Even after the disappointment of being refused admission to Fordham, and with several questions about Church teaching beginning to arise in his life, Martin Scorsese did not totally abandon his idea of becoming a priest, but it was becoming less likely. He was starting to move out of the restricted family environment of his childhood and Catholic schooling toward new territories of young adulthood.
A significant first step was his growing alienation from the Catholic Church. In various interviews, he specifies his difficulties with the Church, and they seem to cover a fairly standard repertoire for young men of his background in the 1950s. He experienced the predictable clash between parochial-school scrupulosity and puberty. In addition, after ten years of catechism, he found Church dogma and discipline overly concerned with peripheral matters, and he mentions being puzzled that after teaching for a thousand years that eating meat on Friday was enough to consign one to eternal damnation, the Church suddenly changed the rules and said that it was all right after all. Because of his passion for movies, Scorsese experienced a rather unusual "crisis of faith" in that he found the ratings provided by Catholic Legion of Decency more than a bit troubling. According to the popular understanding of its rules at the time, a Catholic would commit a mortal sin by seeing a film the Legion placed on its condemned list. Yet his friend, Father Principe, assured him that he could disregard this strict interpretation because of his artistic interest in films. Such advice seems merely sen sible today, but in the Catholic world of the 1950s, it must have seemed quite daring to the former altar boy and seminarian.
As Scorsese recalls, his sense of the Church's apparent intolerance, especially toward Jews, became especially troubling. This perception remains a source of discomfort for many Catholics even today, and it provides a basis of harsh criticism from many non-Catholics. The controversies over the history of Jewish-Catholic relations are complex and still unresolved, but to be fair, Scorsese's assessment of the Church's intolerance may be shaped as much by the ethnic boundaries he experienced growing up in his homogeneous working-class environment as by Church teaching and practice. Scorsese graduated from high school in 1960, only two years after the death of Pope Pius XII. At that time, the questions raised about his policies during World War II may have been a source of concern for scholars, but they scarcely would have reached the consciousness of a teenager in a Catholic high school. Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, to say nothing of openly hostile criticism of Vatican officials, would come only years later, most markedly after the presentation of Rolf Hochhuth's play about Pius XII, The Deputy, in 1963. In the popular perception of the day—erroneous as it was—there lingered the suspicion that those outside the Church might not make it unless God took special and mysterious steps to intervene. Intolerance lies a short step away from such distorted beliefs, but one has to wonder if non-Christians too, like the Chinese in Chinatown or the Jews on Hester Street, might not have harbored their own forms of Lower East Side antagonism toward other ethnic groups.
Scorsese recalls a painful event that gives some indication of feelings that were not uncommon in ethnic enclaves. When he was five and his brother twelve and they were still living in Queens, they came upon a man unconscious and bleeding on the street. Martin was upset, but his brother Frank assured him that it was "only a Jew."12 "It was one of my earliest memories," Scorsese explains, and the event surely remains a shameful childhood memory for him to this day. Yet when he tried to create an authentic portrait of life in Little Italy in Mean Streets, the young hoods and hustlers on the streets do not shy from equally brutal references to Jews and African Americans. Such bigotry sadly existed in far more overt forms then than it does today, but how the Catholic Church contributed to such attitudes by complicity or silence is a ques tion that resists simple explanations. Denial, whitewash, and collective amnesia will not do; but neither will blanket denunciations.
Whatever his feelings about the Church, Scorsese remained a churchgoer, but by 1960 he had begun a transition in his life. His graduation from Cardinal Hayes and his rejection by Fordham put an end to his involvement with Catholic education and marked his entry into the more diverse collection of cultures and ideas at New York University. At the same time, his decision to attend a college located on Washington Square in Greenwich Village essentially brought him back to the neighborhood to continue his schooling. The school was a short walk from Elizabeth Street, so he was able to remain at home while attending classes. Still the Village, long known as a haven for writers, artists, radical political activists, and nonconformists, was a different cultural universe from Little Italy. Scorsese claims to have visited the Village only a few times before enrolling at NYU. This is quite plausible. The subway lines run north and south, and Washington Square lies to the west of Elizabeth Street. As noted in the case of Woody Allen's roots in Flatbush, most native New Yorkers are hopelessly bound to their immediate neighborhood. They take the subway to work, or in Scorsese's case to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, with very little awareness of other sections of the City, even one as close as the Village was to Little Italy.
Life at NYU opened new horizons for Scorsese to a far greater extent than college life does for most undergraduates. He enrolled in the film program with an English minor, with the vague idea of becoming a teacher, possibly a priest-teacher, like Father Principe or those he had experienced in high school. Film studies, however, soon subverted his backup plan for a safe, traditional career path. He entered the film program under the direction of the legendary teacher Haig Manoogian and found himself captivated by images, much as he had been with his childhood sketches. The program began with upward of two hundred students each year, and after two semesters of history and criticism, the class was reduced to thirty-six. These surviving few were allowed to touch a sixteen-millimeter camera and make a film. Scorsese recalls: "Most of the kids took the class because they thought they wouldn't have to do anything much except watch films and get two credits for it. But Haig was brutal."13 As a bonus to classroom work, the immediate vicinity of the campus included the best art houses in the City: the Art and the Eighth Street Playhouse and of course the Bleecker Street Cinema. Be fore the days of videotape libraries, access to foreign films in the neighborhood movie theaters made NYU a film student's paradise.
The paradox cannot be overemphasized. Scorsese grew as an artist and reached out to world cinema while he himself was physically confined to a very small region of New York City, below Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. This has enormous implications for his filmmaking. To a far greater extent than either Sidney Lumet or Woody Allen, Scorsese has not confined his films to New Yorkers in New York settings, although arguably his strongest films, like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, do in fact emerge from the New York streets. Still, despite his confined physical surroundings, his imagination reaches out to embrace a universe of human experience. Whether the films are set on the Carolina coast (Cape Fear), Las Vegas (Casino), Tibet (Kundun), ancient Israel (TheLast Temptation ofChrist), or the Arizona desert (AliceDoesn't Live Here Any More), they remain marked by their origins in Lower Manhattan. His characters reflect the neighborhood's mistrust of outsiders in general and authorities in particular, a compulsion to take care of business according to the rules of the group without judging its methods, and an often destructive conflict between personal integrity and tribal loyalties. The conflicts often lead to violence, not as an excuse for cinematic voyeurism, but as a simple acknowledgment that human conflict frequently leads to terrifying violence. It's the way life is. At least it's life as Martin Scorsese experienced it around Little Italy.
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