Monday, August 1, 2011

American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince

In 1978, Martin Scorsese followed up Taxi Driver and New York, New York by making American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, a short documentary about a man who had appeared as an actor in small parts in both of Scorsese's previous fiction films. Prince had had an active life: he was a road manager for Neil Diamond for several years, and had been a heroin junkie as well, though by the time this film was made he was apparently clean. Years of hard living are written on his gaunt, drawn face. He's a distinctive character, with nearly skeletal features, brown and rotting teeth, bulging eyes, and a nervous, jittery manner. He is also an oddly compelling storyteller who recounts, in his cracked and agile voice, various alternately hilarious and harrowing stories about his family, his drug use, his experiences in his many odd jobs, and his encounters with crime and the law.

The film's style connects American Boy to Scorsese's other great documentary of the 70s, Italianamerican, his ode to his parents and the Italian immigrant communities they grew up in. The content and tone of the two films could not be more different, but in terms of style and approach there is considerable overlap. The two films demonstrate above all Scorsese's love of talk, his appreciation for people who can tell stories about their lives in ways that are both entertaining and enlightening. As in the earlier film, in American Boy Scorsese doesn't do anything flashy or distracting, he simply trains his camera on his subject in a casual, comfortable setting and lets Prince talk at length. Scorsese himself is often on camera, just hanging out in the corner of the frame, listening to Prince's stories with genuine interest. The film was shot in someone's living room, with friends gathered around as if for a party; people are frequently glimpsed drinking and laughing in the background. Obviously, this is the kind of context in which Prince is used to telling his stories: he comes off as someone who delights in telling shocking or funny stories to get a reaction out of people at parties. The film gives the impression that Scorsese and his friends have long been listening to Prince telling his stories, and finally decided that it would be a good idea to capture this unique personality on camera.

Prince's stories are often funny, though there's a real note of sadness that coasts along beneath the surface. He speaks about a friend who he didn't know was an alcoholic, and a party on the friend's boat where Prince filled a pitcher with vodka and served it to his friend as "water" in front of all the friend's family who were trying to keep him away from booze. The story climaxes with hilarity (the friend crashes the boat into a sandbar and tries shooting off flares to alert passing boats, but "it was the fourth of July; everybody applauded!") but at the same time there's no escaping the melancholy and self-destruction that drifts through so many of Prince's stories, about himself and those around him. Some of these tales are truly harrowing. He visits a drug den and is so oblivious that he actually sits on a dead man without realizing it, but what's really chilling is his casual attitude about it, even now, while retelling the story. It suggests a man who is very used to death and waste, as does his insistence even now that if he has to die, the best way to go is with a drug overdose. "You just get higher and higher and higher and higher and higher..."

Though Scorsese tries to stay out of the way, for the most part, it's obvious just how much he's guiding the film's progress in subtle ways. Despite the film's off-the-cuff aesthetic, Scorsese doesn't make any attempt to disguise the more manipulative and artificial aspects of the film. In the film's opening minutes, as in Italianamerican, he leaves in his banter with the technicians and camera operators and on-camera subjects about when they're going to start filming, leading into the film proper with an acknowledgment that this is a film, that it's not as spontaneous as it seems. Prince himself arrives early on, apparently to the surprise of Scorsese's actor friend George Memmoli, who promptly gets into a prolonged wrestling match with Prince that raises questions about how much here is being scripted versus how much is pre-planned.

There are other touches of Scorsese the filmmaker here and there, like when he addresses the editor with a note to cut something out of the finished film — though of course it's ultimately left it. But the artifice becomes especially obvious in the film's final scene, when Prince discusses a phone call with his father that apparently moved him a great deal. There are suggestions throughout the film that Prince loves his family very much; in the early scenes of the film, he talks about them with real affection and nostalgia, remembering funny and vivid scenes from his childhood, appreciating the obvious strength of his parents in particular. Scorsese's decision to cut in happy home movies from Prince's boyhood is obvious as a way of reinforcing the contrast between the happy, innocent kid in those movies and the troubled addict he later became, but it's also a way of connecting the boy with the man in deeper ways. It's a humanistic gesture that rejects the too-easy judgmentalism of those who would likely condemn Prince for his drug use and his wild life. In the final scenes, Scorsese seems to be probing for some sign of the boy still residing behind the man's nervous laugh and wide eyes. He has Prince tell the phone call story three times on camera, coaching him about what to say and how to say it, reminding him of details he'd left out, trying to reach the real essence of what Prince feels about his father and his family. It's remarkable because while this approach lays out the fact that the filmmaking is manipulative and not naturalistic, each successive iteration of the story really does seem to tap a little deeper into the emotion of the story. It's as though, in retelling it, Prince is slowly letting his guard down, moving away from the persona he uses when trying to entertain people. He's clearly moved by his father's understanding and tacit forgiveness, and though he doesn't quite verbalize it the emotions show through anyway.

American Boy hints at just how much of Scorsese's thematic and character material he has always found in the real people he knows. Steven Prince is a perfect Scorsese character, a haunted man with a real self-destructive streak, a charming but troubled figure who's stumbled through violent episodes and darkly comic vignettes with a certain amount of casual disregard for the insanity of life.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Steven Prince is the embodiment of Marty's "Wild Side." A grand diseur in the tradition of Ondine, he's clearly an inspiration for Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. He's also a kind of doppleganger for Marty's brother -- the one no one ever talks about.

As we learn from the film Prince is the VERY black sheep of a well-connected family. Being Abe Lasfogel's nephew in classical show business puts him in God's Breakfast Nook.

According to Marty Steve cleaned up his act -- at least insofar as his drug additions are concerned.

Like the hero Night and the City he's "an artist without an art"

-- except for life itself of course.

Ed Howard said...

For sure, Prince is an artist whose art is life itself - and the stories he tells about his life. It's such an interesting film, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes within the space of a few seconds or a few words.

Peter Lee said...

I haven't seen the film, but I knew Steven as a young adult, as his brother Ron was my classmate at Hofstra then a partner in a comedy team called the Pickle Brothers. Steven was dynamic but also very strange back then. Frankly, I'm surprised to learn that he's still alive.