Down These Mean Streets: A Guide To Understanding Martin Scorsese

Throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s, America saw many different political and radical movements. There were hundreds anti-war protests, the African-American fight for equality, and the women’s liberation movement. These movements were instrumental in the ever-changing climate, and helped changed America for the best. It is interesting to note that not only was America’s society going through a profound change, but the film industry was also going through a rebirth. In the book, Turning Points in Film History, author Andrew J. Rausch states: “The early 1970s saw the birth of a new kind of film. Younger filmmakers fresh out of film school, along with others who had started out in television, invaded Hollywood en masse” (171). This new movement of young filmmakers helped transform the film industry, and got many people excited about going to the movies again. The methods and the abilities of these young directors were refreshing and allowed the general public to connect with their films.

Robert De Niro, Director Martin Scorsese and Harvey Keitel.

Robert De Niro, Director Martin Scorsese and Harvey Keitel.

The New Hollywood era also gave many of the new directors an artistic freedom to expand on their potential. Many of the young filmmakers were allowed to develop their own unique voice: “They sought to make films very different from the normal Hollywood fare. When given the opportunity, many of these filmmakers would discard plot in favor of character development and improvisation. As a result, their films were generally more personal than those produced by older, more established directors in the American film industry” (Rausch 172). Their films became much more than entertainment. Their films became an artistic journey that can possibly make a bold statement about themselves and society.

During this era, one director was able to come into his own, and establish a film career that is nothing sort of amazing. New York University graduate, Martin Scorsese, created iconic works that have helped enforce the power of film, and by 1973 Scorsese created his first masterpiece. Once Mean Streets came out, it became a critic favorite and an instant classic. This was not Scorsese’s first feature film, but Mean Streets was able to put Scorsese on the map. In particular, Mean Streets established Scorsese as a unique and important filmmaker that: “reveals how post-classic Hollywood could seem at once familiar and yet uncanny in revealing the doubts and desires of American youth” (Friedman 101). With Mean Streets, Scorsese is able to paint an intimate setting that not only reveals his early life in Little Italy, but also demonstrates the importance of church, sins, and redemption in his life and his neighborhood. In the book, The Passion of Martin Scorsese, author Annette Wernblad states: “Scorsese has said that, ‘Mean Streets was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract.’ In the same breath; however, he reveals that the real concerns of the film are penance and redemption” (Wernblad 29). Since Mean Streets is a very personal project for Martin Scorsese, it is important to understand and learn about Scorsese’s life to fully grasp the message and meaning of his powerful film.

Martin Scorsese was born on November 17, 1942 in New York. His parents and family emigrated from Sicily to New York, where his parents would raise him in Little Italy. His neighborhood was full of ethnic Italians and was dominated by the Catholic Church. In his early childhood he developed severe asthma, which prohibited him from playing outside with his friends and engaging in physical activity. This seclusion made Scorsese feel isolated and alienated from a lot of people; however, this same isolation brought him to his two passions in life. In the book, The Cinema of Martin Scorsese written by Lawrence S. Friedman, Martin Scorsese states: “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing Else” (186). As a child Martin would split his time in the movie theater and in the church, and these two places would provide him with rituals and knowledge that he would be able to apply to his life and his films. At one point Scorsese even considered becoming a priest, but realized “that the Catholic vocation was, in a sense, through the screen for me” (Miliora 17). He then decided to go to NYU and majored in film. His student films at NYU drew a lot of interest, and helped got him into the film industry. His films, particularly Mean Streets, are always extremely personal as they all reflect his experiences in life, and in Mean Streets, Scorsese was able to perfectly mirror his experiences and upbringings in a rough neighborhood filled with Italian-Americans. In the book, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, author Maria T. Miliora states: “We can imagine that Martin internalized the rituals, images, smells, and sounds of the church, these becoming a part of his identity, and a number of which he incorporated into Mean Streets” (15). Through this film one will be able to see what ethical and religious attitudes Scorsese and his Little Italy neighborhood encompassed.

For the majority of Martin Scorsese’s life, he must have felt trapped and bounded to his neighborhood. He would spend many days and years just being around the same environment and people. This limitation can be seen in the movie: “Mean Streets continues and expands the theme of showing the life of young men who are limited and constrained, literally and figuratively, by the boundaries of Little Italy” (Miliora 124). The two main characters of the film are Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). They are close friends that are having a difficult time finding themselves in their rough neighborhood. Charlie, who clearly represents Scorsese, is in emotional turmoil and carries a black cloud of Catholic guilt around him. Charlie has ambitions that are tied to his family and his mafia connections, but his dedication to his Catholicism is what keeps him from his being completely enthralled by his mafia desires. Also Charlie is very much bonded to his reckless friend, Johnny Boy, who is always causing trouble. This relationship is very much due to the fact that Charlie feels that the only way he can find redemption is by risking himself on Johnny’s behalf. The relationship of Charlie and Johnny boy is a complicated one that has great importance in Scorsese’s life: “Another autobiographical link applies to the character of Johnny Boy. As noted earlier, Scorsese had had experience within his extended family with a relative who did not pay his debts, and Scorsese explained that his was a very serious matter in their community” (Miliora 127). Scorsese’s experiences in life can be seen through several different layers of the film, and how the movie plays can be relatable to a variety of people who had similar experiences with family and religion expectations.

Scorsese’s characters are drawn from what he knew about himself and other men he had known in his personal atmosphere of Little Italy (Miliora 7). During his time, Scorsese and his peers were products of their environment. The church had a great effect on the people of Little Italy, and especially Scorsese: “The church affected the young men of Little Italy with regard to homophobia and misogyny as well, as we can see in the characterizations of the men in Mean Streets” (Miliora 17). The church represented an authoritative, and sometimes a supportive figure that was there surrounding the men and women of the neighborhood. Also the church had the possibility of bringing out some of the dark characteristics of the male’s ego and personality, which can be seen through Charlie’s treatment of his girlfriend, Teresa. Throughout the movie, Teresa takes a backseat to the male characters, and Teresa is even mistreated by Charlie and Johnny Boy. Mean Streets shows the masculine society that Scorsese lived in. Another aspect that is heavily used in Mean Streets is the ethnic identity. The culture of the characters in the movie is all the same, and it appears that the characters are all familiar with each other and their traditions. In the book, Starring New York, author Stanley Corkin states: “And while the concept of ethnicity gained currency in the years around the end of World War II, it further became a means of not only identifying certain groups but also of defining them” (51). The customs, the culture, the food, the language, and the religion easily define the many characters in the film. This group identity is prevalent in Mean Streets despite the fact that by the 1970s there was an increase of social mobility that decreased the significance of ethnic attachments. Many races were marrying outside of their own race, and living among a variety of different cultures and races. However, Mean Streets and other films like it brought forth a replacement for the ethnic affiliation: “These films explicitly operate in the register of “ethnic nostalgia”; that is, they replicate the longing for a lost community that never quite existed” (Corkin 51). Mean Streets was for many a calling for the old days of New York City, where many of the distinct neighborhoods were made up of immigrants that were still holding onto their cultural identities.

Mean Streets can also be seen through the prevailing political environment of America: “Mean Streets fits comfortably into the zeitgeist of an era of mistrust and suspicion of social and political structures” (Friedman 103). There is no regard to any of the politicians, government officials, and or even police officers in the film. The characters’ future only lies in the streets, and their actions in the streets will dictate whether or not they can make it in this climate. This is because of the mistrust of the government. Through their actions, the characters reveal their doubts and mistrust they have towards the government. They know that they are better off making connections at the street level. This movie came out a year after the Watergate scandal, and a year before President Nixon was impeached. So, there is obvious doubt and suspicion regarding political structures. Mean Streets can also show that organized crime is a microcosm of the government. Scorsese describes this comparison: “Mean Streets shows that organized crime is similar to big government. They’re both machines. There has been more underhanded stuff done in Washington that we’ll ever be able to fathom” (Friedman 103). The mafia bosses are the ones who run and control the neighborhood. As Mean Streets progress one can see that the mafia family, the government of Little Italy, can take you under their guidance and make sure you are taken care of. However, if you slightly go against the family, the family will be the one that betrays you. When looking at the background of Scorsese’s life and America’s social and political climate, it makes the movie have a more harrowing experience on the story and the characters.

Mean Streets starts off with a troubling voiceover quote form Charlie’s character, which was voiced by Scorsese himself. This first quote represents the inner struggles that Charlie is going to face the whole movie: “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home” (Connelly 1). Charlie is very much a man in great conflict as he is torn between the church and the gangster environment that he lives in. In the book, The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, Mark T. Conard states: “Charlie is a conflicted Catholic torn between his perceived duties to his friends, his own desires, and the mandates of his uncle Giovanni, the local mob boss who is grooming Charlie to become part of the world of the Mafia” (Conard 54). Charlie has the Catholic guilt in the back of his mind at all times, and is heavily wrapped up in the notion of sins and damnation. He tries to pay for his sins, but somewhat feels that church will not be able to present him with penance and redemption. So, Charlie seeks to help Johnny Boy stay out of trouble and protect him from the loan sharks. Through this, Charlie truly believes he is redeeming himself, but many people around him, including his uncle, disapprove of this relationship. As the movie progresses Johnny Boy becomes more out of control. Johnny Boy disrespects Michael, a loan shark, by verbally insulting him and refusing to pay his debt. The humiliation that Michael faced will not be left in the past, and Charlie knows this. Charlie decides that Johnny Boy needs to lay low, and they planned to get out of Little Italy. However, as stated before it is difficult for these men to leave their milieu: “Although Charlie tries to help Johnny Boy escape the inevitable retribution he knows Michael has planned, Michael and his hired gunman (played by Scorsese) hunt down the car with Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Johnny’s cousin Teresa in it. Shots are fired and Johnny Boy gets hit in the neck. Charlie is less seriously injured” (Miliora 38). The ending shows the three of them on the ground screaming in agony as they all feel damned and trapped in their personal hell. By trying to help Johnny Boy escape the terror of Little Italy, Charlie has now paid for his sins in the streets. He falls on his knees as a kind of surrender and as a penance for his sins, but as the movie fades out we can only imagine that Charlie is morally and spiritually damaged.

Mean Streets is a very aggressive film that shows how living in a gangster environment can be like. The neighborhood is filled with tough people where violence can erupt at any moment. As seen in Charlie, there is a spiritual battle raging on in all of us as it becomes tougher to live morally in a world that is not moral. In the book, Conversations with Scorsese written by Richard Schickel, Scorsese states: “Can you still be a good person? Can good still happen? I know there’s no justice, but can it be worked out? And so that, along with his own feelings about leading a spiritual life, he calls down upon himself a kind of suffering” (104). Throughout the movie it is obvious to see that not only is Charlie suffering from his surroundings, but also he is truly torn between the spiritual and the real worlds. The penance that can be achieved for Charlie does not come from the church, but from Johnny boy. Charlie’s attachment to Johnny Boy is in Charlie’s way of spiritual healing, but in reality it is something that Charlie has to pay for, and ultimately does. Scorsese goes on to state: “They understood that, ultimately, the relationship is based on loving each other, but that one was getting more out of it than the other. It was something that, in Charlie’s mind, was a more spiritual thing. But they’re all of them damned at the end. None of them die, which is worse, because they might as well die. The worst thing that could be-and it happens to all the characters at the end of Mean Streets– is that they wind up humiliated, not killed” (Schickel 105). The characters are now stuck in an environment that they cannot succeed in. Also the characters are not able to escape their humiliation and their environment. Where can they go? They have no place to go. They don’t have a formal education, they don’t have money, and they don’t know anybody. All of the people they know are in Little Italy. They are stuck in a primitive environment where the tension is growing and at any moment any of them can become victims. The future for many American youths start and end in the streets, and some might discover that their families and America are the ones that could have a restraint on them, and ultimately betray them.

The ending was not only a way to have each of the characters pay for their own sins, but the ending also came from an experience right out of Scorsese’s life. Scorsese was fortunate to get out of a car before a shooting occurred: “And that became something that was very important to me and my friend, who had left the car an hour or two earlier. Because we could have been killed. Mean Streets had to be made because I was in the car that night. I went backwards from that. How the hell did he get into a situation like that? We didn’t even know the guys. And I said to myself, that’s the story to tell” (Schickel 105). This makes you take a step back and think about the kind of people who live in our society. We live in a very violent world that can erupt at any moment just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese is able to show and deal with aspects that people would rather not see, but the film reveals the many doubts and fears that we have about ourselves and about our society (Wernblad 224).

Mean Streets is a great example of a New Hollywood film. Mean Streets dealt with a low budget and a lot of improvisation among the actors, but produced a very effective, powerful, and revealing movie experience. When watching Mean Streets not only do you learn about how many people might have felt during the 1970s, but you also learn about the very passionate Martin Scorsese. Out of the New Hollywood era came a lot of brilliant filmmakers, but none of them has had the effect Scorsese has had with his films. Martin Scorsese’s movies are always a unique experience that will have the audience captivated. Scorsese constantly deals with stories that are compelling, troublesome, and reveal something about people living in our troubled society. However, his stories remain open-ended, and will allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. The audience will be left questioning what might happen next to his characters, and this can be seen in his excellent film, Mean Streets. All of his films present us with a representation of himself, his experiences, and his values. (Miliora 189). Mean Streets is Scorsese’s first masterpiece, and is a wonderful film that depicts the horrors and realties that Scorsese dealt with in his life.

 

 

– By Louie Coruzzolo      

 

 

Works Cited

Conard, Mark T. The Philosophy of Martin Scorsese. Lexington: The University Press of

Kentucky, 2007. Print.

Connelly, Marie Katheryn. Martin Scorsese. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 1991. Print.

Corkin, Stanley. Starring New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Friedman, L.S. The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998. Print

Friedman, Lester D. American Cinema of the 1970’s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,

2007. Print.

Miliora, Maria T. The Scorsese Psyche On Screen. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2004.

Print.

Rausch, Andrew J. Turning Points In Film History. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp.,

2004. Print.

Schickel, Richard. Conversations with Scorsese. New York: Random House, Inc., 2011. Print.

Wernblad, Annette. The Passion of Martin Scorsese. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc.,

2011. Print.

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