Friday, June 26, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXIV: The Neighborhood and My Life, My Card: Robert DeNiro

The Neighborhood (2001) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.

My Life My Card: Robert DeNiro (2004) ***
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.

These two short films, one a segment for the Concert for New York, and one an ad for American Express run seven minutes in total, and yet express Scorsese’s deep love for the City of New York beautifully. They act as a reminder that sometimes, the short form can be powerful, and even TV commercials can have a deeper meaning.

The Neighborhood is a six minute piece that Scorsese did for the Concert for New York in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11. In it, Scorsese returns to Elizabeth Street in Lower Manhattan, the street he grew up on, and in a very brief amount of time traces the progression of the neighborhood – both what came before him, during his time there, and afterwards. His neighborhood has changed – what was once almost all Italian families are now almost all Chinese families. But the progression is natural. Before the Italians moved in, it was an Irish neighborhood.

While who lives there may have changed, there are some things that never do. When Scorsese was a kid, he wondered why the Cathedral in the neighborhood was named after St. Patrick, since it was an Italian neighborhood, not realizing the Irish were there before them. Now, some kids ask a local Italian cheese merchant, why he set up shop in a Chinese neighborhood, not realizing the store has been there for 75 years. Kids are never able to see the area they grow up as a changing environment.

Scorsese walks the streets of the old neighborhood, and still finds some people he knew growing up. They are all hugs and smiles – they adore his young daughter who he has brought with them, and it’s like he never left. One of the most quietly profound statements Scorsese says in the film is about how people’s perceptions of themselves change through the generations. His grandparents, who were born and raised is Sicily, considered themselves Italian, even though they spent many more years in America than in Italy. His parents considered themselves Italian-American. He considers himself American-Italian (switching the emphasis to the more important, dominant identity), and he suspects his kids will simply consider themselves American.

To Scorsese, New York represents all that is great about America. The America who flung their doors open to immigrants, who came here and built a better life for themselves, and for their children. New York is America, and America is New York.

In a strange way, Scorsese’s ad for American Express, featuring Robert DeNiro both in the commercial and narrating, does exactly what The Neighborhood does, but almost entirely through images and in only a minute. Juxtaposing images of New York’s past and present, together with DeNiro’s simple narration; the film is a hauntingly beautiful little piece that also expresses love for New York. In a minute, it becomes clear that the city means everything to Robert DeNiro – everything he cares about and loves is right here in this city. Although this is an ad, like so many other of American Express ads, it is one whose emphasis is not on the product, but on the city. It’s one of the best TV spots you will probably ever see.

Note: I’m doing these two short “films” together, even though it means breaking chronology slightly, because neither are really short films unto themselves. The Neighborhood was a segment that Scorsese did for The Concert for New York in 2001, and My Life, My Card was an American Express ad Scorsese did in 2004 for his friend Robert DeNiro, who was putting on the Tribecca Film Festival, in part to try and revive the city after 9/11. They are connected in that way, so I put them together. Also, neither is really worth a post by themselves. I did not include the several ads Scorsese has done for American Express since then, because I am not sure he actually directed them. But the one where he picks up his photos at the drugstore, and rants and raves about the framing is hilarious, as are his spots with Tina Fey, where she thinks he is going to offer her a role, but he wants to sell her a timeshare. There is also a great ad with Scorsese by the way, for a phone company where a little boy is saying goodnight to his father over the phone because he’s away on a business trip, and Scorsese barges in because he doesn’t believe the boys performance. All of them are great, but I left them out of this series for obvious reasons.

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