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Monday, September 17, 2007


Charting the entirety of the history of American film would be an extremely difficult task. Tackling one genre alone would be a mammoth task. The British Film Institute instead asked one of the greatest living directors to discuss American cinema from a personal point of view. So in 1995, Martin Scorsese wrote, directed and introduced his own personal look at the history of American film in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.

We’re all perfectly aware of how good a filmmaker Martin Scorsese is. For the last four decades he has created some of the greatest movies the art form has ever produced. What he gives us in this four hour documentary is a look at the films that have influenced him ever since he first sat down in a cinema. One of the great aspects of the documentary is that Scorsese doesn’t discuss the obvious films (Gone With The Wind for example) that you’d expect to pop up in documentary. Instead, the films that Scorsese chooses range from the very obscure like King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd, to the well known, such as Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane.

The film is broken into chapters, which, if you plan on watching it in stages, makes it very easy to follow. In these chapters, Scorsese examines the role the director takes in bringing a movie to the screen. He examines the studio system and how certain directors broke the conventions of the studio system and changed the face of cinema. Scorsese lavishes praise on the pioneers of cinema including D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles and F.W.Murnau and Stanley Kubrick while introducing films by less well known directors such as Delmer Daves and Jacques Tourneur.

In three chapters, Scorsese takes a look at three genres that define American movies. The western, the gangster movie and the musical. Scorsese looks at each of these genres in great detail, exploring the evolution of each of these genres in terms of American movies. One very interesting examination is about the western, focusing on three films by John Ford. Using 1939’s Stagecoach, 1949’s She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and 1956’s The Searchers, Scorsese looks at how the protagonist in each film (all played by John Wayne) changed from optimistic good guy to shady anti-hero with the evolution of the genre. It’s this kind of detail that makes this documentary so compelling.

If there’s one criticism I have of the film is that it’s (despite it’s 225 minute running time) too short! Scorsese ends the film during the 60’s, explaining that it would be unfair of him to dissect the evolution of American cinema during his own career, and the career of his contemporaries and friends. It kind of leaves you wishing for a sequel, which will examine the period of cinema we might be more familiar with. However this is a tiny criticism.

For anyone interested in film in any form, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is essential viewing. Scorsese’s love and enthusiasm for the art form is infectious, and it gives you great ideas for films to hunt down and watch. It’s impossible to cover everything in the documentary, it’s that extensive. Over 100 movies are mentioned in some capacity, so it takes some watching to take it all in. I’ll probably watch the documentary again some time in the future. But it is a fantastic documentary and something for film fans and casual watchers alike.



teehanwolf said...

i love how your review in person for this was "ah its ok"

Peter Slattery said...