Friday, June 09, 2006
Mean Streets, USA, Scorsese, 1973
Wherein Ben and I give Scorsese's breakthrough a good going over.
What to say about the film that put its director on the map? And hooked him up with DeNiro and vice versa? About the latter, I forgot how good his performance is. I'm sorry, but he just brings more levels, more complexity to his character than the other performers do, although Keitel is very good too. About the latter, I forgot how he brings a sweetness to his part, a degree of decency, not just because he genuinely has religious faith and takes its morality seriously. But also in his vestiges of childhood playfulness and relative innocence. All of which is constantly threatened by his circumstances and impossible to preserve. Keitel negotiates all of this very well, his character standing in for Scorcese himself, of course, but without the intelligence and artistic option. But DiNero just radiates reality and reality ain't pretty. Just lovable enough to make you believe that Keitel could actually remain loyal to him, but the rest is pages of a pathology 101 textbook flipping by. You just know that that character is going to be a whirling dervish of violence when he grows up, if he grows up.
That these guys are just in the growing up phase is one of the strengths of the film. Not yet gangsters, there is really no genuine violence until the end. When it comes it is entirely legitimate in the story, signalling a rite of passage, albeit of the most negative and matter-of-fact sort. Hyper-Italiano aspect aside, the characters in Mean Streets are the gang in The Outsiders, half a decade latter, from a gritty realistic rather than a sanitized wholesome point of view. They have graduated into the genuinely adult violence that was inevitable for punks who would be wise guys. Any hope of escaping the hood is all but annhilated. Crime is the only open road. All that remains is to see who will survive, who will scuffle forever and who will move up the ranks of the organized. This remains because Scorcese does not give in to temptation to kill off his characters. His restraint on this score is vital to the power of the film, in my estimation. None of them are fatally wounded. No such luck. They are condemned to more violence. The end of the film is just the beginning for these people. Put this in the hyper-Italiano context I set aside before and then put this itself in the greater New York framework so vital to the Sidney Lumet led movement from which Scorcese undoubtedly drew inspiration - Mean Streets!
There are some compelling shots to be sure and some hip editing too, but sometimes it does smack of experimentalism, which is merely to state the obvious that he was still pretty fresh out of the gate. The use of existing songs rather than a composed soundtrack is remarkably effective but also done excessively and it does not achieve the ultimate synthesis that, say, Lucas does in American Graffiti. What really carries the day, though, is the down-on-the-groundness of it all, especially the overlapping dialogue and the characterizations. This film has been so imitated so often, its hard to appreciation how in-your-face and raw it was when it came on the scene. Again, not the violence of it, of which there is little. Rather, the two-bit grime of it all. Not a chance for glory, nevermind redemption.
You can certainly see the artist, not exactly in vitro here, he's much more close to fully realized than that here, but in chrysalis. And you can also certainly see the rudimentary forms that would finally take shape in Taxi Driver only a few short years later. Scorsese's morality, seen in his blend of Italian and specifically Catholic iconography and gangster tropes, is a complex and pretty unforgiving one. Charlie, Keitel's character, as you say, a stand in for Marty himself, certainly means well, but proves ultimately ineffectual in this seedy setting. The brutality and violence of these desperate types remains oblivious to the essentially conventional sense of right and wrong that Charlie tries to apply to the situation.
But it is deNiro who steals the show. Johnny Boy, oh boy, what a jumpin' jack flash, such a gas-gas-gas. He explodes on the screen (his first scene is the mailbox bomb, is it not?); the kid is pure energy and will. Freudians would peg him as The Id (to Charlie's Superego?), and while he's got no clue, as long as he's got Keitel around to look out for him and baby him (no wonder he's called Johnny Boy), he'll never get one, either. JB reminds me a bit of Mercutio; the kinda guy who makes for an interesting but dangerous friend, but who is always great entertainment.
The film's really funny at times, too. There are some scenes of verbal sparring with deNiro and Charlie that verge on Abbot and Costello, and even some of the fight sequences are kinda wacky(Johnny Boy jumping up on the pool table). While you are probably right that Scorsese goes a little overboard with his use of popular music, I dig it nonetheless. At least these tunes felt somewhat justified by the action of the story, unlike, say Raindrops keep Fallin' on My Fuckin' Head, for instance. I also found the voiceover was used in an interesting manner, something that Scorsese would really ramp up for Taxi Driver. There are moments where it feels like Scorsese is showing off a bit for us--some of the attention-grabbing jump-cuts, such as those in the sex scene,and Charlie's hallucinatory trip in the bar--that kinda peg this movie for what it is, a young director finding his legs by showing off his influences. But these are minor complaints in an otherwise damn fine film.
I think that Scorsese really gets right here, and it is due mainly to the fact that he really knows these people, this place. The film feels authentic, the characters are true, the situation hopeless.