By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Directed by MARTIN SCORSESE
Written by SCORSESE and MARDIK MARTIN
Produced by JONATHAN T. TAPLIN
ROBERT DE NIRO
and AMY ROBINSON
Released by Warner Bros.
At the Nuart, March 13-19
Looking at Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets again, 25 years after its initial release, a couple of things jump out at you. First, you notice how young and beautiful Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro were, at 32 and 30, respectively. Already De Niro is a prettier, flashier presence than Keitel, and also less carnal. As Charlie, the numbers runner at the center of Scorsese's third feature, Keitel keeps his thickly muscled body coiled while De Niro, as loony Johnny Boy, splinters into right angles. De Niro's physicality is electrifying and menacing, like a shark's. Next to him Keitel feels a little stolid (it's actually something of a relief), but unlike De Niro he's able to shed his physical reserve and make it seem like a libidinal sacrifice - his masochism is a turn-on.
Keitel looks good falling to his knees, something his Catholic director must have picked up on. Charlie, a hood who still lives with a mother who buys his shirts, works for his uncle, a Mafia boss, and spends much of the rest of his time with two friends: Johnny Boy and Johnny's cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson), who willingly rolls around on hotel beds with Charlie and can't understand why he's not as eager as she is to get out of the neighborhood. There's something nervous and watchful, almost shifty, about Charlie, but also something pathetic. Painfully self-conscious, he wants desperately to please his uncle (who he hopes will give him a restaurant to run), but he doesn't have the heart to be bad. Neither does he have the will to be good.
Keitel and De Niro are irresistible in Mean Streets, their bellicose virility matched by the erotics of Scorsese's filmmaking. There's headless exuberance in how the then-31-year-old director hurls the camera around, the same exuberance that finds De Niro spazzing into a dance and Keitel levitating through a bar. Mean Streets is the sexiest of Scorsese's films because it's his least controlled: It has a young man's wildness. When Charlie stares at a stripper in Mean Streets, it's through a shuffle of straight cuts. By the time Jake La Motta first sees his future wife in Raging Bull, what makes the moment sizzle is less her carnality than the way the camera captures her shimmering in Kodak black and white; by GoodFellas, all the juice is in the cinematography and the cutting, in the choreography of the Steadicam, in the bebop montage.
Increasingly with Scorsese, passion becomes virtuosity; the recent exception being Kundun, in which you can feel the director as inflamed by the subject of modern Tibet as by his technique. In this cinema of sublimation the eroticism is in the filmmaking itself - and in what at times turns out to be its corollary, male violence. That's never clearer than with Casino, which comes alive only when someone erupts in a fury or the camera swoops to new dizzy heights; it's even better if the camera seems jazzed by that rage, as when De Niro holds down a hysterical Sharon Stone and Scorsese flips the camera sideways to get a closer look. In Mean Streets, though, everything's a kick - the radio pop, the cars, the tight flashy clothes, the gray streets and dank tenements, the Washington Square girls, the deep red of a neighborhood bar, Keitel and De Niro's syncopated dialogue, Scorsese's boundless exhilaration.
What else do you notice about Mean Streets? That Los Angeles can make a pretty good double for the Lower East Side of New York; the film was primarily shot here, with only eight days' location in NYC. That even then Scorsese knew how to move a camera like nobody's business, and that the shot in which a drunk Charlie looks like he's floating on air as he moves through a bar (and for which Scorsese strapped the camera to Keitel's chest) draws a direct line between Sam Fuller and Spike Lee. One other thing you notice: There's not much of a plot. Things happen in Mean Streets - a poolroom fight that's more Three Stooges-absurd than ugly, a frenzied party, some afternoon sex, an elaborately staged barroom shooting starring David Carradine and his teenage brother, Robert - but mainly what happens are characters.
Scorsese begins the film with some phony home-movie footage of Charlie and the gang palling around, then jumps from one quick-sketch scene to another by way of character introduction. Keitel's Charlie, watchful and slightly defeated, scared, is the expressive center around which De Niro's Johnny Boy - wild-eyed, spooky - darts and weaves. Almost everything great in Keitel and De Niro is already here, as are hints of many Scorsese regulars: Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, Henry Hill. And while Mean Streets reveals its influences in nearly every frame, sometimes by direct quotation (a scene in a hotel room unfolds like early Godard), Cassavetes is the most obvious inspiration, specifically in the way the characters trip over one another, fighting and loving with ferocious tenderness.
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