Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.2: Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 97/A

“You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.”

So begins Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s first masterpiece and still one of his signature films. In a way, Mean Streets is the first real Scorsese film after early warnings from Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Boxcar Bertha. The former showed Scorsese’s artistic sensibility, and the latter showed his skill at handling a lean genre film, but Mean Streets is the first film to mix these talents together.

With its release, notable Scorsese supporters like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert hailed the arrival of one of the most original filmmakers of his generation. Watching Mean Streets, it’s easy to see why. Scorsese didn’t even shoot the film in New York, where it takes place, but managed to get the feeling right so that Los Angeles easily passed for New York. Mix that with an innovative rock soundtrack, appropriately grungy camerawork, fast-paced editing, and a pantheon performance or two, and you’ve got one of the definitive films of the 1970s.

Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) is a man pulled at all ends. He tries to be a good Catholic, but he works as a debt collector for his uncle, a local mafia captain. He loves Teresa (Amy Robinson), but the community ostracizes her for her epilepsy, which they believe is a sign of mental illness. Charlie wants to move up in the mob, but his loyalty to his reckless, disrespectful friend (and Teresa’s cousin) Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) brings him down, especially after Johnny Boy crosses loan shark Michael (Richard Romanus).

Mean Streets feels so vital because Scorsese blends seventy years of film history and influences into one distinct sensibility. From Howard Hawks and the 1930s Warner Bros. gangster films, he brings a tight structure; from the Italian neorealists and his mentor John Cassavetes, he brings a sense of immediacy and reality; from  Max Ophuls and Stanley Kubrick, he brings technical skill, especially in a few bravura tracking shots; from the French New Wave, he brings cinematic inventiveness and playfulness; from Federico Fellini, he brings a colorful, seriocomic milieu; from Elia Kazan, he brings heightened drama; from John Ford, he brings macho posturing; and from his most undervalued source, the melodramas of men like Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, he takes a protagonist who superficially fits into a community, but who feels oppressed and crushed by the constrictive society he lives in. Mean Streets isn’t the apex of Scorsese’s fascination with mixing the realistic with the formalistic, but it’s a sign that he knew what he was doing damn near from the get-go.

For anyone who needed proof of that, just look at the opening, which uses handheld cameras to give a natural, day-in-the-life feeling to Charlie’s waking hours, but then uses a number of quick cuts to bring us closer to Charlie’s tortured face as The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” starts up. Right away, the film has a pulsating energy that sets it apart from Francis Ford Coppola’s more classical The Godfather. Or take a look at the cut that takes us from Charlie sticking his hands in a church’s candle flame, as if he were giving himself his own penance, to a bar brightly lit with the sinful color of red. Or a tracking shot behind Charlie in the bar that makes Keitel look as if he were floating- he’s the cool guy, the guy in the bar that everybody likes. Or, for another memorable long take, a shot strapped to Keitel’s body as he drunkenly stumbles around to The Chips’ goofy, scat-heavy “Rubber Biscuit”- the camera is undercranked to give a woozy sense. It’s a fun sequence, but it’s also a take that gives us a chance to focus on Keitel’s face as it tries (and fails) to drown his conflict.

But while Scorsese’s film isn’t without its share of great shots, the editing of Mean Streets is most central to its success. Whether he’s cutting between a bunch of macho guys watching their heroes on the screen (in this case John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers) or he’s introducing an element of Godard-like playfulness to a love scene (as Keitel peeks through his fingers at his girlfriend changing), there’s a live wire energy to the film that Scorsese would exploit again and again throughout his career. Even a simple sequence like Charlie preparing for a night out is exciting- there’s a liveliness to the ritual, an importance that would be lost had the scene been edited poorly.

The editing is particularly effective when dealing with the film’s violence. Much of the energy here comes from the film’s grungy camerawork, unchoreographed roughness, and colorful milieu. But Scorsese knows when to hold steady on a moment (a Vietnam veteran’s outburst in the bar) and when he needs to give us a sense of freneticism, especially during a shootout near the end after Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa are shot by Michael. The escalating violence needs an explosion, and the brutality of the violence hits precisely because we’re caught up in the confusion of the moment.

But the film’s truest technical achievement comes from an earlier scene, one that immediately heralds the coming of a screen legend. As De Niro’s troublemaker Johnny Boy enters a bar, the camera tracks up to Charlie, whose peace is about to be shattered by a character who’s capable of anything. The film goes into a slow motion as De Niro enters, a girl under each arm, lit like the devil as the Rolling Stones song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” starts up. Trouble has just walked through the door, in the form of the film’s most dominating presence. With that scene alone, Scorsese has created a screen icon. It’s film mythmaking at its finest.

That’s not to underplay De Niro’s own contributions to the film. Mean Streets is filled with perfect casting choices, with Robert Romanus being especially good as self-important hood Michael. And Scorsese found an ideal center in Keitel, so good at selling his character’s inner conflict while still showing why Charlie might be so well liked within the community. But to Keitel’s pull, there’s De Niro’s temperamental push. Scorsese always had a skill directing actors, and De Niro’s first dialogue scene would rank alongside Elia Kazan’s best work for its utter naturalness.

Johnny Boy owes money all over town, and Michael has started bugging Charlie about it, but that hasn’t deterred Johnny Boy from his flippancy with money. He’ll buy drinks all around, he’ll call attention to himself, and he’ll flirt with two girls at once…and conceivably look like he’ll take them both home. There’s a great shot-reverse between De Niro and Keitel as Johnny Boy bullshits an explanation for not paying Michael back and Charlie looks on with a mixture of amusement and irritation. This guy is fucking everything up for him, but he’s also wildly entertaining.

That sense of conflict is important, considering that self-hatred and guilt is the central theme of Mean Streets (not to mention a dozen other Scorsese films). Charlie tries to justify his participation in the mob by trying to make everything run smoothly, even trying to clear up all of Johnny Boy’s problems. But he can’t play saint when he’s a sinner, and he’s ultimately limited by his fear- fear that dating an epileptic girl he loves would ruin him, fear that dating a black girl would get him laughed at,  and fear that even if he wanted to get out of this life, he couldn’t. He’s especially damned for supporting a friend who takes every good chance he has and throws it away just for the right to say “fuck you” again.

In the final scene, Charlie, Teresa, and Johnny Boy stumble out of a shooting and car wreck. Teresa’s being pulled out of a car, not shot but clearly a mess. De Niro’s clenching his shot-through neck, bleeding and stumbling around like Marlon Brando at the end of On the Waterfront. And then there’s Charlie, his hand shot through in a stigmata, now likely on the outside after being shot at by Michael and being too close to Johnny Boy and Teresa. He falls on his knees, as if to ask the Lord for help. But as many Scorsese protagonists find, the answers don’t come so easily.

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