"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mook Musicals: Mean Streets/Saturday Night Fever

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Double Bill-a-Thon
being coordinated by Gautam Valluri at Broken Projector.

In their own way, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977) are gritty musicals set in and around New York City. Both films take the notion of the American success story and reduce it to almost nothing. The characters that inhabit these films are small-time hustlers and punks with no real direction in life and no future.

Set in "Little Italy," Scorsese’s film introduces us to most of the main characters in the opening moments of the film. Each one is given his own little scene in order to showcase his distinct character-defining obsession. We first meet Tony (David Proval), the order-obsessed owner of a local bar, as he throws out a junkie and then chastises his bouncer for his lack of initiative. Next, is Michael (Richard Romanus), a serious looking loan shark who ineptly tries to sell a man a shipment of German lens only to be told by the customer that they are actually Japanese adapters. This is followed by the explosive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a happy-go-lucky punk who gleefully blows up a mailbox and then runs off. Finally, we meet the film's protagonist, Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an ambitious young man who is embroiled in conflict – both personal and external.

Charlie is torn between two worlds: the static isolation of his uncle's environment and the constricting chaos of Johnny Boy's lifestyle. He must make a choice between the two, while trying to exist in both. Conflict occurs when these two worlds inevitably collide and Charlie is left to pick up the pieces. This revisionist approach is in stark contrast to the traditional gangster film which almost always follows a curve that traces the criminal's rise and eventual fall. However, Scorsese disrupts this notion by having no rise and leaving the fall unresolved. The only thing that is truly alive and vital in the film is Scorsese's camera which dollies and tracks all over the place with incredible energy and enthusiasm that is truly infectious.

It was one of the few gangster films, at the time, to use a personal, almost home-movie view of its subjects. The settings and situations are so intimate and personal that you almost feel embarrassed, as if you are intruding on someone's actual life.

Harvey Keitel's strong performance is one of the many highlights of Mean Streets. He manages to convey the inner turmoil that threatens to consume Charlie's character as he struggles to save everyone around him and ends up saving no one. It is incredible to see how much energy Robert De Niro instills in Johnny Boy – the embodiment of the film's frenetic force. He is the unpredictable element in Charlie's otherwise, structured world. Whenever Johnny Boy is on-screen the camera mimics his furious pace that absolutely bristles with intensity. Scorsese reinforces this energy in an early scene where Johnny Boy enters Tony's bar to the strains of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones. Even though the entrance is captured in a slow motion tracking shot, De Niro's character is so energetic that not even this technique can slow him down.

The characters inhabit a world of smoky, dimly-lit bars with an amazing classic rock soundtrack to compliment the proceedings. Scorsese's camera is restless and frantic as it moves in tight, narrow spaces that lead to dead ends. This is done to convey the destiny of the characters. They are full of energy, but are going nowhere in life. Scorsese also used a hand-held camera to create a jerky, off-balance effect that conveys the sensation of disorientation. There is no center of power. No other scene demonstrates this effect more than the famous pool hall brawl where Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Tony go to collect some money from the owner. A fight breaks out when Johnny Boy's bravado insults the owner. Scorsese uses a hand-held camera to convey the constant confusion of the fight. The camera darts and weaves all over the place seemingly in time with “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes. Scorsese follows one fight for a while before shifting to another brawl in an indiscriminate fashion. This effect raises the fight to a frightening level as the audience is drawn right into the middle of the pool hall melee and yet is offset by the music. The violence has no meaning or nobility and no one becomes a hero or succeeds as a result of using excessive force. After the pool hall fight is broken up, the conversation continues as if it never happened. The fight served no purpose and achieved no real end, except to enliven the characters' mundane existence for a few minutes. The camera, and by extension, the viewer enters the fracas, which creates a sense of danger not only for the characters but for the audience as well.

Saturday Night Fever also introduces its protagonist in an exciting and dynamic way as we see Tony Manero (John Travolta) strutting down the streets of Brooklyn, paint can in his hand to the strains of “Stayin' Alive” by the Bee Gees. He is a young man who works at a hardware store during the day but at night he hangs out with his buddies at the local dance club, 2001 Odyssey. Tony hopes to win the club’s dance contest but needs to find the right partner. At first, he teams up with Annette (Donna Pescow), a neighborhood girl who has a crush on Tony but whom he tells flat out that she’s not his “dream girl.” That would be Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney) whom Tony spots cutting a very impressive groove on the dance floor and later at the dance studio where he practices at.

Tony falls hard for her but she initially rebuffs his advances, interested only in dancing, getting out of Brooklyn, and living in Manhattan. Even though Tony is the king of his neighborhood, he wants out too because he’s tired of living at home (arguing constantly with his father) and sees that his friends (like Charlie’s in Mean Streets) have no future – they are going to spend the rest of their lives in their neighborhood. This is symbolized by the character of Bobby C (Barry Miller), the dumb one of Tony’s gang who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and spends the film trying to figure out what he’s going to do about it. He tries asking for help but no one listens to him because they don’t take him seriously.

Saturday Night Fever is beautifully photographed, especially the dance club scenes with the garish reds and vibrant, atmospheric lighting (Christmas lights and disco balls) that is epitomized in the sequence where Tony struts his stuff on the dance floor while everyone watches admiringly. Director John Badham frames Travolta in long shots so that his entire body is visible and as a result there is no question that he’s really doing all that incredible dancing. Because Saturday Night Fever has been parodied many times over people forget what an amazing dancer Travolta was, but watching him cut loose to “You Should Be Dancing” is one of the best dance sequences ever put to film. The choreography is astounding and Travolta moves to the music perfectly. It is easy to see how this film transformed him into a cultural phenomenon. As his brother tells Tony, he’s exciting to watch. Truer words were never spoken.

The comradery between Tony and his buddies feels authentic much as it does between Charlie and his friends in Mean Streets. It really seems like they’ve been friends forever. They act like goofballs around each other but not to the point of caricature. It never feels false. This is exemplified in the scene where they go for burgers at White Castle with Stephanie and Double J (Paul Pape) makes a joke about Tony eating like a dog. Double J begins barking loudly freaking out the employees and other customers but it is funny as opposed to being threatening.

People often forget how gritty the film is. If Martin Scorsese ever directed a dance movie this would be it. Tony and his gang are a tough bunch of guys who aren’t above taking on a rival gang who jumped one of their own. It’s a chaotic, messy fight reminiscent of a similar skirmish in Mean Streets. In fact, it often feels like Tony and his buddies could exist in the same world only a few miles away.

The true test of a film’s staying power is if the characters still resonate years after you first saw it. This special quality is very subjective. When enough years pass any film will inevitably viewed through the lens of nostalgia, representing a specific time and a place that doesn’t exist anymore except in our memories. This is the power of cinema – to capture a moment in time forever and allow you to revisit again and again like an old friend. Mean Streets and Saturday Night Fever do this and that is why both have endured for over 30 years and will continue to do so.