Why You Should Watch A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson
Runtime: 225 min. (in 3 parts)
A few weeks ago, I sat down to watch A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. At nearly 4 hours long, the demand on a viewer's time might seem more than what the material is worth, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Scorsese lives and breathes cinema, and that zeal comes across as in no other "movie about movies" that I've seen before. I've since watched it again, not simply because of the wealth of information Scorsese presents in the time he has, but also because of the simplicity of passion with which he does so.
It is essential to understand that this is not a self important retrospective of how "hallmark" films have changed the collective cultural milieu, but rather simply one man telling his audience how certain films have changed him and shaped his cinematic sensibilities. This is about a great filmmaker and film lover's heritage.
“I can only talk to you about what has moved me”, Scorsese tells us, “films that prompted me, for better or worse, to become a filmmaker myself”. As such, he begins his narrative in 1946 when, as a four year old, he first saw the King Vidor western Duel in the Sun. While being a “flawed” film, Scorsese describes the origins of his passion: he was entranced by the “hallucinatory quality of the imagery”.
The obsession only grew in Scorsese, as is apparent in his recollections of meaningful cinematic moments. He takes us from the earliest stages in silent film all the way to 2001 and beyond. As if in a stream of consciousness, he goes from D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley to the proliferation of special effects in the early 1990s. However, it is not simply a history lesson that Scorsese means to deliver, but rather a sense of how American cinema has lived and grown.
He outlines what great filmmakers have been to him. The Illusionist is a magician, a technical master of the cinematic art. This is found in Vincent Minnelli's work; The Bad and The Beautiful is shown as a marriage of compelling story and expert choreography. The Smuggler revels in the lack oversight of low budget films. For this set, he gives Jacques Tourneur and his B-movie, Cat People, as an example of how a story about a woman's sexual repression can be found in a horror film and slipped under the censors' noses. Finally, The Iconoclast took the opposite approach as The Smuggler and attacked conventions head on. Elia Kazan is used as an example of a filmmaker who imbued his characters with overt sexuality, as seen in A Streetcar Named Desire, which was a direct assault on the Hayes production code of the early 1950s. Scorsese later describes Kazan's On The Waterfront as a personal breakthrough for him, and a film that broke ground for the iconoclasts of the following decades.
You can tell that the films Scorsese speaks about so fondly are not only inspirational, but are indeed directly influential. The color palate from the 1930s Technicolor process bleeds through onto his films like The Aviator, and influences ranging from Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery and the gangster films from Howard Hawkes can easily be seen in Goodfellas. It's clear that these films have been Scorsese's film school, and the lessons he has learned have been well applied.
Finally, after nearly 4 hours, Scorsese simply tells us, “we're gonna have to stop because I can't go on... we just don't have the time. There's really no telling how long the tour of this “imaginary museum” can go on. However, what was captivating for me was not necessarily being entranced by a living encyclopedia of cinema, but rather having some of Scorsese's passion transplanted into me afterward. The film leaves you with the desire to seek out the films that Scorsese has spoken so highly about, not only to see what he saw, but also to add to your own “personal journey” through cinema. For my part, tracking down copies of The Bad and The Beautiful and being introduced to Anthony Mann's psychological westerns, just to name a few examples, have been infinitely rewarding.
So, if you're a film lover or just a fan of Scorsese, I can't recommend this documentary highly enough. Buy it, Netflix it, do what you have to; set some time aside and let Scorsese's passion and eloquence wash over you as you take this near spiritual journey with him to “share a common memory”.