My latest Persistence of Vision column for Yahoo! India is about why I think of Martin Scorsese as a kindred spirit first and a great director second. Here goes.
Update: here's the full piece
The great director as permanent student
A long, long time ago, I got my hands on The Variety Book of Movie Lists, a collection of "best-of" listings in numerous categories. The contributors included critics, authors and directors, and most of their lists, as you'd expect, were restricted to ten or fewer films. Neatly selected and pruned, a single list rarely took up more than half a page. But there was one notable exception. Martin Scorsese - designated as "director and film history expert extraordinaire" - blithely named dozens of movies in each category that he contributed to.
His personal selection of noir titles ran to over 60 films, including many B-movies I hadn't even heard of. His list of "Best Colour Films" included nearly 80 movies, spread over three pages. (I soon realised that "best colour films" didn't mean best films that happened to be in colour - in that case, Scorsese's list might have been book-length! - but films that, in his view, made the best use of colour photography.)
Going through these lists told me a few things about the man who had drawn them up. They told me, first, that Scorsese had watched a LOT of films and that he wasn't obsessed with proclaiming favourites or ranking movies "in order of preference" (his lists were alphabetical). Also that he had very wide-ranging tastes and was unapologetic about it: he would put a brassy, big-budget Hollywood studio epic on the same page as an artistically high-minded European avant-garde movie; his choice of horror films from the Hammer Studios included movies that many respectable critics wouldn't even deign to watch.
At the time, the only Scorsese-directed films I had seen were Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (I was into Old Hollywood then, not all this new-fangled - meaning post-1960s - stuff). Both films feature a cameo by the director: in Mean Streets, he plays a hitman who gleefully kisses his gun before shooting Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in the neck in the violent climax; in Taxi Driver he appears, bearded, sinister, looking vaguely Satanic, as a passenger who makes De Niro's cab-driver stop outside an apartment where (he claims) his wife is cheating on him.
These two roles were my first glimpses of Scorsese on screen, and they fixed him in my mind as a tough guy who made gritty, violent urban movies about gangsters and psychotic loners (and who presumably wouldn't have much time for the gentler films of an earlier age). But the Scorsese I subsequently discovered - through his interviews and the video introductions he did for various films - was the antithesis of those cameo roles, a kindly, middle-aged man with a seemingly boundless knowledge of film history.
Interestingly, many of the movies that Scorsese loves are movies that most viewers would think of as very un-Scorsese-like. Take Jean Renoir's The River, a beautifully photographed tale about an English girl coming of age, learning about love and loss, in Bengal in the early 1950s. I love the look of this film - particularly its poetic use of dissolves - and I also appreciate that though the main characters are British, it isn't patronizing towards India and Indians (quite an achievement for a foreign film made in that era). But The River is also static in places, heavily dependent on voiceover, and the acting is very uneven. I'm perplexed by Scorsese's unqualified adoration for it.
On my DVD there's a video introduction by Scorsese, who was instrumental in the restoration of the print. He first saw this film at age nine, he tells us, and it was one of his formative experiences as a child. "It was my first experience of a very different culture," he says, adding self-deprecatingly, "My family wasn't well-educated, I didn't know much about other places, but despite my own very different Italian-American background, I identified with these people on the screen, I felt for them."
Watching Martin Scorsese speak about a favourite movie is a good way to get excited about the medium. He waves his hands about, talks in the rapid-fire style one associates with gangster films of the 1930s; he's an excitable child, but he's incredibly eloquent and perceptive at the same time. You see the master technician take over when he discusses Renoir's careful framing of the lush tropical landscape in The River, the role of colour as a character in the film, and how the rich, intense photography reminded him of the Impressionist paintings of Renoir's father Auguste (whose work Scorsese had also seen as a child without knowing anything about the connection between the two men).
Many of us, after entering adulthood's prison, tend to be wary of the films that held us in thrall when we were children or adolescents; we are afraid that revisiting them might reveal them to be quaint and embarrassing, and destroy our idealised memories. But here's Scorsese, director of groundbreaking modern movies like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, saying in the most matter-of-fact way that he still watches The River at least three or four times every year, he loves it that much.
Of course, it's one among hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of movies that he cares about. I've read his views on many films and I've rarely if ever found him saying something strongly critical - he comes across as the archetype of the open-minded movie-lover whose first (and often only) instinct is to see something good or useful in a film. I find this quality fascinating in a man who is himself a very exacting, particular filmmaker. Surely you'd expect Martin Scorsese to be more discerning, even snobbish?
When he does mention a film that didn't appeal to him too much, he's almost apologetic about it; he dissects his own response. Discussing another Renoir movie, Rules of the Game (in an interview in the book Projections 7), he says that he couldn't personally relate to it because he didn't understand the aristocratic world and the class divide that it depicted. When he says he prefers Godard's Contempt and My Life to Live to his later work, he adds, "It grabs me when his films tell stories; I'm not hip enough to get into the other stuff." (Italics mine.)
After I became more familiar with Scorsese's own cinema, I came to appreciate how often and how generously he pays tribute to the films that influenced him. The opening credits of Mean Streets (still my personal favourite Scorsese movie) include a shot of a motion-picture camera coming to life, which is reminiscent of the opening credits of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (another film Scorsese helped restore). In a pivotal emotional scene near the end of Casino, Scorsese uses a few notes from Georges Delerue's lovely, mournful score for Contempt. Unlike most other great directors, he unselfconsciously remakes films made by other people: films like the workmanlike 1960s thriller Cape Fear (which, again to my surprise, Scorsese referred to as a "gem" in one of his interviews; sorry Marty, but it ain't anything of the sort!).
Audacious as this will sound, much as I admire Scorsese's own body of work, I still think of him primarily as a film buff and permanent student - and therefore, a kindred spirit. If I had to name a single director, from any period or any country, with whom I'd want to spend a week discussing and arguing about movies, he would get my vote hands down.
P.S. For some of Scorsese's typically enthusiastic mini-reviews of old Hollywood films, visit this site and check the archives.