The combined sights and sounds of the Museum of the Moving Image’s exhibition Martin Scorsese can at times feel like a nightmare version of New York City. As you navigate dimly lit and narrow corridors, a gruff voice screams, “Fuck your mother!” While you pass a wall covered in neon lights and wanted posters, another exclaims “You’ve been fucking warned!” over sounds of traffic and rock ’n’ roll. This is the din of the stereotypical Big City.
The experience is appropriate for a comprehensive survey of a director whose identity is so very linked to New York — though it took two Germans to put it together. Curated by Kristina Jaspers and Nils Warnecke of Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, this first major museum exhibition devoted to Scorsese features more than 600 objects — many drawn from the director’s personal collection — that immerse the audience in his life and work. Retrospective screening series of Scorsese’s work and the films that inspired him are also running concurrently in the museum’s theaters.
The immersion begins as visitors ascend the museum’s main staircase, where they encounter four adjacent screens. While the amphitheater on the museum’s second floor sometimes displays material irrelevant to the exhibition, do not miss co-curator Warnecke’s supercut if you are coming to see the Scorsese show. At times, all the screens play the same footage from one of the auteur’s films; at others, each screen shows a unique shot. Mixing both moving and static images, the reel highlights the most significant obsessions in an obsessive career, including the director’s interest in crucifixion, his frequent close-ups on characters’ eyes, and his tendency to collaborate repeatedly with the same artists (the quadriptych at one point showcases Harvey Keitel’s performances in Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets). Here, museum-goers get the CliffsNotes version of the inner workings of Scorsese’s mind, bolstered by the use of his voice through repurposed narration from Mean Streets and The Color of Money.
On the museum’s third floor, the multifaceted structure of the exhibition expands on the passions and themes explored in the video essay downstairs, ensuring that each film gets the attention it is due. If you sometimes forget that Scorsese’s vast filmography includes a sequel to a classic film 25 years in the making (The Color of Money), a screen displaying a cocky young Tom Cruise jiving to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” while circling and dominating a pool table is there to remind you. By organizing the material according to ten themes (Music, Family, Editing, Cinematography, Cinephile, New York, Lonely Heroes, Men and Women, and Brothers), the curators provide visitors with an effective means of tracing a career spanning over 40 years of feature, documentary, and television work.
Italian standards, opera, doo-wop, and rock ’n’ roll from the Rolling Stones to the Dropkick Murphys are the aural hallmarks of Scorsese’s world, and the exhibition’s Music section offers opportunities to view key scenes from his films that incorporate these tunes. The large projection at the center of the room is situated in front of several oversized bean bags, allowing visitors to lounge and enjoy skillful marriages of image and sound in a layout that might be similar to the environment in which Scorsese became immersed in rock ’n’ roll as a kid growing up in Lower Manhattan in the 1950s and ’60s. For the musically inclined, two handwritten pages of sheet music for composer Bernard Herrman’s Taxi Driver score — finished the day before his December 24, 1975 death — are prominently displayed, offering both novice and learned musicians the opportunity to follow along with a master.
Cinematography is engaged throughout the exhibition with original shot lists and storyboards. A Raging Bull storyboard — which, like many in the exhibition, Scorsese drew himself — displays shot-by-shot the choreography that gave the film’s fight scenes more common ground with ballet than with Rocky. Scorsese is known for having a hyperactive camera with sudden changes in speed and direction of movement, and these crude pencil drawings, which incorporate red ink scribbles to represent omnipresent spurts of blood, show the careful planning necessary to execute this controlled visual chaos.
The Lonely Heroes section stands as the exhibition’s greatest design triumph. The gallery has several screening spaces — from flat-screen televisions on walls to large projections accompanied by seating areas — that encourage visitors to congregate as fellow cinephiles, enjoying footage of Scorsese’s films and those that inspired him, including The Red Shoes, 8 1/2, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The reel of solitary protagonists, installed in a distant corner of the exhibition floor, appropriately discourages group viewing. While physically set apart from the rest of the exhibition, the scenes also show singularly uncomfortable spectacles. Half-covered in shadow, Jake LaMotta — the Bronx prizefighter played by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull — unleashes his fury in a jail cell, screaming at his jailers and pummeling a wall until his body sags and his bellows turn to sobs. As the loner Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, DeNiro delivers a profane monologue of rage to his own reflection. Willem Dafoe, as Jesus Christ himself in The Last Temptation of Christ, wanders alone in the desert — a small splash of white in the expansiveness of sand — before being faced with the titular temptation. Due to the space’s physical isolation and the depressing nature of the selected scenes, the reel drew no more than one viewer at a time on the Sunday afternoon I spent at the museum, transforming them all into lonely heroes of a kind. By encouraging visitors to perform a theme of their exhibition, Jaspers and Warnecke achieve their most effective in a series of compelling immersions into Scorsese’s life and work.