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The Films in 'Scorsese Shorts' Play with the Narrative Voice

Photo of Martin Scorsese courtesy of Criterion Collection

In Scorsese's hands, the voice-over is less a substitute for what we are not shown but instead becomes a vital thread woven into the fabric of the film's meaning.

Scorsese Shorts
Martin Scorsese


26 May 2020


Few living directors navigate the space between respected arthouse auteur and popular film director with such phenomenal success as Martin Scorsese. On the one hand, he stands alongside giants like Jean-Luc Godard in producing work teeming with sly references to the history of film, work that invites careful scrutiny and measured analysis. On the other hand, like Steven Spielberg, he is a major box-office draw, creating epic films that are financial as well as critical successes.

If film, like much mass art, finds itself constantly sailing between the Scylla of empty accessibility and the Charybdis of snobbish exclusion, Scorsese manages to be an approachable auteur who often equally rewards the filmgoer looking for a one-time enjoyable event and the connoisseur looking to peel back the onion to find ever more intriguing hidden layers. He doesn't pander to audiences and hasn't slipped into relative obscurity; he is that elusive paradox, the popular art film director.

Just how Scorsese accomplishes this feat is worth greater consideration and would require more space than I have at my disposal here. In this relatively brief discussion, I examine just one element that Scorsese exploits in some (not all) of his work to surprising effect and with considerable aplomb: the narrative voice. At its most marked, the narrative voice emerges as the voice-over narration. This device can easily become contrived, a kind of hackneyed approach to storytelling that relies more upon saying than showing, and since film is widely considered a medium that glorifies, indeed venerates what can be shown, the voice-over narration often appears as a crutch.

At its most banal, the voice-over assumes that the audience is not entirely capable of watching a film, that it needs its collective hand held; it needs to be told what to think, how to feel. It can also be seen as a crutch for acting; the actor is unable to convey the complexity of the moment through gesture and facial expression so the voice-over steps in to fill in the blank spaces—acting becomes a kind of mime performance while the voice-over does the narrative work. Think here of the mid- and low-rank examples of the film noir genre (I leave it to you to decide what film merits what ranking). We may or may not see what is at stake for the main character, but we know what the protagonist is thinking and feeling because he (it's almost always a he) tells us.

Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

Now, there is a lot to unpack here. We may or may not see what is at stake: this leaves open the possibility for redundancy. If the actor succeeds through gesture, the voice-over becomes superfluous. Such redundancy can be the result of (or seem to be the result of) shoddy workmanship. Or it might be used (or seem to be used) as a point of irony, producing perhaps a comedic effect or revealing some important (maybe subtle, maybe blatant) contradictions between what is shown and what is told. Godard's Le petit soldat (1963) employs the redundancy of the main character's voice-over in both these ways. The voice-over then becomes less of a substitute for what we might have seen and instead becomes another, at least partially incommensurate thread woven into the fabric of meaning that the film produces.

In these cases, the voice-over doesn't encourage the viewer to think less but rather drives the viewer on to think more—to doubt, to question, to challenge what is being shown and what is being told. This is the space in which the unreliable narrator emerges. And again, this can become mere cliché (which hardly implies it becomes meaningless) or it can become a thrillingly idiosyncratic device. With Scorsese it is usually the latter and his epigones transform it into the former.

Of course, the voice-over is hardly the only narrative voice available to a film director. Some films, particularly but not exclusively documentaries, invite their narrators into the inside of the filmic framework (as opposed to the voice-over that hovers just beyond the frame, telling us the story from outside the interior of the film). Interview documentaries are the paradigm case here. The interviewees basically provide a running narrative as an account of their lives, often providing rambling, discursive answers to questions probing the details of their experiences, digressing toward points of interest and half-glimpsed memories. Interview documentaries track the ebb and flow of storytelling; the entire focus generally devoted to the narrative art. The concern in such films then becomes justifying the medium altogether. Why present an interview in a film format as opposed to providing the unadorned audio? What is it that the film qua film accomplishes in this genre?

Another type of narrative voice is never absent in film; it pervades every frame, conceptualizing every moment, pulling at the other narrative threads or tying them together, providing form: this is the camera as narrator. Scorsese has time and again demonstrated himself to be a master of the narrative shot. Think of the celebrated tracking shot in Goodfellas (1990) that follows Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he escorts his date Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the back entrance and kitchen of the Copacabana nightclub. The shot follows them, we mostly see their backs (aside from the occasional patented Liotta forced smile and laugh he delivers to some of the workers he passes). There is little dialogue, little explanation, and yet we understand it all because the tracking shot itself communicates everything we need to know.

It tells us what this walk tells Karen: that Henry is immersed in a world that brings him a kind of shady glory—the kind of glory that gets you a table in a packed nightclub but that requires you enter out of the sight of the regular patrons, the kind of glory that depends on a distinction that can't be openly discussed. Henry and Karen say almost nothing in this scene; the camerawork speaks volumes.

Long before 1990 and Goodfellas, Scorsese was already developing a strong narrative voice in his films and he was already finding clever ways of evading the trap of banality in the employment of the voice-over and the subject of the documentary interview. Criterion Collection has recently released an edition of Scorsese's early shorts: five films, all under an hour, filmed over a period spanning the end of his time as a film student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts into the early phase of his public prominence.

The first film in the collection chronologically, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963), was written and produced as part of an NYU summer program and the last film, American Boy (1978), an interview with Steven Prince, was made after Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York (1977) and before Raging Bull (1980). Thus, these shorts document the initial phase of Scorsese's career, from obscurity to fame, by concentrating on a less familiar aspect of his output—short, experimental films and documentaries. This collection makes an ideal test case for an examination of the early narrative voice in Scorsese's films—particularly given the fact that the early two films feature voice-overs, the two documentaries involve interviews that depend upon extended narration, and the short The Big Shave (1967) is a kind of study in narration through succinct but incisive camerawork.

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963) (courtesy of Criterion Collection)

What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? follows the unfortunate tale of a writer, Algernon (Zeph Michaelis), known to his friends as Harry, who moves into a New York studio apartment to work on his craft. In the course of decorating the space, he purchases an uninteresting photograph of a man standing upright in a rowboat as he holds a shotgun. Harry claims to only have bought it because the clerk at the store was really old and Harry is really sensitive. His sensitivity makes him prone toward an obsession with the picture. Soon he finds he can't eat, sleep, or work. He stares constantly at the photograph and can't resist its strange hold on him.

He decides to throw a party as a distraction and meets a woman (Mimi Stark) with whom he falls in love and marries. The woman is a painter and he gets back to writing; the photograph seems to have lost its hold over him. However, the woman paints nature pictures and one day begins painting bodies of water. One particular painting (which in the film is really a photograph of a beach) attracts him yet again and he eventually finds himself trapped within it.

Harry narrates the entire film. Scorsese employs several amusing techniques that draw our attention to the peculiarities of the voice-over. First and foremost, Harry has his own idiosyncratic speech rhythm—a hallmark of Scorsese's characters. His cadence bespeaks both diffidence and enthusiasm for his tale. He stumbles over reminding his listener that he is, indeed, a writer several times, and shyly emphasizes the fact that he is "sensitive". Indeed, he seems to use the latter adjective for its semblance of explanatory force—as though "being sensitive" justifies his obsessions and behaviors.

Another comedic aspect of the voice-over is the manner in which it receives echoes from Harry's friend (Fred Sica). Harry will state some banal observation that his friend has made, such as "she really is a good catch" in reference to his wife. Then we see the friend, wearing sunglasses in a dark room with a lamp nearby, dressed in a full suit. The friend utters, in a wonderfully thick new yorkese, the same statement Harry related—"you know, not for nothing, but she really is a good catch."

This particular manner of redundancy operates on a few levels. It calls attention to the banality of the statement itself; we really don't learn much from hearing that his friends think well of his wife, it doesn't further the story in any notable manner. Moreover, the insignificant statement hardly gains depth in being reiterated immediately. But the odd placement of the friend—sitting alone in a room, not with Harry, making the statement almost as if he is being interviewed by Harry in some other film that is nested within this one—makes the whole scenario ever more bizarre. What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? already courts the surreal and with this particular device, Scorsese encourages us to question what is real and what is not. The narrator is not only unreliable, he is self-evidently a false construct altogether.

It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964) (courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Murray (Ira Rubin), the main character and narrator of It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964), is not so much unreliable—he seems to tell us what he believes to be the case—as he is lacking perspicacity. Murray is a talker, like so many Scorsese anti-heroes, and is eager to tell us everything he can about himself because he seems to believe that the act of narration will make it real. On some level, Murray assumes that by talking about his successes and his fancy cars and clothes, he will make himself into the paragon he wants to believe he is but realizes he can never be. Murray begins the film by revealing (and reveling in) the cost of his shoes, his suit, his car. He gets so caught up in his possessions as emblems of his worth that he neglects to introduce himself. Once he realizes the omission, he instructs the cameraman to stop rolling and they return to his office (where the opening shot had been filmed).

Again, Scorsese delights in Murray's wiseguy infelicities of grammar and syntax, his laughable but memorable speech rhythms: "I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Murray and like, the reason that I'm here is to tell you, like, how I got here." Like What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, Murray's voice-over is interrupted both by himself and by the friend he reveres, Joe (Sam DeFazio); once again Scorsese employs the device of contriving a sort of virtual conversation across impossible distance. While driving his convertible across the bridge, Murray refers to Joe's philosophy of life: "In this life, you need help in trying to obtain for yourself the best possible life for yourself. Ain't that right, Joe?" The shot cuts to Joe playing pool in another location altogether who confirms it as though they were telling a story together: "That's right, Murray," a cigarette dangling precipitously from his lips.

We soon learn that, despite Murray's veneration of him, Joe is not a reliable friend. When the police bust in on their bootlegging operation, Joe has no problem leaving Murray holding the bag, resulting in a prison stay for our hapless narrator. When Murray is released, he marries a nurse (Andrea Martin). Joe immediately initiates an affair with her and it becomes blatantly clear that the two children she bears are Joe's. It even becomes clear to Murray, it would seem. As he tells the camera that Joe is like a "second father" to his children, Murray falters.

He calls Joe into the room and demands that the camera crew cut the sound. Soon, we merely see Joe's gesticulations as he provides Murray with some explanation, some reason to ignore his realization. He aren't privy to it; I doubt it was all that satisfactory. But Murray treats it as though it was: "times change and things change." Just what that refers to is a mystery. Once again, the narration has revealed more than it has told.

The Big Shave (1967) (courtesy of Criterion Collection)

The Big Shave has no voice-over; it boasts no dialogue of any kind. The camera is the only narrative voice, but it is quite eloquent. Scorsese claims to have intended the film as a protest of the futility of US involvement in the Vietnam War (an alternate title was Viet '67). It opens with a series of cuts among shots of a bathroom with gleaming white appurtenances. The cuts and the one red item (a tile brush) foreshadow what is to come but the point of the opening of the film is to establish the pristine nature of the environment prior to the shave.

The man (Peter Bernuth) enters and removes a can of Rapid Shave cream and a straight razor from the medicine cabinet. He lathers up and applies the razor without incident, administering a perfect shave. But then he lathers up again and returns to his task. This time he cuts himself ever deeper and ever more severely. Blood begins to stream down his face, dripping into the white sink below. The blood is garish, obscene. At one point the man draws the blade horizontally along his throat and the blood pours out of him, his throat seemingly slashed. All the while, the man calmly goes about his business, undeterred and appearing to be unfazed, while Bunny Berigan's rendition of "I Can't Get Started" plays, jubilant and consoling, in the background.

The Big Shave almost strikes one as a study in producing the effect of bleeding out. The throat slash, in particular, looks like a preparatory test to get just the right look. One could easily dismiss this film as little more than preparation for bigger things. What makes it a work of art in its own right, however, is not the portentousness of its putative message but rather the manner in which the camera alone constructs the story. Each shot is timed with startling precision. Scorsese carefully distinguishes between abrupt cuts, establishing shots, and moments when the camera lingers in order to build a narrative arc that somehow, indescribably, surpasses the mere accumulation of gore.

Italianamerican (1974) (courtesy of Criterion Collection)

The remaining two films in the set are interview documentaries and both find Martin Scorsese on camera functioning as both the director and the interviewer. The first, Italianamerican (1974), consists of a set of conversations with—that turn into monologues delivered by—Scorsese's parents, Catherine and Charles. Admirers of Scorsese's handling of speech get a glimpse here into its source. The film opens with Martin telling his mother to tell them about how she makes sauce.

She immediately launches into a kind of "Who's on First" routine concerning to whom she should talk (Martin or the camera), what exactly is wanted of her, should she use his name directly or no, and on and on. She continually defers the actual moment in which she satisfies the demand. Martin appears neither annoyed nor amused; he just takes it all in as the familiar rhythm of interactions in the household.

Soon, two interviews unfold in separate but adjoining rooms, the living room and the kitchen. Martin continues to ask his mother about cooking and the sauce; his assistant asks Charles about growing up in the neighborhood. Asked how he amused himself, he reminisces on the local restaurants and their offerings. "We go for Houston Street for knishes and a cup of coffee…for a dime…a dime." He brandishes his hand, gesticulating as he speaks, his voice adopting a slightly more nasal timbre for emphasis on the repetition of the word "dime".

We even gain some insight into the critical acumen that informs Scorsese's view of the narrative voice when Charles criticizes Catherine for not using her "own voice". It would be better, he insists, if you just act normally and talk to your son as you always do. Catherine insists that she is not putting on airs and has no pretense toward being an actress. This, it seems to me, is a running theme in Scorsese's films: when we narrate, do we inherently lie? Are all bids toward authenticity grounded in mere pretense? Indeed, do we require a certain amount of pretense for authenticity to be properly communicated? These are questions that come into even sharper focus in the final film in the collection, American Boy.

American Boy (1978) (courtesy of Criterion Collection)

American Boy (1978) is an interview with Steven Prince, familiar to Scorsese fans as the man who sells Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) an arsenal in Taxi Driver. This film really drives home the complex nature of the narrative voice in the interview film. Throughout the interview, Scorsese and the others in attendance spur Prince on as he tells his various stories—stories of acquiring drugs, partying with a gorilla, getting mugged, working as road manager for Neil Diamond, avoiding arrest during a drug bust, and reviving an overdose victim with a magic marker and a shot of adrenalin (a story lifted in its entirety for the famous scene in Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction of 1994). George Memmoli, another Scorsese actor and Prince's friend, anticipates certain details of the story, embellishing them through grunts, nods, and an extended thumb pointed at Prince as he tells his tales.

To a certain extent, your patience for this film will depend upon your patience for these kinds of performances. But what Scorsese accomplishes here is revealing. Memmoli goads Prince on but that doesn't make him exterior to the story. Those gestures, those nods, those reassurances that Prince is being heard and understood and appreciated, those are all part of the narration itself, not outside it. They are the framing structure that allows the narration to proceed and that shapes its particular manner of inhabiting the space of communication.

The film ends with another Scorsese examination of the limits and nature of authenticity. Prince finishes his narrative by retelling his recent visit with his father, who is dying of heart problems. The story centers on the moment when he confirms for his father that he is "enjoying" himself in the way that he is living. Scorsese lightly admonishes Prince, claiming that the version of that conversation that he delivered on the plane was better. Scorsese insists that this version "seemed very matter-of-fact, seemed too objective." He has Prince retell it, seeking the "sincerity" he feels was missing from this first filmed rendition.

Prince stumbles through another version, in that way that one does when put on the spot. Parts of it come out too quickly this time, are too abbreviated. Scorsese is still displeased. He prefers that Prince use the word "happy" rather than simply stating he is "having fun". In a third take, Prince focuses more on the distance he feels from his father, the assertion that he is "happy" rings hollow. After all, it wasn't his word, it was Scorsese's. What was already a performance of a recollection has become a mere performance to satisfy his audience of one (Scorsese). The camera lingers on Prince's face; he looks sad and exhausted. It isn't clear whether he has tapped into some sense of loss regarding his father or he is simply playing the role the director has assigned him in relation to the tale. Either way, Scorsese has succeeded. He got the version he wanted; authenticity was performed.


Criterion Collection recently released Blu-ray edition of these five short films from early in the directorial career of Martin Scorsese. While my discussion has focused on the notion of a "narrative voice" in these films, they are worth examining from any number of angles that would reward concentration and consideration.

The edition includes a few extras: a recent conversation between Scorsese and critic Farran Smith Nehme, a public radio interview with Scorsese from 1970, and a discussion between filmmakers Ari Aster and Josh and Bennie Safdie. The extras are perhaps less enlightening than they might have been but anyone seeking out this collection will be primarily interested, of course, in the films themselves, which have not been readily available in these quality prints for some time.

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