“Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over and becomes the number one hormone. It plays Iago to your psyche and as with heroine, the antidote to film is more film.”
For a thorough overview of film history and the art behind films we need one of the hopelessly addicted film students that Capra talks about, and there can be no better guide than Martin Scorsese. I am so glad that Miramax has released the four-hour made for TV documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies on DVD. I hadn’t seen it on TV, but had seen the text translated into a now out of print book, but this was meant to be scene as a film.
This is no ordinary film history lesson – this is a true personal history. Scorsese makes its personal nature evident recalling a remarkably vivid encounter with the first movie he ever saw at the age of four -- Duel in the Sun. He also relates an anecdote about “borrowing” a couple of pictures from the public library’s copy of Deams Taylor’s Pictorial History of the Movies when he was a child. Casual movie fans may tire through the four hours of narration and generous movie clips, but movie geeks will absolutely love it.
Don’t expect a lot of traditional classics. Scorsese shares mostly obscure films from the 1940’s and 1950’s that heavily influenced him – many films that I’d never heard of, but a few that I’ll definitely be looking for. Scorsese’s film passion clearly comes through as he describes the camerawork in films like The Naked Kiss, Murder by Contract, and The Phenix City Story. He doesn’t ignore all the old masters, as he gives a great deal of credit to D.W. Griffith for his landmark contributions to film, especially the emotional impact that he was able to achieve.
Naturally, Scorsese focuses on the role of the director as he wades into explanations about the studio system to show us how directors had to balance their ideas of personal artistry with the demands and constraints of their studios where Fox would generally favor films with a social conscience and MGM would expect more idealized sentimental fare. Certain directors like Michael Curtis, who made 63 studio films before his immortal Casablanca, flourished under the studio system while others desired more independence. Of course, by the time Scorsese began directing the studio system had collapsed to be replaced by business and corporate interests.
From his own career you can see how Scorsese has continually had conflicts between making the kind of movies that he loves with creating films that studios and corporate interests want him to make, but it’s obvious from this documentary that Scorsese loves pure cinema. Just watch him talk about film noire and the B movies that some directors would film in order to practice their craft. For film classes, he also covers a section about visual literacy and its importance, all with visual examples.
Scorsese goes into great detail about genre movies, exploring the Western, the Gangster film, and the Musical. While the great director has contributed greatly only to the Gangster genre, that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t learned from examining the others. Mixed in with Scorsese’s comments and the generous film clips are short interview segments with other directors like Fritz Lang, King Vidor, Billy Wilder, Brian DePalma, Clint Eastwood, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.
Scorsese deftly illustrates how the Western has evolved over three decades, using three John Ford films starring John Wayne all shot in Monument Valley. We progress from the more clear cut black and white reality of the early days with Stagecoach through the more complex hero of Stagecoach, where we’re not sure Ethan Edwards will prove heroic at the end. He then has Clint Eastwood talk about the nature of his Unforgiven hero to continue with this theme. The interview with secretive curmudgeon John Ford is especially enjoyable. As the media journalist asks Ford questions about his film, the old guy first answers “I wouldn’t know” a couple of times and finally pauses briefly at the third question and bluntly states “Cut!!”
Fortunately, Scorsese is not as tight lipped about his film insights. There are so many gems contained in this documentary that are described with such insight that I know I’ll be revisiting this remarkable documentary a few times. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have perhaps our greatest living movie director in the living room to share the films that have most influenced him. A must see for those who are hopelessly addicted to film. You know who you are!
*note: The two DVD set has three parts. The only one that has the title clearly marked is actually part three. The first two parts are on the other unlabeled disc, which will require a trial and error method to put into the right order. It’s not the best formatting, but the content makes up for any inconvenience.