But first, uh, are you experienced?
Or have you ever been experienced?
My Scorsese Experience began pretty recently. I saw Hugo on the big ol’ 3D screen when it came out Christmas of 2011. And even though I hadn’t gotten to see Scorsese at work before, I knew he was one of the greatest filmmakers in the world. How could I not? But I hadn’t seen it for myself. I’ll deal with Hugo later, but suffice it to say, I was hooked, even more so after I watched Gangs of New York a year later. Scorsese has been a regular part of my film diet since then, but now it’s time to get serious about it. Twice a week, I will be watching every fiction film Scorsese ever made, from the student films to Wolf of Wall Street, and a good chunk of the documentaries. Wish me luck. I’mma need it.
Now, I know it’s easy to guess where a project like this needs to start. That would be Mean Streets, Scorsese’s wide-release breakthrough. Or maybe his first feature Who’s That Knocking at My Door. That would be the easy way. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t decided to do this the easy way. So we’re going waaaaay back, to when the future Greatest Director in America was just another film student. And you know what? I really found it worth the trip.
What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? is very film-student-y, but only in the best possible way. Scorsese’s mad ambition is more present than ever in his very first film, with crazy, Svankmajer-y freeze frames, silent-era vignetting effects, claustrophobic closeups, and a surreal, shocking ending. Even with these stylistic flourishes, Scorsese’s amateur nature only comes through in a single scene, where the camera lingers on a subject’s face before he begins talking. The end result is more an illustrated monologue than a standard film, as the increasingly paranoid narrator tells about his life, his city, and the creepy-ass picture that mesmerises him and keeps him from getting any work done.
I don’t know if Scorsese has ever cited Disney as an influence (it seems unlikely, but if he loves The Ten Commandments so much, anything is possible) but his use of voiceover is really reminiscent of Disney’s Goofy cartoons and anthologies like The Three Caballeros where the hero is thrown from a rock to tree to another rock as the narrator tries to remember which one he was climbing up. He has cited the appeal of the voiceover format though, since “you can put any picture with the sound.” It leads to a series of memorable moments though, like the running gag of a suspiciously De Niro-like “friend” sitting in a dark room in sunglasses, who will repeat everything the narrator claims he said.
Scorsese clearly realized he was onto something this whole voiceover thing. He has compared the narration in his shorts to Goodfellas and The Age of Innocence and he featured it heavily in movies from his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door to his most recent, The Wolf of Wall Street. The voiceover is also reflected in the the more impressionistic monologues in films like Taxi Driver. He would continue to develop these techniques throughout his career, from the fourth-wall breaking in Wolf of Wall Street to the look inside an incomprehensibly twisted mind in King of Comedy or into an incomprehensibly pure mind in The Last Temptation of Christ. In his next film, It’s Not Just You, Murray, he tells the story of an over-his-head gangster over a voiceover insisting everything is alright years before Goodfellas.
With that film, Scorsese takes the monologue format to crazier and more accomplished directions. While an awkward moment of dead air marred Nice Girl, Scorsese successfully deploys this technique at the beginning of Murray, where we watch the title character slowly get up from his chair, lean in to the camera and wink at the audience.
Scorsese has some fun with his own overreaching ambition in this scene, opening with a big bombastic Old-Hollywood fanfare, only to come back down to the awkward silence of Murray in his chair. The camera becomes an active participant in the story. When Murray asks us to look at his shoes, we do. Once he thinks we’ve had a good look, Murray motions the camera back up, and we follow his lead. . When he realizes he never gave his name, Murray smashes right through the fourth wall and asks Scorsese to start over.
The “friend” gag from Nice Girl makes a triumphant return, but he polishes it up, showing Murray’s friend Joe in a different place every time and never leaves him onscreen long enough to wear out his welcome. Murray speaks worshipfully of him – “In a word, if it weren’t for Joe, I wouldn’t be where I am, I wouldn’t be what I am, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” They were bootleggers, as it happens, but in one of the short’s most inspired gags, Murray never actually says so. Instead, his wholesome monologue about hard work and success contrasts with the visualized reality of the situation, and his calm, hindsight-having voice contrasts with the wild chaos of the flashback. Joe gets in on the act too. “When they really, really bother you,” he says, as Murray is getting fitted for cement shoes, “Well, Murray, don’t do nothin’. No sir, because remember that one day, Murray, one day, you’re going to see somebody, some guy who’s all those other guys rolled into one. And then. You can give him. All he deserves.”
Murray, of course, smashes a mirror. And after that explosion of violence and self-loathing, Murray quickly switches gears to say, “So anyway, that’s how I met my wife.” But that wasn’t a drastic enough gearswitch for young, ambitious Scorsese, and soon we’re in the middle of a low-rent Skid Row musical, complete with a Busby Berkley kaleidoscopic effect, and a shot of the poster nicked from The Red Shoes, and then a trial scene made up to look like archival footage. Back in the present, Joe comes in to let Murray know he’s not part of the syndicate any more. Murray doesn’t want us to hear about this, so he yells at Scorsese (“You! In the glasses!”) to cut off the sound, and dubs over his friend’s betrayal with more speechifying about a great guy he is.
Scorsese called the film a combination of Mel Brooks, Ernie Kovacs, Raoul Walsh gangster movies, neighborhood stories from his father, “and Fellini, because I didn’t know how to end it.” That’s being a little harsh, because while his recreation of 8 1/2’s famous parade ending seems like just a bit of film-student showoffery, Scorsese makes it his own by having Murray bumped from the conductor’s position by Joe, showing just who was really in charge of his life. This film won him the Edward L. Kingsley Filmmaker Award, opening the doors that allowed Scorsese to make his first feature.
Between the completion and release of that Who’s That Knocking On My Door, Marty made another short film, The Big Shave. It’s the most talked-about and acclaimed of the bunch, but I found it miles behind the other two. The best qualities of the student film — ambition, experimentation, reckless energy — are replaced by the obtuseness we associate with the worst of the genre. The film is about a man who shaves and keeps right on shaving even as he cuts his face open until it becomes a bloody mess. And that’s pretty much it.
That said, The Big Shave contains a few impressive moments. Before the main character is introduced, Scorsese includes a static shot of his mirror reflecting a blank wall, as if it were waiting for him to arrive. Though the short’s obtuseness can be a weakness at times, the patience and quiet, mysterious symbolism of this shot really won me over.
As the shaving continues,Scorsese expertly contrasts the dark red blood with the pure white of the sink, and uses it to muddy the equally white shaving cream. Scorsese mingles the film medium here with abstract art here, letting the color provide the drama in place of a simple narrative. Or maybe it’s overtly symbolic — I have heard the short interpreted as a Vietnam allegory (an alle-gory, as it were). After all the gore we’ve just seen when the film ends, the screen can’t fade to blackinstead fading to red.
Scorsese’s shorts show a promising, ambitious young filmmaker at work.They would be worth watching even if that promise had never been fulfilled. Given the paranoia and disorientation these shorts evoke, and their sharp sense of absurdity and comic timing, it’s a bit surprising that Scorsese wouldn’t return to horror until Cape Fear in 1991, or make another comedy until 1982’s King of Comedy. Scorsese’s life took him in a different direction, and he decided he wanted to tell a story in the same world, with the same lack of interest in conventional narrative, but from a more serious angle. That story is our next entry in The Scorsese Experience: Who’s That Knocking at My Door?