Monday, September 3, 2012

Mean Streets

MEAN STREETS               A             
USA  (112 mi)  1973  d:  Martin Scorsese

You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.  
 —Charlie (Harvey Keitel), voiceover narration actually spoken by director Martin Scorsese, a technique he saw used by Fellini in I Vitelloni (1953)

For some, still the quintessential Scorsese film, a raw, pulsating, brilliantly acted and powerful film set in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood, although most of the interiors were shot in Los Angeles studios, with an almost non-top musical soundtrack which is just as energetic and explosive, my favorite being Ray Barreto’s “Ritmo Sabroso” Ray Barretto Ritmo Sabroso - YouTube (2:56) blaring out the window of a jubilant Puerto Rican party (an example of another ethnic group pushing into the boundaries of their turf), but also including Italian opera, the Shirelles, Smoky Robinson, the Rolling Stones, and others.  Shot by Kent Wakeford with a rough documentary quality, this is one of the best uses ever of hand held cameras, creating a wonderful sense of exhilaration and urgency throughout, a jarring yet always fascinating window into a unique world, intimately capturing the movements and language, as well as the darkened dinginess of just a few city blocks following the lives of 4 small-time hoods.  Scorsese accentuates how personal this film is over the opening credits to the music of The Ronettes “Be My Baby” 'Mean Streets' opening credits YouTube (3:10), highlighting a movie projector that streams brief glimpses of the movie characters we’re about to meet through what resembles home movie images.

In an interesting concept afterwards, the characters are introduced through short sequences before they are identified by name on the screen.  Tony (David Proval) owns the neighborhood bar, while the ranking hood (or the one who appears most concerned with his hierarchal position) appears to be Michael (Richard Romanus), the neighborhood loan shark whose constant interest is tracking down the money he’s owed.  Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy introduction sets the tone for his character, seen dropping a bomb in a mail box as he slinks down the sidewalk afterwards admiring his work.  Set during the lively street activity of the San Gennaro festival, which is intermixed throughout, there is also a running dialogue with God from one of the characters, Charlie, Harvey Keitel, making a confessional appearance in a beautifully ornate Catholic church, where his inner thoughts (heard throughout) introduce his views on trying to be a saint while living in sin, not only the main theme of the film, but of Scorsese’s entire career.  “If I do something wrong, I just want to pay for it my way, so I do my own penance for my own sins…  No you don’t fuck around with the infinite.  There’s no way you do that.  Pain in Hell has two sides, the kind you can touch with your hand, the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul, the spiritual side, and you know, the worst of the two is the spiritual,” which has a beautiful lead-in to the local neighborhood poolroom bathed in red during one of those signature Scorsese shots that zooms in on the end of the bar as Charlie is once again introduced with the Rolling Stones “Tell Me” Rolling Stones 'Tell Me' in Martin Scorsese "Mean YouTube (2:43).

Scorsese’s initial inspiration was the music, all taken from his own collection, claiming “Mean Streets featured the music I grew up with and that music gave me images… For me, the whole movie was 'Jumping Jack Flash' and 'Be My Baby'.”  De Niro’s explosive Johnny Boy, a crazed, gun-loving, bomb throwing, cocky, smart-assed bastard is introduced by the Rolling Stones “Jumpin Jack Flash” Mean Streets - De Niro's entrance YouTube (1:10) in a Slo-mo intro to the poolroom with two girls hanging on his arm, carefree and oblivious to the fact he owes money to everybody in the neighborhood, particularly the ever insistent Michael, and Charlie is the only one vouching for the kid, trying to keep him in line, while at the same time keeping a steady inner dialogue with God in the process.  Charlie has a Mafia uncle who can ease his path to riches and sends Charlie to collect payments for him, but he models himself after St. Francis of Assisi (“St. Francis didn’t run numbers”) who does for others, seeking penitence for his sins by trying to help Johnny Boy.  They all meet in Tony’s red-lit neighborhood bar, drinking 7 and 7’s, watching strippers, playing pool, and inevitably getting into fights, sometimes with others, ultimately with themselves.  The anguish underneath it all is mixed with horror and humor, rock ‘n’ roll and opera, but also realism and theatricality.   

De Niro exhibits a freewheeling abandon throughout that is especially riveting, actually carrying much of the spontaneous energy of the film from his sheer unpredictability, where working with the complex and morally conflicted character of Keitel is movie magic, as the camera follows the exploits of these two young men in a keenly observed, gritty, and violent picture, with a simply extraordinary musical rhythm section (ironically racially diverse) underscoring Scorsese’s impressionistic portrait.  With very little narrative to speak of, part of the pulsating energy of the film is the extraordinary intimacy captured by the almost giddy experimental feel of the gliding tracking shots, pans, zooms, and quick cuts from the ever curious camera which, like an unseen character, is the eyes and ears to everything that happens, where the immediacy of the moment is always connected to the vibrant energy of the streets.  The sights and sounds of the festival are interspersed into the lives of the characters, creating larger than life operatic moments, where tempers flair, threats are made, usually over money, where people like to be treated with respect before they hand over the cash, turning the act of making payments to a mob boss into a rite of passage, where each of them has to pass the test if they want to stay in business.  What’s immediately noticeable is the calm demeanor of the mafia uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), always exercising patience and restraint, while the hothead hoods in their 20’s are forever making threats, getting themselves into instant trouble, often starting it, and usually over nothing.   

The one weak link in the picture is the female character, Amy Robinson as Teresa (who never had much of an acting career and became a producer instead, actually writing the story for John Sayles’ 1983 film BABY IT’S YOU), Johnny’s cousin who has seizures, so is considered an outcast by the Mafia chieftans, calling it a disturbance in the head.  Embarrassed to be seen with her (as he is with a black stripper, Jeannie Bell, later in the picture), Charlie can see her from his bedroom window and has always had a crush on her, where the extremely volatile relationship has its off and on moments, where Charlie’s connection to his uncle and to the neighborhood are paramount, where in his eyes women are secondary, which leaves Teresa fuming on the sidelines, always trying to squeeze into his life, and when she finally does, she pays a heavy price for it, as she has no business being anywhere near the kind of heavy trouble these guys get themelves into, as this is the story of small-time hoods trying to build a name for themselves in the exclusively all-male Mafia hierarchy.  While most likely accurate in terms of representing the authenticity of the street language as well as their racist mindset, derogatory comments in the film are made about blacks and Jews, which may make some in the audience wince, but you have to make the connection that these are not the most educated individuals, but are instead testosterone-laden petty criminals who often embarrass themselves using gutter language or by speaking out of order.  Perhaps the best evidence of this is Johnny Boy, who’s constantly shooting his mouth off at inappropriate times, putting the lives of everyone around him at risk.   

Michael is always whining and complaining about Johnny’s late payments, using Charlie as his intermediary, but eventually this comes to a head when Johnny Boy discovers the power of a gun, waving it around like a big shot in a penultimate scene with all 4 hoods together Mean Streets - $10 on a $2,000 debt - YouTube (4:01), stupidly thinking this is somehow a solution to his problems, but all it does is bring the wrath of God down upon him in an apocalyptic fury, where the streets become a Hellish purgatory of no escape, where these men live by the sword or die by the sword, all following the same outdated creed that must be centuries old.  Whether it makes any sense or not hardly matters, as it’s the only language these men seem to understand.  Interestingly, in front of a movie theater, there are John Boorman POINT BLANK (1967) and John Cassavetes HUSBANDS (1970) movie posters seen outside.  Also David Carradine has a small role as a drunk who’s shot and killed by no less than his younger brother Robert Carradine, while Scorsese does the opening voiceover narration for Charlie and plays Jimmy Shorts, one of Michael’s sidekicks, where he’s actually the trigger man in one of the key scenes at the end of the film.  Stylishly inventive and brilliantly observed, mostly written and edited by Scorsese himself, this is a breakthrough film with youthful flaws intact, where he’s made more perfect looking films like Goodfellas (1990), but it’s debatable whether the director has ever done anything better throughout his storied career than this complex and penetrating study perfectly capturing a youthful moment of romanticized hopefulness set against such an oppressively harsh and bleak reality.

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