4/2/21: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) — Loners and Politicians #poetry
“A poet or a painter can be a loner, but a film director has to be a team player.”
We went for a drive through Chicago last night. We had an errand to run. On the way home, we took the scenic route, passing through many neighborhoods where I have lived and worked. I wouldn’t say I had bad memories or good ones. I was happy all of that was over. The people were rude and dumb in Rogers Park. The kids — and they are kids, even if in their twenties and thirties — in Old Town were shallow and mean with an addiction to being entertained. The professionals having cocktails and high end cuisine (at least in price) at the Italian Village were selfish and cunning, uninterested in the gifts and pleasure of poetry or film or anything else like them. We passed some colleges downtown but they had no impact, overwhelmed by the repurposed architecture where they had squatted — towers of commerce, retail and the law fallen on harder times, taking in lesser occupants in fitful attempts to at least stay alive if never again relevant. Professors, lawyers, bartenders, clerks, businessmen, bums … I hated not one of them, but I was peaceful in the realization that I never had to make their acquaintance again. I have no respect for what they do. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing — and now they were running out of steam. They lived in a dead world when everything that they did was so important to them, and of no use to any of their contemporaries, and certainly no use to posterity. They did not further the human experiment. They lived like ants feasting on road kill. Now, they are just hanging on, like the skyscrapers that house the mediocre academies. Our drive through Chicago was like attending the death bed of a person who had thrown their life away.
“Every decision in movies is based upon what the money men think the audience wants.”
An African – American pundit on MSNBC said something useful. I listened for hours and hours and finally someone said words that I needed to hear. I watch cable news for the same reason that I watch movies. It’s not because I want to be a reporter or a filmmaker like the pundit or Scorsese. I make art about compromised art. Compromised art has value. A lot of value breaks through cracks in the system. Compromised art provides me with great opportunities as a writer. I can catalog the lies of society, and how humanity sometimes prevails, and sometimes dies, in spite of and because of those lies.
The black commentator summed up the strategy of addressing racism in America. Racism is often rationalized — the bigots are fearful. But our expert knows better. “Sometimes people are racist because they are afraid, but often they just are racist because they like to feel superior to other people. We can’t have any hopes of winning the racists over to our point of view. We have to defeat them. We have to avoid them, and defend ourselves from their harm — and just move forward without them.”
I avoid the zombies of the past as a man and as a writer. I consider strategies of self – defense to use if necessary against them. I ask myself, “Have you won? Have you defeated them?” My mood lightens as if I just cured a bout of constipation. Yes, yes, yes … I emphatically accept who I am and what I do, and I have nothing to do with those who don’t understand or appreciate me and my work, I avoid those who would try to repress and stop me, and I am prepared to fight to freely be myself and create if necessary.
Scorsese describes filmmakers as subversives — sneaking artistic, political and social revolution past the bosses who think they are just making popular money-making entertainments. God bless these directors. We need politicians to provide cunning to navigate our journey to be more evolved as individuals and as society.
I am decidedly not a team player. I did the bare minimum for the collective, and have always focused on my own project. I made no concessions to the bosses. When my inner path deviated from their objectives, I left.
A loner still needs to be in relation to other people. I’d like to find a movie that would help me think about how to do that. In the meantime, this fascinating movie will do. Scorsese made this film twenty years into his career, and he still describes himself as a student. He always leads with content, substance … craft is a secondary consideration. Craft is pushed by the need to express ideas and emotions.
For any artist, loner or politician … purpose leads and communication follows. Whether simply turning my life time habit of listening to complex internal monologues while I watch movies, into a technique to communicate my experience of the world, or Scorsese’s film scholarship showing the use of the mechanics of movies — camera, editing, cinematography, sound to evoke his perspective for the viewer … the how follows the what and the why.
Scorsese is interested in how spirituality and art can survive in a fallen world. It makes sense that he is a politician. I am obsessed with living spiritually and making art outside of society. I have a strong sense that support exists outside of the walking dead of Chicago and the rest of the world — money, friendship, audiences … You avoid social animals, you defend yourself against the social monsters, and you defeat the ignorant social masses. Your victory has nothing to do with changing the intolerant and rigid hearts and minds. You just know your value and the value of your work. You don’t need them.
Filmmakers like Scorsese snuck truth, beauty and art to loners and politicians in training — including me (the loner) and Scorsese (the politician — an artist’s primary student is him or herself).
I like movies better than live theater. They are cheaper. The seats are more comfortable. They are available in the neighborhood or through streaming services. They aren’t respected by society which gives them a chance to say many things simply because not too many people take them seriously. It is ironic that a celebrated filmmaker like Scorsese, and a practically anonymous self – publishing writer like me, are both obscure.
Art and spirituality are obscure. The most important things, the most practical things are invisible. Chicago is sick and ugly because the streets’ surface is the illusion and the depths of the artist responds to what is real.
You can try to perfect society, or you can try to perfect yourself. I’ll take the latter. Art and spirituality change the world much more than the productions of power and money. If you transform yourself, you transform your iinfinitesimal portion of the world, and that example and influence is the most effective thing.
Whether loner or politician, it is essential to get beyond the conflict with society. Orson Welles suffered the pain of unrequited love with Hollywood. Scorsese just keeps going. His biography of the Dalai Llama, Kundun, which got four Oscar nominations in the late 1990s, was shelved by his distributer Disney Corporation. The reason was that the material offended “the Chinese market”. Disney Chairman, Michael Eisner said, “The bad thing is that Kundun got made. The good thing is that no one saw it.” Scorsese just kept going.
I think Scorsese works the way I worked when I was a trial lawyer, and hopefully the way I work as a writer. I had a drawer full of files. Most went well. Some didn’t. It wasn’t always fair. I did my best and I just kept going.
Until you are alone, you can’t connect with anyone.
Society is irrelevant to the spiritual person or the artist. I’m concerned with humanity work, not social work. I like looking at society from a distance, not to criticize it, but to define it. It is part of the scene, but it is not the whole scene.
Society is something to be overcome so that life, love, art and soul can take over and take the lead. When you are learning, and you are in the phase of conflict with society — the push and pull of external authority versus your heart — as soon as you take your side in all arguments, you are close to coming home. When you unfailingly know when society is speaking and when your heart is speaking, when you know what to listen to and what to ignore, you are home.
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas