Mean Streets (1973)

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*. There’s a parlour game among critical types that asks what evidence an artist’s early work provides for what was to come. Mean Streets was well received, most notably by Pauline Kael, who called it “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” David Thomson writes that “Its impact was extraordinary, and a group of filmmakers rose on its panache and its biting immediacy.”
*. Which I guess is true, but doesn’t that just reflect its place as one of the representative early works of the New Hollywood? Or comment on the talent involved? What is there in this movie itself that held forth promise of greatness?
*. Does the question Thomson goes on to ask matter: “Who would have guessed, in 1973 . . . that this great director might be incapable of doing any other kind of movie?”
*. Or here’s another way of looking at it. I think comparisons to Rocky (1976) are unavoidable: from the dirty, low-budget look of the ghetto to the aspiring hood with the “special” girlfriend and her difficult sibling (some of Johnny Boy’s lines directly recall Paulie’s, like his crying “What are you doin’ for me?”). And isn’t Rocky a better picture? Be honest.
*. Certainly most of the Scorsese style is announced: the voiceovers; the heavy use of diegetic music “needle-dropped” into scenes and giving the sense of a lurid contemporary opera; the constantly moving camera, not like a fly on a wall but one buzzing around, following the action voyeuristically; the script punctuated with “fucks”; the abrupt editing; the nods to other movies (there are several movie clips distributed throughout, and Charlie even has a Point Blank poster up in his room); the climactic use of montage; the sudden eruptions of geysers of bloody and cathartic violence.
*. Another Scorsese hallmark is the treatment of Teresa, who is the usual virgin/whore. Again and again Scorsese’s women would be objects of desire, mothers of the hero’s children, then punching bags. And not for the first or the last time in a gangster film would we see the bond between the male hoodlums destroy a more conventional heterosocial relationship.
*. Influential reviewers like Kael and Roger Ebert really ate up the Catholic angle. I think it’s trite and overdone. I’d like to say Scorsese presents such a vision of the mean streets as the streets hardly understand, but I don’t see where he does.
*. On his DVD commentary Scorsese says he regards Mean Streets now as less a film than an act of self-expression or self-representation. I think it’s interesting that he saw it as being so intensely autobiographical, since Scorsese was never a gangster. He further remarks that it may not represent the way he was living but the way he would have liked to have lived, which I think is significant.
*. The camerawork isn’t all about its own slick movement. It’s used in an expressive way. The famous long shot in Goodfellas where Henry Hill goes into the nightlclub, meant to show how smoothly access is granted to a wise guy in the gangster world, is foreshadowed here in the greasy, slow-motion entry of Charlie and others into the bar. At other times the camera stalks the characters so intently it seems part of the action. Look at how it chases after the fighters all around the pool hall. You can’t not be conscious of the cameraman’s presence in such a scene.
*. The ending is a bit oblique. Apparently we are meant to believe that Charlie has exiled himself from the mob. But I don’t think that’s clear. Michael seems more out of line, taking business into his own hands.
*. This isn’t a favourite movie of mine and I don’t come back to it very often. There is little real plot, the moral is muddy, and I don’t think any of the business with Teresa works that well. I think, building on what Scorsese himself has said about it, that it was meant as a calling card movie, showcasing some hot new talent. That it did so much to define (and limit?) that talent in such a specific way is something to wonder at.

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