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The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese

The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese

Edited by Mark T. Conard
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese
    Book Description:

    Academy Award--winning director Martin Scorsese is one of the most significant American filmmakers in the history of cinema. Although best known for his movies about gangsters and violence, such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and Taxi Driver, Scorsese has addressed a much wider range of themes and topics in the four decades of his career. In The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, an impressive cast of contributors explores the complex themes and philosophical underpinnings of Martin Scorsese's films. The essays concerning Scorsese's films about crime and violence investigate the nature of friendship, the ethics of vigilantism, and the nature of unhappiness. The authors delve deeply into the minds of Scorsese's tortured characters and explore how the men and women he depicts grapple with moral codes and their emotions. Several of the essays explore specific themes in individual films. The authors describe how Scorsese addresses the nuances of social mores and values in The Age of Innocence, the nature of temptation and self-sacrifice in The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, and the complexities of innovation and ambition in The Aviator. Other chapters in the collection examine larger philosophical questions. In a world where everything can be interpreted as meaningful, Scorsese at times uses his films to teach audiences about the meaning in life beyond the everyday world depicted in the cinema. For example, his films touching on religious subjects, such as Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ, allow the director to explore spiritualism and peaceful ways of responding to the chaos in the world.Filled with penetrating insights on Scorsese's body of work, The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese shows the director engaging with many of the most basic questions about our humanity and how we relate to one another in a complex world.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7255-2
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    In the introduction toThe Philosophy of Neo-Noir(University Press of Kentucky, 2007), I noted the conspicuous absence in that volume of the films of Martin Scorsese, who might rightly be regarded as a master neo-noir filmmaker. Indeed, Scorsese is best known for his works centering on the noirish elements of gangsters and/or violence, such asMean Streets(1973),Taxi Driver(1976),Goodfellas(1990), andCasino(1995), to the point where he’s identified with these types of films in the way that Billy Wilder is often thought of as primarily a maker of screwball comedies (The Seven Year Itch[1955],...

  4. Part 1. Authenticity, Flourishing, and the Good Life

    • No Safe Haven: Casino, Friendship, and Egoism
      (pp. 7-22)
      Steven M. Sanders

      WithCasino(1995), Martin Scorsese leads us back into the noir landscape of damaged selves that he created to such stunning effect in the critically acclaimedGoodfellas(1990). In the words of the film historian David Thomson, ever sinceTaxi Driver(1976) Scorsese’s work has reflected “a man happy with the fervent claustrophobia of film noir.”¹Casinois a significant addition to Scorsese’s body of work in this vein, for the film does nothing less than restage the familiar noir themes of criminal violence, betrayal, loss, and the corruption of the American dream against the backdrop of 1970s Las Vegas....

    • God’s Lonely Man: Taxi Driver and the Ethics of Vigilantism
      (pp. 23-30)
      Aeon J. Skoble

      Martin Scorsese’s 1976 filmTaxi Drivertakes us through a brief but eventful period in the life of one Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). We don’t know much about Travis’s background, except that he is an honorably discharged former marine and that he has trouble sleeping. He takes a job driving a New York City taxi because he’s up all night cruising the streets anyway and figures he might as well get paid for it. But we come to find out some of what is on his mind, thanks to the sporadic voice-over segments. We learn early on, for instance,...

    • Goodfellas, Gyges, and the Good Life
      (pp. 31-52)
      Dean A. Kowalski

      Through a careful analysis of Martin Scorsese’sGoodfellas(1990), I intend to accomplish two interlocking goals in this essay. The first goal is to show how Henry Hill has some surprising affinities with the mythical character of Gyges, as depicted in Plato’sRepublic.Both men could satisfy virtually all their desires immune to public scrutiny or legal repercussion. As such,Goodfellasoffers a novel way to explore the classic philosophical question: Lacking the negative social consequences of not doing so, why ought I to lead a morally good life? In fact, if I can continually get away with acting immorally,...

    • Mean Streets: Beatitude, Flourishing, and Unhappiness
      (pp. 53-72)
      Mark T. Conard

      The history of philosophy, particularly ethics, contains a sustained debate and discussion about the nature of happiness, from Aristotle’seudaimonia,or “flourishing,” to Aquinas’s beatitude and Mill’s hedonism. But there is comparatively little discussion about unhappiness, except as it’s seen as simply the result of someone’s having failed to achieve happiness. In this essay, I use Martin Scorsese’s early masterpiece,Mean Streets(1973), as a springboard into a discussion of unhappiness. I don’t presume necessarily to say whether the protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), is happy or unhappy. I simply want to use the film as a means to enter into...

  5. Part 2. Rationality, Criminality, and the Emotions

    • The Cinema of Madness: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Films of Martin Scorsese
      (pp. 75-92)
      Jerold J. Abrams

      Martin Scorsese is the greatest director alive. Every film scholar knows that. And everyone knows that his films are about violence, criminals, gangsters. At least, that’s the stereotype—and, really, it’s not far wrong. Yes, there are a few exceptions:The Age of Innocence(1993) stands out, and so doesAlice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore(1974). But the paradigm cases are about violence, typically gang violence:Mean Streets(1973),Taxi Driver(1976),Raging Bull(1980),Goodfellas(1990),Cape Fear(1991),Casino(1995),Gangs of New York(2002), andThe Departed(2006). Inevitably, aficionados leave it at justMean Streetsand...

    • The Age of Innocence: Social Semiotics, Desire, and Constraint
      (pp. 93-108)
      Deborah Knight

      This volume is dedicated to the topic of Martin Scorsese’s philosophy as it can be appreciated through his films. Now, plainly, Scorsese is a filmmaker, not a philosopher, so there is a sense in which the termphilosophyis being used as an honorific here. Equally clearly, narrative fiction filmmaking is a very distinct sort of practice, one that is not directly assimilable to the practice of philosophy. Although it has recently been argued that at least some fiction filmsdophilosophy, that they can be profitably understood asphilosophizing,I do not find this view persuasive.¹ Fiction films do...

    • After Hours: Scorsese on Absurdity
      (pp. 109-128)
      Jennifer L. McMahon

      Martin Scorsese is best known for films likeTaxi Driver(1976),Raging Bull(1980),Goodfellas(1990), andMean Streets(1973). These films are classic Scorsese to the extent that they foreground dramatic themes with which the director is clearly preoccupied, namely, themes of violence, corruption, and moral decay. While these films do have tremendous allure, this essay focuses on a film for which Scorsese has received less acclaim, one that is also in a genre not commonly associated with him. The film isAfter Hours(1985), the genre comedy.¹ In this essay, I argue that, through the highly palatable medium...

    • The Pupkin Gambit: Rationality and Irrationality in The King of Comedy
      (pp. 129-138)
      Richard Greene

      In Martin Scorsese’s 1983 filmThe King of Comedy,Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) commits a crime in order to gain notoriety, serves a modest sentence, and then enjoys a life of wealth and fame. Even if the result of his actions exceeds his original, more modest goal of being “king for a night” as opposed to being “a schmuck for life,” his plan works perfectly. I call this plan thePupkin gambit.Michael Milken (the junk bond king) also employed a version of the Pupkin gambit (although it’s not clear whether he intended to or merely foresaw it as...

  6. Part 3. Vision, Salvation, and the Transcendental

    • The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead: Scorsese’s Reluctant Saviors
      (pp. 141-164)
      Karen D. Hoffman

      Directed by Martin Scorsese from screenplays written by Paul Schrader,The Last Temptation of Christ(1988) andBringing Out the Dead(1999) chronicle the lives of individuals whose capacity to save others pushes them toward extreme self-sacrifice and renders them incapable of living ordinary, comfortable lives. Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) and Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), the films’ central characters, are both tempted to relinquish their sacrificial roles and embrace the happy banalities of human existence. In what follows, I explore some of the similarities in the struggles that these characters face in their roles as saviors. Despite the fact that...

    • Flying Solo: The Aviator and Libertarian Philosophy
      (pp. 165-188)
      Paul A. Cantor

      Martin Scorsese is the cinematic champion of the underdog, even if he happens to be the richest man in the world. That explains howThe Aviator(2004) fits into the impressive body of work Scorsese has created in his long and distinguished career as a director. At first glance, the billionaire aviation tycoon Howard Hughes does not appear to be the sort of subject that would attract Scorsese. As a rich and powerful businessman, a handsome playboy, and a media celebrity, Hughes seems to be the archetypal top dog. He is exactly the kind of person a typical Scorsese protagonist...

    • Art, Sex, and Time in Scorsese’s After Hours
      (pp. 189-210)
      Richard Gilmore

      After Hours(1985) was an important film for Scorsese. He had completedThe King of Comedyin 1983, and it was a commercial flop. He then made his first attempt at what had long been a dream film of his to make,The Last Temptation of Christfrom the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, but, when the project spiraled over budget and a major theater line said that it would not show the film, the producers withdrew all funding, and filming had to be abandoned. People, the money people, were losing confidence in Scorsese, and he was losing confidence in himself....

    • The Ethical Underpinnings of Kundun
      (pp. 211-230)
      Judith Barad

      Martin Scorsese’sKundun(1997) tells the true story of the Dalai Lama’s childhood and youth. The film begins with the recognition in 1937 of the two-year-old Lhamo Dhondrub as the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who had died in 1935, and, thus, an incarnation of Chenrizi, the Buddha of Compassion, and follows him through his training and enthronement as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and secular leader. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vayrayana, is distinguished from other forms of Buddhism by its monastic order of lamas, or monks. Much of the Dalai Lama’s childhood and early adolescence was spent in...

    • Scorsese and the Transcendental
      (pp. 231-246)
      R. Barton Palmer

      It is hardly surprising that Martin Scorsese, an ex-seminarian turned film director, shows himself in his works to be a deeply committed moralist. Scorsese, in fact, is particularly attracted to properties that treat the vagaries of the spiritual life, in a fashion typical of the independent-minded cineaste who scorns the showbiz establishment and its entertainment product. However, it goes without saying, Scorsese is hardly an independent artiste, being rather, at least in part, the consummate Hollywood insider. For more than thirty years, he has been an enthusiastic and very public supporter of the filmmaking establishment and especially its history, which...

  7. Contributors
    (pp. 247-250)
  8. Index
    (pp. 251-256)