IMAGISM AND MARTIN SCORSESE: IMAGES SUSPENDED AND EXTENDED – by George P. Castellitto

  • The Age of Innocence (1993)

by George P. Castellitto

In his practice of continually “freezing” an array of images on his 1993 film The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese is reaffirming Wallace Stevens’s assertion in his poem “Crude Foyer” that the “landscape of the mind/Is a landscape only of the eye” (305). Scorsese presents the viewer with images on which, much like William Carlos Williams’s wheelbar­row, “so much depends” (277). Stevens’ concern with the imagination as the unifying and connective faculty of human apprehension that unites perceiver and object perceived and Williams’ assertion about the significance of the thing (“no idea about the thing but the thing itself”) both converge in Scorsese’s cinematic approach of using “things” in a series of suspended, momentary, visual scenes that convey the importance of each object and the possibility of meaning behind each object. Each “frozen” object on the screen anticipates a scene that will eventually follow, but, more importantly, those “things” that sweep across the viewer’s vision function as thematic catalysts, imagistic renderings of Scorsese’s conception of the story’s movement and denouement. The opening flowers at the beginning of The Age of Innocence not only anticipate the several floral images that the film will include, but also invite the viewer to comprehend universal themes such as the fragility of innocence and the instability of romantic love.
Scorsese’s technique of “freezing” objects generates a particular method of cinematic exposition in which characters and objects are portrayed in a moment between movement and non-movement; this “moment” is the bridge between potential behavior and stasis. The “thing” is frozen or suspended on the screen, and the possibility of either stasis or experience emerges from this momentary suspension. In essence and visual practice. Scorsese is combining techniques of both Stevens and Williams. Each suspended thing is like the frozen wheelbarrow with the potentiality of all that is pastoral lying behind it; moreover, the frozen object invites the viewer to make imaginative and thematic hypotheses about the film. Stevens and Williams are very different in the way that they approach the significance of “things,” and Scorsese utilizes their divergent approaches to create a series of moments that offer both specificity and possibility.
Two other Scorsese films, Goodfellas and Cape Fear, utilize the same imagistic device of presenting “frozen” images as vehicles to communicate themes about human relationships, guilt, and social responsibility. Goodfellas begins with the front of a Cadillac sprawling across the screen, and that image becomes the signpost for a disillusioned Henry Hill whose life moves through violence and drug dependency to mediocrity. Cape Fear opens with the image of an eagle swooping over a body of water; Max Cady and Sam Bow’den are two different types of predators whose domains differ only in their social contexts.
Scorsese’s consistent use of specific images to convey thematic concerns as well as sen­sory impressions places him in the tradition of the Imagist movement in American poetry. The plots of The Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, and Cape Fear emerge as a result of a series of objects that Scorsese highlights or literally “freezes” on the screen. Character conversa­tions, movements, and interactions revolve around these several “things” that Scorsese wields to tell his tales. T.E. Hulme, an early theorist in Imagism, asserted that “poetry ought to return to the concrete images out of which language had originated” (Brooks et al. 2045). Each image should present a “thing” that would both guide the reader/viewer to visualize a specific physical object and render an experiential connection with the dimension of emotion and human valuation (Brooks et al. 2045). Furthermore, Ezra Pound believed an image should present “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (Brooks et al. 2050). Essentially, the “thing” presented should depict a specific object that prods the imagination (Stevens), displays the thing in its physical essentiality (Williams), and allows the reader/viewer to capture in a moment the simultaneous presence of intellectual and emotional components (Brooks et al. 2050).
This is exactly what Scorsese’s “freezing” technique accomplishes. His imagism is direct and objective in its attempt to present emotions and themes in terms of the rendering of series of images that weave to form a fabric that reflects the nuances of human existence; as a contemporary cinematographer, Scorsese is operating within the framework of literary modernism as his renderings adhere closely to the William Carlos Williams dictum of “no idea about the thing but the thing itself.” It is as if Scorsese read the 1915 volume of Some Imagist Poets whose six contributors (Aldington, H.D., Amy Lowell, Flint, Fletcher, and D.H. Lawrence) defined the principles that were soon to determine the parameters of the Imagist verse of the early twentieth century. Among these principles were exactness, concentration, creativity in rhythm, and avoidance of non-essential and decorative words (Coffman 27-29). Scorsese accomplishes this exactness, much like does Ezra Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro,” in the scene in The Age of Innocence where a crowd of faces comes walking up Fifth Avenue. In a interview with Gavin Smith, Scorsese remarks about this scene: “I just saw the image in my head that way. All packed on the sidewalk. And so I imagined all those people walking together, looking the same, as being a predominant image of that period” (23). Similarly, in the Archer family dinner scene, Scorsese uses candlesticks as images to frame symmetrically the members of the family; Scorsese tells Smith that this imagistic framing is his attempt to articulate on the screen “a sense of order and propriety” (26). In both cases, the image that Scorsese employs is essential and unadorned; the objects that comprise the scenes are not simply metaphors for the concepts of “crowd” and “propriety,” but arc actually imagistic renditions of the elemental physical characteristics of these concepts.
The presentation of ideas and concepts by discovering the exact “words” to convey these concepts is derived from the traditions of literary realism that eventually led to the principles of imagism. The use of exact and specific language to portray physical “objects” is a strategy through which the reader is impelled to experience the particulars of reality not merely intellectually and sensorially but emotionally (Gage 3). Just as the purest Imagist poets reject the confines of rhetoric in their attempt to display the essential features of reality, Scorsese refuses to rely merely on film dialogue to express the reality of the film’s essential concerns. The delivery of expressive dialogue through exceptional performances would reveal merely a tale well-acted; the presence of images is, for Scorsese, critical in achieving his thematic slant as well as provoking his audience to respond emotionally to his story. Without the freezing of images, The Age of Innocence would simply be entertaining drama and not a statement about the repressiveness of 1870s New York society. Scorsese’s hovering over objects as he shifts from room to landscape to passionate interview reflects his understanding of Edith Wharton’s vision of this society. Reviewer Ty Burr interprets Scorsese’s preoccupation with images as a tedious and pointless exercise:

That’s because Scorsese is too busy showing off the furniture. He understands Wharton’s point that these people can express themselves only through what they own—their clothes and carriages, all the accretions of entitlement. He belabors it, in fact, to the point where decor becomes his fetish as much as theirs. (57)

However. Scorsese’s concern with objects, his “fetish for the furniture,” demonstrates his awareness that these “things” arc the integral elements of the characters’ emotional lives (and, in many cases, the repression of that emotion). The film’s frozen images arc necessary to create an impression of repressiveness, the reality of freedom unrealized.
Each object-image in The Age of Innocence operates as a strand of a thread sewing the viewer, stitch by stitch, object by object, into the fabric of a framework more encompassing in its totality than each of the single images. The result is that the viewer begins to feel, by perception of and immersion into these images, the same sense of social helplessness that Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska feel. The battle in the film is not simply between Newland and May Welland, not simply between individuals and a predefined network of societal behavior, but between repressed individuals and the specific “things” of that network. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the film—in the raised opera booths of the opening scene, in the vista of rooms in Beaufort’s house, in the framed candlesticks and arranged dishes that accompany the formal dinners, in the carriage where Newland and Ellen embrace. Each of the objects in these claustrophobic scenes functions not simply as adornment but as an image that both defines and confines the behavior of the scenes’ characters. In effect, the images serve to create the dominant impression of a type of elegant captivity that this society generates. The viewer must not just perceive the objects of the film but must also comprehend the emotion and plight of each character underlying those images; Scorsese employs the momentary suspension on the screen of the “things” of this society to express repressiveness and entrapment. Essentially, Scorsese is accomplishing on the screen what Pound insists that poetry should achieve: suspension of essential images, exactness in the choice of objects presented, and evocation of emotion. The objects of this society literally determine the attributes of the film s characters; their movements and speeches emanate from the things that surround them. Stevens expresses well the notion of a sense of connection similar to that association that exists between the film’s characters and the objects that comprise their environment:

The partaker partakes of that which changes him.
The child that touches takes character from the thing,
The body, it touches. The captain and his men
Are one and the sailor and the sea are one. (392)

The attachment between the characters and the objects is as consumingly destructive as it is necessary ; it is similar to the portrait of the child whose ear is being scraped by his father’s belt buckle in Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” (2422). The various things that the child perceives (the pans, the battered knuckle, the dirty hand) stand as inescapable, though not necessarily desirable, components of this single experience with his father.
Besides his images being exact and specific, Scorsese’s films incorporate the other characteristics of Imagism outlined in Some Imagist Poets: concentration, creativity in rhythm, and avoidance of unnecessary decoration. The free verse and precise metaphors so characteristic of the Imagist poets translate, in Scorsese’s films, into the seemingly random but carefully arranged images of objects that appear on the screen. When Scorsese’s camera is casually circling a room or illustrating the particulars of a meal or someone’s garments in The Age of Innocence, there is a deliberate motive in the movement of the camera as the images unfold before the viewer; the array of objects in each landscape seems to be depicted for descriptive and decorative purposes, but actually each momentary, suspended image invites speculation about social and emotional enigmas beyond the visible. As imagistic free verse often derives its form and meaning from the “thing” that is being depicted in the poem, so also does Scorsese employ the juxtaposition and arrangement of objects in a seemingly narrative and decorative way both to delve into the “thing itself* and to present situations in the manner of objective expression about which Pound is so insistent (Brooks et al. 2050). In this technique of presenting objective images that function in both a specific and emblematic sense, Scorsese is creating a cinematic rhythm in his movement from object to object and from object to underlying emotion and theme. Scorsese’s rhythm is not merely for the purpose of plot exposition or character delineation, and his rhythm ironically occurs in his technique of image suspension. Scorsese accomplishes this sense of rhythm and suspension in his presentation of the momentarily “frozen” object (the actual and visible on the screen) and the possibilities of emotion and experience underlying each object (the potential). In the moments on the screen that each object appears, each of these moments stands as both portrait and possibility. Essentially, Scorsese’s technique of suspension or “frozenness”(his creation of stasis and movement, his portrayal of the actual and the possible) illustrates a sense of unique rhythm similar to that of the Imagist poets. For example, there is noticeable rhythm in the way that Scorsese, in the opening of The Age of Innocence, moves from the flowers during the credits sequence to the flowers on the stage to the flowers on Archer’s lapel. Similarly, Scorsese presents other images in an orderly and rhythmical sense: the arrangement of white gloves on the table at the Beaufort ball, the paintings of women in the vista of drawing rooms that leads to the ballroom, and the sym­metrical entrance of the couples into the ballroom. Even as the gentlemen indulge in their after-dinner cigars, the camera highlights the particulars of the cigar and its cutting. While May is having her wedding photograph taken, the room offers a combination of (he images of flowers and a bear-skin rug, properly emblematic of her social grace and repressed but nevertheless effective, socially predatory control of Archer’s destiny. In a later scene, May’s sewing is rhythmically circular, an image of routine and domestic mediocrity. In essence, although many of the images in the film seem ornamental, they are, in fact, essential, non- decorative, succinct, miniature, frozen portraits of the film’s underlying theme of social repression. The paintings of the various women demonstrate this theme in imagistic conciseness; the sprawling, full-length painting of Mrs. Beaufort that stands over the entrance to the drawing rooms in the Beaufort house, the rendition of the fainting woman in white, the nudes in “The Return of Spring,” the man leaning over the forlorn-looking woman in the painting in Mrs. Mingott’s house, and the scene where the woman is about to be scalped by the Indians are all seeming decorations that actually serve to highlight the control that the women in the film either exert or to which they succumb. Even Scorsese’s landscapes serve to accentuate, in rhythmical and concentrated images, the distance between the beleaguered Archer and Olenska. In the snow scene where Archer visits the countess, she stands apart, as a diminutive figure in a sprawling white vista. The scene with Madame Olenska on the bridge with the boat sailing toward the lighthouse is an excellent example of Scorsese’s ability to use the camera to portray both non-movement and the possibility of motion. The seeming arrangement of light on the water and the advancing boat contrast with the unmov­ing Ellen; the composition of objects in the scene (boat, light, water, dock, and the static countess) offers a supposed portrait of adornment but ultimately communicates stasis, despair, separation, and repression. This is exactly what Scorsese does so well and so like the Imagists—the disposition of “things” to offer the tension between the actual and the possible.
Scorsese’s technique of utilizing specific images to relay his themes and his alignment with the American literary Imagist movement arc most apparent in The Age of Innocence, alignment with the American literary Imagist movement are most apparent in but this approach in relating a story is discernible in a less stylized but noticeable fashion in Goodfellas and Cape Fear. The use of freeze-frames in Goodfellas highlights Scorsese’s method of “freezing” significant images so that his tale becomes a series of relevant “things” accentuating the film’s themes of misplaced motivations, the fragility of power, and human self- destruction. The table being carried to make room for the special “wiseguys,” Henry Hill’s closet filled with suits, and the chrome and glass of Henry’s and Karen’s home are fitting images portraying the supposedly substantial but ultimately powerless and mundane lives of the film’s characters. The use of the color red in images pervades the film and empha­sizes the movement of the film’s figures toward both physical and spiritual destruction: the red mist that floats while Jimmy Conway, Tommy De Vito, and Henry Hill bury Billy Batts, the sauce on the platters of Italian food being served, the flowing blood in the murder scenes. Scorsese accomplishes more skillfully in Goodfellas what he initiated in Raging Bull—the use of color and object in a direct and unadorned manner to display the motivations and consequences of violence. Young Henry, in the opening scene, perceives Paul Cicero and his cronies through blinds that display merely the physical glitter and toughness of these “wiseguys” in their haunt; the blinds are a fitting image for the shadowed perception of reality to which Henry Hill will fall prey throughout his meanderings and associa­tions. Later, Scorsese “freezes” the image of Henry and Jimmy walking, and, in that moment that the camera focuses on Henry’s face, the viewer sees that Henry perceives the true depths of Jimmy’s treachery; Jimmy plans to murder Henry because he is now a liability. The final freeze of Henry retrieving his newspaper in front of his suburban home is more effective than the explanatory voice-over in exhibiting Henry’s movement into mediocrity. Henry is now safe, but still shoeless and inexperienced; he has not discovered the destructiveness of the lifestyle from which he has escaped but still yearns for the excitement of the insubstantial.
Though he utilizes the freezing technique less often in Cape Fear, nevertheless Scorsese inundates the film with images that emphasize the predator-prey dynamic. The opening scene depicts an eagle (an obvious predator) with outstretched wings, ready to pounce, swooping over a body of water; any eye then appears, and the screen moves from this water-surrounded eye to the eyes of Danielle Bowden relating her tale. Later in the film, it becomes apparent that Max Cady w’ill prey on Sam Bowden by pursuing Danielle.
The eye image reappears in the film consistently, as the eye of the predator stalking its prey and as the eye of the prey fearfully expecting the entrance of the predator. Cady stalks the Bowden home, uses careful conversation and piercing eye contact to convince Danielle to let him kiss her, and gazes almost mournfully at Sam as he drowns at the film’s end. In the houseboat, Sam’s eye is seen over the grate as he helplessly observes Max’s attempt to rape Leigh. Danielle, in her innocence, shyly covers her eyes when she converses while Leigh gazes in fear and isolation at her own reflection in the mirror as she applies her lipstick. Scorsese uses the eye image to relate more than simply perception or self-perusal; the constant appearance of the eye foreshadows the final confrontational stare between predator and prey as Max and Sam face each other in the midst of the hurricane. The film’s theme revolves around the way in which the members of the Bowden family see themselves. Max Cady’s predatory pursuit of vengeance shatters the family’s self-perception; their “eyes are opened” to their isolation from each other, to their sense of dissatisfaction with their upper-middle class existence in a lovely home where each member “sees” each other, but no salient relationship exists. Max will serve as the catalyst to bring the family to an awareness of their dilemma; his predatory violence will cause the prey to gather together to protect themselves. After Max batters Sam’s female friend, the screen moves to an image of a broken piano key; something is certainly amiss, out of tune in this household, and Max’s onslaught will cause the family to become aware of its disharmony.
Scorsese employs the image of water to relate the family’s gradually emerging sense of self-awareness. As a literary image, water traditionally functions as a baptismal element of purification. In Cape Fear, Scorsese employs water as the landscape where the final confrontation between predator and prey occurs, and, in the vortex of the hurricane, the Bow den family is washed ashore to a new life, a transformed existence. This alteration of the family’s self-perception is indeed a frightening one; the “Cape Fear” sign is reflected in the water as the family flees Cady, but they are unaware that the predator is beneath them, hiding under their vehicle, always lurking nearby to goad them into a self-awareness they do not desire. When the Bowdens first meet Cady in the theater. Max is sporting a lighter shaped like a woman in a bikini; the potential for immersion in water is implied in the bikini image. Later, when Max and Sam are conversing, Max is drinking from an Evian water bottle. Scorsese’s negative imaging of Max in the Bowden bedroom is another water image, for Max’s nearly indistinguishable outline is translucent like rippling water. Red clouds, portents of an approaching watery cataclysm, hover over the Bowden home; later, the sky over the houseboat is tinted with flashes of lightning and a red hue. These images serve as harbingers of the rite of watery purification that is soon to immerse the Bowden family. Scorsese uses the image of water in much the same way that he uses blood in Goodfellas and flowers in The Age of Innocence—to provide a consistent framework consisting of portraits of specific, suspended objects that underscore the films’ themes.
Scorsese’s technique of “freezing” objects aligns his presentational approach with that of the poets prevalent in the American Imagist movement. They, like Scorsese, believe that the rudiments of narrative and thematic illustration lie in the arrangement of “things” within a structural framework. For poets like Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams, and Amy Lowell, that framework is the poem itself; for Scorsese, it is the film and its multiple scenes positioning its narrative and theme with the images that the director instructs the camera to select and freeze. In “Of Modem Poetry,” Stevens insists that the poetry of the twentieth century needs:

To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat.
Exactly, that which it wants to hear. The actor
Is a metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses. (240)

What Stevens explains here as the function of words applies aptly to the function of visual images in Scorsese’s films. Each image must be portrayed in an innovative manner, must be communicated with solicitude and specific intent (“slowly and with meditation”), and must be the right image (literally, the only image) to depict the author’s or director’s meaning. Scorsese is proficient in using the camera to find that arrangement of images that creates impressions of “sudden rightnesses.” Each of the scenes in one of his films is a systematized frame of suspended images, much like a single, imagistic poem, that serves to create a visual impression that extends to a thematic and narrative blend. Kathleen Murphy discusses in fitting detail Scorsese’s movement from image to image in The Age of Innocence, but her discussion concentrates mostly on the movement, not on the suspension of images that Scorsese employs; she writes: “When Newland Archer’s eye falls on a painting-in-progress of Ellen Olenska sitting on the sunlit Boston Common, it rests there for a moment before moving on to the actuality” (13). However, that “painting-in-progress” as momentary image of Archer’s perception is as much “actuality” as the next scene on which Archer’s eye “falls.” For Scorsese, like the Imagist poets, reality (actuality) in the film consists of each frame as a structural panorama of suspended, “frozen” objects that are as necessary as the dialogue and character interaction in relating the film’s centrality. Scorsese is not posturing as storyteller or moralist; he is imagist-director using concise and definite configurations to convey his story and his themes. Scorsese’s method of using suspended images to extend an idea is exemplified in William Carlos Williams’ “At the Faucet of June”:

The sunlight in a
yellow plaque upon the
varnished floor
is full of song
inflated to
fifty pounds pressure
at the faucet of
June that rings
the triangle of the air. (251)

In the laconic simplicity of the image of the sunlight striking the floor, Williams generates awareness of the onset of summer: the suspended portrait of the “yellow plaque” extends or “inflates” the scene to “fifty pounds pressure,” and. from that suspended image of yellow and “varnished floor,” the faucet of June explodes. In the same manner, Scorsese’s images, initially suspended objects on the screen, burst into a faucet of flowing poignancy and substance.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth, R . W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren, American Literature: The Makers and the Making: 1861 to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.
Burr, Ty, “New York, Noo Yawk,” Entertainment Weekly 1 April 1994: 56-7.
Coffman, Stanley K., Jr. Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modem Poetry. New York: Octagon. 1977.
Gage, John T., In the Arresting Eye: The Rhetoric of Imagism. Louisiana State UP, 1981.
Murphy, Kathleen, “Artist of the Beautiful.” Film Comment 29 (Nov./Dec. 1993): 11-15.
Roethke, Theodore, “My Papa’s Waltz.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 3rd. shorter ed. New York: Norton. 1989. 2421-2.
Scorsese, Martin, “Martin Scorsese Interviewed by Gavin Smith.” Film Comment 29 (Nov/Dec. 1993): 15-26.
Stevens. Wallace, The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1982.
Williams, William Carlos, The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams, New York: New Directions, 1966
The Age of Innocence, Videocassette Dir Martin Scorsese. Columbia/Tristar, 1993.
Cape Fear. Videocassette, Dir. Martin Scorsese MCA/Universal. 1992.
Goodfellas, Videocassette. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner, 1990

Source: Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1998), pp. 23-29

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