TV Closeup on Filmmaker Scorsese


`AMERICAN MASTERS'' concludes its three-part salute to American filmmakers next Monday (PBS, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) with a program on Martin Scorsese. This follows a segment two nights ago on John Cassavetes, two very different talents who nonetheless had things in common. Like the films of Preston Sturges, who starred in the first week's installment, their movies show a refusal to abide by Hollywood's terms, and an insistence on showing life with all its passion (and messiness) intact. The two also knew each other: Mr. Scorsese hilariously recalls the time when Mr. Cassavetes saw his early ``Boxcar Bertha,'' then took him aside and jovially informed him that he had spent a year of his life making a piece of junk. Cassavetes, who died last year, started his career as a Hollywood success story, acting in studio films and quickly making his way to the director's chair. He soon carved out an unorthodox work pattern: starring in Hollywood hits like ``The Dirty Dozen'' and ``Rosemary's Baby,'' then plowing his salary into highly personal projects featuring favorite performers, friends, and family members in stories carefully crafted to seem utterly fresh and spontaneous. He went out of his way to flaunt Hollywood ideas of correctness and propriety, seeking a corrosively honest vision of life that would make audiences squirm with uneasy recognition. Clips from ``Shadows'' and ``Faces'' and ``A Woman Under the Under Influence,'' among others, showed how brilliantly he succeeded when his energies were working at full tilt.

Scorsese took a modern route into moviemaking: film school, then practical experience with producer Roger Corman, then a low-budget bruiser of his own called ``Mean Streets,'' which earned instant and loud applause. Working with such trusted collaborators as screenwriter Paul Schrader and actor Robert De Niro, he turned out a string of hard-hitting pictures that owe much to his working-class New York background.

When necessary, however, he didn't mind knocking off a commercial project like ``The Color of Money'' (or a miniature gem like ``After Hours'') just to show the establishment that he was bankable. No disgrace here: Filmmakers as legendary as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock were known to do the same. What counts is that Scorsese has never strayed from his own brand of cinema for long.

Both programs have flaws. The show on Cassavetes (borrowed from the BBC) slighted his late career, including ``Opening Night'' and ``Love Streams,'' two of his most daring achievements. And not all Scorsese films are equally successful, although they're treated here as an unbroken string of great works. PBS deserves credit, though, for celebrating artists who considered their own visions more trustworthy than Hollywood formulas.

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