Mean Scenes and GoodFolks
A Personal Journey
With Martin Scorsese
Through American Movies
Walker Art Center, Friday at 7 p.m.
Red Eye Cinema, Saturday at 8 p.m.
CASINO PLAYED LIKE Martin Scorsese's ultimate confession of obsessive-compulsiveness: Stacking the odds against his tendency to win critical favor, he remade GoodFellas, but as a darker, more complicated, more resonant film. So it's no wonder that in his new documentary, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese issues high praise to veteran directors like John Ford and Raoul Walsh--directors who, throughout their careers, chose to redeploy familiar actors and plots in "endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse variations." The difference between Ford's Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), for example, mirrors that between a short story and an essay, a declaration and a rebuttal, a gifted artist and a mature one. Scorsese's point is that genre conventions don't confine the great filmmaker so much as help reveal where he stands--just as versions of (film) history inevitably reflect the tastes and politics of the teller.
Beginning the Walker's month-long Century of Cinema series, this is indeed a personal trip through the U.S. canon--one in which 2001 represents the height of FX, Cat People matters as much as Citizen Kane, and Hitchcock factors not at all. In a brisk 210 minutes, Scorsese (co-writing and -directing with Michael Henry Wilson) admits he can only scratch the surface, and vows to avoid most everything post-1968, the year he released his own first feature. (A notable exception is made for Kubrick's Barry Lyndon.) These parameters don't excuse every conspicuous absence--Arzner, Cukor, and Micheaux are all MIA--but they do set the agenda: to render the personal in a historical light while giving even highly evolved buffs a fresh list of must-sees. In more ways than one, this is a privilege; for instance, the auteur's industry juice enables Gregory Peck to stop by for a discussion of Duel in the Sun, the film Marty's mom took him to see at age 4. And at its most analytical, the doc still invokes the director's own mythology. "There's no reprieve in film noir," Scorsese argues. "You just keep paying for your sins."
This isn't to say that Personal Journey is merely self-indulgent. Obviously, the man knows his movies. He links the crime film and the western by tallying their preoccupations with violence, the law, and the individual; and he likens '30s musicals to gangster films for sharing both manic energy and James Cagney. Other references are more thickly intertextual, with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)--Vincente Minnelli's film about filmmaking--becoming a hectic hub of allusions. To name a few: Bad's story of B-movie ingenuity paid homage to Cat People's no-cat style, and was sequelized by Minnelli in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)--the latter here inspiring Scorsese to observe, in a distinctly Casino-like voiceover, that by the early '60s "the pioneers and showmen were gone, the moguls replaced by agents and executives."
Like Casino, Personal Journey expresses nostalgia for the pre-corporate days when rugged iconoclasts and "expatriate smugglers" ruled the roost. If this sounds like a western motif, it's maybe no coincidence: Scorsese's sharpest writing in the doc includes his ruminations on the horse operas of Ford, Anthony Mann, and Clint Eastwood, suggesting that he may be ready to traverse his last uncharted genre. The auteur's other chief obsession these days appears to be Kubrick--evident in the near-religious respect given to 2001 and Barry Lyndon ("one of the most profoundly emotional films I've ever seen," he says), but also in the fact that Scorsese's last two features have carried a strongly Kubrickian chill. Of course, this buff's tastes are too catholic to hold just one idol. His final clip is from Elia Kazan's immigrant epic America, America--which, like Kubrick's films but more subjectively, describes where we came from and where we're going.
Scorsese's own lineage is laid out in Italianamerican, the documentary he made about his parents and their origins in 1974, which is screening as part of the Red Eye's "Short Film Showcase" (along with films by Luis Buñuel and Peter Greenaway). Characterized by a palpable love between the filmmaker and his subjects, it's a home movie in the best sense, and another reminder that all histories are personal. CP
Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has cut 10 Scorsese features, will introduce A Personal Journey on Friday at the Walker. On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., she'll lecture at MCAD on her work editing Raging Bull and GoodFellas; for more info, call IFP/North at 338-0871.
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