Thursday, July 7, 2011

Italianamerican


Martin Scorsese's Italianamerican is a charmingly off-the-cuff documentary that captures the director's parents, Catherine and Charles, talking about their lives and the lives of their own immigrant parents. The film is an utter delight from start to finish, full of the wit and vitality and obvious love of talk that these people bring to their unscripted conversations about the past and the lives of Italian immigrant communities in New York. Scorsese set the film in his parents' own home, where they're totally at ease, not tempering their effusive personalities a bit for the camera. There is no artifice here, no attempt to disguise the fact that a movie is being made. In the opening scenes, Scorsese shows himself walking around the living room, then stepping behind the camera to watch his parents hash out where they're going to sit on the couch (a running gag is built around Catherine's jokes about Charles not wanting to sit too close to her). Scorsese then tries to coach his mother into giving him an introduction about the tomato sauce recipe she's going to prepare on camera. Instead, she asks him again and again what he wants her to do, and then, in a very funny moment, tells him what he should say, unable to resist acting like a mother, giving filmmaking advice to her son the director. Scorsese finally nudges her into actually demonstrating the sauce recipe, and the camera follows her into the kitchen, where she jokes about the hard meatballs of some of her friends — "you throw them against the wall and it cracks" — and then laughs abashedly, saying she shouldn't be talking that way.

Scorsese leaves it all in, letting the seams show. Later on, as he and his parents converse around the dinner table, they eat pasta and drink wine as though it's just an ordinary meal, as though the camera just happens to be there. At one point, Scorsese's hand reaches into the frame from behind the camera with a fork to pick at a bowl of salad on the table while his parents talk. It's all so casual and offhanded, adding to the atmosphere of family closeness.

The setting is perfect, too, an obviously cramped but homey apartment that, it gradually emerges through Catherine and Charles' stories about their childhoods and their early years as a couple, is actually an upgrade for them. Catherine talks about living in an even smaller apartment — only three rooms — with her parents, nine siblings and, eventually, her aunt and uncle and their child. They made the most of the space, too. Catherine talks about how they even used to make wine in her family's apartment, keeping the barrels of fermenting grapes in one of the rooms where they slept. She looks around her as she talks about this, as though imagining how they managed to fit so many people and do so much in such a small space, and a sad, wondering smile crosses her lips. It's wonderful: there are so many shots and moments here where one can see Scorsese's parents mentally returning to previous eras, their eyes shining with the reminiscences, fondly smiling as they remember how their lives used to be.


Through their funny, charming stories, there emerges a portrait of the Italian-American experience in New York, and indeed the experience of all lower-class immigrants struggling to make lives for themselves in a new land. The cramped apartments, the large families, the kids working as soon as they're old enough rather than continuing in school, the wife supplementing her husband's income with sewing, the cooking, the sense of community: it's all told with such obvious love and tenderness and joy that the hardships and struggles don't seem nearly as important as the love of life and the hard-working values of these people.

Scorsese obviously knew what he was doing in choosing his own parents as his subjects. In front of the camera, they are surprisingly loose and open, bantering and bickering with one another, laughingly ribbing one another the way only a long-married and still close couple can do. They have a real way with words, an intuitive verbal skill that makes them an absolute delight to listen to. Their stories are, in some ways, about poverty and immigrant slums, but their tone suggests only happy memories, and above all an abiding respect for the values embodied by previous generations, values that they strive to carry on in their own lives. It's a vivid portrait of this lifestyle, achieved almost entirely through their evocative words; Scorsese occasionally cuts in archival family photos, but mostly the camera remains trained on Catherine and Charles. This is a verbal movie, a movie that celebrates the art of storyelling and the personalities of the people telling the stories. Catherine and Charles represent a particular way of life, and their way of talking, their relaxed, self-confident way of being, will be familiar to anyone who has ever had parents or grandparents from similar backgrounds. They embody traditional gender roles — at one point, Charles jokes that while everyone knows men are better cooks than women, cooking is simply not the man's job — but at the same time they have great respect for each other's hard work, and they spar and joke with one another as obvious equals. The way they take turns telling stories, filling in details, occasionally stubbornly disputing one another on facts, suggests their level of comfort and familiarity with one another.

Italianamerican is a remarkable documentary that emphasizes how vital and exciting a simple, well-made film can be just by placing compelling subjects in front of the camera and letting their stories slowly emerge. The disarming casualness of the film adds to its effect, keeping the Scorseses in their own home, interacting with their own son as their son rather than as the man behind the camera. The film's brilliance could only be produced by this intimacy and familiarity. It is a truly homemade film, and a film about homes, about families, about heritage and history.

12 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

This is an incredibly lovely and affectionate film of enormous charm. The Scorseses are a total delight -- especially Catherine, who nearly steals Goodfellas in the scenes Marty created for her.

Becuase of Italianamerican he devloped a project (on hold like so many of his projects) entitled The Neighborhood which would dramatize and explore many of the things mentioned by Marty's parents in this film -- particularly the way certain buildings on the street would match up with villages in the Old Country. I hope it finds a way to amke it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's my pic of Marty with his folks

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comment and the wonderful photo, David. This is a big favorite of mine, one of Scorsese's warmest and most charming movies. He perfectly captures his parents' personalities and the flavor of their lively stories.

lights in the dusk said...

Very nicely written Ed. Although an unconventional choice, this is possibly my favourite film by Scorsese; one that offers a genuinely nice contrast to the more thematically aggressive and complicated fiction films that tend to define the public perception of his work.

Sam Juliano said...

"Scorsese obviously knew what he was doing in choosing his own parents as his subjects. In front of the camera, they are surprisingly loose and open, bantering and bickering with one another, laughingly ribbing one another the way only a long-married and still close couple "Their stories are, in some ways, about poverty and immigrant slums, but their tone suggests only happy memories, and above all an abiding respect for the values embodied by previous generations, values that they strive to carry on in their own lives."



Well, here's one Italian-American coming late to the pasta dinner. I can certainly relate to this film and to Scorcese's affection for his parents and his heritage. This has carried over to his passion for Italian cinema (he's forged a few documentaries on this subject) and for opera. But this cinema verite slice of life brings the two aging parents into indelible focus, chronicling their seemingly obstinate ways and habits, most memorable the sauce recipe. (carried over in a marvelous scene in GOOD FELLAS, where Catherine is featured as an actress) The gender jokes, the banter that is a lovely outgrowth and evocation of a long and successful marriage makes for a film that stands on the bond and strength of his characters, much like Ira Wohl's BEST BOY.

As always you've informed your subjecs with insights and in this instance have done Marty proud.

Sam Juliano said...

That a lovely picture from David Ehrenstein!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Lights. I kinda agree with you: I think it's one of Scorsese's very best films, and as different as it is from his fiction works it clearly stems from the same deep-seated interest in his heritage and the people he grew up with that drive a lot of his work.

Sam, glad to hear you have a lot of affection for this one, too. You're right, it really captures the loving relationship of the parents, just listening to them and watching them together you can feel the many years they've been together.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Italianamerican is often shown with another Scorsese documentary American Boy: A Portrai of Stephen Prince. It's quite wonderful too for very different reasons. Prince, who among his many careers worked as a roadie for Neil Diamond, is a fast-talking New York hipster who was an obvious inspiration for Deniro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. Kind of a straight version of Ondine his high-wire life fascinates Marty no end, for reasons the film makes obvious. It'sd as if he's Marty's Id.

Prince played the gun-seller in Taxi Driver

Ed Howard said...

American Boy is great, too, I have an essay on that one I'll be publishing eventually as well. It's very different in tone and content from Italianamerican but very similar in the basic approach and the obvious love of storytelling. It's just that Prince is telling very different stories than Scorsese's parents.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Prince, I gather, is someone similar in style to Marty's brother -- the one no on talks about.

Adam Zanzie said...

This reminds me: I need to rewatch this film. I saw it on YouTube a few years ago, back when my Internet was slower than it is now -- so, unfortunately, I couldn't watch the whole thing in one sitting. But I remember those scenes of Charles and Catherine talking at the dinner table w/Marty listening in on them, and I never forgot that hilarious ending where Catherine threatens to throttle the cameraman if he's still recording her.

It reminds me of how much they played a part in Scorsese's lives, leading up the 90's. Whenever I see the dedication to Charles at the end of The Age of Innocence or the dedication to Catherine (who died of Alzheimer's Disease, sadly) at the end of Kundun, I get a little teary-eyed. I actually think Italianamerican is superior to Scorsese's more popular short film, The Big Shave.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, there are a lot of very memorable scenes here, Adam, and you're right that the film is especially touching considering Scorsese's obviously very close relationship with his parents. I agree that this is much better than The Big Shave, though it's a very different kind of film.