This may be the single-best tool you could ever study to understand how one great cinematic mind realized its vision. Scorsese is selfless; he shows us how his vision came to be. Most directors would rather us not see how their illusions are created; Scorsese's purpose is the complete opposite.
This set includes three video cassettes (75 minutes apiece). He begins by focusing on the American Western, an understandable starting place as the American Western is arguably the most indigenous genre Americans can lay claim to. The most enlightening section from this section was his analysis of three John Ford movies, starring John Wayne. Scorsese's purpose was to show how the Western, along with Ford, grew more complex in three decades. As he says, "Same Director, Ford. Same star, John Wayne. Same setting, Monument Valley." However the image of the black-and-white cowboy-and-Indian hero of "Stagecoach" is a contrast between Ford's later "The Searchers," where Wayne's character Ethan Allen is "richer, more complex," Scorsese says. He IS richer and more complex -- a frightening hero. Scorsese's point is made: that cinema is ever expanding, the pallete becoming ever more complex, that filmmakers grow themselves. The second half of tape-1 focuses on gangster films; Scorsese was in territory he loved here. His study of the gangster film's development from "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" through Howard Hawkes's "Scarface," to Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" epic is an education in the development of American cinema itself.
The second tape is my favorite. Scorsese focuses on films you might not have heard of, but films that are achievements in American cinema: films that touched him. Jacque's Tourneau's "Cat People" (I think that's the title) and "I Walked With A Zombie," movies that are truly rich films but that have sadly been forgotten or dubbed 'B'-class films, Scorsese says. And it's true. These films created techniques and philosophies that changed American cinema -- they enhanced and developed the techniques that are the "illusions" that we too often take for granted as being the modern movie. From watching this section I realized how a film like "Blair Witch" (whether you liked it or hated it) was influenced by guys working on shoe-string budgets (Tourneau) but with the love of cinema; in the case of Tourneau, of scaring the pants off an audience with a minimal budget. Likewise, it becomes clear to see how Film Noir was "a mood," Scorsese says. And it was a mood. It was cool. It was indifferent. It was Pulp Fiction. There are comments by the legendary Billy Wilder on film noir, his "Double Indemnity" epitomizing the style. Wilder's comments were insightful, and Wilder is a pleasure to see on camera. I love this guy. He's like a blend of Yoda and Robin Williams.
The second half focuses on the "Director as Smuggler" and this blends into the third tape's "Director as Smuggler II." Comments by Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray -- eye-patch and all, insightful, insightful stuff. Ray says something that was kind a revelation to me. If you're hero isn't neurotic, or as neurotic as the audience, if he isn't as [messed] up then how can an audience identify with him, you know? Paint the hero flawed -- or at least as flawed as you and I -- and that way when they do something great, when they do something heroic, we can identify and say, "Man, I could have done that."
The behind-the-scenes footage of Samuel Fuller was hilarious -- tragic, in its own way -- and yet funny. "Don't wave the GD flag at me!" And Hoover objected, Fuller said. I loved this!
There are comments by more contemporary "smugglers" George Lucas, Francis Coppola -- on the digital age of American cinema. Coppola's advice is to embrace the new technology. Lucas's was less convincing, but not-without-point. "Why spend the money," Lucas says, "To transport hundreds of extras, to feed them, to clothe them, when they can be reproduced digitally." I listened to this skeptically -- thinking of film's like "Braveheart," where the director (Gibson) did haul all those extras out there and shoot those scenes. And then I thought of "Gladiator" -- Academy Awards or no -- it was easy to see that many of the epic shots were digitally reproduced. And I realized movies such as "Braveheart," "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (which Scorsese discusses) are sadly part of bygone era. It's simply too expensive to make those kinds of movies without digital "smuggling." So, I suppose Coppola's words ring true -- it's wise to embrace the new technology.
The final part of the third tape focuses on "The Iconoclast" -- filmmaker's who went at the system head-on. Here you'll find more recognizable names and Scorsese's discussions on how their films engaged him personally: DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassevetas. I've watched the section on Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" several times just to realize exactly what Scorsese sees when he discusses individual scenes in the film. It's really a trip to see these movies through his eyes, while he discusses them. There's a discussion of "Citizen Kane" -- naturally -- not to be missed with comments by Orson Welles, years later, on what it was like to have that kind of personal freedom while making a movie; and what it's like to have it taken away. Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" is looked at -- funny, funny stuff. And not without more profound implications, too.
Bottom line: this is an excellent journey through Amerian cinema, through the eyes of one our most gifted artists. Scorsese, I hope, will be remembered for giving us a gift, his gift. He has done more to preserve film history -- films, directors, and these directors' personal visions of our world, all of which would otherwise be forgotten -- Scorsese's done more to preserve all of this than any other single human being. It is a selfless journey.