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Martin Scorsese is one of the few modern American directors whose films can stand alongside the cinema's greats - Griffith, Murnau, Capra, Hitchcock, Welles, Bergman, Fellini. Each name conjures up a personalized window on the world, a unique approach to storytelling and often innovative cinematic techniques. So it is only fitting that Scorsese traces the impact of these film masters on his own work in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995). In this documentary, he cites the films and filmmakers who first made him want to watch movies and later become a film director.
Along with Scorsese's narration, A Personal Journey uses clips and interviews to create something of a scrapbook of the director's life at the movies. As Scorsese puts it, "I've chosen to highlight some of the films that colored my dreams, that changed my perceptions and in some cases even my life. Films that prompted me for better or for worse, to become a filmmaker myself." And most of the time, these films are not the ones frequently exalted in Hollywood documentaries (the blockbusters, the Academy Award winners). Scorsese is instead fascinated by movies with a clear directorial independence and non-traditional filmmakers, particularly "the ones who circumvented the system to get their vision on the screen."
To most moviegoers, the Scorsese world is inherently a New York story full of tough guys and gangsters, as depicted in his most memorable films: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990). And so, it would seem that his formative movie experiences fed on similar stories. But Scorsese's canvas also covers an impressive cinematic range, from religious controversy in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to the lush period romance The Age of Innocence (1993) to the big band musical drama New York, New York (1977). And A Personal Journey follows the director down this road, exploring not only the gangster film, but also the Western and the musical. It takes a look, through Scorsese's eyes, at what he calls the Director's Dilemma, the continuing struggle between directorial vision and Hollywood commerce. And examines the Director as Storyteller, as Illusionist , as Smuggler and as Iconoclast. Janet Maslin of the New York Times called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, "a film course with one of the world's greatest teachers."
The first segment, Director's Dilemma, features interviews with Billy Wilder and Frank Capra, who expresses his idea of "one man, one film" -- the belief that the director should be solely in charge of his movie's destiny. But, not every director was comfortable with Capra's "name above the title" freedom. As Scorsese explains, many directors (like Clarence Brown and Michael Curtiz) managed to thrive within the studio system. And others, like Vincente Minnelli, even needed the collaborative influences around him, especially the producer-director relationship, to develop. In the Director as Storyteller section, Scorsese explores three quintessential American genres: the Western with clips from John Ford directing John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939); the Gangster movie from its early roots in Regeneration (1915) to The Roaring Twenties (1939), which Scorsese sites as a major influence on Goodfellas; and the Musical with numbers from 42nd Street (1933) and My Dream is Yours (1949), which inspired Scorsese's New York, New York.
The Director as Illusionist traces the history of film through technical changes (sound, color, widescreen) and developing techniques (dissolves, tracking shots), to create as Scorsese says, "a new language based on images rather than words." Featured clips include D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), both versions of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments(1923 and 1956), Tourneur's Cat People (1942) and Kubrick's 2001 (1968). Also interviewed is George Lucas, who discusses the way digital effects have changed epic filmmaking. The Director as Smuggler focuses on the world of B-movies, film noir and 50s genres where subtext became part of the story. And directors like Fritz Lang, Aldo Ray and Sam Fuller, who managed to sneak in political or social issues by disregarding the rules all together.
Finally, the Director as Iconoclast looks at the maverick directors from Griffith and von Stroheim to Kubrick and Cassavetes who openly defied Hollywood. Well known cinema rebel Orson Welles explains that he "always liked Hollywood very much. It just wasn't reciprocated." Other interviews feature discussions with Elia Kazan on Brando in On the Waterfront (1954) and Arthur Penn on the desensitized violence of Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
A Personal Journey ends there. Scorsese is not yet ready to take an objective look at his contemporaries and peers. But what the documentary does offer is a reverence for movie making that today's film students, hopefuls and all movie lovers can learn from. And it leaves you wanting to know more. As Scorsese tells students who ask why they should study the classics, "do what painters used to do. Study the old masters. Enrich your palette. Expand the canvas. There's always so much more to learn."
Part 1 - 73 min.
Part 2 - 80 min.
Part 3 - 74 min.
Color, Closed captioning
by Stephanie Thames