Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.
— Albert Einstein
With a total running time of nearly four hours, this three-part documentary might seem a little lengthy. However, when you consider that in that time, one of the greatest living filmmakers is going to try to give a summary of a significant and impossibly rich stretch of film history, the Theory of Relativity, as described above by its originator, shrinks those four hours into a mere heartbeat.
Every filmmaker is to some degree the sum of his influences, and Scorsese’s films have always been patchworks of references and homages to other films. He could even be singled out as one of the directors responsible for the increasingly self-referential quality of film, especially independent film, today. What so many young filmmakers lack, however, is Scorsese’s ability to give a fresh or personal spin to his borrowed moments, to make them serve his larger purposes rather than just slipping them in as an in-joke or a knowing wink to the audience. He has always seemed like a filmmaker with a profound respect for, and appreciation of, his predecessors; he may quote a couple of lines, but he has the whole poem memorized by heart.
Watching Scorsese here, then, as he struggles to cram a lifetime of passionate, eclectic film viewing into just four hours, one can almost feel his excitement as he races through entire genres, decades and movements, trying to give some kind of overarching plot or structure to cinema history. It is reminiscent at times of those moments when the recipient of an Academy Award stands at the podium, hyperventilating while rattling off a list of names, desperate not to forget anyone. Scorsese, who amazingly has never won an Oscar, has a lot of people to get through, and although this film is often fascinating, its scattershot structure ultimately keeps it from becoming anything more than a four-hour shout-out.
Eschewing a simple chronological progression, Scorsese tackles his subject thematically, dividing his comments into chapters titled “The Director’s Dilemma”, “The Director as Storyteller”, “The Director as Illusionist”, “The Director as Smuggler”, and “The Director as Iconoclast”. The first section is largely a discussion of the studio system, with Scorsese singling out directors who made the system work for them, often making “one for the studio and one for themselves” – people like King Vidor, Michael Curtiz, Vincente Minnelli and Raoul Walsh. With lengthy sections on Vidor’s Duel In The Sun, and Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, this section is a fascinating start.
The second section addresses three genres: the Western, the Gangster Film and the Musical. Notably absent not just from this chapter, but from the film as a whole is the comedy genre, a major oversight. The closest Scorsese has come to making a comedy may be the still pretty dark After Hours, but almost all his films have a comedic element to them. Even his heaviest films have their lighter scenes (Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepard’s campaign H.Q. small talk in Taxi Driver, the lavish cookery of the jailed Mafiosi in Goodfellas, Nicolas Cage’s string of larger-than-life partners in Bringing Out The Dead), but with the exception of a sprinkling of Billy Wilder and a little Chaplin, comedy has no place in this particular journey. Also absent from the series as a whole are female filmmakers, but this is hardly Scorsese’s fault (Quick! Name five female directors working before 1969!). Scorsese’s analysis of the development of the western and the gangster film is interesting, and as always the examples he chooses are eye-opening and often unusual. Viewers of this series would do well to have a notebook handy so they can write down titles of the many interesting-looking films of which they were previously unaware.
The section on “The Director As Illusionist” examines some of the grander epic specialists such as F. W. Murnau, D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, but it is in the final two sections “The Director As Smuggler” and “The Director As Iconoclast” that Scorsese really seems to come alive. Here he is able to discuss the more rebellious and transgressive filmmakers – the artists who stood in defiance of the Hayes Code and the House Unamerican Activities Committee, paving the way for successive generations of filmmakers. Directors like Fuller, Cassavettes, Kubrick, Wilder, Ray, Kazan and Welles are all given their due (some are even given a few seconds of screen time in the form of archive interview excerpts), along with lesser known figures like Andre De Toth, Jacques Tourneur and Alexander MacKendrick, before arriving (for the third or fourth time) in the late 1960s where Scorsese refuses to go any further, on the grounds that his perspective on these years is colored too strongly by the fact that he began making films himself.
By the end of A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, one is left with the feeling that cinema history is indeed rich, and that there are many directors and films which have unjustly fallen by the wayside, but the feeling is really no different than the one that overcomes us all from time to time when standing in a well-stocked video store. Over the course of these four hours, there is very little insight into Scorsese himself, of how this impressive list of films and filmmakers influenced or affected him. A more interesting approach may have been to select three of Scorsese’s favorite overlooked gems (maybe Duel In The Sun, Cat People, and The Bad and the Beautiful) for him to examine in more depth. The selection of films here is too eclectic and personal, not to mention numerous, to make this a serious course in film history, but there is too little of Scorsese himself to make this a biographical glimpse into the early passions of a cinema legend. What remains, then, is a dizzying and tantalizing skate across the surface of a deep and wonderful lake.