Mean Streets (1973): The freshness of young discovery

The freshness of a first time — of young discovery — simply can’t be overstated. And this is just so fresh, even all those years later feels so, perhaps even more so, knowing what came before and after.

A guerilla shoot in real streets, a roaming eye of the camera, loose story that is really edges of life. Actors being allowed improvised room in the story. None of it was new even then. It goes back to Cassavetes, my most cherished filmmaker when it comes to courageous discovery. French New Wave is another influence. Young Marty would have seen many of these growing up. He would have known Paisan and the rest of that Italian school.

The template is so potent, Tarantino would use it twenty years later and people would still think it new. It’s actually this film he was building on. The scenes of banter about nothing, movie references, montages and a rocking soundtrack, it’s all here.

So none of it new. But it didn’t have to be. Sometimes (most times?) your first time is not truly, really, your first time after all, and that’s true of creativity and love alike. This was not Marty’s first time behind a camera. But in truth it was. It was the first time he did it with the conviction to express a world he knew.

Deniro in the role of halfwit hoodlum is perfectly on board with this vision, although still young. Not only are these streets he shares with Scorsese, it’s the vision too. Skidding instead of giving back the scene, taking off on urge.

Oh there is an intermittent gangster plot about whether Johnny Boy pays back his debt but that’s just something to improvise around. I like that it’s not yet Goodfellas where polished crime is meant to excite.

I like that it’s tentative work of discovering as you go. Some of my most cherished works fall under this description. This is the Cassavetes spirit and although Marty never managed to come close, this was from a time he tried. It’s actually Cassavetes who spurred him to speak in his own voice, the story goes.

You’ll see this in Charlie’s plot about being given the restaurant by his uncle. We’re never really sure what happens. You’ll see this in his affair with the girl next door. The feel of twentysomethings, terribly unsure about what’s next but clutching on each other, sometimes tenderly.

We have all sorts of this vibrancy. Drugged vision in the bar. Driving and ordinary views of streets. Going to the movies. Whimsical tomfoolery around town in the Italian mode.

The whole thing tied up in a boyhood story of kids trying to act the part of mobsters.

It’s simply hard to watch this now and know the same filmmaker ended up doing The Departed, or Shutter Island, to pick near random films from among his work. He’s really done everything under the sun since, everything except write about his own world in his voice, exploring and extending as you go. This is probably the only time he tried.

Friends, every time we fail to speak in our own voice we do the world a disservice. That voice does not have to be ‘new’, spoken with new conviction is enough.

Simply said, seeing the world through our own eyes is what I would wish on everyone, no matter our circumstances or what we think we have to say. Each one is the center of a profound world only she/he knows.

Sadly he opted for the role of scholar of film. Let others catalogue and explain. Thrust yourself in the manifold strangeness of the world; there’s too much of it not to. Wanting to be a priest seems to have won with Marty.



writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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