Blu-ray Review: Criterion Puts on SCORSESE SHORTS

Five early short films directed by Martin Scorsese arrive from The Criterion Collection, all sporting 4K restorations.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Blu-ray Review: Criterion Puts on SCORSESE SHORTS

Martin Scorsese never knew the meaning of the term “humble beginnings.” It could, however, be said that in comparison to the rest of his monumental career -- one that has seen him ascend to the level of “America’s Greatest Filmmaker”-- the five early short films collected here could indeed be considered humble beginnings. 

After years of kicking around the rumor mill, Criterion has at long last released their collection, Scorsese Shorts, to physical media.  While not comprehensive by any stretch, this collection does offer five of the popular director’s non-feature length works, spanning from 1963 to 1978. In this time, Scorsese rose to great prominence with films such as Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), not to mention several others that came about in this prolific period.  But before and in-between those well-known and venerated films the shorts of this disc lurk, patiently waiting for fans to discover them and their connections to his bigger work.  

Scorsese, though popular for decades and, in his advanced years, legitimately quite powerful in the business (passion projects like Silence and The Irishman simply don’t materialize with those budgets for just about anyone else) has, all the while and among many other things, been nothing if not personal. His documentary about Hollywood films is even entitled A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.  

In that series, he ruminates frequently on the notion of “directorial smuggling,” in other words, the way his favorite American studio filmmakers managed to sneak personal themes and ideas into their most commercial work. Scorsese, though, despite his best efforts at putting on work-for-hire airs (Cape FearThe AviatorShutter Island), very little if anything in his career smacks of even sly check-cashing. His tendency to keep one foot near short filmmaking (even now, he’s released an untitled three-part, five-minute COVID-19 quarantine film) most certainly has bolstered his auteur insistence.

Even with his much-awarded student work, 1963’s What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and 1964’s It’s Not Just You, Murray!, there’s an undeniable Scorsese flair. It’s not just that he’s echoing and homaging directors like Godard and Fellini (check out that 8 1/2 sequence at the end of Murray!).  Even at this earliest phase of his career, his particular brand of restless cinephilia is recognizable.  There’s a deftness and energetic confidence in these lighthearted black and white projects that fans will recognize in later work such as GoodfellasBringing Out the Dead, or what may indeed be his truly best film of the 1980s, the short Life Lessons.

A recognizable Scorsese trait that’s perhaps not so good is his tendency to bend his documentary work too much towards himself. Whether it’s the staged setlist scramble in Shine a Light or the way he tends to turn up here and there in The Last Waltz, he all too often proves he’s anything but camera-shy. While it’s true that any given film of the heart is in actuality about its maker, it could be argued that Scorsese’s ego sometimes steps in when it doesn’t need to.

This is evident with the latest short in this set, 1978’s American Boy. Accomplished for what it is, the fifty-five-minute piece is simply Scorsese and friends set up in a living room and capturing the amusing true-life tales of raconteur and former Neil Diamond road manager, Steven Prince. In later years, American Boy would become known as the original source of the heroin overdose/syringe story as dramatized by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. The filmmaking is fast and loose here, as the whole focus is the telling of the stories, as opposed to any aesthetic or even technical concerns.

There are only three bonus features on the Blu-ray, two of which are newly recorded interviews especially for this release. (The other is a 1970 public radio audio interview in which the host mispronounces his last name). Scorsese himself takes part in a one-on-one conversation with film critic Farran Smith Nehme, who never doesn’t look intimidated and starstruck. For those familiar with Scorsese’s origins and filmmaker passions, there isn’t all that much to be gleaned from this forty-plus- minute interview. Scorsese, in true wind-him-up-and-let-him-go mode, doesn’t get around to actually talking about the shorts for a while. Nevertheless, it’s good to have his memories and perspective on these films.

The other recently recorded chat is between current talent de jour and movie-making cool kids Ari Aster (Midsommar) and Josh and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems). If nothing else, this loud, excitable and lighthearted meeting demonstrates that Scorsese is still worshipped by the younger set, as they spend a lot of time drawing specific connections to his better-known films. (“The way the blood drips in The Big Shave is just like how it drips from the ropes in Raging Bull!”). If nothing else, this conversation makes the point that Scorsese is no less relevant now as he ever was. (The Irishman’s winning of zero Oscars be damned).  

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The one that Aster and the Safdies really go gaga about, and rightfully so, is 1974’s Italianamerican. They latch onto the documentary’s many strengths, the central one being Marty’s mother, Catherine. Though filmgoers may be familiar with Catherine from her cameo roles in several of her son’s major films, she takes center stage in Italianamerican- and will not relinquish it. Ostensibly a chat between the director and his parents in their home, both of Scorsese’s parents are spotlighted as they delve into what it is to be Italianamerican. If ever there was a justification for Scorsese including himself in his own documentary, this, naturally, is it.  

But it’s Catherine who proves to be a freight train (which, if recalled correctly, is just how Aster or one of the Safdies describe her).  Scorsese himself ties Italianamerican to Mean Streets, not only for when it was made (1974), but because its specific exploration of the Italianamerican story is nothing if not simpatico with that breakthrough film. Criterion itself also seems to get that this is the main attraction, insomuch as, in blatant defiance of order either chronological or alphabetical, Italianamerican is the top-billed short on the disc’s menu.

Here are the specs on the five Scorsese shorts featured on Scorsese Shorts, as well as some assorted other, important bullet points:

•           New 4K digital restorations of all five films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray:

•           ITALIANAMERICAN (1974 • 49 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio) 

•           AMERICAN BOY (1978 • 55 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio) 

•           THE BIG SHAVE (1967 • 5 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio) 

•           IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! (1964 • 16 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio) 

•           WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? (1963 • 10 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio)

•           English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

•           PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri and storyboards, treatments, and correspondence from Scorsese’s archive

In a sense, Scorsese Shorts is a humble affair in and of itself. But it’s also all that it really needs to be.  The films themselves are stunning in their restorations, and there is just enough contextualization and appreciation to satisfy the expectation that Criterion warrants. In any case, it needn’t be said that a Blu-ray release like this is mana for film buffs. All should want to get into these Scorsese Shorts.

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