“I can’t tell if you know anything about women,” said Ellen Burstyn to then up-and-coming Martin Scorsese. “No,” he said, “but I’d like to learn.” Martin Scorsese has made his fair share of forgotten great films, drowned out by his unquestionably more popular films about violent and chaotic men. It can be easy to forget that Scorsese has had one of the most varied careers of any director in history, having made films everywhere from the brooding angst-driven Taxi Driver to the touching Hugo. Why some of these films become forgotten isn’t too surprising; Kundun had a pretty niche audience to begin with, King of Comedy was far before it’s time, etc. etc. but one that just doesn’t make any sense at all is Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Made when Martin Scorsese was still riding the wave of the success of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore follows Ellen Burstyn, driving cross-country with her son in hopes of becoming a singer after having, in a way, been freed by the sudden and tragic death of her neglectful husband. The film has it’s fair share of men behaving badly, from Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel to songwriter-turned-actor Kris Kristofferson, but it will push their stories to the side any moment it seems like they might distract from what this film is really about: A mother and her son.
Perhaps I’m just more ignorant about film than I think I am but, while there’s an ever-growing deluge of great films about fathers and sons, I can probably count on one hand films that focus on the other half of that equation. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a beautiful and touching and often hilarious movie. As you’d expect from a Scorsese picture, it doesn’t hold back any punches, not shying away from letting things get dark from time to time, but through all that this film has more heart and more optimism than near anything else he’s ever made.
Throughout every moment of Scorsese’s best work is a real presence of the director, not in a stylistic self-aware sense, but in a personal and emotional sense. Like Scorsese, Elia Kazan also primarily worked from material written by others and as he put it: “The director has to restate succinctly the play, its meaning and form, in his own terms; he has to reconceive it as if he had created it. What does it mean to him? What does it arouse in him? How does the manuscript affect his soul?” Of course, directors taking a writer’s work and “changing” it or “mangling and deforming” it, depending on who you ask, is one of the most notorious aspects of filmmaking.
But there’s a difference between the horror stories of once great scripts turned into garbage films, and a director like Scorsese finding a way to make a film that affects him, that represents something about him. Even the greatest director can’t just grab a script and take on faith the deep meaning that piece supposedly holds for the writer, while meaning nothing to himself, and expect to make a great film. What you end up with is poor translation, something that’s empty and flat.
It seems the popular idea today that the director and the camera need to be as objective and unnoticed as they possibly can be. But these kind of limitations are only damaging. Zooms can look amateurish, directorial presence can be obnoxious and pretentious, but stripping tools from one’s toolbox can only ever hinder one’s pursuit of making great work. Directors like Scorsese, or Kubrick, or Cassavetes, or Leone, would use anything they believed they had at their disposal to make the greatest films that they possibly could. They were daring.
In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese flexes all his usual muscles; his feel for music, his love for classic movies, his willingness to throw the script out and let great actors improvise, you see him do it all. Like one of Scorsese’s films that did find an audience, Raging Bull, this film is both brutal in its emotional honesty and not afraid to be creative with it’s editing or stylistic choices as long as they fulfil a purpose. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Martin Scorsese uses every tool in his toolbox. He puts everything on the table and, in this case, gives us one of the greatest films he’s ever made.