Mean Streets

There was a long time that I was pretty ignorant of Martin Scorsese. I hadn't seen many of his films, and didn't really know anything about him, other than everyone seemed to like him. In a class in college, we studied him, watching his first short films (like The Big Shave) that he made in film school. We watched Italianamerican, his documentary about his family, and Who's That Knocking on My Door? Then, we watched his famous films. I saw Taxi Driver again, but in a new light. I could see his style - similar images and themes coming to the surface. Later, we saw The Departed, and I could really appreciate a big scope of his work. After that class, and after learning so much about Scorsese's style from seeing his early films, I really fell in love. It was so great to be able to watch him develop his craft. He's one of my favorite directors now, and I'm always so eager to watch any of his work.

One of his films that I haven't ever seen before is today's movie - Mean Streets, which he directed in 1973. It was pretty much the first film that he did on his own and outside of film school. I found an interview with Scorsese, where the inspiration for Mean Streets is mentioned. "Scorsese remembers that when he made his first feature in Hollywood in 1972 for the producer Roger Corman, the Depression-era exploitation film Boxcar Bertha, [Nick] Cassavetes told him, 'You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.’ The criticism reinforced Scorsese’s conviction to return to what he knew. The result was Mean Streets, made in 1973," (from here). The best filmmakers simply write and direct what they know, and Scorsese, and Mean Streets, is a fantastic example of this.

Mean Streets is a different sort of mafia movie - and I imagine the sort of mafia movie that really hadn't been seen when it was made. It focuses on (as I've said before in regards to Scorsese) the everyday violence in the neighborhood, the normal stuff that happens to people. Goodfellas showed a lot of everyday things, but also showed the some of the appeal of the mob - the wealth, the power, etc. Mean Streets shows none of that side of the mafia. The film follows Charlie as he struggles to rise up through the ranks of the mob. He is hindered by his relationship to Johnny Boy, a doofy gambler. Johnny acts without thinking, randomly blowing things up and shooting guns with no reason to do so. He is disliked by everyone in the mob for his recklessness. Charlie is also involved with Johnny's cousin Teresa, who has epilepsy and is shunned for her condition. The mob doesn't like her so much, either. Charlie is so ridden with guilt, and, well, niceness, really, that it seems like he may never reach his goals.

The whole film is full of imagery to show the audience Charlie's feelings of guilt. Hot red lights and flames are often present. Charlie often holds his own fingers in fire,  to see if he could withstand the pain of hell. The red lights reminded me of hell, also, but red is of course symbolic for lust and blood and all sorts of sins. I love that the film makes sure we know that we are seeing everything through Charlie's point of view. We see manifestations of guilt, and we hear his own inner monologue (which Ebert points out is spoken by Scorsese). There is scene where we watch Charlie's face as he staggers around drunk, a hand-held camera used, which really emphasizes Charlie's world view.  This is Charlie's film, and these are his experiences and feelings. For about two hours, we get to be inside of his head and see what daily life is like for him, in the violent environment he lives in. I really like this aspect of the film.

I love how realistic this film felt. Part of this is the film's low budget, of course, but it really makes a nice tone, I thought. The fight scenes are messy and awkward, and very unlike what we are used to seeing in Hollywood. Ebert writes about this, saying, "These are not smooth stuntmen, slamming each other in choreographed action, but uncoordinated kids in their 20s who smoke too much, drink too much, and fight as if they don't want to get their shirts torn," (Great Movies II, 276). I love that they look like actual fights, like real life. I personally don't know (I'm sure someone else does) if this was a budget choice or a stylistic choice, but it works so well! This is the world Scorsese grew up in, and that world is not polished and cute. I really like that everything in the film reflects this.

Ebert mentions that since it's one of his early films, it can seem a little "creaky" at times. I guess so, but I found it sort of endearing. I have such a fascination with Scorsese that I just liked to sit back and learn about how he found his signature style. I thought it was really neat to see him working out what felt right to do and what didn't, and to see shots and images that re-occur in even his most recent films. I just like seeing how he evolved as a director, and I really enjoyed watching an early film like this. I get a kick out of seeing how my favorite director's started out, just like I really like to watch movies that they love, as well.

I really had fun watching this movie today, and I hope you guys check it out if you haven't seen it! It's streaming on Netfixwatch!

Have any of you seen Mean Streets? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Mean Streets
Buy or rent it at Amazon

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