Monday 28 October 2019

In memoriam: Mardik Martin (Telegraph 16/09/19)

Mardik Martin, who has died aged 84, was a screenwriter of Armenian descent celebrated for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese on the director’s breakthrough films of the 1970s.

Their enduring if sometimes turbulent friendship began when Martin, newly arrived in the US, enrolled on the same screenwriting course as Scorsese at New York University. Journalist Peter Biskind painted an evocative picture of the pair’s early years in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: “[Martin] could barely speak English, and Scorsese was the only kid who would talk to him. They were both short and manic – outsiders. They became friends… The two young men sat in Martin’s Valiant and wrote. In the winter, in the cold and snow.”

Their efforts generated first an acclaimed student film, It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964), then several major works of American cinema. In the decades that followed, Martin made significant contributions to the screenplays of Mean Streets (1973), New York, New York (1977) and Raging Bull (1980).

Mean Streets, a punchy crime drama that began life as a script Martin and Scorsese had written in the 1960s titled Season of the Witch, was striking for the contrast it sketched between the roughhousing energy of Robert De Niro’s motormouthed punk Johnny Boy and the diffidence of Johnny’s repressed friend Charlie (Harvey Keitel).

The onscreen duality mirrored the creative dynamic offscreen. Propelled by Scorsese’s cartwheeling camera and singular ability to marry image to music cues, Mean Streets could have been no more than a stylistic exercise. Instead, it was grounded and given depth by Martin’s skilful writing of credibly conflicted, volatile characters.

New York, New York, Scorsese’s widescreen update of the Technicolor musicals he mainlined in his youth, operated in a more stylised register yet, enthusiastically embracing melodrama in its depiction of the fraught relationship between a singer (Liza Minnelli) and a jazz musician (De Niro).

Rushed into production without a finished script and further complicated by widespread cocaine use and the director’s tangled lovelife, this was a less harmonious collaboration. As Martin later reflected, “It was a nightmare. I was writing up until the final frame. You don’t make movies like that.”

Raging Bull, too, overcame its fair share of obstacles. Scorsese – uninterested in boxing – repeatedly ignored the obsessed De Niro’s pleas to film the biography of washed-up prize fighter Jake LaMotta. Eventually he fobbed the book off onto Martin, who was barely more enthusiastic about the story’s careworn rags-to-riches arc.

Only when Martin drew a parallel between boxing and gladiatorial combat, describing a scene in which fur-clad ringside spectators are splattered with blood, was Scorsese’s interest piqued. Martin crafted the film’s inventive structure, but soon found the distractible Scorsese’s notes so irrelevant he happily stepped down when it was suggested Paul Schrader be brought in for rewrites.

The film that emerged – boldly cinematic, but also uncompromisingly tough – was one of the New American Cinema’s last landmarks before the market flooded with the blandly upbeat messages of self-realisation typical of Reagan-era cinema. Overnight, Martin’s screenwriting fell out of step with the times: “To me, the message is less important than the story… My main concern is to communicate with my audience by creating interesting characters in conflict.”

Mardik Martin was born in Iran on September 16, 1934 to wealthy parents who moved to Baghdad when he was in his teens. A cinephile from a young age, he found employment in the local office of the distributor MGM when he was sixteen, only to flee for New York when served with draft papers.

Arriving penniless, he originally enrolled at NYU to study economics, supporting himself by washing dishes in Greenwich Village restaurants, but he switched to screenwriting after a year. Upon graduation in 1968, he stayed close to his alma mater, teaching classes while working on various writing projects.

His first produced screenplay was Revenge is My Destiny (1971), a B-movie directed by fellow NYU alumnus Joseph Adler. Though set in Vietnam, it was mostly shot around the Florida Everglades; Martin remained honest as to its shortcomings (“It’s kind of awful”).

The response to Mean Streets enticed him to Los Angeles to start work for independent producers Chartoff-Winkler on New York, New York and Valentino (1977), Ken Russell’s biopic of the silent-screen idol. This, too, would be poorly received, not least by its director, who dubbed it “the biggest mistake of my career”.

After Raging Bull, Martin struggled with cocaine addiction and found his rigorous realism chafing against Hollywood’s demands for escapist fantasy. Nevertheless, reissues of his earlier work kept his name in circulation, and he returned to teaching, becoming senior lecturer in screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1990.

In 2005, Raging Bull made number 76 on the Writers Guild’s list of the 101 greatest screenplays, renewing interest in Martin’s body of work. He was the subject of the documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood (2008), and won the Parajanov-Vartanov Institute Award in 2012 for “the mastery of his pen”.

His final screenwriting credit – his first since Raging Bull – came on The Cut (2014), the German-Turkish director Fatih Akin’s account of the Armenian genocide. Though it met with tepid reviews, it brought about a reunion with Scorsese, who deemed the film “a genuine handmade epic of the type people just don’t make anymore”.

It was Scorsese who led the tributes upon Martin’s passing: “For a time, we were inseparable. We went to see movies together, we talked about them endlessly, and then we started dreaming up the pictures we were going to make — in diner booths and on benches in Washington Square Park, walking the streets of lower Manhattan or driving around the city, in hot and cold weather, in sunshine and in rain and snow, by night and by day… that was me and my old friend Mardik Martin.”

Mardik Martin, born September 16 1934, died September 11 2019.

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