Scorsese brings 14th BIFF an unprecedented buzz

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GREAT BARRINGTON — On Saturday, June 1, a line outside the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center stretched down Castle Street, hooking onto Main. Martin Scorsese was in town, and Great Barrington was abuzz.

"Realism and no fear of showing the real deal," town resident David Blumberg said of why he loves the director's films as he waited amid the throng.

Inside the theater that night, a packed house got a glimpse into how the director captures that authenticity. A Berkshire International Film Festival tribute event included a more than 90-minute conversation between Scorsese and Pittsfield native Kent Jones, a director himself, that involved dissecting clips from a handful of Scorsese films, as well as one movie, "The Red Shoes," that greatly influenced Scorsese's career. Before BIFF Artistic Director Kelley Vickery give Scorsese the Berkshire Internal Film Festival Achievement in Film Award, attendees listened as the 76-year-old director described the intricacies of Technicolor, broke down different cuts and revealed a jarring detail about a clip from "The Raging Bull" in which Robert De Niro's character, boxer Jake LaMotta, strikes Cathy Moriarty's Vikki LaMotta across the face.

"The trust [between actor and director] is very important because she didn't know she was going to get hit," Scorsese said, adding that he had prepared Moriarty for anything.

The comment was met with a concerned chorus of "oh" from the audience. Jones did not ask a follow-up question about the remark. (Scorsese and Jones were not available for press interviews at BIFF.)

During past interviews, Moriarty has positively commented on her "Raging Bull" production experience in her late teens. In a 2015 piece by The Guardian's Danny Leigh, Moriarty said of De Niro and Scorsese, "Bobby taught me to listen and that was important, because if there was a script on 'Raging Bull,' no one used it. He was good to me. Joe [Pesci] and Marty, too. I knew people would look at these older men and this teenage girl like, `Oh, I get it.' But they were gentlemen. They also yelled at me when I needed yelling at."

Speaking more specifically about the brutality of De Niro's character in a 2010 interview with BlackBook, Moriarty said, "[De Niro] was always in character, which made it very scary. Thank God that I trusted him and I knew he would never hurt me. He was the one who taught me how to create a character and stay in character."

A screening of the acclaimed 1980 film preceded the tribute event, which was, generally speaking, far more lighthearted than LaMotta's famously violent story. Inside an outdoor tent across the street, many filmmakers sampled fare from tables labeled "A Taste of Tibet," "A Taste of New York" and a "A Taste of Italy," cuisine paying homage to Scorsese's work and roots, in the hour leading up to the event. Soon, though, they took their seats at the Mahaiwe.

"Welcome to the greatest tribute night of the BIFF's 14 years," Vickery said at the event's outset, adding that it was both "intimidating and exhilarating" to be introducing Scorsese.

Before taking a seat between two ferns (Zach Galifianakis fans might have had a chuckle) with Jones, Scorsese scanned the applauding Mahaiwe.

"Beautiful theater," he said.

In his opening, Jones mentioned that he saw Scorsese's film, "Taxi Driver," at the Mahaiwe. Later on, Scorsese noted that his wife, Helen Morris, used to see movies at the Great Barrington venue, as well. Morris spent summers at her cousin's home in West Stockbridge during her youth.

"She had many experiences in this theater," Scorsese said, drawing laughs before adding, "cinematically." "It looks like I'm going back to New York alone," he quipped.

The clips started with an opera scene from Scorsese's 1993 film adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." Scorsese read Edith Wharton's novel and found ties to his own life, specifically a sense of loss and unfulfilled desire.

"Extraordinary emotions that are highly restrained," he said of the story's strength.

The next clip demonstrated Scorsese's appreciation for the passion in the 1948 film, "The Red Shoes."

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"There was always a sense that they were going to burst from the screen," Scorsese said of the film's dancers.

Scorsese helped restore the movie. Cracks in film caused by mold and fading colors often damage old movies' interpretations.

"When people used color, it meant something," Scorsese said.

Clips from "The Last Waltz," a 1978 documentary of The Band's last concert and "Raging Bull" followed.

"What if we do each song as if it's a round in a prize fight?" Scorsese said of the vision behind the former.

Scorsese's comments about his actual boxing film were the most compelling. During fight scenes, he said it was vital to keep the camera in the ring, where LaMotta was taking and inflicting a great deal of punishment.

"That's the nature of life, basically, for me," Scorsese said.

Scorsese wasn't really into sports, he said.

"It was really the power of De Niro wanting to get it made," the director mentioned later.

In a hotel room scene shown after a fight, De Niro paces the room as Moriarty stays seated. The domestic abuse comes later, after Moriarty warmly greets another man.

"The whole drama of the scene is in the way she's sitting," Scorsese said. " ... He's prowling like an animal, and somebody's going to get it."

The night's final clips came from "The Departed" and "Shine a Light," the 2008 Rolling Stones documentary.

"It was one of the happiest times I've ever had making that film," Scorsese said of the latter.

A screening of Scorsese's film, "Silence," closed out the night. The festival wrapped up the next day. Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, "Honeyland" took home top honors in the Juried Documentary category. Rashaad Ernesto Green's "Premature" triumphed in the Juried Narrative category.

The 15th annual BIFF will be held May 28-31, 2020. Passes will become available and submissions will start Oct. 1, 2019.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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