Indelible Film Memories

The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.

Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.

Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.

Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.

Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).

But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”

For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.

Halloween Countdown: Scary Movies

As Halloween approaches, memories of the disturbing 2016 horror movie The VVitch recur. Those Puritans! Below is a shortened review of that movie and info on the most horrifying movie I ever saw. Well, it’s a tie with Psycho.

In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional The VVitch (trailer), use the ancient Latinate “double v.”

It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Their expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.

William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, later Emma and the chess whiz in The Queen’s Gambit), and their three younger children must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.

Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him. All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?

As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.

Regardless of your answer to “witches—yes or no?” the film is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics liked it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating! Available on Amazon Prime, HBO MAX, and Apple TV.

And here is one of the scariest films I ever saw: The Vanishing (1988). There are lots of movies with similar titles and a US remake of this one. If you want to be haunted by a truly nightmarish scenario (do you?), see the original Dutch film (Spoorloos)(trailer), directed by George Sluizer, adapted from the novella The Golden Egg. In the U.S., it was judged one of the top foreign films of 1991, when it was released. Says Wikipedia, “Stanley Kubrick thought The Vanishing was the most terrifying film he had seen.” So it’s not just me. According to Rotten Tomatoes, which gives it a critics’ rating of 98%, it’s available through Prime Video and Apple TV.

My Best (Genealogy) Research Tips

library, Morgan Library
Morgan Library (photo: Jim Forest, Creative Commons license)

My best tip for any kind of research is straight out of comedian Jonathan Winters’s mouth in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! “We have GOT to get organized!” Knowing my own tendencies in the opposite directions—piles of books and papers, urgen notes that I can’t make sense of, numbers written down that mean . . . ? I have developed a number of habits—compulsions, you could say—to get past my disorder disability.

If you want to do genealogy or really any complicated or long-term, even short-term, research project, you might want to think about what “systems” (yes, I’m laughing) you can develop to make your life easier. Think of them as supports, not burdens.

A good example is maintaining a list of books you want to consult. A lot of information I need is online, but often a source lists a book or journal that isn’t. But it may be available in a library somewhere. HathiTrust lets me find out which US libraries have it (possibly even electronic copies).

I copy and paste the bibliographic information about these elusive publications into a file called “Library Searches,” organized by, naturally, library. When my genealogy club visits the New York Public Library, for example, I have a ready-made list of books that I know they have. A recent vacation in Virginia included two days in the Library of Virginia, ditto.

Another benefit of the list is that, during COVID, when I couldn’t visit to libraries, I could still request books through InterLibrary Loan. Given my flea-sized attention span, I naturally learned to write a few words in the description of each book about what to look for and which family, otherwise . . . When I’ve seen a book, I flag it in the list so that I don’t search for it again. (You hear the voice of experience.). My Library Searches list is now thirty-three pages long. Thirty-three pages! That may sound onerous, but bear in mind, it’s been built up one book at a time, over a period of years.

Creating footnotes (reference-type) is another good habit to develop. When you write down a fact, add a footnote, preferably with a link. While you can always delete excessive footnotes at some point, it is a cardinal rule of research that, if there’s a fact you neglect to document, that is the one piece of information you’ll want to double-check later. Again, I learned this the hard way. I keep a list of “facts sources” at the end of short stories when I’m working on them, for exactly that reason.

Knowing I would have time at the Library of Virginia, I copied and pasted the section of the Library Searches list into its own file and used it to query the library’s online catalog. When I showed up in Richmond, I gave the librarian my list with the call numbers, and she knew exactly what I was looking for. This advance online catalog research identified a number of promising books I hadn’t known about too.

With this next thought, you may think we’re wandering off into OCD territory, but I’ve found that libraries with family history information tend to have some books and records organized by county—early marriage records, will books, and the like. So I made a list of my ancestors who lived in each county and generally when. Again, this was something I could do in advance of my visit. And, when my bored husband turned up at the library to see whether I was ready to leave yet, I gave him that list, pointed him toward the county shelves, and he became an able research assistant.

Whatever systems work for you, they’re an antidote to the stress of trying to remember stuff. Help yourself out. Find a way to stay at least somewhat organized!