I miss New York City. I miss the New York City I've never seen -- the one I've seen only in movies. And after spending time in the Capital of the World a little over a year ago, I thought of all kinds of New York movies (from Rosemary’s Baby to 42nd Street to The Naked City to Midnight Cowboy to Something Wild -- the Carroll Baker Ralph Meeker version to After Hours to Broadway Danny Rose to The Lost Weekend and on and on and on). But strolling through some beautiful areas and others much too cleaned up (Times Square), my mind wandered to James Cagney and John Garfield growing up so gorgeously tough and talented in Hell’s Kitchen (which isn’t so hellish anymore) and the Dead End Kids gaining advice from both of those street-wise geniuses as they, cinematically speaking, brawled and cracked wise on those corners. And then my mind returned to a movie that, for me, is the city -- Mean Streets.
And of course much has been written about Martin Scorsese’s masterwork and most of us love it (if you love movies, how can you not?). But it had been quite some time since I watched the picture, and upon returning, my love was re-ignited. As Woody Allen would say, I don’t just love the movie, I luurve it. And with further reflection, I thought the picture, of late anyway, just doesn't get its due anymore. Do we take it for granted? We shouldn't. It's absolutely perfect.
Let’s just start with the opening -- an opening that ranks as one of the greatest title sequences of all time. The screen is black. A faceless narrator exclaims: "You don't make up for your sins at church; you do it in the streets; you do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it." A young man wakes up in the middle of the night. The sounds of the city are outside. He walks over to his bedroom mirror, takes a look at himself and then returns to bed. As his head reclines toward his pillow, he is suddenly moving in slow motion. The thumping beat of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" begins and the scene shifts to a screening of Super-8 films of the young man and his friends. Just as Ronnie Spector breaks into the beautifully sweet chorus of "Be my, be my baby," the film reveals its title in plain, typewritten letters: Mean Streets.
Yes. This opening always gets me right in the gut and mysteriously both the hard and soft places of my heart. It even, at times, almost makes me cry. No, not almost. It does make me cry. It’s just so raggedly lovely and wonderfully bittersweet and beautiful and tough and tender. It's reminiscent of a past that isn't entirely mine and yet, Scorsese makes me feel like it was -- almost one hundred percent. It gets me the way Wes Anderson gets me when Margot walks off that bus to Nico's "These Days" or Harold drives his car to Cat Stevens' "Trouble" or Benjamin Braddock depressively swims and fornicates to Simon and Garfunkle's "April Come She Will" or Sam Rothstein falls for Ginger to "Love is Strange" (I could list more than a dozen Scorsese music moments that touch me in multiple ways).
Released in 1973, Mean Streets, a masterpiece of story, substance, music, camerawork and color, is one of the most influential movies of the last 30-odd years. Inspired by, among other influences, classic Hollywood cinema, the documentaries of David and Albert Maysles, the French New Wave, and of course, Scorsese’s own life growing up and observing life in New York City, Mean Streets' raw, blood-soaked power has still, in my mind, found no cinematic equal. Aesthetically and thematically honest, as well as experimental and purposeful, it’s a work of art that’s never faded through time. It still makes me revved up and emotional and depressed and happy and, yearning. There’s a yearning to Mean Streets that not only taps into creating something within your own personal life, but to create something, anything outside of it. As with all of Scorsese, there's a sensuality to it that's bloody and lovely and in moments, profoundly moving.
The story is noir bathed in red light. Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, an inhabitant of New York's Little Italy who is raggedly progressing toward manhood. His best friend is Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a volatile, immature but ultimately lovable character who gets Charlie in more trouble than he needs. Charlie is trying his best to become something, but he is met with constant dilemmas. He works for his uncle (Cesare Danova), an old-school Mafioso who would like to move him up in the business. But Uncle disapproves of Charlie's friends, chiefly his epileptic lover, Teresa (Amy Robinson), and Johnny Boy, who is "touched in the head" and an instigator of unnecessary disorder. Uncle advises Charlie to remove them from his life. But this is not so easy. Nothing is easy for Charlie. Strongly Catholic, he is guilt-ridden by his every move. While he sits at the bar in his neighborhood hangout, questioning his penance, he watches Johnny Boy walk toward him and almost humorously asks: "You talk about penance and this is what walks through the door?"
Johnny Boy certainly walks through the door. His entrance is a tour de force of exciting visual and sonorous stimuli. Bathed in the bloody red light of the bar, shot in slow motion and accompanied by the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin Jack Flash," the joy and ambiguity of Johnny Boy is summed up in less than 30 seconds. He is the streets; he is exciting, nervous energy; he is trouble amidst trouble; he’s your future if you don’t watch out. And he’s also one hell of a fighter on a pool table -- the way he kicks with such intent. In fact, that “Mook” fight tuned to “Please Mr. Postman” is one of my favorite fight scenes in a movie. It’s so sloppy and real yet funny and repugnant. This is how fights really happen. They're a scary mess but sometimes, oddly hilarious.
And Johnny Boy is kind of hilarious. The symbol of uncertainty that, like the streets, threatens the picture's world with kinetic violence, he’s an attractive force. But like many reckless forces, they burn out. Charlie attempts to ride this out with some semblance of control, but he can’t avoid the tumult that will engulf around his own life. What is so unequivocally brilliant about this film is that Charlie never has to tell us as much. Because of Scorsese's expert technique, we know the picture's nature instinctively. Scorsese displays the randomness of these people's lives with saturating experimentalism; his inventive style is not a glaring gimmick but a natural expression of street and conscience.
Mean Streets contains so many influential techniques it would require pages to list them all, but some do bear mentioning--particularly for how they are abused in present cinema. As most of us know, Mean Streets, like other filmmakers of the period utilized the New Wave technique of a moving camera, now seen often in movies and TV commercials. It used Super-8 film stock to convey happy, jumpy memories, which is now an overused, trite standard á la The Wonder Years and countless other more recent examples. Mean Streets employed the character-introducing title sequence, where key figures are shown doing something (Johnny Boy blows up a mailbox), and then their names are typewritten on the screen. This was used in Trainspotting, a movie that has more than a few references to Scorsese. It was scored with pop music as an interesting counterpoint to violence (clearly, Scorsese's musicality has been imitated effectively in films like Blood Simple and Reservoir Dogs). Mean Streets' film references -- Charlie watching John Ford's The Searchers and Uncle watching Fritz Lang's The Big Heat- -- contained a specific potency that plays differently than the reference-soaked movies of Quentin Tarantino. I love Tarantino's operatic movie mélange but with films now so readily available on DVD, Mean Streets snippet from The Searchers feels rarer, and in a way, more sacred.
I'm not one to downgrade the importance of Citizen Kane and its influences (and certainly Scorsese wouldn’t as well) but Mean Streets is at this point, just as influential. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas may make the AFI lists, but Mean Streets deserves high mention. So many films emulate Mean Streets, but very few have achieved its beautiful, ugly, vulnerable, violent and thrilling power. If a movie could sserve as my most beloved dysfunctional boyfriend, Mean Streets would be it. It's one of the loves of my life.