The Wolf of Rhetoric

In today’s enlightened world, there are countless forms of media that speakers can use to share their ideas with a variety of people. Like rhetorical writing, film is a series of messages being sent to the audience. Its success is based on whether the messages are received as intended by the author, which in the case of film, is the director. The audience is intrigued, moved, and informed by these perceptions because of intentional rhetorical decisions made by the director. Argument and persuasion, which are found in rhetoric, always concern a speaker and an audience. The director is much like the speaker, and viewers are the audience. The process begins with writing or language, and then that idea is translated onto the screen through various processes and techniques. The plot is the largest vessel used and the easiest way to spot film rhetoric, however, dialogue (or lack thereof), camera angles, lighting, music, and makeup all contribute to the message on-screen. There are several key components writers and directors employ to convey rhetoric through the medium of film, and Martin Scorsese is a master of these methods.

A famous director, producer, screenwriter, actor, and film historian, Martin Charles Scorsese was born on November 17th, 1942, in Queens, New York. His career currently spans over forty-five years, and it is still on-going. He was a child of working-class parents that enforced Roman Catholic beliefs and practices at a young age, and he was often found indoors with “his nose buried in a book” (Ebert 1). Scorsese became interested in film early on in his life and began meticulously analyzing its qualities while he simultaneously attended movies for pleasure. After being expelled from a Catholic seminary in 1957 due to failing grades, he began attending New York University “where he met Haig Manoogin, an associate film professor” who “attracted [Scorsese] to [his] ideology about combining film theory with practice.” (A Personal Journal With Martin Scorsese 4). Scorsese achieved a Bachelor’s of Arts in English from NYU and eventually went on to obtain a Master’s of Fine Arts from NYU’s School of the Arts. It was not long before this love affair with filmmaking transformed into career, and he directed and wrote his first film titled I Call First (later renamed Who’s That Knocking at My Door) released in 1967 (Ebert 2). The film reflected themes that would eventually be notable in much of his life’s work, namely, Italian-American influence, Catholic infused concepts of guilt and redemption, crime and gang conflict, and, oftentimes, heavy use of violence and profanity. His characters frequently share similar struggles and characteristics, primarily surrounding obsessions and out of control tendencies.

Scorsese went on to direct, write, and produce numerous award-winning films touching on those themes and characteristics: the crime-centered film Mean Streets (1973), the thriller Taxi Driver (1976), the black comedy The King of Comedy (1983), the biographical drama The Aviator (2004), the psychological thrillers Cape Fear (1991) and Shutter Island (2010), and numerous other crime/gang films such as GoodFellas (1990), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), The Departed (2006), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Many of the aforementioned films feature collaborations with his two favorite actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Scorsese has over eight Best Director nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he is currently the most nominated living director (Awards). He has been married five times so far in life—he is currently married to Helen Schermerhorn Morris—and has three daughters (A Personal Journal With Martin Scorsese 4-10). Scorsese’s deep love of film history is reflected both on-screen and off; the latter is evident in his founding of The Film Foundation in 1990, which is a non-profit organization centered on film preservation. A renowned filmmaker, Scorsese is no stranger to transitioning ideas from paper to screen, and his concepts and techniques have greatly inspired rhetoric through the medium of film.

In order to understand Scorsese’s specific contributions to rhetoric through film, it’s necessary to define the primary ways rhetoric is used, determined, and judged throughout the filmmaking process. For one, society appoints its own ethos for film by perceiving various genres or sub-genres. The type of film being made, whether it’s action, horror, romance, etc., will help in deciphering the context through which the rhetoric should be perceived. People also consider the ethos by observing the sources for the film, which is usually determined by the studio (specifically its reputation and popularity) through which the film is made. The larger and more famous the studio, the greater the ethos of the film. The same can be said of the director. A new director, much like a new writer, will not have as much film credibility as a well-established and experienced director. Scorsese has experienced both sides of the spectrum, but will be historically remembered as the latter.

One way in which Scorsese’s rhetorical style stands out is through his characterization of antiheroes in a great number of his films. For example, in one of his earlier movies, Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s main character, Travis Bickle (played by De Niro), is not necessarily the most likable character. Travis is socially awkward and somewhat off-putting, and he spends much of the film in a dire search for social interaction (Ebert 272). If one has not seen the movie, all he or she needs to know to understand Travis is that his best attempt at a date is offering to take a woman to a porno movie. He has his heroic moments, though, all centered on rescuing a pre-teen prostitute, but these moments are soaked in a literal bloodbath of violence. However, Scorsese banked on his audience’s reaction to Travis being a positive one, counting on a calculated combination of alignment and allegiance. He was aware that his audience would not necessarily approve of Travis and his actions, but Scorsese was certain people would identify with him. In an interview about the film, Scorsese stated “Myself and De Niro, we simply felt a kinship; we empathized with Travis…” (Miller 11), and that empathy, he believed, would resonate with a large number of his viewers, for what person has not felt as alone as Travis at one point or another in life? Scorsese’s strong rhetorical decisions help his audience root for a character they would normally view with disdain.

Though it is a significantly different method than that of the antihero, Scorsese also utilizes slow-motion techniques in many of his films. In Raging Bull, for example, he often slows down time when showing something from the main character’s (Jake La Motta) point of view, through which he effectively communicates the character’s heightened awareness. Audiences often expect slow-motion scenes to dictate when a romantic, melancholy, or catastrophic event is taking place. Scorsese’s rhetorical goal, in some cases, differs from these stereotypical ideas. Take La Motta’s scenes spent observing the apple of his eye, Vickie. By using slow-motion techniques, Scorsese is able to convey that La Motta “sees Vickie so intently that time seems to expand around her” (Ebert 279). La Motta’s essentially hypnotized by her actions, and this is communicated clearly to the viewers. Slow-motion is also used to depict La Motta’s intensifying paranoid state of mind as he over-analyzes every moment and detail, growing more suspicious of the intentions of those around him. Scorsese has successfully mastered the rhetorical implications of the POV slow-motion shot to suggest a subjective state of mind from the character.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being the president of the United States.” says Henry Hill in the opening scene of Scorsese’s iconic film, GoodFellas. A successful form of rhetoric, Scorsese uses voice-over narration throughout his work to entice the audience on a personal level. In GoodFellas, the narration continues for the duration of the film, both from the view of Henry and his wife, Karen. This narration technique is “crucial to the movie’s success” because it “is a point-of-view movie based on nostalgia for the lifestyle.” (Ebert 281). The initial voice-over is accompanied by an abrupt and violent opening scene in which viewers witness Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy pull over on the side of the road once they become aware that the man in the back of their trunk is still alive. Tommy proceeds to stab the man in the chest several times, and then Jimmy shoots him a few times, just for good measure! According to film critic Richard Lippe, the “sequence’s violence is too graphic, intense and abrupt to be read as other than suggesting a dramatic film but Henry’s voice-over commentary suggests the sequence may be establishing the film as a black comedy.” (17). This technique not only reveals the film’s juxtapositions, it also encourages the audience to understand and even begin to sympathize with the complexities and lives of Scorsese’s main characters.

Many of Scorsese’s filmmaking techniques were groundbreaking and helped with ushering in a new era of film, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s. His rhetorical use of the antihero, specific film editing techniques like slow-motion, and narrative voice-over broke the ground for new styles of film production and inspired future filmmakers to think outside the box. He has other unique qualities too, like an affair with period-style pieces with which he chooses to strip away the “complexity of colors, despite the complex nature of the [stories]” (Goldman 1). That being said, Scorsese’s work was not initially popular on a mass level. Knowing that the Golden Age of Hollywood had ended, Scorsese intended to bring out a darker and more realistic side of filmmaking. Because of this, many critics and audiences found his films too violent and littered with excessive profanity. During an interview in Rolling Stone, Scorsese acknowledged the extremities of his rhetorical style, stating “I saw my films were not as accepted by audiences as Steven’s or Francis’ or George’s, so I had to live with it. I said, ‘That’s OK, I’m still going to do them.’” (Travers 1). This confidence inspired many great films that gradually drew in larger and larger audiences, eventually leading to his first Academy Award as a director for The Departed in 2007. Scorsese is living proof that one does not have to fit into a predetermined mold of film rhetoric to be successful.

Scorsese, who could be considered a contemporary rhetorician, has a pedagogical influence that will carry his techniques on long after he has gone. One of his best words of advice to young filmmakers is to create from their hearts and interests; not to read the public’s mind and then duplicate the findings in a movie. In fact, while making Raging Bull, Scorsese admitted to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker that “we’re making this film for ourselves.” (Ebert 220). Aside from the heart of Scorsese’s approach, many directors have mimicked his methods, including, but not limited to, atmosphere, the intended emotional mood created by the work; genre, the category into which the work fits; and invective, an attachment to using strong, vulgar language. His movies have been screened and his techniques used as teaching devices in many schools, such as The Wexler Center for the Arts and The Ohio State University. Scorsese will also lecture from time to time, and he strongly believes that filmmaking is an intentional art form; one that requires continuing education: “The grammar [of filmmaking] is panning left and right, tracking in or out, booming up or down, intercutting shots, lighting, the use of a close-up as opposed to a medium shot—those types of things—and how you use all these elements to make an emotional and psychological point to an audience.” (Martin Scorsese: Teaching Visual Literacy). To date, Scorsese has influenced a number of filmmakers, one of them the highly acclaimed director of There Will Be Blood (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson, otherwise known as the “West Coast’s Scorsese.” (Schager 1).

The goal of rhetoric is to stimulate emotions, facilitate passions, and foster convictions within members of the intended (and sometimes unintended) audience. Film is a unique medium for the speaker and the stakes are always high, for no other form of media can touch an audience in quite the same way a movie can; one could almost say that it’s the modern-day system for storytelling. Scorsese is a director who is fully aware of the rhetorical implications in film, so he chooses to pack his movies with subtle messages that are intentionally crafted from script to screen. Every camera angle and lighting technique and character are playing a key role in sending numerous messages by the frame. So what makes rhetoric successful? Scorsese is considered today to be one of the most influential people in the film industry, even though he has often been regarded as a black sheep. The answer, then, is simple: there is no right or wrong framework for rhetoric. To be successful, one must run wildly with his or her innate ideas, and find the best way to convey those ideas to the intended audience. And think outside the box. In the words of the film master himself: “We can’t keep thinking in a limited way about what cinema is. We still don’t know what cinema is. Maybe cinema could only really apply to the past or the first 100 years, when people actually went to a theater to see a film, you see?” (Feinberg 1).

Works Cited

“A Personal Journal With Martin Scorsese.” Variety 389.4 (2002): A4. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

“Awards.” Martin Scorsese Awards. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. <;

Ebert, Roger. Scorsese. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. Print.

Feinberg, Scott. “Martin Scorsese Defends ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: ‘The Devil Comes With a Smile’ (Q&A).” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 31 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. <;.

Goldman, Michael. “SCORSESE: GANGSTER STYLE. (Cover Story).” Millimeter 34.7 (2006): 14- 21. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

GoodFellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci. Warner Bros., 1990. DVD.

Lippe, Richard. “STYLE AS ATTITUDE: Two Films By Martin Scorsese.” Cineaction 41 (1996): 14- 21. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.

“Martin Scorsese: Teaching Visual Literacy.” Edutopia. Edutopia, 19 Oct. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. <;.

Miller, Winter. “Scorsese Master Class.” Daily Variety 299.11 (2008): 1-11. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Schager, Nick. “Paul Thomas Anderson: The West Coast’s Scorsese.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 13 Dec. 2014. Web. 13 Apr. 2016. < scorsese.html>.

Travers, Peter. “MARTIN SCORSESE. (Cover Story).” Rolling Stone 1025/1026 (2007): 98-100. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 2 Apr. 2016.


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