Thugs with thick skins: in Goodfellas (1990) De Niro boils over with conflicting emotions. Photo:
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Mythical, merciless butchness: Martin Scorsese’s men

From De Niro’s snarl to DiCaprio’s sinewy wildness, no director has explored masculinity as acutely as Scorsese, writes Tom Shone

Do you know how Martin Scorsese came to cast Ray Liotta in Goodfellas? At the height of the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ, the director took his film to the Venice Film Festival, and one morning, walking out of his hotel on the Lido, he saw Liotta across the lobby. The actor’s audition tape had just arrived at his office back in New York. “I got the tape!” he called out. “I haven’t been able to view it yet!”

As Liotta came towards him, one of Scorsese’s bodyguards grabbed the actor’s arm and Scorsese noticed something interesting: the actor held his ground with the bigger men, but made them understand he was no threat. “Oh, he understands that kind of situation,” he thought. Goodfella.

If masculinity were a product, then Italian-American masculinity – florid, violent, hungry for respect, as thin-skinned as Italian sausage – would be the brand leader, thanks to the movies. What does it say that a generation of men, asked to pinpoint a film that speaks to them as men, will quote lines from The Godfather or Goodfellas? A certain butchness has always attended the inner circles of auteur theory, which allowed the boys’ club of the nouvelle vague to swoon over the ritualised violence of Hitchcock and Hawks without embarrassment. Somehow, it’s harder to think of critics today wanting to apply the term “greatest living director” to one of our feminised beta males – a Spielberg, say, or a Woody Allen.

Real auteurs don’t care about pleasing the crowd, or fantasy, or jokes. They give you a piece of their mind. They get their films off their chest, hewing them from the rock face of their impenetrable psyche. Good­fellas is convincing on so many levels – from the thrust and parry of the wiseguys’ talk to the flora and fauna of their clothes and apartments – that it’s easy to forget that underneath it runs a piece of wish fulfilment as plangent as that of Spielberg’s desire to be visited by aliens. As Scorsese put it: “It’s what I thought of these guys when I was six.” Underneath all the carpeting and ­double-breasted suits is a dream of what it is to pass muster with thugs.

The body language Scorsese recognised in Liotta was his own, growing up on the streets of Little Italy, New York: antennae attuned to the first sign of trouble, anxious to avoid another beating from his elder brother, making everyone laugh by talking very fast, turning his nerves into comedy. And beneath the laughter, beneath the nerves? Humiliation. It was a “humiliation” for Scorsese’s family to move back in with his grandparents on Elizabeth Street after an altercation with a landlord. Humiliation, too, was what he saw on the street; good men turned into nervous wrecks by their work for the rackets.

It is the thing the protagonists of his films fear the most, certainly in those he made with Robert De Niro, that kettle drum of thin-skinnedness, who turns Taxi Driver into one long trawl for potential insults and affronts to Travis’s dignity: he picks them up like radio signals. It is the great Scorsese paradox, the source of so much comedy as well as tragedy in his work, that men capable of unleashing such violence do so at the daintiest of provocations: a misunderstood word (“mook”), a glance, the number of blueberries in a muffin. “It was outta respect,” says Henry Hill (Liotta) as he torches a parking lot in Goodfellas, and when Scorsese lost the Best Picture Oscar to Dances with Wolves in 1990, the thing that hurt him the most? “They put me in the front row with my mother, and then I didn’t win” – the ultimate slap to an Italian male.

And the women? Let’s start with his mother, in fact, as she is the source of so much, not least the cascading torrents of talk that spill from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy. “Why are you sitting over there?” asks Catherine Scorsese of her husband, Charlie, seeing him perched on the end of the sofa at the start of Italianamerican, Scorsese’s 1974 documentary about his parents. “This man, after 42 years of marriage, and he sits over there!” Voluble, quick-witted, with a flair for self-dramatisation that explains why she found it so easy to slip into the ensembles of Goodfellas and Casino (she has 13 acting credits), Catherine is star material. She was also the inspiration for Ellen Burstyn’s Alice in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese’s outlier about “emotions and feelings and relationships”, for which Burstyn won the Oscar for her sparky, rebellious, humorously self-martyring mother.

The movie is a gem – easily Scorsese’s most underrated film, blithe and funny and heartbroken. It was made at that point in his romantic development when even his disappointments felt fresh, too absorbed with what the critic Manny Farber called “a visceral apprehension about an eager-messy world” to know yet what a “Scorsese film” was, or what subjects it should confine itself to. In fact, if you set Taxi Driver to one side, the number of these early films of his which are about “emotions and feelings and relationships” – Who’s That Knocking at My Door; Boxcar Bertha; Mean Streets; Alice; New York, New York – outweigh the films hewing at the rock face of the impenetrable masculine psyche by a margin of five to one. Sometimes I wonder what Scorsese’s career might have looked like if he hadn’t met De Niro and stuck with Harvey Keitel – so supple a presence, so full of sprezzatura, with a touch even of the ladies’ man. “He would be much more comfortable around new people, or new women,” Scorsese noted, a little awed by attributes he felt he lacked. “He was a little more fearless.”

No. He would give himself over to the tetchy, saturnine genius of De Niro, mining the actor’s volatility in four films, back to back, by the end of which even Scorsese was wondering if the actor would ever let him go. They shot 19 takes of Raging Bull’s climax, in which Jake LaMotta delivers Brando’s “I could have been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront to a mirror. De Niro favoured the more emotional take. Scorsese wanted it flat. So they watched both, back to back, but failed to change each other’s mind. “I still think the one I have is best,” said the director. “All right,” said De Niro, “let it go.” Which one was right? We’ll never know. It’s a measure of just how angry Scorsese was back then – with Holly­wood, with the audience that had, as he saw it, deserted him on New York, New York – that he refused to give them an inch. No tears. No redemption. Just survival.

Both men have now mellowed, De Niro tearing up in Silver Linings Playbook, and also while promoting his recent HBO documentary about his father. Scorsese not so much – Hugo notwithstanding, The Wolf of Wall Street had the snarling, scary life of someone falling off the wagon; Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance seemed fashioned entirely from muscle, sinew and will, bending himself to his master’s bidding. Maybe he venerates the director too much ever to give him a truly great performance – De Niro and Scorsese used to bicker like brothers. Silence, the director’s long-gestating adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel about Christian missionaries in Japan, feels like suitable atonement. Then it will finally be time to say goodbye to De Niro, who will appear alongside Pesci, Keitel and Al Pacino in Steven Zaillian’s script about a retired hitman, The Irishman. If it comes down to the wire in the editing suite again, this time I hope De Niro wins. 

Tom Shone’s “Scorsese: a Retrospective” is newly published by Thames & Hudson (£29.95 paperback)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.