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A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995)

Basically you want three things in a teacher: knowledge, passion, and an ability to articulate that knowledge and passion. In A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a documentary originally filmed for the BBC, Martin Scorsese gets us excited about learning about the history of film. He's the perfect teacher.

Written by:
Martin Scorsese

Directed by:
Martin Scorsese

With:
Martin Scorsese
Frank Capra
Francis Ford Coppola
Brian De Palma
Andre De Toth
John Ford
Elia Kazan
Fritz Lang
George Lucas
Gregory Peck
Arthur Penn
Douglas Sirk
King Vidor
Orson Welles
Billy Wilder

Quote:
"I believe there's a spirituality in films — even if it's not one that can supplant faith. I find over the years that many films address themselves to the spiritual side of man's nature: From Griffith's film Intolerance to John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath to Hitchcock's Vertigo to Kubrick's 2001, and so many more. It's as if movies answer a quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have: to share a common memory."

Personal Journey is no AFI Top 100 list. To flip-flop the famous movie phrase, it's personal, not business. "Over the years I've discovered many an obscure film," Scorsese tells us with close-up sincerity. "And sometimes they were more inspirational than the prestigious films that were receiving attention at the time. But I can only talk about what has moved me or inspired me — I can't really be objective here."

Well, he could have, he simply chose not to. Boy, did he ever. A director, he's most interested in the director's dilemma: How a director reconciles his personal vision with the commercial imperatives of the studio. He then divides directors into four overlapping categories vis a vis this dilemma: The director as storyteller, illusionist, smuggler, and iconoclast.

But even these categories aren't all that straightforward. In "The Director as Storyteller," Scorsese talks less about directors than genres, specifically indigenous American genres — the western, the gangster film and the musical — and how each changed with the changing times.

The western changes from the black-and-white morality of John Ford's Stagecoach to the more complex, darker heroism of Ford's The Searchers until, in films like Arthur Penn's The Left-Handed Gun and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, it included a repudiation of the very myth-making it once championed. Cinematic gangsters, meanwhile, evolved in Scorsese's mind from mere products of their upbringing (The Regeneration (1915)) to tragic figures (The Roaring Twenties (1939)), to bland businessmen (I Walk Alone (1948), Point Blank (1967), and, of course, The Godfather (1972)). Scorsese is least convincing on the musical, which he calls "the most escapist of all film genres" before showing us clips from the darkest, least escapist musicals ever made.

In "The Director as Illusionist," Scorsese focuses on how directors controlled, mastered and dealt with changes in the technical process. On D.W. Griffith and the silent film pioneers: "They invented a new language based on images rather than words. A visual grammar you might say: close-ups, irises, dissolves, masking part of the screen for emphasis, dolly shots, tracking shots." Sound — the most monumental technical change of all — allowed the illusionist to "heighten reality," according to Scorsese, and even, in some instances, tell the whole story, as in William Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) when the climax occurs off-camera. Three-strip technicolor came into use in the 1930s, CinemaScope in the 1950s. Today there's computer enhancements, which, according to George Lucas, change movies from a photographic to a painterly medium. Francis Ford Coppola is more circumspect. "Technology is always an element of creativity," he says, "but it is never the source of creativity." Those who had to pay full-price for Lucas' recent films couldn't agree more.

With "The Director as Smuggler" Scorsese hits his stride. Quietly, he revels in how different directors (Andre De Toth, Douglas Sirk, Samuel Fuller) were able to beat back banality and include "different sensibilities, off-beat themes, even radical political views" in otherwise conventional storylines.

Finally, there's "The Director as Iconoclast": those directors who attacked the studio system head on, and came away bruised and defeated (Erich Von Stroheim, Orson Welles), or, when the system was weak, triumphant (Arthur Penn).

Personal Journey is, as its name implies, highly personal. Many Hollywood highlights just aren't here. No Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz. We get Anthony Mann's James Stewart, not Frank Capra's. Bogart hardly shows up, Clark Gable and Henry Fonda never. We look extensively at four Vincente Minnelli films, none of which are his most famous (An American in Paris, Gigi). Plus the journey ends too quickly. Scorsese refuses to discuss much past the early 1970s, when Scorsese and his pals Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas were leaving their very large imprints on American cinema.

At times our host gives too much credit to directors. With On the Waterfront on the screen he tells us, "Kazan was forging a new acting style," when Brando appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting. His talking heads are almost exclusively directors — although, admittedly, a delightful bunch: a non-plussed John Ford chomping his cigar before Peter Bogdanovich's overly analytical questions; Douglas Sirk crediting the audience with imagination; Fritz Lang asking what people fear in the absence of the devil. Then there's Scorsese himself, with his slippery-quick voice, never more charming than when talking of childhood transgressions. He used to borrow a book, A Pictorial History of the Movies, from the New York Public Library. "I was so tempted to steal some of these pictures from the book," he says. "A terrible urge. After all, it's a book from the public library." He looks down. "Well. I confess. Once or twice I did give in to that urge."

This personal approach turns out to be highly effective not only because it showcases such neglected classics as The Crowd, Force of Evil, and Sweet Smell of Success , but because, inherent in the subjective approach, is a need for inquiry. Objectivity is immovable, subjectivity not. Most of the films we see are not the "culturally-correct ones," as Scorsese says, and it raises a question. Why aren't these films more popular or critically acclaimed? What does Scorsese see that we don't? Or what do we see what he doesn't? By telling us what moves him, he makes us ponder what moves us. By giving us his personal journey through American movies, he makes us wonder what ours might look like.

—December 13, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard