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The Subjective Realities of Martin Scorsese

Travis Bickle inhabits a Hell on Earth. His taxi cab is a sanctuary from the smoke-belching, neon-drenched, garbage-strewn streets of New York—from the moral and social decay he observes all around him.

Since Scorsese shot much of Taxi Driver on location, we must accept at least some of this stark, gritty imagery as literal. But certain jarring moments—like the slow push in on the black pimp in the Belmore Cafeteria—make it uncomfortably obvious that the narrative has been colored by Travis’ point of view. And Travis’ point of view is undeniably, unabashedly biased.

Scorsese populates his filmography with such unreliable narrators—men like Rupert Pupkin, Teddy Daniels, and Henry Hill. In the visual medium of film, this goes beyond the misleading words found in works of literature; the very cinematic landscape bends and warps and transforms around these characters’ distorted perspectives. We see what they see, feel what they feel—experience their “subjective realities.”

In King of Comedy, Scorsese suggests the idea of a “subjectively reality” by providing frequent glimpses into Rupert Pupkin’s fragile psyche. In “real life,” Rupert is just another obnoxious autograph hound with delusions of grandeur—he sincerely believes he deserves overnight celebrity, deserves the fame currently enjoyed by his idol, comedian/television personality Jerry Langford. In his fantasies, however, he is already Langford’s equal, if not his better; in one scene, Jerry even relinquishes his hosting duties to Rupert. The discrepancy between Rupert’s mundane existence and his fanciful daydreams imbues every scene with a pervasive sense of unease; by the time Rupert invites his sweetheart to Jerry’s home for an unannounced weekend visit, it’s no longer possible to distinguish between which events are “real” and which are imagined.  

In Shutter Island, Scorsese utilizes “subjective reality” to convey the gradual erosion of Teddy Daniels’ sanity. Consider the director’s intentional use of discontinuity: a patient asks the marshals for a drink; Chuck hands her glass filled to the brim with water; in her close-up, she raises an empty hand to her lips and pantomimes guzzling; an insert shows her setting the completely drained glass on the table; when the scene cuts back to the master shot, the cup is only half-empty. By subtly manipulating the language of visual storytelling, Scorsese keeps the viewer disoriented; thus, we share Teddy’s nagging suspicion that something about the island is slightly “off,” contributing to the film’s oppressive atmosphere.

Scorsese even explores the concept of “subjective reality” in Goodfellas, one of his more naturalistic films—although in this instance, it takes a less overt form. If earlier scenes glamorize the mafia subculture, it is only because we view them through the eyes of young, ambitious, foolish Henry Hill. His gaze lingers on the jewelry, the fancy cars, the expensive suits, the reserved tables at the Copacabana. We fall for the allure of organized crime because Henry falls for it; we discover its rotten core alongside him.

Like an ellipsis, “subjective reality” creates ambiguity—a conflict between what is objectively real and what the hero merely perceives as real. Scorsese invites the viewer to fill in the gaps, to analyze, to speculate—a process that, more often than not, outlasts the movie’s runtime. “Did Rupert’s harebrained scheme really succeed?” “Did Teddy really forget everything this time?” “Has Travis really exorcised his demons?” These (possibly unanswerable) questions persist long after the end credits roll—mementos of an enriching, rewarding, and unforgettable narrative experience. 

[Originally written February 12, 2012.]

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