Scorsese, loose in the jungle of potted palms and velvet

September 17, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He rubs our noses in the rawness of life.

After all, he's watched raptly as hoods have blown each other away or as psychopaths have menaced innocent families or as boxers have pummeled each other into taco salad or as Christ has twitched in pain on a barbaric cross.

Thus it is a numbing shock to discover the great Martin Scorsese, director of such scorching adventures as "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas" and "Cape Fear," hiding among the potted palms and plush sofas of genteel New York in the 1870s. Scorsese, the connoisseur of the demonic, in "The Age of Innocence"? This is about as far from raw as you can get. You could say he rubs our noses in the oysters Rockefeller of life.

Yet, he will tell you, he's still in the jungle.

"In many ways," says Scorsese, "I think this is my most savage film."

The film is "The Age of Innocence," from Edith Wharton's 1921 novel about a man from the upper strata who, though engaged to the right woman, falls in love with the wrong woman, and is gently and then not so gently nudged back into line as his society prefers.

But even Scorsese will admit that it's a curious choice for him.

"Why did I make this film, such a seemingly odd choice for me? Jay Cocks -- a friend, co-writer and former film critic at Time -- gave me the book in 1980, because, of course, he knew my taste. I had always wanted to do a lot of different kinds of films -- Westerns, costumes, romances, the whole bit. And especially a romance. I was very attracted to those big, swirling films by Visconti.

"But I didn't think I could quite do a romance set today. I don't have any sense of it, any gift for it, in the modern world. So I wanted to do something in the old world, where the textures were all romantic but there was a veneer of propriety over everything.

"When I finally read the book in 1986 or 1987, I was very stricken with the romantic story -- the exquisite pain of it. It was about people who would look at each other across a room and smile . . . and that was it for three months! And something in [the main character] Newland Archer reminded me of Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver.' "

Cocks recalls the thought that went into his presentation of the book to Scorsese: "I felt there was a whole unexplored side to Marty's talent. He's loved for his street intensity. I wanted to show something like his parlor intensity."

So the movie is about parlor warfare: highly symbolic battles as people struggle to maintain their position or gain a higher one in society, all while smiling brightly and making sure to pick up the correct fork.

At this point, it is gently explained to Scorsese that some moviegoers "may not get it." That is, the thrust of the American cinema in the past decade is to show characters who do exactly what they feel like, exactly when they feel like doing it. He himself has been a prime part of that movement, with such figures as Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin and Max Cady.

In "The Age of Innocence" we have a $40 million movie in which not only does no one sleep together, they hardly touch each other. In it, to use Wharton's own felicitous phrase, "emotions are expressed in a kind of hieroglyphic, where the direct thing can never be said or acknowledged, but only hinted at."

And Robert De Niro, who played Travis, Ruper and Max, is nowhere in sight!

Scorsese says he doesn't care.

"Some will get it, some won't. But I can't make movies that way, based on what the audience 'gets.' I can only do it based on what I believe to be true and what I feel passion for."

Watching Scorsese, it's easy to believe him. He's a short, almost stunted man, with a rather large head, dressed almost fashionlessly so square that if he weren't recognizeable he could pass for a minor Dinkins bureaucrat, a lawyer, an internist, some white-collar striver in a trim but not remarkable sports coat and tie.

The harsh rhythms of the mean streets still surf through the currents of his language. But, like an alien presence, the passion still grips him and seems sometime, even in these polite circumstances, to take charge of him. It's like a demon taking over: When he talks of movies still, all these years into the game, his dark eyes light up and his voice soars and rises. He is engaged, intellectually and imaginatively; they are his life.

That passion has the power of infectiousness: Each year, two or three young people will make a movie he's already made and better.

"What do you do," he is asked, "when you meet people who want to be you?"

Modesty becomes him. He's too consumed in his love to appear arrogant or powerful.

"Oh, they always want to be someone. In two years it'll change, and they'll want to be someone else. But I tell them it's not enough just to want to be me: they have to have something burning inside them to say. Not an issue. Issue movies are death. But something about people, an emotional truth."

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