The man who made the modern gangster film is also a teacher’s pet. For all of the antics of his characters, the guns to the foreheads and cocaine in the toilets, Scorsese is a nerd who loves art history. He’s directed a dozen documentaries and many explicitly deal with the study of art. You should take the time to see some.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
This is a three hour documentary about George Harrison, one of The Beatles. Watching the film is a wonderful way to interact with music because you’ll have George himself sharing what’s going on in his head at the time of a song’s creation, Scorsese will simultaneously show a few wonderful black-and-white photographs of The Beatles embracing, smiling, looking like kid kings, and then, when your guard is down, Within You, Without You will begin playing in the background. Your mind has been brought along to such a relaxed, accepting place that, when the music hits, you feel warm all over and think to yourself, dreamily, “These boys did great things, didn’t they?” Of course Within You, Without You is one of George’s songs. You see the process behind that and While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Here Comes The Sun and others.
A Letter to Elia
Elia Kazan is a filmmaker who directed On The Waterfront starring Marlon Brando and East of Eden starring James Dean. While I watched this documentary, I thought, “This seems more like a love letter” and afterwards I saw that the title was, all along, A Letter To Elia. Scorsese talks through Elia’s films, making observations about the cinematography, dialogue, and the feelings a person receives while sitting in the theater and watching. You get the sense that Scorsese talking about Elia is really Plato talking about Aristotle.
“Camera movement, lighting — I studied them. Back then, 50 years ago, watching East of Eden, re-watching East of Eden, I put my own struggle and my own rite of passage into this picture. It spoke to me in a way that no one else in my life seemed to be able to do. And I guess, ultimately, I came to project onto Elia Kazan, the man behind these two extraordinary experiences, wherever he was, wherever he came from, whoever he was, the role of a father, a different father but a father.” — Martin Scorsese.
The 50 Year Argument
This film is about The New York Review of Books which is an institution that’s been around since the 1960’s and whose purpose it is to review books as well as be a place for writers to voice their strong opinions. The film explains The Review’s role in journalism history and goes through some of the achievements of its celebrated writers such as Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion. By watching, you are reminded of the things a publication is able to achieve when its editor is trusting of its writers and explicitly interested in voicing things that make readers wonder.
“The Review is based on the idea that highly skillful, intelligent, interested people can write fascinatingly and revealingly about nearly any subject. Of course, the great problem is to find that person.” — Robert B. Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books.
This film is about Fran Lebowitz, the writer. She is sarcastic and funny and the majority of the film is her sitting across from Scorsese while telling jokes about her career. She explains why there are musical prodigies but no writing prodigies, why today’s current era can be summarized with the phrase “blind art collectors,” and why AIDS killing large portions of the gay community in New York City during the 1980s was horrible not just because of the deaths themselves but because those gay people were the supporting audience of artistic institutions such as the New York Ballet and that the remaining gay people, the ones who never got laid, became the artists of the era to the era’s detriment. Unlike most documentaries which, for the first 30 of its 90 minutes, focus on the subject’s childhood, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Fran’s personal life and has everything to do with her thoughts.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
This is a four hour documentary about Bob Dylan, the songwriter and performer. The format of the film is extended footage of Dylan performing, by that I mean full verses and choruses, combined with long interviews with Dylan as he speaks, concert-by-concert, about his early career years. In documentary terms, this is one of the purest formats producible. When the goal is to show the merits of an artist, the two things that put merits across best is footage of the artist performing their art and the thoughts of the artist first-hand. I knew nothing of Bob Dylan when I saw this and I walked away a terrific fan. The film shows Bob as a prolific writer who can sit at a typewriter and produce brilliant lyrics at will, as well as an artist who felt good when he pleased the audience and just as good if he didn’t.
“At first I really tried to figure this guy out but pfff. I gave it up and so I don’t know. I don’t know what he thought about. I just know what he gave us.” — Joan Baez, who toured with Dylan as duo.
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
This film is four hours long and, in it, Scorsese takes us through a history of American cinema beginning with silent film and going through Westerns, gangster films, and musicals. He talks about over 100 films, speaking about the scenes, pointing out the things he noticed as a film student and continues to appreciate as an old master. This documentary is wonderful for anybody who enjoys film but is unlikely to go crate-digging and find the gems of the previous decades. Scorsese presents them to us with commentary that makes a person want to find a film camera themselves and make something. In my search for learning material in art studies, this is the second most comprehensive and giving piece of educational material I’ve seen made by an artist with as high of a profile as Scorsese.
My Voyage to Italy
The most comprehensive and giving educational material by a high profile artist is this documentary, My Voyage to Italy, a four hour documentary on Italian cinema. Scorsese walks us through the films of his childhood, films he watched on a 16-inch television in black and white with his family stacked around him, immediate family and extended. Italy, after World War II, produced films about war, poverty, the relationships that these things create between people, and, ultimately, a new classification of film that would be called neorealism. Neorealism describes films created about working class people, filmed in real locations, using non-professional actors. The films produced by this format are ones where, as you look at the screen, you feel the reality of the things happening. As with the previous documentary, Scorsese narrates this one with the genius commentary of a practiced filmmaker and the awe-struck glee of a child who has found a source of permanent fun.
The final documentary on this list is a 45-minute film of Martin Scorsese’s grandparents in their kitchen, talking about their life. His mother shows us how to cook tomato sauce, and you’ll probably recognize her from Scorsese’s films. She played Joe Pesci’s mother in Goodfellas among other roles. Martin’s parents discuss what it was like to be immigrants in New York City. The blocks they lived in were village-like in the sense that different families would live on each block and sometimes people would live their life without crossing from one to the other. The most constant figures in their communities were the clergy and the criminals. For anyone with grandparents and anyone curious about what their grandparent’s grandparents may have been like, this is something to watch. This is also Scorsese’s earliest-made film on the list. Scorsese is in the film and his hair is dark black.
From this collection, we see that Scorsese is someone who cares about preserving art. He’s giving us these documentaries, putting in time that could be spent on studio features, so that we have easy access to Bob Dylan, Elia Kazan, Italian cinema, and other things. His combined total artistic accomplishments and contributions to art studies is as colossal as I’ve ever seen. If you’ve become interested in him because of these films, I suggest you read his book, Scorsese on Scorsese, in which he writes about his own films, film by film.