This Criterion Collection cobbles together five shorts of varying lengths and styles from the earlier part of Martin Scorsese’s career, dusting them off and tarting them up with 4K restoration. The end result is a privileged peek into the development of the man as a director, with brushstrokes as broad as a sunflower that point towards the tropes and techniques that would later define his illustrious canon. Besides being a window into Scorsese’s own evolution as a director, the films are also a nostalgic delight in their own right.
In chronological order, the first two titbits up for review are What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! Both shorts were made during Scorsese’s time at NYU’s Washington Square College and both were given a special mention at the 1965 National Student Film Festival. The similarities don’t end there; both are darkly comic dives into a pair of quirky characters, the first of whom is a struggling writer who becomes obsessed with a painting and the second of whom is a boastful gangster who pulled himself up by his bootstraps – but has been cuckolded by his best friend. Scorsese artfully reveals more about each protagonist than they themselves seem aware, resulting in two intriguing sub-15 minute flicks that are impressively dense for their short run times.
The third (and shortest) film on the disc is also perhaps the most controversial: 1967’s The Big Shave, which was apparently made as a visceral reaction to the violence of the Vietnam War. In it an unnamed man calmly but methodically shaves in front of a pristine mirror and gleaming white tiles, repeating the action until he cuts himself over and over and bathes the entire scene in rivers of blood. Narratively, the movie’s message is so on the nose that it threatens to burst it wide open, but it’s a visual spectacle all the same, full of bouncing colours and inventive camera angles that elevate it above the realm of mere pop art.
The remaining two pieces included in the collection are Italianamerican and American Boy, both of which are interview-style depictions of real people in intimate settings. The former features Scorsese’s own parents, who prepare a traditional meal of spaghetti and meatballs as they relive tales of their upbringing in New York. The latter focuses on Steven Prince, a one-time road manager for Neil Diamond and rehabilitated drug addict. Whereas Charles and Catherine Scorsese’s stories are pleasant and warming, Prince’s veer from the playful to the macabre. Particular highlights include partying with a domesticated gorilla, his incidental arrest at the home of his dealer and a violent brush with a would-be murderer. Wild and unpredictable in demeanour and thematic content, American Boy is perhaps the highlight of the quintet for its fascinating insight into a life less ordinary, all the while helped along by Scorsese’s masterful guiding hand.
This collection also probably represents one of the few occasions where the supplementary material is as engaging as the main features. Alongside a 1970 radio interview in which Scorsese discusses the developing film scene in the States, there are also two brand new videos in which all the shorts are picked apart. The first features Scorsese himself discussing his early work with critic Farran Smith Nehme, while the second sees the next generation of filmmakers (in the shape of Ari Aster and the Safdie brothers) relate what they took from the selection.
Casual fans of cinema will surely be most gripped by the two non-fiction pieces, but this disc is clearly aimed at dedicated Scorsese aficionados – and there is much for them to wrap their chompers around here. As well as collating these five rare gems (which only sporadically pop up on video sharing platforms) and restoring them to 4K quality, the collection offers value by painting vivid portraits of bold characters, creating an alluring vision of a bygone time whose edges have been softened by nostalgia and imparting a modern, in-depth take on all of the above.
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Mon 29 Jun 2020