Why the director’s documentaries emphasize creation over destruction
I didn’t go to film school—never even took a film class in college—but I’ve watched Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about movies again and again. That’s my film school. I’ve done the homework, too. Where he suggested I go, I went. He’s the reason I first watched “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Roma, cita aperta.” He’s the reason Todd Haynes’ six-headed approach to Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There” wasn’t much of a reach; it had already been suggested in Scorsese’s doc “No Direction Home.” He’s the reason I’ve got a good recipe for pasta sauce; it’s in the end credits of “ItalianAmerican.”
His documentaries let you love him. You love his artistry in “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” but they’re such dark films they make the filmmaker hard to love. But he shows up onscreen in “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” and confesses that as a child he stole pictures out of a book from the New York Public Library, and you fall in love.
He’s everything you want in a teacher: He’s passionate, articulate and has a wellspring of knowledge about the subject like no one else. At the end of “Personal Journey” when he says “This is where we have to stop. We just don’t have the time to go any further,” you think, “What do you mean? I’ve got time. Where are you going? Don’t leave!”
A Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Creation
In a broad sense his feature films are about destruction, particularly self-destruction (see: Johnny Boy, Travis; Jake), while his documentaries are about creation, particularly self-creation, particularly artistic self-creation. How did Bobby Zimmerman become the many faces of Bob Dylan? How did this band become The Band and get onstage fronting, seemingly, the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll?
Most of all, how did an asthmatic boy from Little Italy become Martin Scorsese? Part of the answer lies in “ItalianAmerican,” his short doc about his parents, Charles and Catherine, whom he interviewed in the living room and kitchen of their Elizabeth Street apartment on the Lower East Side in 1974. Part of the answer lies in “Personal Journey,” which ignores the culturally correct movies (no “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” etc.) for the films that made him who he is (“Duel in the Sun,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Sweet Smell of Success”). And part of the answer lies in “My Voyage to Italy,” in which Scorsese shows us a 16” RCA-Victor television set like his father bought in the late 1940s, and on which, Friday nights, his extended family used to watch the Italian movies locally broadcast to the large Italian-American community in New York. “I know that if I’d never seen the films that I’m going to be talking about here,” he says, “I’d be a very different person, and, of course, a very different filmmaker.”
Some will argue that you can’t parse destruction and creation; that for every second you’re destroying something, something else is being created. Scorsese, a former seminarian, who sees something cleansing in the bloody finales of his films, might make this argument.
The painter in “Life Lessons” destroys his relationship with Paulette but he creates art out of it. Travis destroys his chances with Betsy by taking her to a porno theater but he’s creating his mohawked avenger out of it. Scorsese’s Jesus Christ differs from other versions of the Son of God in that he’s given an out—the last temptation of the title —but returns to the cross. So his is a kind of self-destruction. For Christians, of course, out of that self-destruction we get the greatest creation of all.
Where it all comes from
Still, the medium is the message. With feature films, you’re given a character and the main question is, “Who is this guy and where is he going?” Scorsese’s answer is invariably a downward spiral. Documentaries, in contrast, are factual matters, and backward-looking. “Who are we and how did we get here?” They emphasize creation.
Scorsese emphasizes it, too. I’d argue that “No Direction Home” is one of the greatest paeans to the creative process put on film. How did such poetic words pour out of someone as young as Dylan? Liam Clancy calls him a shape-changer, while Dave von Ronk implies that Dylan somehow tapped into the American collective unconscious. Joan Baez, doing the best Dylan imitation ever, quotes him, shrugging and saying, “I don’t know where the fuck it comes from,” while the modern Dylan says simply, “An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s ‘at’ somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming.”
This isn’t far from Scorsese’s own thoughts. In a 1991 interview with Anthony DeCurtis in “South Atlantic Quarterly,” he says, “One of the breakthroughs is to know that you really don’t know that much.” On the creative process, he says, “I prefer the stuff that comes out of nowhere. But, you know, you’ve got to get them from out of nowhere. I don’t know where that comes from.”
Getting us onstage
“The Last Waltz,” Scorsese’s 1977 doc about The Band’s final concert at the appropriately named Winterland in San Francisco, obviously includes destruction—the breaking up of The Band—but the film doesn’t record destruction. “Let it Be” records destruction; you feel the Beatles breaking up in the middle of it. “The Last Waltz” records creation. Great music is being made during it. It’s celebratory.
Scorsese gets us onstage for it. And it’s his stage. His people designed it, lit it, and his cameramen—including cinematographers Michael Chapman (“Raging Bull”), Laszlo Kovacs (“Easy Rider”) and Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters”)—filmed it. They let us see the musicians interacting, joking, looking with doubt as to where Dylan is taking them and a beat later realizing and joining and going. I remember when a band I liked, and was used to seeing up close, broke big and the next time I saw them I was sitting far away. I mentioned this to a friend and he nodded and said, “They’ve become tiny gods.” That’s what our culture tends to give us. Scorsese, in contrast, gives us life-sized artists and craftsmen.
“Shine a Light,” his new Rolling Stones documentary, continues this tradition. The beginning of the film is a near-silent, transatlantic battle between two perfectionists—Scorsese and Mick Jagger—with the director casting himself in the role of hapless comic relief. But after all that, he gets us onstage with these legends. We see guitars talking to each other, singers talking to each other, the expressions on haggard faces. You sense the camaraderie, and—most notably when Buddy Guy joins for a few songs—the competition. If “The Last Waltz” was the story of a band leaving the road after 16 years, “Shine a Light” is the story of a band who never did. Who kept going.
In this sense the doc is less a paean to creation than it is to longevity and survival. It’s about how not to destroy yourself: Just keep doing what you love doing. A lesson as true for the men in front of the camera as for the man behind it.
— Erik Lundegaard wonders what’s holding up “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through World Cinema.” This piece was originally published on April 2, 2008 on MSNBC.com