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A little something about 'Mean Streets'

The art of VHS timers or Springsteens Book of the Dead

I used to get the video set for me by my dad. I would circle the films I wanted to watch in the weekly TV guide, make sure I had sufficient video space and then subcontract the technical work I would inevitably screw up to my dad. It was a well-rehearsed ritual and kept my film education in good stead before the era when we could locate any film we so wished online.

It was in this way that I first saw Mean Streets. I was 12 or there abouts. I strategically had my father set the video well before any film started, so as to avoid the inevitable ‘this film contains violence, sex and strong language’, the mortal enemy of a per-16 film obsessive. Not that my father was overtly protective in this area, the cultural or artistic attributes of film often superseded the adult content (though after my ‘early setting’ strategy failed, the particularly strong warning before Blue Velvet put heed to a 13 year old watching Nastassja Kinski get smacked in the face)

So the morning after I retrieved the video from the player, entirely unaware of what was in store for me. My obsessional love for the movies comes from countless sources, Jimmy Stewart, Ray Harryhausen, Moviedrome, the cluttered video shop up my road, 18’s I shouldn’t of watched, 50’s monster movies, Cronenberg, a history of Hollywood on my father’s shelves and on and on. It’s all very much unmappable, some things are vivid but may not have had that much effect as I was led to believe on my young mind (doubling over at the fireside fart scene in Blazing Saddles), footnotes or long forgotten Sunday afternoon viewing might be the reason I now have the cinematic kinks that I do….who knows. What I do know though is there are a million different reasons I love cinema, but there are 3 films I can say for certainty that made me want to have a crack at it myself. Apocalypse Now, Badlands and the 112 minutes my dad captured in the VHS player. Opinions ebb and flow, tastes change; I was a very different person when I first watched them, but they were their at the right place at the right time to mould an early filmmaking brain

The Boss once said on hearing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind” and so it goes with Mean Streets, I was intoxicated as soon as I heard that huge Phil Spector drumbeat… Bum-ba-bum-BOOM…. ‘The night we met I knew I needed you so and if I had the chance I'd never let you go’…..and then that Kinetoscope like super 8 crackles into existence. From the get-go it had me. What was this radiant, nervous thing? like some natural history film of bar room hoodlums, dug up by archaeologists in Little Italy next to rosemary beads and wide lapelled suits.

But from the upper middle floors of 42, I see it’s a young man’s film, catching Scorsese between Corman and the encyclopaedic cineaste, and it caught a young man’s eye. The restless and inventive camerawork (the pool room fight, Charlie’s drunken roam), the colours (the red bar, the blue streets), the time capsule nature of early 70’s New York, Johnny Boy’s skittish energy (the mailbox bomb), the intensified Catholicism as opposed to my own deteriorating one, the performances constructed out of documentaryesque ticks, method suffering and plain old not giving a fuck (the street dual with the bin lids), the unpredictable actions and the open ending. The film is alive to me as any biological entity. My memory of it then and my appreciation of it now are two complimentary states, both growing with me and never aging.

It was the first film where I wanted to figure out where it came from, sure I’d investigated the Children of the Hydra’s Teeth and the Rankor as any young boy was meant to, but this was the first time I’d wanted to know everything, above and below the surface. Why was that shot there? Why did that young man shoot the drunk? How did they get the shot in the car when it seemed so full? Who sang that? Why did I enjoy these long moving shots so much? (Scorsese’s tracking shots nurtured my undeniable love for such things and brought me in a convoluted and exploratory way to Tarr, Klimov and Angelopoulos) How was it lit? Where were these locations? And slowly it starts to build an investigative cinematic mind. We’ve all got this handful of films. They may not necessarily be your favourites, though gun to my head these three are, but they’re the ones that started you off. Made you more than just the person who says ‘yeah I like the movies….i saw whatsimcallit the other night, really enjoyed it’, made you ask questions of the flickering surface before you, made you hunt high and low for the directors other films, or the actors previous works, or the films that inspired it, made you have that quite possibly deluded moment of ‘right I’m packing in the 9 to 5’ insightfulness where you say to yourself ‘the only way I’m really gonna figure out how this is all done is by having a go at it myself’. You know who you are and you have my sympathies and my adulation

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