Sunday, September 06, 2009

Just an American Boy

It's a brief scene, barely four minutes long, but it's one of the most memorable in American film.

A slowly unraveling New York City cab driver (Robert De Niro) meets a sleazy, motor-mouthed gun dealer in a cheap hotel room. The dealer reels off the attributes of his various armaments (".380 Walther ... isn't that a little honey?") while the camera lovingly lingers on all that gleaming steel and wood. De Niro's character buys four guns and accoutrements, to the tune of $900. But even while the dealer's packing them up in a handy gym bag, he continues a steady stream of pitches for other contraband ("Crystal meth? I can get you crystal meth. Nitrous oxide, how about that?").

The movie of course, is Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic TAXI DRIVER, and the scene offers one of the few laughs in the film. The dealer - referred to as "Easy Andy, the Traveling Salesman" - is played by Scorsese's friend and collaborator Steven Prince, a non-actor whom the director brought in for a cameo, and in doing so immortalized in film history. But Scorsese wasn't done with him. The following year he made Prince the subject of a documentary, AMERICAN BOY, filmed over the course of a single evening at the L.A. home of actor and Scorsese regular George Memmoli.

Shot handheld by cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also lensed TAXI DRIVER), the documentary is essentially 55 minutes of unfiltered Prince, interspersed with home movies and photos from his childhood. He talks about being a 21-year-old road manager for Neil Diamond, a nightclub and concert promoter and all-around show business jack-of-all-trades. He speaks equally candidly about his years as a heroin addict, recounting an incident where a woman overdosed at a shooting gallery and he revived her with an adrenaline shot to the heart, a story Quentin Tarantino borrowed in its entirety for a scene in PULP FICTION. Most harrowingly, Prince recalls shooting a man to death at a Barstow, Calif., gas station, where he worked during an Easter vacation from college.

For many years, AMERICAN BOY has been Scorsese's lost film. It didn't get a theatrical release and, outside of poor-quality bootlegs, hasn't been available on home video since the days of laserdisc. Plenty of filmmakers have seen it though. In addition to Tarantino's lift, director Richard Linklater got Prince to repeat the gas station story verbatim for his 2001 digitally rotoscoped film WAKING LIFE.

For the last year, AMERICAN BOY has been available in its entirety on YouTube, divided into six parts. It's compulsive - and compelling - viewing, especially for its behind-the-scenes look at Scorsese and company (in addition to Memmoli and Chapman, also visible on screen is MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL co-writer Mardik Martin). It's of a piece with Scorsese's 1974 doc ITALIANAMERICAN, and was often paired with it at film festivals.

Thirty years later comes director Tommy Pallotta's follow-up, AMERICAN PRINCE. A sometime Linklater collaborator, Pallotta stumbled upon Prince by accident in Austin, Texas, a couple years back. Pallotta befriended Prince - who now works as a general contractor and manages a medical marijuana shop - and eventually convinced him to sit for another filmed storytelling session.

As opposed to the rail-thin, hollow-eyed Prince of 1977, the 2009 version is amazingly healthy-looking and youthful (he's 61). His nasal New York whine has softened somewhat, but he's as animated as ever when it comes to talking about his eventful life, his friendship with Scorsese and Band frontman Robbie Robertson (at one point all three shared a house on Los Angeles' Mulholland Drive) and his own responses to the 1978 documentary. He also dishes some less-than-flattering stories, especially one about star Liza Minnelli having affairs with both Scorsese and De Niro while shooting 1977's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, a film Prince appeared in and crewed on.

Best of all, lacking a distributor or theatrical release, Pallotta has just made his film available as a free bittorrent file. You can watch the film online here, or download it here.

The two films are excellent companion pieces. Both are light on biographical details, aside from the brief unconnected anecdotes Prince relates about his childhood and parents, but the stories speak for themselves (watch BOY first though, as Pallotta's film contains spoilers for stories in the original documentary). Seen back-to-back, they're amazing time capsules as well as oral histories. And for anyone interested in Scorsese or Hollywood in the 1970s, they're required viewing.


pattinase (abbott) said...

He does look great. I guess stressful living doesn't always show up on a face. Just mine.

wstroby said...

He looks much better now at 61 than he did at 30. Which is amazing, considering his stories about heroin, cocaine and crystal meth abuse.

wstroby said...

ITALIANAMERICAN is also great. Really worth seeking out (it's on YouTube - for the moment - as well).

tintin said...

It it me or does he look like Spielberg?

wstroby said...

I don't think Spielberg moved in those same circles - or did those same drugs.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice piece in the NYT about Asbury Park today. I'm ready to hop on a plane.

wstroby said...

pattinase (abbott) said...
Nice piece in the NYT about Asbury Park today. I'm ready to hop on a plane.

2:09 PM

Yes, not sure why they waited until mid-September to do it though.