Married to the Job

I love movies--it's my whole life and that's it.

--Martin Scorsese

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

--St. Matthew 16:26

To understand that Martin Scorsese suffers for his art, it isn't important to know that he's been married four times, or that, in the early '60s, he considered joining the Catholic priesthood before choosing the equally masochistic experience of NYU film school. Neither is it necessary to have read the recent profile of Scorsese in The New Yorker, which describes how the filmmaker's fixation on the most infinitesimal editing decisions caused Casino, his new mob epic, to open two weeks later than originally planned. Ultimately, this sort of trivia is superfluous in light of the fact that Scorsese's films themselves thoroughly articulate his spirit of excruciating self-sacrifice: Blatantly self-conscious, strenuously overdetermined, and rigorously experimental, they seem--more than any others you might name--wrenched from their maker's own convulsive gut.

If Scorsese is indeed "America's greatest living director" (per Premiere), it's because none of his peers are as willing as he is to eat, sleep, and breathe their craft. So is his new film another masterpiece, another magnificent obsession? Premiere tagged Casino as one of the director's more personal works, and it is--although The Last Temptation of Christ probably remains the director's ultimate true confession: a portrait of the tortured artist as Jesus Christ. But there's a similarly religious dynamic in all of Scorsese's movies, the inferior ones not the least: The level of commitment he devotes even to minor efforts like After Hours and Cape Fear is so saintly (or is that megalomaniacal?) that his fans can come away disappointed and still feel compelled to forgive him. In this sense, Casino--which at first glance might resemble little more than a bloated GoodFellas--seems determined to test the limits of Scorsese's good faith with both his critics and his public.

Even by his own enormous standards, Casino represents a new level of ambition: Who else would have dared to conceive a '70s-era mob movie that brings to bear four years of journalistic research (by co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi), spans a decade, runs 178 minutes, and incorporates over 50 vintage pop songs into some 269 individual scenes? Probably the highest compliment to pay Casino is to say that it's thoroughly resistant to the sort of thumb-pointing evaluation that passes for most film reviewing these days. Nevertheless, plenty of critics have already reduced the movie to capsule summaries and stupid puns about how Scorsese has rolled the dice and drawn snake eyes.

Nearly all the director's movies are masterful exercises in narrative design and cinematic chutzpah, although they hardly read as the product of natural talent. Instead, their achievement seems to stem from the director's compulsive interest in challenging himself to the furthest ends. The reasoning goes: If the artist stacks incredible odds against his own ability to succeed, then agrees to strain for a masterpiece for as long as it takes, and at whatever the cost, how can he lose? No wonder Casino conveys exhaustion and despair more than--as in GoodFellas--exhilaration. But fortunately for Scorsese, that's more or less the story he means to tell here.

In Casino, Robert De Niro plays the latest version of the filmmaker's alter ego: a successful bookmaker turned hotel casino manager named Sam "Ace" Rothstein, whose pathological need for control results in the destruction of himself, the people around him, and by extension the entire system of mob-run gambling in Las Vegas in the early '80s. The movie opens with Ace being blown out of his Cadillac in an apparently lethal explosion (cue Bach's "Matthauspassion"). He's soon resurrected in a flashback that lasts the length of the film--but the guy seems plenty fried already. "He was so serious about his work," one character says of Ace, "that he never enjoyed himself."

Although this film is no less preoccupied with guilt and self-punishment than Raging Bull, more than any other Scorsese movie, Casino suggests that its creator may finally be ready to throw in the towel--or at least return to the lower-stakes realm of independent filmmaking. Not for nothing does this movie about the summit of megabucks entertainment end with a pair of bodies being buried alive, while one of the film's unlikely survivors appears relieved that, without the casino, he's got only a modest bookmaking gig to worry about.

The Tangiers Casino, a hotbed of gaudy fashion and desperate capitalism, is clearly Scorsese's metaphor for Hollywood--the place where, as Ace says, "It's all been arranged just for us to get your money." Like the director, Ace presides over his world with a fastidious attention to detail. He knows all the angles, even twisting himself at one point to catch a glimpse of some guys cheating at blackjack. With Ace as the hotshit (con-) artist struggling to keep the final cut, Casino gives its protagonist a double threat: His childhood pal Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) is a professional mob enforcer who early in the film jabs a fountain pen into a man's neck (Scorsese dares to invoke GoodFellas from the get-go), and Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a former hooker whom Ace seems compelled to rescue. Unlike the two good fellas, Ginger doesn't have a strong voice, although, in terms of the moviemaking metaphor, she does have a rather dangerous amount of industry juice. In her marriage to Ace, she's negotiated for percentage points in the form of a million bucks in jewels, making sure that she's "covered on the back-end."

As played by Stone, Ginger is less femme fatale than a means to reflect Ace's pathology. Significantly, it's Ace who fails to live up to the terms of their dispassionate marital transaction, and also to his own tenet: "When you love someone, you've gotta trust them." The tragedy of Casino is that Ace knows he's the best, and therefore can't trust anyone but himself. This character flaw sets in motion a protracted downward spiral: Sam tries to compensate for his basic weakness by becoming a media celebrity, then turns into a raging bull; Nicky goes on a thieving kill-spree after being banned from the casinos; and Ginger wallows in a pit of coke and booze. Finally, as the mob structure falls apart and the casinos are taken over by corporations, the gangsters are displaced by junk-bond magnates and amusement-park tourists.

The storytelling structure of Casino might be the director's most complex ever. In the first hour, while Scorsese's typically restless camera wanders around the casino, the Pesci and De Niro characters take turns narrating in voiceover, explaining how the money that's gambled and lost flows from the casino tables to the "countroom" to the mob bosses at their safe outpost in Kansas City. With the dual narration, Scorsese is able to deal from two separate decks: He gives you Ace's fastidious worldview, then Nicky's anarchic one, then shuffles between the two in order to complicate the sort of cause-and-effect drama that might type one character as less greedy or despicable than the other. And as before, Scorsese's total command of the medium is clear--from the eye-popping cinematography and the razor-sharp editing to the uncanny use of soundtrack music (the movie manages to include everything from The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" to Devo's "Whip It" and Georges Delerue's somber theme for Godard's Le Mepris).

It's in keeping with Scorsese's unpredictable nature that, just at the time he'd be pegged as a genre chameleon, he returns to the form that he knows best. But the familiarity is a tease: He uses the notion of Casino as GoodFellas 2 to disarm the viewer before introducing something altogether richer, more complex, more personal, and more mysterious. Purporting to document the fall of the mob family, Scorsese is actually portraying the collapse of a nuclear family--which makes Casino more of a piece with Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence than Mean Streets or GoodFellas. It's about why marriages between tortured, selfish, "creative" people can't possibly work. If Ginger seems the movie's most human character, while Ace remains a vacant, compulsive louse, it's by intention. Casino blatantly withholds sympathy for the artist who, engulfed by pride, has only himself to gamble with.

Scorsese's movies have generally been about obsessed guys who struggle with their obsession, suffer greatly, and discover an ironic sort of redemption: Taxi driver Travis Bickle appears to rescue a teenage prostitute from her pimp and is praised as a vigilante savior; Jake La Motta beats his way to the middleweight crown, loses everything, and seems to find his soul as a cut-rate nightclub comic; Rupert Pupkin gets on network TV; Paul Hackett finds his way to work in the morning; Jesus Christ gets to save mankind. While the director's heroes have mellowed in recent years, their victories have become even darker, more negligible. Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence succeeds in masochistically denying himself the thing he wants most in life. And Ace is perhaps the first Scorsese protagonist who, in the end, has achieved next to nothing. If I didn't know better, I'd say Casino is about Scorsese confronting his fear of failure. And in this way--to quote another famous obsessive--it is accomplished. CP

Casino is playing at area theaters.

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