05 October 2006

mean streets




caught a screening of mean streets last night. it was at the gene siskel film center, a clean, white-walled place for film lovers. its the kind of place where, when you walk out of a movie, dudes with bears and scarves stand in the lobby and say, "it was remarkable to see that, even that early, scorsese had total control...there wasn't one wasted shot..." or, "there was so much violence, but it was scrappy violence...it felt real." its the kind of place where they have the movie's sound pumping through speakers in the bathroom so that you don't miss a thing.

so: the movie. it's about sin. i like the story, true or not, about cassavettes seeing scorsese's movie "boxcar bertha" and telling him it was crap. "make a personal movie," he said, and this is what scorsese came up with.

wow.

you can't get much more personal than this, folks. scorsese himself was this close to becoming a priest, and the movie is clearly an examination of his problems in reconciling the ideals of the clean catholic church life with the dirty gritty street life in little italy. its about sin, and the guilt that consumes you from living in that sin. its no mistake that scorsese himself (not harvey keitel as is often assumed) speaks the famous first words of narration: "you don't make up for your sins in church. you do it in the streets. you do it at home. the rest is bullshit and you know it." this is the filmmaker using his commercial, artistic medium to explore the tension between church life, and life as it is actually lived.

the religious symbols are everywhere. we see crucifixes all over the place, lit up over the street band, around necks, in body language. there are statues of jesus on top of buildings. tony's club is bathed in red, the color of sin, sex, blood. the last english words spoken are "god bless you". and after the climactic car crash, a hydrant is hit and sends a cleansing rain over the sinners.

and let's talk about misogyny. charlie equates women with temptation and sex with sin, so he hides both from the rest of the world, regardless of his claiming that he doesn't want johnny or his uncle to know. he doesn't want to admit to himself that he's having sex before marriage. so he ends up treating his lover poorly and without regard, a parallel to how the catholic church itself treats women on a macro level.

one of the best ways to judge a movie's success is how influential it becomes in time. in this case, "mean streets" is runaway great. almost every mob movie that gets down to the details of the day to day work of that "profession" (such as "donnie brasco") owes a debt to "mean streets". and, of course, scorsese himself started using techniques and tics that he would continue to use throughout the rest of his career and into the present: wall to wall rock and roll (especially phil spector-style doo-wop), dramatic lighting (red in clubs, for example), fluid and constantly moving cameras, and an eye for the specifics of underworld group dynamics.

in watching "mean streets", we are watching a master take shape and grow into his art, and the subsequent energy is infectious.

2 Comments:

Blogger skirt said...

I want to know what you think of The Departed. Let us know if and when you've seen it.

Hope that you're doing well!

7:16 AM  
Blogger austin said...

i gotta see that again

9:50 AM  

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