[The following analysis contains MAJOR SPOILERS; you have been warned!]
Contrary to their ostensible purpose—i.e., to depict an accurate snapshot of reality—documentaries are inherently untrustworthy. The very nature of cinematic language (from framing to editing to sound design) distorts the “truth,” allowing carefully constructed dramatizations to masquerade as objective facts. Martin Scorsese’s American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince could almost serve as a thesis statement on this phenomenon.
Scorsese’s documentaries tend to be just as much about their own production as they are the stated subject, and this biographical portrait of former roadie and recovering heroin addict Steven Prince (best known to the public at large for his small role as an arms dealer in Taxi Driver) is no exception: the director frequently appears onscreen, consulting a schedule and muttering verbal notes to his editors; crew members nonchalantly lounge in the background of several shots; and little effort is made to hide the lights, microphones, and other equipment. The overall atmosphere evokes a film student’s midterm project: casual, improvisatory, and charmingly low-budget.
Until, that is, the movie reaches its final interview segment. Prince’s usual manic energy subsides as he reflects on his current relationship with his father, whose physical health is rapidly declining. Once he’s finished speaking, Scorsese asks him to elaborate; after a jump cut, Prince complies, telling the same story in greater detail. Scorsese then instructs him to repeat the anecdote again, but with slightly revised phrasing in order to convey the intended emotional effect.
This brief moment forces the viewer to reevaluate every previous scene: suddenly, the artifice is stripped away, the illusion exposed. How many of the conversations between Scorsese and Prince are actually spontaneous, as opposed to meticulously coached? The answer is unknowable and unattainable, because the audience is never privy to the whole “truth.”
We see only what Scorsese wants us to see.