17 November 1942: Martin Scorsese’s birthday.
Happy birthday Martin Scorsese! The American director turns 81 today, to top off a year that has seen him release his 26th feature film Killers of the Flower Moon.
In the build up to the film hitting screens, the SAG-AFTRA strikes led to a promotional campaign sans media appearances from its star-studded cast. Instead, the world was treated to something more special. Multiple interviews with Scorsese himself, the director waxed lyrical on the ups and the downs of being an octogenarian.
Scorsese was born in – where else? – New York. He grew up in Little Italy, a neighbourhood in Manhattan known for its large Italian immigrant community in the first half of the 20th century. Back then, it was a bustling part of the city, wrought by poverty and crime.
The son of garment workers and aspiring actors, Scorsese developed a love of film in his youth from extended days spent in the cinema, with a particular enjoyment of the work of British film duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, better known as The Archers.
His Catholic upbringing among working class and striving Italian-Americans has influenced his film career significantly. While studying at NYU, Scorsese made his first full-length feature film I Call First in 1967. It’s since been retitled as Who’s That Knocking at My Door and is exemplary of the way he crafted narratives around the lives of the people he grew up around. Starring Harvey Keitel as a Scorsese stand-in lead and utilising the editing skills of Thelma Schoonmaker, the director had already found two of his greatest collaborators.
Another great collaborator would come in his true break-out film. 1973’s Mean Streets starring Keitel and a young Robert De Niro established Scorsese’s talent for gangster movies. Ever since that scrappy snarling film, he’s routinely returned to the subject of dangerous men but always with a filmmaking style that is keen-eyed yet without being ostensibly moralistic. It’s a route he’s taken to great acclaim through films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman and most recently Killers of the Flower Moon.
It’s not just gangster films that populate Scorsese’s impressive filmography though. Often, films about Catholic guilt pop up (The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence) as well as engaging with the wider world, either through his own films (Kundun), or his multifaceted work to preserve world cinema. He’s also directed 16 documentaries, many featuring artists and thinkers he appreciates.
Given this quite impressive CV, and his enjoyment of discussing his own morality, here are some of Scorsese’s best quotes to live by, on his 81st birthday:
“I’m trying to find out what it is to be alive. What do we do with this time here? For each other? The thing is, there is nothing else outside of taking care of each other. It is as simple as that.”
Scorsese said this in a recent interview with The Times. In his later years, he’s reflected on how he wants to spend his remaining time with his family. More than that though, he’s still a filmmaker, so if he is to make films, they must be important to this key goal.
“Loving work, wanting to do more and achieve more — aren’t these the same thing? It grows out of devotion and dedication. You feel it in Picasso right up to the last minute.”
He follows up here by explaining just why getting to a ripe old age isn’t any kind of excuse to do away with the passions that drive you.
“The time you spend is really spending time. It isn’t wasting time. Then one has to find within that spending of time and allowing oneself to just not feel you’re wasting it if you’re just existing for the moment. Just exist. Look out the window and see half a tree. You know, I look up at my 1940s posters when I was growing up. These are the movies I saw.”
This time he’s chatting to GQ and experiencing out loud the ways in which he’s learnt to prioritise the use of his time.
“You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
We had to include a quote from one of his films. Co-written by Mardik Martin, we’ll trust that this line in Mean Streets is a Scorsese original.
“If your mother cooks Italian food, why should you go to a restaurant?”
And finally, a bit of homely realism from a boy that never stopped loving his Italian-American origins.