By Monica Foster.
Part 1 of 3 is here.
Not only does this film’s urban space initially set up the characters identity but it also subtly encompasses the ambience of street life in such a tribal and culturally specific community; here, Little Italy is only a microcosm, a small junction in the whole of America’s one of the most colourful metropolitan destinations.
The film begins with a celebration of film as a medium itself. The viewer is privy to the intimate home videos of the characters, (reminiscent of Scorsese’s home videos) as well as different spaces that will be introduced within the film; the church, Tony’s bar, and of course, the streets. After the three minute veneration the medium, the viewer is presented with an establishing shot of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral at night, in beautiful lights, amongst the San Gennaro festival, establishing the spiritual and religious current that is present throughout the film. Could it also subtly suggest that Charlie should take the more righteous and proper path? Scorsese then uses a handheld camera, showing the viewer the action within the festival with a crowd shot. The San Gennaro Festival itself occupies a large space within Little Italy and the fact that it is a religious festival, creates a feeling of identity.
The streets and their overreaching space allow for the congregation of people to come together and revel with one another; this creates a feeling of worth, something that Charlie does not have. Religion gives individuals a communal space in which people can worship, pray and be with God as one. There are relatively few scenes that depict church life in the movie as a whole, but it is implied heavily in the scenes where it is shown, and through the film’s dialogue. In the beginning sequence of the home videos, Charlie Cappa stands outside the Cathedral and shakes hands with the priest. In the following shot, Charlie puts on a pair of shades, and appears to be standing taller than the priest in comparison to the first shot.
With these two added details, he looks more like a gangster than a dutiful Catholic. The cathedral/church acts as the moral control center amongst all the dirt and grime that happens in its urban surroundings. Charlie is very much in the vicinity of the church in these two shots but he is steps away from actually being inside the church’s interior which shows that he is at a wavering equilibrium on his initial place within society – should he take the step toward the Church, or the streets? The first image poses this question, but the second image with Charlie in shades confirms his alliance to street life. Corkin describes in his book: Starring New York: Living the Grime and the Glamour of the Long 1970s, the past cultural history of the church explaining how in the 19th century the church’s populous was mainly made up of Irish immigrants. However, it later became a parish church. The church as a location within Little Italy, especially in the time when Mean Streets was filmed, is the only space where one can achieve salvation through religion. Religion is, or should be a part of Charlie’s identity but it is fragmented and is constantly in opposition with the other identities that force him in directions due to the spaces that he inhabits.
As a young Italian-Catholic man, one would except that he would not be at odds with his sense of identity but because of the urban spaces that he is exposed to and the criminality that goes on within these locations, it makes it harder for him to follow the dogma of the Church. Instead, he follows his own conscience, the dogma of the streets. His friend, Johnny Boy, and somewhat clandestine girlfriend, Teresa acts as a bridge for him to the church; he takes care of them, they are his salvation and through them, he does his penance as well.
In the film’s beginning when all the characters are being introduced the viewer, Charlie is shown walking inside the church towards the pew. As he kneels, he is shown in a shallow focus and a semi-subjective shot while the altar is the bokeh and is therefore blurred.
However, Scorsese then presents us with a very wide shot of the interior space of the church, with Charlie just visible to the viewer’s eye. The church’s space is very broad and beautiful but it is devoid of people except for Charlie and one other sitting on the benches at the back. The emptiness of this space reflects Charlie’s uncertain religiosity and therefore, identity. It could also be said that it practically doesn’t exist. The space is large, but it is not larger than the streets. The church is a place where one meets the spiritual and finds salvation; it’s fully welcoming, but Charlie’s inability to refuse the mob life and his friends leads to him making amends his own way.
The last scene the viewer sees of Charlie in the church is one where he intentionally harms himself by placing his finger amongst a burning candle thus doing his penance himself. Next, a contrast cut allows the entrance into Tony’s infamous bar, the space where identity roams free, stable and cohesive. Where once the viewer felt serene and at peace in the church, the contrast cut allows one to be shaken up by the fierce red lighting that filters through the bar. The bar as an urban location is crucial to Mean Streets because not only is it placed within the streets and city life, but it is the harbinger of individual identities, as well as collective identities. Tony’s bar is essentially Charlie’s church, and his hell. It is here, in this urban space where we see him relatively at ease in the beginning of the film. A short tracking shot (common cinematic element in Scorsese films) follows him as he moves around the bar dancing to the Rolling Stones song, Tell Me. New York City alone has countless of bars and entertainment locales.
Part 3 of 3 here.
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