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Martin Scorsese (right) directs Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of "Gangs of New York." (Mario Tursi)
Martin Scorsese (right) directs Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of "Gangs of New York." (Mario Tursi)

Book review: Non-fiction

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It's not that Martin Scorsese has been silent until now. Coming up on 68, he had a 2010 crammed with activity: He opened his latest feature film, Shutter Island; he delivered a documentary on Fran Lebowitz; he helped produce, and directed, the pilot of Boardwalk Empire for TV; he was working on a long documentary about George Harrison; he was striving to set up a new feature film, Silence, about 17th-century Christian missionaries in Japan; and he was in London making a film for children (in 3-D), Hugo Cabret.

Anything else? Well, he was, as ever, working on film preservation and collection. He also has a wife and a youngish daughter (plus two more children who are grown-up), and he was talking - not least to Richard Schickel - in that headlong, self-interrupting way that signals a childhood asthmatic who went in some dread of being able to draw another breath.

As Schickel puts it: "In a sense, Marty's passion is his saving grace. It is so demonic that when you're in its presence you have only two choices: embrace it or flee it." It's our good fortune that the urbane and tape-recording Schickel has stayed the course and is prepared to admit not liking every picture Scorsese has ever made. Still, when that caution is voiced over Shutter Island, Scorsese says he doesn't really feel inclined to talk about it.

There's pain in not being admired. So these "conversations" seldom get into prolonged dispute, and there's a little too much of two film buffs agreeing about revering a number of overlooked movies. It doesn't matter. Call it neurosis, perfectionism, obsession or self- preoccupation - call it "Marty" - he talks up a storm and has made a book that no one interested in movies will want to put down.

We may differ over the finest Scorsese movies. The Departed won him the Best Director Oscar (at the sixth nomination), along with many other awards and a healthy box-office return. Still, for some, it seemed a retreading of old steps, adding to the feeling that Scorsese has not regained the audacity that carried him from Mean Streets to Raging Bull. But as he explains himself, that was a visionary age in U.S. filmmaking and it is harder now for anyone of his compulsive creative ambition to make studio films, because the studios and the audiences don't exist in the same way.

So Silence will need to be an "independent" picture, and if it takes a long time putting together, well, Marty does have a Frank Sinatra biopic up his sleeve (and that could turn a little gangsterish). There's the paradox in the man: The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Kundun and Casino are not just the proof of a multiple-personality director; they grow out of his turbulent passion, longing for the spirit, driven by guilt, but often finding immense violence.

Every film is covered in this book (though some are treated lightly), and there are fascinating sidebars that include Color, Music, Working with Actors, Asperger's Syndrome (no, he doesn't suffer from it) and The Onrush of Time. So it is worth drawing attention to some missing items. Schickel covers the childhood thoroughly, and there are seven illustrations of Marty as a boy growing up. But the five wives and three children are not pictured, and there's very little on his adult personal life.

Scorsese has every right to make that ground rule, but as the incessant talk of angles, framing and cutting dominates in this book, we may wonder about the chronic return to male gangs when he tries to maintain his interest in the subject of love. At one point, Schickel refers to an observation by Andrew Sarris (it came after seeing Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's) about the cinema having no greater spectacle than that of a man and a woman talking. To which, in the book's spirit of instant agreement, Scorsese responds, "He's right. It's something I hope for in each one of my pictures - somehow to get moments like that."

Well, we're waiting, and while we have no doubt about the depths and subtexts Scorsese can find in the seething struggle of competitive men, a little quiet man-to-woman talk would be welcome, and restful. He has had some striking women characters - Sharon Stone in Casino, notably - but they are usually hurling abuse or ruined looks at their men, or doing a lot to substantiate male paranoia. Asked if he has any aspiration, Scorsese replies, "To make a love story?" though even that answer comes as a question. But then he says that Silence - if he ever makes it - will be about love, but "it will have no women in it." Tracking this man obsessed with male trust and betrayal is an absorbing read, but you must draw your own conclusions about Scorsese's true appetite for conversation.

David Thomson writes for The Guardian in London and he is online film critic at The New Republic. He has just published the fifth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

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