A Dreamer Walking

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 2, 2011

I want to recommend the documentary  A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies to any film student who has hopes for working in Hollywood (Click on the link to go to the DVD’s Amazon page). This documentary is a priceless look at the History of Hollywood Film. In the documentary we are narrated through the Golden age of Cinema by Martin Scorsese. He gives us a very personal view on the subject. He concentrates on some filmmakers that few filmmakers of this generation have ever heard of and he skips over some of the most well known filmmakers in Hollywood History. There is hardly mention of great filmmakers like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. There is no mention of my personal favorite filmmaker Walt Disney. However, after understanding that this is a very personal view by Scorsese I became more understanding and content with him skipping over some filmmakers I personally felt connected to. I actually think this film is a “must see” because it is so personal. We are given the History of Hollywood filmmaking from Martin Scorsese’s personal perspective. There is no one else who could have made this except for Scorsese and that is what makes it priceless.

Scorsese concentrates on the type of directors that make movies like he does. We constantly see a concentration on the underdog in this documentary. Usually the movies with the tragic ending and the antihero are the movies that are highlighted by Scorsese. Scorsese starts the documentary off talking about The Director’s Dilemma. In this section Scorsese tries to express the constant battle the director has with the studio in getting  his own personal vision up on screen. Scorsese explains how the big studios in the 1930’s and 40’s had their own style and how they expected the director to conform to that style. Scorsese talks about many people who were not able to bend to the studio system and how it crushed many of their creativity and drive. It is obvious that Scorsese likes the rebel in Hollywood and all the way through the documentary we see Scorsese concentrate on the tragic Hollywood director who was good and had a grand amount of potential but eventually got crushed by the Hollywood system because he or she was too rebellious. For the most part Scorsese looks at the Hollywood system as a necessary evil the Director needs to deal with.

We are told about a few filmmakers who flourished in the Hollywood system. Scorsese does not leave out all of the popular directors of the day. His mission is to show many different directors of the time period and how they influenced the Cinema. Scorsese does a marvelous job explaining how the film process developed through out the years. In the second chapter of the documentary titled The Director as Storyteller, Scorsese takes us through three film genres, the Western, the Gangster Film, and the Musical. This is one of the most educational chapters in the whole documentary. We are shown how Hollywood as a whole developed through the development of these genres. One of the greatest examples Scorsese used is John Ford‘s three Westerns Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Searchers (1956) all staring John Wayne. Through specific examples of all three of these films we are shown clearly how the Hollywood story style turned from black and white morality in the 1930’s too the complex characters of the 1950’s where we don’t quite know who is right and who is wrong.

I found the Western genre examples to be the most useful. However, Scorsese does a good job explaining curtain truths the Musical and Gangster film genre’s revealed about society. We are shown how the public became more and more open to in depth and insightful stories in film. We saw how the public grew from wanting to escape to a imaginary lands in the 1930’s to wanting to watch movies that revealed truths about the land they actually lived in in the late 1940’s and 50’s.

The most unbiased section of the documentary and the section I found the most useful was when Scorsese talked about The Director as Illusionist. This is all about the vocabulary and tools of filmmaking and how they developed through out the years. We are introduced to D. W. Griffith and are given examples on how he started to build the vocabulary of film in the early 1910’s. Scorsese does a superb job using specific examples from Griffith’s films to further his points. We see how Griffith discovered the power of the high and low angle. We see how Griffith used close ups to build up emotion and how he used cuts to move his stories along. Scorsese talks about how the silent area allowed us to understand the power of film visuals. Everything needed to be communicated through the visuals and Scorsese shows us the masters of the silent era such as Cencil B. Demille and the German filmmaker F. W. Murnau and their contribution to building the visual vocabulary in film.

After showing the power of the visuals and what some of the filmmakers were able to do with them, we are introduced to sound. Scorsese talks briefly about the problems that came with sound. How the camera stopped moving for a short while because of all the technical equipment that needed to come with the new invention and how movies became full of talking heads rather then people visually telling the story. However, quickly Scorsese goes into detail on some of the great values of sound. He talks about filmmakers such as George Hill and Howard Hawks and how they used sound to bring more emotion to their scenes and heighten the suspense of their films. Scorsese talks about the contribution of color and how many filmmakers used color to represent curtain feelings that came with the characters and scenes we were observing.

When Scorsese talks about the Cinema Scope (the widescreen format of film) that came in the mid 1950’s, he goes into detail on how it was used to create a more epic feel in order to heighten the cinema experience. He talks about both the difficulties of Cinema Scope– how it was harder to focus on single characters and made film harder to edit, and the new openings for film it created– in the way it allowed us to experience the actual atmospheres and locations the actors were in. Lastly Scorsese concentrates for a few minutes on the innovations of visual effects. There was a little melancholy in the way Scorsese talked about visual effects taking over actual  location shooting. However, he does express the qualities of visual effects well and there is a point made that visual effects are only tools that require good filmmakers to be pulled off. I can not recommend this section of the documentary enough. This section by itself makes the whole documentary worth buying. Scorsese is a master illusionist when it comes to film and in this section he express in fine detail why.

The next section we go through is the most personal part of Scorsese’s documentary. The section is titled The Director as Smuggler. We are now shown many of the metaphors that went behind many B Film directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Billy Wilder, and Samuel Fuller. This section is entirely about how the directors were able to quietly but clearly express their personal vision on screen through low budget filmmaking. Scorsese makes the point, the less money it cost for a movie to get made the more freedom the director is given. We are shown specific examples on how these movies gave us insight on some very relevant issues in the time periods in which they were made. We are also shown examples from films and filmmakers that I do not think you will find in any other documentary. Most of the directors Scorsese concentrates on in this section are not well known, they just happen to have caught Scorsese’s eye and Scorsese makes sure they will be remembered through talking about their contribution to American film. There several archive interviews that are shown in the section. We hear the actual filmmakers express some of their personal thought process behind their unique filmmaking choices.

The last section of the documentary is titled The Director as Iconoclast. This is also a very personal view from Scorsese. It concentrates on some of the most influential filmmakers in the history of Cinema. The iconoclast are the filmmakers that faced the film studios head on and in many cases were destroyed because of it, but in a few cases were able to bend the studios to their will and create some of the greatest films ever made. In this section we are told about filmmakers like Erich von Straheim, Orsen Wells, and Stanly Kubrick. All these filmmakers created movies that brought up extremely relevant issues such as the corruption of greed and the importance of exploration. They created movies that concentrated on the anti hero and the outcasts. There goals were not to make the audience always feel happy after viewing the film, but rather to think and look at things in a different way then ever before. The directors in this section were all driven by personal vision and created movies that took a tremendous amount of risk and innovation. Scorsese gave us several examples on how the directors used the camera to represent their personal view. In essence these directors became influences on the audience in the way they lit their scenes and cut their sequences. Instead of giving us seamless movies these directors movie styles drew attention to themselves. To these filmmakers “the camera was a instrument of poetry”.

The last section of Martin Scoreses’ documentary is truly inspiring. Even though I do not agree with all the directors points of view they show me the amount of potential the medium of film has. Scorsese closes the documentary off by expressing the true value of film. He explains how the movies are a very spiritual experience to him. They are meant to share a common memory with the audience. They are meant to impact us through revealing universal truths. This documentary reminded me history is one of the greatest teachers a film student can have. We are shown some of the foundations of the American cinema. This documentary shows us the power of film and some of the filmmakers who were able to master that power. We see how far the medium of film has grown from it’s very beginnings. And the documentary challenges us to see how far we personally can take the medium of film.

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