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Dream Treats: Scorsese Shorts on Blu-ray

  Martin Scorsese (1942- ) may be best known for the feature films he has directed in his long career, but he also made a number of short works, especially in the first half of his life, that may not command the same levels of attention those features do, and may surprise someone who expects all his films to be over two hours in length, but in some ways are just as valid. They are not necessarily as ambitious as the longer efforts, but as a mixture of documentaries and fictional snippets they can be stimulating and seen as a collection can be instructive as to the bigger picture of his filmography. Luckily, The Criterion Collection saw fit to release five of them on Blu-ray.

First on this set is his family documentary ItalianAmerican, where he set up his camera equipment in his parent's apartment and invited them to tell stories of their past, all to better understand how they got to this point in 1974 and maybe how Scorsese got to where he was as well, his career beginning to take shape after over a decade of trying. His mother, Catherine, would become a mascot of sorts over the decades of his movies, appearing in cameos as her loyal son was moved to pay tribute to her, while the impression his father Charles made was largely thanks to this forty-eight minutes mixture of anecdotes and occasional laughter.

The Scorseses relate mostly the accounts of their upbringing as first generation immigrants from Italy, and this serves as a valuable record of the minutiae of their days in the early nineteen-hundreds, how difficult it was to scrape a living despite the image of The United States back home as some kind of Promised Land where all would be milk and honey, yet that was far from the truth. As all this goes on, Mrs Scorsese makes her sauce with meatballs (the recipe is given at the end credits), and there are amusing distractions as when Martin's father asks him what's up with his tooth, or a stranger walks by the hall outside their door and everyone suddenly gets paranoid.

Next up is another documentary where the director allows his subject to fill up the empty spaces with chat, American Boy, which was a record of the anecdotes of Steven Prince, a sometime actor and showbiz organiser who would be best known to Scorsese fans as the Chatty Cathy gun dealer from Taxi Driver. Here, mixed with home movie footage of his childhood, he holds forth on tales from his life, presented to us as if this guy was a master storyteller (Scorsese carries a list on a piece of paper of the yarns to capture on film), and to an extent, in his slightly scrappy delivery, you can accept that they were right, and this guy was worth listening to.

For Quentin Tarantino fans (and indeed, detractors) American Boy became infamous as the documentary the scene with the adrenaline shot was taken from in Pulp Fiction, there recreated word for word, but there was a lot more to this than that, packed into fifty-five minutes. This was filmed in actor George Memmoli's home, so there's an amusing/bizarre sequence at the beginning where he opens to the door to Prince and they spend the next couple of minutes wrestling across the room. Then things settle down and we get the stories of a gorilla, Neil Diamond, being busted for heroin, and a hair-raising account of the night he shot someone dead.

Going back to the sixties, and we get the remaining three shorts in the collection, starting with The Big Shave. Now, these really are short, and this is the briefest, a five-minute effort from 1967 that Scorsese designed as a reaction to The Vietnam War that was raging at the time. It depicts a man walking into a pristine, white bathroom, standing over the sink and shaving his stubble off - but he continues to shave even after he has done so, drawing blood until his face is a mess of the red stuff. A commentary on the national self-mutilation beyond any sense of reason of the conflict, this director does not often get political, so as well as being revolting, it did have a point.

From 1964, It's Not Just You, Murray was one of the first instances of Scorsese's preoccupation with participants in crime, telling the story of the titular mobster who in a barrage of quick cuts over fifteen minutes rambles his way through his life, trying to paint a flattering picture but the imagery that accompanies his quotes lets him down and undercuts his ego. Here you could see the influence of the Nouvelle Vague on the American film students of the sixties, as they were all over this little item, but it had an energy all its own, a brash, fast-talking forward motion that you could discern stemmed much from the personality of Scorsese himself, maybe as he would like to be.

Lastly, the earliest work was What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, ostensibly a ten-minute comedy, also in black and white, where a pretentious would-be writer finds his ambitions thwarted by various circumstances, including the sobering reality of marriage to his sweetheart once the novelty of that wears off pretty quickly. Including such sights as the World's Fair of New York while it was in the process of being built, and jamming in a tribute to Federico Fellini (so it was not all French when it came to his early inspirations), this was another zippy mover, but so bittersweet even with its energy that it did not exactly leave you rolling in the aisles.

Also on the Criterion Blu-ray are two featurettes from 2020, specially recorded. One is an interview with Scorsese himself, going over his early years once again, but also discussing the shorts you'll have just been watching; he is as informative as ever, and you are reminded of his parents being quizzed by his own self in ItalianAmerican. The second is a discussion between three far younger film directors who make no secret of their appreciation and knowledge of Scorsese's oeuvre, The Safdie Brothers and Ari Aster. They mention how difficult it has been to see these pieces over the years - American Boy was an intermittent visitor to YouTube, and The Big Shave cropped up the most - then launch into their critical appraisals in a sparky conversation it is entertaining to indulge. As a presentation of a too-neglected side of Scorsese, this package could scarcely be bettered.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018