Neither Tarnished Nor Afraid

NYFF's strongest contribution to Hollywood's 70s filmmaking renaissance was to program a lot of that decade's movies: Faces, Badlands, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Mean Streets. It's been 40 years since Mean Streets debuted at NYFF and in 1973, when it appeared, Hollywood was at the height of a very productive love affair with European art cinema, The French New Wave, filmmakers like Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, and Richard Lester who was using fast-and-slow motion in the Beatles films—all these were having a huge immediate impact on the mainstream.

Scorsese had made a feature as his NYU thesis film, Who's That Knocking At My Door, with Harvey Keitel, as a Little Italy guy trying to have a relationship with a nurse from outside the neighborhood that was almost a prequel to Mean Streets. While lacking the crime element, it introduced us to the neighborhood, to Harvey Keitel and sequences with his character clowning around with his buddies and to Scorsese's theme of Catholic sexual guilt.

Prior to Mean Streets, slow motion was mostly used to depict violence as in Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch and Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde but Scorsese used it to show a guy entering a room. The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" plays over Johnny's slo-mo entrance as we are slammed by a new way of entering a film.

There is a social-realism element in Mean Streets (which Scorsese abandons in future films) that springs from the Italian neo-realist films of the late 40s and early 50s. The structure of Mean Streets, with its small everyday anecdotes of petty crime, bickering among pals, resembles Fellini's I Vitelloni in which twenty-something characters are trapped in a petty provincial atmosphere that strangles their attempts at personal freedom and authenticity. Like Fellini's portrait of the manners, morals and typical behaviors  of a very particular inbred community, Mean Streets depicts the conflicted (semi-autobiographical) figure of Charlie, who dreams of "getting out of the neighborhood" but finds himself drawn irresistibly back into the paralyzing commitments, loyalties, and betrayals that are familiar.

Unlike his later films, which are constructed in a more subjective way, as tours de force, revolving around the main character (usually De Niro), Mean Streets is more realistic, with the social milieu as the central character. There is a documentary-style authenticity. (The brawls look like messy brawls between twenty-something guys.) Later films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are more subjective and poetic, focusing on obsessive psychological types. After Mean Streets, Scorsese's movies becomes more focused in the psychologically, obsessive, reflective personae that spring from narcissism. His movies continue being intensely stylized but in a different way. Goodfellas is the closest of his later work to Mean Streets. Neither film is organized in a plot-driven way—they function more more as vignettes strung together to form an anthropological study of a social group. Charlie in Mean Streets and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas are both characters who are haunted by telling the truth. (One could say that Goodfellas is about the guys in Mean Streets grown up.) What all these movies have in common is their ability to move between savagery and comedy.

The title Mean Streets comes from a quote from Raymond Chandler "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."  Evidently, Scorsese sent the script to Corman who suggested using African American actors but director John Cassavetes had told him that he had "spent a year of his life making a piece of shit" for Corman on Boxcar Bertha

Mean Streets pre-dates Quentin Tarantino in its saturation in the bloody atmosphere of pulp fiction from references to Point Blank (a poster hangs on the wall of a movie theater) to the end of the film, when the mafia don Caesare Danova is watching an exceptionally violent scene from Fritz Lang's The Big Heat on television. Scorsese has a purely sensual, visceral feeling for violence—it's not just something that resolves a plot.  Violence explodes from the margins of a story, completely unexpectedly: David Carradine is shot in the bathroom of the bar where Charlie hangs out; Vietnam Vet (Harry Northrup) suddenly goes berserk in a moment of post traumatic shock; Johnny Boy puts a bomb in a mailbox for no reason; or the many messy brawls that seem to spring up for no particular reason.  Mean Streets depicts a wildness and madness that expresses its characters' frustration and compulsiveness through Scorsese's elegant editorial and photographic choreography. (Scorsese was an assistant editor on Woodstock.)

Mean Streets manages to marry Italian realism with film noir and pulp fiction in a wildly fun and zany way.  The film created an enormous critical profile for Scorsese at age 30. Although not a big commercial success, the world discovered a major new talent.

Here are 3 questions I'd like to ask at tonight's Q&A:

1.  Describe how you and co-writer Mardick Martin defined the relationship between Charlie and Johnnie Boy, are they like Cain and Abel? (Pauline Kael referred to Johnny Boy as Charlie's id.) How do two men who seem to love each other, come to destroy one another? 

2.  Mean Streets is saturated in rock and roll and you worked as an editor on the classic rock documentary, Woodstock. Sequences like Johnny Boy's first appearance at Charlie's club with “Jumpin' Jack Flash” play almost like a musical number.  What was the process for foregrounding music in your films and what inspired you?

3.  Goodfellas is the story of a similar group of guys, the musical soundtracks of the two films overlap—music of the sixties and seventies—and a lot of the guilt, manipulation, and lying that Charlie does turns up in a slightly different form in Henry from GoodfellasGoodfellas also deploys New Wave techniques from the sixties, the freeze frame, the non-linear story telling. Are these two movies in dialogue with one another?

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