Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell

Voyeurism and the movies go hand in hand. After all what is looking at movies other than peeping into the lives of other people. The subject has been explored in many films, “The Conversation,” “Sliver,” “Blow-Up,”  and more so with directors like Brian DePalma in  “Hi Mom!, “Blow Out,” “Body Double” and with Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and  “Psycho.” More recently films like “Disturbia”, “Alone with Her” and “Vacancy’ have explored the topi c. However, no film connects voyeurism and film more than Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.”

Powell is best known as one-half of “The Archers”, the other half being Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger , produced, directed and wrote or any combination thereof some of the classiest British films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “49th Parallel”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Tales of Hoffman” and “The Red Shoes.” Therefore, when this ‘nasty’ psychological thriller called “Peeping Tom” was released it came as a shock to both the critics and the public that this film was directed by Michael Powell. Reaction from the media and the public was so hostile, (the London Tribune said “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of ‘Peeping Tom’ would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the sewer, even then the stench would remain”), the film was pulled from movie theaters in Britain quickly. When the film was released in the U.S. in May of 1962, it was a sliced and diced aborted version that did little business and died a quick death. Powell’s career was all but ruined. He managed to make a few more films, in Australia, which included “Age of Consent” with James Mason and a young Helen Mirren, but for all intent Powell’s career was ruined and pretty much over. Continue reading

Hugo (2011) Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s  HUGO is a film lover’s dream. A homage to those early days of cinema when virgin movie audiences would jump from their seats frightened the oncoming train would  burst right through the screen and run them over.

The film is based on the children’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Caberet” by Brian Selznick. The last name should sound familiar. Brian is a relative of the late Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick whose classic films included “Gone with the Wind,” “Spellbound,” “Rebecca” and “David Copperfield.” It must have been some kind of organic fate that attracted  the filmmaker, connoisseur and historian Scorsese to this woven tale of fantasy and celluloid love.

Enchanting is not a word that comes to mind when discussing Martin Scorsese films but I cannot think of a better one to describe this affectionate look at the early days of a new art. The name Georges Mêliés will mean little if anything to most current filmgoers, it’s a name almost lost in the passage of time. An early pioneer in the art of film,  Mêliés  short works were innovative gems of science fiction and fantasy using cinematic techniques like stop motion, time lapse photography, dissolves and editing to create early celluloid magic with works  like, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “The Impossible Voyage” (1903).   

  Continue reading

New Scorsese Film By Year End?

It looks like the long-awaited documentary about Beatle George Harrison may finally be coming our way. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Harrison’s widow, Olivia hinted that the film should have it premiere “sometime soon.”

Titled, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” this is Scorsese’s fourth rock and roll documentary beginning with, “The Last Waltz,” which focused on The Band’s farewell concert. This was followed by a look at Bob Dylan in  “No Direction Home” in 2005 and most recently  and The Rolling Stones concert film “Shine A Light” in 2008.

The combination of Scorsese and Beatles has me salivating!

Italianamerican (1974) Martin Scorsese

Being Italian-American, and more importantly that my grandparents, parents, and other relatives lived in the same neighborhood, and in fact, some on the same street the Scorsese family lived on, Elizabeth Street, I had a curiosity about this film than others may not. Did anyone in my family know the Scorsese family back in those days, I wondered? Living in such a close congested area and only a few buildings away, anything was possible, I thought. Well, the answer was no, the name Scorsese was not familiar to anyone I knew.  Still, much of what was discussed in the film was so similar to my own family’s experiences that I felt a kind of correlation; here was my own family’s story being told.  

In “Italianamerican,” a 1974 documentary Scorsese made after “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Marty explores his heritage through his parents’ homespun stories. The setting is casual, right in his parent’s apartment on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. The attention is strictly on his folk’s tales of their early life and that of their immigrant parents. Continue reading

Mean Streets (1973) Martin Scorsese

Mean_Streets_poster

Every serious film lover sees a film that once in awhile affects you so deeply that it changes your life. You look at the screen and you say to yourself, yes this is what it is all about, this is why I love movies; this is why I sit through so many crappy films searching for the one that moves me to high levels never reached before. “Mean Streets” is one of those films. It is not perfect. It is not Scorsese’s greatest film, it does not have to be, it is what it is, a personal work by a young filmmaker that reflects a time and a place that connected with me deeply.

Robert-DeNiro_Mean_l   The first Martin Scorsese film I ever saw was “Who That Knocking at My Door” back in September 1969 at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, a movie theater located beneath the famed Carnegie Hall. At the time, the theatre showed mostly art house, foreign, independent and classic films. I was home Vietnam on leave losing myself  in as many movies as I could. And if you want to lose yourself in movies, New York City is the best place to be other than maybe Paris.

I must have read a review of the film in a newspaper and the synopsis of a young Italian-American kid living on the streets of Little Italy struggling with life’s complexities (girls, Catholic guilt) appealed to me on a personal level.  The film was amazingly unlike just about any other I had ever seen. The fact that the filmmaker was this Italian-American guy, like me, and he wrote and directed the film made it even more enticing. My wildest fantasies were coming true, only it was Martin Scorsese who was living it.  I never forgot the film or the name Scorsese as I went off to Fort Polk, La. for four months and then thirteen months in Germany before being discharged and getting back to my real life, when in 1972, a Roger Corman produced film called “Boxcar Bertha came out and I noted the director’s name, Martin Scorsese. Hmm…  The film was typical King of the B’s Corman stuff, maybe somewhat better than most of his films filled with the prerequisite amount of violence and sex, all the good things low-budget filmmaking does best.

Then came October 1973.

Means Streets LC robinson    Scorsese wrote the script for “Mean Streets” along with his friend and fellow NYU student, Mardik Martin with whom he collaborated with previously on some of his short films. In his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Briskind states the two friends sat in Martin’s Valiant during a cold winter and wrote the script. Much of the story is from Scorsese’s own experiences growing up in Little Italy. During the filming of “Boxcar Bertha” Scorsese tried to interest Corman into financing his next film. However, Corman would agree only if Marty changed all the characters to black. Fortunately, for all he found other financing from Jonathan Taplin, then a road manager for the rock group, “The Band.”

Scorsese hired Harvey Keitel to play Charlie Cappa, in time to film the San Gennaro festival, which takes place every October in Little Italy. He then offered Robert DeNiro a choice of any of the other roles in the film. The two originally met when teenagers but did not hang out together, DeNiro the child of two artists, grew up in Greenwich Village though he spent much of his time in the Little Italy neighborhood next door. He had seen Scorsese’s first feature “Who’s That Knocking at my Door” and was impressed with the film’s accurate portrayal of life in Little Italy.  After some discussions and a meeting with Keitel, who suggested he play Johnny Boy, it was settled.

“Mean Streets” does not have much of a plot; it focuses on Charlie Cappa a small time collector for his Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova), the local Don. Charlie also has taken personal responsibility for Johnny Boy, an anarchistic simple-minded hothead who is in debt some two thousands to local loan sharks. Charlie is also having an affair with Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin Theresa (Amy Robinson).

scan0021    Part of what drives “Mean Streets” is the interaction between the two protagonists whose improvised street-wise dialogue has a free form jazz like quality. Just listen to the Joey Clams/Frankie Bones monologue between Charlie and Johnny Boy.  Scorsese encouraged his actors to improvise, much of it worked on during rehearsals, which contributes to the film’s tempo. It helped that along with Scorsese, DeNiro and Keitel, some of the others in the cast grew up in similar New York neighborhoods and were familiar with the type of environment portrayed on screen.

Little Italy and its inhabitants were an enclave unto themselves, living a mostly separate existence from the rest of the city, insulated from the rest of the world. Outsiders were foreign and not wanted.  Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” shows us a world mixed with the old country and the new, a hybrid that never fully integrated. This is evident even in the superb use of music where the soundtrack combines the old (Opera), the traditional (Italian) and the modern (Rock and Roll).

Early in the film, Charlie enters a local bar owned by Tony (David Proval), sharply dressed, confident; he is greeted like a king. He dances to the beat of The Rolling Stones “Tell Me”, shaking hands with associates and friends, swaying to the music. Gliding through the room, he makes his way to the stage joining two topless dancers. This is Charlie’s world, he is the center of attention, and he is a man in his element.

Yet, Charlie is conflicted; he needs to reconcile his Catholic upcoming with his outlaw life. “Taking care” of Johnny Boy is Charlie’s attempt at redemption for his lifestyle. He knows that praying his ten “Hail Mary’s” and ten “Our Fathers” every week after confession is useless. As the voice over (Scorsese) at the beginning of film says, “You don’t pay for your sins in church; you pay for them in the streets.  Charlie is also conflicted with the women in his life. He is attracted to the black topless dancer and arranges a date with her, only when the time comes he stands her up knowing that in his world he can’t get involved with a black woman. He is already involved in a delicate relationship with the epileptic Theresa, who his Uncle disapproves of, telling him she’s crazy. Charlie, like many of Scorsese’s men has a Madonna/Whore complex. He resents Theresa’s independence. He chastises her for her vulgar language, which he and his cronies use all the time. He gladly has sex with her but fears a lasting relationship and his Uncle’s wrath. Theresa is in love with Charlie and she wants out of the neighborhood. She wants Charlie to commit to her and wants them to move uptown away from the neighborhood and into the outside world. Charlie cannot commit and he certainly will not leave the neighborhood. For men like Charlie, the neighborhood is everything.  scan0019

Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy will lead to its inevitable violent ending. Johnny Boy’s disrespect to the local loan sharks like Michael (Richard Romanus) cannot be peacefully negotiated forever. While Charlie “protects” Johnny Boy, he will not go the distance, that is talk to his Uncle, who thinks Johnny Boy is a flake and dangerous, and is the only one who can ease the volatile situation with the loan sharks.

Scorsese shows us a world where violence can erupt at any moment as it does in the now well-known “Mook” scene. Here we see Charlie and his boys go to a local pool hall to make a collection. The owner is happy to pay until one of the guys calls another a “mook.” While no one is sure, what’s a “mook” they are sure it’s an insult and soon a brawl breaks out between the two groups as The Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman” blast away on the soundtrack. Scorsese’s mobile camera is in the middle of the mix as we watch these guys battle each other, Johnny Boy jumping on a pool table swinging a broken cue stick and kicking wildly. The police break it up but are paid off not to press any charges. As the cops leave, the two sides agree to have a drink together; however before you know it, another fight breaks out.

Scorsese poured himself into this film; Charlie is Marty’s on screen surrogate. There are indicators throughout the film most obviously with the lead character’s name. Charlie was Scorsese’s father’s name and Cappa was his mother’s maiden name. Like Scorsese, Charlie likes movies, twice we see him in a movie theater. Also, Charlie’s struggle with religion versus his outside life reflects the young Scorsese’s own internal battle.

Influenced by the cinema verite documentary movement of the 1960′s, the French New Wave as well as by film noir of the 1940’s (Charlie’s Uncle watches Lang’s “The Big Heat” on TV) film critics greeted the film with warm open arms. Pauline Kael in The New Yorker called “Mean Streets”, “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking.” Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times,   “No matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter. Such a film is Mean Streets…” “Mean Streets” premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1973 and opened two weeks later exclusively at the Cinema 1 theater on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, the film did not do well at the box office, it may have been too New York, too isolated to the tribal rituals of Italian-Americans or too blue collar. Finally, the film is not so much a gangster film as a coming of age story.

Amazingly, most of this New York film was shot in Los Angeles for budgetary reasons. Scorsese only shot about six days of exteriors in New York, including the annual San Gennaro festival in Little Italy. In addition, the tenement building shots were filmed in New York because of their authenticity and atmosphere. In those six days of filming Scorsese crammed in a lot of Little Italy including the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and even a drive by shot of the Waverly Theater (now the IFC) in Greenwich Village.

Unlike “The Godfather”, which deals with the upper echelons of the mob world and mythologizes the gangster lifestyle “Mean Streets” give you a view of small time marginal thugs living in Little Italy. As influenced as Scorsese was by those who came before, “Mean Streets” would go on to influence filmmakers of the next generation.

From the opening pounding beat of Ronnie Spector’s voice singing “Be My Baby” to the final bloody ending “Mean Streets” is one of the great rides in cinema. I love it.

Scorsese by Ebert

    I first heard of Martin Scorsese in 1969. Just back from Vietnam, I was home on military leave and trying to catch up on movies. Looking over the film section of my newspaper, I came across a film, I had never heard of, called “Who’s That Knocking at my Door” playing at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in Manhattan. The film was directed by a young director named Martin Scorsese of who I never heard of either. Filmed in Little Italy an area I was well acquainted with and made by an Italian-American, I was intrigued.

    Wow!

    I loved the film, a bit rough around the edges but unique and different from the usual Hollywood film. It dealt with issues I could identify with, Catholic guilt, hell and damnation, growing up within the confines of an insular society and it had rock and roll, which I loved! While I can’t say for sure I believe “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”, (aka I Call First) may be the first film to have used rock and roll records on its soundtrack. Additionally, there was the use of the hand held camera and editing, much of what is common today but was unusual then in American film.  Here I had discovered a film and a director who seemed to have grown up in the same world as I did a world of second generation Italian-Americans. I was hooked. When “Mean Streets” came out, I was there, first in line. I was living in Brooklyn at the time but I always traveled to Manhattan on weekends to go to see films that would never make it out to the outer boroughs. It all came together in “Mean Streets”, a world Scorsese captured perfectly.  I have followed Scorsese’s career ever since. Over the years, I have never been disappointed in any Martin Scorsese film, though as you would expect I favor some more than others. He may be the most talented American filmmaker of his generation and certainly one of the most knowledgeable.  I love listening to him speak about movies his knowledge is never ending. One of my joys is watching his two documentaries “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies” and its sister film “My Voyage to Italy”. These two films combined are history lessons in cinema presented by a master.        

    In his new book “Scorsese by Ebert”, Roger Ebert tracks his own journey on how he came to discover Martin Scorsese in the wonderful introduction that opens the book. What follows is all of his original reviews and newer reviews or what Ebert calls “reconsiderations.” In addition, there are interviews and there is one in particular, a transcript of a long interview he did with Scorsese at Ohio State University, when Scorsese was given an award and tribute, which is worth the price of admission. Ebert is a knowledgeable and entertaining film critic who I have always enjoyed reading and the combination of Scorsese and Ebert is irresistible. Here’s a book that belongs on every film lovers bookshelf.