Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Mean Streets (1973)

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Mean Streets was another rewatch for me, this time because I was really distractible the first time I saw it, and I wanted to give it another chance to make an impression on me. And it did. It really, really did.

You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.

MeanStreets_4.jpgHarvey Keitel is Charlie, a junior member of the New York mafia, in charge of shaking down local business for protection money. But Charlie, though he’s good at his job and enjoys a good reputation among his peers, isn’t personally invested in moving up in the organization’s power structure, and would rather take a more legit position overseeing a restaurant (one seized from the struggling owner in the mafia’s version of foreclosure). Meanwhile, he’s handling the careless Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), who is always in debt and doing very little to pay off those debts except getting Charlie to convince his creditors to back off. Plus, he’s secretly dating Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), a relationship that would be frowned upon by his superiors.

All three of these characters are kind of outsiders in the family/organization; Johnny Boy because he’s basically a feckless bum, unable to make good in any way and in fact ends up causing a great deal of trouble to everyone, and Charlie and Teresa because they both ultimately want to escape the life, get out of the organization. The tension among the three of them as well as between them and the others in power is as electric as any of Scorsese’s later films, and has an added touch of raw vitality. If The Godfather is the epic story of the upper levels of mob leadership, Mean Streets is the microcosm of how it plays out on the streets.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: New Hollywood Marathon

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My largest and most glaring gap of cinematic knowledge, at least of American film, is easily the 1970s. I grew up watching the films of the Hollywood studios’ golden era, the 1930s-1950s, and of my own generation, the 1990s-current, but have only sporadically caught the films in between. Given that many of the greatest and most iconoclastic American films of all time come from the 1970s, I have decided that enough is enough, and this year I am going to eliminate my New Hollywood list of shame, which includes: The Godfather Part II, M*A*S*H, The Exorcist, Five Easy Pieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Badlands, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, and others.

easy-riders-raging-bulls.jpgBecause my knowledge of the whole era is a little superficial, I’m reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Generation Saved Hollywood to give myself a background in the history and temperament of the era, and watching the films he discusses while I’m reading. And I figured, might as well share my journey through New Hollywood as I go. The list of films you’ll find after the cut is culled from Biskind’s book and Wikipedia’s entry on New Hollywood, leaving out some that I have already seen.

One thing that has fascinated me as I worked on creating this master list is how varied the films are – drama, comedy, action, satire, war, crime, romance, horror, western, science fiction, concert film and period piece are all among the genres represented. What they have in common: 1) a willingness to push the boundaries of what cinema was allowed to do and to explore themes of sexuality, antiheroism, and isolation that were previously taboo, 2) a sense of brashness and raw vitality brought by the eager young filmmakers wresting the reins from entrenched studios, 3) a tendency to focus on character and script rather than plot, and 4) a knowledge of and appreciation for cinema itself, from the masters of Golden Age Hollywood to the imports coming from Europe and Japan.

This quote from Biskind’s introduction I think sums it up nicely:

[The 1970s were] the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work — work that was character-, rather than plot-driven, that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily. […] In a culture inured even to the shock of the new, in which today’s news is tomorrow’s history to be forgotten entirely or recycled in some unimaginably debased form, ’70s movies retain their power to unsettle; time has not dulled their edge, and they are as provocative now as they were the day they were released. […] The thirteen years between Bonnie & Clyde in 1967 and Heaven’s Gate in 1980 marked the last time it was really exciting to make movies in Hollywood, the last time people could be consistently proud of the pictures they made, the last time the community as a whole encouraged good work, the last time there was an audience that could sustain it.

And it wasn’t only the landmark movies that made the late ’60s and ’70s unique. This was a time when film culture permeated American life in a way that it never had before and never has since. In the words of Susan Sontag, “It was at this specific moment in the 100-year history of cinema that going to the movies, thinking about movies, talking about movies became a passion among university students and other young people. You fell in love not just with actors but with cinema itself.” Film was no less than a secular religion.

A few Row Three contributors have already shown an interest in writing about some of these as well; if you’d like to watch and share your thoughts about any of them, please do! See also the list at the bottom, which includes several films I’ve already seen and don’t intend to rewatch and write about, but someone else certainly could. If you’re not a R3 contributor and would like to join in, just email me and I’ll post your reviews with credit.

 

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Film on TV: June 15-21

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The 400 Blows, playing Thursday, June 18th, at 10pm on TCM

 

This week TCM pays tribute to Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, William A. Wellman, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Mervyn LeRoy, and Vincente Minnelli, as well as throwing in some shorter director marathons for Tony Richardson (on Wednesday) and Blake Edwards (on Friday). I only highlighted a couple from those last two, but if you like them, check out the full morning schedule on TCM for those days.

Monday, June 15

3:30pm – TCM – National Velvet
One of my favorite movies growing up, probably not least of all because I was mad about anything to do with horses. Even so, National Velvet stands pretty tall among family friendly films, with a young Elizabeth Taylor fighting to run her beloved horse in England’s most prestigious steeplechase with the help of world-weary youth Mickey Rooney.

Great Directors on TCM: Elia Kazan
I gotta say I don’t really count Elia Kazan among my favorite directors – he tends to be a little message-y for me. Still, he got some great performances out of some great actors, and the Academy Awards loved him – although I’m not entirely sure that’s a positive.

9:30pm – TCM – On the Waterfront
Marlon Brando’s performance as a former boxer pulled into a labor dispute among dock workers goes down as one of the greatest in cinematic history. I’m not even a huge fan of Brando, but this film wins me over. Must See

12:00M – Sundance – Sex and Lucia
This isn’t a favorite of mine, but a lot of people around Row Three like it a lot, so I’ll let them defend it in the comments if they so choose. 🙂

See the rest after the jump.

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