Definitely a Guilt Thing

Mean Streets (1973)

What you are about to read is the transcript of an online conversation between two individuals regarding Martin Scorsese’s first major film, Mean Streets. One of these individuals (Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief of Bright Wall/Dark Room) knows a whole lot about Scorsese, and was watching Mean Streets for the fourth time. The other individual (Elizabeth Cantwell, Managing Editor of Bright Wall/ Dark Room) somehow managed to get through life without ever learning much about Scorsese’s films, knew nothing about Mean Streets, and watched the film for the very first time the night before this conversation. This is their story.

(Where necessary, typos and grammar have been cleaned up; in other places, we have left remnants of the instant/unpunctuated nature of internet chatting. In addition, links have been inserted where appropriate, to provide additional context.)

Elizabeth Cantwell: Let me start by asking you: What is the plot of Mean Streets? Because I have no idea. You just start telling me about the plot, and I’ll interrupt you when I need to.

Chad Perman: Well, I saw your tweet last night that you were halfway through the film and had realized it had no plot, so I was somewhat expecting that question – though the second half is a little more straightforward plot-wise, didn’t you think? Johnny has to pay money to the loan shark, Charlie has to keep Johnny out of trouble, fails, car chase, shooting, aftermath, goodnight.

EC: I was trying to envision how this movie would be pitched and all I could come up with was “There are these drug dealer guys or mob guys or maybe mob guys who deal drugs, and one of them is crazy.”
“And he has to pay money but he doesn’t”
“The end”

CP: Haha – well thankfully Scorsese didn’t really have to pitch it much. John Cassavettes basically commanded him to make a more personal film, after he was a director-for-hire of sorts on the previous film he’d made for Roger Corman (Boxcar Bertha). Scorsese had the script—he’d been working on it off and on for over seven years apparently—and said, OK, i’ll try to make this then.

I don’t think Scorsese ever envisioned it as a straightforward plot type of film; he was going after a much more episodic, free-form approach.

EC: Yeah, that was what I loved about it – that it felt almost Malick-y to me in its disregard of linearity and its willingness to be just sort of surreal and outside of the concerns of plot. Also if this is a personal film, I’m sort of scared of Scorsese.

CP: Yeah, you should be a little scared of Scorsese – this is mostly all taken directly from his life growing up in Little Italy – the Keitel character is essentially a stand-in for him. At first Corman was going to put up the financing, but only if Scorsese made it with an all black cast, so Corman could sell it as a blaxploitation film (which were popular at the time, Shaft, Foxy Brown, etc.). Thankfully, that film never happened. And thankfully, this film did instead, because it set Scorsese off on the career he’s had since, plus introduced him to De Niro.

EC: Yeah, I loved De Niro in this! I also loved how the whole thread with the epileptic woman – Theresa? – isn’t even introduced until like an hour into the movie. Also she’s the one who kills that drunk guy at the urinal, right? Or is that just a random woman? Either way I have no idea why that happened. Also I always thought Harvey Keitel was fat. Is he fat now?

CP: Did you know Scorsese is actually IN the movie?

EC: No?


EC: WHOA WHAT? That’s crazy!

CP: He’s the loan shark’s goon/henchman.

EC:That’s also funny because, like
he’s SHOOTING the movie
get it

CP: I am not responding to that.

EC: No I bet that was in his head, though.
I bet he was like “GUys this is meta”
he’s super into meta shit (that’s what I know of Scorsese)

CP: I thought you were gonna go deep – “he’s actually the guy playing the guy who shoots his own onscreen persona!” But you went with the puns.

I remember raising my hand in a college film class with that comment (Scorsese’s character shoots at Charlie, who is supposed to be Scorsese!) and thinking I was going to get comment of the decade appreciation from the professor. And it went NOWHERE. He was like “Yeah, I guess.” And the class just stared at me. I was the worst in film classes.

EC: If I seriously had to list what I know of Scorsese it would be: he’s super into meta shit (he likes putting movies in his movies) and he likes making movies about gang guys and lone psychos. That’s about it. They do go to the movies in Mean Streets (twice).

CP: Yep! And both of those films were specific nods by Scorsese. The first movie was a Roger Corman movie, since he owed him for starting his career, and the second clip near the end is from The Public Enemy, an old William Wellman film that influenced Mean Streets. (see, told you i knew too much about this)

Scorsese’s voice is in the film too – he does the opening voiceover and a couple of other voiceovers. Sometimes it’s Keitel in those, other times Scorsese.
aka meta shit

EC: Update, you guys: I just google imaged Harvey Keitel and he was never fat, so I don’t know why I thought that. He’s actually super cut in this movie. Anyway so wait was Scorsese dealing drugs before he made movies?

CP: Keitel was definitely a different guy in the 60s and 70s for sure. And Scorsese wrote the film with Keitel in mind.

EC: Are they even dealing drugs in this movie? Or are they just generally Bad People?
Do they have an underground black market for smuggled tigers?
Is there a gambling mob? Maybe they’re gamblers

CP: I think drugs are assumed? I’m pretty sure the mob did a bit of everything. Though that’s entirely based on watching The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino. I don’t really get the tiger part though. Except that it allows Keitel to call the guy “William Blake” later.

EC: The tiger part was the BEST SCENE in the movie
Have you seen Manhunter? Because that movie also has a KILLER tiger scene.

CP: I have seen Manhunter. I remember no tigers.

EC: oh man WHAT
you have to rewatch it
it’s the blind lady, and she feels the tiger
she feels its face and stuff
I think the tiger is under anaesthesia

CP: I don’t doubt that that happens.

EC: I feel like the tiger in this movie was so perfect, because the whole movie was, like, these caged people, people who have these immense bottled up physical expressions, and on the one hand they just want to be cuddled, they want to purr…

CP: Wait, I just realized I never responded to how little you know of Scorsese in general. How is that?
I am directing us away from tiger purrs

EC: they want to be fed small snacks, but on the other hand they have this underlying ingrained instinct to kill


EC: I never learned about Scorsese! I am focusing! The tiger analysis is the best I can bring to this conversation. Also, in Blake, the tiger is burning bright but that also implies, to me, that it’s going to burn out.

CP: But I mean, just from being in America for the last however old you are (48?), how did more things not just seep in by osmosis?

EC: I don’t know, I don’t have cultural osmosis. I also still get confused on which Star Wars it is where they are on the ice planet
but I’ve seen Star Wars like 50 times
Are you sure you don’t want to talk more about the tiger?

CP: Save it for the tiger essay I’ll let you write for our sure-to-be-a-bestseller “Animals” issue

EC: Don’t joke, I’ll write that

CP: I’m not joking! It can have that Bill Murray movie with an elephant, and that Cameron Crowe disaster where they buy a zoo. Plus something on Raging BULL – boom, Scorsese connection. Plus, in lots of Scorsese films, the men are basically animals.

EC: See, that’s what I was saying. They’re like these caged cats.

CP: So, you liked Mean Streets?

EC:Yes! I think so! I liked Charlie, but then I was thinking about it, and, like, he’s probably not a good guy.

CP: He is good! But he’s also not, at times. That’s the point/conflict to the whole movie, I think…

EC: I mean, he tries to take care of Johnny no pants or whatever his name is.
Johnny Two Times.
What’s his name?

CP: Johnny Boy.

EC:He tries to take care of him, but then you’re also like, “why are you in this business, dummy” “if you want to take care of people, you should go be a social worker”

Also, when Theresa is having an epileptic fit, he just runs away and leaves her with the old woman on the stairs. WHAT THE HELL, CHARLIE.

CP: That old woman is Scorsese’s mom!
The main thing about Charlie/Mean Streets is guilt – did that come through for you? He’s in a shit world, with insane people doing bad things, and he’s still trying to have this moral code…

EC:Yes, but he’s in a world where that’s impossible, so it’s almost like he’s in a way shooting himself in the foot.

CP: It’s impossible, and it’s also not entirely altruistic how he’s trying to be good to everybody – because like Johnny Boy says to him near the end, he’s not doing it for him, he’s doing it to feel good about himself.

EC:Yes, exactly!

CP: But that’s the world Scorsese felt he came out of – he knew all these people, was some version of them himself (though a fairly weakly, asthmatic version who stayed in bed or went to the movie theater more than anything else). And they have no chance at getting out of that world, was what he was thinking growing up.

EC: Obviously the catholic religious symbolism is out of control

CP: That’s all Scorsese – he wanted to be a priest. Went to seminary and everything. Got kicked out.

EC: Oh, that makes total sense. I don’t know if he could have put many more statues of Jesus in this movie. Also that restaurant had ceilings that were vaulted just like a cathedral’s.

CP: That’s the dichotomy again – it’s got more crosses and Jesus statues than any film around, but it also (at the time) had more violence and profanity (literally) than any other film ever
I read some quote somewhere that he felt like the three options you had back then were: become a gangster/criminal, become a priest, or try to get to an education and get out.

EC: Were they poor? Are we supposed to see them as really underclass? Or just held down by cultural expectations?

CP: I think all of it, really. I mean, it was this whole Italian-American milieu they were all growing up in, and it was very hard to get out of the neighborhood, and there were all these old school rules and moral codes, and that’s just what Scorsese grew up with.

EC: I like that. I also really liked how the film didn’t LOOK slick and expensive (because I know it probably wasn’t) – I liked how it looked rough, grainy. That one sequence where Keitel is drunk at the party was amazing.
(and oh man all of the AMERICA! symbolism there)
This was, like, the Vietnam vets were coming home? Is that what it was? And also maybe Fourth of July?

CP: Yeah, I could never figure that out entirely
there were just a lot of parades then apparently
and I mean that opening title sequence!

EC: “There were just a lot of parades then apparently” —Chad Perman, Scorsese Expert, 2015

CP: “I really only know about tigers.” – Elizabeth Cantwell, tiger lover
The mix of old home-movie type footage and “Be My Baby” is the best way to start a movie maybe ever. You’re just like I AM IN ON THIS ONE.

EC: The scenes I liked the best were: the tiger scene, the drunk scene, the scene where De Niro checks his pants, and the scene where the girl tells him not to look at her as she’s getting dressed. That, I thought, was perfect—that weird modesty that doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe also a guilt thing?

CP: And the barfight set to “Please Mr. Postman” was pretty damn wonderful, too.
Yep, definitely a guilt thing!
Did you get that basically any time Charlie had sex or did something sexual (stripper part, etc) he did some religious ritual really soon after? So he’d hang out with the stripper, and then put his hand over a flame until it hurt.

EC: Oh yeah! No, I didn’t put those things together, but I like that!

CP: Scorsese is all about guilt. And explosive kinetic violence.

EC: Once my uncle put his hand in a candle at Thanksgiving dinner and everyone was freaked out

CP: Clearly he was performing an homage to Mean Streets.

EC: Johnny Boy has no guilt, though.

CP: No, Johnny Boy is ALL id—entirely in the moment, no thought of consequences, blowing shit up and shooting at the Empire State building and fighting Charlie with trash can lids.

EC: Do you think they all have guilt for not fighting in Vietnam? Or do they feel proud of that because people like them would have hated the war? What year was this made?

CP: I think it came out in 1973, so it would have been made in…72?

EC: The trash can lids were also great!! Like Shakespearean fencing, with TRASH, because America has nothing as sophisticated as fencing anymore, we are all depraved and high and sad and lost.
Do you think that Tiger was from asia?
I don’t know why I just capitalized tiger.

CP: I am not answering that

EC: Did people like this movie when it came out?

CP: Critics did. I think it was a very modest success – I mean, it was made for very little, so it didn’t have to do well to earn money. But also people walked out of it, a lot.

EC: Yeah that makes total sense. It is a baffling viewing experience, but if you’re okay with being baffled, it’s great.

CP: That level of “anxious violence” and constant swearing was very jarring back then, so people just got up and left.

What baffled you?

EC: Just trying to catch the thread of what was happening, what was the most important thing to be watching for.

CP: hmm

EC: Usually movies set that up pretty quickly: here is your protagonist, and here is his main dilemma, and here is the world he’s a part of. But here it’s much more fuzzy, the terms keep changing.

CP: Well, this does that. Like in the first scene. Right?

EC: um

CP: Here’s Charlie. He’s talking about guilt and redemption. Here are some people he knows.

EC: maybe I just didn’t get that

CP: Maybe because the main dilemma is internal? I mean there’s the external plot – which never moves linearly, like we talked about – but the real thrust of the main dilemma, without sounding too pretentious, is Charlie’s soul. He’s trying to do good in a bad world, for complicated reasons, and often getting it wrong.

EC: Yeah, at the end there’s that part where they’re all in the car, and he says “I’m trying, Lord, I’m trying,” and Theresa laughs at him, and it’s sort of heartbreaking.

CP: He’s messed it all up by the end, for sure.

EC: I also felt like a main thrust of this was: what do you do when you are tasked with taking care of someone who can’t, or won’t, take care of himself?

CP: Charlie’s the people-pleaser/mediator type, always trying to be the go-between in all these different worlds, and it ends up like it often does for people like that … you try and make everybody happy, nobody ends up happy.

EC: I thought about alcoholics and true addicts and narcissists and other people like that. And the families and friends who try over and over to reign them in or care for them or do the right thing, and it’s thrown back in their faces.

CP: Oh, big time. That’s huge in the Charlie/Johnny Boy dynamic.

EC: When he lends Johnny Boy the money, and then Johnny Boy just buys drinks? I wanted to cry.

CP: It’s heartbreaking. Even though you know Johnny is gonna mess it up somehow, you keep hoping somehow he’ll do something normal and right for once. And of course he doesn’t. I mean, for me, it’s clear when De Niro blows up a mailbox FOR NO REASON AT ALL and then runs away at the beginning—this guy ain’t ever gonna not be a troublemaker.

EC: Oh yeah, I thought maybe he had worked for the post office. That’s probably not true, but I thought maybe it was revenge.

CP: No, it was just that he blows things up for fun because he’s the kind of guy who does things like that.

EC: That also makes sense.

CP: The title actually comes from a Raymond Chandler quote: “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

EC: I’ve definitely heard that quote before. Didn’t put it together in my head, but that actually really helps bring the movie into focus. We should have STARTED with that quote
we did this wrong

CP: He was originally gonna call it Season of the Witch (which thank god he didn’t).

EC:That sounds dumb
Also you can’t use Chandler for NY purposes.

CP: It’s the internet, we can go back and put this part at the beginning and look like geniuses.

EC: No, that would be lying.

CP: Also, almost all of the film was shot in LA, so it makes it ok to use Chandler after all!

EC: YES, I noticed it was downtown LA at the end—it’s so clearly downtown LA—it added to the surrealism of it all. It really messed me up.

CP: All the interiors were done in LA or Hollywood, too. Scorsese had some funny line about “De Niro shoots at the Empire State Building and hits a window in downtown LA.”

EC: More meta shit. Because you’re made very aware that you’re WATCHING a movie that was NOT made where it pretends to be.

CP: It wasn’t intentionally meta though, it was for budget/business realities. So Scorsese rehearsed the whole thing for a month in NY, shot a few days there for exteriors, and then everybody flew to LA and did most of the movie there.

EC: Well, but Scorsese had to know “This doesn’t look like NY.” It’s the Eastern Columbia building, it’s so clearly back there at the end. I take your “budget purposes” and raise you “genius surreal intentionality.”

CP: Way better. The only other thing to add before we wrap up, I think, is that this film basically made Robert De Niro Robert De Niro. Coppola cast him in the second Godfather right after seeing this, based on his performance.

EC: He looks really tall in this movie.
maybe just because Harvey Keitel is short

CP: I think Harvey Keitel is really short
and not fat

EC: Oh, for a minute I thought Scorsese did The Godfather

CP: What’s the emoji for “I can’t believe you just said that”?

EC: Aren’t you glad I’m a managing editor?

CP: We should maybe talk about that.

EC: Were you surprised no one died? I mean of the main characters.
Wait, did Johnny Boy die? In my head, no one died, which I thought was interesting, but now as I’m typing this I’m realizing maybe De Niro did die?

CP: Nope, nobody died.

EC: Yes! Okay, yes. I thought that was actually a really interesting choice. Because you see Theresa’s hand through the windshield, and you see Johnny Boy get shot in what looks like the neck, and the car crashes, and yet all of them walk away …

CP: Scorsese said they would have been better off dead – that it was worse having them all live because they suffered something even worse: humiliation (which says something about Scorsese for sure).

EC: Like an Ethan Frome moment!! He probably read Ethan Frome.

CP: I’ll take humiliated and alive any day over being randomly killed in a car shooting.
Whenever I hear Ethan Frome, I literally always picture Ethan Hawke. 20 years that’s been going on.

EC: What about Ethan Embry

CP: I never think about him
I think it’s the “e” on the end of the last name. So maybe if it was Ethan Embrye.

EC: Okay, give me your summary of how you feel about this film. If I had to do, like, a tagline, I would say: “The American dream is dead. But the tiger’s still alive.”

CP: I love that. How I feel about the film is: Mean Streets is a lot like real life: strange, beautiful, and confusing—with fantastic music.

EC: Oh I like that! This movie to me is about wanting to be present in a place that doesn’t let you be present. It’s about wanting a visceral experience of some kind in a world that is increasingly distanced and bureaucratized and strange. It’s about wanting to be applauded, and then wanting to be alone.

CP: I’m changing mine to yours.

EC: Is this the end?

CP: Yes! TA-DA! We totally figured out Mean Streets!