took perhaps one million lives, stands ready to be celebrated by the Oscars, it is clear that Americans will never escape the circle of our particular brand of violence and its violent aftermath.

Thankfully, there is Martin Scorsese. I think I can now catch a glimpse of what he might make of the New York Review of Books. At the end of "Raging Bull," Jake LaMotta looks at himself in a dressing-room mirror. For the first time in his life, he recognizes himself and understands and accepts who he is. In the sense that the New York Review of Books brings its mirror out of the bloody darkness every two weeks, holding it up to its readers and to the world, the journal has perhaps found its truest portraitist.

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Lee Siegel

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