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A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies

Among the giants of contemporary American filmmakers, perhaps none can match Martin Scorsese for his commitment to film preservation. He fell in love with the movies at an early age, and while he considered entering the priesthood as a young man, the allure of cinema was too great. A flurry of cinematic masterpieces since that fateful choice (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, et. al.) secured his place in the pantheon of American cineastes, but Scorsese has always been concerned about filmmakers throughout time, and not merely his own career. As film preservation has been one of his life's passions, he serves as the co-chair of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute. He also co-founded The Film Foundation (with Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg), a private organization that funds restoration projects, including Kubrick's Spartacus, early Edison shorts, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. And with such a passion for the history of cinema, it's not surprising that the British Film Institute approached Scorsese to oversee a documentary for British television. The result was the four-hour A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, which originally aired on Britain's Channel 4 and subsequently on American Movie Classics in the U.S. It also was issued in North America on VHS and Laserdisc, but only in 2000 did it become available on DVD.

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Scorsese's Personal Journey is a virtual film school in a DVD case, if an unusual one. Rather than simply start with the earliest of American films, say The Great Train Robbery, and then work his way through The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, and on towards 2001, the director (along with collaborator Michael Henry Wilson) has an almost stream-of-consciousness progression, choosing various topics that relate to the director's role in Hollywood history. He begins by examining "The Director's Dilemma," asking how an auteur can be committed to both his art and his producers at the same time. Various possibilities are presented, because Scorsese really does think that Hollywood has produced some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and on his journey he looks at the role of narrative and the function of genre, specifically with westerns, gangster films, and musicals. Looking at specific directors, he assigns three categories to the most noteworthy. "The Illusionists" to Scorsese are the technical masters, pioneers such as Griffith and Murnau, who developed editing techniques and paved the way for such later innovations as sound and color. "The Smugglers" are the seditionists of film, arriving mostly in the 1950s, filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk, Samuel Fuller, and Vincente Minelli, who concealed subversive messages in mainstream American movies of the day. Perhaps Scorsese's favorite group is the last, "The Iconoclasts," those filmmakers who worked in open defiance of social mores — Chaplin, Von Stroheim, Welles, Kazan, and a later generation headed by Kubrick, Penn, and Peckinpah.

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That Scorsese's vision of Hollywood is entirely centered on directors cannot be denied, but this is his "personal journey" after all (he even admits that there's really no way he can be objective with such a personal topic). And even though most major films of the century come under his scrutiny, Scorsese makes an effort to point out that he didn't want to survey what he sees as the "culturally correct" titles — rather, everything covered is something he viewed, either as a young boy or a budding independent filmmaker, that had some sort of impact on him. Kubrick's 2001 is acknowledged as technical masterpiece, but Scorsese spends far more time with Lolita and Barry Lyndon, two films with trenchant sexual themes that indicated where Hollywood was headed after the dismantling of the Production Code (something Kubrick helped bring about). Far less notable films come under his eye as well, movies he admits may not be all that great on the whole, but which contain flashes of brilliance, brief sequences that forced him to recognize the power of cinematic language. The whole affair is done in a low-key manner, with Scorsese occasionally addressing the audience on camera, but mostly in voice-over with a seemingly endless supply of clips, all in remarkably good condition with letterboxed aspect ratios to preserve the filmmakers' original visions. At four hours, Scorsese's Personal Journey doesn't need any DVD extras — it's packed to the rafters as it is. Various aspect ratios, Dolby 2.0 stereo. Two-disc keep-case.

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