By John Duncan Talbird.
In 1974, soon after the splash of Mean Streets (1973), his first major directorial success, Martin Scorsese made a documentary about his parents, Italianamerican. Aside from still photos of the family and archival footage of Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood during the early 20th century, the film takes place entirely inside Charles and Catherine Scorsese’s apartment – the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. The film is forty-nine minutes long and consists of mostly just the parents telling stories – of their parents emigrating from Sicily to the US, of working in New York City’s Garment District, and their life together. The individual stories are not what stick with the audience afterward, but how the Scorseses tell their stories: their gestures, their phrasings, their digressions, and ramblings. We can see the foundations of Martin Scorsese’s love for character in these two characters who brought him up. Other highlights include the ambiance of the evening, the way the Scorseses interact with Martin, and Catherine making sauce – a recipe which is then listed in the credits.
The little things are what stick with you most. Catherine leads the camera into the kitchen and then discusses how she makes her sauce, who she got the recipe from, and so on. Meanwhile, Charles speak to another camera in the living room, wonders why Catherine can’t “talk normal,” suggests that she is performing, not being authentic. Moments like these are what stay with the viewer, that, and the persona that Catherine is presenting, a persona very familiar to viewers of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). In that film she plays psychopath Tommy DeVito’s (Joe Pesci) mother, calmly making dinner for her son and his hoodlum friends in the middle of the night, showing off one of her paintings, and loaning a butcher knife to Tommy who needs it to cut up a body in his trunk. She holds her own in that scene with a two-time Oscar-winning actor (DeNiro) along with two other professional actors, one of whom (Pesci) would go on to win an Oscar for this very role. But we see her comfort in front of the camera in this earlier documentary, both natural and also aware of the performative nature of documentary. “What should I call you?” she asks her son early on. “Should I call you by name?” Sure, whatever, Martin says.
This documentary and four other early short films have now been collected in Scorsese Shorts released by Criterion. Like this early performance of Catherine Scorsese (she also appears in the director’s NYU MFA thesis film included here, It’s Not Just You, Murray!), much of the pleasure of these early films involves making links to Scorsese’s oeuvre as a whole. The connection between food and family, food and culture will come to be a huge part of Goodfellas, especially the scene where Henry (Ray Liotta) narrates in voiceover as we see the kinds of meals that the Italian mobsters made in jail – closeups of garlic sliced with a razor blade, sausage cut with a butcher knife, the kinds of implements – or food – one doesn’t usually associate with the high security prison. But there are films here that are worth the price of admission even without needing to dig for early signs of genius. Although Italianamerican is the more famous of the two, I prefer 1978’s American Boy, a profile of Steven Prince who made a big impression with his brief appearance in Taxi Driver two years earlier as the gun salesman. The most compelling aspect of American Boy is that Prince is not just a character or someone who has lived an interesting life – he is both of those things – but he’s also an incredible storyteller. He knows how to slow down for dramatic effect, or speed up, knows the appropriate facial expression to give each story. The way he pauses and stares into the camera after telling a story of watching a kid electrocute himself is chilling.
In some ways, I think that American Boy is a crucial gateway film for Scorsese. Whereas Italianamerican is a film about characters and place, about tone and style, American Boy has stories to tell. Prince tells the story of killing a man at a gas station in self-defense. He tells about being heavily addicted to heroin while stage manager for Neil Diamond, of how Diamond offered to pay for his rehab bills and then help him get started in anything he wanted. He says with perfect timing, “And so I thought it over and made the really intelligent decision: ‘No.’” Viewers will also recognize the story that Quentin Tarantino dramatizes in Pulp Fiction (1994) when Prince describes restarting a junkie’s heart by shoving the needle of a hypodermic syringe full of adrenaline through her chest cavity. By the time we finish the film, we’ve come to be amazed at the fact that Prince survived his own years of heroin addiction – he still lives in 2020. With his sunken eyes, bad teeth, and cadaverous body alongside the riveting stories, sometimes sordid in equal measures, we come to respect what Prince’s father, a weapons specialist in the military, says to him right before he died, that he’s a survivor. This conversation comes at the end of the film and it not only shows Scorsese’s control over this subject matter, but also his attention to nuance. Prince tells the story, and Scorsese is clearly not satisfied with it, says that when Prince first told him the story on a plane trip, that there seemed to be “a little more sincerity to it.” Prince tells the story again and it still doesn’t make the cut, and so Scorsese films it a third time. The third time is not only the charm, but, after following the other two – which haven’t been discarded, but are shown to the audience – has symbolic effect. The work that Prince is doing in connecting with his distant military father, the attempt to get at what that last conversation meant, is as important as the telling of the story.
This conclusion, plus the Prince family home movies that are positioned before each of the narratives, show American Boy to not only be the superior documentary to Italianamerican, but also the film in which Scorsese is the most in-tune to storytelling. He has clearly prepared, frequently consulting the typed pages that Prince created and which the director used to secure funding, encouraging Prince in certain directions, inviting actor George Memmoli – whose house the interview takes place over one long night – to chime in once, and then gently patting him when he appears to be going on too long. Scorsese is a master director, but he’s not a writer. All of the fiction films included here are fairly weak narratively and mostly derivative of the New Cinema coming out of Italy and France in the fifties and sixties. It’s almost universally agreed that Mean Streets – written from an original story idea by Scorsese and co-scripted with Mardik Martin who would go on to write Raging Bull with Paul Schrader (who wrote Scorsese’s first Oscar-nominated film, Taxi Driver ) – is Scorsese’s first great film. Still, Mean Streets, though a gritty film with compelling characters and beautiful cinematography, doesn’t have the narrative drive and focus of Taxi Driver. I believe that American Boy shows Scorsese’s awareness about the importance of story in his aesthetics. He’s collaborated with screenwriters nearly always throughout his career, crafting masterful adaptations like Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence (1993) or filming other people’s screenplays and making out of them his own films: Taxi Driver, Gangs of New York (2002).
Which doesn’t suggest that the three fictional films collected here by Criterion are not worth your time. The five-minute “The Big Shave” (1967) is Scorsese’s first color film. Supposedly a statement about the Vietnam War, the film is mostly a formal exercise. With Bunny Berigan’s thirties-era “I Can’t Get Started” playing as soundtrack, a blond, clean-cut young man shaves himself and keeps shaving himself until he’s streaming blood. It’s lovingly shot and edited; in fact, the care with which Scorsese films the opening montage of the bathroom, before the shaver arrives, is strikingly prescient, looking forward to the way Scorsese will film the guns in the gun-buying scene in Taxi Driver. The violence also seems to predict the bloodbath in that film when Travis Bickle (DeNiro) goes on his shooting spree, though I think it’s more akin to the baseball bat scene in Casino (1995) – gratuitously violent, assaultive of the audience, and, despite the care taken on the technical aspects, nihilistic.
Originally, I felt similarly dismissive of Scorsese’s student work. However, I’ve given more thought to them after watching the accompanying conversation about these short films between filmmakers Ari Aster (Hereditary , Midsommar ) and Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time ). This is a particularly apt discussion considering the Safdie brothers’ recent Uncut Gems (2019) seems almost like a time travel artifact from the 1970s with a career-high performance by Adam Sandler, Scorsesian gritty New York streets, frenetic pace, nervous camera work, and aura of existential angst. For over thirty minutes, we watch a seemingly improvisational conversation between film geeks about one of their favorite directors. It’s much more engaging than the bland interview also included here between Scorsese and film critic Farran Smith Nehme. The way the three filmmakers talk about these early student films is so enthusiastic it makes me think I dismissed them too quickly. That’s probably the big gift of this set, that these films that have been floating around on the internet for years are now collected together in good cuts with clear sound. As Scorsese nears the age of eighty, he is still going strong with an Oscar nomination just this year for The Irishman (2019), and two new features forthcoming, an adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon, a ’20s-era film about the birth of the FBI, and a biopic about Teddy Roosevelt. It seems like a good time to revisit these early artifacts to see how far he’s come.
John Talbird is the author of the chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind (Nortre Maar). His novel The World Out There will be released in 2020 by Madville Publishing, and his fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Grain, The Literary Review, Ambit, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many others. He lives in Queens, NY and is an English professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY.