Mean Streets review by Matt Fuerst


Sometimes, it's hard to enjoy a Scorsese film. Being an American, and a fan of film, I should be proud of our homegrown ambassador to film. Scorsese as a film historian has probably done more for film than any other American. He has campaigned for better, longer lasting stock, has helped save and restore countless films, and even sat down to record what amounts to a 4 hour introduction to film in his Personal Journey DVD. I've seen my fair share of Scorsese films, so when I got the opportunity to pick up a bulk lot of Scorsese on Laserdisc, I jumped at the chance. Having a friend over last evening, we decided to start at the beginning, chronologically, of the lot and threw in Mean Streets and sat back for Roger Ebert 4 star nirvana.

Means Streets is the story of Charlie (a young Harvey Keitel), a young hood growing up in the City. Charlie isn't exactly the picture that comes into your mind when I say that he's a hood, no, he wears a suit every day, doesn't pack a heater, and doesn't stick people up. Charlie has decided to go respectable, and on the surface presents himself as a complete gentleman as he goes into the local neighborhood restaurants and collects money for Mario (Victor Argo), the local syndicated crime boss. Being a renaissance man, Charlie doesn't have a "crew" per se, but he does have a group of loosely affiliated friends, including the local bar owner Tony (David Proval), heist kingpin Michael (Richard Romanus) and all round deadbeat Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro).

In spite of the window dressing, Charlie is still a grunt in the network, but is working a deal out with "Uncle" another crime boss, to take control of a local restaurant. Charlie has been planning this takeover for some time, and isn't willing to let anything get in the way of it. Having Johnny Boy as a friend causes Charlie a lot of trouble however, as Johnny Boy has more than one screw loose and constantly causes trouble in the group. Johnny owes Michael at least $3,000, decides to shoot off his gun in the middle of the night, and has a pretty severe gambling problem. The situation gets even murkier at the halfway point in the film, when we learn that Charlie is in love with Johnny Boy's cousin, Theresa (Amy Robinson), who just so happens to be epileptic. While today we really wouldn't consider epilepsy much of a big deal (while it's certainly an important medical condition for the sufferer, I don't think anyone would treat an epileptic different than anyone else) everyone considers Theresa to be retarded, not straight in the head, so "Uncle" warns Charlie to keep an eye on her, but to stay away.

It's not much of a surprise that Charlie's allegiance to his friend Johnny is what unravels the balls of string that is the group. It's obvious early on that if Charlie's group was an atom, Johnny Boy was going to be the one electron that was going to break free of it's bonds. Eventually Charlie pushes Michael too far, and the Greek tragedy begins.

From the summary, you will notice that the story is pretty loosely structured. For Mean Streets, it seems to me Scorsese was trying to tell a story not through the narrative, but instead through the form in which he presented it. The story we see on screen isn't particularly engaging, as the characters are all fairly shallow and generally unlikable. Charlie is a narcissist who really doesn't care of his friendship with the gang nor of the love he refuses to admit aloud of Theresa. Johnny Boy is completely nuts, but it's not a fun nuts nor even an interesting self destructing type of nuts. While an interesting story could be, and Scorsese has, told of a young gangsters rise through the system, instead we are fed a fairly unengaging story of Charlie's attempt to gain a share of a restaurant through his relationship with Mario and "Uncle". But as I said, Scorsese wants the viewer to put in a little more effort, and look beyond the story itself.

Instead, we are supposed to appreciate the form of the film. Scorsese uses the movement of his camera as an active participant in the film. When Charlie is around Johnny Boy, we will note, the camera is completely free roaming, jittery on purpose. Johnny is a live wire, uncontrolled, and both Charlie and the camera are effected by his nature. Whenever Charlie is around Michael on the other hand, we see dolly shot after dolly shot. As Michael talks, the camera dollies from one side of his face to another. Cut to Charlie, dolly from side to side. Cut, dolly. Cut, dolly. You see, Michael is quite a smooth operator, always talking business, always planning the next scheme to line his pockets with money. Scorsese also uses his lighting, or lack thereof, to move the story along. When in Tony's bar, the gang is bathed in reds. They are always preparing for their next sin, or reveling in the glory of the most recent one. When Charlie is with Theresa, the room is blinded with brightness, this is the only piece of innocence in Charlie's life, but as soon as he steps outside her door he returns to his dingy, underlit life.

If you know Scorsese's career well, you will know that he a great affinity for music. Scorsese has been involved in directing and producing films for Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Band and many others. His films, when appropriate, often use pop music to drive the storyline (what I mean by that is, Scorsese correctly decided to avoid using Hanson or Britney in Gangs of New York or Age of Innocence). Music was incredibly vital to Goodfellas, and you can hear the genesis of his relationship to music in Mean Streets. Music is used innovatively, and not necessarily in a linear fashion. Small snippets are played between scenes, integrated into scenes, and longer pieces can be heard throughout the film, sometimes completely eliminating the audio of the scene entirely. The soundtrack lists 23 pieces used in the movie, which is a lot for 110 minutes of film.

I should mention that I watched the LaserDisc pressing of Mean Streets. The picture is actually really nice and it's one of the nicer discs I have seen visually. All the intended grain of the film (to go hand in hand with the gritty material) is present as appropriate. The sound however is spotty at times, though I am not too sure how appropriate that was or not. No extras on the disc but it is presented Widescreen as Lord Scorsese intended.

While Scorsese successfully uses these elements as an equal player in the story, none of it relieves the actual narrative of the story as the main element. We go to a film for the story, and Mean Streets doesn't deliver. There is a lot of positive reviews and retrospectives of this film (Ebert's 4 star review, Time Magazine calling it one of the Top 10 movies of the 70's) I must disagree with them. While I understand what people like about the movie, that override the story, which is lackluster. JackassCritics is not a bastion of form over function, we're all about no fluff, no muss. Go to some review site from Harvard grads if you want fruity tooty reviews. I went to a land grant institution.

3 out of 10 Jackasses
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