Italianamerican (1974) Martin Scorsese

Being Italian-American, and more importantly that my grandparents, parents, and other relatives lived in the same neighborhood, and in fact, some on the same street the Scorsese family lived on, Elizabeth Street, I had a curiosity about this film than others may not. Did anyone in my family know the Scorsese family back in those days, I wondered? Living in such a close congested area and only a few buildings away, anything was possible, I thought. Well, the answer was no, the name Scorsese was not familiar to anyone I knew.  Still, much of what was discussed in the film was so similar to my own family’s experiences that I felt a kind of correlation; here was my own family’s story being told.  

In “Italianamerican,” a 1974 documentary Scorsese made after “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Marty explores his heritage through his parents’ homespun stories. The setting is casual, right in his parent’s apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. The attention is strictly on his folk’s tales of their early life and that of their immigrant parents.

Catherine and Charlie Scorsese are a charming couple, both are wonderful storytellers. As his father states, “People back then were all good storytellers because there was no radio or TV.” While Charlie has his share of tales to tell, it is Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, who is full of vim and vigor. Early on, the couple are sitting on their couch, Catherine at one end; Charlie sits at the other end. Catherine asks her husband, “Why are you sitting over there?” “I’m sitting over here,” Charlie responds, “because this is where I want to sit.” A bit exasperated, Catherine adds, talking to the camera, “This man, after forty -two years of marriage, and he sits over there!” 

Food in Italian-American families is important and there is plenty of talk, especially from Catherine, on the making of her pasta sauce and meatballs which Marty allows her to go into great detail about, the camera even following her into the small kitchen as she prepares, and gives instructions, on making of a meal. Like most families, they are recipes handed down from generation to generation. In case you miss an ingredient by the way, the recipe is included in the end credits. And what would an Italian family dinner be without wine? We listen to both parents talk about how their families made their own homemade wine with a discussion on whom, when, and if feet were used to squeeze the grapes.

Marty is seen on screen at times listening, coaxing his parents into conversation, which to his surprise did not take too much effort. One of the more dramatic touches involved a conversation Marty had, in confidence, with his mother in the kitchen. Earlier, Charlie was talking about when his parents first came to America, and that the neighborhood, at the time, was then populated with Irish immigrants.  He mentions the many bars there were in the neighborhood, located on almost on every street corner. In the kitchen, Catherine is upset at what Charlie just said. She confides to her son that it is not nice to talk about the Irish people like that, it’s true what he said, but it is not nice that he said it in the movie.  Marty reassures her that it is okay. It is an interesting moment about family dynamics we witness, Charlie, the father telling it straight, the way life was, while his mother gives him a lesson in diplomacy.

Though the film is basically a question and answer, out of it emerges a family’s history filled with humor, and love; a family scrapbook. After watching it for the first time at MOMA back in the 1970’s I was reminded of my own family gatherings, generally around the holiday’s when my parents, aunts and uncles would sit around the dinner table reminiscing, inevitably always leading to the telling of their own tales of the “old days” growing up in the old neighborhood, and of their parents who came to America as children or young adults with their parents, my great grandparents. The stories were interesting, funny, and a bit strange at times but it wasn’t until I saw Scorsese’s film that I thought to myself, why don’t I do something similar? I had a Super 8MM sound camera, I could film them doing what they have done so many times, recording their words, making my own movie,  my own family’s scrapbook.  Sadly, I did not. My folks are long gone, aunts and uncles too, as are the stories, the family history all lost in the past that can never be recaptured. However, thanks to Marty’s film, I can now relive my own memories.

****

Advertisements

15 comments on “Italianamerican (1974) Martin Scorsese

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    John: This is one of your most poignant and personal essays here at TWENTY FOUR FRAMES, and in so much of what you say I am with you lock, stock and barrel. I am also Italian-American on both sides of my family (My late mother, who passed on in 2003 at age 72 was abruzzese and my father who is now 80 is half Bodaise and half Napolitan) though my parents were born here. My grandparents were born here as well, arriving when they were small children. I never learned how to speak Italian, as in my home English was spoken except when my parents wanted to say something they didn’t want us to hear! My father’s father lived to be 96, passing on in 1984, so I knew him until I was 30. He had stories to tell and to re-tell and to re-tell, and he seemed proudest of En-rico Car-u-so, as he called him. My father’s mother was a generous woman to a fault, but she was always saying with grim face “You know who die today?” She was a dominating woman, and that’s why my father’s eldest brother who dies at age 82 in 2000, never married and stayed with my grandmother and grandfather until they were gone. He was a beloved plumber in town here, had a great business, though he did so much work for nothing or at low costs and was a virtual slave to Our Lady of Grace Church.

    I have seen Marty’s scrapbook, and was endlessly fascinating, especially with Catherine (who also appeared in GOODFELLAS) What you say here about food as a central concern and the talk about the sauce and the meatballs can be broached by all of us with Italian-American heritage. My own kids of course have no connection to this and even the genes have been “poisoned” by my wife, who is only 3/4 Italian (her mother’s mother was a “Hughes’ and was half English and half-Irish).

    Just kidding!!! Ha!

    Tremendous piece here John!

    Like

  2. John Greco says:

    Sam,

    Wonderful stories from your own family, thanks for sharing. I am Sicilian, on both sides, and its funny because, as you are aware I’m sure, Italians of our parents generation and before, those from the old country; it was important what part of Italy you came from. Sicily, of course, was poor and looked down upon by Northerner Italians (you can see this in the film MAFIOSO and probably others.) The comedian Pat Cooper has some wonderful routines on this and other “traditions.”

    Like you, I never learned Italian because, and again like you, it was only spoken when they did not want me to understand something or they were talking to my grandparents. My wife is Lithuanian and when I got married, one of my uncles (my parents were both dead by this time) was very concerned. He spoke to me in confidence when he found out she was not Italian. “Does she know how to cook pasta sauce?” he asked. LOL, that was the big wedding breaking question! “Yes,” I responded, defending her honor, “and a very good sauce too.” Actually, her best girlfriend growing up was Italian and they both learned from her mother. She does not make it anymore because it contained meat and we’re both vegetarians, but it was good.

    Like

  3. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I saw this last week when TCM showed it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have no experience with Italy, Italian-Americans, or even New York except through movies, but I found this simple almost home movie not only informative but incredibly vivid and entertaining. Scorsese’s outspoken mother is obviously a born “character.” I too was really struck by those comments she made in the kitchen, which showed a sensitive side to this rather brash woman. I found his parents’ reminiscences about their own parents and their childhoods fascinating.

    Sam, thanks for adding your own very colorful and entertaining reminiscences!

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      R.D.

      The stories were fascinating for sure. Mrs.Scorsese was a wonderful character, she reminds me of so many women from back in my childhood days, aunts, neighbors. They were strong, loud, yet caring and always family orientated.

      Like

  4. J.D. says:

    I also caught this on TCM and loved it. Wonderful insight into Scorsese’s parents. I always enjoyed how he managed to put his parents somewhere in most of his films right up until they died. Only his mom could upstage the likes of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in a scene!

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      “Only his mom could upstage the likes of Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in a scene!”

      LOL! Yeah, she definitely had personality.

      Like

  5. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Sam referred me to your post John. He knows my late Dad was Sicilian (my Mum was Greek). Dad hailed from Canneto on the Eolian island of Lipari – just off Messina.

    A very heart-warming piece John. As my Dad used to say, “Tutt’il mondo e un paese”, and our family life was much the same. Breaks my heart that rich cross-over life are gone…

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Tony,

      Both sides of my family came from small towns near Palmero. Unfortunately, I do not remember the names. Earlier today I sent an e-mail to a cousin who went to Italy some years ago, actually went to the town/village where they came from. Have not heard back yet.

      I definitely agree with you on the loss of those family roots, really such a shame.

      Like

      • John Greco says:

        Tony,

        My cousin got back to me and my Grandmother came from Marineo and my Grandfather was from Bolognetta.

        Like

  6. The Lady Eve says:

    John, I enjoyed your memories of your family as much as your commentary on Scorsese’s film. Though I’m not Italian-American, I spent years with a native New Yorker of Italian American descent (tho we didn’t marry I tend to think of him as my 2nd husband), I never miss a chance to visit NYC’s “Little Italy” and – who doesn’t love pasta????. Sometimes I think the most beloved ethnic group in the U.S. is Italian American…
    I wish I hadn’t missed “Italianamerican” on TCM, hopefully it will air again soon. Scorsese’s reverence for his heritage is always insightful as well as touching.
    Thanks for a really moving post, John…

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Eve,

      I loved visiting San Francisco’s Little Italy, which I believe is also known as North Beach. Filled with wonderful resturants and cafes and one of my favorite spots, the City Light Bookstore.

      Like

      • The Lady Eve says:

        Yes, North Beach is our “Little Italy,” a wonderful neighborhood, though it’s changed some over the years. Did you happen to stop by Tosca on Columbus Ave. – across the street from City Lights? The juke box is famous for its Italian opera selections (as well as jazz, Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc.).

        Like

      • John Greco says:

        No, we did not but I wish we had. The one night we ate in North Beach was at a place called Colosseo. Not knowing one from another it was just a chance selection.

        Like

  7. Maurizio Roca says:

    Hey John I know this is a little late but I wanted to commend you on an incredible piece. I am also 100% Italian and can speak it. My parents who came here as teenagers were from different parts of the country. My father is from Avellino (somewhat near Naples) and my mother from a small town called Carini just outside of Palermo. As a kid I was taught Sicilian dialect which is basically ebonics and not proper Italian. This Scorsese film is great and I need to see it again as it has been a long time. Your essay reminded me of when my grandparents were alive and I spent every sunday with 25-30 relatives. Scorsese’s mom is the best part of Goodfellas and I laugh just thinking about her scene with the hoof.

    P.S. My live in girlfriend is Polish and she can’t cook meat sauce either lol. Lucky for me both my parents were the youngest child in their families and they have always had a more liberal outlook on the fact that I may be attached to someone outside of the European boot…

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Ha! those Sunday dinners, I remember my own version of those. More relatives than you could imagine surrounded around a table. Thanks for sharing!!!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s