Title: A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
Director: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson
Cast: Martin Scorsese, Gregory Peck, George Lucas, Billy Wilder, John Ford, Nicholas Ray
Synopsis: Martin Scorsese provides an equally personal and academic history of American film, sharing his experiences with the movies that impacted his life as a filmmaker and a genuine lover of the medium. Along the way are interviews and archival footage of famous directors and footage from their work.
Critique: It’s easy to praise a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese; as a director, his legacy speaks for itself. I also think of him as a great commentator on film, and over the years he’s been an outspoken champion of the movies he loves, and he’s performed laudable work as a preservationist, distributing overlooked, damaged or thought-to-be-lost titles ranging from classic studio era efforts or lesser-known foreign films.
Here, is an amply managed essay on American cinema, indexed with unassumed monikers. In one section, he focuses on filmmakers who masked themes of McCarthyism, sex, race, and politics through subtext called “The Director as Smuggler.” Another, entitled “The Director as Illusionist”, chronicles the early pioneers like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith whose grandiose expression in the silent era shaped the future of movies. Instead of a linear timeline, Scorsese hits a stride with themes and styles; it’s edited and carried out with such an unenforced grace, the nearly-four-hour running time is unnoticed.
The title indicates the documentary’s mission statement – this is a history of American cinema, and it’s very much a cathartic exercise for Scorsese as well. The personal stories he shares lends us a peek behind the curtain into the pure-hearted cinephile. He recounts going to see the 1946 film A Duel in the Sun with his mother (westerns were usually with Dad) because their church had banned it, denounced as “lust in the dust.” He notes his obsession with his first movie book, A Pictorial History of the Movies by Deems Taylor; repeatedly checking it out of the library, confessing that he was so enamored with individual images he’d tear out pages as keepsakes.
It’s affecting in sharing the impact that films had on a young Scorsese, and emblematic of his obsession, giving in to impulses and (for a child) reckless behavior, this is the action of someone in love with movies.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: There’s an endless line of documentaries about movies and film history, and for those of us that have a love for cinema will likely gravitate to this subset of movies about movies. Scorsese’s treatment isn’t the self-congratulatory retrospectives (that are still fun) along the lines of A Decade Under the Influence or Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
This lengthy essay film is genuinely educational and entertaining. If The Criterion Collection were going to usher in any documentary of this variety, Scorsese’s journey would be the perfect entry given his relationship with Criterion/Janus Films. Other factors that support the claim harken back to this being in the Collection on Laserdisc, and having streamed on the Filmstruck channel. Otherwise, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies won’t find the audience it deserves, hopefully they can fit that long title on the DVD/Blu-ray spine.