Monday, April 27, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XIV: American Boys: A Profile of Steven Prince

American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (1978) *** ½
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Julia Cameron & Mardik Martin.
Featuring: Steven Prince, Martin Scorsese, George Memmoli.

If you’ve seen Taxi Driver, that no doubt you remember Steven Prince in that movie even if, like me, you never knew his name. In the film, he plays the gun dealer who Bickle buys his arsenal from, who lays out his guns in much the same way that a priest lays out what he needs for mass. He goes into detail about his guns in a disturbing matter of fact tone of voice. We may not know who this actor is, but he leaves an impression.

In 1978, Martin Scorsese made two documentaries. The one that everyone has seen is The Last Waltz, about the final performance of The Band, which is considered one of the great rock documentaries of all time (and, of course, will be the subject of my next installment). The one that almost no one knows is American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, which is a 55 minute film in which Scorsese turns his camera on his friend Steven Prince, and just lets him tell a series of stories to it. Prince is a fantastic storyteller, whether his stories are funny or tragic – or as in many cases both – he’s the type of guy who is able to immediately pull you in his storytelling. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of this is simply one man looking at the camera and telling stories – the film is alive with energy, both Prince’s and Scorsese’s.

Prince is remarkably open and honest to Scorsese about his experiences. He doesn’t try to hide anything, and while I suspect that some of his stories are exaggerated, he never tries to cast himself in a better light. He tells stories about growing up Jewish in New York, and how he made money on Sunday mornings by crossing over and buying bagels for a low price, and coming back to his neighborhood and selling them at a huge markup. His business was so successful, he soon had five guys doing all the work for him, and he got to sleep in. He talks about his father and mother and grandmother, and how in their own way, they all shaped his outlook on life. He talks about the time a teamster have him a shot of pure speed that helped him stay up for three days straight getting the sets for a play done on time. And so, we are introduced to drugs.

Prince was the road manager for Neil Diamond for 2 or 3 years, and for most of that time, he was high on heroin. Because he scheduled all the flights, they never took one more than four hours long. They kept making stopovers to allow Prince to get high again. Everyone except Diamond knew, and when he found out he didn’t fire Prince – he offered him help, that Prince stubbornly refused. He almost got arrested one time when he had a drug dealer staying at his house with a kilo of heroin hidden there. What got him off? Hysterical crying that led to a nosebleed, and the cops let him off.

Prince got out of the draft in Vietnam even though he passed both the IQ test and the physical with flying colors. He had refused to answer a question about any homosexual relationships he may have had, for fear of disgracing his father and older brother – both in the army.

Prince’s life was touched by tragedy and violence on more than one occasion. He tells a story about a poor kid who electrocuted himself by accident that he could not save. And the time he shot a half-Native, half Mexican guy high on speed that came at him with a huge knife. Prince fired six bullets from a 44 magnum into him at the gas station where he worked. He blew him to “between the ethyl and the regular”. Fans of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life may remember this story – Prince told it in that movie as well. And anyone who has seen Pulp Fiction will recognize another of Prince’s stories, about a woman who ODs and is brought back with an adrenaline shot to the heart. It’s lifted, almost word for word, from this movie. So it seems that even if American Boy isn’t that well known to the general public, it certainly had an impact on some filmmakers.

What to me makes American Boy so special, and makes it better from the similar Italianamerican that Scorsese directed in a similar style in 1974, is that Scorsese seems better able to probe and push Prince. The final story in the film, Scorsese has him tell three times, because he wants to make sure he gets the details right. And after nearly every story, Scorsese’s camera holds for a few seconds on Prince’s face. It’s in these moments that Prince’s bravado slips a little, and we see the scared, scarred Jewish kid underneath. It’s here that Prince goes beyond just being an eccentric character and good storyteller, and becomes a real person we can relate to. American Boy may not be a well known Scorsese film – and until it becomes available on DVD and not just on YouTube, it will probably remain mainly unknown – but it deserves a wider audience. It’s fascinating portrait of a complex man you’ve probably never heard of.

No comments:

Post a Comment