Just as any good film is a personal statement by its creator, so should any worthwhile history of the medium itself be intimate.
"A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies," which debuts Feb. 14 (through Feb. 16, 8-9:30 p.m.) on Turner Classic Movies cable channel, fits the bill perfectly.
With the merest nod to chronology, the film maestro, known for his violent gangster films ("Goodfellas") as well as his meditations on spirituality ("Kundun"), takes the viewer through a century of American movies, using the lens of themes rather than decades to trace their creative evolution.
"What I tried to do was make a film that was about the history of American cinema, but seen through my eyes," says Mr. Scorsese at a recent interview at the Ritz-Carlton. "I think if the young people are seeing a straight history, a chronological history, I think it may not be as interesting and may become academic and may lose some of its quality and juiciness."
The man who put the individual director's vision back on the Hollywood map from the earliest days of his career, says that it all started for him with a 1946 film, "Duel in the Sun," the first movie he remembers seeing by title. The series begins with that film and then moves freely back and forth through the century, ranging from D.W. Griffith's early films all the way up to the present with the use of digital recording and into the industry's future.
"What I'm trying to do is excite some of the younger filmmakers or people interested in this film to make them go and search out the ... films of the old masters," Scorsese says.
The episodes show the roles directors have either willingly assumed or been forced to assume in Hollywood's changing business and political landscape.
"The Director as Storyteller" investigates the men (and a few women) who shaped the dreams of the nation with popular genre films such as westerns, gangster films, and musicals.
"The Director as Illusionist" explores the creators of new worlds on screen who exploited new technologies to their potential, from editing to computer-generated special effects. "The Director as Smuggler" goes beneath the surface of the many "B" movies Hollywood churned out, primarily in the '40s, and reveals the depths of creativity that are tucked beneath the surface of otherwise formulaic films.
In "The Director as Iconoclast," Scorsese exults in the director as a risk taker, not just sneaking messages into studio products, but declaring open war on the traditions and taboos of the time.
Scorsese, a film icon himself, admits to having much to learn about film history. "One of the things that happened to me was for a long period of time I disregarded completely silent cinema until the late '70s, early '80s, and mid-'80s." At that point, silent films began to be restored and shown in their proper speed with tinting. "I'm always amazed to find out what comes out of American cinema."
Scorsese worries that an entire generation of filmmakers is coming of age with little or no awareness of film history, because of the technological difficulties of preserving film over the century. "Unfortunately, in many cases, film history starts with maybe 'Forrest Gump,' maybe. But I said that yesterday, and I was told that was too early," he says with a rueful laugh. "So we really have to go in there and say, 'Look kids, there's 100 years of this.' "
While the series excerpts many minor works that might not be familiar to the average filmgoer (such as Samuel Fuller's "Pickup on South Street"), Scorsese says some of history's top titles were the biggest influences on his career - "On the Waterfront" (Elia Kazan), "Citizen Kane" (Orson Welles), and "Shadows" (John Cassavetes).
Meanwhile, his assessment of the state of today's industry is guardedly optimistic. He says the astronomical salaries and budgets are killing creativity in the rush to make back the huge investment.
"On the other hand," he says, "the American independent keeps coming around. Every couple of years, I think they're getting stale, and they seem a little bit repetitious. But every now and then, every year or so, some extraordinary films come out of the American independent system. And they're crossing over into the A-movie lists."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society