The Man Who Forgets Nothing: The minestrone of Martin Scorsese’s mind

Here is a brief excerpt from an classic (March 19, 2000) article by Mark Singer for The New Yorker in which he explains how and why movies, books, whiskey labels, childhood memories — they’re all lodged in the Martin Scorsese’s brain.

To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photograph credit:  Helmut Newton

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Now, where were we? Oh, right, Martin Scorsese’s stream of consciousness. O.K., so one afternoon late last summer, seven weeks shy of the opening date of his most recent film, “Bringing Out the Dead,” we happened to be in a sound-mixing studio in the Brill Building, on Broadway, in the Forties. The floor was raked like a theatre’s, and Scorsese was situated at a console so that he was literally overseeing a couple of craftsmen—a rerecording mixer and a sound editor—who knew how to operate a control panel with about five hundred knobs and switches. For more than a month, Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited each of his films since “Raging Bull,” in 1980, had been scrutinizing every millimetre of the film’s dialogue, music, and sound effects. A thirty-foot-wide screen spanned one wall, and at the moment it was filled with a medium shot of Nicolas Cage and Tom Sizemore, playing a pair of Emergency Medical Service workers named Frank and Tom. Heard but not seen as their ambulance cruised midtown was Scorsese himself, cast as a sardonic radio dispatcher, delivering dialogue courtesy of Paul Schrader (by way of a novel written by Joe Connelly) in a voice that was unmistakably, quintessentially New York—a quick-tempo wise-guy patois with a don’t-tempt-me edge of neurotic potential. He had bad news for Frank and Tom. He was assigning them to pick up a notoriously foul-smelling alcoholic derelict, and to escort him to a hospital: “First of all, I want you to know how sorry I am about this. I’ve always liked you two. A unit above none. A legend in its own lunchtime. So it hurts me deeply to do this. But I have no choice. You must go to Forty-eighth and Broadway. In front of a liquor store, you’ll find a fifty-year-old man unconscious. It says here, ‘Man smells real bad.’ Do I have to say more?”

It sounded snappy, funny, and fine to me. However, according to a batch of typewritten notes that had been prepared after a work-in-progress screening the previous week at a small theatre on the East Side, Scorsese’s voice was perhaps “too piercing.”

“ ‘Too piercing’?” Scorsese now said. “It’s one of my best performances. I can hardly hear myself.”

As Tom Fleischman, the rerecording mixer, paused the film and got busy modulating the pitch of this speech, Scorsese’s thoughts sprinted off in a different direction. He was reminded of the old Harry Belafonte calypso tune “The Banana Boat Song”—or, rather, a parody of same by Stan Freberg, which included a reference to “piercing,” and that reminded him of another Freberg routine, a parody of the television series “Dragnet,” which in turn reminded him of “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” a feature film directed by Jack Webb, the star of “Dragnet.” The production designer of “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” in which Webb played a bandleader during the twenties, was a Disney veteran who brought to it a remarkably vivid palette, a reality-heightening Technicolor glow reminiscent of the live-action Disney children’s films of the forties—stuff like “So Dear to My Heart” and “Song of the South.” And, Scorsese further recalled, “Pete Kelly’s Blues” had a screenplay by Richard L. Breen, whose name, curiously, Webb had heralded before the title. When the picture was released, in 1955, the year Scorsese turned thirteen, he followed it from theatre to theatre, as was his habit. He did most of his growing up on the Lower East Side, on Elizabeth Street—a self-contained Sicilian urban village where it was understood that you needed a good reason to venture far from the neighborhood. Going way uptown to see a Jack Webb picture in a first-run theatre wasn’t a good enough reason, even for an adolescent movie addict. You waited until it came downtown to one of the second-run chain theatres—the Loew’s Commodore, at Sixth Street and Second Avenue, or the Academy of Music, on Fourteenth Street—and the ticket price dropped from a dollar-fifty to seventy-five cents. For second and third viewings, you went to the independently owned Stuyvesant or St. Mark’s or Orpheum, all on Second Avenue, where the price was about a quarter. One particular Saturday-afternoon double feature at the Orpheum came to mind: “Bomba the Jungle Boy” and “Great White Hunter.” He’d gone hoping to see “something totally mindless,” and “Bomba the Jungle Boy” certainly qualified. But “Great White Hunter” turned out to be a rerelease of “The Macomber Affair” (based upon the Hemingway story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”), a whoa-what’s-happening-here sexual psychodrama directed by Zoltán Korda and starring Gregory Peck, Joan Bennett, and Robert Preston as the unlucky Macomber. On a Sunday afternoon when the Loew’s Commodore was completely packed, Scorsese and his father, Charles, saw Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Afterward, still tingling, they got caught in an intermission crowd on the Second Avenue sidewalk outside the Anderson Theatre, a Yiddish house where Molly Picon’s name was on the marquee (not to be confused with the lower-echelon Yiddish theatres on the Bowery, where Charles Scorsese, as an adolescent, used to sneak in and spend the night when he’d got into trouble at home).

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Mark Singer has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1974. He has contributed hundreds of Talk of the Town stories and scores of Profiles and reporting pieces. In the fall of 2000, he revived the U.S. Journal column in the magazine, a monthly feature that was written by Calvin Trillin from 1967 to 1982.

Singer’s account of the collapse of the Penn Square Bank of Oklahoma City appeared in The New Yorker in 1985 and was published as a book, “Funny Money,” that same year. In 1989, he published “Mr. Personality,” a collection of his reporting from The New Yorker. In 1996, Singer published “Citizen K: The Deeply Weird American Journey of Brett Kimberlin,” which originated as an article in the magazine. His other books include “Somewhere in America” (2004) and “Character Studies” (2005), both collections of articles that originally appeared in The New Yorker. His most recent book is “Trump and Me” (2016). Singer lives in New York.


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