Scorsese shines light on neglected classics

Preview: The director as film fan shows that there's more to movies than box-office blockbusters.

February 14, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Martin Scorsese didn't make a 4 1/2-hour documentary about the movies to show us more scenes from "Gone With the Wind" or "Casablanca." Scores of film historians have already been there and done that.

Instead, "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies," making its television premiere tonight through Wednesday on TCM, concentrates on films that may have slipped through the cracks, and on directors whose careers were too brief to leave a lasting impact or whose work has been unjustly ignored by the masses.

"There are so many who do documentaries on Hitchcock," Scorsese says during a conference call from New York. "He's so well-known. There are so many books; everybody talks about him. For the younger film enthusiast or film student or film lover or filmmaker, he's accessible, you can find out things about him.

"But people like Andre de Toth and Jacques Tourneur, it's harder to find these [movies]. I just wanted to present a lot of that."

Although they're mentioned in passing, Scorsese also leaves to others the careers of such masters as John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and George Stevens.

Instead, this "Personal Journey" sticks with the likes of King Vidor and Allan Dwan, silent-era filmmakers whose productive careers extended well into the 1960s; Anthony Mann, a master of the brooding western; Roland Brown, whose gritty films about social issues exemplify Hollywood in the days before the production code sought to homogenize everything; Edgar G. Ulmer, whose grim, low-budget "Detour" made a particular impression on Scorsese; and Ida Lupino, who insisted on making films about such topics as rape at a time when the studios considered them box-office poison.

Scorsese developed his own eye for film early, not only by watching films over and over, but by looking beyond the acknowledged masters, beyond the Academy Award winners and box-office champions.

In the process, he developed an eye that can appreciate a film if only for its innovative use of the color blue, or its reliance on a particular camera angle. It's that eye that guides viewers through his "Personal Journey."

"I'm not really a film critic," Scorsese explains. "I love movies too much to be a critic. I look at a film that may have one or two scenes in it that may be wonderful, and the rest of the film is not very good. I kind of tolerate a lot of what I've seen over the years, maybe because I saw so much as a filmgoer. I think it's important to look at the documentary as my own personal walk through what affected me in my filmgoing experience from the late '40s up to the late '60s. It's not historical."

In fact, this 1996 documentary functions as his love letter to the medium -- a medium that enabled him to escape the confines of a sickbed (he suffered from asthma as a youth) and experience vicariously every thrill the world had to offer.

Scorsese maintains that the story of film is largely the conflict between directors and the studios that pay them -- the urge to create vs. the urge to make money.

"Personal Journey" separates directors into four categories: those who mastered a certain genre ("The Director as Storyteller"), those who created their own worlds on-screen ("The Director as Illusionist"), those who try to sneak one past the studio money men ("The Director as Smuggler") and those who brazenly follow their own path ("The Director as Iconoclast").

The categories are not mutually exclusive, and most directors at one time or another fit into more than one; Scorsese himself has tried all four. But the documentary's ingenious structure gives Scorsese the chance to speak eloquently (and, with his trademark rapid cadences) about how all directors leave an imprint on their films and how moviegoers can spot them.

But what "Personal Journey" most strongly reinforces is the notion that Martin Scorsese probably never met a movie he didn't like -- or, more precisely, one that didn't teach him something.

That may sound odd, given that Scorsese, 57, is among his generation's most admired filmmakers (Steven Spielberg has said he's the best).

But Scorsese is a film fan, and he enjoys the idea that his documentary may spark renewed interest in some directors' work.

"I really like Tourneur," Scorsese says when asked whose cause he'd most like to champion. "I find that watching his films is like spending time with a member of your family whom you love.

"I find that looking at `The Cat People' and `Out of the Past' and `I Walk With a Zombie,' those three films alone it's like spending time with a piece of music or a painting that sort of moves you.

"There is no end to watching them," he says of the low-budget, psychologically complex films Tourneur favored. "When they come on, I feel comforted in a way."

Scorsese says he'd also love it if his "Personal Journey" persuaded some young film fans to go on their own journeys of exploration, maybe even reconsider films today that don't burn up the box office.

"I'm hoping that, because of what I found in smaller films and B-films and genre films, young people today will look at some new films that did not do as well at the box office," Scorsese says. "They'll find some extraordinary things."

Martin Scorsese

What: "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies"

When: 8 p.m.-9: 30 p.m., repeats midnight-1: 30 a.m., today through Wednesday

Where: TCM In brief: The director as tour guide

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