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FEATURING: Peter Bernuth
PLOT: What starts out as a pleasant morning shave soon goes horribly wrong, turning into a bloody spectacle of self-mutilation as a man finds himself unable to stop shaving.
COMMENTS: I first saw The Big Shave on YouTube a few years ago, after hearing about American Boy (another film included on Criterion’s new “Scorsese Shorts” collection) via , who used a story from that film as inspiration for the adrenaline injection scene in Pulp Fiction. American Boy, a monologue film featuring Stephen Prince (a friend of Scorsese’s who had played a bit part in his feature film Taxi Driver), showed me that there was a side to Martin Scorsese that I never seen before, and encouraged me to dig deeper into Marty’s back catalog. The Big Shave, a gory allegory about the Vietnam War, is unlike anything else in Scorsese’s filmography, and left a mark on my memory that I’ve never been able to shake. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, The Big Shave, along with American Boy and three other early Scorsese short films, is now available to revisit in gloriously bloody HD.
To most cinephiles these days, Scorsese might seem like an untouchable symbol of classic Hollywood, one of the last quintessential “great” filmmakers, whose new films are treated with solemn reverence and his old films spoken of in hushed tones as some of the greatest of all times. But Mean Streets wasn’t his first foray into filmmaking, not by a long shot. The real story started 10 years earlier, when Scorsese was a film student at NYU. There he made two award-winning student films: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray. In a way, these two films reflect a spirit similar to what a lot of young film students were doing at the time. They’re blatantly irreverent and intentionally bizarre, with a gleeful determination to create a new way of making films inspired by the French New Wave.
However, unlike these fairly innocent student short films, The Big Shave doesn’t just set out to toy with the viewer’s mind, it aims to get under their skin, peeling it back to reveal what lies beneath. Had it been made in a different era, any number of meanings might be extracted from it, but seeing that it was a product of the late 1960s, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a commentary on the self-destructive nature of the US military’s involvement in Vietnam. It even has an alternate title, Viet ‘67—but that might have made it too obvious.
It starts by establishing its setting: a sparkling white bathroom filled with sparkling silver fixtures. The bath faucets, the toilet paper holder, the sink—all are shown in pristine close-ups that establish the irrefutable cleanliness of the bathroom. Even if you know what is about to happen, it’s almost impossible to believe it based on these initial shots of clean white purity. By the same token, the man (Peter Bernuth) is equally clean-cut and wholesome looking. He washes his face, takes off his shirt, and gets ready for his morning shave.
So what’s wrong with this picture? At first, nothing. The man wets his face, applies shaving cream, and starts giving himself a shave. Nothing could be more normal. It’s so overwhelmingly wholesome that Scorsese portrays it with fetishistic close-ups and montages more reminiscent of ’s Scorpio Rising than Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. This initial shave could just as well be an advertisement for Gillette. That’s what makes this film so unsettlingly effective. We see the man start out by successfully giving himself a nice, smooth shave. So why does he slather on a second coat of shaving cream once the job is finished?
As soon as the second coat is applied, the blood begins to flow. Just a few cuts at first, drawing a bit of blood to be washed away in the sink. But the shaver doesn’t stop, and neither does the blood. He’s alarmingly calm throughout it all, as if this is business as usual, just as Johnson and Nixon were content to send thousands upon thousands of young men to their deaths in Vietnam, dismissing the dead as a necessary price to pay in the fight for democracy. The tools for waging war were certainly as immune to criticism as the bathroom fixtures that we see here. There’s no reason that things should go so horribly wrong.
But yet they do. And the more blood that flows, the more unthinkable it becomes for the man to cut his losses and turn back. After coming this far, why admit defeat? Instead, he chooses the only other option available. In the film’s big knockout moment, he grips the razor tightly and pulls it firmly across his throat, sending blood streaming down his chest. Scorsese didn’t use any elaborate make-up effects in this film. For all the blood shed, we never actually see any chunks of skin or the tissue underneath. The gobs of bright red paint hitting the pure white porcelain tell the story in Technicolor clarity, and the man’s decisive suicidal action drives home the finality of his self-mutilation. Even if he survives, never again will live to face the world with the same face.
In the calm determination of its bloody finale, we can see shades of Travis Bickle’s decisive rampage at the climax of Taxi Driver. But of course, The Big Shave only represents five short minutes out of the many hours in Scorsese’s oeuvre; not to mention the nearly three hours of additional material on Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray release. In Italianamerica, watching Scorsese’s parents talk about their respective families and childhoods gives the viewer an intimate glimpse into how the personality of one of America’s greatest filmmakers was formed. It also reveals how the various nonsensical nicknames of Scorsese’s parents and their friends inspired the crack about nicknames in his first film, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This?
These early short films also contain many stylistic tropes that would reverberate throughout his career. In particular, the affinity for showing characters confirming to the camera what was hinted at via voiceover narration, and the fast-moving montage editing style that cuts seamlessly between characters and setting, moving the story ahead with dizzying speed and intensity. Then there’s It’s Not Just You, Murray, a mockumentary about small-time gangsters that started Scorsese on one of his lifelong obsessions. But The Big Shave is unique in that it offers something rarely seen in Scorsese’s later work: a pure visual metaphor which operates without the aid of narrative or dialogue and leaves the viewer to interpret its meaning on their own. For example, after listening Stephen Prince’s stories about heroin addiction in American Boy, it’s possible to interpret The Big Shave as an allegory about substance abuse rather than an anti-war statement. But regardless of how you interpret it, The Big Shave remains a gloriously bizarre five-minute oddity hidden deep within the oeuvre of one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Big Shave is most unsettling for Scorsese’s uncharacteristic coldness, for the hard sheen of its images, and for the nearly sardonic pleasure that Scorsese seems to take in simulating a man’s destruction. Ultimately, the film suggests a shaving cream ad interrupted by the carnage of the contemporary news. What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! are clever and accomplished rough drafts of future ideas, while The Big Shave is a major work in full, in which Scorsese first rendered in totality his awed fear of violence and social breakdown.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (“Scorsese Shorts” Blu-ray)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Regicide.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)