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May 16, 2007

Garden Variety: Scorsese Honored at MoMA

Filmmaker looks back with Bloomberg, Ovitz, Diller and others

MoMA director Glenn Lowry and Helen Scorsese flank Martin Scorsese at Tuesday's Party in the Garden (Photo: WireImage))

The Museum of Modern Art hosted its annual Party in the Garden Tuesday night, a black-tie gala fundraiser that had this year chosen to recognize Martin Scorsese and philanthropists Leon and Debra Black. Amassing 900 or so of New York's old-money names (Rockefeller, Hearst, Kennedy, Tisch), a few art legends (Close, Koons, Meier), a gang of moguls (Parsons, Ovitz, Diller -- I'll get to them), upstart Wall Street players, post-deb prowlers and, for some reason, me in the museum's sculpture garden, MoMA pulled in $3.8 million for the institution and joined the long-term Scorsese love-in that shows no signs of abating.

For the filmmaker, who characterized the museum as the place "where cinema found its home in America," the feeling was clearly mutual. "The Museum of Modern Art is so important to me because to me, it's synonymous with film history," he told the crowd at dinner. "In fact, it's pretty much hard to imagine one without the other, in my mind, especially if you're a New Yorker of a certain age with a passion for movies. In the late '50s and the early '60s, I was a student at Washington Square College, which had a motion picture department. That was before the School of the Arts. And that was a great time to be alive and to love movies. There was the New Wave from France and Italy. There were extraordinary filmmakers coming in from Japan. Russia was still bringing in great films. And then there was the new American cinema, shepherded by Jonas Mekas. Narrative cinema by John Cassavetes, which influenced me so much. And Shirley Clarke. And we were given a taste of film history -- that was the beginning of it."

Scorsese added that the museum was like a university extension for him and his colleagues, noting that MoMA recognition symbolized a much-needed artistic validation that cinema had not yet attained in the States. "I'm looking over a list of some of the programs I attended back in the '60s," he said. "Erich von Stroheim. Howard Hawks. Robert Frank. Carl Dreyer. Billy Wilder. Ken Jacobs. Kon Ichikawa. And a really important one: Cinema Novo from Brazil in 1968, where I saw the films of Ruy Guerra and the great Glauber Rocha. Michael Snow in '69, and F.W. Murnau introduced by Lotte Eisner that same year. If I skipped ahead 20 years, I have a very, very fond memory of the extraordinary first retrospective of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in 1980. I introduced them that night -- The Red Shoes. A wonderful program of British cinema was shown here in the mid-'80s, but they were the first to do a retrospective of Powell/Pressburger.

"In a sense," Scorsese continued, "watching these programs was film history in the making; these extraordinarily diverse programs gave us an idea of the breadth of film itself. We saw differences and similarities between films we made, connections between films and filmmakers across decades -- across continents. They opened our eyes, these programs, and they were truly discovering another world. That was the gift that MoMA gave us as filmmakers." Surprisingly, Scorsese skipped the topic of film preservation, to which MoMA president Marie-Josée Kravis had briefly alluded in her introduction.

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Earlier in the sculpture garden, I caught up with a few luminaries to get their own Scorsese stories. "I don't have a specific Scorsese film," mayor Michael Bloomberg told me when asked about his favorite. "But I'll tell you something about this guy: He's a nice guy. He's brilliant, and this will be the second best award he gets this year. There's a warmth about him, and people like working with him. And that's why his films are great, because the actors want to make it work. That's what really makes this guy unique."

True, with a few mild exceptions -- say Scorsese's one-time passion project The Last Temptation of Christ, a lightning rod turned revisionist curio nearly two decades after its turbulent release. Barry Diller, whose uncertainty about the material helped doom the film to turnaround when he was Paramount Pictures' chairman in the early '80s, wasn't having any of the MoMA magnanimity.

"Mr. Diller, is there a particular Scorsese film or anecdote that's your favorite?" I asked.

Diller smiled. Or winced. "I wish Mr. Scorsese well," he said.

"Come on, there's got to be just one?"

"I'm sorry, I can't."

Neither could Michael Ovitz, Scorsese's former agent who finally pushed Temptation through at Universal when he was on top of the world at CAA. "I represented him for 25 years," Ovitz told me. "There's 2,500 stories and they're all good. He knows more about film than any person I've ever met in my life -- in 40 years in this business. He's extraordinarily deep in his film history, and he's literally in love with the medium."

"OK. So maybe there's a favorite film?" I said.

"I have six or eight of them."

"Choose one."

Ovitz grinned, cocking his head over his shoulder as turned away. "That's like asking to choose between your children."



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