Like any good film director—or any good artist, really—Martin Scorsese is a magpie. His films are made of bits and pieces picked from everywhere. They are built from personal experience, from observation, from the books he’s read and the rock ’n’ roll he loves and, of course, from the life he’s lived in the dark, watching other people’s films.
This intertextual referentiality is in itself nothing unique, certainly not in the filmmaking of the “movie brat” directors of Scorsese’s generation, whose ranks include Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma and Peter Bogdanovich and Scorsese’s own collaborator, Paul Schrader. What is unusual is the degree to which Scorsese, rather than covering his tracks and effacing his influences to draw greater glory upon his wholly original genius, has made those influences a matter of public record. “I saw these movies,” Scorsese says, straightforwardly as ever, in his 1999 My Voyage to Italy. “They had a powerful effect on me. You should see them.”
Scorsese is, by almost universal consensus, one of our best directors, consistently posing fresh challenges to himself and his audience. But as he has become, more and more, an American institution, Scorsese has traded in on his fame for a second job, fashioning himself as something like the official spokesman for movie love. In locating his own films in relation to those of his forebears, in framing his extraordinary career as another chapter in a grand tradition, Scorsese has used his prominence to encourage his audience to look back at what has come before, to see the whole tapestry of film history. Scorsese has pointed out that Raging Bull comes out of On the Waterfront and Abraham Polonsky’s Body and Soul; that the way the soundtrack works in Goodfellas was inspired by the synthesis of music and image in Michael Powell’s Tales of Hoffman; that Taxi Driver contains telltale traces of Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and, ever the cultural democrat, a 1949 John Payne western called El Paso.
Scorsese’s impulse to return to and repurpose the images that had left a mark on him was evident from the get-go: In his 1973 Mean Streets, small-time gangsters escape Little Italy for Monument Valley at a showing of John Ford’s The Searchers. Scorsese doesn’t only pay homage, but shows how movies and other pop influences operate within his characters’ lives, illustrating the dialog between a society and the pop it produces.
Every film lover has a moment when they begin a dialog of their own, engaging with the medium not just in its present tense, but as part of an ongoing story, a story that has now been in the telling for almost one hundred twenty years. For Scorsese, the key to this transition from moviegoer to budding movie scholar was the extensively illustrated 1949 edition of A Pictorial History of the Movies by Deems Taylor, which Scorsese compulsively checked out from the Tompkins Square Library as a young man, finally returning it with a few stills suspiciously snipped out. The director confesses to his sin in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, a three-part 1995 documentary produced by the British Film Institute, which has Scorsese breathlessly narrating the story of our national film history. The effectiveness of this project owes much to Scorsese’s selection of clips, showcasing the “strong, bold” and “overwhelming” images that he favors, but also to his powers as a raconteur: His infectious enthusiasm and the emotion of his rapid-fire direct address make this exhortation on behalf of the works that he loves intense, impassioned, and urgent.
If it gets you at the right time, A Personal Journey is one-stop shopping for the novice cinema aesthete, a checklist to work your way through: Allan Dwan and Delmer Daves and Scarlet Street and too many other subjects-for-further-research to name. If you were from a previous generation, you might have, in the same way, referred to Scorsese’s answers in the now-defunct “Guilty Pleasures” feature from a 1978 Film Comment, in which he told of his passion for Howard Hawks’s little-loved Land of the Pharaohs. (One of the most endearing things about Scorsese is the extreme catholicity of his taste—when auditioning for Scorsese’s Casino, drive-in expert Joe Bob Briggs remembers the director quizzing him on “women-in-prison” films.)
A Personal Journey was followed by My Voyage to Italy, in which Scorsese recalled his introduction to the cinema of his ancestral country: As a child in New York City, he spent evenings with his extended family around the 16" black-and-white RCA Victor television set, watching Friday-night broadcasts of Italian-language films. More recently, Scorsese has collaborated with the critic Kent Jones on documentaries about great filmmakers, narrating 2007’s Jones-directed Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows and codirecting 2010’s A Letter to Elia, addressed to “Gadge” Kazan, whose On the Waterfront and its street-corner patois left an indelible impression on Scorsese. And while those works address a fairly self-selecting audience of cinephiles, it should be noted that Scorsese’s most recent movie, Hugo, was a tribute to the art of Georges Méliès, a French filmmaker of the early silent period—and it did almost $200 million of business in multiplexes and malls.
While proselytizing for film history, Scorsese has simultaneously been a crucial figure in assuring that the physical elements of that history will be around for future generations to rediscover. Fading in color film stock was once a concern limited to the world of archivists, but Scorsese brought it to public attention throughout the 1980s, petitioning Eastman Kodak and agitating in the industry. This move into public advocacy led to Scorsese’s crucial role in the 1990 creation of the Film Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to funding preservation projects, directly responsible for restoring more than five hundred titles to date. While the Film Foundation has principally focused on American film, Scorsese’s chairmanship of the newly created World Cinema Foundation in 2007 widened his purview to preservation in developing countries. Recognizing that any movement benefits from having an official face, preferably a famous one, Scorsese lent his to the cause of film preservation, and he has never backed away from his commitment.
Scorsese’s work to reveal the inextricable ties between film present and film past doesn’t mean that his relationship with cinema is strictly backward-looking, for he has been a friend to many contemporary filmmakers. He has underwritten careers, including that of Kenneth Lonergan. In a 2000 Esquire piece asking critics to name “the next Scorsese,” Scorsese himself prophetically voted for Wes Anderson. (This was before The Royal Tenenbaums.) Scorsese portrayed Van Gogh for Kurosawa and “presented” both Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and the Swedish crime film Easy Money. Now undeniably a global figure, he will place his executive producer imprimatur on Luc Besson’s latest and on a new film from Hong Kong’s Andrew Lau, whose Infernal Affairs Scorsese remade as The Departed.
Money talks, but selfless curiosity is, finally, what drives the conversation and the culture. Certainly Scorsese has never forgotten his debt to his own teachers—the Million-Dollar Movie on New York’s Channel 9; his mentor at NYU and the author of The Film-Maker’s Art, Haig P. Manoogian; maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes. We have, so many of us, learned and benefited from Scorsese’s selfless curiosity and inexhaustible appetite for celluloid, in ways that we may not even recognize. And we are still learning.