A Life Framed By the Movies

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

NEW YORK -- Maybe you'd call it "the glow."

As light, it's artificial; as emotion, it's genuine.

The light is composed of studio bulbs and filters, the gymnastics of shadow and wattage, the physics of angle and placement, resulting in a kind of soft clarity close to but more nurturing than sunlight. It illuminates its subject with a kind of mythical radiance, larger, more perfect, more beautiful than life.

To be a frail, asthmatic 5-year-old from a bookless apartment, the only child of garment district workers, and to see that glow was to see a life, a possibility, a hope, a dream.

From the artifice came the emotion: When Martin Scorsese talks of them -- the movies -- it's as if he's lit from within, eyes fiery, attention rapt but trending toward reverie, enthusiasm furious.

He really loves them. Scorsese makes them (some call him our greatest director); saves them (he is a great preservationist); studies them (he is a walking, talking IMDb, who can track connections and linkages to the tiniest degree). They saved his life, and maybe he saved theirs, not the art but enough individual films along the way that might have disappeared without his intercession.

He's won an Oscar (finally!) and dozens of other trinkets, and this weekend he is receiving the Kennedy Center Honors. But if you want to see him really excited, cite the way John Wayne's hand flies to his elbow in the final frames of "The Searchers," when the Duke realizes that the civilization he has just restored, in some sense, will reject and exile him to wander among the winds forever. Wayne turns, majestic and tragic, the door closes, and Scorsese, 65, sitting in a plush office five floors above West 57th Street, goes, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" -- his voice almost trembling with excitement. He's glowing.

The office is a kind of cathedral of movie love. Like devotional objects, classic posters (valuable originals) hang in frames, gigantic and serene. His office is muffled in books (hundreds, all movie-oriented). He himself looks dapper: no old-hippie affectations. He wears Lew Wasserman mogul glasses; his hair is thick, gray and immaculate; his sport coat a rich tweed from, no doubt, a fine Italian tailor, over a striped shirt open at the neck. Only in the first seconds of seeing him do you notice that he's short; then his dynamism, energy, enthusiasm and obsessional movie love mask that fact and make him seem gigantic.

Wasn't always the case. In a harsh and lonely childhood, one imagines, there wasn't much damned glowing going on. Born in Queens, he's now seven subway stops from Little Italy, where he grew up. Takes about 20 minutes. Maybe three miles, crow-style. A lifetime, Scorsese-style.

He is recalling his first real movie.

That is, not the first movie he saw physically, but the first time he brought it all together, realized that someone was consciously shaping a story, using the elements of screen to express emotion.

"I was 5 or 6, the movie was King Vidor's 'Duel in the Sun.' It was a very powerful experience. Having asthma, my parents didn't know what to do with me, so they took me to the movies all the time. My mother thought 'Duel in the Sun' was a western. That last scene was incredibly powerful for me. It was no longer the average western of the time. The emotions were way over the top. It was very frightening to me."

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