Movies We Like
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
I’ve always mistrusted the adulation that greets Martin Scorsese whenever he makes a new movie. I wasn’t around for the glory days of the New Hollywood generation of film directors making their mark in the 1970s, of which he was, of course, a principle member. His reputation as a master of gritty poetic realism was built on films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets and I can understand their importance to American cinema of the 1970s and '80s. But what has always bugged me is his media-appointed status and de facto role as America’s Greatest Living Film Director. I just find such a distinction to be inherently suspicious. He’s a relatively apolitical filmmaker who, in his most successful films glorifies (whatever his intentions) a criminal underclass that is meant to embody the aspirational drive of Americans for success and material wealth whatever the cost. Goodfellas is a seamless rush of images and sound. It’s a great film, but I’ve always felt that some of the greatness accorded it by critics and audiences (and his other films like it) is based in part on an obvious celebration of his one dimensional psychopathic characters. What are we really celebrating when we call him America’s Greatest Living Film Director? I’m not totally sure.
That said, the man knows a lot about movies—he is almost as famous for his films as he is for boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the way a film’s subtext is made manifest through directorial technique. He also has excellent taste. Scorsese is the perfect guide to the world of American film and this BFI-produced documentary, in which he shares with us some of his favorite films, is a pleasure to watch for its three hour duration. He starts out by saying that this is a project for him to talk about his favorite films and that he can only vouch for their importance to him as part of the formative experiences that shaped him as a film director.
He talks about DW Griffith and John Ford, of course, but he also delves into the work of Erich Von Stroheim. He celebrates the lavish and layered Technicolor films of Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk. He talks about the shadow-drenched melancholy films of Jacques Tourneur and the German émigrés who created the greatest examples of film noir—Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder. Most importantly, in his tutorial on American film he takes the focus off of the Gone With The Winds and Casablancas and Wizard of Ozes that invariably get the lion’s share of attention in any documentary foray into American film history. Instead he focuses on the unsung iconoclasts who worked within the studio system but still found a way to express their distinct point of view as artists. Before the DVD revolution and the advent of TCM made finding out about the most overlooked gems of American cinema that much easier to find, it was through the work of artists and historians such as Martin Scorsese that opened this world to new audiences.