Mean Streets And Urban Space: Part 3

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Mean Streets And Urban Space: Part 3

By Monica Foster.

Part 1 of 3 is here.

Part 2 of 3 is here.

The church and the bar are in opposition with another and fight for Charlie’s attention; the two try to crush his moral ambiguity and try to make it clear that one is better than the other.  As mentioned earlier, the church is featured less in the film than that of the bar. It is clear that Charlie’s identity and priorities lie in the mob business, which is intrinsically linked to the bar. However, in this space, Charlie does experience a little bit of a spiritual examination and guilt.

For instance, he feels guilty over lusting over an African American woman and because of this he again, places his finger next to a lighted match to pay his penance. Another scene in the film when this is so is when he and his mobster friends are playing a game of pool; the subject of conversation is of a religious retreat that he had been on.  Lastly, nearing the end of the film, Charlie and his friends are celebrating the homecoming of one of their compatriots from the Vietnam War.  In this scene Charlie is seen heavily intoxicated and with the use of Scorsese’s ‘dizzying effect’, the viewer gets a sense of his internal frenzy and panic that he has over his obligations. His identities converge into one, which causes him to completely lose sense of himself. The San Gennaro festival which is in the background in the entire film fails to pacify Charlie and his ambiguities allowing the violence that takes place between the gang of friends and the bar to reach the streets.

Mean Streets And Urban Space

Mean Streets And Urban Space

As mentioned earlier from Pratt and Juan, the street is openly diverse and it allows for more spontaneity than a staged set. In the early days of cinema, the apparatus was solely used to film documentaries and to capture life in the city. For instance, Dizga Vertov’s film, Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is an example of this. The film scenes move rather quickly and are sometimes incongruent to one another, but the idea is that it leaves an impression on the viewers mind; the film is a celebration of the idea of the city and human life within its spaces. Pratt and Luan suggest that filming on location has the greater advantage because of its ability to capture “something unexpected”.  Interestingly enough, the famous line, “Hey, I’m walkin here!” said by Dustin Hoffman in the 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy was unscripted and happened by accident  while Ratso and Joe stroll the streets of New York.

Since filming within the streets leads to greater action on set, and to scenes and features that may not be present on set, Mean Streets, is not only spontaneous in its violence and narrative, but it is set in a locale where such activity can occur.

Corkin in his book states that the city, (which is a cause for its citizens’ alienation) is “above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves” Charlie, in this case cannot figure out where he stands in the city’s building plans, or in his own self. Films such as Taxi Driver, Donnie Brasco, Midnight Cowboy, tend to show New York City as a marginal and space that is populated with crime and immorality. For Mean Streets, the historical time period too, is important to understand the streets and the general low brow, grime, and immoral criminality. The street appears relatively dirty and unkempt. The color scheme is visibly washed out, it is devoid of any warm colors and it carries with it that typical 70’s sentiment. It clearly does not look like a place one would want to inhabit, but at the same time it holds a feeling for nostalgia. In this image, Charlie Cappa is huddled with his mobster friends on the left side assuring Michael that Johnny Boy will pay his debts. Here, Charlie is positioned with the persona that he wants to take; the life of petty street criminal however, he is not directly in the sidewalk’s space.

Men huddling and standing in front of commercial zones gives off an air of mystique and ambiguity as to what they are actually speaking and doing, or in this matter, planning to do.  This is reminiscent of the scene in Donnie Brasco where Leftie is taking Donnie to meet Sonny Black and the gang who are waiting on the street outside an establishment. Charlie seems to belong and fit the identity and look of a mafioso. The connotative code of Charlie and other characters prove this point further; they dress in suits and generally carry the look of a man whose dealings and objectives are not conventional.  Presumably having lived in Little Italy all his life, like Scorsese, it is hard for Charlie to separate himself with the streets and the character that this locale tries to impose on him. In the same scene, Charlie is then seen entering the space of the sidewalk, via a long shot. He fastens his coat as if determined to succeed in his mafia mission.  The street around him helps fortify his mindset and identity. It helps confirm that in  this scene, he belongs to the streets and can feel himself within them.

Since Charlie’s insularity keeps him from discovering the world around Little Italy, he is inevitably confined to way of life in the district and its crime; he knows nothing else. Moreover, his uncle, Giovanni, is a local capo within the district and because his family is involved the mob, Charlie’s identity as a member of such business is already inherent. The streets and their activity have made a large impression on Charlie which makes it hard for him to see anything else beyond it. It’s part of his identity and converges with the church and other previously discussed identities. In another scene, a short tracking shot follows Johnny Boy walking down the street at night in Little Italy. The scene gives the viewer a feeling of alienation within the urban space; the lights of shops and their windows show off a scenic place, but Johnny Boy is the lone man walking amongst the bustle of life, making the viewer feel as if something is about to happen, due to the shaky hand held camera that follows him. In fact, as he walks, he attacks a fellow passerby and leaves him in a fetal position on the sidewalk, adding to the further spontaneity in the film.

As American mafia film conventions show, bars, casinos, restaurants, and bustling cities are typical of mafia films. Although Mean Streets is not a conventional mafia film it does portray this characteristic in a less glamorous and pleasing way than for example, The Godfather. The city is an extremely large place and most certainly has an overwhelming effect; as eccentric as Johnny Boy is, he is separated from urban space and from himself too. In contrast to the, The Godfather Part II, scenes from Little Italy in 1917 show street grocerias, a huge juxtaposition in comparison with the polluted and criminal streets in Mean Streets in the sense that the former helps keep people together, while the latter makes no attempt at this.

Mean Streets And Urban Space

Mean Streets And Urban Space

For me, the film was interesting in terms of its themes, as well as its urban space. The capture of the era, as well as the film’s score were excellently rendered and placed. Having read more about Scorsese’s early life before writing this reflection helped me to understand the film’s contents better. The era was especially one of moral turmoil but there is something strangely enchanting about it as well. I find the theme of spiritual and moral  ambiguity interesting especially the idea of how to behave morally in such a corrupt and immoral world. It really isn’t different today either.  The relationship between urban space and character is important. It can build on character identity, improve it, destroy it or it can stand untouched. In this film’s case, I would say that they stand untouched or simply remain in shambles. Charlie and Johnny Boy remain too deep in their own debauched location to realize that they cannot improve their situation if they decide to remain in Little Italy.

Charlie’s one attempt at leaving and deciding to go to Brooklyn failed and he harmed his girlfriend Teresa and Johnny Boy as well in a car accident. Charlie was perhaps the character that suffered the most in terms of his conflicted selves, but he too didn’t take any steps in order to resolve his dilemma.  Scorsese himself says that Johnny Boy, Charlie and Teresa don’t die, so there is still some amount of hope that the Charlie and Johnny will change but it is unlikely. Charlie Cappa did go down these mean streets, but he also went drift because of them. He does not possess the inner strength and qualities in order to transcend the ‘meanness’ of the streets and to resolve his obstacles.

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