Mark Asch on Martin Scorsese’s NYU shorts:
What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, It’s Not Just You, Murray!, The Big Shave
Many of the qualities we associate with promising student filmmakers—voraciousness, audacity, experimental flair—are qualities we continue to associate with the septuagenarian director of The Wolf of Wall Street. So it is not entirely surprising that the short films Martin Scorsese made as a student show a familiar sensibility already well on the way to defining itself. His first, produced in the summer between Scorsese’s junior and senior years at NYU, a short walk and a giant leap away from Little Italy, where he grew up, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) is the work of a new, fervent convert to the life of the mind, full of the grabby-handed stylistic flourishes the filmmaker has, thankfully, never outgrown.
Scored to barrelhouse piano, a big-band tune called “Swivel Hips Sal,” and slot-machine sound effects, the nine-minute What’s a Nice Girl . . ., a portrait of a neurasthenic aspiring author, is goosed by visual puns, copious illustrative insert close-ups, iris effects, and still photos, including a slide show of a romantic trip to the under-construction grounds of the Flushing World’s Fair, which may make Scorsese the first director to ever riff on 1962’s La Jetée, whether knowingly or not. Almost fifty years before Hugo took Georges Méliès as its subject matter, Scorsese uses Méliès-style in-camera special effects to show a studio apartment magically filling up with furniture, as narrator Algernon (“Harry” to his friends) eagerly moves into “a real studio-like place, where I could write and all.”
In rapid-fire voice-over, delivered with a slightly Noo Yawkish nasal exactitude, Algernon/Harry discusses his writer’s block and existential paralysis, as embodied by a mediocre painting hung on his wall, into which he is progressively drawn, a metaphor familiar from many short stories about the dangerous allure of a remote object of aesthetic contemplation—Julio Cortázar’s “Axolotl” is one. (Scorsese’s grab bag of techniques mirrors Algernon’s evident obsessiveness.) Algernon’s marriage to a free-spirited painter provides a reprieve, albeit a temporary one, from his “sensitivity.” Algernon discusses his hang-ups with his analyst—especially given the lingering guilt implicit in the film’s pickup-line title, these may be sexual in nature, though a conspicuous leotard bottom among the dancing extras in a party scene is as unrepressed as the movie gets. The use of psychoanalysis as a narrative device is eye-opening from the twenty-one-year-old Scorsese, who only a few years before had intended to become a Catholic priest, and like Algernon, who intends to write his “confessions,” the film is fascinatingly split between unvoiced primal conflict and fast-talking intellectualism.
But the film also moves so swiftly, pushed along by the effusive voice-over and quick-fire editing rhythm, that it doubles back into self-awareness. This comes through in the repetition and variation of the narration, as well as the frequently very literal cutaways: each time Algernon tells us what advice his friends were giving him, Scorsese cuts to a medium shot of a middle-aged Italian-American man wearing sunglasses in a dark room, repeating Harry’s narration back to him, like an unnecessary layer of reassurance. (“I have a vivid imagination. Even my friends say it.” “You know, Harry, you got a vivid imagination.”) Algernon’s frequent reminders that “I’m a writer” also become increasingly fussy and pleading.
In both identifying with and poking fun at a self-fashioned bohemian tripping over his own newly erected intellectual framework, the film presages David Holzman’s Diary (1967), directed by Jim McBride, Scorsese’s NYU classmate and fellow habitué of the downtown repertory film scene. More directly, What’s a Nice Girl . . . introduces the full-speed-ahead pace, the exhilarating and exhilarated eclecticism, and the extremely intrusive authorial presence, both in front of and behind the camera, that would carry over into the next year’s It’s Not Just You, Murray!—and beyond.
Scorsese’s second short opens on the titular character, sharp-suited and sitting behind his desk in a high-rise office, smirking directly into the camera. “Hi.” He winks. Cut to Murray, sitting on his desk, fondling his tie. “See this tie? Twenty dollars.” As Murray directs us to look at his shit, he also directs the camera movements with princely waves of his hand. Outside, he shows us his $5,000 car, and prepares to drive off, before walking back up to the camera and saying, “Wait, wait—cut.”
Sitting behind his desk again, Murray introduces himself, and tells us about his sweet life, all of which is only possible thanks to his friend Joe. Cut to a man sitting on a pool table—“Hi, I’m Joe”—and back to Murray. In a wise-guy patois marked by digressions on his mother’s cooking and distracted, improvisatory philosophizing, Murray describes his and Joe’s rise to the top, his vague allusions to criminal behavior explained more thoroughly by the images filling in the story. Throughout, Scorsese simply uses still photos or single-take vignettes; more elaborate sequences are rendered in time-lapse montage, such as an account of Murray and Joe’s Prohibition-era bootlegging operation, and the police raid that lands Murray in Sing Sing. (The slapstick raid plays as comic counterpoint to the suddenly very abstract, self-serving, and mumbled rationalizations of Murray’s narration.) Murray and Joe’s building of a criminal empire, and the gradual revelation of a romantic betrayal, suggests a shoestring, fifteen-minute Once Upon a Time in America (and the gray-tinted hair on the young actors in the present-day scenes is not appreciably less convincing than the old-age makeup in Leone’s movie). In addition to the gangster template that Scorsese would subsequently make his own, the film features plentiful pastiches from other beloved genres: a musical-theater revue Murray and Joe produce is rendered with kaleidoscopic, Busby Berkeley–esque effects and 1930s-style superimpositions; Murray’s testimony at a congressional hearing is mocked up in a newsreel’s harsh, overexposed whites; and the film ends with a brazen lift of 8½, with the cast dancing in a circle around Murray’s $5,000 car.
The celebration of one’s influences—a constant in Scorsese’s career—is a characteristic It’s Not Just You, Murray! shares with innumerable other student films. Many of the short’s narrative devices could perhaps be attributed to the limited means available to the undergraduate filmmaker, as well. Voice-over works better than dialogue for post-recorded sound, and the staging of story events as stills or rapid insert shots from single-camera setups—so that the narration is less dramatized than quoted for truth—is an expedient work-around of constraints on running time, shooting schedule, and technical ability. But Scorsese, so wonderfully hyperverbal as an interview subject and commentator, has retained an affinity for voice-over narration throughout his career. Films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street don’t just use direct address, they are direct address, with their protagonists’ revelations either underlined or undercut by filmed action. Timed to narration, the proto-PowerPoint cutaways to Murray’s friend Joe or to the stills of Algernon’s painting, like the record-scratch backtracks and sidebars of Wolf of Wall Street, are ostentatious, almost jokey as emphatic dramatic devices (why just show when you can tell, too?). In Murray, as in many of Scorsese’s subsequent features, you feel the narrative not unfolding but being actively assembled. Hovering behind the camera or in the editing suite, Scorsese is shaping each moment, both verbally and cinematically, with a pickiness that his protagonists can only hope to emulate.
When Scorsese returns to voice-over-driven montage, as in Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a calculated indulgence—and Wolf is in some ways very similar to Murray, as both films speed alongside a comically driven shady operator, with Scorsese’s gloriously gratuitous use of music and on-the-nose editing also approximating his protagonists’ greed for sensation. But even in his more dialed-back, less overtly controlling mode, the same impulse toward active narration is present in isolated moments. Musical interludes, hurtling camera movements, or without-taking-a-breath digressive edits—these sorts of devices are not just the products of an avid, jittery (or chemically induced) moviemaking energy but also of a conviction that story beats should be as fully embodied, cinematically, as possible. Scorsese, who has devoted a significant portion of his life to the preservation, restoration, and recirculation of neglected films as they were meant to be seen, is never less than adamant about the cinematic experience you should be having. He’s a born narrator.
Compared with What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray!, 1967’s The Big Shave has a comparatively sublimated style, at least in terms of narration. The two earlier works are surely among the greatest student films ever made, but this is perhaps because, despite being recognizably Scorsese works, they’re equally evidently student films, with their reflexive eagerness and circuit-closing high-spirited jokes. Each is a movie made for the sake of making a movie; The Big Shave is the first time we see Scorsese using his style to dig into a given subject.
The film opens on extreme close-ups of state-of-the-art bathroom fixtures, gleaming metallic and shiny white, scored to a flirty swing-band record. It’s spotless enough to be a commercial, which is what it continues to look like as a clean-cut young man enters, removes his white T-shirt, lathers up shaving foam, and begins to shave. The shirt comes off in three shots from three different angles, with an overlapping chronology drawing out the moment. Indeed, a later shot in the film, of the shaver reflected in the mirror of the medicine cabinet, eyes closed in a slightly ecstatic pose as he rubs his face, begins to recall Kenneth Anger’s reframing of male maintenance ritual as autoerotic preening in, say, 1965’s Kustom Kar Kommandos.
The first time blood appears, it’s on the young man’s cheek, as revealed when the camera pulls out from his upper lip. From there, the young man maintains an implacable expression as more spots and stripes of starchy red movie blood begin to run down his face and drip onto the faucet and into the sink. Cutaways to the bowl of the sink, with running blood and tap water, recall the bathtub drain in Psycho; each time Scorsese cuts back up to the face, it’s bloodier, though the actor remains undemonstrative. The film’s climax comes as he slices the razor all the way across his naked throat, drawing a slasher-thick stripe of deep red blood. He continues to trim other areas while looking in the mirror, his face by now as bloody as a cannibal’s. The film ends on a fade to red.
The slogan “Viet 67” appended to the end credits marks the film as a political statement, and certainly the willful self-mutilation, or blood sacrifice of young male flesh, or both, is a philosophically coherent statement about the war in Vietnam—but the film’s allegory is bigger than a single proximate historical event. Though certainly sharing the political concerns of his generation, Scorsese has been equally attentive to self-excoriating masculinity whether his protagonists are veterans or not. Of the characters played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, New York, New York, and Raging Bull—consecutive films with postwar settings—Travis Bickle was in the shit, whereas Jimmy Doyle seems to have spent WWII tooting his own horn and Jake LaMotta was turned away for medical reasons. But De Niro would have been equally credible as a PTSD sufferer in the latter two films, with the addition of a single line of dialogue alluding to military service.
Even “self-excoriating masculinity” can be misleading. If it’s reductive to say that The Big Shave is “about” Vietnam, it’s maybe hardly less so to say that it, or any of Scorsese’s films, is “about” masculinity or violence or Catholicism (the linked set of themes that his films are generally considered to be about).” I say linked: sadomasochism and masculinity, pleasure and punishment—Harvey Keitel burning himself on a candle in Mean Streets, Leonardo DiCaprio doing the same thing, in a rather more decadent fashion, in The Wolf of Wall Street. These preoccupations are all equally vehicles for visceral experience, which Scorsese makes palpable through his chosen medium. The Wolf of Wall Street is about greed in the same way that The Age of Innocence is about repressed desire and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is about second-wave feminism—all are fueled by the thirst for stimulation. This is more literally true in The Big Shave than elsewhere in Scorsese’s filmography, since a five-minute experimental short is necessarily about form as much as content.
Even before the blood starts flowing in movie-movie red, the blocky 16 mm colors, in a controlled palette of bright whites and flesh tones, are bigger than life. In the second half of The Big Shave, as the film starts to live up to its title, the pace of the cutting accelerates, and is timed more forcefully to the tempo of the song, with edits coming on each toot of the horn. The close-ups are closer, enlarging tighter sections of the face. At the climax, the swipe of the razor across the throat is filmed in three shots, overlapping in coverage, and crossing the axis of action, as when the actor takes off his shirt earlier in the film. Left profile, right profile, frontal close-up. Scorsese tracks and magnifies the impact of every cut—in both senses of the word.
The style developed over his subsequent career is hardly less cutting. In the films he made as a young man, Scorsese is a student not just of the medium but also of life itself. The Big Shave is a turning point in his career: the moment when Scorsese, having learned to feel his way through life cinematically, begins to communicate to his audience experience—in all its visceral, horrible, wonderful intensity.