Goodfella seduced by sin

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies

February 13, 1998

Back in the 1960s one needed a union card to work in films, but one had already to be working in films to get a union card. (Nowadays, entry for many youngsters is through unpaid work as runners - followed by casualisation for most of them.) Through a mutual friend, I went to see Paul Dickson, a leading film director at the time, to get his advice on how to do the impossible. Dickson was helpful but challenging: "Are you," he asked, "a film-maker or a film appreciator?" I recalled that provocative and deadly question as I read A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. Here is a maker and appreciator. But in a culture in which "history" is synonymous with "dead", it is significant that even a person of Scorsese's stature feels the need to justify his journey: "I am often asked by younger film-makers: why do I need to look at old movies? The only response I can give them is: I still consider myself a student ... the more pictures I make the more I realise I don't know. I'm always looking for something or someone I can learn from." Now this may seem self-evident, even banal, but the fact is that among young film-makers the resistance to film history is so strong that it amounts to hostility.

The distinguished Hungarian director, Istvan Szabo (Mephisto), found that in the post-communist Hungarian Film School, students exercised their newly found freedom by cutting his classes on film history en masse. Maybe in Eastern Europe, "history" had become another word for "discredited", but there is a dumbing down here at home also. The propaganda for such TV programmes as Moviewatch, in which young people review new releases, suggests that film history is self-important babble - the more immediate, emotional and mindless the response, the better. It seems that what is important is not judgement, but purely subjective taste. However, the reviewers often do not speak plainly and honestly and affect a superior and dismissive tone: I suppose it makes them feel like proper critics.

At the other end of the spectrum, a critic recently wrote in the British Film Institute's Monthly Film Bulletin: "Back in 1953, Cesare Zavattini, one of the foremost scriptwriters and advocates of Italian neo-realism, called for 'socially important' cinema in the pages of Sight and Sound for 'the time has come to tell the audience that they are the true protagonists of life,' he thundered, in the quaintly existential humanist way of the times. 'The result will be a constant appeal to the responsibility and dignity of every human being.'" Setting aside the patronising tone, some synapses are missing here. The idealistic language that the critic feebly mocks was a response to the cheapening of life in a war that claimed nearly 30 million dead. The substance of neo-realism had to do with what stories films should tell, how to tell them and who should appear in them. Neo-realists were interested in characters living at the margin and dramas that grew out of everyday situations; they rejected the mechanical demands of classical storytelling; and they were fascinated by the unadorned faces, gestures and manners of ordinary people who were never seen on film because of the domination of the star system. The plain quasi-documentary style of shooting was the product, and not the producer, of these aims. Bicycle Thieves is the perfect example: a simple story, characters who possess little apart from hope - and not much of that; no stars or professional actors but ordinary people portraying their own lives; and an emphasis on location shooting in streets and public places to give a sense of society with its groups and gatherings. Neo-realism has been the most compelling movement in film history, with an influence extending to the films of the nouvelle vague, British Free Cinema, Czech cinema of the Prague Spring, and of many individual artists such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and, abroad, Satyajit Ray and Martin Scorsese (particularly Scorsese's early films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Mean Streets).

A Personal Journey is an adaptation, by Michael Henry Wilson, of a script that Scorsese wrote in 1995 for a British Film Institute/Channel Four documentary of the same title; stills replace the film clips. A failure of marketing is that the book and cassette of the film are not available as a package; stores tend to stock one or the other but not both. As one would expect, Scorsese's ideas stand out more clearly in the book (which is handsomely produced, generously illustrated but, though it costs Pounds 20, has no index). However, there are contradictions in the documentary, necessarily missing in the book, that are fascinating. Most important of all is the presence of Scorsese himself. The movies he has chosen may be important to him but the way he speaks - in uneven staccato bursts - communicates tension rather than enthusiasm and his manner is not "personal" but detached and academic (perhaps he has been around the BFI for too long). Scorsese first wanted to be a priest; on screen he is well cast for the role: attentive, focused and distant. His presence is at odds with the clips he and his editor/collaborator, the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker, have chosen and put together: a tumult of excerpts showing conflict, turmoil and violence with only a few short scenes of contemplation or introspection; and edited, as always with this team, for dissonance and dynamic effect.

Scorsese has chosen films which, he says, have prompted him to become a film-maker, and he half-apologises because he includes "obscure films ... that were more inspirational than the prestigious films that received all the attention". My appetite was sharpened by this promise but he does not quite deliver. He does include some B-movie directors like Bud Boetticher, Jacques Tourneur and the granddaddy of them all, Samuel Fuller (whose famous definition of film must surely coincide with Scorsese's own: "Love, hate, action, death - in one word, emotion!"). But the nouvelle vague and their fellow travellers have already elevated these directors; in no sense can they be considered "obscure" - on the contrary, they are quite fashionable. The reassessment by the nouvelle vague was inspired by a re-interpretation of the films themselves and by a need to challenge the notions of high and low art. There is also a sense in which these French critics, film-makers and intellectuals were beguiled by a bit of the rough stuff. Fuller, in particular, is so liberatingly direct. He says what he means, and means what he says. He is a kind of pugilist-poet who is constantly beating the audience about the head. What impresses Scorsese in Fuller's work, and, indeed, in all the other films, is something else: expression and style. Which, not surprisingly, are the very qualities that one associates with Scorsese's own films.

But this documentary is not simply a list of favourites that have influenced Scorsese. He deals with those aspects of film-making that must confront him every day of his working life: what kind of films to make and how to make sure that his vision gets on the screen. His solution - and that of the other directors in this volume - is to make genre movies. The great French director, Jean Renoir, had this to say of a (film) spectator:

"Being human he is attracted by the least effort; but, also, being human, he is devoured by curiosity". In other words, audiences want the familiar and the new - both at the same time. The solution, says Scorsese, is to work within genres and subvert them. He has practised what he preaches: a musical (New York, New York), a boxing film (Raging Bull), a period costume drama (The Age of Innocence), a religious drama (The Last Temptation of Christ) and a gangster movie (GoodFellas). In the book he focuses on three genres, "the western, which was born on the frontier, the gangster film, which originated in the East Coast cities, and the musical, which was spawned by Broadway ... they reflected the changing times; they gave you fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche."

Scorsese gives an illuminating example of the mutation of the western by looking at the transformation of John Wayne in three John Ford films from the Ringo Kid, the uncomplicated hero of Stagecoach, to Captain Brittles, the benevolent father figure of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, to the complex Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He parallels this loss of innocence with dark developments in American society. Scorsese does not quote from the first two films but, predictably, he lingers on Edwards who, uncharacteristically for Ford, is a deeply troubled, almost neurotic figure. The book quotes only the scene where Edwards shoots the dead Comanche in the eyes, so that, according to Indian belief, "his soul will wander forever between the winds". The documentary shows two other clips, including the arrival, from a low angle, of Edwards and Mose, the half-demented Indian scout, above the burning homestead. With an action reminiscent of a man taking a sword from a scabbard, John Wayne draws his rifle, flinging off its fringed leather sheath in a sweeping gesture. Words cannot do the scene justice, which shows Ford at his poetic best. With brevity and power, it expresses Ethan Edwards's pure wrath and dramatises his declaration of war on the Indian nation.

In a different context, Scorsese quotes the all-too-familiar scene from Orson Welles's Citizen Kane of Kane at Madison Square Gardens, under a monumental banner of himself, lambasting his political rival, Jim Gettys. The documentary - but not the book - shows a couple of scenes from Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons, including the one in which we hear Welles's voice on the soundtrack: "George Amberson Miniver walked homewards slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city - for the town was growing and changing. It was heaving up - incredibly; it was spreading - incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its sky." The duality of industrialisation, of whether the town is giving birth or defecating, is brilliantly encapsulated. The literariness is expunged by the accompanying images of an old wedge-shaped building at a crossroads, overhead cables, clapboard houses and dark skies. The words speak of a troubling future; the images show a decaying and vanishing past. Again, Scorsese lets the excerpt speak for itself; and in context it does. But in a study of this kind, one wants to know what the author thinks - particularly when he is one of the finest film directors around.

On the whole, the chapters on genres are the least interesting in the book. The subject has already been done to death by scores of writers and Scorsese is not able to add much that is new. He is at his most compelling, however, when he deals with what he calls "the director's dilemma", that is, how to make films that are "personal" in an industrial system opposed to self-expression. He is, of course, intimately acquainted with the problem. In Hollywood you are not supposed to make films for yourself, you are supposed to make them for the largest possible audience so as to make the most amount of money. But to achieve this aim Hollywood needs the highest calibre artists. Somehow, some "personal" films do get created (and a great deal of money gets made). Naturally Scorsese is admiring of all those who have found a way to function and to survive, and has a soft spot for those who bucked the system and cracked.

King Vidor did it his way by making one for them and one for himself: The Champ and Stella Dallas for them, Hallelujah, Our Daily Bread and The Crowd for himself. Jacques Tourneur (whose father, Maurice Tourneur, is a much under-rated and forgotten master - his silent version of Lorna Doone has moments of action which presage Kurosawa's films) made pictures cheaply and was, therefore, left alone to create extraordinary films such as Cat People. Welles was given complete freedom to make Citizen Kane but was never trusted after that ("Do you know that I always liked Hollywood very much? It just wasn't reciprocated"). Ford avoided the wrong kind of attention by pretending to be a journeyman director ("My name is John Ford. I make westerns"). One feels, as the different strategies are unravelled, that Scorsese is geeing himself up for the continuing battle - if they could do it so can he.

There are chapters that deal with the director as "illusionist", "smuggler" and "iconoclast". In reality the directors put in one category could easily figure in another. For example, guess who comes under which category among these three: Max Ophuls, Sandy Mackendrick and Howard Hawks. The essential point here is the diversity of talent that has, against all the odds, flowered in Hollywood. But Scorsese tells only part of the story. He has selected work that is expressive, dynamic and extravagant - work that announces itself and is evidently stylish. The quieter, stiller and more contained film-makers are absent - no Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann or Jean Renoir. Scorsese pleads lack of space. But it is a matter of temperament. Scorsese is nearer to Dostoevsky than to Chekhov. His own films tap into the primitive emotions that are quickly revealed under pressure. And pressure does not have to be anything extraordinary; it is simply other people. With any two men in Scorsese's films, there is violence and death between them; with any man and woman, there is sex. Scorsese was never going to be a dull travelling companion. He has taken us on an exciting and eventful journey. It has been well worth it.

Mamoun Hassan was formerly head of directing and editing, National Film and Television School, and managing director, National Film Finance Corporation. As a film-maker, he produced the series Movie Masterclass for Channel Four.

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies

Author - Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson
ISBN - 0 571 19242 4
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 191

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.