Friday, May 29, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXIV: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) ****
Written & Directed By: Martin Scorsese & Michael Henry Wilson.

There is probably no better guide you could have through American movies than Martin Scorsese. His enthusiasm for film is well known, and he cannot contain his passion when speaking about the films of the past that inspired him the most. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, his three hour and forty five minute documentary (that he wrote and direct along with Michael Henry Wilson for British TV) is an amazing journey. Scorsese covers the films starting in their earliest days and continues right on through until the late 1960s. He says he needs to stop there for two reasons. 1) There isn’t enough time and 2) That’s when he starting making films, so judging himself and his contemporaries would be harder than judging the past masters.

Scorsese’s film journey through the films of the past is fascinating because he doesn’t just cover the old masters that everyone talks about all the time. True, D.W. Griffth, F.W. Murnau, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Vincente Minelli, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, King Vidor, Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton and John Ford all get their due, but Scorsese is just as passionate when discussing directors who are less well known – Allan Dwan, Anthony Mann, Frank Borzage, Samuel Fuller, William A. Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy, Raoul Walsh, Richard Brooks, Erich von Stroheim, Josef von Sternberg, Rowland Brown, Busby Berkely, Jacques Tourneur, John M. Stahl, Delmer Daves, Phil Karlson and these names are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you are a novice looking to get interested in classic movies, or a seasoned film buff who prides themselves on seeing as much as possible, you will get some tips on movies to track down (I filled up a page and a half with suggestions).

You can feel Scorsese’s passion for the films and directors he discusses in every scene in this film. He explores the roots of modern filmmaking in the works of D.W. Griffth, F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage and King Vidor for example, who pretty much invented modern film grammar. It’s not just the technical aspects of these films that Scorsese admires, but also the buried stories and themes, and how the directors use their camera to bring the stories to life. Often these days, I feel filmmakers spend more time “telling” then “showing” their themes through endless dialogue. These filmmakers had no such luxury, and it’s fascinating to watch their films have to rely on pure cinema – visuals – over everything else.

The movie is a three part documentary, that is separated further into five segments. The first segment looks at the age old conflict between art and commerce. How the director has to struggle to get his personal vision on the screen, in a way that pleases the producer and the studios financing the movies in order to make money. They would rather make a terrible film that makes lots of money than a masterpiece that makes none. From the beginning of film, directors adopted the “one from you, one for them” policy – alternating between films they knew would be popular, to more personal films. This theory is still very much alive today – Scorsese himself is an example.

The next segment concentrates on the growth of three particular genres – the gangster movie, the western and the musical. I found the gangster section the most enlightening, starting with classic silent films, moving through the films of the 1930s like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties right through film noir, in which the gangster was replaced by a normal guy being pulled under by his lure to sex and violence. You could almost define the western section as the John Ford section, as Scorsese particularly highlights three of the master’s films – Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers – to examine how the Western moved from fun escapism to dark realism during the period. I also loved this section’s examination of Anthony Mann, an underrated master. The musical is the least in depth, because to be honest, the musical did not evolve that much, except in the way that over time they started to introduce some realism into all the spectacle.

Next Scorsese look at the director as visual technician. Essentially this segment looks at how technology has advanced over the years to give filmmakers more tools at their disposal. The trick to making a great film is not in staying true to the old methods, but not letting all the new methods take the place of story and character. From the days of the static, non-moving camera to the latest in computer imagery, they’ve come a long way.

The longest segment is devoted to the director as smuggler. In essence, this segment look at the various ways directors were able to put their own personal stamp on films, getting their subversive themes that would not have been allowed if they overtly stated them, into films. A lot of time is devoted in this segment to B-movies, especially Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece Cat People. Tourneur was able to make an extremely scary movie despite having no budget, by using just shadows. Not only that, but the film is very sexual, using the main characters transformation into a wild cat when she gets jealous of her husband and another woman into a metaphor for her shame at her woman sexuality.

Finally, we get to the director as iconoclast. These are the directors who bucked the system – who were not happy being subversive, but wanted to rub your face in their themes. Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, John Cassavetes, Richard Brooks and others are mentioned. These directors were brilliant, at times blunt, but always did precisely what they wanted to, despite the costs. Many of these directors had careers cut short, or demands placed on them by the studios, but they were not about to change who they were or compromise.

Overall, it is remarkable just how much information Scorsese conveys in a relatively quick 3 hours and 45 minutes. The movie is never dull, never less than fascinating. Of course there are holes – and Scorsese admits as such. He doesn’t really cover Hitchcock or Lubitsch or many others, but says they have already been covered extensively, so he doesn’t need to. Plus, there are time restrictions. Everyone sees films through their own personal lens. What is a masterpiece to some, is crap to someone else. It all depends on what you as a viewer bring to the movie. What I found fascinating about this movie is that it gave you an opportunity to see things through Scorsese’s lens for a few hours. The greatest director of all time expressing his love for the films of the past, and in the process, getting us to share in his love for them. This is a great film – a must for film lovers.

No comments:

Post a Comment