During his five years at NYU, Martin Scorsese made his first student film and never stopped making them in the eight years between graduation and his breakthrough film, Mean Streets, in 1973. On seeing them now, a critic might rightly conclude that his early efforts were technically competent efforts by a talented student filmmaker working with extremely limited resources, but otherwise of little interest. But more than technique can be detected in these early films. Haig Manoogian, his mentor at NYU, advised him to stick close to his experience of the Lower East Side, and Scorsese followed this suggestion explicitly in his early years, and later, as he moved out into other settings, he took a large part of the old neighborhood with him.14 These early student films form a bridge between Little Italy and the outside world. They set the pattern for his treatment of the tensions he feels between group loyalty and personal integrity. Much of this struggle is framed through a Catholic sensibility formed in school, church, and Elizabeth Street culture. When explaining his belief that Scorsese's individual characters are at root moralists dealing with conflict, critic Michael Bliss convincingly explains this tension as an "attempt to resolve the opposition between the behests of Catholicism as derived from the Bible and the rigorous demands of living in the world."15
That understanding of Scorsese's conflicted characters is crucial, but the analysis can be taken a step further. What is more to the point at present is that these struggling individuals are self-consciously members of a group, which precisely as a definable group also strives to reconcile its own integrity to "the rigorous demands of living in a world" amid other competing groups with their own characteristic value systems. The small-time gangster struggles to make it in Elizabeth Street society, while Elizabeth Street and the mob try to find their place in the larger cluster of communities that surround it. One can then imagine a typical Scorsese conflict as a set of concentric circles. At the core is the individual striving for identity within a tight organization or community, and then the community struggling for its own collective survival within the mainstream, and presumably hostile, majority society. The individual may be tempted to jump over the immediate circle and reach for the outer rim, but he does so at the risk of losing personal identity. Several films illustrate this dual conflict, starting with his earliest efforts as a fledgling artist at NYU.
An early student film, What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963), is a nine-minute sixteen-millimeter narrative film about a character with writer's block. He has two names, Algernon and Harry, as though he is searching for his true identity before he enters the world of art. The Harry/Algernon conundrum mirrors Scorsese's own awareness of his ethnic roots and desire to enter the larger, mainstream world of art and artists. The character seems to resolve his problem by marrying an ideal woman and leading an ordinary family life, just like that of his own parents, but his striving for artistic success creates a new set of tensions for him. At the end of the film, the young writer becomes trapped in a photograph he contemplates, torn between "reality" and art, his marriage and his work. In turn, the world of art stands in contrast to the larger world, of ordinary people who work to preserve ordinary values, like marriage. Can an artist like Scorsese have both?
In scarcely fifteen minutes and again in sixteen millimeter, It's Not Just You, Murray (1964) presents the story of a small-time hood from the neighborhood who boasts of his friendship and indebtedness to his friend Joe. Murray measures success in material possessions and his position in the neighborhood. He eventually discovers that Joe has betrayed his business interests, had been instrumental in sending him to prison, and, as the final indignity, has been involved with Murray's wife. These factors would normally end a friendship, but Joe manages to reestablish the relationship by offering Murray a car. According to the logic prevalent in this world of petty gangsters, the payoff is a perfectly legitimate way to right past wrongs. Murray accepts the gift and forgets the betrayal by his friend. In Sicilian culture, male friendship and loyalty despite injuries received is a paramount value. When the injuries become too great, the vendetta replaces loyalty, and an enemy must pay dearly for betrayal. Scorsese's characters frequently wrestle with the decision to cross the boundary and seek revenge from a former friend. By turning his back on the wrongs he has suffered from Joe, Murray has preserved the laws and mores of his group, maintained unity, and seen his position enhanced by the acquisition of a new car. Joe, for his part, has redeemed himself on the cheap. Outsiders might find his reactions grotesque, but insiders know that this is the ordinary way of doing business. Murray acquiesces to the values of the small band of petty criminals, yet these warped values place them outside the comprehension of the outside world, and Scorsese knows it, even if Murray does not.
The Big Shave (1967), originally titled Viet '67, is an ugly six-minute sixteen-millimeter film that Scorsese completed two years after graduation from NYU. From this point in time, the metaphor seems contrived, but in the 1960s, everything artistic seemed to have a symbolic connection to the hated Vietnam War. A nameless man enters a gleaming white bathroom and begins to shave. As his strokes become more vigorous, he repeatedly cuts himself until the blood runs down his face and into the sink, in a shot reminiscent of the final shot in Hitchcock's famous shower scene in Psycho (1960). The action could suggest America's cutting its own throat through the war, or it could call attention to the gratuitous violence inflicted on the Vietnamese people, both themes commonplace during the 1960s. The film merits a mention here sim ply because it provides an extreme example of Scorsese's using an extraordinarily confined space (the bathroom) to explore an issue of worldwide significance. The shaver is in conflict with America, and America is in conflict with the world.
Throughout his career, Scorsese will use readily identifiable and somewhat quirky subcultures to explore wider philosophic, theological, and moral issues. In his most important films, he will universalize his experience of Little Italy by using Elizabeth Street as a lens through which he will explore the world of his conflicted characters. His gangsters, for example, gradually branch out from petty loan-sharking in Mean Streets to cocaine trafficking and a multimillion-dollar Lufthansa robbery at Kennedy Airport in GoodFellas to the incredible wealth flowing across the gaming tables every day in Casino. The enormity of the crimes changes, but the series of conflicts remains essentially the same.
Scorsese makes his transition into commercial filmmaking with Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1969). Also released at various times under the titles Bring on the Dancing Girls, I Call First, and JR, this film was originally conceived as the middle chapter in a trilogy. Scorsese wrote an extensive treatment of the first, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, while he was still at NYU, but he never was able to shoot it. The story recalls the experiences of several Catholic high-school seniors who have gone away on a retreat, which consists mostly of ominous admonitions about the dangers of sex. Several episodes of the Gospels were to be relived on the streets of Little Italy as the boys reflect on their lives. This of course looks forward to the opening of Mean Streets, the projected third part of the trilogy, where Charlie (Harvey Keitel) comments that one does not find salvation in church, but in the streets.
With Jerusalem, Jerusalem on the shelf—permanently, as it turned out—Scorsese began work on Who's That Knocking on My Door? Fresh out of college when the work began in 1965, he had clearly begun to question both the Church and the ethos of Little Italy. His first marriage ended during this period as well. The film clearly grows out of these changes going on in his own life. The hero of the film, JR (Harvey Keitel, in his first role), is another of Scorsese's local toughs. He has a few rackets, a few friends, and little future. He drinks, gambles, and pursues women as his personal prey. JR's Catholic conflict about sex intrudes upon his life when, despite his apparent promiscuity, he decides that he will not sleep with his fiancée, who is not given a name and who is referred to simply as the Girl (Zina Bethune) until after their marriage. When he discovers that she had been raped by a previous boyfriend, he calls off the marriage, blaming her for her loss of virginity. After consoling himself by partying with his friends, he decides to "forgive" her and go ahead with the wedding. He sees his gesture as magnanimous, but she sees it as a sign of JR's ignorance and warped values. She throws him out, and he is left walking down a street with his old friend Joey.
JR's odious conduct exists within the culture of the street, where most women are regarded as sources of entertainment but where a select few are expected to remain virginal until marriage. JR's situation is compounded by his sense of guilt that comes from his Catholicism for his own failure to live up to the demands of self-control, even though his ill treatment of the Girl seems beyond his comprehension or remorse. Religious imagery abounds throughout the film. JR emerges not only as a despicable cad, but also as the victim of his own claustrophobic world, the male-centered Sicilian Catholic ghetto. As Scorsese sees it, his behavior is shaped more by ignorance and immaturity than by malice. His own biography up to this point in his life suggests that there may be more than a bit of the young Martin Scorsese in JR: seeing himself as remaining a pious Catholic despite his growing estrangement from the Church while admiring the carefree life at school and on the streets with his friends. Clearly, too, like JR, he had not yet resolved the conflicts between his Catholic upbringing and desire for a family on one side and the sexual revolution that was reaching its peak in campus life throughout the country in general and in Greenwich Village in particular. Like many artists from small towns or ethnic enclaves, it was as hard to leave home as it was to stay.
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