A dive-bar livid with unvarnished restlessness, Martin Scorsese’s first “big picture” breakthrough is no mere chopping block for his later, more famous regurgitations of his pet themes: Catholic guilt, boys being boys, male angst, un-placeable inner-city maladies. Instead, Mean Streets is all the more probing for its out-of-focus, improvisational gusto. It lacks the “perfect” formalist backbone of The Brow’s later Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s perverted poison-pen letter to classical Hollywood noirs as well as a codified conduit for writer Paul Schrader’s meditations of transcendence and Robert Bresson. But while more noncommittal and less precise on the surface, Mean Streets’ libertine energy and scruffy, scrappy, unfocused workaday energy actually bests its more confident younger sibling for sheer restlessness.
Taxi Driver’s confidence was apparent from frame one, freeing Scorsese to perform a classical cinema jukebox, reverberating with love and concern for classic Hollywood in a self-conscious bid for induction into the canon. Mean Streets has no such aspirations for “Great Cinema” sanctimony. It doesn’t gift us the perfect, finished package with all the stylistic T’s crossed and I’s dotted. The shop-worn, hang-dog style of this unmediated, primal blast of self-consuming male id is rougher around the edges and un-lacquered in showy formal tricks of the trade. Much less tied together – less shackled to the gods of thesis – this film of confessional intensity and uncanny beauty careens through its feelings on instinct rather than intellectual planning. More than ever again in a Scorsese film, one feels the specter of John Cassavetes – fresh, fried, perturbed – hanging over the film, which is akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in that it adopts an aesthetic of imperfection rather than operatic, muscular clarity a la The Godfather or Goodfellas, wonderful films both.
Those two latter films are showpiece models: big, booming hummers, all cinema, all the time, right down your throat, compounding their arguments with every scene and every corner of the frame, brandishing their completion like gold medals. Comparatively, Mean Streets is devastatingly, fascinatingly in-the-making, evoking not a crystallized diamond but a hoarse lump of coal and the incendiary fire of untenably grasping for meaning in an unfinished project, of not knowing. Much as Montaigne (to reference another famous Catholic scholar) wielded his essay format as a weapon for self-discovery, Scorsese’s film here comes alive with rash and agitated perpetual-emergence not programmed by pre-existing arguments or rules.
What separates Scorsese’s film (like all of Cassavetes’ films) from many lesser artists is that Scorsese doesn’t elevate its protagonist, played by Harvey Keitel with brimming, paranoiac dread, above the world. Instead, Scorsese concocts a dredged-in bog of a world that just won’t atomize itself around the character’s mental scriptures. Unable to understand the soul-sick hiccups and mistakes of the world through his rosy, diamond-sculpted vision of space that places ideas on a pedestal above thorny experience, Keitel’s character is Kubrickian, a man with a monomaniacal yearn to calculate, to create the world he wants and define himself by a tome of unerring principles. But Scorsese’s fiercely independent spaces have little recourse for a man with an ideology he wants to impress on the world. His masculine effusions biting him in the ass, his self-delusions – his mirage of gangster morality – invite a Cassavetean understanding of men who exude prepackaged charisma as they ritualistically scrub away the jostled tenor of real life by donning gangland garb, Italianette poses, and Catholic sainthood ideologies. These are all costumes for people who fashion a fixed imaginative self, a lens they use to confront the world, rather than braving the shifting energies of public interaction that defy lenses.
Scorsese’s influences salivate all over the film. His one-of-a-kind milieu takes one part Powell-limned aria of Guignol color and lurid classicism and unsettles it with Fuller-esque grit and tumultuous swagger, stirring a cataclysmic stew that is both operatic/transcendent and, paradoxically, earthly/ragged. The helter-skelter stylistic mix-and-match is an abutment to the theme of worldly disorder affronting men whose static personal codes only afford them one out. While Scorsese’s world slaloms and crackles and shifts energies throughout, vacillating stylistic tempos, Keitel’s character only knows how to double-down on the fragile beauty of his lacquered shield of style, ultimately dissolving due to the pressures of the outside world. One detects a male-coded Black Narcissus, similarly about a morass of social ritual ultimately buckling under the heated pressure of life that defeats “coding”. Within this waiting room for the damned, rife with walking-dead apparitions skulking around donned in human garb, Keitel plays the ritual saint. “I’ve come to create order”, he jests to himself. But his relentlessly, irresponsibly ordered version of himself is unequipped for the spasmodic, spontaneous, uncontrolled spaces around him.
Scorsese’s film revels in the wounded docudramatic poetry of urban life, defying the expected build-up, pay-off structure for a more improvisational beat. The director seeds his film with pregnant, contemplative silences, moments with no narrative purpose. Scorsese also practices jerking elisions, omitting scenes that might be considered important in a more conventional narrative feature. Crucially, the point is not to fit it all together, but to free yourself from the confines of narrative or cause-effect altogether. The director dismantles the impulse to connect the narrative along the logic of cause and effect, the very impulse Keitel’s character almost fetishizes. His world order rooted in hierarchy and stability is nowhere to be found in this oven of the damned.
Imperfections abound, and the film only suffers when it strives for the premeditated, perfect murder rather than the slovenly passion of heat-of-the-moment assault. Scorsese, essentially, can be slightly programmatic in his vexation about sainthood, particularly when his theme juts into the free-wheeling, moment-to-moment pulse of daily life and prescribes meaning where meaninglessness would be much more meaningful. The sinew of the plot, following a struggling Mafia youth (Keitel) with prospects of rising higher if only he can “right”, or avoid, his restless and imprecise friend (Robert De Niro), is enough of a line for Scorsese’s grotty milieu on its own. The symbols Scorsese sometimes layers on puncture the defiance of the lower-than-the-trenches style, providing high-brow euphemisms that only codify what should remain fluid and unfettered. They reflect Scorsese trying to be his protagonist, when he knows his world will only doom that style of ossified structural thinking. Scorsese’s style – casually dishing out phony symbolic gestures and false signifiers and then stranding them in the volcanic, tectonic energy bubbling through the world around them – externalizes the essential dialectic of the film: a man who wants to control the world, structuring his life around empty, Romantic significances, none of which the world wants anything to do with.
So its aspirations for perfection stunt its wonderful imperfections, the stuff of demented majesty and nightmare anti-grandeur as Scorsese’s abrupt film dives into back-alleys in fear for its life. In these moments, which form the running pulse of the film, there is no time for thematic reflection or a cold hard stare at the “issue” of the day; Scorsese’s grimy poetics embody the milieu he is searching for, and a milieu is almost always more frightening than a theme because it cannot be explained or abstracted to the level of a “concept”. It confronts us immediately, impulsively, irresponsibly, impudently, and abrasively, exactly as it should. There is no room for high-mindedness on the streets of New York, where Mean Streets locates a dead man in the middle of a fleeting return to life, only for this ephemeral pang of light to drag him back into darkness.