Chapter 3 Dostoevskian Elements in Scorsese’s Cinema

In: Scorsese and Religion
Christopher B. Barnett
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In 1989, three of America’s most celebrated film directors—Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese—released New York Stories. A so-called “omnibus film,”1New York Stories included three short movies, each set in New York City. Taken as a whole, this venture was not wholly successful: “‘New York Stories’ consists of three films, one good, one bad, one disappointing,”2 pronounced Roger Ebert, referring to Scorsese’s, Coppola’s, and Allen’s contributions respectively. The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson posted a similar review, arguing that, while Allen’s piece is a “genuine success” and Scorsese’s shows off “his esthetic muscle,” Coppola’s is simply “a mystifying embarrassment.”3 Given this mixed reception, not to mention the film’s underwhelming box office performance,4 it would seem that New York Stories represents little more than an homage to a bygone cinematic genre—one that, even if an interesting experiment, nevertheless fails to stand as an outstanding addition to the careers of its makers.

Despite such a verdict, New York Stories remains a notable contribution to Scorsese’s oeuvre. Not only does it display Scorsese’s willingness to experiment with cinematic form—Allen had first pitched the idea for New York Stories in 1986, suggesting that it might recapture the spirit of Italian omnibus films such as L’amore in città (1953) and Boccaccio ’70 (1962)5—but it also underlines Scorsese’s interest in and indebtedness to the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81). While Scorsese alludes to Dostoevsky’s thought throughout his films, New York Stories makes the connection explicit: Scorsese’s contribution to the project is a forty-minute short entitled “Life Lessons” based on Dostoevsky’s novella, The Gambler (1867). It was an adaptation that had been germinating for two decades. As Scorsese put it in a 1988 interview, “This is another one of those things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, since I read ‘The Gambler’ in 1968.”6

If “Life Lessons” stands as the most obvious example of Dostoevsky’s influence on Scorsese, there are subtler points of connection—points that this chapter will explore in two overarching ways. First, it will trace those places in which Scorsese’s canon manifests a direct Dostoevskian influence. Here “Life Lessons” will certainly merit attention, as will Taxi Driver (1976). The latter, Scorsese’s fifth, and arguably most impactful, feature film borrows significantly from Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, Notes from Underground.7 In establishing these unambiguous links between the two auteurs, a second way of understanding their relationship will emerge. As will be argued, a number of key Dostoevskian patterns or themes turn up in Scorsese’s films: (i) the notion that the modern city is an “urban jungle” (or, in Scorsese’s idiom, a series of “mean streets”) in which alienation, poverty, and violence reign; (ii) the suggestion that, despite the wasteland of modern urbanity, the human search for transcendence has not been eliminated and may even be intensified; and (iii) the implication that the human person is thereby faced with a free yet terrifying choice to either seek the transcendent good or to succumb to the void of nihilism.

Each of these perspectives will be explored in the works of Dostoevsky and of Scorsese alike. In turn, it will be shown that the American filmmaker might be rightly seen as a successor to the Russian novelist, notwithstanding their different artistic media. Moreover, this connection will undergird the claim, echoed in the secondary literature on Scorsese, that he is a profoundly “moral” filmmaker. For Scorsese, as for Dostoevsky, the depiction of human brutality, depravity, and despair—especially in the context of modernity—is ultimately a negative critique, highlighting what has been lost, albeit with a glimmer of hope for something better.

1 Dostoevsky’s Direct Influence on Scorsese

In September 2011, word leaked out that Martin Scorsese was hoping to make a full-length adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. According to Torsten Reitz, this interest was hardly a surprise, given Scorsese’s “longtime fascination with the works of [the] Russian writer.”8 As Reitz continues:

Even before 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” which clearly owes to Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and, more notably, “Notes from the Underground,” the director had wanted to adapt “The Gambler” for the screen. In the early 1970s, he was shell-shocked when “Taxi Driver” screenwriter Paul Schrader gave his version of the novel to Brian De Palma instead of him.9

Hence, that Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” would draw on The Gambler roughly a decade later only confirmed “Scorsese’s passion for Dostoevsky.”10 This was not a fleeting attraction but one that persisted from Scorsese’s first cinematic endeavors to the 1980s and, indeed, on into the 2010s—in short, the entire span of his career.

That is not to suggest that Scorsese’s indebtedness to Dostoevsky is transparent in each of his films. On the contrary, the influence is often implicit and broadly thematic rather than explicit and specifically narratival. Still, two Scorsese films can be said to be directly related Dostoevsky’s work—Taxi Driver and “Life Lessons.” The former is widely considered to be one of Scorsese’s masterpieces and, indeed, one of the masterpieces of world cinema,11 whereas the latter is a minor work in the Scorsese canon. Yet, taken together, the two films provide a strong indication of what drew Scorsese to the Russian novelist.

1.1 Taxi Driver: From the Underground Man to Travis Bickle

Scorsese began filming Taxi Driver in 1974, and, while he had already found success with Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), he was nevertheless facing a low budget and a “tight shooting schedule.”12 “My films haven’t made a lot of money,” Scorsese commented in a 1976 interview, “right now, I’m living off my next film.”13 With that in mind, it is intriguing that he would make Taxi Driver his fifth feature film. After all, given its dark subject matter and extreme violence, it seemed more likely to flop than to garner critical and popular acclaim. As the film’s screenwriter, Paul Schrader, observed: “I wish we had a dollar for every time we were told it would never be a success at all. This screenplay was turned down by everybody.”14 Scorsese harbored similar reservations: “I never thought Taxi Driver would make a dime,”15 he once noted.

Taxi Driver, then, was very much a passion project—what Vincent LoBrutto has referred to as “a psychiatric X-ray of Scorsese.”16 Ironically, though, the impetus for the film came from Schrader, who has traced its origin to a period of personal desperation in the early 1970s: “[I was] living more or less in my car in Los Angeles, riding around all night, drinking heavily, going to porno movies because they were open all night, and crashing some place during the day.”17 He was eventually admitted to the hospital for an ulcer,18 and, during his stay, he conceived of Taxi Driver: “[T]his metaphor occurred to me of the taxi cab, this idea of this man in this metal coffin floating through the sewers of the city, who seems to be in the middle of society but in fact is desperately alone.”19 Thus Schrader insists that Taxi Driver “came from the gut,” in contrast to “the way people write scripts today—you know, with a market in mind.”20 And yet, Taxi Driver bore a resonance that would extend well beyond Schrader’s personal travails. Many would come to view it as a representation of “the disintegration of the moral and physical state of America,”21 and precisely this wider application rendered it “a true classic.”22 As Michael Bliss notes, “Of the Scorsese films that feature Robert De Niro, it is Taxi Driver that commands the most respect.”23

How did this happen? How, in other words, did the forlorn, alcohol-fueled vision of Schrader achieve the status not only of a cinematic classic but of a parable about life in the modern city? The most basic answer to this question lies in the fact that Schrader and, subsequently, Scorsese recognized that Taxi Driver and its antihero, Travis Bickle (played with anguished volatility by De Niro), belong in a long line of modern works of art. Various touchstones have been mentioned over the years, from Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger (1942) to Robert Bresson’s film Pickpocket (1959). However, Schrader and especially Scorsese have consistently linked Taxi Driver to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “[W]hen I got this idea [for Taxi Driver],” Schrader recalls, “I knew there were two books I wanted to reread. I had recently read Notes from Underground, so I reread it.”24 That Schrader’s script, then, directly appropriates certain themes from Dostoevsky’s novel is likely. Scorsese himself also made this connection. As he explains:

Paul wrote Taxi Driver out of his own gut and his own heart in two-and-a-half terrible weeks. I felt close to the character [of Travis Bickle] by way of Dostoevski. I had always wanted to do a movie of Notes from the Underground. I mentioned that to Paul and he said, “Well this is what I have—Taxi Driver,” and I said, “Great, this is it.”25

Indeed, even the influence of other artworks on Taxi Driver echoed Dostoevsky. For example, Schrader acknowledges the influence of Bresson’s Pickpocket, noting that he borrowed from its narrative structure: “I saw [Pickpocket] and I loved it and I wrote about it repeatedly, and I said ‘I could make a movie like that. That’s just a guy in his room, then he goes around and he writes in a diary and he goes back to his room. I could do that.’”26 However, as Scorsese adds, Taxi Driver’s “connection to Pickpocket is also a connection to Dostoevsky too,”27 since Bresson’s film is widely considered to be based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866).28

Consequently, the question is not whether Dostoevsky influenced Taxi Driver but how. Here the most salient point of connection is Notes from Underground—a work that anticipates Taxi Driver in form as well as in content. With regard to form, both works center on a lonely and desperate first-person narrator, whose isolation erupts in anger and violence toward others. Despite the cultural and chronological variance between nineteenth-century St. Petersburg and 1970s New York City (for example, Nevsky Prospect has become 42nd Street, horse-drawn carriages have become motorized taxi cabs, and so on), there are further points of narratival overlap. While “the main narrative line of Part ii29 of Notes is the attempt of the anonymous protagonist (commonly referred to as the “Underground Man”) to rescue a young prostitute named Liza, the climactic point in Taxi Driver is Bickle’s attempt to rescue a young prostitute named Iris. Both stories follow disaffected outcasts who lash out against the hypocrisy of their respective societies—a hypocrisy characterized by the superficial confidence of bourgeois officials on the one hand and the horrifying moral decay surrounding them on the other. This righteous indignation isolates both the Underground Man and Bickle, encouraging each figure to view himself, albeit in different ways, as an arbiter of justice in a world given over to sin.

Of course, the thematic links between Notes from Underground and Taxi Driver ensue from their formal similarities. So, it would hardly be surprising to say that each work is concerned with topics such as self-consciousness, illness, and boredom.30 Yet, if a single theme could be said to unite Notes and Taxi Driver, it would be that of “urban loneliness,” especially in the industrialized West. More will be said about this topic below—indeed, it is a Dostoevskian theme that recurs throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre—but here it is sufficient to flag its centrality in Notes and in Taxi Driver.31 The Underground Man is a bureaucrat living in Saint Petersburg, who, despite working in a public office, is “solitary to the point of savagery.”32 “I had no friends or acquaintances,” he adds, “[I] avoided talking to people, and buried myself more and more in my hole.”33 The Underground Man’s alienation stems in part from his conviction that, although his workaday colleagues are “stupidly dull and as like one another as so many sheep,”34 they get along better in modern society precisely because of their insipid philistinism. In contrast, the Underground Man views himself as “more intelligent, more highly developed, more noble than anyone else,” and yet, since he does not readily conform to the latest styles and trends, he is “in the eyes of all those high society people … just a fly, an odious, obscene fly.”35 This internal juxtaposition of pride and humiliation brings the Underground Man to the point of violence on a number of occasions—for example, he imagines challenging a haughty army official to a duel36—but he lacks the determination to go through with it. Instead, as the novel comes to an end, he remains alone, “losing touch with life” and “nursing [his] spite in [his] dark cellar.”37

Bickle’s circumstances resemble those of the Underground Man, though, famously, Schrader and Scorsese envision a different ending for their protagonist. At Taxi Driver’s outset, Bickle is looking for work as a cab driver in New York City; he admits to the personnel officer that he is an insomniac and spends nights alone, frequenting pornographic cinemas and bumming around the city in subways and buses. The administrator is taken aback by Bickle’s bluntness but, citing a need for drivers, offers him a job. Soon we are introduced to Bickle’s reflections on life in the city, which, like those of the Underground Man, are as bleak as they are condemnatory. Commenting on those whom he sees on his late-night excursions, Bickle states: “All the animals come out at night: Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Ironically, however, it is these sorts of persons that most resemble him and, indeed, are most willing to accept him. In contrast, the powerful and the beautiful—represented by Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) on the one hand and his campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), on the other—are repulsed by Bickle. Hence, much like the Underground Man, Bickle fantasizes about avenging himself on those who reject him, but, when his plan backfires, he violently attacks New York City’s “open sewer” of drugs and prostitution. Yet after killing Iris’s pimp (Harvey Keitel) and his henchmen, Bickle turns the gun on himself. There are no more bullets in the chamber—his life spared by a stroke of fate—but the gesture underscores what Bickle says about himself earlier in the film: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. …There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”38 This isolation intensifies in the very last scenes of Taxi Driver, when, in a moment of paradox, Bickle emerges from his killing spree as a hero—a savior of a young girl from the city’s underworld. Only Bickle knows the malevolence of his true intentions, and now he must work to suppress the fury still lurking within.

Thus the similarities between Notes from Underground and Taxi Driver are hard to miss: both works explore the psycho-spiritual despair of a man estranged from, and subsequently outraged by, life in the modern city. Of course, differences can be found—the plots are not identical—but it is nonetheless clear that Schrader and Scorsese were attracted to Dostoevsky’s first-person critique of modernity. They sought not to glorify a character such as Bickle but, rather, to force audiences to confront what he represents. As Scorsese puts it, “All I can do is try to present, as closely as possible to the truth, what we’re like as I see it. …It’s disturbing but then, life can be disturbing.”39

1.2 “Life Lessons”: The Symbiosis between Art and Passion

As noted above, the impetus for Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” can be traced back to the late 1960s, when the young auteur first read Dostoevsky’s short novel, The Gambler. But why would Scorsese be drawn to this work? Unlike The Brothers Karamazov (1880) or even Notes from Underground, The Gambler is not considered one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces. Indeed, it tends to be more famous for its connections to his personal upheavals.

In the summer of 1863, Dostoevsky traveled around Europe with his mistress,40 a university student and aspiring writer named Apollinaria (Polina) Suslova. Now into his forties, and already celebrated as a literary and social icon,41 Dostoevsky was “flattered by [Suslova’s] attention” and “dazzled by her beauty and sensuality.”42 What’s more, she provided an escape from the domestic and financial straits into which he had fallen.43 And yet, while Dostoevsky’s passions for the young woman smoldered, Suslova’s romantic feelings “began to wane” before and during their European excursion.44 Suslova fell in love with a Spanish medical student and “proved unwilling to restore him to his previous status as lover.”45 Dostoevsky’s correspondence over the next few years indicates that he obsessed over rekindling the affair, but Suslova remained impervious to his attentions. Increasingly desperate and still in debt, Dostoevsky channeled his experience into The Gambler—a story first conceived while traveling with Suslova but not completed until 1866, when, facing a deadline, Dostoevsky dictated the novel to his stenographer (and future wife), Anna Snitkina.46

The Gambler’s basic premise is taken from Dostoevsky’s European jaunt with Suslova. Though narrated by a young scholar, Aleksei Ivanovich, the plot centers on a tempestuous heroine, Polina, who is being wooed by various suitors including Aleksei himself. When Polina falls into arrears, Aleksei begins gambling in order to help her and, improbably, has a run of good luck at roulette. But Polina rejects his winnings, and so Aleksei absconds to Paris, where he ultimately squanders his money. In an ironic conclusion, a devastated Aleksei finds out that Polina loved him after all.

Obviously, then, The Gambler contains elements from Dostoevsky’s own life, but it would be inaccurate to say that it is primarily autobiographical.47 Rather, it serves as a vehicle for Dostoevsky to explore the dynamics of desire—in particular, a romantic relationship in which feminine eroticism both stokes and stymies male ingenuity. This is hardly a theme limited to The Gambler. Commentators such as the theologian Paul Evdokimov have suggested that Dostoevsky’s novels oppose male and female in such a way that the purpose of the latter is simply to drive the former to his destiny.48 As Rowan Williams puts it, “It is quite true that Dostoevsky practically never portrays happy couples … and that he constantly upsets the conventional novelistic expectations of his era by refusing us marital happy endings.”49 Williams goes on to add that such tendencies may very well imply a “negative theology” in Dostoevsky’s understanding of relationships, whereby “the significance of eros is defined largely by the tracing of its absence or perversion.”50 This is a provocative suggestion, particularly in light of the sublime moments in works such as Crime and Punishmentand The Brothers Karamazov. But it would not seem to apply to The Gambler, which is a more “characteristic product in that it depicts humanity under strain.”51

In any case, “humanity under strain” is a phrase that suits much of Scorsese’s work, and “Life Lessons” is no different. It centers on a prominent New York painter, Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte), whose turbulent love affair with a younger woman, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), drives his artistic creativity. Paulette does not love the older Lionel, preferring younger and trendier men, but she is prepared to benefit from the relationship, both in terms of her material well-being and her contacts in New York’s art world. Conversely, Lionel is obsessed with Paulette, not because of who she is, but because her beauty and caprice arouse him sexually and, in turn, creatively. The tension between them continues to mount until Paulette finally leaves Lionel, albeit not before he finishes another masterful set of paintings for an exhibition. And yet, as “Life Lessons” comes to a close, Lionel is already wooing another woman, whom we now realize is “the latest in … a long series of beautiful young ‘assistants’ who have come to share the room up on the balcony in his loft, and study his lessons in life.”52

If Dostoevsky’s critical engagement with modern society inspires Taxi Driver, his understanding of romantic relationships—which finds expression in his novels but is perhaps most prominent in the story of his own life—inspires “Life Lessons” and, indeed, other Scorsese projects. As Scorsese explains:

There are scenes in The Gambler that are quite extraordinary about [Dostoevsky and Suslova’s] relationship, the humiliation and love and battles between the two. So, over the years, I was trying to work out something with that. I found that elements of their relationship found their way into my movies. In Raging Bull. A little bit in Taxi, which was Schrader’s thing. And in New York, New York, a lot of it! The difficulty in being with each other, the difficulty of loving.53

Scorsese, then, reads Dostoevsky much like Evdokimov and Williams: just as the Russian author reveals the “amount of pain in a relationship, and how the pain works for and against the people,” so Scorsese avoids what he calls “transcendental sentimentalism” and, instead, depicts how lovers often “need the pain,” which is “the truth of the situation.”54

Ultimately, then, the title “Life Lessons” not only refers to Dobie’s tutelage of Paulette—a point made in the film itself—but also to what Scorsese gleans from Dostoevsky’s writings and, in turn, strives to convey to his audience. Neither auteur portrays misery as an end in itself, yet both show that human experience is fragile, even vicious, and that happiness is won only at great cost. When Scorsese summarizes Dobie’s message in “Life Lessons,” he also is summing up the gist of many of his films: “ ‘You’ll get life lessons from me,’” Scorsese recaps, “And they’re emotionally murderous. They’re like beatings.”55

2 Dostoevsky’s Influence on Scorsese: An Expansive View

Thus far, this chapter has demonstrated that (i) Fyodor Dostoevsky stands as a key influence on Martin Scorsese’s ideas and interests and (ii) this influence is most direct in two of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver and “Life Lessons”—useful insights establishing, among other things, Dostoevsky’s continuing impact on Western culture and Scorsese’s philosophical attraction to existentialism. With regard to the latter, and following a frequent observation,56 it is clear that existentialist themes crop up in Scorsese’s work. Indeed, one might view Scorsese as an inheritor of existentialism or even as a translator of existentialism into celluloid.

If Dostoevsky is one of the key bridges linking Scorsese with existentialism, then it is also true that Dostoevsky’s existentialism should not be confused with “existentialism” as typically understood—namely, a humanist philosophy centering on the arbitrary and often dark freedom of the human will. Of course, similarities between Dostoevsky and later existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre exist. Yet Dostoevsky, along with persons such as Søren Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel, stands as an example of religious existentialism rather than its atheist iteration. Indeed, George Pattison has argued that “religious existentialism is a phenomenon sui generis and not a mere derivative of secular existentialism,” not least because the “major figures of religious existentialism were pursuing a set of questions and concerns that arose almost inevitably out of the confrontation between religion and modernity.”57 According to Pattison, this confrontation led religious existentialists, however different in other respects, to emphasize a few common themes. First, they were suspicious of modern ideologies of progress,58 perhaps especially when such notions sought to frame “progress” in economic or sybaritic terms. Second, and in a related vein, they “questioned the view that the satisfaction of material needs and comforts and the fulfillment of political hopes … could satisfy the human quest for meaning.”59 It is no use, moreover, to rely on “willpower alone to sustain the project of giving value and purpose to existence,”60 since the human will is itself compromised, even fallen. From where, then, does meaning arrive? Ultimately, their rigorous “path of negation” finally leaves “only the cry of Job and the faith that in the midst of suffering and loss of meaning somewhere and somehow there is a meaning to be found.”61 In the end, this apophatic inclination situates the religious existentialists in close proximity to the mystics, insofar as they call attention to the inadequacy of human attempts to master the divine. Thus they devotedly await “the beginning of a new [world] even if it is realized that this new world can never be expressed or explained in a simple, direct way.”62

Pattison situates Dostoevsky among the “anxious angels” of religious existentialism, and, in light of the Russian’s influence on Scorsese, it seems logical to ponder the degree to which the broad themes of religious existentialism are manifest in Scorsese’s films. Several Scorsese films indeed have a basis in Dostoevsky’s novels, and a number of elements from religious existentialism (including Dostoevskian literature) recur throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre. This section cannot exhaustively study the issue, but it does explore a few such elements, each featuring prominently in both Dostoevsky’s writings and Scorsese’s films. Not only will this deepen the awareness of Scorsese’s ties to Dostoevsky, but, more broadly, it will present Scorsese as a religious critic of modernity.

2.1 The “Mean Streets” of the Modern City

In June 1862, Dostoevsky departed Saint Petersburg for a ten-week tour around Europe.63 It was his first (but not his last) visit to what he dryly called “the land of holy wonders.”64 He kept a journal during his travels, eventually publishing it in the February 1863 issue of Time—a monthly magazine published by his brother, Mikhail. Entitled Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, this series of articles is less of a travelogue than an opportunity to reflect on “the source of the ideas which, [Dostoevsky] believed, were corrupting Russia.”65 One of the main objects of Dostoevsky’s criticism was the modern European city, which, in his view, instantiated and fortified the dominance of bourgeois values.

It is by no means an accident that the fifth chapter of Winter Notes is entitled “Baal,” a generic reference to the fertility god of the Canaanites and the Phoenicians, whose cult, as described in the Hebrew Bible,66 proved treacherously alluring to the Israelites. Dostoevsky suggests that the modern European city is also a temptation to be resisted. Paris typifies one aspect of this temptation. It is, Dostoevsky notes, almost mechanical in its self-regarding affluence: “What comfort,” Dostoevsky quips, “what conveniences of every kind for those who have a right to conveniences, and, again, what order, what a calm of order, so to speak.”67 While Dostoevsky mocks Paris, he recoils in horror at London—a city “as immense as the sea; the screeching and howling of machines; the railroads built over the houses (and soon under the houses); that boldness of enterprise; that seeming disorder which in essence is bourgeois order in the highest degree.”68 Indeed, London is a kind of Asherah pole built to honor the modern West: people “from all over the world” come there, merging into “a single herd” united by the “gigantic idea”69 of industry and progress. At the same time, however, Dostoevsky goes on to detail scenes of debauchery, despair, and exploitation, paying sustained attention to the prostitution along Haymarket in Westminster: “I noticed mothers who were bringing their young daughters into the business. Little girls around twelve years of age take you by the hand and ask you to go with them.”70 Ultimately, then, the triumphs and tribulations of London are of a piece; in fact, Dostoevsky almost accords a certain respect to London, since the Londoner “does not make a cowardly attempt, as the Parisian does, to reassuringly convince himself, to hearten and tell himself, that everything is peaceful and prosperous.”71 The reign of Baal may bring success, but it is a success built on the “poverty, suffering, grumbling, and torpor of the masses.”72

Winter Notes represents a pivotal point in Dostoevsky’s authorship, inasmuch as it immediately preceded the string of novels that would come to define the Russian author, starting with Notes from Underground and concluding with The Brothers Karamazov. Moreover, three of these novels—Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Idiot (1869)—would be set in a major city, namely, St. Petersburg. During Dostoevsky’s lifetime, St. Petersburg served as Russia’s capital, but one might argue that its primary significance was symbolic: “St. Petersburg is … the mystical and mysterious point at which Europe becomes Russia and Russia becomes Europe.”73 The city’s connection to the major cultural centers of Europe was by no means accidental. Tsar Peter the Great viewed its location on the western edge of his empire as ideal for the modernization of the Russian people—a kind of window “through which technology and new ideas could flow.”74 By Dostoevsky’s era, St. Petersburg “had overtaken Moscow as the center of Russia’s intellectual life,”75 though, perhaps precisely for this reason, Dostoevsky grew increasingly disgruntled about his adopted hometown. While early stories such as “White Nights” (1848) find romance in the city’s canals and midnight sun, later works such as Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment highlight its pollution and poverty, as well as its capitulation to the corrupting influence of European ideas and mores. In his 1880–81 notebooks, Dostoevsky puts it starkly: “Petersburg is nothing, the [Russian] people are everything.”76

Dostoevsky’s ambiguous relation to the modern city—astonishment at its almost sublime grandeur on the one hand, dread over its implicit (or even explicit) nihilism on the other—has an analog in Scorsese’s cinema. This connection has already been discussed with regard to films such as Taxi Driver and “Life Lessons,” both of which are set in New York City and represent different aspects of urban life. These two films only scratch the surface. Scorsese is well known as a poet of the modern metropolis; he celebrates the raw and often brutal vitality of the city even as he laments its influence on morality and religion. The majority of Scorsese’s films explore the situation of modern urbanity, including (but not limited to) Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Mean Streets (1973), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), After Hours (1985), Goodfellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York (2002), The Departed (2006), Hugo (2011), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Moreover, only a handful of these works are set outside of New York City. As Dostoevsky is to St. Petersburg, so is Scorsese to New York City—inextricably associated with his hometown and yet, perhaps for just that reason, one of its staunchest critics.

Key to Scorsese’s treatment of the city is his depiction of urban despair and violence is frequently paralleled by an acknowledgment of religion’s lack of influence in the city. This theme unites most (if not all) of his urban films, though Scorsese does not treat it in univocal fashion. In some cases, he depicts cities as godless places. Taxi Driver, for example, portrays New York as a kind of hell, bereft of decency and, in turn, of anything like a community dedicated to moral truth. As R. Barton Palmer explains:

[Bickle] can find no exit from this unredeemed community where he has been confined. His only hope is apocalyptic: that it will all be washed away someday by a clean rain, a violent end to pervasive iniquity that will also destroy him (as his attempted suicide after rescuing Iris indicates). … It seems clear that his world does not offer the prospect of salvation for those not called to election.77

A similar point could be made about After Hours (1985), which follows an unhappy office worker, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), into the bowels of Lower Manhattan, where he undergoes a series of escalating yet ostensibly random ordeals. Though a black comedy, whose protagonist is ultimately saved by an unexpected blessing, After Hours nevertheless depicts New York as a depraved and hopeless city: “The streets of SoHo are dark and deserted. Clouds of steam escape from the pavement, as they did in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, suggesting that Hades lurks just below the field of vision.”78 Scorsese adds to this dimension by featuring two sculptures in the film, both of which resemble Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream—a work that has been described as a symbol of “the unbearable pressures of modern life on individual people.”79 Fascinatingly, Munch’s favorite writer was Dostoevsky,80 in whose novels Munch observed the tension between faith and unbelief with which he struggled himself.81After Hours, too, highlights this conflict. It is as if God’s presence has fled from Manhattan, leaving Hackett to suffer among the diabolical hordes. Thus he come to resemble “Job of the Old Testament,”82 which, in one memorable scene, Scorsese highlights by having the camera simulate the so-called “God’s Eye View” as Hackett screams to the heavens: “What do you want from me? What have I done?”

In other films, however, Scorsese portrays cities as places where the trappings of religion persist but not its transformative power. Here, in other words, religion is subservient to the city and its socio-political interests rather than the other way around—a motif that typifies Scorsese’s rendering of religious life in America. This issue arises in works such as Goodfellas and Gangs of New York, as characters take part in sacramental rites (Holy Matrimony in Goodfellas, the Eucharist in Gangs of New York) or publicly observe an external aspect of Christian life (the celebration of Christmas in Goodfellas, the invocation of “the Christian Lord” in Gangs of New York), even as their conduct otherwise contradicts the meaning of such religious practices. Scorsese highlights this point in Goodfellas, when, after a major heist, the mobsters celebrate with a Christmas party and one of the robbery’s chief architects, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), brings home “the most expensive [Christmas] tree they had”—a snow-white artificial tree, which the Hill family strews with red ornaments. As the scene concludes, Scorsese’s camera creeps closer and closer to the decorations, which evoke the bloodshed that has defiled the peace and purity of the holiday. Another notable contemporary example is found in The Departed, when local gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) confronts two Catholic priests in a restaurant. After crudely referencing the recent sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, which was particularly severe in the film’s setting of Boston, Costello adds, “May I remind you, in this Archdiocese, God don’t run the bingo.” The older priest cowers in disgrace, while his younger colleague expresses defiance. But Costello has the last laugh, when he intimates that he has had sex with a nun in their company. The point is clear: Costello neither acquiesces to a morally-compromised Church nor respects that which has been promised to God. The Church stands, but it has been rendered impotent, perhaps even ridiculous.

Such instances populate Scorsese’s oeuvre, though it might be argued that only one of his films actually centers on this tension between Church and city—namely, Mean Streets. A voiceover makes this point clear from the very start: “You don’t make up for your sins in Church,” Scorsese himself states, “You do it in the streets.” Whether or not this claim is true becomes the defining theme of Mean Streets. Set in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood, where Scorsese grew up, the film chronicles a world determined by small-time criminality, barroom brawls, and unpaid debts; it is, as Roger Ebert states, a “film of everyday reality.”83 Scorsese here assumes Dostoevsky’s role in Winter Notes, holding up a mirror to quotidian life in the modern city. Yet, Mean Streets also shows that the world of the streets is shadowed by another world, ever present in the background, haunting the film’s protagonist Charlie (Harvey Keitel). This is the world of the Church and, in turn, the sacred. Throughout Mean Streets, Charlie encounters signs of God’s presence, some of which he disdains (the penance assigned to him by a priest) and some of which he fears (the prospect of eternal damnation), but the unremitting moral compromises of life on New York’s “mean streets” ultimately do not allow for reconciliation with God. As Charlie comes to realize, punishment is the lone possibility—a point that Scorsese consistently underscores by having Charlie place his hand over an open flame.

Mean Streets thus presents a darker moral-cum-spiritual vision than Dostoevsky’s great urban novel, Crime and Punishment. “The clearest fact about Charlie,” notes Pauline Kael, “is that whatever he does in his life, he’s a sinner,”84 whereas Rodion Raskolnikov—the protagonist of Crime and Punishment and, like Charlie, a tormented young man—eventually moves toward moral and religious healing. Interestingly, however, even Raskolnikov’s redemption does not come in St. Petersburg, where crime and punishment have the last word, but in Siberia, where he does penance in the work camps and reads the New Testament in his prison bunk. For Dostoevsky, as for Scorsese, the allure of the modern city is matched only by its corruption—a critique that negatively reveals the promise of religious life, even as it warns that religion, too, often succumbs to the pressures and temptations of secular urbanity.

2.2 Sublimity and Transcendence in Dostoevsky and in Scorsese

George Pattison has argued that, for Dostoevsky, the quandary facing modern persons is not only that they are living amid “a materialistic, objectifying and strictly this-worldly philosophy of life,” but also that “anything—such as the Church—that might claim to offer an alternative to this philosophy is itself ambiguous.”85 In other words, Dostoevsky depicts a world “determined by the situation of nihilism,”86 and yet, in a number of works, he treats nihilism as an occasion for the renewal of religious faith. How is this “post-nihilistic”87 move possible?

As an artist, rather than as a philosopher or a theologian, Dostoevsky attends to the full range of the human condition, even to those concerns or questions that may seem superfluous to the “immanent frame”88 of modern thinking. One such question has to do with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life in the face of inevitable death. It is a theme to which Dostoevsky repeatedly turns, often in the most harrowing tones. For example, in The Idiot, the ailing and suicidal Ippolit Terentyev ponders the significance of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (ca. 1521). According to Ippolit, it is a work that exposes the cold futility of earthly life:

Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast … in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which has senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being… . The painting seems precisely to express this notion of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subjected, and it is conveyed to you involuntarily.89

For Ippolit, the darkness of this power cannot be escaped; thus it is best “to assert [one’s] freedom in the face of death”90 by choosing to kill oneself—a notion that Dostoevsky would entertain again in Demons (1872). Further, as Pattison adds, it is not only that death augurs “the extinction of one’s own consciousness” but, rather, that it stands as a barrier that sustains “the brokenness of human relationships.”91 That the living are divided from the dead is experienced as a source of both torment and sorrow—a theme that Dostoevsky explores in various works, from novels such as The Insulted and Injured (1861) and Crime and Punishment to short stories such as “A Gentle Creature” (1876).

And yet, while Dostoevsky refuses to gloss over “the reality of a bleak, cruel life characterized by suffering,”92 he also refuses to give this reality the last word. Particularly from Crime and Punishment onward, he underlines the possibility of a transcendent dimension to reality—one not perceived by everyone, but which transforms those who are attuned to it. Nowhere is this tendency clearer than in “The Russian Monk,” the sixth book of The Brothers Karamazov, which Dostoevsky frames as the “last talk”93 of the Elder Zinovy Zosima, recorded (and possibly expanded upon) by his young disciple, Alyosha Karamazov. In this account, Zosima tells of his older brother Markel, who as a young man came under the influence of modern “freethinking,” so much so that he concluded that belief in God is “all nonsense” and even “swore at God’s Church.”94 But he soon became mortally ill, and, out of consideration for his pious mother, he began to participate again in the Church’s sacramental life. What started as a concession produced a “change in spirit,”95 and Markel’s agonizing encounter with death cast a new light on existence. Whereas he previously was “hot-tempered and irritable by nature,” seeking to justify himself before others, now he came to see that “life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it.”96 People fail to perceive life’s goodness because they fail to perceive the transcendent dimension of reality. Preoccupied with immediate gratification, social distinctions, and this-worldly power, they lapse into sin. However, if they would humbly and sincerely acknowledge their sin, they would come to admit that “each of us is guilty before everyone,”97 thereby freeing them to receive the world as a gift. Zosima recalls Markel pleading with creation itself:

And suddenly, looking at [the birds] and admiring them, he began to ask their forgiveness, too: “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you.” None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy: “Yes,” he said, “there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it at all.”98

Markel’s new way of looking at reality changes Zosima’s life as well, and eventually the great Elder centers his own teaching on “heedful, active love”99 and self-abnegation, not only because these qualities are imitative of Christ,100 but also because they open one to the ways in which life is interconnected, whether visibly or invisibly. As Zosima states, “All is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world.”101

Ultimately, then, Dostoevsky “suggests that it is when we come face to face with death that we can best realize the value of life.”102 In this way, he anticipates a similar point of tension in Scorsese’s oeuvre. As has been seen, Scorsese’s films certainly feature an existentialist concern for the corruption of earthly affairs and for the ways in which death stalks and finally engulfs human life. And yet, Scorsese also demonstrates a Dostoevskian longing for the sublime and the transcendent. For example, in Raging Bull (1980), widely considered one of his masterpieces, Scorsese tells the story of the American boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), who, despite winning the World Middleweight title in 1949, was as well known for his tumultuous life outside the ring as for his accomplishments in it. Scorsese does not treat LaMotta’s story in straightforward fashion; Raging Bull is not a sports biopic but a “search for redemption through blood.”103 Scorsese explains, “It’s really a straight, simple story, almost linear, of a guy attaining something and losing everything, and then redeeming himself. Spiritually.”104 This spiritual redemption, much like Markel’s in The Brothers Karamazov, stems from a new way of looking at the world—a kind of revelation. For most of the film, LaMotta “is all macho posturing, Ur-man at this most sadomasochistic;”105 he lives to impose his will on others, both athletically and sexually. But this desire to dominate and its concomitant craving for violence has a flipside: LaMotta knows that he is a sinner, knows that he deserves to suffer for the pain he has inflicted upon others. Intriguingly, the American writer Joyce Carol Oates has even cited LaMotta as the kind of boxer who fights “as a means of assuaging guilt, in a Dostoyevskian exchange of physical well-being for peace of mind. Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting.”106Raging Bull reflects just this insight, particularly in the scene when LaMotta, backed against the ropes and exhausted, lowers his arms and urges Sugar Ray Robinson to pummel his face. Yet, losing a title-fight to Robinson is only the beginning of LaMotta’s penance: his marriage dissolves; he faces multiple criminal charges; and, finally, he is imprisoned. It is at this point that LaMotta “hits rockbottom”107 and, stripped of both his identity and his freedom, comes to accept his humanity. “I am not an animal,” he bellows, in a scene that was imposed by Scorsese on the script.108 Realizing that he is more than a collection of primal instincts, that he is indeed a spiritual being, LaMotta moves on to repair his relationship with his brother and, perhaps even more improbably, to develop a comedy routine that closes the film. A world once met with furious violence is now seen with resigned humor, and so it makes sense that Scorsese concludes Raging Bull with a quotation from the Gospel of John: “So for the second time [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind, and said, ‘Speak the truth before God. We know that this fellow is a sinner.’ ‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: once I was blind, now I can see.’”109

Yet, if Raging Bull gestures toward the transcendent in negative fashion, depicting a life largely but not ultimately turned away from the good, the true, and the beautiful, Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead represents a precarious attempt to seize the transcendent. The film centers on Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), an ambulance driver and paramedic who works the graveyard shift in Manhattan in the early 1990s. The job has taken a toll on Pierce, who is especially distressed that he has not saved a patient in months. On the surface, then, Bringing Out the Dead stands as a companion piece to Taxi Driver, inasmuch as Pierce assumes Travis Bickle’s quest to save “ ‘lost sheep’ … from a degrading imprisonment within a corrupt material world.”110 But there are key differences as well. Whereas Taxi Driver focuses on Bickle’s desire to be a hero, Pierce views himself as a failed hero. He has visions of recent patients: one a young woman who died in his care, the other a heart attack victim whose revival amounts to a “living purgatory of irreversible brain death and constant heart failure.”111 Perceiving himself as one who gives life, Pierce is visited by the ghosts of the dead. He is a transgressive figure, attempting to do more than he can and to be more than he is. He improperly relates to the transcendent by attempting to manage it.

What Pierce needs, then, is a new way of seeing the world and his role in it. As Scorsese observes, “When you bring somebody back to life, you feel like God, you are God. But one has to get past the idea of the ego and the pride. Hey, the job isn’t about bringing people back to life, it’s about being there, it’s about compassion for the suffering, suffering with them.”112 Pierce comes to this realization when he allows the heart attack victim to “die by subverting any further heroic measures.”113 He no longer tries to be God and thus finds peace in his finitude. He overcomes by surrendering; he gains his life by letting it go: the very logos of Christ’s cross, an image of which is featured on the promotional poster for Bringing Out the Dead. Notably, this paradoxical yet hopeful conclusion deviates from the novel on which it is based.114 As R. Barton Palmer explains, “For the film’s Frank … redemption is more than the bottom falling away, a temporary relief from engagement with others ... . Scorsese’s Frank is provided with a more lasting and substantial connection to life and the material world.”115

Palmer attributes this modification to Scorsese’s affection for Robert Bresson—a comparison pregnant with significance.116 After all, Bresson was a Catholic filmmaker who made theological themes central to his oeuvre. Yet, with regard to the present topic, what is especially striking is that Bresson himself adapted three Dostoevsky stories (Crime and Punishment, “A Gentle Creature,” and “White Nights”) for the screen (Pickpocket, Une femme douce, and Quatre nuits d’un rêveur respectively). To connect Scorsese to Bresson, then, is to connect Scorsese to Dostoevsky—a point that, as noted earlier, Scorsese himself has acknowledged. Like their Russian predecessor, both filmmakers trace the human desire to wrench theological meaning from suffering and death—indeed, to become aware of the transcendent in the midst of a world that often seems desperately immanent.

3 By Way of Conclusion: Scorsese as (Religious) Existentialist

Dostoevsky clearly constitutes a key influence on Scorsese. Scorsese directly bases several films on works by Dostoevsky and regularly utilizes Dostoevskian motifs—namely, the environmental squalor and moral decay of the modern city, along with the possibility of relating to the transcendent despite the frailty of the human condition. Much of Scorsese’s work, then, confronts the viewer with the problem of choice. Films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull pose a variety of questions about the world and its meaning for the individual. Is it possible for a person to change, or is one ultimately subservient to biological or societal forces? Is the nihil of death the final arbiter of human purpose, or does some illuminating yet mysterious good transcend human affairs and, in turn, the threat of nonbeing? In raising such questions, Scorsese’s films force the viewer to do the same and, potentially, to arrive at a decisive answer.

This “decisive” aspect of Scorsese’s filmmaking is reminiscent of existentialism. As John Macquarrie puts it, “Existentialist writings abound in allusions to decision, choice, commitment, engagement, resoluteness, and the like.”117 More specifically, existentialism plumbs the depths of human action, casting light on what persons desire as well as on what they fear. Thus it concerns self-actualization, albeit not in such a way that self-actualization is depicted as a predictable “enlargement of [one’s] powers.”118 On the contrary, for the existentialist, “the stress on decision means a corresponding stress on the intensiveness of life rather than its extensiveness. Every decision is a decision against as well as a decision for; and every decision limits the range of possibilities that will be open for future decisions.”119 To understand “decision” in this way is to understand that life is risky at best, tragic at worst—all the more so when the decision is for or against transcendence, as is characteristic of the religious existentialism of Dostoevsky.

Hence, if one were to view Scorsese as a kind of theologian, his connection to Dostoevsky is indeed germane and informative. To be sure, both Dostoevsky and Scorsese put forward the so-called “eternal questions”120 of theology. At the same time, however, they do not approach these questions as catechists, dogmaticians, or even as intellectuals. Rather, they are storytellers, who leave “readers to make their own judgments on the aporia raised”121 by their works. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin popularized this way of reading Dostoevsky and argued that Dostoevsky does not impose a single perspective on his works but exhibits “a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices.”122 Here again, something similar could be said about Scorsese’s films, which bring together different characters in the mode of what Bakhtin terms “carnival.”123 Unlike some “religious” filmmakers such as Mel Gibson, Scorsese does not depict the world in allegorical fashion, as if it were the site of a standoff between “good” and “evil.” On the contrary, Scorsese suggests that good and evil, sacred and profane, clean and dirty interlace in surprising and provocative ways.124 Yet, this interlacing is not purposeless but instead highlights the raw and even vulgar life of the streets (or, as Bakhtin puts it, “the public square125), where the exchange of ideas and Weltanschauungen occurs familiarly and freely. In this encounter with “the real world” Scorsese demands the existential participation of the audience,126 much as Dostoevsky did in his works a century before.

In a 1997 interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese admitted that he is loath to link his films with existentialism: “In fact, I don’t know what it is,” he quips, “I only had one philosophy course at nyu and I didn’t do very well in it.”127However, later in the interview, the topic returns to existentialist thinking. Ebert notes that the earnestness of “existentialism [and] the existential hero” has become passé, replaced by the insouciance of postmodern irony. Then he relays a comment that Scorsese’s collaborator Paul Schrader had recently made: “‘With my work,’ Schrader said, ‘there’s no quotation marks. I really mean it.’”128 Scorsese’s response, given his lack of familiarity with existentialism as an academic subject, gestures toward his longtime indebtedness to religion in general and to Dostoevsky in particular—an artist known for “his impassioned yet complex exploration of the shadow side of the human situation and his search for God in that darkness.”129 Fittingly Scorsese adds, “‘Yeah, [Schrader] means it. So do I.”130

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Vincent Canby, “Film View: Anthologies Can Be a Bargain,” New York Times, March 12, 1989.


Roger Ebert, “‘New York Stories,’” Chicago Sun-Times, March 3, 1989.


Hal Hinson, “‘New York Stories,’” Washington Post, March 3, 1989.


According to imdb, New York Stories had a budget of $15,000,000 but only grossed around $11,000,000 domestically. See “Box Office/Business for New York Stories,”, n.d.,, accessed November 17, 2016.


Vincent LoBrutto, Martin Scorsese: A Biography (Westport: Praeger, 2008), 289.


Caryn James, “Scorsese’s Passion Now: Dostoyevsky,” New York Times, October 20, 1988.


See, e.g., Brad Balfour, “Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader: We’re Looking at Taxi Driver,”, March 15, 2012, More will be said about the influence of Notes from Underground on Taxi Driver below.


Torsten Reitz, “Scorsese Hopes to Adapt Dostoevsky’s ‘The Gambler,’”, September 19, 2011,






The British Film Institute recently polled 358 directors about the greatest films in cinematic history—a poll in which Taxi Driver ultimately finished fifth. See British Film Institute, “Directors’ Top 100,”, 2012,


Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: A Journey (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), 87.


Quoted in Roger Ebert, Scorsese by Ebert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 43.


Quoted in ibid.


Richard Goodwin, “Cabbin Fever,” in Scorsese: A Journey Through the American Psyche, ed. Paul A. Woods (London: Plexus, 2005), 64.


LoBrutto, 193.


Quoted in Kelly, 89.




Quoted in Balfour, “We’re Looking at Taxi Driver” (2012).


Quoted in ibid.


LoBrutto, 189.


Michael Bliss, The Word Made Flesh: Catholicism and Conflict in the Films of Martin Scorsese (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1995), 47.




Quoted in Balfour, “We’re Looking at Taxi Driver” (2012).


Quoted in Kelly, 90–91.


Quoted in Balfour, “We’re Looking at Taxi Driver” (2012).


Quoted in ibid.


Pickpocket’s credits do not acknowledge that the film is based on Crime and Punishment, but, according to Tony Pipolo, “nearly every scholar has taken [that] for granted,” (Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 126). He adds, moreover, that Bresson was an “avowed admirer of Dostoevsky,” clarifying that “although Pickpocket is not a thorough rendering of Dostoevsky, its theme, principal characters, specific interactions, and much of its dialogue are lifted directly from his novel,” (Ibid., 127).


Richard Peace, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Critical Studies in Russian Literature (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1993), 36.


See, e.g., ibid., 3–35, which concerns the principal motifs of Notes from Underground, Part i. With regard to Taxi Driver, Bliss notes that Bickle is a “self-reflective figure,” who is “self-conscious enough” to keep a diary, in which he tries “to express verbally and understand intellectually exactly what is driving him,” including the creation of “objectionable windmills at which to tilt in order to justify his own directionless existence,” (Bliss, 47, 49).


Notably, in a 2016 interview, Scorsese confirms that Taxi Driver’s key theme is “loneliness;” he also agrees that New York City is a “very important character” in the film. See “‘Taxi Driver’ Cast Reunite To Mark 40th Anniversary of Iconic Film,” YouTube video, 6:39, published and posted by “TODAY” (nbc television program), April 22, 2016,


Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground,” in The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky, trans. David Magarshack (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 158.




Ibid., 160.


Ibid., 170.


Ibid., 168.


Ibid., 258.


As indicated by the epigraph to Taxi Driver’s script, Schrader adapted this quotation from Thomas Wolfe’s essay, “God’s Lonely Man.” See Thomas Wolfe, “God’s Lonely Man,” in The Hills Beyond: A Novel (Baton Rouge: lsu Press, 2000), 186ff.


Carmie Amata, “Scorsese on Taxi Driver and Hermann,” in Scorsese: A Journey Through the American Psyche, ed. Paul A. Woods (London: Plexus, 2005), 68.


Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–71 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 170.


Kenneth Lantz, The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004), 428.






Frank, 26.




Lantz, 154.


Ibid., 155.


Paul Evdokimov, Dostoïevski et le problème du mal (Lyon: Ondes, 1942), 406–407.


Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), 178.


Ibid., 179.


Ronald Hingley, Introduction to Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), xi.


Ebert, 108.


Chris Hodenfield, “‘You’ve Got to Love Something Enough to Kill It’: Martin Scorsese; The Art of Noncompromise,” in Scorsese: A Journey through the American Psyche, ed. Paul A. Woods (London: Plexus, 2005), 181.


Ibid., 181–183.


Ibid., 182. It is curious, too, that Scorsese suggests that Dobie is a kind of surrogate for him: “I wanted to be a painter,” he once noted, “Painting was my first great love. …I was always fascinated by the richness of the color, the texture. That’s what got me.” Quoted in Ebert, 107.


George Cotkin claims that Woody Allen gives “the strongest presentation” of existentialism “in American culture today,” though he also lists Scorsese as a key figure in this regard: see his Existential America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 345. Also see, e.g., Les Keyser, Martin Scorsese (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), 69–70, and Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1979), 132.


George Pattison, Anxious Angels: A Retrospective View of Religious Existentialism (London: Macmillan Press, 1999), 2.


Ibid., 3–4.


Ibid., 4.




Ibid., 5, 7.


Ibid., 5, emphasis in original.


David Patterson, Introduction to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. David Patterson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), vii.


Quoted in ibid.




See, e.g., 1 Kings 16:29–33.


Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, trans. David Patterson (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 36, emphasis in original.


Ibid., 37.




Ibid., 40.


Ibid., 42.




Bruce Lincoln, Saint Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 5.


Ibid., 3.


Lantz, 375.


Quoted in ibid., 378.


R. Barton Palmer, “Scorsese and the Transcendental,” in The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, ed. Mark T. Conrad (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 245.


Ebert, 82.


Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective, 15th ed., vol. 2 (Boston: Cengage, 2017), 746.


Sue Prideaux, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 49.


Ibid. Prideaux adds that Munch was particularly attracted to “the story of Ivan the atheist brother” in The Brothers Karamazov and could even be said to have lived “vicariously through the progress of Ivan’s loss of faith” (ibid.).


Ebert, 83.


Ebert, 271.


Quoted in ibid., 268.


Pattison, 79.






This phrase is Charles Taylor’s and is thus anachronistically applied to Dostoevsky. Still, Taylor’s definition of “immanent frame” accords quite nicely with Dostoevsky’s observations that Western society in the nineteenth century had come to understand human life “as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order; or better, a constellation of orders, cosmic, social and moral … orders [that] are understood as impersonal,” (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007), 543).


Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 2001), 408.


Pattison, 81.


Ibid., 82, 81.


P.H. Brazier, Dostoevsky: A Theological Engagement (Eugene: Pickwick, 2016), 84.


Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Knopf, 1992), 286.


Ibid., 287–288.


Ibid., 288.




Ibid., 289.


Ibid., 289.


Ibid., 319.


Ibid., 317–318.


Ibid., 319.


Pattison, 82.


Richard A. Blake, S.J., “Redeemed in Blood: The Sacramental Universe of Martin Scorsese,” Journal of Popular Film & Television 24, no. 1 (1996): 2–9.


Quoted in Lawrence S. Friedman, The Cinema of Martin Scorsese (New York: Continuum, 1997), 113.


Ibid., 116.


Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (Garden City: Dolphin/Doubleday, 1987), 25.


Friedman, 122.




John 9:24–26. Raging Bull’s final credits specify that this translation is from the New English Bible.


Palmer, 234.


Ibid., 235.


Quoted in Ebert, 233.


Palmer, 234.


Joe Connelly, Bringing out the Dead (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).


Palmer, 236.




John Macquarrie, Existentialism: An Introduction, Guide and Assessment (London: Penguin, 1972), 182.






Pattison, 87.




Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 6, emphasis in original.


Ibid., 177.


See ibid., 123, 126.


Ibid., 130, emphasis in original.


This chapter’s overarching focus on “Dostoevsky and Scorsese” has invited the connection to Bakhtin. Nevertheless, it is worth adding that Scorsese’s approach to filmmaking might also be put in conversation with the thought of another twentieth-century theorist—namely, the Jesuit theologian William F. Lynch, who was particularly interested in the role of the imagination in religious life. For Lynch, because the “analogy of being” [analogia entis] is central to Catholic doctrine, Catholicism is invested in the imagination’s formation and refinement. Indeed, the imagination is the faculty by which one comes to rightly understand reality, namely, as an interconnected tapestry that must be respected on its own terms. Lynch juxtaposes this ability to let entities “emerge” with a univocal imagination that seeks to impose a predetermined meaning on things. See, e.g., William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960). Also see Gerald J. Bednar, Faith as Imagination: The Contribution of William F. Lynch, S.J. (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1996), 67–68.


Quoted in Ebert, 173.


Quoted in ibid., 176.


Pattison, 64.


Quoted in Ebert, 176.

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