Martin Scorsese’s men are always blind. On their way up or down, their default setting is denial: they march toward their cliffs, drinking, fighting, shooting and railing till the end without a shred of self-awareness. The first Scorsese man is no exception. In fact, he formed the blueprint. Made on 16mm colour stock in 1967 at the peak of the Vietnam War, The Big Shave is a high concept, six-minute art film. It comes at the very beginning of the master filmmaker’s body of work and of ACMI’s current SCORSESE exhibition. If The Big Shave contains the seeds of a Scorsese picture, what did they grow into?
A middle-class, side-parted, Anglo suburbanite – “a pillar of the American community” as the script describes – walks into a pristine, glacier-white bathroom. Before a gleaming mirror, he lathers and shaves his face to perfect smoothness. As our nameless everyman progresses, he nicks the skin’s surface below his left ear but continues all the same. Another stroke, another nick by his nose, and again and again. By the time he has finished shaving, blood is pouring off his face, across the faucet and into the deathly white basin. Expressionless, he stares into the mirror as he slits his own throat. There is no sound, except for an old 1936 trumpet-based jazz song from a bygone American age, lamenting the loss of a lover.
In small but important ways, this short film contemplates much of we now think of as typical Scorsese themes and conventions, the same ones the filmmaker has helped define and refine in cinema at large between 1967 and today. The critique of alpha masculinity, the casual yet deeply stylised cinematic violence, the typical domestic American setting as a banal backdrop for bloodshed: all the hallmarks of future Scorsese are found in this very early but very formative picture.
The film is an embryo of Scorsese’s micro-level, character-based approach to political themes. At first, the writer-director thought of a more overtly political route. The original title was Viet ’67 and the script suggested explicitly linking the anonymous everyman’s obliviousness to the massacre in Vietnam by cutting to archival footage of “a firing squad executing a prisoner…CUT back to the young American in complete silence. We now see him with face bloodied and cut, throat slashed, dressed in his three-piece suit, striped tie and carrying an attache case as he leaves his home to get to his office”.
Eventually, Scorsese cut that sequence and opted for something less literal and more strange and abstract. What results is a very disturbing yet still very political piece of filmmaking – a historical document straight from the guts of 20th century United States of America. The Big Shave has been described as “a strictly personal vision of death”, and I think that’s true, but as a display of self-mutilation it is also a metaphorical vision of politics that embodies the USA as a dead man walking. The links form themselves. Scorsese wrote at the end of the script, “I feel that the intent of the film is evident…However, I would like to state that I hope the film will express my sad feelings concerning the present general moral condition of my young country and a sentiment – a personal one – of an America I never knew.” That personal sentiment is what articulates the film’s political ideas most clearly: without dogma, the politics are felt. It’s a subversive space for an artist to move in.
From there, Scorsese’s pattern was set. Seen through the lens of The Big Shave, Scorsese’s subsequent films take on more focused connotations. Taxi Driver is a direct post-script – it is obliquely about the aftermath of Vietnam War, the loose ends of a veteran, the shadow of post-traumatic stress disorder. Goodfellas and The Godfather show generations of blind men following each other to graves beyond graves. The Wolf of Wall Street relates to another kind of American cluelessness: that nation’s blind walk towards impunity and recklessness, not in foreign policy, but in the finance sector. After all, why make a political documentary about the global financial crisis when you can make a character study of the decline of a corrupt Wall St banker? In all the great bodies of work, as in Scorsese’s, it pays to go back to the beginning.