Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob
Reviewed by Chris Long
by Mark Desmond Nicholls. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005. 224 pp., illus. Paperback: $34.95.
The title of Mark Nicholls’s Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob is somewhat misleading. The “mob” in the title refers not only to the Mafia figures in Scorsese films such as GoodFellas, but also to the elite, nineteenth-century, New York society in The Age of Innocence and the threatening urban landscape of Taxi Driver. Nicholls has something far different than gangsters on his agenda. Using theoretical preconceptions supplied by both Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva, with a dash of Walter Benjamin thrown in for good measure, Nicholls focuses on what he views to be a prominent figure in Scorsese’s work: the male melancholic. This profoundly ambivalent figure positions himself as an outsider to the tribal group, but ultimately desires conformity with that group. He is masochistic and narcissistic, “a mentally complex, profound and tortured rebel-outsider” who both suffers loss and relishes the “exquisite torment” of his loss. Victor Hugo wrote that “Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad,” but for Scorsese’s male melancholics, the pleasure lies in being abjectly miserable.
Nicholls explores the various incarnations of the Scorsese male melancholic in five films—The Age of Innocence, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, and Cape Fear. Nicholls states his objective explicitly. He does not wish to engage in a “life and works of the great man” study; therefore, he does not present his analysis of the films in the chronological order of their production, but rather “according to the way the theme of melancholia unfolds in [his] analysis.” Nicholls’s laser-like focus on the theme of male melancholia is the source of both the strengths and the shortcomings of his book.
Nicholls describes Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), the protagonist of The Age of Innocence, as “Scorsese’s most patent male melancholic.” This chapter therefore provides the most compelling description of this figure. Archer disdains the corrupt and conservative New York society in which he lives and seeks an object of desire outside of this group as his means of escape from the tribe’s oppression. He finds such an object in the ostracized Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who the tribe views as strictly taboo, which only makes her all the more desirable to Archer. He does not actually want to consummate his forbidden affair with Ellen because he places greater value on his inability to have her: “[I]t is in this denial of desire that he [the male melancholic] derives utmost satisfaction.” Archer pretends to be a rebel, but his ultimate desire to conform is manifest when he stages a public display of mourning in order to placate the tribe. In many ways, Archer (like most male melancholics) resembles the heroine of the Hollywood melodrama, with one crucial difference. He appropriates traditionally “feminine” traits (sacrifice, sensitivity, etc.) and uses them to solidify his patriarchal authority; his sacrifice reaps great personal benefits, bringing him respect in the eyes of the community and a kind of nobility in suffering.
Nicholls’s argument in this chapter is concise and generally uncontestable, but having described “Scorsese’s most patent male melancholic” in exquisite detail, he sets himself a considerable challenge. To avoid repeating the same narrow argument in each case study, Nicholls needs to prove that sufficient variations exist in Scorsese’s male melancholics to justify a book-length treatment of the subject. He meets this challenge with mixed success.
Nicholls’s analysis of Taxi Driver is the most rewarding in this regard. He describes Travis Bickle as a flâneur according to Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the term, “a 19th century Parisian urban stroller, voyeur and street critic.” Travis the flâneur “emerg(es) from the urban maelstrom” to pass judgment on the crowd; he proudly identifies himself as an outsider, but is irresistibly drawn to the crowd, especially when the crowd, after Benjamin’s description, “offers up an erotic image of desire” such as Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to tempt him. Like the flâneur, Travis adopts several different disguises during his journey, that of detective, cowboy, and Indian. Nicholls could have expanded his argument about the male melancholic here: he merely notes that the melancholic isn’t always a flâneur, but a flâneur is always a melancholic. I nevertheless find the image of Travis Bickle as a dandified Parisian street walker, complete with his pet turtles, both amusing and appropriate. It also occurs to me that Benjamin’s definition of the flâneur (as lonely observer and critic of the crowd) perfectly matches Paul Schrader’s description of himself when he wrote the screenplay.
Nicholls’s chapter on Raging Bull is much less satisfying, and sometimes downright irritating. Following Robin Wood’s well-known analysis of the film (in Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan), Nicholls defines Raging Bull almost exclusively in terms of Jake LaMotta’s repressed incestuous desire for his brother Joey. Nicholls does little but repeat Wood’s argument, adding to the discussion only some awkward Freudian jargon. One does not need to be entirely dismissive of psychoanalysis to feel exasperated upon reading that Jake’s “phallic narrative cannot be complete without reference to castration” or that “the melancholic constructs his authority not in spite of his castration but in collaboration with it.” Here, Nicholls’s tight focus on his thesis betrays him. In the chapter on GoodFellas, he accurately identifies the ethnic tensions in the film: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is doomed forever to be an outsider to the Italian mob because he is half-Irish.
Yet he completely ignores the central importance of Italian-American identity in Raging Bull, leading to some oversimplified interpretations. When analyzing the scene in which Jake induces Joey to beat him, Nicholls states: “[T]here is no doubt that the encounter is symbolically a sexual one.” Perhaps this is true, but how does this scene differ from the violent, hypermacho ways in which some of Scorsese’s other Italian-American men interact with each other? Without such a comparison, Nicholls’s conclusion is dubious at best. By reading Raging Bull as nothing more than Jake’s repressed desire for everyone—Joey, Salvy, and even his opponents in the ring—Nicholls risks missing the forest for the phalluses.
Nicholls offers some of his freshest insights when analyzing the audiovisual qualities of the films. Nicholls’s discussion of Saul and Elaine Bass’s title sequence for The Age of Innocence is particularly interesting, as is his examination of Scorsese’s visual treatment of crowds in Taxi Driver. His welcome forays, however, into the esthetic arena are far too rare. The bulk of the book is devoted to content analysis (to story and character) that despite the author’s best efforts, often feels plodding and redundant. We only need to read so many times about the melancholic’s “object of desire,” his masochistic pleasure-denial, or his desire for conformity before we get the point (and then some). Nicholls claims he wants to avoid another auteur-based study, but the lack of substantive discussion of Scorsese’s fellow contributors is rather glaring, and leaves some obvious questions unanswered. What role has Paul Schrader played in the development of the “Scorsese” male melancholic? And why has Robert De Niro apparently turned into contemporary cinema’s ultimate melancholy baby (even in non-Scorsese films)?
Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob feels like a revised Ph.D. thesis, a thesis from which every last theoretical drop has been wrung by the book’s conclusion. Nicholls states that he intends to fill a gap in the research both on masculinity in cinema and in Scorsese scholarship by focusing on the issue of melancholia. In his exquisitely well-researched book, Nicholls establishes a sound theoretical groundwork for his anatomy of melancholia, and more than amply proves the importance of the male melancholic in Scorsese’s work. I’m not sure, however, about the utility of this accomplishment. The book’s contribution to Scorsese scholarship is relatively narrow, and it will not appeal to a general audience. It is likely to find favor only among psychoanalytic film critics concerned to “fill in the gaps” and complete their psychoanalytic reinterpretation of film history.
Copyright © 2006 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.