Martin Scorsese, master of fusing the visual art of film with other media: a brief example

2018.09.15 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In this essay, I focus on the opening of the film Casino, 1995, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci. The story is based on the book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, by Nicholas Pileggi, 1995, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese.

§1. For the creation of the opening, credit is shared: we read “Title Sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass.” Here is the sequence:



§2. The opening begins with a voiceover. A man is saying:

“When you love someone, you’ve got to trust them. There is no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And, for a while, I believed that’s the kind of love I had.”

The voice belongs to Robert De Niro. The man who is speaking in the voiceover is seen walking toward a parked car, and he is holding a key, ready to start the ignition. He gets into the car. He turns the key. What gets ignited, however, as soon as he turns the key, is not just the engine. There is a spectacular explosion. A deadly blast of flame will now envelop instantly the entire field of vision occupied by the screen that we as the spectators of the film are intently viewing. The explosion throws the man into the air, and we see him floating helplessly against the background of a fiery red cloud that pushes him higher and higher, in a vast arc stretching from the lower left corner of the screen and ascending higher and higher over the seething redness that saturates our field of vision. The visual background of this deadly ascent across the burning sky fuses with the audio background of the finale for the Saint Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. As the audio starts to dominate the video, the excruciatingly red sky starts turning into the soothing blue of repose in death, as promised by the lamenting words of the Passion. The body that had been propelled higher and higher as it ascended in the seething red arc now starts descending toward the lower right of the screen as the arc turns blue. Here are the words of the lament that is sung for the dead Jesus in the Passion:

Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder
Und rufen dir im Grabe zu
Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!
Ruht, ihr ausgesognen Glieder!
Euer Grab und Leichenstein
Soll dem ängstlichen Gewissen
Ein bequemes Ruhekissen
Und der Seelen Ruhstatt sein
Höchst vergnügt schlummern da die Augen ein.

We settle down, with tears of grief,
and we call out to you over there in your tomb
Rest softly, softly rest.
Rest, you exhausted limbs of his body.
May your tomb and tombstone
become, for even the most anxious cares,
a comforting pillow
and a place of rest for the soul.
In the highest bliss may the eyes shut down in slumber there.

§3. For me, the words of this stylized lament as visualized by Scorsese are in some ways comparable to the fiery pain of suffering and death in the Trojan War as narrated in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. What we see and hear is a man talking to himself about a deadly kind of love for a woman. That is the “key” to everything that happens in the story told by the film. The woman in question here is no Helen of Troy. She is Ginger, as acted by Sharon Stone. In any case, as we watch the opening sequence of Casino, we guess that a man is going to die for a woman’s love, though he does not yet know it. And, at the moment of death, just as he goes up in flames—and I mean that literally—we suddenly hear a choral blast from the Saint Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach—a musical composition that critics rate as one of European civilization’s most beautiful and powerful laments centering on human suffering and the final agony of death.

§4. As we see a man getting fire-blasted into the words and the music of the Saint Matthew Passion, we find ourselves situated at the very last part—Nr.78, Chor/Finale—of the Passion narrative. It is at the moment when the dead Jesus is buried in his tomb.

§5. About twenty years ago, when I first started sharing with friends, colleagues, and students this film sequence directed by Scorsese, I heard a most insightful observation. It came from Susan Young, and she said something like this, if I remember well: the music itself here is at first painfully explosive, and then soothingly calm.

§6. That observation makes me think of a central concern of ancient Greek song culture: to find the perfect way to capture in song the Greek hero’s final agony at the moment of death. From an ancient Greek point of view, we could say that the man in the opening sequence of Casino somehow manages to get into the Saint Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach simply by going up in flames.

After Casino, directed by Martin Scorsese (1995).

§7. This sequence from Casino reminds me of the passage in Iliad 11.227 where a hero is said to have accepted death on the battlefield for one and only one simple reason: he wanted to get into the kleos or ‘poetic glory’ of the Homeric Iliad. It is as if the ultimate goal for us mortals—no matter how insignificant we may be—is somehow to get into a great work of art, such as a great piece of music. Whatever it takes and whoever you are, you just want to get into it—even if you have to die for a love that is not worth dying for. I think of all the Achaeans—and Trojans—who died because of Helen. Helen herself is quite aware of this:

|125 She [= the divine messenger Iris] found her [= Helen] in the palace. She was weaving a great web, |126 a seething-purple [porphureē] fabric that folds in two, and she was inworking many ordeals [athloi] |127 of Trojans, tamers of horses, and of Achaeans, wearers of bronze tunics, |128 —ordeals that they suffered at the hands of Ares all because of her.

Iliad 3.125–128

The redness of Helen’s purple tapestry is the seething blood that will be shed for her sake. It is an explosive kind of red, like the redness in the opening of Casino.