I wouldn’t say I have one particular film director I’d call my favorite, but without a doubt Martin Scorsese holds a unique significance for me- he essentially, he alone, made me fall in love with cinema. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but hear me out. Before I discovered Scorsese, I never thought of films as being an art form. My relationship with them was no different to my relationship with coloring books, ice cream, football games, or Jenga. I enjoyed going to movies, but they were just fun ways of passing the time to me.
When I was 16 years old, I left school and started college (in the UK, college and university are separate entities). During my 2 years at college, I took a class in Film Studies, and they told us on our first day that this would forever change our experience of watching movies. At the time I figured it was just a cute thing to say in order to get folks excited about the course, the same way Psychology lecturers teased their day one students with the promise they’d learn to read minds. I wondered if we film students would similarly go about the next semester with the same air of smug superiority. I remember Psychology students telling their non-Psychology friends “I can basically predict your behavior now. I know exactly why you do what you do,” and I could well imagine my excited peers telling their non-Film friends “I can understand what movies are really about.”
But looking back on my experience as a Film student now, it’s obvious to me that the shift in my relationship to cinema wasn’t one of comprehension so much as it was discovering another way of enjoying the medium. The Film Studies class I took for those two years is probably the most fun class I’ve ever taken, be it at school, college, or university. I absolutely loved it. I was introduced to so many movies and so many artistic voices within the cinematic world that I otherwise would have never encountered. We watched old films, new films, foreign films, experimental films, documentary films, everything. I didn’t necessarily enjoy them all, but they each taught me something important. I was beginning to learn just how creative you could be within the medium of filmmaking. I don’t think you could have taken that class and not wanted to become a movie director; the possibilities for distinctive self-expression were innumerably exciting. I had absolutely no doubt in my mind: cinema was the art form of the 20th century.
Among the many auteurs I encountered during my two years in college, Martin Scorsese inspired me the most. I consumed all of his movies like a jonesing Pooh Bear at an apiary; the gangster films being my particular favorites. I did a case study on Mean Streets, and my teacher said “Your homework is to watch Mean Streets tonight. Best homework ever!”
At the time I would say Taxi Driver was my favorite Scorsese film. But I loved Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. Taxi Driver is perhaps the single film above all the others that caused the shift in the way I appreciated the medium. I didn’t enjoy it the same way I enjoyed Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It was bleak and disturbing. But I enjoyed it in a different way- in a way I’d never enjoyed films before. For the first time I thought about the camera itself; I was aware of the camera, and I spent time thinking about why it was doing what it did. I thought about the way objects and characters were framed. I thought about the use of color. I thought about the dialogue. I wanted to know what other people thought about it, and I was eager to join in that discourse. The ambiguous ending scene in particular was unlike anything I’d seen before.
I decided in 2010 that Robert de Niro and Martin Scorsese were my guys. They represented my future tastes in film. The only thing was, they were old by the time I discovered them. They had already made all their films together, and I had already seen them, many years after they were new, in one condensed renaissance. Were they really my future as a cinephile? I checked the internet to make sure I hadn’t missed any of their projects, and I discovered that they had agreed to reunite for a gangster movie based on the novel I Heard You Paint Houses. There wasn’t much information I could get on the project, but I saw that none other than Joe Pesci and Al Pacino were attached to it as well. It seemed almost too good to be true, like the whole thing was birthed from the wettest dreams of film buffs. How was there so little information on this project? I thought. Surely this was a priority if ever there was one? Why wouldn’t they be hard at work on this film right now? What could possibly be the problem? This would be money for old rope. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?
I couldn’t find any hype or speculation, just a matter-of-fact line on Wikipedia saying that the project would be made at some point. Something didn’t sit right with me. It was almost as if the whole thing had been made up just to fuck with Scorsese fans. I kept checking the internet for updates over the years, but nothing seemed to be happening. Just that one sentence or two, at the bottom of a page or article. The years went by, and I always remembered it, but came to think of it like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 3. My next big disappointment. I felt in my heart that this would never get made. Too much time had gone by. There didn’t seem to be any movement whatsoever.
As it turns out, a lot was going on behind the scenes. Issues related to scheduling, budget, production, and other things I don’t understand. But lo and behold, traction started to emerge in 2017. It seemed the film was getting made after all. Not only that, but the cast was better than I could have possibly imagined. Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, and Bobby Cannavale were onboard too! It then emerged that Netflix had kind of saved the film and thrown $150 million at it to push it over the finishing line. I liked this news a lot. I trust Netflix, and I just knew that they’d let Scorsese have whatever he needed to make the film exactly how he envisioned it. Their business model as a streaming service seems to ensure that artistic integrity is maintained. Ultimately, a critically-acclaimed film (like Roma, for instance) will attract people to subscribe to their service. They make money based on Netflix’s reputation for quality products, and so it makes perfect sense for them to back arthouse and narrative films as opposed to only greenlighting focus-group tested mass market appeal blockbuster flicks. Netflix is about choice– and to out-compete the other streaming services long-term, their focus isn’t on any one particular film as it is their library of quality movies. And so indie movies are safe in Netflix’s hands, because they need the best selection and variety of distinctive features as possible. They want to be the only place you can get things like Roma.
The first trailer for The Irishman emerged earlier this year and cinephiles the world over blew their fucking loads. Now it really did feel real for the first time, I thought. This project that had been kind of under the radar for the past decade was finally being talked about. There was a buzz. I kept checking the internet anxiously- agonizingly- for the release date, and when it was finally announced I sighed impatiently at having to wait until the end of November to catch it on Netflix. It was okay, I told myself, I’d waited a good 8 years for this fucking film, I could wait another few months. When the first reviews came in, my impatience and excitement reached unprecedented levels for a motion picture. Reviewers that had seen it at film festivals described it as vintage Scorsese, a gangster film on an epic scale, a narrative that spanned generations, that pulled out all the stops. Practically foaming at the mouth, I checked again when the release date was, and saw to my astonishment that a cinema in Bristol was showing it on October 13th.
That couldn’t be right, I thought. No other cinemas in the area were showing it, and the film wasn’t due for its limited theatrical release until November 1st. This had to be some mistake. There’s no way some random cinema is exclusively showing this movie almost a month early. I checked the website and sure enough, the Everyman in Bristol was showing The Irishman on October 13th. Well fuck me sideways. I saw that this wasn’t an ordinary screening, but an exclusive red carpet event. It turns out that The Irishman was being shown at the London Film Festival that day, and that a few select cinemas around the country were going to be showing it at the same time, as well as giving live coverage of the premiere. Fuck it, I said, I’m going.
The Everyman itself turned out to be an interesting experience. It’s a proper film buff’s cinema. Instead of regular seats, they have these cozy two-person couches, with cushions and blankets for your added comfort. They also serve dinner, and waiters will bring your food right to you where you sit. I brought my brother, my dad, and my nan along with me, and we ascended a staircase whose walls were covered in old school movie posters. I didn’t actually get a drink or anything to eat because the film is three and a half hours, and I didn’t want to miss any of it. I’ve never in my life gone to the little boy’s room while watching a movie, be it at the cinema or at home. I wasn’t going to start with the film I’d been waiting to see for almost a decade. I consulted the advice of some professional urologists online and decided the best thing to do was to dehydrate myself for the whole evening. I avoided drinking any coffee throughout the afternoon beforehand in case I started violently secreting from both orifices.
The event was actually very busy, but it soothed my restless anxiety to know that I was surrounded entirely by people just as excited as I was, and not gangs of wild teenagers unbound by even the most basic sense of social etiquette. There were none of the annoying commercials you usually get at the cinema, which I also liked. We went straight into the trailers, and then we watched the live footage being beamed to us from the London Film Festival. There were interviews with each of the main cast members, as well as Scorsese himself, but they came across as surreal and disjointed. One of the interviews was so awkward that everyone in the cinema was roaring with laughter. It was funny to think that as these hard-working interviewers tried to squeeze the film stars for interesting responses, and the film stars for their part tried stiffly to be polite and accommodating, they were unaware that across the country people were laughing. I think the fact that it was live made it seem funnier. The best interview was Stephen Graham’s, because his answers and mannerisms were more like that of a footballer than the renowned thespian he is. He came across as refreshingly down-to-earth, and said in a thick Scouse accent “This is my Champions League final!”
It was endearing to know that despite all his success, he was still pinching himself. He was like a giddy kid, and talked about how growing up in a working class family in Liverpool, he never once expected any of this.
As the red carpet stuff ended, my dad went off to go to the bathroom, figuring that the best way to avoid going during the performance was to take a slash at the last possible minute. The manager of the cinema came onstage and spoke a few words, welcoming us to The Everyman and telling us that he would be present throughout the screening if we needed anything. The lights then went out and the film began. I looked over and my dad was nowhere to be seen. My brother and I rolled our eyes at each other before returning to the screen. Here it was, at last! I said to myself. A slow tracking shot through an old folks home, the gravelly voiceover of de Niro…this was really happening.
Then out of the corner of my eye I see my dad trying to make his way back to us. There’s plenty of leg room, but it was so dark that he seemed like he was going to lose his balance. He held his arms out either side of his body to stop himself falling onto the row in front of us, and we could hear him hushing his apologies as he went past. Just as he made it back to where our seats were in the center of the row, we’re snapped out of our immersion by a loud crash as he accidentally knocks over a couple glass bottles people left on the floor. “Fuck sake,” I whisper, and my brother starts silently laughing.
I won’t spoil the film of course, or indeed give any details of the plot. But I will say that I wasn’t disappointed. I’d hyped it to impossible levels however, so when we got out, everyone kept asking me if it lived up to expectations. The answer is yes. Put simply, it was exactly as I expected it to be. I couldn’t really have asked anything more from a Scorsese gangster film, but I wasn’t surprised by anything either. So in a small way, I was a little disappointed not to have been surprised, because I think whenever we go into a movie theater we want something to hit us out of left field. That’s not to say that The Irishman retreads old ground however, or that it’s just like Goodfellas, because it isn’t. The style is familiar, but the themes and the narrative felt very fresh. The scope of the film also seems greater than any of Scorsese’s other pictures, even The Departed. In this case, the adjective “epic” is entirely warranted. I think the three and a half hour runtime makes perfect sense for the story it is telling. One of the things that stood out to me in particular was the tone of the film. It felt a lot more subtle and less-stylized than Goodfellas or Casino. It felt somber and existential, low-key. It’s less violent too, because the mob hits are portrayed as being extremely clinical. They don’t linger on the killings because the hit men don’t linger on them. It’s cold, remorseless, and quick. That was one of the biggest takeaways for me; by the end of the movie you feel struck by the sheer lack of conscience and empathy. It highlights how absurd and surreal the world of contract killing is, and how these button men, so unable to see the humanity in their victims, are unable to form meaningful connections in their personal lives. It would have diminished the commentary on the psychology of contract killing if they had drawn out those scenes of people getting whacked. It’s almost robotic- two pops to the head and that’s it. So if you’re squeamish, this film won’t bother you unlike some of Scorsese’s other movies. I liked this understated approach. Sure, I liked the crazy, bloody scenes of Casino where Joe Pesci attacks that guy with a biro, but the subtle approach to violence in The Irishman really suits the narrative it’s trying to tell. It’s hard to pick a standout performance, but I’d say Al Pacino had the most intense and colorful stage presence.
I thoroughly recommend this film! It comes out in select theaters November 1st and becomes available on Netflix November 27th.