A Personal Journey… was made by the British Film Institute as part of its Century of Cinema project. For each documentary in the series, a leading filmmaker would look at the cinema of their own country. Martin Scorsese dealt with the USA; the result – originally broadcast in three parts on Channel 4 – is the longest in the series and, to most people’s minds including mine, the standout.
The key word in the title is personal. As Scorsese makes clear in his introduction, this survey is by no means exhaustive. Even in three and a half hours, there simply isn’t time. These are the films that influenced him. Some of them are films which changed his life, such as Duel in the Sun, which he saw at the tender age of four. As he grew up, he saw more and more films, often finding that the more out-of-the-way items and discoveries had a greater impact on him than the established blockbusters and classics. Soon he became aware of the directors, the men (and at that point, only a few women) who made these films.
Scorsese’s documentary is unashamedly auteurist: to him, film can be and often is a vehicle for personal expression. But cinema is also an industry, designed to make money. The director faces a dilemma: how do you square personal expression with commercial imperatives? Do you make “one for them, one for yourself”? Of course, a sympathetic and supportive producer is an invaluable asset: Scorsese’s example is Vincente Minnelli, who for years was MGM’s in-house “artist”, with the support of producers Arthur Freed and later John Houseman.
Ultimately, the director is a storyteller, and the first part of A Personal Journey ends with an examination of how story genres change over time, with the Western, the Gangster Film and the Musical. We see John Wayne’s persona change over two decades under John Ford’s direction, from the simplicity of Stagecoach to the benevolent father-figure of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to the embittered misfit of The Searchers. Likewise, the Gangster Film moved from the classical style of The Public Enemy to the avant-garde, time-fragmented approach of Point Blank. Even in the musical, that most escapist of genres, we see Busby Berkeley incorporating social comment. Even this genre can be used for self-exploration, as in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.
Scorsese discusses the director’s role as an illusionist – not just the large-scale spectacle of Griffith or De Mille, but the small-scale conjuring of fear out of darkness in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. Tourneur leads into a long discussion of The Director as Smuggler. These are filmmakers, usually working in less-regarded B movies, who are able to work in recognised genres but against the grain of them. They can bring in psychological complexity, often outright subversiveness. Max Ophuls, for example, made “women’s pictures”, but there is a bitter aftertaste to the sweet surface of such as Letter to an Unknown Woman. Ida Lupino smuggles feminist concerns into the B movies she directed in the Fifties. Allan Dwan can turn a B western like Silver Lode into an allegory of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the time: the villain of the film is even called McCarthy. In their very different ways, Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller can incorporate social critique into the glossy melodrama of All That Heaven Allows and the in-your-face tabloid style of Shock Corridor.
Finally, Scorsese examines the directors who were iconoclasts, who attacked the system head-on. Sometimes they changed it, and sometimes they were defeated. D.W. Griffith, Erich Von Stroheim, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick were all men who pushed at the boundaries of the Hollywood system. John Cassavetes worked from outside, his work – where emotional truth takes precedence over “story” – blazing the trail for today’s independents.
Scorsese’s journey ends in the late Sixties (with a few later films mentioned). That was the time he began making his own films, he says, and he lacks the necessary objectivity to continue the story onwards. Some may quibble at the auteurist bias of this documentary, but Scorsese is an engaging speaker, and the time flies by with no great difficulty. There are brief interviews (some from the archive, some contemporary) with Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Billy Wilder, John Ford, Nicholas Ray and many others. —Thedigitalfix.com
Martin Scorsese was born in New York City and soon developed a passion for cinema and a particular admiration for neo-realist cinema which inspired him and influenced his view or portrayal of his Sicilian heritage. After graduating from NYU Film School in 1966 and making a number of shorts, he shot his first feature-length film Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968) with fellow student, actor Harvey Keitel, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker both of whom were to become long-term collaborators. Mean Streets followed in 1973 and provided the benchmarks for the ‘Scorsese style’. After Scorsese directed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the trio was reunited for the dark journey of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. After New York, New York Scorsese released Raging Bull. The acclaimed biography of middleweight fighter Jake LaMotta was followed by exploration of fans as pariah in The King of Comedy, dark-comic dreams in After Hours and pool sharks in The Color of Money. Scorsese outraged some religious… read more
The only thing that bothers me in this documentary it probably bothers Martin Scorsese more. As he said in the final of the doc, misses some of great directors and cinema landmarks. It's not complete. However, what Scorsese achieves with this didactic but friendly talk is beyond great, it's really superb. We learn and made us think about movies and the passionate bunch of artists behind them.