Darkness. A beat, then the following appears on the screen:
—New York Times, January 22, 2015
Fade in on movie director Martin Scorsese — 72 years old, white hair, bushy eyebrows, horn-rimmed glasses — talking on the phone. As he speaks, the camera pulls back, showing him pacing in a nondescript conference room. Posters for Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Hugo, The Departed, Bringing Out the Dead, and Wolf of Wall Street hang on the walls.
“It’s ridiculous,” Scorsese says. “I can’t believe it. Are you serious? I spent two years with the guy. Two years. I went to Africa with him. I actually traveled to Africa for the first time since Kundun. Mali, I think. Or Zimbabwe. Maybe Rwanda. You should have seen the shots I had to take. No, not film shots, shot shots. Anyway we had a crane rigged so I could get a high angle of him opening a youth clinic or something. I flew a frigging crane to Africa for this guy. Spent hours on the plane with him talking: health care, the economy, Fleetwood Mac, his favorite movies, the last time he saw Hillary six months ago, you name it, he mentioned it. Kept referring to Russ Meyer. No we didn’t fly commercial. A friend of his gave us a ride — Epstein, I think. A weirdo. I’m talking Daniel-in-character levels of weird here. No, Leo wasn’t with us. Clinton wanted him to come along though.”
A door opens. A pretty woman in her mid 20s enters and carries a pile of screenplays to a table in the center of the room.
Scorsese waves a hand in acknowledgment and then gestures for her to leave.
“You there?” he says to the phone. “Yeah, okay, no, it was just Jeanne. So what was I saying? How’d it get started? Back in — when was it — 2008 or something when I did Shine a Light. Right, right, the Stones picture.”
The monologue continues as a voiceover. Still images from Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary appear on the screen.
“Well, I had always thought it odd, you know, there I was, I was about to have a heart attack because Jagger wouldn’t tell me what song he was going to open with, and the entire theater was filled with lights and sound equipment, and I had laid track throughout the whole place and there was a crane there too, and who shows up but the Clintons. The entire frigging family. And like 30 guests. They all show up. And I’m about to lose it, I’m saying to myself, I’m getting too old for this junk, I’ve got too much to do, no one’s telling me how the band’s going to start, I’ve got a set of flares there ready to go that could light Mick Jagger on fire and we cannot burn Mick Jagger.”
A pause. The screen is filled with a photo of Bill Clinton, Scorsese, the Rolling Stones, and a couple of guests. All smiling.
We cut back to Scorsese. A handheld camera follows him around the room. We’re shooting in black and white.
Cue “Sympathy for the Devil.”
“Well I knew he would be there. Bing had set up the whole thing. Yeah, Steve Bing, the real-estate heir. What’s he worth now, like half a billion or whatever. Some egregious, you know, some obscene amount of money. He and Clinton are friends. They hang out. They travel together, hit Vegas. And Bing produced Shine a Light, you know. And we shot it during a benefit for the Clinton Foundation and everything. You know, they had the whole theater — the Clinton Foundation. They must have made a lot of money that night. So I knew Clinton would be there. But showing up just as we’re about to start? With a frigging entourage like he was the Sultan of Brunei? I was floored, you know, shocked. Stunned.”
Scorsese chuckles and says, “Agog.”
We watch the following scenes from Shine a Light in a series of fast, jarring cuts divided by flashes of paparazzi-like camera bulbs:
1) Bill Clinton telling the Rolling Stones, “My nephew’s coming, he’s ten or eleven.” 2) Bill Clinton introducing the Stones to the former president of Poland Lech Kaczynski. 3) Mick Jagger telling Clinton he’s worried the movie cameras may interfere with his performance as Clinton, biting his lower lip, confidently surveys the scene. 4) Hillary Clinton greeting her mother by saying, “They’re so nice to wait for her, so nice. Hi ma — the Rolling Stones have been waiting for you!” 5) Extreme close-up of Hillary Clinton as her fake and uncomfortable and discomfiting laugh reverberates throughout the room. 6) Freeze-frame on Huma Abedin lurking in the background. 7) Bill Clinton joking to the sold-out house that he’s “opening for the Rolling Stones.” 8) Clinton discussing climate change. 9) Clinton stating, in all seriousness, that the collection of geriatric sex-and-drug addicts who are about to take the stage led by a hip-thrusting prancing goat “Know as much about these issues as we do, and they care as much about these issues as we do.” 10) Scorsese putting his head in his hands.
Cut to the busy interior of Rao’s restaurant in Harlem, New York. We’re looking over the shoulders of two friends sitting at a table with Scorsese, who continues his monologue over a bowl of pasta e fagioli and a bottle of Pellegrino.
“Angelina” can be heard playing softly from a jukebox in the background.
“So we did the Stones movie, and it turned out pretty well, I thought, the concert was good, you know, Jagger’s voice is going but that’s between us. And I do these documentaries now. It helps me relax. I do a fiction film, and then I do a non-fiction film. It’s sort of a cycle I’m in now. I like it. And, you know, I did one on Dylan, I did one on Fran Lebowitz, I did one for Bob Silvers.”
The camera holds on Scorsese as one of his friends, a dark-haired man, asks, “Who’s Bob Silvers?”
“He edits The New York Review of Books.”
“Never heard of him.”
“So when HBO and Bing and the Clinton people and I get to talking in 2012 about following the president, I’m saying to myself, you know, hey, what can go wrong?”
The song ends. We continue to watch over the friends’ shoulders as an unidentified patron walks to the jukebox behind Scorsese.
We cut to the jukebox’s coin slot into which the hand of the unidentified patron deposits a quarter.
The camera follows the hand as it operates the jukebox’s electronic catalog before settling on a page of songs by the Rolling Stones.
We cut to a bird’s-eye view of the restaurant.
We return to the over-the-shoulder shot of Scorsese eating dinner with friends.
Scorsese: “I mean, we announced the project and my office released a statement where I said, and I’m quoting from memory here, but I’m pretty sure I said something like, ‘A towering figure who remains a major voice in world issues, President Clinton continues to shape the political dialogue both here and around the world . . . ’”
He pauses, snapping his fingers, eyebrows flexing as he tries to recall the quote.
“Oh yeah, ‘Through intimate conversations, I hope to provide greater insight into this transcendent figure.’ Transcendent. Think about that. Transcendent. I can’t believe I said that. Sheesh.”
The monologue continues in voiceover as we see action of the moments Scorsese describes.
“Before you know it they’re telling my assistant director that I have to clear all questions with Clinton’s people before interviews. That Clinton gets final cut. That Chelsea wants a producer’s credit. They deny everything. But what are they worried about? What concerns them? That I’m going to be tough on the mother-f****r? I just shot 18 hours of film of a magazine editor sitting on his ass dictating e-mails to twentysomething assistants, and I’m going to be tough on a former president whose worldview I basically share and whose donor — this guy Bing has donated more than $16 million to Democrats over the last 20 years — whose donor is financing the frigging movie?”
The other unidentified friend, a woman, interrupts: “Where’d you learn that?”
“About the $16 million.”
“I read it on some anti-Clinton blog — the Free Bacon? Anyway, what do these people have to be afraid of? I’m going to talk about the blue dress? Me? I’ve got my own problems. Forget about the dress. It’s a frigging dress. How can these people who I like and support be so thin-skinned and conniving and, what’s the word, petty that they believe, they actually, seriously believe I’m going to ambush them in a frigging documentary for HBO? HBO? Prima donna, is what I mean. A prima donna.”
The male friend sniggers. “More like prima nocta,” he says.
We cut to a New York street scene. It’s day. Scorsese is dressed for the cold.
The camera tracks with him as he walks down a cross street on the Upper East Side, speaking into a cell phone.
“I’ve worked with Keitel, De Niro, Pesci, Liza Minelli, with Jerry Lewis – Jerry Lewis – Sharon Stone, Brad Pitt, Willem Defoe and Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz and Nick Cage and DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey — some of the surliest, most Method-obsessed, prickly bats***t crazy sons of bitches on the planet. And they have nothing on these people. Nothing. A producer credit for Chelsea, yeah. Maybe I’ll name the frigging granddaughter key grip. That will make grandma glow.”
Scorsese arrives at his destination: A brownstone in the middle of the block. He walks up the front steps and unlocks the door.
The camera pushes in as he speaks so that his face and the phone fill the frame by the end of the monologue.
“Here’s the thing, you know, the thing is, they are terrified about losing. Absolutely terrified. Her book went nowhere, she can’t fill a room unless she’s talking to Goldman Sachs, they are yesterday’s news and they are so obsessed with projecting an aura of inevitability they won’t allow any message to go out that they haven’t already pre-approved and, you know, groped. That’s why they killed the television shows, went after the authors, why they won’t let me make the movie I want to make.”
A pause. We hear him opening the door.
“And you know why they’re terrified? They know this is it. This is the final go-round. End of line.”
He listens for a moment, and then laughs.
“Yeah. Exactly. The Last Waltz.”
Scorsese leaves the frame. We hear the door close.
And we fade to black.
— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2014 All rights reserved