Friday, July 25, 2014

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

USA / UK, 225 minutes, documentary
Directors/writers: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson
Photography: Jean-Yves Escoffier, Frances Reid, Nancy Schreiber
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Editors: Kenneth Levis, David Lindblom
With: Martin Scorsese

I'm not always sure what others mean by "essay-film," but I know my own sense of it favors both an individual point of view, and movie clips—projects like Los Angeles Plays Itself and this long love letter from Martin Scorsese, his salute to the movies of America in the middle of the last century. As such, it is necessarily deep-dipped in the medium itself. Scorsese's Personal Journey was made in collaboration with the British Film Institute and originally aired on UK television in 1995 (making its way to the US some three years later). Scorsese is the host, with lots of voiceover explication. Organized by digressive rumination, it comes armed with—and this is the important part—copious film clips. You are usually looking at scenes from movies, occasionally broken up by archival interview clips with great film figures such as Clint Eastwood, John Ford, Fritz Lang, Gregory Peck, Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Billy Wilder. It is the medium on the medium.

I was flabbergasted to find out how much I did not know when I first saw Personal Journey several years ago, how much was simply unfamiliar. Yet even in those cases I was hardly prepared for all the daunting insight that Scorsese brings. The Band Wagon, Cabiria, Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, The Furies, Leave Her to Heaven, The Left-Handed Gun, Murder by Contract, My Dream Is Yours, The Naked Spur, The Regeneration, The Roaring Twenties, The Robe, The Tall T—some of them were vaguely familiar as titles. I furiously wrote down every one and immediately ported them to my Netflix queue. Those that are available anyway—a good many are not. I suspect I'm not the only one trying such an exercise, because many fall into Netflix's "very long wait" category.

The documentary is organized like a text, divided into three parts, each with its own set of chapters. Part 1 has sections on "The Director's Dilemma," looking at the competing forces of commercial consideration and artistic integrity that confront film directors, and "The Director as Storyteller," where Scorsese breaks down the developments of his favorite genres (Westerns, gangster films, and musicals), each of which gets a chapter. In Parts 2 and 3, he traces broader developments: basic origins, the coming of sound, then color, and then widescreen. In "The Director as Smuggler," which continues into Part 3, he explores trafficking in the socially taboo, including an impressively lucid discussion of film noir. Last, in "The Director as Iconoclast," he presents a kind of alternative canon, where the rules were broken, filmmakers made to pay a stiff price, and new standards created. Here you find discussion of films that surprise and don't surprise: Bonnie and Clyde, Broken Blossoms, Citizen Kane, Faces, The Great Dictator, Lolita, The Man With the Golden Arm, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Smell of Success.

At the same time, all along, Scorsese offers a fundamental education on film, discussing the business of them and going in depth into what makes them a unique art form, at one point listing and showing wonderful examples of basic film syntax: close-ups, irises, dissolves, masking part of the screen for emphasis, dolly shots, tracking shots, cross-cutting. "I've always felt that visual literacy is just as important as verbal literacy," he says (in chorus with every film director ever). It's often a treat just to hear him explain things. I will say I have some misgivings that in his discussions of The Birth of a Nation and Elia Kazan he is silent on the controversies surrounding them. It did not surprise me with Kazan, of course. He's been clear on that elsewhere, and anyway I am beginning to soften to him too since a recent revisit to East of Eden, where Kazan's integrity on many levels is quite evident. Still, call me PC if you must, I think the vile aspects of The Birth of a Nation should be mentioned and confirmed in any discussion of it. It's a movie I respect, and enjoy, and despise in equal measures.

Another point that suggests how effective Scorsese is in Personal Journey: Scorsese's avowed favorite film genres, into which he travels so deeply, are probably my own least favorite. Scorsese compares them to jazz, as inherently and uniquely American art forms, pointing out the appeal of the Western to the enduring American frontier myth of the West, the gangster film to the burgeoning metropolises of the East with their constant flows of immigrants, and the musical to its obvious source, Broadway. He makes them sound interesting. His narrative makes films I know I don't like look vibrant and interesting—Murder by Contract, The Left-Handed Gun, The Searchers—and he makes me want to look at them again. Often it turns out I still don't like them. But I sure like the way they play in this documentary.

Scorsese's whole approach is at once so ambitious and so illuminating that I'm happy just watching him break it all down and following along where he rambles, wherever he wants to go. At nearly four hours it's way too short. He almost casually grapples with giant issues, and the insights can come thick and fast and from all directions as he clarifies things. He doesn't shy away from difficult and complex issues such as violence either. In that particular case, he turns to Fritz Lang to make the point. I recommend looking at it for maximum effect—with Lang wearing an eye-patch and monocle, sucking on a hand-rolled cigarette, speaking in rumbling tones with a thick German accent, and laying it out straight: "Violence has become in my opinion a definite point in the script. It has a dramaturgical reason to be there. You see, I don't think that people believe in the devil, with the horns and the forked tail. And therefore they don't believe in punishment after they are dead. So my question was ... what are people fearing? ... And that is physical pain. And physical pain comes from violence. And that, I think, is today the only fact which people really fear, and therefore it has become a definite part of life, and naturally also of scripts."

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