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.