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Mean Streets

Mean Streets

By Ben Cook • January 25th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros

Original release: October 2, 1973
Running time: 112 minutes

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin

Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert DeNiro, David Proval, Amy Robinson

Mean Streets

I used to get the video set for me by my dad. I would circle the films I wanted to watch in the weekly TV guide, make sure I had sufficient video space and then subcontract the technical work I would inevitably screw up to my dad. It was a well-rehearsed ritual and kept my film education in good stead before the era when we could locate any film we so wished online.

It was in this way that I first saw Mean Streets. I was 12 or thereabouts. I strategically had my father set the video well before any film started, so as to avoid the inevitable ‘this film contains violence, sex and strong language’, the mortal enemy of a pre-16 film obsessive. Not that my father was overly protective in this area, the cultural or artistic attributes of film often superseded the adult content (though after my ‘early setting’ strategy failed, the particularly strong warning before Blue Velvet put heed to a 13 year old watching Isabella Rossellini get smacked in the face).

So the morning after, I retrieved the video from the player entirely unaware of what was in store for me. My obsessional love for the movies comes from countless sources, Jimmy Stewart, Ray Harryhausen, Moviedrome, the cluttered video shop up my road, 18’s I shouldn’t have watched, 50’s monster movies, Cronenberg, a history of Hollywood on my father’s shelves and on and on. It’s all very much unmappable, some things are vivid but may not have had that much effect as I was led to believe on my young mind (doubling over at the fireside fart scene in Blazing Saddles), conversely footnotes or long forgotten Sunday afternoon viewings might be the reason I now have the cinematic kinks that I do….who knows.

Mean Streets

What I do know though is there are a million different reasons I love cinema, but there are 3 films I can say for certainty that made me want to have a crack at it myself. Apocalypse Now, Badlands and the 112 minutes my dad captured in the VHS player. Opinions ebb and flow, tastes change; I was a very different person when I first watched them, but they were there at the right place at the right time to mould an early filmmaking brain.

The Boss once said on hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, “ I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind” and so it goes with Mean Streets, I was intoxicated as soon as I heard that huge Phil Spector drumbeat… Bum-ba-bum-BOOM…. ‘The night we met I knew I needed you so and if I had the chance I’d never let you go’…..and then that Kinetoscope like super 8 crackles into existence. From the get-go it had me.

What was this radiant, nervous thing, like some natural history film of bar room hoodlums, dug up by archaeologists in Little Italy next to rosary beads, wide lapelled suits and labelled with no nonsense courier? Its restless energy is a thing to behold. We see it very rarely in cinema, but when we do it’s always from the young, hungriest of directors (Godard, Cassavetes, Tarantino), caught between disappearing back into low budget fumblings, cultdom or the video store and the opportunity to change the games like they invariably did. The 31 year old Scorsese was finely balanced, just like Keitel’s Charlie was between the church and the street, between redemption and De Niros sociopathic Johnny Boy; and with a choice between the pit and the unknown he threw all his energy into Mean Streets.

But here, from the same age as Scorsese was in 1973 (much to my infuriation), I see it’s a young man’s film, catching Scorsese between Corman and the encyclopaedic cineaste, and it caught a young boy’s eye. The restless and inventive camerawork (the pool room fight, Charlie’s drunken roam), the colours (the red bar, the blue streets), Mean Streetsthe time capsule nature of early 70’s New York, Johnny Boy’s skittish energy (the mailbox bomb), the intensified Catholicism as opposed to my own deteriorating one, the performances constructed out of documentaryesque ticks, method suffering and plain old not giving a fuck (the street dual with the bin lids), the unpredictable actions and the open ending. The film is as alive to me as any biological entity. My memory of it then and my appreciation of it now are two complementary states, both growing with me and never aging.

It was the first film where I wanted to figure out where it came from. Sure I’d investigated the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth and the Rancor as any young boy was meant to, but this was the first time I’d wanted to know everything, above and below the surface. Why was that shot there? Why did that young man shoot the drunk? How did they get the shot in the car when it seemed so full? Who sang that? Why did I enjoy these long moving shots so much (Scorsese’s tracking shots nurtured my undeniable love for such things and brought me in a convoluted and exploratory way to Tarr, Klimov and Angelopoulos)? How was it lit? Where were these locations?

And slowly it starts to build an investigative cinematic mind. We’ve all got these handful of films. They may not necessarily be your favourites, though gun to my head these three are, but they’re the ones that started you off. Made you more than just the person who says ‘yeah I like the movies….I saw whatsimcallit the other night, really enjoyed it’, made you ask questions of the flickering surface, made you hunt high and low for the director’s other films, or the actors’ previous works, or the films that inspired it and in the end made you have that quite possibly deluded moment of ‘right I’m packing in the 9 to 5’ insightfulness where you say to yourself ‘the only way I’m really gonna figure out how this is all done is by having a go at it myself’. You know who you are and you have my sympathies and my adulation.

Mean Streets

Ben Cook

Ben Cook

Ben has been in love with cinema from a young age having been introduced to the classic cinema of Capra and Hitchcock by his father and the ‘other’ classic cinema of Carpenter and Cronenberg by Alex Cox late night on Channel 4.

In 2009 with formal training that equated to watching Mean Streets a lot, he co-founded Anti/Type Films. Since then he has written, produced and directed more than a dozen short films and documentaries, as well as writing and performing several scores. It means he gets to travel, which he likes.

He has his own site www.antitypefilms.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @AntiTypeFilms.

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