One of the rare moments of grace, refinement and cinephilic interest at last Sunday's Golden Globe Awards was the presentation of the Cecil B. DeMille award to director Martin Scorsese, whose next feature, Shutter Island, comes out next month. Scorsese's career, as multi-faceted and largely exemplary as it has been, did not begin in a way that the great showman DeMille would even begin to understand. That is to say, it began in something called "film school." Scorsese's shorts were made under the aegis of New York University in the years between 1963 and 1967. The filmmaker's years as a student were staggered between attempts to go professional; his first feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door, was begun in 1965 and put down and picked up several times thereafter. Around the time he was becoming (relatively) established within the mainstream of Hollywood filmmaking, Scorsese made two documentaries in a self-reflexive, rough-and-ready style that harked in some ways back to his student work and to the collaborative documentary he took part in while an NYU instructor, 1970's Street Scenes.
With almost any other filmmaker, such items might be relegated to a "for completists only" file. But the Scorsese shorts and docs remain compelling on a number of levels other than mere historical interest. It's true that 1963's What's A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This (pictured above) is the most student-film like of all of Scorsese's films, and the only work of his that could possibly be called arch. Its self-conscious lifts from both the French New Wave and Richard Lester seem slightly at odds with its storyline, about a man obsessed with a rather ordinary picture he owns. Scorsese often notes that he wasn't much of a reader growing up, which makes the rather literary conceit of the scenario something of a surprise. But the overwhelming alienation and paranoia of the lead character is sketched with the same conviction Scorsese would bring to future loners such as Bickle and Pupkin. 1965's It's Not Just You, Murray, (pictured below) begins in a similarly kicky putatively postmodern vein as Girl's, then reveals itself as containing many of Mean Street's themes (not to mention its milieu) in miniature, and played out in a bizarre burlesque/Mack Sennett style.
1967's The Big Shave, pictured at top, is a cri de coeur from a depressed Scorsese, and a breakthrough of sorts; compressed, rigorous, and direct, it's a brilliantly constructed one-joke depiction of inadvertent self-destruction. Or is it inadvertent? After all, the protagonist goes on shaving. Scorsese sort of quoted this picture in the opening of Gangs of New York (see here), and, in another surprising bit of literary reference, credits "Whiteness" to Herman Melville.
The mid-70s documentaries Italianamerican (above) and American Boy (below) are as much Scorsese self-portraits as they are depictions of people close to him. Italianamerican has him plumbing the pasts of his beloved parents Catherine and Charles. The film is both remarkable in its affection and its frankness, in that it does not discourage the viewer from speculating that growing up in this household of opinionated, stubborn motor mouths could drive one completely insane. American Boy looks at the most-probably chemically enhanced motormouth Steven Prince, the creepy gun-dealer of Taxi Driver, who has a massive store of tales that mark him as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Here Scorsese the product of Italianamerican's environment is replaced by Scorsese the wired genius who's prone to any number of bad influences, and the time during which these films were made (which also encompassed the making of Raging Bull and The Last Waltz) would take a substantial toll on Scorsese's health, personal life, and career. In American Boy in particular, you see in him someone who could crash at any minute. And Prince himself looks so much like death warmed over one is surprised to learn that he's not just still alive, but that last year he was involved in a non-Scorsese sequel of sorts to Boy.
The docs were available on both VHS and laserdisc years ago, but are nowhere to be found on domectic DVD these days. The French Region 2 PAL disc "Martin Scorsese: Court-metrages & Documentaires," on the label Wild Side, which apparently licensed the work from Universal, is a good reference disc...particularly so if you know French. The pictures are introduced by screenwriter and scholar Michael Henry Wilson, in French. Very good French indeed. (Wilson's IMDB page notes of the writer: "Perfectly fluent in French.") And the French subtitles are fixed, not removable. One assumes that this was done largely to make the product less desirable for English-speaking consumers, as an English-language version of this disc (or some approximation of it) was in the works. But this disc was issued in summer of 2007, so one wonders, were that the case, what the holdups were/are.