Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Italianamerican (1974) & American Boy (1978)

by on August 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thu Aug 4 at 9:00 and Mon Aug 9 at 9:15 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


Talking Head” continues at Anthology thru August 17.


Rob Nelson for the Village Voice:

Italianamerican and American Boy—oft paired in rep over the years —are nothing if not stories of real struggle. (So, too, incidentally, are Casino and Kundun and The Age of Innocence and The Aviator: The Italian American boy may have become a rich man, but he still invests himself in the work.) A post-Loud “family portrait” filmed entirely in his parents’ walk-up on Elizabeth Street, Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974) literally puts Mom and Dad on the (plastic-covered) couch, recording their second-generation Sicilian-immigrant accounts of hard-earned Christmas trees and kids pilfering meals off fruit carts.


Like Italianamerican, American Boy (1978)—subtitled A Profile of Steven Prince—casually defies verité by including the filmmaker in the frame: Its first shot finds Scorsese sharing a Jacuzzi with his subject, a rail-thin, red-eyed ex-junkie whose near-orgasmic moans of pleasure compel the auteur to request a little space. That need for privacy appears an inherited trait for Marty as much as it was for Howard Hughes: The earlier film shows his father, Charles—in the face of Mrs. Scorsese’s playful protestations—favoring the far side of the sofa.



Nelson continues:

But as much as these docs reveal about the director’s psychology (and rhyme indelibly with one another), they also illuminate his fiction. The attraction-repulsion dynamic of Taxi Driver—wherein Prince’s gun salesman character makes even Travis Bickle look human—is mirrored in Boy‘s pained progression from stand-up comedy to horror and tragedy. As the first act of Prince’s routine features vivid recollections of doped-up run-ins with draft enforcers and silverback gorillas, Scorsese’s wide-angle shots of the “show” in actor George Memmoli’s Hollywood bachelor pad include the chuckling crew as an approving audience. But as the topics turn to heroin abuse and homicide in the second half, the laughs diminish and the camera zooms tighter, sealing the subject’s fate as God’s lonely man. (It’s not just in the hot tub that Scorsese wishes to separate himself from this guy.)


Janet Maslin for The New York Times:

Many of the characters in Martin Scorsese’s films are inspired storytellers, fired by the gift of gab. Can anyone who’s seen ”Mean Streets” forget the magnificent excuse that Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy rattles off in explanation of why he’s neglected to pay his creditors? Can anyone forget the ”Taxi Driver” sequence in which an overeager, fast-talking gun dealer bluffs his way through a sales pitch and discovers, to his delight and amazement, that Mr. De Niro’s Travis Bickle is the best customer any gun dealer ever had?


Steven Prince, the actor who played that salesman, is himself the subject of another of Mr. Scorsese’s films, the 54-minute documentary ”American Boy,” filmed in 1977 as part of what was then a projected series of profiles. Mr. Prince, though only in his late 20’s at the time, has a haggard look, dark-ringed eyes and a nervous, frenetic manner, byproducts of the drug habit he discusses in the film.


”Italianamerican” finds the director doing perhaps the bravest thing he has ever done: sitting down with his parents on the plastic slipcovers of their living-room sofa, and simply letting them talk.Once again, the storytelling is fast and furious, as the irrepressible personalities of both parents emerge and their celebrated son becomes their little boy all over again. Made with great affection, and concluding with a printed version of Catherine Scorsese’s spaghetti and meatball recipe, ”Italianamerican” showcases something important about the way Mr. Scorsese works. Along with ”American Boy,” it reveals that part of what has made him a great director is being a great listener.



Micahel Sragow on Italianamerican for The New Yorker:

In this spare, joyous, tender documentary from 1974, Martin Scorsese, fresh from shooting “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” sits down in his parents’ Lower East Side apartment and talks to them about their family and neighborhood history. What results is a portrait of a marriage, steeped in clan and ethnic heritage, that amounts to a mini-“Roots” for urban Americans of Sicilian stock. Charles and Catherine Scorsese have a relationship that’s comfortable even when it’s uncomfortable–as when Charles starts to discuss Irish resentment toward Italians and Catherine retreats to finish her meat sauce in the kitchen. The movie is about people who happily measure the American Dream in generational increments.


Michael Wilmington for Film Comment (May/June 1988):

Italianamerican is a 45-minute peek into the Scorsese family album. Dad Charles and Mama Catherine talk about their own parents and past life. Aided by interviewer Marty and archive shots, they paint a perfect picture of lowermiddle-class New York East Side Italian life from the century’s turn through the late Forties, when Marty was a kid. Charles is calm, Catherine is nervous and she hogs the talk a little. At the end of the credits, Scorsese prints his mother’s recipe for spaghetti sauce, which they’ve all been eating throughout the interview. I absolutely love this movie. There may be nothing comparable to it by a major filmmaker except for Ingmar Bergman’s equally moving (but much darker) 1986 film portrait of his mother.



Jim Jarmusch interviews Scorsese about the film:


From Ron Lim via his blog The World According To, a comparison between an anecdote from American Boy and a notorious scene in Pulp Fiction:



The blog Only the Cinema on American Boy:

There are other touches of Scorsese the filmmaker here and there, like when he addresses the editor with a note to cut something out of the finished film — though of course it’s ultimately left it. But the artifice becomes especially obvious in the film’s final scene, when Prince discusses a phone call with his father that apparently moved him a great deal. There are suggestions throughout the film that Prince loves his family very much; in the early scenes of the film, he talks about them with real affection and nostalgia, remembering funny and vivid scenes from his childhood, appreciating the obvious strength of his parents in particular. Scorsese’s decision to cut in happy home movies from Prince’s boyhood is obvious as a way of reinforcing the contrast between the happy, innocent kid in those movies and the troubled addict he later became, but it’s also a way of connecting the boy with the man in deeper ways. It’s a humanistic gesture that rejects the too-easy judgmentalism of those who would likely condemn Prince for his drug use and his wild life. In the final scenes, Scorsese seems to be probing for some sign of the boy still residing behind the man’s nervous laugh and wide eyes. He has Prince tell the phone call story three times on camera, coaching him about what to say and how to say it, reminding him of details he’d left out, trying to reach the real essence of what Prince feels about his father and his family. It’s remarkable because while this approach lays out the fact that the filmmaking is manipulative and not naturalistic, each successive iteration of the story really does seem to tap a little deeper into the emotion of the story. It’s as though, in retelling it, Prince is slowly letting his guard down, moving away from the persona he uses when trying to entertain people. He’s clearly moved by his father’s understanding and tacit forgiveness, and though he doesn’t quite verbalize it the emotions show through anyway.


American Boy hints at just how much of Scorsese’s thematic and character material he has always found in the real people he knows. Steven Prince is a perfect Scorsese character, a haunted man with a real self-destructive streak, a charming but troubled figure who’s stumbled through violent episodes and darkly comic vignettes with a certain amount of casual disregard for the insanity of life.


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