Street theater

Having cornered the market on quaintness, the small miracle that is Little Italy's Open-Air Italian Film Festival adds edge and extras.


When the words "major film event of the summer" are mentioned, people usually think of another installment of the "Star Wars" franchise. But last year in Baltimore, the major film event of the summer took place on a street corner in Little Italy, every Friday night at sundown.

That's when neighborhood denizens, strolling diners and even some tourists pulled up lawnchairs in an empty parking lot, gazed upward toward a blank billboard and waited patiently for a movie to begin. When the images -- projected from a bedroom window across the street -- finally flickered to life on the screen, inevitably a gasp of delight went up. Just think: The miracle of the movies was rediscovered at High and Stiles.

The miracle will be revisited again this year, when the Senator Theatre, the Little Italy Restaurant Association (LIRA) and the community of Little Italy present the second Open-Air Italian Film Festival. The festival will adhere to last year's format: All films are either in Italian or are Italian-themed. Admission is free, patrons are encouraged to bring their own lawn furniture, and popcorn and soda will be provided gratis.

But a few changes are afoot. For one thing, a grant from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development has allowed the festival to expand to 18 weeks. For another, Senator owner Tom Kiefaber, who serves as the festival's ad-hoc program director, has expanded the program content. He will bring back some of last year's favorites, including "Moonstruck" and "Cinema Paradiso," and he's made sure to include plenty of family fare, such as "Room With a View," "La Boheme" and "Tea With Mussolini."

Kiefaber also will introduce films with a decided edge to the mix, a decision that makes the festival not just a charming novelty but a serious film venue, and whose merit is boldly announced by tonight's kickoff program of five short films by Martin Scorsese.

He couldn't have chosen a better bunch of movies to capture the feeling of pure joy and film-love that the Little Italy festival embodies. Two of Scorsese's early short films were made when he was still a student at New York University: "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?" and "It's Not Just You, Murray!" They fairly burst with the curiosity, insight and nervous energy that would make his later movies such edgy classics.

"American Boy," Scorsese's 1977 profile of sometime actor Steven Prince, perhaps bears most of the earmarks of the director's later work. A series of supposedly spontaneous conversations with Prince, the documentary is actually a carefully staged and directed profile of a sort of 1970s Everyman.

Prince grew up on Long Island, the son of an Army commander, became involved in the club scene in New York, worked as a road manager for Neil Diamond, became a heroin addict, and finally ended up in Hollywood (he plays the hyperactive gun dealer in Scorsese's "Taxi Driver").

But in his expertly delivered (and, we find out later, directed) anecdotes of his life, he emerges not just as a gifted and engaging raconteur, but as a touchstone for his generation's anxieties, pleasures and Lost-Boy tendencies. Intercut with old home movies and accompanied by Neil Young singing "Time Fade Away," Prince's appalling but sometimes morbidly funny stories -- of his scrapes with the law, his killing a would-be robber outside a gas station, his experiences in the drug culture -- provide a bizarre alterna-history, the record of lives lived just behind the scrim of conventionality. For example, when Prince describes shooting the gas station thief, he recalls off-handedly that the man landed "right between Regular and Ethyl."

At least one tale about bringing a young woman back from a heroin overdose will ring jarringly familiar to anyone who's seen "Pulp Fiction." Quentin Tarantino has denied paying "homage" to Scorsese in that film, proving once again that amateurs borrow; professionals steal.

"What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?" and "It's Not Just You, Murray" are genial exercises of a filmmaker exploring his craft, with "Murray" anticipating Scorsese's fascination with gangsters and low-lifes. But it's "The Big Shave," which Scorsese made in 1968, and "Italianamerican" (1974) that bear eloquent witness to his emerging genius. "The Big Shave," a six-minute joke in which a young man's morning hygiene becomes a bloodbath, gives a hint of Scorsese's love for lurid, Technicolor violence, his innate sense of pacing and his gift for music-driven irony -- the film is set to Bunny Berigan singing "I Can't Get Started."

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