Thursday, September 5, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.6: Martin Scorsese's 70s Documentaries

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Martin Scorsese is one of the most talented narrative filmmakers of his generation, but he’s also a prolific documentarian, having directed 12 documentaries to his 23 features. Scorsese’s documentaries don’t always have the same drive as his narrative features, but they’re unmistakably the work of the same man, with similar interest in tradition, self-loathing, and sensory experience.

Scorsese first got his start in documentary films as one of the editors on Woodstock (along with his future editor Thelma Schoonmaker), and followed that up with his early documentary Street Scenes, about Vietnam War protests (I unfortunately couldn’t find a copy). The former gave him a chance to practice the exciting, rapid-pace techniques that would define his features. The latter, which included appearances from Scorsese, Harvey Keitel, and critic/screenwriter Jay Cocks, informs the realism and the natural but lively conversations that pepper Scorsese’s works.

Italianamerican Grade: 70/B

Scorsese’s next documentary, Italianamerican, is undeniably his most personal work. The film is primarily an extended interview with Scorsese’s parents, Charles and Catherine (both of whom made cameos in many Scorsese movies before their deaths), as Scorsese asks them about their Italian lineage, their lives in New York, and Mama Scorsese’s meatball and sauce recipe (which is repeated in the end credits). At 49 minutes, Italianamerican is undeniably slight, and at times it feels like it’s a step away from being a home movie.

What makes it an enjoyable experience is the liveliness of the Scorsese family- Charles and Catherine are both warm, funny people whose playful banter (I love Catherine demanding Charles sit closer to him) and energetic storytelling are always fun to watch. We learn about the Scorsese family history, the working-class background of both Marty and his parents, and the simple joys the Scorseses have in how they were able to send their kids to school, something they didn’t have the opportunity for. More than anything, we get a sense of where Scorsese first learned how to tell a story, where he got his boundless enthusiasm from, and just why it is he has such a great sense of how people interact- with parents like these, it’s hard to not want to listen.

The Last Waltz Grade: 83/A-

It was another two years before Scorsese took another crack at a documentary, this time a film about The Band’s farewell concert. Impressed with his use of music in Mean Streets, guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson hired Scorsese to film the 1976 event, which saw The Band playing with guests as eclectic as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, and Van Morrison. The film wouldn’t see release until 1978, as Scorsese had commitments to New York, New York, but it was well worth the wait.

The Last Waltz isn’t quite a perfect technical exercise- Scorsese hired a number of ace cinematographers (Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs) and storyboarded the film based on the rehearsals, but a number of camera malfunctions limited the number of angles he could use and made some of the songs impossible to film. Notably, a handful of songs led by pianist/singer Richard Manuel end up focusing more on other players, as only a few cameras can really capture him. There’s also the issue that The Band, while brilliant musicians and songwriters, aren’t all necessarily the charismatic stars that make for great concert films (only drummer/singer Levon Helm is consistently exciting to watch). You can hear the energy in the crowd rise when Bob Dylan or Neil Young come out to play. On the other hand, it’s hard not to scratch your head at some of the other guests (a recitation of the intro to The Canterbury Tale in old English, a poem/prayer...seriously).

More problematic- at this point, Scorsese was nearing the height of his cocaine addiction. Robertson was both his main drug buddy and a notorious egoist who often marginalized the contributions of the other band members. Scorsese devotes a disproportionate amount of backstage footage to Robertson, something Helm complained about in his memoir. At the point of organist/multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson’s solo on “Chest Fever”, Scorsese cuts back to Robertson talking about Hudson in the studio, and it starts to feel like egregious exclusion. Sometimes Robertson does talk up the talent of his bandmates, but more often than not he comes off as a talented but self-important ass with a tendency to talk over them.

These quibbles aren’t enough to discredit The Last Waltz, though. However limited the angles might be, Scorsese still knows how to photograph and edit a musical performance, with numbers like “Don’t Do It” and “Up on Cripple Creek” being particularly strong (not to mention “The Weight”, which was reshot in a studio with more expressive camerawork). And however much Robertson might have dominated over the others, there’s still a celebratory mood to the whole event. It’s just a damned exciting watch.

American Boy Grade: 78/B+

Scorsese worked on The Last Waltz long enough that it came out in the same year as another documentary, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. At 55 minutes long, it’s another film in the style and scope of Italianamerican, this time following Prince (the creepy gun salesman in Taxi Driver), a friend of Scorsese’s with an interesting history as a heroin addict, road manager for Neil Diamond, and all around wild card. Prince rivals Scorsese himself in terms of sheer nervous energy, but with a sleazy charisma that makes him a particularly fun subject.

Prince’s most famous story, about having to revive someone with a shot of adrenaline and a Magic Marker, would serve as an inspiration for a scene in Pulp Fiction (not to mention another bit that would inspire a story in Waking Life), but there’s plenty of other noteworthy moments in the film. Some of it is just Prince telling amusing anecdotes about sneaking his uncle vodka or getting out of the draft by pretending to be homosexual, but the film is at its best when Prince covers more melancholy moments of his life.

One notable moment involves the accidental death of a young man through electrocution- Prince denies responsibility, but that doesn’t make him seem any less haunted by it. Scorsese weaves in old home movies of Prince, as if to show how a average kid might end up having a more interesting or troubled life than his normal background would suggest. And he ends on a real corker, in which Prince talks about a conversation with his dying father, but tries to breeze over it to get past the painful emotions he’s going through. American Boy fits right in with Scorsese’s portraits of repression and self-loathing. Prince stops looking like Scorsese’s sleazy pal and starts looking like a wounded human being, a sad clown who thinks that if he has everyone laughing, he won’t get hurt.

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