VIDEO ESSAY: Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese

VIDEO ESSAY: Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese

The first time I saw After
(the first of 9 or 10), I was 15, and I had no idea who Martin
Scorsese was, or even that he had directed the movie. I saw it in a shopping
mall in north Dallas, an unlikely place, perhaps. I was surprised, as a 15-year-old boy, to discover a
man had directed it; I had assumed it was directed by a woman.
Why? Because women ruled the show. The female characters in the film—Catherine
O’Hara’s manipulative Samaritan, Rosanna Arquette’s vulnerable and elusive
temptress, Linda Fiorentino’s frequently topless sculptor, Teri Garr’s
threatening sociopath with a beehive—lorded it over the men. Who represents
“the stronger sex” in this film? Griffin Dunne’s hapless wanderer, John Heard’s
sad-sack bartender, and, two pieces de
, Cheech and Chong’s local burglars. The film chronicles a trip
into the New York demimonde, as such a place ruled by women. And how does the
journey end? Dunne is sealed in a plaster statue—by a woman. He manages to
break free, but still. Such it is with many of Scorsese’s films: while we
cannot call these works matriarchal, by any means, in the struggle between men
and women, everyone gets punished. No one comes out on top. Scorsese rolls out
dramas for us to behold, in which men act badly towards women, women are
aggrieved, men charge off in a cloud of exhaust, and there is no indication that
the director, in the background, has chosen a side.

And so it is with many of Scorsese’s films. When Lorraine
Bracco’s Karen chews out Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill for standing her up in Goodfellas, she doesn’t do it privately:
she does it publicly, in front of a rapt crowd, the most rapt audience member
being Hill himself, half-smiling as his future wife screams at him. Even the
ever-so-famous restaurant tracking shot, in which Hill leads his girlfriend
into a mobster-hangout restaurant through the back way, showing his knowledge
of the place off to her and then showing her off to his friends, presents as a
grand, performative display, too over-the-top to be believable as anything but
a subtle critique of the way men may place women on pedestals in an effort to
cripple them. In Scorsese’s films, this doesn’t work, or at least not smoothly;
most of the men in Goodfellas,
indeed, end up either dead or emasculated. Scorsese pulls an even grander stunt
in Taxi Driver; the two main female
characters in the film, Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute and Cybill Shepard’s politician,
serve little other purpose than to cast Travis Bickle’s tremendous personality
problems into relief. He views these women as icons of purity, figures of worship,
points of escape—but in reality his interactions with them only drive him
further downwards by reminding him of how far upwards he has to climb.

And yet throughout these films, Scorsese watches: he does
not opinionate. In one of the most seemingly humiliating scenes from Wolf of Wall Street, a woman is covered
in money, quite literally, but she notably remains standing and even banters
with her sleazy Wall Street assailants during the process. When DiCaprio’s
Belfort dares his wife to throw a glass of water on him, the moment is
near-comic: Belfort is scared, genuinely scared, of a glass of water. Could he,
despite his success, be powerless in this arena, in some sense? Yes, he could. And
when his wife states that the skirtage around the house is going to be “really
short” after a heated argument, it’s no joke, rather a statement of power, an
assertion of privilege.

Regardless of how raffish, aggressive, or un-controlled
Scorsese’s characters may be at times (and Wolf
of Wall Street
has come under heavy criticism for just this quality), his
dramas take place on a grand scale, in which largeness is the point. When
Sharon Stone’s Ginger struts through Casino, she knows all eyes are on her, and
Scorsese knows it, too, and yet his camera is not objectifying her: he’s
showing our objectification to us. Her collapse, similarly, is immense, and
theatrical, and threatens to swallow the movie at moments—and yet this fall
from grace is a stage in a story, not a stage in a director’s thought process.
It is appropriate that the film that put Scorsese on the map, or at least
pushed him towards it, was Alice Doesn’t
Live Here Anymore
, the tale of a woman’s slow journey towards self-respect. Viewed this way, historically, we come to a surprising conclusion: that a man whose films have largely been about a male-dominated world might have been showing us that world only to reflect women’s views of it.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

4 thoughts on “VIDEO ESSAY: Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese”

  1. I would like to counter this with a clip reel I recently put together, based on my research on the representation of women in Scorsese films (search "Scorsese clip reel" on Vimeo – I was not able to post a comment with a link). From these clips, you can see the many ways women (and younger girls) are rendered powerless, mentally, physically and verbally abused, threatened, demeaned and objectified in his films. Your view is an interesting one, but it's not what I see, as a female filmmaker and film professor, when I study his films.


  2. After Hours is one of my favorite films. After watching it again after a long absence, I came up with an interpretation that I hadn't noticed before. Feel free to tear this one apart but the Paul character/Griffin Dunne is a gay man deep in the closet and the night in Soho is a potential journey of self-realization, that he completely botches. Each of the women that he meets offers him a version of shelter and romantic affection, yet Paul manages to get in conflicts with all of them very quickly. The women, most of whom are interested in Paul either romantically or at least sexually, seem to speak a language that Paul doesn't understand and he responds with unprovoked anger and hostility. But he manages to communicate with the male characters, such as the John Heard character, far better. At one point, he meets a middle-aged gay man on the street, who also gives Paul shelter, yet he too gets tired of Paul's nonsense and finally asks him to leave. Paul winds up on the run from everyone, with the women leading the lynch mob, but he's sort of on the run from himself. A final woman, June, gives him shelter again, and is the one who entombs him in the sculpture, enabling Paul to be dropped off like garbage from Cheech and Chong… right back where he started at his miserable office job. He's learned nothing from his journey, goes back inside the office, and is right where he started. He's screwed up the lives of everyone he touches that night, with Rosanna Arquette even ending up dead, and he'll probably continue to wreck havoc wherever he goes.


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