Can’t You Hear Me Knocking: Casino and the Rock and Roll Cinema of Martin Scorsese

For nearly half a century now, Martin Scorsese has created a body of work that is among the most varied and accomplished that the medium has ever seen. His explorations of faith, masculinity, and the nature of crime sit in the perfect median of individual, idiosyncratic excellence and an ongoing conversation and evolution of his own narrative and stylistic concerns. The easiest through line to identify is his series of crime films (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street). These films are incredibly well made and fun to watch but they also defy easy 1:1 comparisons.

I’m not treading new ground by describing Scorsese as a “rock and roll” filmmaker but it bears repeating when describing his forays into gangsterism. The filmmaker is first and foremost a student of cinema but his musical adolescence in the 1950s and 60s left an indelible impact on his artistry. This goes well beyond his liberal use of rock and pop songs throughout his filmography, sometimes even extending to his rock docs. Scorsese’s infusion of Classical Hollywood filmmaking and European art cinema is not unlike the journey America’s first rock acts and the subsequent British invasion had in creating what we now look back on as canonical musical works. Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker wield a Steenbeck the way Jimi Hendrix did a guitar, crafting magic out of thin air that continues to surprise you even after decades of consumption.

If you look at Scorsese’s crime films akin to that of musical albums, you witness an engrossing artistic progression. Mean Streets represents a raw, naked confessional that’s as personal as any of these films are interested in being. Goodfellas, made seventeen years afterwards, is a maturer, near aesthetically perfect work that continues to stand the test of time as not only one of his best films but one of the all time greats. Gangs of New York mixes things up a bit by dramatically changing up the time period to the mid 1860s, telling a story of tribalism within the American identity that exists in his previous films but was mostly muted. The Departed serves as an almost punk deconstruction of his own formula that also finds a way to reflect a post-9/11 world. The Wolf of Wall Street goes the opposite direction of Gangs by updating his own archetypes that uncomfortably (but excitingly) celebrates the pre-recession thugs of NASDAQ that puts faith in its audience that their despicable nature is self evident.

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I’m sure you noticed I skipped Casino (the supposed subject of this review) while running down these works. Sitting quite square in the middle of this series, Casino feels like the wild, overly indulgent live album that is mostly content to play the hits as feverishly as possible. And don’t think for a second I mean this as a pejorative. Scorsese’s 1995 film is absolute love letter the very notion of style as substance. Marty has always worn his aesthetics on his sleeve but any semblance of such a garment has been violently torn away in the midst of Casino‘s maximalism. Zooms, dollys, whip pans, quick cuts, harsh lighting arrangements, lengthy voice over, an eclectic soundtrack, and sickening violence feel oddly at home in three hour epic of Las Vegas excess. Joe Pesci sporting a sometimes laughable Chicago accent? Robert De Niro playing a non-violent Jewish bookie turned casino manager? Just another on-stage audible from a director relishing his opportunity to experiment with a genre he had already mastered five years prior. Marty’s filmography has always been underrated in its portrayal of femininity and Casino is no different, as Sharon Stone gives a performance just as charismatic, seductive, and in the end toxic as her male counterparts.

Casino, while a critical and commercial success, is a less celebrated entry in Scorsese’s career but that’s hardly a surprise. The film feels like it could easily loose at least thirty minutes but I’m more than grateful the film is the unwieldy beast that it is. It remains a cable hall of famer, filled with countless deliciously vile quotes, unforgettable needle drops, and bracing cinematic flourishes that ensure the film’s place as a pop cultural pleasure that some of his better films fail to achieve. It’s an accomplishment when any given moment in a three hour film feels like its own spontaneous moment instead of just another piece in the greater architecture. Scorsese’s cinematic mixtape finds just as much beauty in its imperfections as it does its moments of formal brilliance and his career is all the richer for it existence.

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