Retrospective Rankings: DocuScorsese

In honor of the oh-so-formulaic but oh-so-enjoyable (at least if you find The Band grand) Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, my Martin Scorsese DOCUMENTARY Retrospective Rankings!

(Spoiler alert: I just spoiled my number 1).

His approach to basically another medium, especially compared to most other documentarians’, enlightens one of the many things that make him such a master; unlike other docs concerning historical subjects, DocuScorseses aren’t predominantly committed to the business of educating his audiences on the topics at hand, with structures that prioritize the streamlining of straightforwardly and efficiently relaying information. Rather, his are pervaded with a legitimate sense of curiosity regarding whatever they’re about, as if he starts from a place of striving to understand what he turns his cameras to.

A majority of documentarians feel like they already know what they wish to impart, and their films are tidily packaged vehicles to do so. Marty’s more interested in how to cinematically convey his own pursuit of knowledge in a way that inspires us to glean our own insights from it, instead of simply mindlessly agreeing with his. We’re not only listening to his teaching; his forms of expression stimulate us to think for ourselves, gleaning our own meaning from his cinematic journeys.

And, in relation to his more famous features, what he’s drawn to in “real life” keys us into what he seeks to explore through his fictional worlds.

Thanks to Film Forum for the retrospective.

  1. The Last Waltz
    • The cinema of chemistry. Unlike damn near every other concert documentary, it’s not driven by a desire to recreate the experience of being in attendance (there are few crowd shots, if any?). Instead, Marty realized what made The Band unique: their unity, which he set out to cinematically capture, documenting — with all the cinematic tools at his deft disposalhow they operated . Sure, this special sauce can be explained in words, be they spoken or written, but film can immerse us like no other in its up close and personal power.
  2. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
  3. Italianamerican
    • Who and where an artist comes from informs their subsequent oeuvre.
  4. George Harrison: Living in the Material World
  5. Public Speaking
  6. Shine A Light
    • Though its aim takes the aforementioned conventional concert-documentary route that The Last Waltz avoids, the highlight is entirely pre-show, and speaks to how “real-world” excitement can be artistically framed to bolster that excitement. The documentary doesn’t begin with the first song; rather, it follows Marty’s anxious quest to convince the Rolling Stones to share — and thus cement — the setlist, because it’s a lot easier to film a concert with a musical storyboard. This set-up adds a kinetic jolt when he gets his hands on it at the last possible second, bolstered by cinematic means; the editing and camera movement which track the setlist’s arrival propels us into the opening notes of — what else — “Start Me Up.” A beastly start no matter the context, but Marty’s cinematic storytelling finishes me off that much more.
  7. American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince
    • What can we learn about a (wonderfully wackadoo) person — and the era(s) which created them — from the stories they tell? How do their questionable veracity — always up for debate when it comes to unbelievably outlandish, and thus outlandishly unbelievable yarns — muddy our perception of the teller? By the very nature of its inherent “truthiness”, the act of storytelling can’t help but reveal something, a quasi-justification for the fictional pursuits to which Marty dedicated his finite time on this Earth.
  8. Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty
    • A layman version would’ve merely communicated the history of the statue. Marty’s delves into what it’s represented — and misrepresented — from generation to generation. This chronicling of its appropriation — and misappropriation — becomes a study of symbols and symbology itself, because statues are concrete constructions that still can be fluidly interpreted and analyzed to individual ends. Much like a piece of art, a recording of something solid whose significance becomes malleable in the eyes of the beholder. Much like a documentary’s relationship to the “facts” it ostensibly utilizes.
  9. A Letter to Elia
  10. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
    • More can be illuminated about a director from hearing them discuss the works of other filmmakers than their own.
  11. No Direction Home
  12. Feel Like Going Home
  13. The 50 Year Argument
  14. My Voyage to Italy

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