Two comedy horror shorts by Martin Scorsese about self-destructive compulsions and obsessions

Martin Scorsese, “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” (1963) 

Martin Scorsese, “The Big Shave” (1967)

Two hilarious short films from Martin Scorsese, one from his student days and the other when he was starting his film-directing career, yet both have energy and a refreshing surrealist experimentalism. Both shorts are at once comedies and horror films. In the first film, a writer called Harry (Zeph Michaelis)  is obsessed by a photograph of a man in a boat on a lake, so much so that his career suffers and his life goes down the toilet. He tries to escape his obsession by socialising at parties, marrying an attractive girl (Sarah Braveman) and confiding in his close friend (Fred Sica) and a psychoanalyst. Eventually though, Harry’s life does go down the toilet – literally. In the other film, the focus shifts from the toilet shown in the first few frames to the rest of the bathroom which an unnamed man (Peter Bermuth) enters to shave. For a few moments, viewers could be mistaken for thinking this is an advertisement for “Rape Shave” shaving cream or a mock parody of a Kenneth Anger film – but then the fun really starts about the third minute where the film takes on more colour, the man just keeps going with his shaving ritual and the all-white bathroom becomes rather … less so.

“The Big Shave” is intended as a satirical comment on the Vietnam war raging at the time: the man’s continual shaving of himself might represent US stubbornness in pouring in more cannon fodder and resources into fighting a war that was going badly and which would end badly for the US. Much the same can be said for the current self-destructive US policy of fighting wars across western Asia and northern Africa even as the American middle class shrinks in numbers and income and the country teeters on the brink of calamity and chaos, whichever angle (political, financial, economic, social, cultural) you want to look at it from. The jazz music soundtrack barely skips a beat and even increases in tempo and happy mood. The creepiest part of the film is the actor’s blank and empty-eyed expression as he repeatedly, even compulsively, continues to shave himself as if trying to obliterate his existence that disturbs the tidy whiteness of the bathroom. It’s as though Scorsese has noticed something fetishistic about the bathroom’s all-white hygienic perfection – the early close-up shots of bathroom objects suggest as much – and is determined to mock it. Close-up shots of soiled bathroom taps and sink drive home the character’s almost ritualistic self-flaying and I half-expected him to faint: most certainly that would have been too histrionic and the final shot in which he places the razor blade gently if shakily on the edge of the sink and presumably dies quietly off-screen while the water washes away the mess is a chillingly powerful one.

“What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” is notable mainly for its use of montages of photographic stills throughout, in particular, the montages of scenes in the offending photograph where the man and then the boat are made to disappear, and of Henry’s engagement and marriage to the girl and their honeymoon. The film is very brisk with rapid-fire editing and one gets a sense of Harry’s awful fate in his voice-over narration which increasingly becomes panicky. His confrontation with his demon occurs off-screen with a right royal flush and his friend watches in horror as Harry disappears into the object of his obsession.

Although very brief and more concerned with experimentation in style, these little films already indicate a future theme that Scorsese would return to again and again throughout his career: humans driven by hidden and unacknowledged compulsions and urges to repeat self-destructive actions.

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