It’s tempting, when viewing the early Martin Scorsese short films and mid-length documentaries assembled in the Criterion Collection’s new Scorsese Shorts, to focus on the coming attractions – the little flourishes, already present in these formative works, that would come to define the legendary filmmaker’s style. And make no mistake, they’re there: the first-person voice-over narration and direct-to-camera address, the hyper-kinetic moving camera, the snazzy editing, the savvy use of still photos as storytelling shorthand, the dashes of surrealist humor. No artist comes out of the box fully formed, but Scorsese was awfully close. (It’s worth also noting that his debut feature, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, begins with a scene of rock music, pasta preparation, and religious icons. He was always telling us who he was.)
But what’s more compelling – and informative – about these films is how they function as a hinge between the film student and the filmmaker. Like most great directors, Scorsese has never been shy about lifting and repurposing images and ideas that appeal to him, but the influences are particularly clear here: Bergman-eseque close-ups, French New Wave-style black-and-white photography and confessional narration, a full-on 8 ½ homage. Many a filmmaker has done the same; everyone needs a few rounds of being someone else to figure out who they are. But such exploration is usually done in private, in independent or student films that might not even see the light of day; to his credit, Scorsese allows us to watch him synthesizing his various inspirations into his own voice. Scorsese Shorts becomes, in effect, a game of connect the dots – both to the filmmakers he idolized, and the thematic ideas and visual motifs he would revisit later in his career.
His first two student films, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) and It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964) each run a reel or two, and have the infectious energy of a short comedy – coupled with an already omnipresent freshness to his visual approach. They’re also propelled by Scorsese’s abundant love for cinema; the latter, for example, stops cold for an absolutely out-of-nowhere musical number, which gives us the sense that the young director was simply hungry to try everything. Maybe he wouldn’t get a chance to make a musical later, he may have thought, so he tries it here.
Murray generates the most interest among Scorsese scholars for its place as his first gangster narrative, its title character a not-altogether-bright guy who introduces himself by ticking off the cost of his clothes and car (“You see this tie? Twenty dollars. See these shoes? Fifty dollars”). The connection to Goodfellas is crystal clear, especially in the presence of Scorsese’s mother Catherine as the criminal’s proud mama, forever feeding him pasta –even through the mesh of the prison visiting room. In moments like that, it’s clear that Murray is more like a spoof of gangster movies than the real thing.
No such mirth penetrates The Big Shave (1967), which was his first color film, and which uses it well. The premise is simple: as soothing big band music plays, a young man enters his bathroom, lathers up his face, shaves, and applies his aftershave. He then lathers up again and shaves more, nicking himself in the process, a little cut that turns into a cascade of blood; the liquid is a deep, dark red, so it hits the sparkling clean white sink with maximum impact. The short, a broad metaphor for the bloodshed of Vietnam, would be just another late-‘60s protest piece if it bore just about any other director’s name; here, it’s noteworthy for the deep, spattered blood that points the way towards later works like Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead (or even The Last Temptation of Christ).
But the centerpieces of the collection are Italianamerican (1974) and American Boy (1978), each running just under an hour, from the period in which Scorsese was no longer a student, but one of the “movie brats” so hot in the New Hollywood. Throughout this period, he would often chase his narrative features with documentary meditations on (roughly) the same subjects; The Last Waltz pairs with New York, New York (musicals), American Boy with Taxi Driver (more on that presently), and Italianamerican with Mean Streets, another portrait of the Little Italy neighborhood Scorsese called home.
The background here is fascinating (and, frankly, funny): contacted by the National Endowment for the Humanities to contribute an episode about Italian-Americans for a documentary series on the immigrant experience called A Storm of Strangers, Scorsese decided to forgo the customary all-encompassing approach and focus squarely on his parents. There is some archival footage and a few photos, but not many; his focus is on their memories, of immigrating, of tenement life, and of the growth (sometimes painful) of the neighborhood.
Unsurprisingly, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal films – and for my money, one of his best – offering the unique perspective on a personality that you can only get from observing the people who raised them. Catherine and Charles Scorsese carry themselves quite differently, but in both, you can hear the rhythms of the neighborhood vernacular so key to his pictures; she’s something of a chatterbox while he’s a quiet observer, and just in that contrast, you can see the shadows of Tommy and Paulie, two quintessential Scorsese characters, in Goodfellas (so it’s not surprising that Catherine played Tommy’s mother). But they’re also telling a story of long-lasting love, which he hasn’t really told elsewhere in his filmography; in the way they interrupt, jab, and top each other, we’re hearing a two-act these two people have spent decades perfecting.
There is, in fact, an occasion here; as in so many households, Catherine makes a big pasta dinner every Sunday, and during the interview, she’ll jump up, sometimes mid-thought, to go stir the sauce. (The recipe is included in the end credits, and in the Blu-ray insert.) When the meal is ready, the conversation works its way over to the dinner table, where husband, wife, and son continue to tell stories and argue about their memories, and as the film unwinds, we realize Scorsese is doing something seemingly simple but next to impossible: he’s replicating the experience of hanging out with these people. They’re both wonderful storytellers, to be sure, but this is not an earth-shattering event – it’s just an entertaining family dinner, something he does all the time. But he decided he wanted to document it, and by the end of the 49-minute running time, we feel like we know these two people, like we’re family ourselves.
American Boy captures the feeling of a very different hang: up all night, getting high with your friends, and trading war stories. (No drugs are consumed on camera, but if you’ve read anything about this period in Scorsese’s life, you get the feeling there were plenty just out of frame.) The focus is on Steven Prince, a hard-living type who worked in various corners of show business, as a tour manager and carpenter, and even occasionally as an actor (he plays the gun salesman in Taxi Driver).
But more than anything, Prince is a raconteur, and most of American Boy finds him telling his best drug stories (and they’re all drug stories, even the ones that are just about the kind of people you’re around when you do a lot of drugs). The real darkness of these stories reveals itself, occasionally but strategically; that darkness is offset (or perhaps heightened, your call) by the old home movies from Prince’s past that Scorsese uses as interstitials – reminding us that this was a child of the ‘50s, as Robert Klein once put it, and thus the very picture of picket-fence normalcy.
Scorsese and his subject come from markedly different backgrounds. Prince is from the Midwest, his father was a colonel in the army, and, in sharp contrast to Italianamerican, Prince’s mother ”cooks, no doubt, the most bland food in the world. No taste at all!” That all-American childhood, and Prince’s descent into various underworlds, makes him not far removed from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and indeed he tells a story of shooting a stick-up man in a desert gas station that sounds like a variation on Travis’s first bodega kill.
Film buffs will also note a much more explicit lift. In talking about his life as a high-functioning addict (“It’s a life juice, and you don’t need that much sleep”) he tells a story of saving an overdosing woman via an adrenaline shot to the heart, and so many of the details reappear in Pulp Fiction – the necessary “stabbing motion,” consulting a “medical dictionary,” the practical application of a magic marker – that there seems little doubt that Quentin Tarantino’s fabled Video Archives carried a copy of the only previous official release of the film (alongside Italianamerican, on a VHS tape), and that it was part of his video store film education.
One thread runs through both the fictional shorts and the documentary films: awareness of the camera. Early in It’s Not Just You, Murray!, the title character stops in mid-sentence and informs the director, “Cut what I’m doin’, I forgot to introduce myself.” Similarly, Scorsese begins Italianamerican by including the opening moments of filming and his instructions to his parents; when the film ends, he includes that footage as well, as his mother barks, “Now that’s enough for today, Marty,” hurries over to switch the air conditioning back on (New York window units are far too loud for sound recording), and pleads, “Now listen, can I put my furniture back?”
But American Boy’s conclusion is the most instructive. Prince concludes by telling a heartfelt, sincere story about a conversation he recently had, about the state of his life, with his dying father. As the film continues to run, Scorsese asks him to tell it again, and then a third time – telling him to take and retake this personal moment to make it a little more poignant, “directing” him to a more affecting “performance.” It’s an incredible conclusion, and easy to read as something of a self-indictment by the filmmaker. But the message is clear, in these moments that blur the too-simple demarcation between his fiction and non-fiction, it’s all the same art form.
Only the aesthetics are in play; it’s all staged, you could say. And you could also say that it’s all true.
“Scorsese Shorts” is out now from the Criterion Collection. It streams on the Criterion Channel on June 25.