Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Martin Scorsese’s Trip Through American Movies

Martin Scorsese produced a 4-hour documentary with the British Film Institute on the history of the American cinema up until the 1970s. Upon initial viewing, the documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, appears to be a good and sometimes even provocative introduction to the history of the American cinema. Upon closer reflection, I find Scorsese’s documentary inherently flawed and that it even begins to highlight the reasons for Scorsese’s recent career difficulties.

1. There is very little attention of the American comedic tradition. Chaplin is barely mentioned and Keaton gets one short clip. There is literally very little discussion of Frank Capra’s comedies, and even less of Preston Sturges. Billy Wilder does get more attention, but mostly for his Cold War satire One, Two, Three. Scorsese does not discuss the genre of the screwball comedy (one of the most popular genres in American film history), whereas his discussion of Westerns and gangster pictures is extremely extended. For Scorsese, the heart of American movies seems to be the Western and gangster genres.

2. In addition, though Scorsese highlights a few of the films, there is no explicit discussion of the American melodrama. He does discuss All That Heaven Allows, and some of Stroheim’s melodramas (particularly The Wedding March) as well as Murnau’s Sunrise. But, overall, his discussion of the American melodrama is even more fragmentary and incoherent than his discussion of the American comedy.

3. There is literally no discussion whatsoever of the American experimental or independent film.
Scorsese seems to see American film as primarily an existential journey through a solitary male psyche. The primary themes for Scorsese are male alienation, outsider/insider dynamics and the negatives of human society versus total independence (as exemplified by the lone cowboy and the lone gangster outside of society). Many of the movies he highlights are driven primarily by game theoretic stand-offs between completely self-interested heavily armed males . Appropriately, the bulk of the movies Scorsese examines in depth are from the 1950s (when game theory was invented as part of the Cold War military effort).

The most notably examined movies (and the more unusual choices) within the documentary are Allen Dwan’s Silver Lode, Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, I Walk Alone, Howard Hawks’ Scarface, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront and Fuller’s Forty Guns. There is a heavy predominance of heavily plotted Westerns, film noirs and gangster movies.

More about this topic shortly.


Blogger Lance Mannion said...

Sounds as though Scorsese sees the whole history of American film as a process intended to produce at last the films of Martin Scorsese.

Do you think this is a result of ego, solipsism, or an honest attempt to answer what he saw as the question posed by the project---what excited the imagination of Martin Scorsese? Title says it's his Personal Journey, which could be interpreted as a artistic autobiography.

Interesting his leaving out comedies whatever way he approached the project---not a lot of laughs in any of his movies, especially the one that was supposed to be a comedy, King of Comedy.

Leaving out comedy and melodrama leaves out most of the great work of American actresses, which is also telling.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

I do come away with the impression that Scorsese sees himself as "the next natural stage" of American film, since he does seemingly construct his history with his own type of movies as the highest point of evolution of the entire history of American film. However, that's not explicit either - Scorsese cuts off the documentary in the late 1960s, and does not mention anything after that point.

I don't think this is primarily egotistic, however. I would argue that it's Scorsese actual understanding of American film history.

9:06 AM  
Blogger JG said...

I'm a bit late in coming to this conversation, but will say in Scorsese's defence: his film is only four hours long. You could probably spend as long again just on a history of American film comedy (Kevin Brownlow managed two and a half hours just on Chaplin's outtakes). From memory he himself says something at the end of the film about all the things he could've talked about if he'd had time, so he was aware of the exclusions he was making.

That said, it certainly can be argued that his vision of Italian cinema appears to be restricted pretty much to neorealism and the figures who emerged from that movement (whether or not they remained neorealists as such, as Visconti and Fellini obviously didn't). There's a token nod to the epic tradition and bugger all about the giallo/horror/exploitation side of things (nothing about Mario Bava or Dario Argento), or indeed much else outside neorealism (from memory I don't think even folks like Pasolini or Bertolucci got a look-in). But then again, as Lance Mannion suggests above, the relative narrowness of focus may be down to the films being, ultimately, "his" voyage to Italy and his personal journey through American cinema rather than an attempt at a balanced general history.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

(burritoboy is also alex)


Well, the fact remains that Scorsese spends seemingly more time on Budd Boetticher than upon Chaplin and Keaton combined (or, if we're confing ourselves to Scorsese's childhood, Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin). Now, I like Boetticher myself, but Chaplin and Keaton are vastly more important than Boetticher.

It's quite true this is explicitly Scorsese's personal journey. But the question arises, especially with the decline of Scorsese's career since the early 1980s, if his personal journey is flawed.

Part of Scorsese's problem is that he doesn't have enough emotional variation to sustain him throughout a very long career. Many of the greatest masters could handle both comedy and tragedy well(for example, Ozu, Hitchcock, Hawks, McCarey, Wilder, Wyler, Renoir).

The great majority (indeed, essentially all) of Scorsese's successful movies have been crime/gangster/thrillers. The initial string of movies that brought him attention (Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) are all soldily within the traditions of the crime genre. His three well-regarded movies of the 1980s - two of them are regarding sports closely connected with crime (pool and boxing), a genre well within the film noir tradition (see The Set-Up, Body and Soul, etc.) The other film was a "comedy" that to some extent replayed the Travis Bickle character.

Since then, Scorsese has essentially tried to re-flog the crime genre by mutating it into multiple forms - historical epic (Gangs of New York and Casino as gang movies and historical epics), and Goodfellas (gangster movie as biopic).

Compare that with the two directors I think are actually the best living American directors - Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch. While Scorsese has been unable to create a Western, a genre he worships, both Linklater and Jarmusch have created the best Westerns of the recent past (Dead Man and The Newton Boys). Jarmusch and Linklater have also made gangster movies (The Newton Boys and Ghost Dog), crime movies (SubUrbia and Down by Law), comedies (Night on Earth and Dazed and Confused, School of Rock), romances (Before Sunrise/Before Sunset) and road movies (Mystery Train and Slacker).

12:14 PM  

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