In his long and storied career, Martin Scorsese has made films about a dizzying variety of subjects — organized crime, religious faith, mental instability, women’s independence, fame, and the lives of the politically, technologically, and financially ambitious. Yet rarely does his fiction depict the making or consumption of art. He has explored that subject through his oeuvre of documentaries, which is almost entirely comprised of essays and artist portraits. It’s as though for Scorsese, the topic is too personal to be approached from a secondhand remove. This isn’t so unique; from Wim Wenders to Peter Bogdanovich, many filmmakers have documented artists in order to better understand their own vocation. But Scorsese’s nonfiction — screening as a series at Film Forum — stands out for illuminating him as much as the people he looks at. Even at their most objective, his documentaries seek an understanding of his artistic principles, ideas, and passions along with those of his subjects.
Scorsese has been making documentaries for his whole career, even back when he was starting out and becoming known for his uncanny ability to represent urban hustlers and lonely souls fighting for survival in the concrete jungle. Fittingly, one of his first nonfiction features was Italianamerican (1974), a portrait of his Italian-born, New-York-City-raised parents. In Catherine and Charles Scorsese, he found the inverse of his desperate fictional protagonists. While those lonely souls fail to maintain family connections and relationships under the pressures of big city vice, his parents thrived by staying true their old country roots. His first document of artistic life, meanwhile, was The Last Waltz (1978), which captures The Band’s star-studded final show at the Winterland Ballroom in 1976. Vérité coverage of several legendary performances — some of the most intimate large-scale concert footage ever shot — is supplemented by interviews with The Band about their grueling creative process and inspirations.
When he returned to documentary in 1995 after a 17-year hiatus, Scorsese produced two epic explorations of cinema, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) and My Voyage to Italy (1999). Both are histories filtered through the filmmaker’s singular experience as an Italian American and as a preternaturally inquisitive and insightful spectator/creator. His studies — of Hitchcock, Italian Neorealism, musicals, et al. — emphasize not just entire artistic genres, movements, and eras, but also small things like the delicate artistry of an actor’s perfectly timed facial expression, or the emotional impact Italian movies have had on Scorsese’s family. Consequently, they guide the viewer through not only the technological and cultural evolution of the art form, but also the nuts and bolts of its craft.
Other Scorsese documentaries concentrate on the pressures exerted on creativity by society, business, and fame (a conflict that also propels some of his fiction films, like New York, New York and The Aviator). In No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), Scorsese uses archival footage and present-day interviews to chart the iconic musician’s myriad influences and dimensions. The major theme that emerges is Dylan’s near-constant ability to transcend the obstacles of cultural commodification and categorization, though Scorsese leaves open the question as to whether Dylan has always been a shapeshifter, or if he became one to evade political opportunists, the press, and the weight of history. He revisits these ideas in a much more playful form with this year’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Likewise, in George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), Scorsese succeeds in bringing out the subtle contradictions — spiritualism versus global superstardom, compassion versus acidic skepticism — of a man often reduced to the public persona of “The Quiet Beatle.”
Dylan and Harrison spent lifetimes undoing or subverting the legends created for them. In contrast, Scorsese’s fiction films are populated by monumental talkers, wise guys, and bullshit artists who rhetorically fashion their own legends: Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Their confident, seductive ways of speaking — sometimes directly to the camera — make the viewer complicit in their lying and evasive justifications for dubious or outright criminal behavior. Not coincidentally, Scorsese has also used documentary to focus on the art of speaking. In American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978), the titular subject spins yarns about his incredible life in showbiz, as a drug peddler, and so on. His stories are captivating, but his unique turns of phrase and impassioned reenactments overshadow and surpass any reality they express. In Public Speaking, pithy writer/spieler Fran Lebowitz claims that all of her opinions regarding literature, art, New York, smoking, homosexuality, etc. are right. By backing up such arrogance with perfectly tailored bon mots, Lebowitz demonstrates that for her, there’s no difference between the quality of her assessments and how she communicates them.
Indeed, in Scorsese’s documentaries, creative expression is (to paraphrase one of his favorite bands) about the singer, and not so much the song. But the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary doesn’t belong solely to artists who use their voices to authenticate artificial stories. It’s also in those seeking direct and unadulterated communion with the divine. In “Feel Like Going Home,” an episode he directed for the 2003 PBS series The Blues, Scorsese and modern bluesman Corey Harris discover that in the African roots, Southern development, and Northern migration of the Delta blues, artists spanning generations and continents have been united in a similar cultural experience of suffering and love. It must have been revelatory for Scorsese, who has always sought to unify his own multifaceted and unfixable style in the transcendence only available to, and through, art.
Scorsese Nonfiction runs at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Manhattan) December 6 through December 17.