Exploring Martin Scorsese’s earliest work with his first three short films
Martin Scorsese is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His extensive filmography is glittered with universally acclaimed jewels like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The King of Comedy among others. However, due to the sheer number of movies he has made, a lot of his early work remains unnoticed by most of us.
Born in New York, Scorsese developed a passion for cinema early in his life. As a child, he could not play sports with other children because he suffered from asthma and, as a result, he found himself spending most of his time in movie theatres. Growing up in the Bronx, he used to rent Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) from a local shop that had one copy of the reel. Later on in his life, he acknowledged the influence of Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic innovations on his own filmmaking.
“I knew nothing about editing when I met Mr. Scorsese,” his collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker once said. “Through a series of weird events, I ended up at New York University, and there was Martin Scorsese, and he had some troubles with a film I was able to fix. That’s the only reason I became a filmmaker.”
Scorsese was a part of the “film-school” generation in the 1960s when he attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. The short films he produced in his time at NYU influenced his later work too as he mentioned the huge influence of NYU film professor Haig P. Manoogian on his films. He started his filmmaking career with his first short film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963).
Inspired by Federico Fellini’s film 8½, Scorsese made this black-and-white short comedy-drama while he was a student at NYU.
Like Fellini’s masterpiece, Scorsese’s short film explores the central theme of ekphrastic obsession through a man’s attachment to a picture on his wall. Scorsese intended to make a horror film and the comic effect was completely unintentional. He described the film as “a tale of pure paranoia”. It was shot using 16mm film and featured a diverse range of cinematic techniques like animations, montage, jump cuts, associative editing, and freeze-frame shots. Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker worked on the short film along with Scorsese and helped him with the editing.
His second short film was called, It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1964).
It is a brilliant attempt at deconstructing the myth of the mobster by making the protagonist a middle-aged criminal called Murray who gains wealth and influence but is betrayed by his best friend Joe who sleeps with his wife. Towards the end, everything unravels and the film descends to the carnivalesque recreation of the metafictional ending of 8½. Scorsese pays another tribute to Fellini.
The plot is based on Scorsese’s uncle and is 15 minutes long, shot on 16mm film as a black and white romp. The short film won various awards including the Producers Guild Award for Best Student Film and Jesse L Lasky Intercollegiate Award.
The most famous of his short films of this period is the dark comedy piece, The Big Shave (1967) which is also known as Viet ’67,
It is a six-minute film which features Peter Bermuth as the subject of uncontrollable anxiety which makes him compulsively shave his hair and then his skin, shaving everything that propagates the illusion of security. The film was made at NYU for a film production class called Sight & Sound Film. Several critics have seen it as a satirical attack on the self-destructive involvement of the US in the Vietnam War but even without the political context, The Big Shave speaks to the universal fear of death and our infinite neuroses that manifest themselves in so many ways and leave us trembling at the poetic horror.