Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Favorites - Mean Streets (#52)

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Favorites - Mean Streets (#52)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mean Streets (1973/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #52 on my original list.

What it is • Part crime genre, part art film; part Cassavetes, part Bertolucci; defined by both handheld grittiness and graceful camera dollies, Mean Streets announces Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker interested in all forms of cinema. His third film is deeply personal with universal aspirations, a Catholic film in more senses than one. Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a petty debt collector in early seventies Little Italy, is caught in the crossfire - at first just figuratively - between his responsibility to his gangster uncle (Cesare Danova), his loyalty to his dangerously irreverant cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), his love for the epileptic Teresa (Amy Robinson), and his guilt-ridden Catholic faith. The plot's certainly not irrelevant to the film's priorities - far from it - but the experience still registers less as a narrative machine than as a flowing succession of moments, defined by performance, musical accompaniment, camera movement, and in some of its boldest moments, the arresting cuts that would come to define Scorsese's touch (rendered this time by Sidney Levin, rather than usual collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker). Like many other films on the list, Mean Streets isn't present so much for its story as for the way that story is told.

Why I like it •
I first saw the film on VHS in the late nineties, and it struck me as an intriguing but somewhat dated artifact (like another stylized music-driven film that will pop up in about twenty spots). The overall effect, assisted by the packaging from the local rental store, was that of immersion into a particularly seventies vintage grit and grime, an early independent film capturing a Gotham rather than a Tinseltown flavor (in fact, as it turns out, most of the film was shot on sets Los Angeles and produced by Cagney's old patron, Warner Brothers).  At the time, I preferred my crime sagas with a more overt romance and glamor, like The Godfather, so I slotted the film below Scorsese's equally edgy but slightly more polished films like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Within a few years, whether because I moved to (a very different) New York, or because I was getting more interested in music, or - most likely - because I'd learned how to cut digitally, and editing now seemed the centerpiece of filmmaking to me, Mean Streets really struck a chord. The "Be My Baby" montage in particular had an almost narcotic effect; and I began to watch the film over and over less like a movie than as if I was playing a rock album, savoring the punk energy of its construction, and the shifting tonality evoked by technical experimentation. Tastes always change, areas of interest always shift in their emphasis, but I find that when the visceral impact of a film hits a certain high water mark, it can always evoke at least a strong echo of that peak experience on repeat viewings. Mean Streets still gives me a thrill and in its raw, unkempt, rough-around-the-edges way, is nearly perfect cinema.

How you can see it • Mean Streets is available for DVD rental from Netflix and through digital rental/purchase or cable subscription at these venues. A clip appears at 3:53 in "Welcome to the Arthouse" in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. (A shorter version of the same clip, image only, appears in my 7 Rooms guide-montage.)

What do you think? • Are you interested in the film primarily for its themes or its style, or both equally? Does the film feel entirely of a piece with Scorsese's later work, or are there aspects which mark it as unique in some way? What's a mook?

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Yesterday: L'Eclisse (#53)
Tomorrow: Pinocchio (#51)

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