Martin Scorsese's films have always included documentary elements, the grit and ring of truth. But with the exception of The Last Waltz, the lavish kiss-off to The Band, he's kept away from documentaries. Well, almost. Three by Scorsese, a package of shorter, non-feature works, finds America's most powerful director hard at work probing the world that defines him. The shortest of the three, The Big Shave, is a Scorsese film-school effort set to Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started" that uses footage of a man shaving, and shaving badly. Slight but severe, The Big Shave explores the same themes of rites of passage into manhood, violence, and purification that pervade later Scorsese films, as well as the jittery cuts (of the camera, not the razor, although there are plenty of those as well) that have come to define his style. But it's the documentaries that dig deeper.
Filmed in 1974, just before the release of Taxi Driver, ItalianAmerican treats a topic close to home. Actually, it is home, as Scorsese trains his camera on his parents. Shot in the Scorsese home, the film is an endearing, nostalgic portrait, as the director's father relates stories about childhood larceny, and his mother (who has since acted in Goodfellas and The Godfather, Part III) fusses over her cooking between anecdotes about the neighborhood. Both elder Scorseses speak at length about their families, their proud immigrant fathers, their strong-willed mothers. For the director, who intrudes only rarely, the issue of familly history seems to be simultaneously empowering and intimidating, a rich legacy that makes great demands. In his films about families and extended families - Mean Streets, Who's That Knocking at My Door, and GoodFellas - Scorsese's understanding of this double-edge effect is vital.
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In 1978's American Boy, the director concentrates on another family, that of his friend Steven Prince, who played the hyperkinetic drug dealer Easy Andy in Taxi Driver. In an informal gathering of friends, Prince recounts his life as an aspiring actor, rock road manager, and junkie, giving special priority to incidents that help him to come to terms with his own dissolution. Visibly uncomfortable both with the process of storytelling and the pain of his own memory, Prince is tetchy, edgy, and annoying. But Scorsese listens patiently - a talent that has no doubt served him well as a director - and then mixes the anecdotes with home movies of Prince's youth, soundtracked by Neil Young's "Time Fades Away." The technique of inserting home movies as emotional counterweight recurs two years later, of course, in Raging Bull, Scorsese's most harrowing film, and American Boy seems a sketch for the feature. In one scene, Scorsese asks Prince to amplify an anecdote about the death of his father. "Do you remember when you told it to me?" says the director. "On the plane? It was so much more intense." Even for his friends, Scorsese refuses to soft-sell.