This is from a current project “The Past as Imagined Future: Multimedia Interpretations of American Intervention in Vietnam.” Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate American intervention in the war in Vietnam during the early-mid 1960s is, as they say, a Key Historical Moment. This essay project examines how the moment of American intervention has been historically narrated and thus interpreted in five objects: a short film, a memoir, a scholarly monograph, a painting, and a feature film. In particular, I analyze each in terms of how they represented the decision or moment of intervention in terms of a narrative relationship with a posited future. This is the first installment of the project…
Scorcese made this five-and-a-half minute experimental film as a class project at NYU in 1967. Before reading on, watch it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otxlzSMcBTo. The film is easily described: a young man enters a stark bathroom and shaves repeatedly, in the process cutting himself over and over until blood streams down his face and over his razor, faucet, sink, and body. His last act of shaving is decisive: he cuts his throat by drawing the razor across his neck. All the while Bunny Berigan’s 1939 jazz recording of “I Can’t Get Started” plays jauntily. In the ending title card we see the words “VIET ’67.”
Some context: Scorcese made the film for a planned weeklong anti-Vietnam protest “The Angry Arts Against the War,” though it actually premiered at Jacques Ledox’s 1968 Festival of Experimental Cinema in Belgium. The young filmmaker was battling depression and at the time had trouble shaving. The Big Shave succinctly voices both the political and the personal.
The power and nature of the film’s symbolism is unambiguous. “The man’s self-destructive obsessive behavior stands as a metaphor for the United States’ involvement in the conflict,” writes one commentator.  “The methodical nature of the violence in the short,” continues another, “is an analogue for the war machine that tears apart men like this with that same casual disregard for their lives and their bodies.” We might add that the young man’s motivation and single-mindedness is symbolic of what Scorsese saw as the United States’ obstinacy in pursuing a near-suicidal war of its own volition and regardless of the actions of others. So too Scorsese’s use of a pristine, almost clinical bathroom and focus on the razor as a tool emphasizes an American fascination with technology to fight what William Gibson called a “perfect war.”
But what I would especially like to highlight is that in 1967 – before the Tet Offensive, before Vietnamization, before Cambodia, before My Lai – Scorsese prophesies that American intervention will turn out catastrophically. He imagines events as leading to a specific outcome. This disaster still lay in the future, but Scorsese depicts the United States as moving stupidly, methodically, destructively, calmly, irrevocably toward that end. It is not so much the decision to fight a war in Vietnam that Scorsese criticizes, but the horrific ending that such a decision will bring.
The Big Shave also gains a strong temporal trajectory from the contrast between the shaver at the beginning and at the end of the short. The film’s beginning is banal. We see shots of the clean, white, and empty bathroom, then close-ups of the gleaming white porcelain and shining silver fixtures. An ordinary young man enters. His initial lack of emotion emphasizes the normality of the scene. We have no way of knowing what is about to happen. Scorsese gives us a moment of subtle eroticism by showing him taking his white t-shirt off three times; it is suggestive of the innocence and vitality of young manhood.
But into the safe domesticity of the American bathroom comes the violence of a war fought far away. A mundane setting becomes confined and claustrophobic. When Scorsese cuts from close-up to close-up of the man slicing himself and bleeding from a dozen self-inflicted wounds, we have no space to draw back and escape. Finally, the camera switches from close-ups to a frontal medium shot looking out of the mirror at the young man as he deliberately and calmly slits his throat: he is us. The sink and tile floor, once pure, are now covered in blood. His lack of emotion is now deeply disturbing, signaling perhaps our willful complicity in violence in Vietnam rather than ignorance or innocence.
So too the charm of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics in the 1930s jazz standard “I Can’t Get Started” take on a new meaning in the context of the 1960s and American intervention in Vietnam – “I’ve flown around the world in a plane / I’ve settled revolutions in Spain.” The beauty of Berigan’s virtuoso trumpet work and the lost innocence of Gershwin’s lyrics stand in stark counterpoint to the tragedy of Vietnam.
It is in this foreboding imagining of what is to come – self-destructive barbarism – that The Big Shave gives us a decisive historical narrative. In Scorsese’s hands, the moment of American intervention in Vietnam becomes an inescapable future in which the violence we seek to do overseas will come home with an awful vengeance. The Big Shave is a compressed but poignant work of historical analysis.
Ed Howard. Accessed 21 Mar 2013. http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/2011/06/martin-scorseses-early-shorts.html. See also the comments of Walter C. Metz in “Adapting Dachau: Intertextuality and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island,” in The Adaptation of History: Essays on Ways of Telling the Past, eds. Laurence Raw and Defne Ersin Tutan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013), 49-50.
James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: Atlantic Monthy Press, 1986).