Scorsese Screens - March 2023
There’s an interesting thread running throughout this month’s wall-to-wall programming of Oscar-nominated films, including titles grouped under different themes and genres. These are films about artistic creation, the making of—and the life behind and around—musical extravaganzas, ballets, stage plays and, of course, movies. In the early depression years, which coincided with the dawn of sound, there were quite a few backstage musicals, many of them produced at Warner Brothers and either choreographed or directed by Busby Berkeley with songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren—Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street are both included in different programs. They were unusually frank, sometimes brutal, real New York pictures through and through, with an emphasis on tough, punishing work: the rehearsals are like a cross between sweatshops and dance marathons, with everybody pushed past the brink and coming out the other side. The harshness of the depression is felt in every scene, but the spirit of camaraderie in creation lifts everyone’s spirits.
In the late 30s and early 40s, there were lavish productions like The Great Ziegfeld and Yankee Doodle Dandy, heavily fictionalized biopics of Florenz Ziegfeld and George M. Cohan respectively, two titanic figures in American musical history. These pictures are extravagant celebrations of Ziegfeld’s stagecraft and eye for spectacle and Cohan’s non-stop energy and artistry, and they each give some kind of idea of how the original performances were designed and staged (I’m not a great fan of the first, but Yankee Doodle Dandy is a favorite).
In the late 40s and early 50s, when 3-strip Technicolor had reached a peak moment and CinemaScope arrived, there were quite a few pictures that dealt with art as obsession. At this point in my life I really don’t know what else I could say about The Red Shoes, beyond repeating that it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen and that it amazes me each time I take another look at it. Powell and Pressburger’s film taught me about the obsessive nature of creation, but so did The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon, both by Vincente Minnelli, who really understood the ruthlessness, egotism and madness that can come with artistic obsession. This is also what François Truffaut was dealing with 20 years later in Day for Night. Truffaut once said that making a movie is like entering something close to a fugue state, where the sheer momentum of the undertaking just takes over. That’s what Day for Night is all about. It’s not only true of the director (played by Truffaut himself) but of the entire cast and crew: everybody does whatever it takes to get the movie made, from stealing a hotel lamp for a prop to briefly falling in love with a co-star. Obsession and camaraderie are the two intertwined factors that link these pictures—just as true of To Be or Not To Be and Singin’ in the Rain, two masterpieces also showing this month. Most of these pictures are larger than life in one way or another, but the obsession and the camaraderie are 100% real.