The Second Screen
An Acclaimed Director Tells How Home Video Has Changed The Way We Watch Movies—and the Way He Makes Them
By Martin Scorsese
I first heard about home video around 1978 or ’79, and I recall my friend Jay Cocks (who writes for Time and is just as much a film enthusiast as I am) and I thinking that it was some sort of blessing. The idea that we could go into a store and pick up a paperback-sized cassette of a favorite movie, take it home and put it on the shelf like a book—well, it was a childhood dream of ours, the idea that you could have a whole wall of your favorite films.
Prior to video, I used to screen pictures all the time, either in a screening room in 35mm or at my home in 16mm. And I still do that, because I feel that the best way to see a movie is as a film, on a screen. I remember doing a lot of screenings when I lived in Los Angeles in the mid-‘70s. Many of the directors from that time would come over, and we showed all kinds of movies. There was a really great exchange of ideas from doing that, and the whole thing was like one long salon—a film salon rather than a literary salon.
With video, this kind of exchange is easier. For example, I’ll be talking with my daughter and I’ll bring up Karl Freund’s The Mummy. She hasn’t seen a lot of pictures from that era or genre, so if we want to look at it, video makes it possible for me to say, “Oh, great, I have the laser disc right here,” and we’ll throw that on and look at a scene or two or maybe at the whole movie. That might lead us into other great horror movies of that time, and also into other directors—from Freund we can cross-reference to James Whale, who made such great movies as The Bride of Frankenstein.
So having instant access to movies, being able to pick something up and show it at the drop of a hat, is great. That’s the biggest thing. The improving quality is also very important. With the advent of bigger screens, better home sound and the growing popularity of laser discs, you can almost reproduce, in your home, the theater experience. I’m hopeful that this will change the way people watch movies on home video. If you’ve got a room in the house with a big-screen monitor and surround sound, maybe you’ll start watching movies like movies. In other words, you don’t talk to your friends, you don’t take phone calls, you don’t get up and go to the kitchen and come back. You watch it like you’re in a theater.
Because that’s the biggest drawback of video. It encourages a shorter attention span. And there are certain films you have to be very careful about. Take Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It’s an extraordinary film, and the Criterion laser disc of it is wonderful. I showed some of it to Powell, who was amazed by the quality of it and how beautiful it looks. But here is a movie that, unless you watch it straight through from beginning to end, you lose the emotion. Now for many years I’ve been following the progress ofColonel Blimp, and the many mutilated versions of it that have circulated, and it’s a miracle to me that this restored version is accessible to so many people now. But when you watch it on video, just please make sure you can sit through the whole two hours and 45 minutes in one sitting, with maybe one little break, because it has an overall emotional effect that’s so strong, it stays with you.
The shorter attention span encouraged by television and video also affects, I think, how movies are made today. Your shots have to go faster. You realize sometimes as you’re making a film that today’s audience may not sit for a shot of a certain length. This may not change the way I’ll make a picture. Whatever the pace, if it’s right for the shot or scene, that’s the way it’s got to be—as in The Last Temptation of Christ, where a number of sequences take on the tone and mood of the desert. When I was in Morocco I got a real sense of timelessness, of everything moving at 120 frames per second—extreme slow-motion, almost like a trance. That’s part of the effect that I wanted from the movie, and it’s part of the reason the movie is two hours and 46 minutes long. I decided that certain elements of Temptation would be fast, fine. But in the desert, there’s a sense of mysticism you experience that often comes in a trancelike manner. With the combination of images and sound effects and Peter Gabriel’s music, I tried to re-create that mood in certain places. As for my new film, Good Fellas, even if it’s 2 ½ hours long, I’m hopeful it will be one of the fastest-paced pictures ever made, because it tells a story in a style heavily influenced by documentary TV reporting and these new tabloid shows.
While I don’t let video change the way I pace my movies, I have always been aware that because of the subject matter of a lot of my pictures, they would more than likely find a bigger audience on cable or video than they would in theaters. A very intense movie like Taxi Driver would, of course, have to be cut to be put on network TV, because after all it’s going into people’s homes unsolicited. When we made it, we made it the best we could for the big screen, and if it ever showed up on television, they would have to do what they had to do to make it palatable. When cable came along, that meant people could see it in full. And I knew, making movies like After Hours or The King of Comedy, that they would probably be seen by more people on home video. (That’s also the case with The Last Temptation of Christ, although we never expected the kind of anger and resentment and violent reaction we got. We expected some difficulty at times, but not to that extent.) And that affected my compositions somewhat.
This may change in the future. The public has to be continually re-educated about the importance of maintaining a movie’s original aspect ratio on home video. How do you do this? Well, I don’t think that academic arguments really convince people. To say that they’re missing “more information in the frame” isn’t enough. You have to say what this really means, which is they’re missing out on more entertainment. If the viewer’s not seeing the whole picture, he’s not getting the full enjoyment. That’s the thing. Take the letterboxed laser disc of Die Hard. It’s very different from the cropped or scanned versions on cable or videocassette. A great deal of the strength of pictures by directors like John McTiernan [Die Hard] and James Cameron [Aliens, The Abyss] is in their technical prowess, how they handle sound and editing, how one picture cuts to the next, how one sound cuts to the next. To fully enjoy those strengths, you’ve got to see the whole picture. Looking at a scanned version—well, if you cut from half a frame to half a frame, you’re going to lose the full effect of the movie.
Now that laser discs are introducing letterboxing and, I hope, showing the public that the best possible way of looking at a film at home is in its original aspect ratio, I think from now on I’m going to start shooting in Panavision, and really use the frame in the way Sam Fuller and Nick Ray did—not to mention Max Ophuls in the best widescreen movie of them all, Lola Montes. That’s just the most remarkable use of widescreen. And of course there’s Anthony Mann. If I could ever go near what Mann did with his wide images in movies like El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire…And now I know that when I shoot in Panavision, there will be at least one video version that will be true to what I shot.
I also like to use video as an education tool. It’s ideal for that. I did a lecture at NYU about a year ago, where I showed the storyboards I drew for the fight scenes in Raging Bull on a screen and compared them to how the actual movie came out. In some cases it was absolutely identical. I put the storyboards up on a screen and I showed the video and said, “That shot corresponds to this one, shot number one, and that cuts to this,” and it was exactly as storyboarded by me.
In another case, the fight scene in which Sugar Ray Robinson gives Jake LaMotta that horrible beating in the final bout between them, during round 13—“the hard luck round,” as the fight announcer puts it—I showed how the final version differed from the storyboards. That ruthless beating, about 20 seconds of film, took 10 days to shoot. And during the editing, we put it together the normal way, shots one, two, three, four and so on—it was a total of 36 setups. We realized after we put it together that we had our structure, but we then discovered other values of movement, lighting, special effects, and started juggling the shots. And it was very interesting to show these film students, through the use of video and my original storyboards, exactly what was done.
You could never show something like that before home video. When we were film students we were extremely lucky to get 16mm prints to show. I remember these essentially well-meaning kids who weren’t really crazy about film but took film courses anyway. They would get a hold of this beautiful 16mm print of Citizen Kane, put it through a Movieola and go back and forth over and over because they were doing a term paper on it and needed to see where all the dissolves were in the opening sequences. Of course the print got all scratched up. Those prints of Citizen Kane are now gone. And these kids all went on to be doctors or lawyers or whatever—they didn’t even go into film! Now you can get a tape or disc of it and study it that way, and nothing gets hurt.
Finally, the way video gives a new life to some great films is very important. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an excellent example. So is another Powell/Pressburger film, The Red Shoes, which, since its restoration and video release, is on its way to becoming a perennial favorite in the tradition of The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Video also can educate film students and enthusiasts about the neglected masters. I read an article in a magazine recently that lists all the Anthony Mann movies on video, and I think that’s great too. A lot of film students today have no reason to know who Anthony Mann was or what he did. So to have video making all these things so readily attainable, for people to learn from and enjoy, is all for the good in the end.