Mean Streets: Scorsese’s observant gaze

The strange thing about being British, particularly now, is you grow up in the shadow of the United States – a cultural behemoth, something so grand and consuming that we can’t help but know so many intricacies of their culture just like we know our own. Boston is a baseball town, New York is an immigrant city, California is affluent and gaudy – The America that we grew up with on the silver screen is a grand, rip-roaring adventure land. A theme park, almost. Ripped open like a gift box flanked by grey hills with snow white peaks. The Americas packaged in movies are majestic, romantic landscapes. Places where loners roam the wilds for raw food, where prospectors make their millions from nothing and lowlifes live like dirty kings in the depths of a whiskey binge. From rolling plains that never seem to end to sharp city streets that twist and wind and boggle the senses.

It’s that latter America that I’m most interested in. Mean Streets was a revelation for me: it’s blood red aesthetics painted a hidden world of down and outs and lowlifes trapped in bars, hustlers propping up the bars where junkies hang out – a New York that no longer exists, sure, but one that’s lodged in our collective cinematic conscience thanks to the wonderful work of Martin Scorsese. The realism and brittle human drama is unraveled like a bloody bandage by Scorsese and it’s this pathos and realism hidden underneath that left an indelible mark in my head regarding how drama should look, sound and feel. I only wish I could be as talented as all of the great people involved in this film: geniuses in their prime all landing together at the right moment to distill perfect truth.

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But when those great people joined together it was a different time. The 70’s had its own particular hue of dreary nihilism to it, not too indistinct from what our world is experiencing now, but it feels much more analogue than our dreadful lives in the present. That difference is important to keep in mind: I won’t be as great as them, sure, but that’s because we are made from different materials in different times – it’s okay to not be the same. By the time Mean Streets was released the hippies were already feeling the burn of everything always staying the same. Cynicism and nihilism was settling in – you can see that dissatisfaction throughout many great films in the 70’s. I think that dissatisfaction is back, it just smells different. People are sick and tired, not just of things never getting better but also sick of each other. We are a sick planet and no one wants to be in the same room anymore: we’re a divorced couple who sit cross-armed in the same room, staring out the window silently hoping that the winds will change.

How do you capture that effectively? Scorsese did, but he was a master at framing broken, tired lives under a vividly real specter of real adult lives. Scorsese was an outsider. He grew up in New York from the comfort of his bedroom as a very ill child and watched the world work – it’s this observational eye that influenced all of his work and kept him impartial in his films. Scorsese, like myself, was always an outsider. He captured the worst loose ends of our world’s without judgement or moral slant – he understood, as an outsider himself, how patronising it is to tell the audience what to think. An outsider was able to show something to people that they didn’t want to see and to ask them “what now?” What better candidate to present a snapshot of our lives than the people that silently observe on the fringes?

His fly on the wall attitude is underpinned by nigh on electric chemistry between DeNiro and Keitel, playing two brothers and two entirely opposing people, their magnetism makes this film simmer under the surface, constantly threatening to boile over. DeNiro plays the wise cracking if unreliable hustler Johnny Boy while Keitel is the morally conflicted older brother Charlie; both a father figure and someone seeking a redemption that never comes. Their explosive relationship constantly sparks and flares, one foot in the bittersweet drama of life and the other planted firmly on true-to-life winks and nods. Their spats and barb’s hit their mark but so do the warm embraces, the eye-rolling gazes at each other, the playful digs and punches. Charlie and Johnny Boy, for better and for worse, love each other and such a double-edged sword is so beautifully encapsulated in DeNiro and Keitel’s performances.

In Mean Streets, Scorsese leads us by the hand through neighborhoods he knows explicitly, through people he’s observed dilligintly. His vision arrived during tired times: Tired just like we are now. It’s easy to compare yourself to your heroes but your heroes were among a small, select lucky few, who were picked at random by the gatcha game of life during a different time, a different context. Nowadays, everybody is special, brilliant, amazing. Everyone on social media has a special something – the game is to be a little bit more perfect than you’ve ever been before. If it was hard for the greats back then, it’s almost impossible now.

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