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Blu-ray Review: Five Scorsese Shorts Released on the Criterion Collection

This beautiful restoration of five early Scorsese films allows one to savor the development and rise of an iconic auteur.

5

Scorsese Shorts

Criterion’s release of five early Martin Scorsese shorts reveals that the filmmaker knew the kind of artist he was and wanted to be at a young age. All of the films included in this set contain seeds of future Scorsese classics, and they’re all formally playful and sophisticated, with lasting career reverberations: Four of the five shorts center around the rapture and mythology of storytelling, while the fifth plumbs the theme of self-annihilation that would become a Scorsese leitmotif. Collectively, the five films span two distinct periods in Scorsese’s career: as an N.Y.U. student and graduate in the early-to-mid 1960s, and as a rising filmmaker in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Like many future Scorsese films, 1963’s What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and 1964’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! feature protagonists who speak directly to the camera, inadvertently revealing the limitations of their knowledge. In the former, an aspiring writer, Algernon (Zeph Michaelis), who’s called Harry by his friends, moves into a loft in NYC and becomes obsessed by a painting of a man in a boat, which amusingly anticipates a painting that would be featured in Goodfellas. Scorsese expresses Harry’s comic alienation with jump cuts that emphasize specific portions of the painting that alternately command the character’s attention, causing them to disappear and reappear like elements of a flip book. As Harry is trying to write, Scorsese fashions a split screen of him typing on the top half of the frame while the word “help” appears on the bottom. Such playful stylistic antics govern this 10-minute film, which ends on a surreal image of Harry literally disappearing into another obsession: his new wife’s (Mimi Stark) painting.

Another device in the film links it with It’s Not Just You, Murray! and many other Scorsese productions. Both shorts contrast what various characters say with one another, jump-cutting fervently between different speakers, linking words to justification of actions. When Harry repeats a cliché uttered to him by a friend or acquaintance, Scorsese cuts to a composite figure (Fred Sica) who sits under a lamp against a black backdrop, repeating verbatim, with comic repetition, what Harry just said, which was banal the first time we heard it. As a junior at N.Y.U., Scorsese already valued the power of language to lead and mislead.

Similarly, the protagonist of It’s Not Just You, Murray! talks up a good game while his friend cuckolds him in the background. Murray (Ira Rubin) addresses the camera, insisting we know the value of his suit, his shoes, his car, and so on, recounting his ascension into bootlegging and show business along with his friend, Joe (Sam DeFazio), who not only allows Murray to serve a prison term for crimes they both committed, but sleeps and has two children with Murray’s wife (Andrea Martin). This astonishingly dense 16-minute production, which includes an accomplished faux-Busby Berkeley number in full, is a prototype for the Scorsese gangster film, encapsulating the rise of the mafia in America via intimate counterpoints: between Murray’s bluster and naïveté, and Murray’s earnestness and Joe’s self-absorption.

The formal and narrative construction of It’s Not Just You, Murray! represents a startling leap in sophistication from What’s a Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, though the film’s most memorable effect is relatively simple. When Murray discovers the truth of Joe’s disloyalty, he orders the cameraman to cut the sound, leaving the specifics of their conversation a mystery. Similar devices, suggesting how filmmakers modulate viewer impressions (and a parallel to how characters rationalize themselves), will be reused and refined in the two nonfiction films in this set, Italianamerican and American Boy.

Italianamerican was released in 1974, a year after Scorsese came into his own with Mean Streets, and both films are obsessed by the nature of storytelling as a communal art. Here, Scorsese interviews his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese, inside their home in Little Italy as Catherine prepares meatballs and gravy. Over the course of 49 minutes, Charles and Catherine offer details of their families’ immigration to New York and their gradual adaptation to America. And as we hear of their hard knocks, of living with a dozen people in a few rooms, of washing clothes with boiling water, sometimes for nine children, we come to admire the resolve of these people and, perhaps, regret a vanished way of life.

These individuals didn’t have the privilege to insulate themselves in their rooms or to work on computer screens; their work was hard and brutal yet meaningfully tactile, a suggestion that’s affirmed by Charles and Catherine’s descriptions of, say, the street vendors who gradually disappeared from the area. (The uglier side of immigration, such as the rivalries between the Irish, Italians, and Chinese, is also broached by the film.) Charles and Catherine are lovable people and spry and aware performers, and Scorsese’s affection and respect for them is palpable. This love, wedded with Scorsese’s passion for Italian neorealism, is the foundation for the wealth of familial detail that would spring forth in his later work, especially embodied by Catherine’s ongoing role in his films as a fount of eccentric, hard-won wisdom.

Scorsese is on camera in Italianamerican and American Boy, functioning as a host, actor, and director, proving to be an empathetic and visually commanding listener. He communicates his love for his parents in Italianamerican by the way he sits, sipping wine, nipping at a salad, enjoying their company, interjecting only to get them to intensify their stories. He helps Steven Prince in a similar fashion in 1978’s American Boy, which serves as a documentary B-side to Taxi Driver. Prince had a small but vivid role in the 1976 feature, as a gun dealer who sold a personal arsenal to Travis Bickle, and American Boy reveals him to be a real-life Elmore Leonard character, following him as he tells stories of working for Neil Diamond, kicking heroin, partying with a fully grown gorilla, and killing someone in self-defense while working the night shift at a gas station. (Another story, of reviving a comatose junkie with an adrenaline shot, was eventually lifted wholesale by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction.)

It’s almost jarring to watch American Boy right after Italianamerican, as the latter is sunny and lovely, while the former is freighted with the druggy nightmare vibes of Taxi Driver. American Boy was shot in the home of George Memmoli, who appeared in Mean Streets and John G. Avildsen’s Rocky and who clearly goes back a ways with Prince, and sitting in the background of Memmoli’s large living room is Julia Cameron, Scorsese’s wife and collaborator at the time, and Mardik Martin, who co-wrote Mean Streets, New York, New York, and Raging Bull. But the film is mostly a dual performance between Prince and Scorsese.

Commandingly gaunt and bug-eyed, Prince suggests a fusion of David Bowie and Wes Anderson, and he holds court with ease, morphing into characters and utilizing the slangy macho poetry that abounds in Scorsese’s gangster films: An aunt is described as teaching a 302 class in ball-busting, and Prince’s attempted murderer is chillingly said to have eyes of glass. Perhaps most disturbing is the difference in Scorsese’s demeanor here from that of Italianamerican. He’s tense and self-conscious here, and, in a brilliant ending, unafraid to direct Prince to give an emotionally superior version of his goodbye to his dying father, once again underscoring the essential illusions of cinema. Such a manipulation suggests a fuller and more resonant version of the mute sequence in It’s Not Just You, Murray!, and it’s complemented by the many errors that are intentionally left in here, blurring fact and fiction.

As in Italianamerican, American Boy is filled with regret over a vanished way of life. Scorsese contrasts Prince’s lurid stories with home videos of him as a child, often dressed in traditional 1950s-era little-boy attire, such as a cowboy outfit, while playing or blowing out elaborate birthday cakes. There’s a suggestion in this footage of the familial hearth that Italianamerican celebrates and gave way to the ‘70s-era nihilism of Taxi Driver and the present-day footage of American Boy. And such despair is ferociously evident in the fifth and most infamous film in this set, 1967’s The Big Shave. In the five-minute film, made from color stock that Scorsese won in a contest, a young man (Peter Bernuth) shaves and gradually cuts his face severely over and over, bathing himself and his once pristinely white bathroom in blood, while Bunny Berigan’s 1937 song “I Can’t Get Started” mocks the violence with its seeming joyousness. This perverse and daring counterpoint in sound and image would become a Scorsese hallmark.

The Big Shave abounds in the shame and self-laceration that has continued to obsess Scorsese, especially in his Catholic-themed films, among them some of his gangster epics. Less obviously for contemporary viewers, the short is, as Scorsese claims, a reaction to the violence of the Vietnam War. However, The Big Shave is most unsettling for Scorsese’s uncharacteristic coldness, for the hard sheen of its images, and for the nearly sardonic pleasure that Scorsese seems to take in simulating a man’s destruction. Ultimately, the film suggests a shaving cream ad interrupted by the carnage of the contemporary news. What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! are clever and accomplished rough drafts of future ideas, while The Big Shave is a major work in full, in which Scorsese first rendered in totality his awed fear of violence and social breakdown.

Image/Sound

Firstly, the availability of these films on Blu-ray is worthy of applause in itself, as some of them have been difficult to see outside of sporadic appearances on sites like YouTube. Criterion offers new 4K restorations of all five films, and all the transfers boast an exceptional level of detail, emphasizing Martin Scorsese’s playful use of composition. What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! were filmed on various stocks and exposures in a rough, vibrantly grainy black and white, while Italianamerican and American Boy boast rich and evocative colors and notably impressive facial textures. The Big Shave, somewhat of a stylistic anomaly of this set, is more polished, with gleaming, razor-sharp colors that anticipate the inhumane actions that come to drive the narrative. The other films are shaggy and friendly in appearance, while this one malevolently pops off the screen. All of these films are accompanied by strong, staple monaural tracks that particularly preserve Scorsese’s penchant for contrasting old standards with violence or emotional catharses.

Extras

In a new conversation, Scorsese speaks with film critic Farran Smith Nehme about the relationship between the short films on this disc, his subsequent filmography, and his personal inspirations. Scorsese memorably considers Italianamerican and American Boy as respective companion pieces to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and speaks at length about Italian neorealism and the work of Elia Kazan and how they influenced his love for naturalist textures.

A new discussion with filmmakers Ari Aster and Josh and Benny Safdie homes in on the shorts’ contribution to the development of Scorsese’s formal style, offering many astute observations, such as the many modes of performance in the documentaries and the influence of John Cassavetes and the French New Wave. Aster and the Safdie brothers also note certain shots from The Big Shave as echoing violent compositions from Raging Bull and claim that the violence and torment of The Big Shave, if fused with the warmth and playful reflexivity of It’s Not Just You, Murray!, essentially constitutes the modern Scorsese aesthetic.

In a long essay included with the disc’s liner notes, film critic Bilge Ebiri takes a deep and perceptive dive into recurring themes of the shorts, methods of production, and Scorsese’s vast collection of influences. Ebiri’s writing on American Boy, and the darkness it probably reveals about a turbulent time in Scorsese’s own life, is particularly insightful. Rounding out the package is a 1970 public radio interview with a 27-year-old Scorsese, in which he discusses the American New Wave and its underground counterpart.

Overall

The Criterion Collection’s beautiful restoration of five early Martin Scorsese films allows one to savor the development and rise of an iconic auteur.

Cast: Zeph Michaelis, Mimi Stark, Sarah Braveman, Fred Sica, Robert Uricola, Ira Rubin, Sam DeFazio, Andrea Martin, Catherine Scorsese, Peter Bernuth, Charles Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, Steven Prince Director: Martin Scorsese Screenwriter: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin, Lawrence D. Cohen, Julia Cameron Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 135 min Rating: NR Year: 1963 – 1974 Release Date: May 26, 2020 Buy: Video

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