Mirrors are essential to the cinema of Martin Scorsese – from the first scene of the autobiographical MEAN STREETS, or the avalanche of anxieties pouring down on Howard Hughes as he washes up in THE AVIATOR, or Teddy Daniels desperately trying to pull himself together in the tense opening of SHUTTER ISLAND, and the moment the evangelical Fr. Rodrigues peers into his own reflection (and vanity) only to see his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in SILENCE, Scorsese’s characters constantly examine who they are and/or who they’re becoming.
Indeed, the most famous of scene in all of Scorsese, Travis Bickle asking, “You talkin’ to me?” in TAXI DRIVER, allows us to see Travis as exactly the invincible killer he now sees himself as via his dialogue with himself in a mirror.
His 1967 short film THE BIG SHAVE also tellingly plays out in front of a mirror. Arguably the most unsettling film Scorsese’s ever made, the six minute short turned out to be his first of several disquieting portraits of self-destruction. Made at a crossroads for the budding auteur (post NYU, his first marriage on the rocks), the young Scorsese was making ends meet by teaching at his former alma mater, as well as struggling to tweak his first feature; initially called BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS, but eventually named WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, this black & white feature began life as his thesis project at the university but, after a poor initial reception, still needed plenty of work.
The camera, sound and editing equipment needed was available, but the hungry film students of NYU all had to wait for the gear in turn (not to mention the equally troublesome task of corralling the actors involved back together to shoot new material), so it was an agonizingly slow process.
Into this melee came Jacques Ledoux, Curator of the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique in Brussels, as well as patron of the arts, who enjoyed Scorsese’s award-winning student shorts and offered the young man funding for any short projects he may have had in mind. Scorsese responded with a six page script originally titled I CAN’T GET STARTED WITH YOU – 1967.
Scorsese’s original intention of filming his bloodbath in stark black & white may well have been a deliberate nod to the most famous bathroom in cinema history, the equally white and blood-soaked shower stall in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (“The white brightness of the bathroom is almost blinding,” as screenwriter Joseph Stefano describes the stage for Marion Crane’s demise).
Although Scorsese claimed in his outline that color would sensationalize the subject matter, his decision to forego black & white gave the short a potency it retains to this day; contrary to Scorsese’s fears, the disturbingly frank violence here showed the youthful director using onscreen violence as far more than the window dressing it often becomes in lesser hands.
THE BIG SHAVE is the wellspring of what would become one of America’s major film artists – there’s none of the playfulness of his two prior shorts, 1963’s WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS?, or 1964’s IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY!. Talking to Mary Pat Kelly about his 1989 short LIFE LESSONS, Scorsese described his then-current project in terms that could easily apply to the young man’s enigmatic butchering of himself in THE BIG SHAVE: “Let’s try to understand it, and maybe in the understanding there’s a sort of exorcism of what you do in your own life. I’ve had some close friends of mine say, ‘You know, this is depressing stuff again. You’re just doing more depressing stuff.’ I say, ‘All right. But that’s the reality I see.’”
With so much life experience ahead that would influence his later work (as with all artists in all mediums), it is amazing how fully formed so much of Scorsese’s filmmaking style was already; a tremendous amount of the emotional impact of Scorsese’s work comes via his dynamic and eclectic use of music and, looking again and his initial outline for this short, it’s clear that the music he chose here is far from happenstance – specific notes and lyrics are highlighted for what he planned to coincide with the disturbing visuals.
The high water mark for the use of pre-existing music in films remain the oeuvres of Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick; virtually every filmmaker working today, from Tarantino to Wes Anderson to Terrence Malick, have walked through the doors opened for them by those two masters.
Filmmakers from Hitchcock to Spielberg have enjoyed magnificent collaborations with masterful composers (Bernard Herrmann and John Williams, respectively), but the directors in such cases don’t control the music the composers will deliver.
Kubrick and Scorsese have, with rare exceptions, created the musical landscapes of their films themselves by incredibly precise choices of music to alter the emotional impact of a given scene; the use of “Layla” as a counterpoint to the grim discoveries in the aftermath of GOODFELLAS’ Lufthansa heist is a prime example (and, as editor Thelma Schoonmaker points out on the dvd, that scene was meticulously shot to emphasize certain beats of the song, almost like a music video).
Kubrick’s disquieting use of “Singin’ In The Rain” during A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, or the use of theme from THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB at the finale of FULL METAL JACKET are just as unsettlingly brilliant. For Scorsese, who later remarked to David Ehrenstein that “I’ve always believed all the arts culminate in film,” his decision to design so much of the impact of this short film as much as from the counterpoint of the music as anything else already shows an enormous artistic maturity and confidence, one that would only grow through the decades.
On the other hand, one enormous change that evolved from the original outline to the finished film, was the ending. In the initial scripted ending, once the anonymous young man has cut his throat, the movie would cut to stock footage of the Vietnam War, thus underlining the central metaphor Scorsese was driving at with this grim work.
Whether it was a creative or financial decision, the Vietnam footage was abandoned entirely, as was the original black and white color scheme. This change left the overall effect of the movie far more ambiguous and less an overt anti-war statement; the only potential connection to the war is the “Viet 67” credit at the end of the picture.
The removal of the Vietnam footage at the end instead made the film a dark mirror rather than a straightforward anti-war cry; THE BIG SHAVE became a bloody spectacle that leaves us asking, “What the hell just happened?” which, in itself, is as potent a metaphor for Vietnam imaginable, but it is open to interpretation.
The disorienting cuts as the young man disrobes (another Scorsese trademark) give our first clue that something is amiss within this otherwise normal-looking youth’s mind; indeed, the inordinately long close-ups about midway through hint that this suicidal act might only be occurring in the young man’s disturbed psyche, which, if it’s so, becomes all the more disquieting as we ponder what he may do next.
Outside of die hard Scorsese enthusiasts, THE BIG SHAVE is seldom seen; Roger Ebert mentions in his popular “Great Movies” series that the grisly bathroom shaving scene in PINK FLOYD THE WALL may have been inspired by this short, but the real legacy of this grim 6 minute short lies in it’s place within Martin Scorsese’s career at the time he made it – which is that, he really had no career.
As a young man struggling to finish his first theatrical feature, he detoured into this dark alley to get something off his chest, regardless of whether anyone would see it or really respond to it, and that is really the hallmark of all of his work that has followed: Scorsese’s work is always pointed at finding out the truth, no matter how unpleasant, and the fact that those seeds were already planted within him at such a young age are as striking as any of the visual virtuosity we know of him. He was a born artist; the technical finesse was simply something he had to learn.
And in the end, we return to the blood-soaked young man looking at, or away, from what he sees in the mirror, the pivot for so many of Scorsese’s characters.
A key scene in RAGING BULL finds boxer Jake La Motta, freshly defeated, alone in his locker room soaking his knuckles in ice; after loathing at his reflection for an inordinate space of time, he simply sinks his hand into the bucket, soaking in the pain. If our eyes are indeed the windows of our souls, THE BIG SHAVE’S anonymous protagonist takes his place in the Scorsese gallery by getting the kind of inward glance most of us try our best to avoid.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Eric Peeper
Christie, Ian & Thompson, David (ed.), SCORSESE ON SCORSESE
Ehrenstein, David, THE SCORSESE PICTURE: THE ART & LIFE OF MARTIN SCORSESE
Kelly, Mary Pat, MARTIN SCORSESE: A JOURNEY