The first couple of films in this collection were made in the 1960s, before Martin Scorsese had made his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! were student films, and The Big Shave was completed the same year as the feature. Scorsese was at that point very much part of the underground film movement of the 1960s in New York. He was at New York University, and then there was not a very big film class. Scorsese was just an Italian kid who liked movies, and managed to get in despite his dyslexia as it was much more open in those days. Students had full access to the equipment, and there were plenty of good actors around.
You can see from the very first film that Scorsese had a real love of old Hollywood films, but you can also see the influence of European cinema. His first exposure to non-Hollywood movies would have been the Italian realist films screened in his neighbourhood Italian television channel (without dubbing or subtitles). The director has said that the first two films he saw that featured people he felt he could relate to were Force of Evil and On the Waterfront, but the one that changed everything for him was John Cassavetes’ first feature, Shadows, a low-budget movie that convinced him that he could make his own. All of the various underground movies being made at that point were influential, especially the films of Kenneth Anger, whose use of pop music in Scorpio Rising particularly Scorsese has acknowledged.
With all of these different influences, the first film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is very reminiscent of the early Richard Lester movies. It’s a silly, surreal short where they basically went out and shot stuff. It’s not one of his best movies, but Martin Scorsese just fucking around with a camera is better than most people fucking around with a camera. Even then you could tell this guy was obviously talented.
It’s Not Just You, Murray! is about a middle-aged mobster looking back on his life. What was Scorsese’s last film? The Irishman—a movie about an ageing gangster looking back on his life… There are scenes in the short, including an interrogation sequence, that if they had had the money, could have come straight out of that film. So it’s pretty insane that this film was made in 1964 by a student: it’s a template for Scorsese’s entire career in some regards, and so much of what his films would be is prevalent in it. It’s more of a proper movie than the first short, and one of the things I really like about it is that he’s obviously just seen 8 ½ –and so at the very end it becomes 8 ½, with a circus finale. It’s kind of wonderful that he has seen a film that completely blew his mind, and decided to put that reference at the end of his own. You can see his editing technique on show here as well, including his characteristic freeze frames. Again, it’s amazing that a guy in his 20s had his whole style mapped out. It’s an incredibly sharp short film from one of the masters.
The Big Shave is Scorsese’s anti-Vietnam movie, very Kenneth Anger-influenced in the choice of a beefcakey young man and his choice to film in colour, which was rare for underground films at that time. The use of colour here is also really good. Basically, the guy has a shave, and for the next few minutes he rips his face apart with a razor. It’s a very obvious metaphor for Vietnam, as the director notes in the credits. I disagree with those who have said that Scorsese is not a political filmmaker—he’s political, but he’s smart enough to not make it the focus.
The next short, Italianamerican, is probably the most widely known film in the set. It’s a documentary that he made after Mean Streets, and it has sometimes played on a double bill with that film. It’s basically Scorsese interviewing his parents and them cooking him dinner. They perform to some extent, especially his mother, who was in a lot of his movies (there’s even a point where his dad tells her to ‘stop acting’.) It’s just a very charming documentary about his background, and both of his parents are very engaging people.
Finally comes what I think is the best film in the set, American Boy. It’s about Steven Prince—Scorsese fans will know him as Easy Andy, the guy who sells Travis Bickle the gun in a very memorable scene in Taxi Driver. He’s in New York, New York as well, and shows up as one of the associate producers on The Last Waltz. Prince was also Neil Diamond’s tour manager at one point, a real character who had a serious drug problem at the time but was still functional. There’s a set-up scene at the start, where he knocks on the door and then attacks his friend. They knew what was going to happen, but he was a bit of a nut and it gets well out of hand. He’s incredibly erratic, and while Scorsese is a bit calmer, it looks like they were both pretty high. Scorsese at this point had a serious cocaine habit. Prince tells these crazy stories, including the one that Tarantino later stole for the adrenaline shot scene in Pulp Fiction, and another about the time he had to shoot someone. Amazingly, Prince is still alive! That one is definitely worth checking out, a real-life character who may remind you of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets.
Of course, the Criterion package includes a bunch of extras. There’s a new interview with Scorsese and the film critic Farran Smith Nehme from earlier this year, plus a discussion between Ari Aster (Midsomer and Heredity) and the Safdie brothers, who go into how Scorsese is an ‘honorary Jew’ because of the level of anxiety in his films, as well as getting into the shorts and his body of work. One of the most interesting extras is a New York public radio interview with Scorsese from 1970, when he was still teaching at NYU (he does still come in to teach occasionally—and he was Spike Lee’s teacher, after all). At this point he had made one feature that had not been widely seen, and was more of an underground filmmaker trying to figure out where his place was. It’s interesting to hear where his mind was in 1970, two years before Boxcar Bertha, and then Mean Streets. There’s also a booklet with an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri, backed by storyboards, treatments and correspondence.