Tonight, Anthology Film Archives begins their inspired “Talking Head” series, two weeks of films comprised entirely, or almost entirely, of people talking. The series begins tonight with Syberberg’s rigorous Confessions of Winifred Wagner, and Martin Scorsese’s freewheeling double-feature of ItalianAmerican (1974) and American Boy (1978).
Rarely have talking heads been more compelling, not just to listen to but to watch. Both American Boy, throughout its nearly hour-long running time, and ItalianAmerican, minutes shorter, have less in common with their dry-as-dust History Channel cousins than they do with more immediate relatives: the rest of Scorsese’s filmography. The 70s documentaries bracket the break-out Taxi Driver at two-year distances, and in American Boy’s case, borrow Driver’s frenetic gun merchant, Easy Andy, to set him up in a living room with a few friends and some unobtrusive klieg lights—where, after an impromptu wrestling match, he performs admirably as Steve Prince, a role he’s played since birth. In his bag-eyed late twenties, Prince has already gigged as heroin addict, roadie for Neil Diamond and killer-in-self-defense, and his storytelling—both natural and perched at the apogee of comic timing, perfected in presumable scores of retellings—is on par with any in the great of American tradition of the self-made, self-undone man.
Storytelling’s what we had before televisions, before radios, Charles Scorsese repeats, wife Catherine agreeing between trips to the kitchen to attend to her meatballs and sauce. ItalianAmerican, too, is built of stories to which the director has been privy for a good long time—it’s his parents who are performing here, though Charles insists that Catherine “talk natural”—as she does, at length, from beneath an impressively solid puff of curls. Never distant, as a filmmaker, from his roots, here Scorsese burrows down to them to rack focus—family ghosts in Sicily, old rivalries on the Lower East Side, and a New York no longer present but living, in story and memory.