Scorsese and the sickness of celebrity

Why "The King of Comedy", released 30 years ago this week, is the director's most disturbing work

 

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a hushed horror film about the craving for celebrity, was released in America on February 18 1983 — 30 years ago almost to the day. Few films from that period turned out to be so prescient. In a sense, it didn’t go far enough: the lengths to which its anti-hero, Rupert Pupkin, will go for fame (or infamy) have been eclipsed easily by the phenomenon of reality television. But the movie is still a fascinating case study. It shows the rot setting in.

Scorsese had helped to bring to life some of the most fascinating monsters in modern movies — Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Each of these men (played, like Rupert, by Robert De Niro) use violence or bullying to express what they can’t articulate. But Rupert is their most disturbing character by a long chalk: a celebrity-obsessed would-be stand-up who lives with his mother and performs an imaginary chat-show in the basement alongside a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minnelli. Alongside Rupert, Travis looks like an upstanding member of society, Jimmy a hot date, Jake a happy little bunny.

De Niro first brought Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay for The King of Comedy to Scorsese’s attention shortly after they had finished their first collaboration, Mean Streets (1973), but the actor was always more enthusiastic about it than the director. In 1980, after the "kamikaze" experience of making Raging Bull, Scorsese was itching to plunge into another project, and De Niro finally persuaded him that the time was right for The King of Comedy. It’s true that the script, about Rupert’s obsession with the chat-show king Jerry Langford — which leads him eventually to kidnap Langford and demand a slot on his show by way of ransom — had ripened with the growth of celebrity culture in the US. But in retrospect, Scorsese wondered if he had been right to direct the picture: “I didn’t feel comfortable with it. The King of Comedy was something that De Niro liked and I had to be convinced to do. If I have to be convinced to do something, I shouldn’t do it. I realised that I only want to do pictures that come from me.”

It was conceived as a quick, guerilla-style shoot after the lengthy production of Raging Bull, as well as a pick-me-up for Scorsese after a bout of pneumonia. But it didn’t turn out that way. “I didn’t make the film fast enough,” he said. “I went on too long and I lost my energy. Every day I had to get myself back into why I wanted to make the picture.”

Odd to think that the movie was considered plum material for a breezy shoot: its defining characteristics include a painstakingly slow pace and an over-deliberate fixation on images that convey the emptiness of celebrities and those who stalk them. You can see that from the off, when Scorsese freeze-frames the image of a fan’s hands squashed against the window of Langford’s limousine. This tableau is made all the more bizarre by being caught in the lightning glare of paparazzi flashbulbs. We have to look at that image for so long as the credits play over it that we want to scream.

That’s the reaction Scorsese was going for. So many of the scenes here are protracted for maximum audience discomfort: for instance, Rupert taking his friend Rita to Langford’s country house for a lunch date that exists only in his own warped mind. The social embarrassment when Langford confronts his uninvited guests is agonising.

With his slicked hair, ingratiating manner and Huey Lewis dress sense, De Niro gives a grotesque performance devoid of vanity, but there’s sound work too from Jerry Lewis, impressively implacable as Langford. The celebrity resonance invoked in the casting of this giant of US showbusiness works to the film’s advantage. Scorsese had first approached Johnny Carson to play the part, but Carson turned it down. He even considered Frank Sinatra. But it’s unlikely that either of them would have been as game, or as glum, as Lewis. His performance is like one long Mexican stand-off with his co-stars, whether it’s De Niro weaseling his way into his limo, or real-life comic and former Friend Of Madonna Sandra Bernhard stripping for him after first mummifying him with parcel tape.

With its despairing worldview, dislikable characters and callous humour, The King of Comedy is not easy to warm to, though the film is widely admired (if not loved by the public at large: it grossed a measly $2.5m in its entire run). The 1980s were difficult for Scorsese: after Raging Bull, he took on a series of unambitious films not originated by him (After Hours, The Color of Money) before expending enormous energy on his troubled pet project The Last Temptation of Christ. But The King of Comedy endures, partly because it is an uncompromising movie and partly because its relevance only increased with each passing year and each new celebrity who becomes famous for being famous.

Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro in 2008

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle