This compilation of five early short films by Martin Scorsese offers a fascinating window onto his artistic development. Spanning the years from Scorsese’s time at NYU in the mid-1960s to the late ’70s, when he was emerging as one of the era’s most electrifying talents, Scorsese Shorts centers on the intimate home movie Italianamerican—a loving snapshot of the director’s parents—and American Boy, a freewheeling portrait of a larger-than-life raconteur. Also included are The Big Shave, a daringly visceral response to America’s involvement in Vietnam, and the bracing student films What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! Touching on many of Scorsese’s key themes—Italian American identity, family, his beloved New York City—these are hilarious, candid, and illuminating works from the preeminent American filmmaker of our time.
The Criterion Collection presents five early short films by director Martin Scorsese on Blu-ray: Italianamerican; American Boy; The Big Shave; It’s Not Just You, Murray!; and What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? The five films are all presented on this dual-layer disc in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. All films have been given brand-new 4K restorations with Italianamerican and American Boy sourced from the 16mm negative A/B rolls and the other three films from original 16mm reversal A/B rolls. All are presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition.
It’s shocking just how wonderful these have all turned out, though admittedly I think I had been lowering my expectations. The weakest of the batch is What’s a Nice Girl… but even then its issues are minor and few. That film shows some more inherent print issues than the other films: some minor marks, lines, and such, but outside of that there isn’t much else to worry about. It, and the other black and white film, Murray!, deliver sharp, crisp pictures with superb gray levels, rich blacks, and nicely balanced whites that never bloom. Grain looks superb and is rendered cleanly, and detail levels are high because of it.
The Big Shave, the shortest of the films at only 5-minutes, may be the best looking of the colour films, but I put that down to it being the more controlled of the three (the other two films are more along the lines of documentaries). The Big Shave also delivers a sharp and clean looking image while also delivering the sharpest looking colours, at least through the reds and skin tones. The other two colour films can be a bit more muted and washed out in comparison, which I’ll put down to film stock, or even their respective settings. These films also look grainier in comparison (which can get heavier during Italianamerican), but the grain looks superb, which again leads to distinct details.
It’s hard to imagine the films have ever looked anywhere near as good as they do here. The restorations have been thorough and the encodes for each are clean. Five great looking images.
All five films offer lossless linear PCM audio tracks. They all show their age, but even then, they’re incredibly clean and easy to hear. There can be more of a flatness to the earlier student films, and The Big Shave uses an older recording for the music that plays throughout, but the two later films, American Boy and Italianamerican, do seem to have better depth and fidelity, if only a little bit.
I would have expected a rather stacked special edition for this set (that I swear has been rumoured since Criterion’s DVD-only days) but alas there are only a handful of features here. The best, though, comes down to a lengthy 44-minute interview between film critic Farran Smith Nehme and Martin Scorsese. While the interview will eventually focus on the shorts themselves, the first half is more of a journey with Scorsese as he talks about discovering film at a young age and the various realizations he had about them through the years, from realizing there were these people called “directors” ultimately telling the stories to when he realized how the images and editing were conveying so much on their own. He also gets into how hard it was to read anything about films and filmmaking since there were very few writings available, leaving him to discover a number of films on late-night television. Covering his school days he shares a few interesting stories, including one around note his teacher left him along with average grade for his paper onThe Third Man, the note indicating the film was only “a thriller,” which confused him since he didn't differentiate "art" films from "genre" films; he just saw it all as different ways to tell a story. His details and stories around the five films in the set (from his parents initial disapporval to getting his work into film festivals) are also great, especially everything around Italianamerican and American Boy, but it was this first half I enjoyed most and do wish it went on longer.
Criterion then provides a new 25-minute discussion around the films featuring directors Ari Aster and Josh and Benny Safdie. There’s a bit of an annoying (at least to me) set-up where, along with the individual cameras for Aster and then the two brothers, there’s a third hidden camera to catch them in between filming, which is cute I guess, but I can’t say it adds much. At any rate, the three talk about the films in this release, first recalling how hard it was to track them down pre-internet, and then talk about each one in terms of construction, technical merits, and message (where appropriate), along with how one can see Scorsese’s voice being built, and how certain tricks from these films would be employed in his later worke. They also cover the influence of each film on their own work and other directors’ work (like Tarantino). They talk over each other from time to time and I didn’t really get the need for the third camera, but I appreciated this more technical and academic look at the films.
The disc then closes off with an archival segment from a 1970 WNYC radio broadcast featuring Scorsese talking about a Movies in the Park series showing films by young filmmakers. This leads to a discussion around the sudden boom of young voices in filmmaking (which comes down to easier access to equipment and just the state of the world/country at that moment pushing young filmmakers to express themselves) and to some discussion on the New American cinema. There's also some detail on the process students have to go through to get their films made at school. It’s a great little 22-minute time capsule, and oh man, does Scorsese sound young here.
And it would be a bit disappointing to leave things off here but Criterion does, at the very least, also throw in a booklet. Not only does it feature an excellent essay written by Bilge Ebiri about the films and this period of development in Scorsese’s life, but it also features a number of photos of materials that are brought up in the disc features, from storyboards (including one he did at age 11) to letters and outlines planning out the construction of Italianamerican. Also appealing: the liner of the cover features his mother’s recipe for “The Sauce.”
Again, I would have expected more, but the material is still pretty solid and great to go through.
I would have expected a more stacked special edition, but the Scorsese interview is great and the presentations for each film (which are great to finally have all together in one package) look exceptional. Every cinema buff needs to pick this one up.