Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.19: Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey/My Voyage to Italy

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: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, Martin Scorsese was back in the spotlight and almost universally acknowledged as the finest director of his generation. What’s more, the wave of independent American cinema cited him as an influence: Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, you name it. But Scorsese was quick to acknowledge his own influences, among filmmakers both classic and current. With that in mind, a couple of films gave him the chance to express pure love for cinema, pay tribute to the movies that shaped him, and maybe even get a few younger directors to check these older films out.

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies: 91/A

The first and best of Scorsese’s movie documentaries is 1995’s A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a three-part, nearly four-hour documentary funded by the British Film Institute that sees Scorsese showing how D.W. Griffith leads to Stanley Kubrick and classic Cagney gangster movies lead to The Godfather. A Personal Journey is my favorite Scorsese documentary by a considerable margin. I consider it essential viewing for any aspiring filmmaker, critic, or adventurous filmgoer to learn about the history of the movies and how they affected one major cinematic voice in particular.

“Film is a disease and the only cure is more film.” Those words, said by Frank Capra and quoted by Scorsese, serve as a perfect intro for Scorsese’s cinematic textbook. Scorsese begins with early hints at how the studio system often shaped great movies even while clashing with major visions (exemplified by Duel in the Sun, and dramatized in The Bad and the Beautiful) before diving into what was so fascinating about the studio system. Before New Hollywood opened up the floodgates and before corporations took over Hollywood, there were the visions of the studio heads: Louis B. Mayer’s dream world at MGM, Daryl Zanuck’s social realism dramas at Fox, David O. Selznick’s grandiosity at MGM and Selznick International Pictures. It’s easy to remember that the system destroyed Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim, but Scorsese is quick to remind us that old pros like Vincente Minnelli and Raoul Walsh flourished because of the system rather than in spite of it.

At the same time, Scorsese admires the mavericks who either circumvented the studio system or used it to channel their subversive interests. Sure, it’s easy to see the darkness in the later westerns of John Ford and the gangster films, but Scorsese retroactively makes sense of New York, New York by noting that the best musicals have a dark side of their own. There’s an overt stylization in Meet Me in St. Louis that makes it all beautiful and seductive on the surface, but there’s real heartache in the film as well, and that contrast of heightened style and intense emotion can be found in most of Scorsese’s works. And then there’s the outright iconoclasts like Sam Fuller, and John Cassavetes people who weren’t afraid to shake you up and didn’t care who they alienated. 

But what’s most intriguing about the film is Scorsese himself, one of the great teachers of film history, and one of the most passionate advocates for the medium. He touches upon many of acknowledged masterpieces, but he also mixes in lesser-known films he considers worthwhile (I discovered I Walk Alone and Detour because of this movie). He’s an engaging presence not because he’s one of the great directors, but because he’s one of the great film fans, so when he talks about the importance of visual literacy, of understanding why directors use dissolves, close-ups, or cross-cutting, he means it. And I’m still touched by his admission that he’s still a student to film, that he still feels indebted to past masters, and that he connects his love of movies to his spiritual love for the church. Because for cinephiles, the movies are a sort of spiritual experience unto themselves. Through them, “we share a common memory.”

My Voyage to Italy: 66/B

Scorsese was just as influenced by foreign films as he was by American ones, however, particularly the Italian cinema that gave him a glimpse at the world he came from. In 1999, he got to make a Personal Journey for those films, the four-hour My Voyage to Italy (his longest film). Voyage isn’t quite as strong as the earlier film, which is odd considering that it’s more intensely focused. Where Personal Journey is sprawling and gives a portrait of a vast world of film, Voyage zeroes in specifically on five directors: Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and especially Roberto Rossellini, with a few mentions of other directors here and there.

Just about half of the film is comprised of Scorsese’s views of Rossellini and his influence on his own works. It was his first exposure to Italian culture outside of America, his first education on what made Italy unique: its emphasis on family, faith, hardship, and where they all intersect. Scorsese connects with Rossellini’s desire for expression, his clear-eyed view of the reality of postwar Italy, the freedom of Italian Neorealism. He’s particularly moved by Rossellini’s look at a constrictive society in Stromboli (a big influence on Raging Bull) and his view of Christianity as meaningless without sin and redemption (Flowers of St. Francis plays as precursor to Raging Bull).

Scorsese moves on to what he learned about the difference between Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica (who emphasized emotion rather than fact), the sense that comedy and tragedy in Italian cinema is irrevocably intertwined, the grand passion in Visconti’s works, the pure expression of Fellini, and the mystery and alienation in Antonioni’s work. This being a tour of Italian cinema with Marty, it’s never less than engaging.

The problem is that the film is so hyper-focused that it practically shows every major point of most of the films, to the degree that it might have made more sense had Scorsese just recorded commentary tracks for them. Or maybe this was a perfect opportunity for Scorsese to draw direct comparisons to his own work by fitting in clips of Mean Streets next to Paisan, or The Age of Innocence to Senso (one could make the same argument for Personal Journey, but that film moves much more fleetly). Still, the way he gives himself over to movie love is always heartening, and My Voyage to Italy shows that there might not be a better guide to film history than Martin Scorsese.

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