A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies Review

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.

But the real reason for watching (and buying) this DVD is a plethora of film clips, most of them in perfect condition and all but a few in their correct aspect ratios. (To be picky, the extracts from The Tall T, The Left-Handed Gun and America, America are shown in open-matte 4:3 instead of 1.85:1.) You'll finish watching this DVD wanting to catch up with the films featured that you haven't seen, and to look again at those you have. And to wonder why so many of them aren't on DVD yet.

Being a television production, A Personal Journey was shot in 4:3. Most of the film extracts are pin-sharp. Watching this, you can see how much character black-and-white photography can have: from the hard contrast of John Alton's (T-Men) and James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) to softer, more romantic shades of grey. Some of the colour films have never looked so vibrant. Some of the silent clips look a little flickery, and the extract from Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street is very soft and dupey-looking, but that's no doubt due to the age and condition of the original materials. The 16mm origins of John Cassavetes' Faces explains that particular excerpt's lack of sharpness. The sequences of Scorsese talking to camera were shot on video, and look noticeably softer, but not unacceptably so. There is some aliasing, most obvious during the white-on-black line drawing during the opening credits.

The sound is mono, but as this documentary consists entirely of talking heads and clips from films which were almost all made with monophonic soundtracks, that's not an issue. Only one clip (Gold Diggers of 1932) is noticeably hissy.

This DVD has no extras at all, though you have to ask what you could include. (A commentary would be redundant, as this disc is all commentary anyway.) As you get over three and a half hours' worth of material on one disc, it would be churlish to complain in any case. However, English subtitles would have been very useful. Considering the potential of this DVD for dipping into favourite clips, there should be more than eleven chapters. Admittedly, this does follow the subdivisions of the original three-part TV programme, but it does result in some chapters which are half an hour long. Much use of the fast-forward will be required. (Oddly, the chapters are numbered 2 to 12 on my player. Chapter 1, which is only accessible by using the SEARCH button, consists of four seconds of the BFI logo.)

An essential purchase for film buffs, A Personal Journey is a solid, if idiosyncratic and unashamedly personal, grounding in the history of Hollywood and how its films have developed over the years. Scorsese regards himself as still a student, and he maintains that there is a lot to learn from films such as these. As Scorsese learned from books in his day, let's hope some future director will be watching this DVD and learning in his or her way.

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