These two short documentaries by Martin Scorsese, running 48 and 55 minutes, respectively, are mainly interesting as footnotes to the director’s career, as a backstory to some of his signature subject matter. The first, Italianamerican, was made in 1974, just before Taxi Driver, and it delves into his family’s past, via an interview with his parents filmed in their flat in Little Italy. Scorsese’s mother, Catherine — who had brief appearances in several of his films, most notably as Joe Pesci’s mother in Goodfellas — dominates the conversation in her good-natured, assertive manner. Many of her stories are of the “we were so poor back then” kind, which should be familiar not only to the offspring of big city immigrants but anyone who has relatives that were harshly affected by the Depression.
Scorsese has punched this up a little with some archival footage, but it’s still a fairly static film — not one of his stylistic coups, but rather a for-the-record accounting of his roots. These are the stories he grew up with — sometimes inspirational, sometimes gossipy — and they’re what inspired him to give a realistic account of his own experiences in his early films like Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets.
The more rarely seen American Boy was filmed in 1978 and is essentially a series of semi-believable stories told by actor Steven Prince, best known for his small but effective role in Taxi Driver as the slick gun dealer who supplies Travis Bickle with his deadly arsenal. Even more minimalist than Italianamerican, the success of the film depends on the viewer sharing Scorsese’s fascination with Prince as a sort of archetypal post-’60s hipster, a tragicomic figure living on the edge. Prince seems like someone who might be a bit much in real life — a self-dramatizing motor-mouth who would wear out his welcome pretty quickly. But in recalling his days of being a young wiseass, working as a road manager for Neil Diamond and overcoming a near-fatal heroin addiction, he comes across in an entertainingly expressive and darkly humorous manner. Once in a while, the pain behind Prince’s glibness will show through with a haunted look at the camera, and you realize that while he may be a wild and crazy guy, he’s paid a hard price for his kicks.
Both films are recommended for serious Scorsese fans, as intriguing asides from America’s greatest living director.
Showing at 7:30 p.m., Monday, April 4, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].