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Nashville Scene Mean Streets and More

Scorsese's "Mean Streets" remains the great male urban youth movie.

By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley

MAY 26, 1998:  This week marks the beginning of the Watkins Belcourt's experiment with programming schedules--a staple of arthouse theaters across the country since the rise of the repertory theater in the '50s. The advantages of a schedule are obvious. For an obscure film, any advance publicity is good publicity, especially with the short plot summaries that a schedule can provide. Also, it adds to a theater patron's perception of the neighborhood theater as a familiar site for an outing, where moviegoing is a special event.

The disadvantages are harder to see. Interested filmgoers might lose track of what's playing when, and miss a movie that they thought was playing later in the month. Of course, regular advertising pretty much resolves that issue. The greater disadvantage belongs to the film companies, who hate to see a potentially popular film scheduled for only a week. In fact, many arthouses are being forced to phase out the schedule concept by shortsighted distributors (are you listening, Miramax?) who withhold product unless certain guarantees are met--namely, that the theater will keep a movie for as long as it maintains a certain baseline attendance level.

For the film fan, though, regular schedules are a boon. It means more movies come to town more often. And in the Belcourt's case, it means a theater can alternate newer releases with a selection of classics and retrospectives.

So what does the Belcourt have in store this quarter? The theater kicks off its schedule with Mean Streets (see below), Martin Scorsese's breakthrough third feature and a triumph of personal filmmaking. On the big screen, with an audience, Scorsese's gritty urban slice-of-life is not only poignant, it's pretty darn hilarious. Robert DeNiro's star-making performance as an unreliable hustler--with his tics, mumbles, and circular dialogue--is even funnier with a crowd, which makes the film's climax all the more brutal. It plays for one week only.

Also highly recommended, coming July 6-9, are two of Alfred Hitchcock's unqualified masterpieces--the sly action thriller North by Northwest, and the director's wry meditation on fate and desire, Strangers on a Train. Watkins is showing these at staggered times, so that a filmgoer could easily catch a double feature; a more enjoyable evening at the movies I can't possibly imagine.

For the more adventurous among you, July 10-12 offers a double feature of two Catherine Deneuve classics, Roman Polanski's psychosexual shocker Repulsion and Luis Buñuel's poker-faced erotic comedy Belle de Jour. And for a full week, June 26-July 2, Watkins is hosting a retrospective of five seminal films by the father of American independent film, actor/director John Cassavetes. In such works as the scheduled Shadows and A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes turned improvisatory dialogue and the fragile relations between men and women into harsh psychodramas. I'm not wild about Cassavetes, but the opportunity to see his films in the way they were meant to be shown is invaluable.

As for new films, Nashville cineastes should be excited by the chance to see two of the year's most acclaimed foreign films, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (June 5-9), and Takeshi Kitano's Japanese cop melodrama Fireworks (July 3-5). A different kind of crowdpleaser should be Spike and Mike's Classic Festival of Animation (July 17-22), which features the Oscar-winning Pixar short "Geri's Game" and Aardman's claymation short "Stage Fright." Rounding out the schedule are two well-hyped new documentaries about celebrity, Barbara Kopple's Woody Allen travelogue Wild Man Blues (May 29-June 4) and Nick Broomfield's controversial post-Nirvana dissection Kurt and Courtney (June 19-25). The latter film--which has been threatened with legal action by Courtney Love--is the kind of daring choice that Watkins' new rotating film schedule should allow.

If I had to offer some advice to theater management, I'd recommend offering ticket packages, whereby filmgoers can receive bargain prices with regular attendance. I'd also be careful about the repertory films that are shown. The first quarter's choices are solid, including David Lean's masterful Lawrence of Arabia (June 15-18)--but that widescreen wonder will be an embarrassment if the theater doesn't secure a good print and screen it correctly. Take extra care with similar films whose selling point is their state-of-the-art presentation, and try to get the best-quality prints available (never pan-and-scan 16mm!) if you don't want an angry mob at the ticket counter. And finally, be careful not to rely on obvious films that audiences have seen too many times already. But do get more Hitchcock!

As critics and fans, we often say that there's no reason for an audience to sit through mediocre films while so many classics go unseen on video store shelves. If the Watkins Belcourt perseveres in alternating current arthouse hits with films of historical and cinematic import, there'll be even less chance your evening at the movies will be wasted.

--Noel Murray

Reconstituted Pulp

I've never seen Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets on a big screen, and unless you're one of the handful of people who caught it when it first came out--or who saw it at a college cinema or revival house somewhere--neither have you. The early '70s may have been, as everyone claims, the last golden era for major-studio filmmaking, but they were lousy years for major-studio marketing. Like several other brilliant, hard-to-classify studio films released in 1973--including Terrence Malick's grimly poetic Badlands and Robert Altman's genre-busting detective satire The Long Goodbye--Mean Streets ended up in mothballs after an all-thumbs distribution campaign. In its uncut form, the movie didn't find a sizable audience until many years later, when the children of Blockbuster and the Criterion Collection discovered it on video.

How, then, could a movie so initially obscure cast such a long shadow over 25 years of film? It's like the famous quote about the Velvet Underground--that they sold only 500 copies of their first LP, but every person who bought one formed a band. As films as diverse as Trainspotting, Boyz N the Hood, and Swingers can attest, Mean Streets is the movie equivalent of the solo that makes every kid want to strap on a guitar--and as with the Velvet Underground, more people have been influenced by it than have actually experienced it firsthand. Thanks to a restored 25th-anniversary print currently touring the country, you can discover the thing itself now in its widescreen glory--and if you haven't seen it before, accept no substitutes.

Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights both grabbed for the crown, but Mean Streets remains the ultimate young man's movie. No film better captures the exhilaration of rock 'n' roll and big sedans and horseplay, or the inescapable, encroaching terror of the secret adult world. The nice Catholic boy Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel in one of his first starring roles, spends his days running collections for his uncle, a Little Italy mob boss. His nights are spent carousing with the guys from the neighborhood--his wacko best friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro at his live-wire nerviest), barkeep Tony (David Proval), and Michael (Richard Romanus), the loan shark who's putting the bite on Johnny Boy.

"It's all bullshit but the pain," Charlie tells us, and true to his word he tests flames with his fingertips: He craves punishment and absolution for not being a better person--or so he tells us. (He never leaves his fingers in the flames too long.) The world he inhabits has no exits, no privacy: Someone's peeking through every window or listening in on every bedroom chat. And that's the way he likes it. When Johnny Boy's "tainted" epileptic cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) takes him to the beach, he hides from the sunlight in dark clothes and shades. He prefers the city, a maze of indistinguishable bars and pool rooms, where you can't tell night from day.

The movie's basic setup has been reworked so often that the characters now have the feel of archetypes. What seems shockingly original and singular now is the movie's seamless combination of neo-realist location shooting with stylized, operatic camera angles and deliriously heightened sensations--a feat akin to grafting an apple onto a passion fruit. One minute Charlie floats through a strip joint in exquisite languor while the Stones' "Tell Me" throbs on the soundtrack; the next he's sparring with Johnny Boy in an improvised routine that's like vintage Cassavetes, only funnier and more affectionate. The mercurial mood shifts, from knockabout comedy to wistful expressionism, are jarring in a naturalistic, unforced way, perhaps because they grow out of a cramped neighborhood that's less a backdrop than a participant.

Always a wizard with urban settings--which is why his strip-mall South in Cape Fear seemed so unconvincing--Scorsese grounds Charlie's mortal fear and sinner's elation (conveyed through Kent Wakeford's bristling, baroque camerawork) in one of the richest, ripest cityscapes in all of cinema, peopled with shell-shocked vets and unexplained killers and fussy neighbors whose lives continue when the camera moves away. With the mob puppeteers, and hence violence, always a constant presence in the background, the city is dangerous and oppressive and yet comfortingly familiar. The buddies drive everywhere, but all roads lead back to the neighborhood and its unbreakable codes. The city is a force of fate; the city is.

Today we don't need the credits to tell us Mean Streets is a Martin Scorsese picture--the movie opens with a full-on blast of Catholic guilt, tilted angles, and '60s pop music, with a flickering projector thrown in for good measure; you laugh to see how brazenly the director announced his characteristic obsessions even back in 1973. The soundtrack is just one example, with its Kenneth Anger-like use of girl-group pop and swaggering rock as a kind of disembodied consciousness (something Scorsese later perfected in GoodFellas). Even in this early work, we see a director capable of both Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ. But that's why Mean Streets, regarded by many as the ultimate New York film, can also be considered the apotheosis of '70s Hollywood.

Scorsese, along with Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, and De Palma, was part of the first generation of film-grad directors indoctrinated into the auteur theory; all ended up in Hollywood at the same time trying to make commercial movies that bore the director's unmistakable personal imprint. After making an experimental low-budget feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door?, in 1968, Scorsese served a stint as a film editor before cranking out a cheapie called Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman. According to Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Scorsese showed his gun-for-hire work to John Cassavetes, who told him it was good, and never do it again.

He didn't, with the possible exception of Cape Fear. Mean Streets is a thriller, in keeping with the slightly disreputable no-budget noirs and gangster pictures that Scorsese loves. But even after decades of imitation, it's too keenly felt and conveyed ever to be mistaken for hackwork. Always present is the director's love for the possibilities of what movies can do.

His restless amazement is painfully lacking in the generations that followed him to Hollywood. Compare the routine handling of sex in any contemporary mainstream movie with the coupling of Charlie and Teresa, an audacious blizzard of shock cuts and jolting sound effects that's playful, erotic, and more than a little sad. In Scorsese's world, where every sensation is amplified, even the closing of a windowshade has the impact of a punch. After 25 years, Mean Streets is still the newest movie around.

--Jim Ridley

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