The Prince Variations
Leo Goldsmith on American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince
Steven Prince enters cinema in the back of a taxi. In Taxi Driver, Prince makes a brief appearance as Easy Andy, who briefly converts a seedy Brooklyn apartment with lovely views of the Manhattan skyline into a makeshift gun showroom for an acquisitive Travis Bickle. As Travis hungrily eyes an array of firearms, Andy shills with the rapid patter of an inveterate salesman (“Ain’t that a little honey?” “That’s a beautiful little gun—looka that”), before trying to sell him a literal bill of goods: dope, grass, hash, coke, mescaline, downers, Nembutal, Tuinal, chloral hydrates, uppers, amphetamines, crystal meth, nitrous oxide, and “a brand-new Cadillac with the pink slip for two grand.”
Martin Scorsese’s films are full of odd little characters like Easy Andy, the kinds of bit parts and throwaway turns that hungry actors pounce upon and devour. Taxi Driver boasts quite a few: Albert Brooks and Peter Boyle both appear as memorably unmemorable bystanders to the film’s main action, and Marty himself even pops in to play the world’s most repulsive cuckold, who invites Travis to ponder the effects of the kinds of weapons Easy Andy will sell him later in the film. Prince isn’t really an actor, and it turns out that his character’s areas of expertise—drugs and guns—aren’t that far from his real-life experience. Even so, it’s this energy and attention to detail invested in even the smallest parts that Scorsese’s best films thrive on: glimpses of a complex larger world just beyond the often obsessively narrow universes of his self-absorbed protagonists.
This is an especially curious aspect of Scorsese’s renown as a director: that although few American directors, especially of his generation, have been as flashy in their technique, acrobatic in their camerawork, and devoted to a peculiarly muscular brand of auteurism, still his reputation and his success rest at least as much on his ability to craft performances. After all, before his consolatory win of the best-director Academy Award for The Departed in 2007, he was famously bridesmaid to the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Paul Newman, Joe Pesci, Cate Blanchett, and of course, Robert De Niro. Often the “actor’s director” designation seems a kind of backhanded compliment, reserved for those whose primary talent lies in setting the stage for a particular stripe of Actors Studio, New Hollywood, awards-baiting histrionics. And if this doesn’t quite fit Scorsese, it’s nonetheless remarkable how deeply connected the work of this emphatically “directorly” director is with that of his actors.
This makes American Boy: A Portrait of Steven Prince, which catches up with its subject for a little less than an hour in a Hollywood bungalow, an unexpectedly crucial work in Scorsese’s oeuvre. Despite, or perhaps because of, a meager budget of only $155,000, its uncharacteristically pared-down mise-en-scène, and a shooting schedule of only a couple of weekends at the home of his friend, actor George Memmoli, the film homes in on something particular about the director’s approach, foregrounding and to an extent restaging his handling of character and performance. Despite the fact that the film is a documentary, a form in which Scorsese has often dabbled with very mixed results, American Boy is at once a revealing document of his working process, especially his method with actors, and a canny exploration of documentary aesthetics.
The importance of American Boy (1978) in Scorsese’s body of work, unlikely though it may seem, should not be such a surprise considering when it was made. The project came at a crucial moment in Scorsese’s career, at the end of several years of frenzied activity on Taxi Driver, New York, New York, and The Last Waltz, and just before his collapse from exhaustion and drug use, and the eventual aesthetic recalibration of Raging Bull. It was a transitional time for New Hollywood, too: George Lucas had already unleashed Star Wars, Francis Ford Coppola was struggling to make Apocalypse Now, and Michael Cimino was about to start shooting Heaven’s Gate. Central to Scorsese’s concerns was a sort of Janus-like view of American culture that characterizes his work overall: looking back with a tempered nostalgia on the accomplishments of his parents’ generation, and ahead to the dissipation and self-destruction of his own. (Notably, it’s also around this time that Scorsese begins to consider a project about Irish street gangs in New York in the mid nineteenth century.)
“I wanted to fix on celluloid an oral history of America by talking to the people I know,” he told writer Michael Henry Wilson in 1979. And American Boy is often paired with Italianamerican, his short 1974 portrait of his parents, but it follows a different trajectory, away from the earlier film’s ethnic specificity and emphasis on dying traditions, and toward less comforting horizons. Scorsese to Wilson: “American Boy is a film about survival . . . How to survive? It’s the question that all of my films ask.” And as if to emphasize what’s at stake, Scorsese quite appropriately begins his film with Neil Young’s rollickingly nihilistic mid-seventies smack anthem “Time Fades Away.” With its oscillation between a verse about hustling and heroin, and a paternalistic chorus that cautions, “Son, don’t be home too late,” the song aptly prefigures the portrait of generational dissolution to come.
Steven—his wiry body clad in brown bell-bottomed trousers and a beautiful pink disco shirt, his eyes hollow and baggy, and his teeth nicotine-stained—is a curious contrast to Scorsese’s parents in the earlier film. Underscoring this further are the flashes of Super 8 home movies of Steven as a baby, then as a boy, a normal, middle-class Jewish kid from Great Neck, New York—and not yet the more furtive figure he strikes now, unmoored from this earlier world, subsumed in an amorphous post-Vietnam generation, lost in a nonspecific LA entertainment world that’s miles away from Scorsese’s New York. (The home movies are just one of the ways in which the film anticipates Raging Bull, with its interlude of amateur home-movie footage—along with its abruptly episodic structure, its scenes from a life strung together by their central figure rather than any clear narrative thread.)
And yet, while Steven cuts a strange figure, he’s also instantly recognizable as a performer, a showman, and indeed a character. Steven enters the bungalow with Michael Chapman’s camera rolling and Scorsese in situ as director, and immediately engages (then reengages, then reengages again) in a mock fistfight with Memmoli, knocking over furniture and bottles of Pepsi. He then sits down to spin a quick succession of yarns to the yowls of rapt laughter from off-camera: tales about his father’s military-weapons expertise, a friend’s pet gorilla named Bubba, his mother’s bland cooking, a ball-busting aunt, an early bagel-resale enterprise in Great Neck. From the sofa, Prince warms up his crowd with these innocuous anecdotes, before digging deeper into less sunny corners: his introduction to crystal meth, his avoidance of the draft by claiming to be a homosexual, and various instances of scrounging around with corrupt cops, dealers, and roadies while managing tours for Neil Diamond.
As the stories become darker, the theme of death and destruction—directed both outward and in—becomes ever more palpable. A visit to a New York “shooting gallery” to get off on heroin; his infamous tale of saving a woman from an overdose with an adrenaline shot, memorably restaged in Pulp Fiction; his murder of a man in self-defense by shooting him six times with a .44 Magnum—while each story becomes grimmer than the last, Prince exerts a kind of narrative control throughout, like many a Scorsese protagonist, guiding the film through voiceover narration and direct address. But increasingly, the narrative itself undergoes fragmentation: Scorsese mixes scraps and vignettes, the Stooges-like pratfalls with Memmoli, the borscht-belt shtick, the home-movie footage, and even his own playful asides to the crew. Prince’s identity thus emerges not simply as a performance but as a patchwork of performances, broken into the dozen disconnected stories that he takes up and inhabits.
To Wilson, Scorsese suggested that the film invited each viewer to decide whether Prince was “a junky, a criminal, or a brother.” While this seems to hint at a certain moral ambiguity at play in the director’s cinematic universe, it perhaps more importantly points to the ways in which his characters’ identities are constructed piecemeal, out of a hodgepodge of various media, from the home movie and the tall tale, to gossip and hearsay (The Age of Innocence), the memoir (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street), the remake (Cape Fear, The Departed), and even cinematic history itself (Hugo). This is why Scorsese’s use of pop music is so justly celebrated: it both conveys narrative information and suggests something about the pop-formed, portmanteau nature of his characters. Each film, then, becomes a way of exploring the particular medium through which this character/identity can best be communicated. Of course, cinema is the privileged media: it gives us access to all the media that came before it. Here, documentary—despite Scorsese’s stylistic bravado and allegiances to narrative cinema—becomes the best way to dramatize Prince’s stories, thanks to his performance of himself.
This begs a broader question about what documentary is, or should be, in the first place. Indeed, what is the place of performance in documentary, and what is the place of the auteur—especially one so present, so voluble as Scorsese. Right from the start, he announces his complicity in the artificial construction of the film, not just with the reflexively faux-mechanical title card reading “FILM STARTS HERE” but also in the film’s first image, of Scorsese and Prince chest deep in a hot tub, comparing notes. This shot, in a quite literal sense, seems to lay bare the relationship between director and actor, but then, in American Boy, Scorsese actually performs his role as director, calling out directions to cinematographer Chapman offscreen, conferring with him about when to reload the camera, and making side comments to the editor for later. More significantly, Scorsese also foregrounds the way he coaxes Prince’s performance into being, first by providing a comfortable, congenial context among friends and appreciative listeners, then by probing him with insistent questions, and ultimately, in the final sequence, by forcing him to retell the same story three times.
The film’s last section arrives as a very carefully timed denouement. The anecdote that precedes it—Steven’s long story of the murder and its aftermath, complete with a handgun reenactment—is clearly the climactic sequence, and it’s followed by a tight, slightly darker shot of Steven, looking wearier, responding to Scorsese’s offscreen request to tell him a particular story about his father that Scorsese has heard before. Steven complies in an affectless manner: his father asked him if he was enjoying what he was doing in Los Angeles, and Steven replied that he was.
Scorsese stops him, and there is a cut. He asks again for the story about Steven’s father, but this time not so matter-of-fact, not so objective. “When you told it to me on the plane it was a little more . . . a little more . . . ” Steven understands and tries again. His father is dying of heart disease, and they don’t talk much. But he recognizes that Steven is a survivor, and asks him, “Are you having fun?” And Steven responds, “Yeah, I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
Scorsese interrupts, “Did you say ‘having fun’ or ‘happy’? I want to try it the other way.” Steven tells the story again, ending with “He said to me, ‘I know you’re a survivor, and I know you can do well in whatever you do, but are you happy?’ And I told him, yeah, I was happy.” The camera holds on Steven, then Scorsese cuts.
What’s notable about the scene is that it exposes a technique employed in nearly every documentary: the filmmaker’s request that the subject repeat something—an action, a statement—so that the film can capture it better. This is usually perceived as a minimal and fully accepted form of restaging, but it is almost always hidden from the viewer, a minor deception on the part of the filmmakers (in collaboration with theirsubject, of course) to capture something that will more clearly, or even better, represent the truth: say, how that person feels about something, or how they walk to their car in the morning. Such scenes are, effectively, reenactments, with the crucial difference that they do not advertise themselves as such, either with a glaring lower third that reads “DRAMATIZATION” (à la Unsolved Mysteries), or through a more reflexive construction that announces and owns up to its artifice (à la Errol Morris).
This final scene, then, underscores not only the reenacted nature of this particular story but the importance of reenactment to Prince as a person, the way his obsessive telling and retelling of these stories is in some way central to his character. Scholars of psychotherapy and documentary cinema alike suggest that reenactment is an important tool for processing and allaying individual or collective trauma. Think Josef Breuer’s “chimney-sweeping” treatment of hysterics with the talking cure, the mass reenactment of historical conflict, the church confessional, or even the Oprah interview: here, reenactment becomes a means of negotiating the past, treating it as an unassimilated material that needs “working through” via processes of repetition, confession, and reengagement. In a way, this therapeutic objective is at the root of the rituals of storytelling and of acting and performance in general. From this vantage point, one might see this reenactment and restaging as the aesthetic/therapeutic process of American Boy as a whole. For Steven, this may well be true—and the power of the film’s final anecdote, told with the gravity and intensity that it deserves, lies in the fact that it holds out some promise of reconciliation between father and son, a last glimmer of hope and survival.
But the film itself seems to have more complex aims, playing with twodocumentary conventions at once: not only with this form of reenactment via retelling (and by staging this retelling multiple times) but also with cinema vérité via a subtle play on the “Are you happy?” querying of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer. What’s curious here is that American Boy allows for a certain direct encounter between camera and subject—at the time, the sine qua non of fly-on-the-wall, no-bullshit documentary cinema—as well as a staged reenactment in the same scene, allowing each device to undercut the other.
Thus, Scorsese’s film actually incorporates and subverts more than one documentary convention at the same time: the interview, the archival fragment, the confession, the staged reenactment, the raw behind-the-scenes glimpse. Each functions in much the same way as the disparate elements of The Last Waltz, which combines live performances, stagy in-studio renditions, and blustery backstage interviews, none of which is positioned as more authentic or honest than any other piece. In American Boy, each of Prince's retellings is presented as one among many narrative options, perhaps less authentic but ultimately more true in a way that no single documentary trope could approach without some deception.
And this agility with forms—this strategic positioning, repositioning, telling, and retelling—itself has something to do with survival. If the question of survival is one that all of Scorsese’s films ask, then American Boy uncovers a certain survival mode inherent to the director’s process itself.