Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part I: The Early Shorts

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) **
Written & Directed by:
Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Zeph Michelis (Harry), Sarah Braveman (Analyst), Fred Sica (Friend), Mimi Stark (Wife), Robert Uricola (Singer).

It’s Not Just You Murray! (1964) ** ½
Written & Directed by:
Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Ira Rubin (Murray), San De Fazio (Joe), Andrea Martin (Wife), Catherine Scorsese (Mother), Robert Uricola (Singer).

The Big Shave (1967) ****
Written & Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Starring: Peter Bernuth (Young Man).

As a student at NYU film school, Martin Scorsese directed three short films – What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? In 1963, It’s Not Just You, Murray in 1964 and The Big Shave in 1967. Thanks to the miracle of Youtube, fans of the director, like me, can now go back and watch these shorts in their entirety, and get a sense of what Martin Scorsese was like before he started to direct features. While all three features are at least interesting, and show some surprisingly good editing and shot selection for student films, only one of them, The Big Shave, is ultimately very successful. The first two are interesting only for fans.

What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? tells the story of a young writer, Harry, who moves to New York, and buys a photograph to hang in his apartment. The photograph itself is not very interesting, but Harry finds himself inexplicably drawn to it. It affects everything in his life. He tries to distract himself by doing other things – watching old movies on TV, throwing a party, getting married, but ultimately, he just gives up, and ends up being sucked into the picture. The film, which runs about 9 minutes, is interesting because of its rather distinct look and feel. You can tell, based on the surreal aspects of the film, that Scorsese was hugely interested in Fellini at the time, and this is probably his attempt to do something akin to 8 ½. What I also noticed was how it started something that Scorsese would continue throughout his career – that is looking at women only through the prism of how the main character sees them. The wife isn’t even given a name, let alone any dialogue. She exists solely because the protagonist wants her to. The film is interesting, but ultimately not very successful. It’s a student film after all, but still at only nine minutes, it felt longer than it needed to be.

It’s Not Just You, Murray! was more successful than the first film. It exists as an homage to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s, with nods to Fellini and Godard as well. What I enjoyed about the movie is how what we are seeing on the screen contradicts the voiceover narration of Murray himself. He flashes back to his humble beginnings as a bootlegger, and in an hilarious sequence, we see him being busted by the cops, as he tells us “Because of a misunderstanding, about which I was misunderstood, I was unavailable to do anything, or see anywhere, for a while”, as we see him in jail. Murray goes on about what a great friend of his Joe is, but on screen, it becomes clear that Joe isn’t that great of a friend. He’s abandons Murray, screws him over, and is clearly sleeping with Murray’s wife, and may in fact be the father of her child. The film contains a few interesting things I noticed about the movie that would reappear in Scorsese’s features were. One is the look at the low level mobsters, not the guys on the top that Scorsese would do later in Mean Streets and GoodFellas, among others. Another was the presence of the protagonists mother, played for the first time but not the last by Scorsese’s own mother, who of course, tries to stuff her son full of food, even while he’s in jail (remember the scene in GoodFellas, where on the way to dispose of a body, they stop at Joe Pesci’s mother’s house, also played by Catherine Scorsese, and she insists on feeding them). Another is how your friends will stab you in the back, and about the sexual purity of the wife, who like in What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is seen solely through the eyes of the Murray. I certainly enjoyed It’s Not Just You, Murray! more than the first film, but once again, it felt a little too long (this one is about 15 minutes) for what Scorsese was trying to do.

Unquestionably the best of the trio of films, and the most well known, is The Big Shave from 1967. Perhaps the most political film of Scorsese’s entire career, The Big Shave is a short (under 6 minutes) film about a man who just keeps shaving himself over and over again. He seems oblivious to the fact that each time he shaves, he’s cutting himself more and more, and blood starts to pour down his face, splattering all over the sink and the floor, but he just keeps on going. Eventually, he will cut his own throat. The film is Scorsese’s allegory for America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (the alternate title of the film is Viet ‘67) with the young man being America, oblivious to the damage and bloodshed he is causing himself. It’s a powerful, disturbing film, and in my mind is probably just about the ultimate student film. Many student filmmakers try and shock their audience, with their edgy, violent, political fare, but most are unsuccessful. In a few brief minutes, with a few shocking images, Scorsese does a brilliant job of capturing just what he wants to. It is a brilliant little film.

For the sake of consistency of the series, I assigned star ratings to each of these three films, although I didn’t really want to. I mean, I don’t really think it’s fair to hold Scorsese’s student films up to any professional standard. Ultimately, while I found all three movies fascinating, I don’t think I’ll be returning to What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in Place Like This? or It’s Not Just You Murray! anytime again soon. I have already watched The Big Shave numerous times, and the film’s impact never diminishes. For fans of the director, I would recommend all three. For casual viewers, I think you should check out The Big Shave, as it proves just what you can do in the short form. It’s great. The other two, not so much.

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