Thanks to sites like Vimeo and YouTube, it’s now easier to see short films than it has been since the days of the supporting feature. In between, the only shorts that were widely distributed were ones by notable directors, as was the case with Scorsese x 4, a VHS compilation of four short films by Martin Scorsese. It was released in the UK in 1992 as part of Scorsese’s post-Goodfellas career revival; though his 1980s films like The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ have been justly reappraised, their box office rarely matched their artistic merit.
The four films in that collection are now included on Criterion’s Scorsese Shorts Blu-Ray, as well as 1978’s American Boy. The picture quality is obviously much improved. Adding American Boy also means Scorsese Shorts is now a complete survey of the director’s short-form work in the 1960s and 70s, ranging from early experiments at New York University to longer works he made as companion pieces to breakthrough features Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. In that spirit, here’s a review of all five films – complete with a full-length Scorsese movie to watch alongside them, in the tradition of those cinema supporting features of days gone by.
1. What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? Scorsese can be dismissive of his first short film these days, summing it up to Richard Schickel as possessing “no depth at all, but a lot of fun”. He’s too hard on himself. A bravura exercise in quick-fire image-making and wit, it is visibly the work of a man in thrall to Fellini and Truffaut, but also harks ahead to Scorsese’s later championing of Wes Anderson in its tightly composed comedy of awkwardness. It is perhaps the most overtly comic item in Scorsese’s back catalogue, but it still contains its fair share of pointers to his future work. Its incessant narration breaks the show-don’t-tell rule as gleefully as anything in Goodfellas, and when one of Scorsese’s fellow students made a botch of editing it NYU hooked him up with Thelma Schoonmaker, who still cuts his films to this day. Watch it with: After Hours (1985)
2. It’s Not Just You, Murray! After What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? Scorsese took that film’s essential ingredients – from its continual voiceover to its surprise musical number – and applied it, for the first time, to a gangster narrative. Ira Rubin’s pencil-moustachioed Murray initially appears as a machiavellian tempter to match Jack Nicholson in The Departed, even commanding the camera to move where he tells it to. But his shortcomings gradually become apparent in Scorsese’s first stab at the rise-and-fall crime story template that still serves him well today. A much more ambitious film than the preceding short, It’s Not Just You, Murray! has some technical rough edges, most notably in the sound, but many virtues, not least a bravura, documentary-style police raid that has a real sense of danger. Watch it with: The Irishman (2019)
3. The Big Shave Both the preceding shorts have protagonists who get married more out of a sense of social obligation than anything else, signalling that while the director’s world was a macho one, it was also perfectly capable of critiquing that machismo. Scorsese’s purest and most horrifying examination of self-destructive masculinity is The Big Shave, a five-minute anti-Vietnam allegory where a fit, all-American man calmly shaves the skin off his face before slashing his own throat. It’s still a squirm-inducing watch, and the shots of bright red blood splattering on white porcelain make this a remarkably confident first use of colour film. The ironic pop soundtrack (Buddy Berrigan’s ‘I Can’t Get Started With You’) and slight homoerotic edge – check the multiple angles on the protagonist disrobing – may be evidence of the young Scorsese’s interest in Kenneth Anger’s work. Watch it with: Raging Bull (1980)
4. Italianamerican Ever since It’s Not Just You, Murray! Scorsese had been giving his parents cameo roles in his films, and this fifty-minute documentary is his fullest exploration of the home he came from. Made as a reaction to Mean Streets‘s bleak portrait of New York’s Italian community, it’s unquestionably indulgent – it famously ends with his mother’s recipe for pasta sauce – but each passing year gives it new resonance as a piece of ethnography. It’s a window back into a time when Italian-Americans had fresh memories of fleeing poverty, and when conversation, rather than television, was the primary home entertainment medium. Catherine and Charles Scorsese’s inability to forget that it’s their son behind the camera also makes it a very self-reflexive, deconstructed documentary, which is why the closest thing to this in Scorsese’s canon is… Watch it with: Rolling Thunder Revue (2019)
5. American Boy: A Portrait of Steven Prince If Italianamerican was an aftershock from Mean Streets, this is a short-form follow-up to Taxi Driver, giving the floor to Steven Prince, who gave a scene-stealing performance selling guns to Travis Bickle. The first scene after the opening credits sees Prince play-wrestling with Scorsese and his crew, which gives you a sense of what kind of friendship he has. To generous laughter from the crew and his friends, Prince holds forth about his upbringing as a Jewish “army brat”, his time behind the scenes in the music industry and his heroin addiction, including one vivid anecdote Tarantino swiped for Pulp Fiction. I have to admit I found Price’s charm wearing thin over the film’s fifty minutes, though it should be noted this is the only one of the set that I’ve only seen once: it may be that, like the other four films, it releases new layers of meaning on rewatching. It does at least have one of Scorsese’s killer needle-drops in the shape of Neil Young’s ‘Time Fades Away’. Watch it with: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Considering how obscure some of these films are, Criterion has done a fine job compiling extras, including a 1970 radio interview with Scorsese and a much-trailed featurette where the Safdie brothers and American cinema’s emptiest vessel Ari Aster sing the praises of Italianamerican. As ever, the best interpreter of Scorsese’s work is Scorsese himself, so the highlight is his 45-minute conversation with film critic Farran Smith Nehme. Anyone wondering why the director commands so much auteurist attention in this anti-auteurist age should check the undimmed glee with which he speaks of making What’s a Nice Girl… and discovering cinema’s potential. “You’ve gotta make the film!”, he enthuses. “Even if you don’t have a camera, you’ve gotta make the film!”