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A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Martin Scorsese
Directors:  Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo       
Video:  Standard 1.33:1 et al
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  none
Length:  226 Minutes
Release Date:  September 12, 2000

Film ****

“I could make the scene a climax.  I could make every scene a climax.  If I did, I would be a bad director.  A picture of all climaxes is like a necklace without a string.  It falls apart.”
- from Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful

If there ever was a program that was a film lover’s dream come true, it would have to be A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.  It’s at least the equal of the great Hollywood multi-part silent era documentary, and as significant as any of the detailed bio-pics made by Kevin Brownlow.  What makes it even better, in my opinion, is that you can’t ask for a more enthusiastic guide through cinema history than Mr. Scorsese, who is reputed not only as one of our greatest directors, but one of our most prolific film lovers as well. 

The key word here is ‘personal’.  In a relaxed and friendly style, Martin Scorsese looks into the camera and speaks directly to us.  He talks as one movie lover to another, not as teacher to student, although I learned more from his program than I learned in many a humanities class dealing with film in college. 

The 2-disc, 3-side set is also a treasure trove of Americana…filled with movie clips selected by Mr. Scorsese that illustrate the evolution of film in this country, from the early silent era and pioneering techniques of masters like D. W. Griffith, through the early sound era, and highlights the development of several distinct American genres, like the western, the musical, the gangster film, and film noir.  Some you may have heard of, some you might be seeing for the first time.  But it all becomes significant and instantly familiar, thanks to Martin Scorsese’s knowledge, which he shares in his narration.

Many of these pictures influenced him as a child, and you’ll get to experience some of cinema’s great spectacles as though through the awed eyes of a youngster:  what was it like to see these on the screen for the first time?  He brings the moments to life in showing us Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, or when movies first began using Technicolor.  Or perhaps more significantly, The Robe, which was the first film shot in a scope widescreen ratio.  “The curtain just kept going back, back, revealing the biggest screen I had ever seen!”  Scorsese recalls.

This program is as informative as a textbook, but far more interesting.  By assembling these classic filmstrips together and actually watching how the movies have played out over the years, we experience more than could ever be learned from a book.  After all, cinema is a visual medium.  You can’t expect to translate everything from celluloid to page without losing something.  Plus, the disc boasts many interview clips with some of the great directors:  John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder, John Ford, Brian DePalma, Fritz Lang, King Vidor, and many, many others.  On top of that, the music for the film was composed by Elmer Bernstein, and the titles and graphics by Saul Bass, who created many of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous title sequences, like Psycho and Vertigo.  As I said, this really is a film lover’s dream come true!

It’s a long show…226 minutes to be exact…but never, never boring.  Even at such a length, I’ve managed to watch my copy four times already…that’s how much I enjoy it!  It’s handily broken down into sections, as well, in case you’d like to split up your viewing over a couple of nights. 

But no matter how you choose to watch it, I can’t express enough how much this film is a must-own for anyone who embraces the movies beyond a simple night’s entertainment or something to do on the weekend.  To walk through cinema history with Martin Scorsese as a personal tour guide?  It’s even better than it sounds.

Video ***

Overall, the video quality is fine, though not meant to be reference quality.  The modern pieces were shot very simply:  Mr. Scorsese sits in a chair and speaks to the camera.  The majority of the program, however, is comprised of the film clips, which naturally vary in quality depending on the age of the picture and other factors.  Though the overall program is shot in standard format, you do get instances of letterboxing when the film clip calls for it, so everything you see comes out in the correct aspect ratio.  The program is broken up over 3 disc sides, so compression and related artifacts are not a problem.  All in all, no complaints.

Audio **1/2

The audio is a simple stereo mix…again, no complaints, but nothing to get excited about either.  Dialogue is always very clean and clear, but dynamic range is negligible here.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

No matter how much you know about the history of cinema, from blossoming new student to die hard expert, anyone can find their palate of movie knowledge enriched and nurtured by watching A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.  With Mr. Scorsese as a personal tour guide, the evolution of film in this country is not only discussed, but plainly shown in a comprehensive and fascinating way, made all the more interesting by his running comments and insights.  Anyone who loves the movies shouldn’t deprive him or herself of this fantastic celluloid journey.