The movies that made Scorsese, from silent age to 3D

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Long before he gave us taxi drivers, pugilists, gangsters and aviators, Martin Scorsese was a film fan. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw met the garrulous workaholic who, pushing 70, is still a big kid at heart

Everyone should experience a life-changing epiphany. Martin Scorsese’s occurred 60 years ago courtesy of the flag-waving extravaganza that was the Festival of Britain and a celluloid tribute called The Magic Box.

Made in 1951 and starring Robert Donat as silent film pioneer William Friese-Greene, The Magic Box is remarkable for being the movie that co-opted the collective talents of the era’s biggest home-grown stars. The multitudinous cast list includes Joyce Grenfell, Marius Goring, Sid James, Peter Ustinov, Eric Portman and Sybil Thorndike in walk-on parts plus, in a stand-out cameo, Laurence Olivier as a stolid rozzer who witnesses moving pictures and cannot believe his widening eyes.

The film commemorated the life of a man who may have built a crude working camera as early as 1889 but who died penniless and forgotten in 1921. Thirty years later Friese-Greene’s struggles, vision and energy transferred itself into nine-year-old Marty Scorsese.

In London this week for the Royal Film Performance of Hugo, his first family film in a 45-year career, the 69-year-old Oscar-winner gladly reminisced about the movie that started it all.

“Movies for a long period of time were a refuge, in a way. Because of having asthma – it was 1944, ‘45 – I was not allowed to do any sports or anything like that. I couldn’t do anything green so I was taken to the movie theatre pretty often. I saw many films in the ‘40s,” he recalled.

“But the film that I think created the biggest impression on me was about film and about filmmaking: The Magic Box. The thing about that film [is that it’s] not just about the moving image but it was the obsession and passion of the people at that time, [in particular] William Friese-Greene, a man who was so obsessed that his whole personal life was destroyed by it. There’s something about that film – something happened when I saw that picture.”

Scorsese has been a film buff all his life. Famously once asked to name his Top Ten, he reeled off title after title and stopped when he reached 108. His success over five decades has never dulled his love of motion pictures – it’s never become just a job. And via the World Cinema Foundation, of which he is chairman, he continues to revive and restore lost classics.

Cue Hugo. The film has enjoyed a canny marketing campaign with posters hinting that the 3D film is about an inventive boy who builds automatons. In fact it is the nearest we shall perhaps ever come to a biopic of another giant of the silent period: Georges Méliès.

Méliès was the theatre magician turned cinematic stop-motion wizard whose films thrilled – and continue to amaze – audiences from the mid-1890s to 1913. Scorsese recreates the man, his milieu and movies in a film that is a glorious billet-doux to that lost period of imagination.

Youngsters today who know Scorsese only for breakthrough hits like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Departed, are not to blame for the narrow sweep of their film knowledge. Not everyone is a film buff. But, says Scorsese, they can be.

I suggest that it is vital that today’s generation is aware of and understands the critical importance of silent film, and what it represented. Scorsese agrees and expands the point.

“The problem is not really the new generation’s. It’s a problem with a different generation: the obligation of the ones before to expose the new generation to the great art of the past – great, good, possibly good, maybe not very good.

“There might be a school of thought that says you don’t have to see anything of the past to express yourself artistically – to write a novel or a play, or to make films. But I think if you make it available, one becomes aware of what came before. And it’s exciting to do that with a younger generation, very exciting.

“It’s important to make younger people aware of what came before, in every aspect. I get a lot out of it – a kind of regeneration – to see that excitement sometimes. That’s part of being alive, right?”

He carried that mentoring philosophy onto the set of Hugo, giving 13-year-old Asa Butterfield a rapid cinephilic history lesson via titles like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Yet Scorsese was also wallowing in nostalgia, re-living his youth via a collaboration with 89-year-old Sir Christopher Lee, the ultimate movie vampire from Hammer’s 1958 Dracula, who enjoys a gentle supporting role in Hugo as an aged bibliophile.

Scorsese smiles. “Oh, it was just heaven. It’s taken us all these years just to have a few scenes. I admire him greatly. Hammer films, whether they were the Dracula or the Frankenstein ones, or the black and white ones, there’s something very special about them. Quatermass was amazing. It still is. It still has that element of wonder about it. Hammer films had an edge to them that was very, very different.”

Hugo is different, too – very different from the Scorsese movies of old. There is a sense that little Marty, the complete film aficionado, is playing with the form as much as he is doffing his cap to Monsieur Méliès (played in the film by Sir Ben Kingsley). Méliès conjured up rudimentary (and, for the time, remarkably persuasive) special effects. It was magical. Scorsese makes magic with 3D.

“[I’m] a great admirer of it,” he says. “When I first saw those re-masters and the stereoscopic images I was stepping into another space as a child. [I tap] into that imagination of a child – I really, really depend on it whenever I make a film. But it has to be there every day – that thrill of the imagination. And somehow seeing those first 3D stereoscopic images has that.

“That may be my last connection to childhood imagination, just that feeling. There’s something fantastic about 3D. [I’ve felt that] all my life.”

Scorsese has been around long enough to have seen the second explosion of 3D in the 1950s. But he appears to view it as much more than just a cyclical gimmick, arguing that if used appropriately it could become as integral as colour and sound.

“The 3D world I was trying to create was tapping back into that something that was so ephemeral – this feeling of magic when I saw those first images when I was a child. I also wanted a few of the old-fashioned 3D moments of hands reaching out. It is something I’d like to take into my future films, no doubt.

“The Lumière Brothers made several films in 3D in the ‘20s. Sergei Eisenstein was working on 3D when he had his heart attack [in 1948].

“Imagine Eisenstein films in 3D! Imagine what they would have done: Battleship Potemkin in 3D. I’m not saying it should be converted; I’m just saying can you imagine the mind of someone like that? Or Orson Welles creating something in 3D?

“More than 90 per cent of silent films are gone. They continue to go.

“Nobody cared about it. If you see a silent film in its original form and at the proper speed, it’s another language entirely. I saw a few when I was a kid but they were always scratched up with people jumping around. I didn’t understand what the attraction was.”

Clearly he does now, and via Hugo and Georges Méliès he is doing his bit to spread the word to the wider world.

Hugo 3D is released tomorrow.