The New York Film Festival's (NYFF) year-long 50th anniversary screening series got a visit from hometown-boy Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Class of '73) who shared memories, methods and pivotal career moments with what seemed an even greater enthusiasm than usual -- which is understandable, given it's a pretty weighty moment for any director looking back through 28 years, revisiting the film and the American festival which broke him, at the end of a year which sees the release of his first 3-D film.

Scorsese certainly likes to tell a good story, and his interview persona reminds one of a noble, scrappy, self possessed salt-and-pepper Scottie, at times not even waiting for the Film Society of Lincoln Center's associate director Scott Foundas to throw him the ball, as it were. When he speaks, he seems to catch up with his own sentences, starting with terse bursts, then hurrying it all out, at times pausing, hand on the bridge of his nose, eyes shut tight, in recollection.

NOTE: This is raw, quickly-compressed video, with three hiccups due to the unfathomably stupid reasoning on the part of camera manufacturers to victimize the persons who choose to use their products, by limiting the amount of recording time allowed on a DSLR.

Scorsese discusses being fired from 'The Honeymoon Killers,' not owning a pair of jeans 'til after Woodstock, the joy of finally shooting a film continuously, until completion...

Foundas rightly asks Scorsese to "Begin at the beginning," and this mini-oral history winds through some terrific memory-flashes, including the two sparring lightly over which were the first films to utilize pop music for what Foundas called "temperature-taking" in a dramatic context, with the director declaring his personal Big Bang: Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, which Scorsese first saw "in a filmmaker's loft in 1964 [at] a clandestine screening conducted by Jonas Mekas... it was so good, so transgressive, so powerful -- for me, that was the film."

He also speaks of straddling "a kind of business and art line" to direct "independent films that could be made at studios, but had an independent feel to them," and for Scorsese, John Cassavetes (for whom he had worked as a sound-effects editor on Minnie and Moskowitz) was that bridge, and also the young director's "Main support, in a big way -- emotionally and mentally."

Scorsese also shares how, after the release of Boxcar Bertha, Cassavetes served as a kind of Greek Chorus, delivering tough love and a healthy dose of creative courage, which, coming from the pioneering American auteur (see also -- and firstly -- Engel, Morris) had a practitioner's gravitas: "He told me, uhm, that 'You've just spent a year of your life making junk' -- and before he says that, he embraced me and smiled, he says 'Come here. I love you, but don't make this kind of movie -- don't you have something you really want to do?'"

And so for Scorsese, "Ultimately, the overriding factor in those seven or eight years was the sort of mad, sort of passionate uh, compulsion to make this first feature and I, when you do it, you just throw everything up there that you know; you don't worry about being, what? (incredulous, head pulled back, like a turtle into its shell) at that time, being polite; you don't worry about being politically correct. You just show it, show who you are, and they're either gonna like it or not... I got really good reviews in many cases... others were hilariously bad. I don't wanna get into them but they were fuckin' funny -- I mean really bad."

Delineating Mean Streets' evolution, he mentions Who's That Knocking At My Door, explaining that he had to change the name of the Mean Streets pre-cursor after each screening, "Because nobody liked it," conceding "It took me years to straighten out the writing."

The first offer to finance the film, tendered by Roger Corman, required a change in casting. Scorsese: "As the story goes, Roger Corman wanted to finance it. He called me in and says 'You know, uh, my brother Gene just had a big hit with Cool Breeze; go to New York, and if you're willing to swing a little bit, and make it [Mean Streets] all black'" -- pause... "You never say no," Scorsese explains his dilemma to an audience already laughing -- "I said okay, I'll think about it -- 'cuz you never say No".

He decided instead to trade location for casting, securing $250,000 in a different deal which saw Mean Streets, ironically, filmed almost entirely in L.A., as the equipment, personnel and facilities availed to Scorsese were all in Los Angeles. "The same people who made Boxcar Bertha are the people who made this for me; they taught me how to do it, basically. These are crews of people who worked on Corman's films and, I'm sure, films Ed Wood made; these are people that are not in the union, sometimes working in the underbelly of Hollywood, and they worked it out for me. "

New York details were recreated by all sorts of lo-tech innovation, including "a corner of tin ceiling that we would move, just to have it in the shot." Cookies taped onto walls, then painted over replicated the rosettes of deep-vintage tenement housing. Some New York details were harder to create, notes Scorsese, bemoaning that "elevators in L.A. are just too clean" and how one simply does not find the narrow hallways of New York in L.A.

Getting permission to shoot an essential location on Mulberry Street in New York proved uniquely difficult, and required the know-how of a down-by-law local, namely, Scorsese's dad: "The same exterior was used in a film called A Double Life by George Cukor; The Godfather got away with [filming] it, but they had a lot of money from Paramount Pictures. My father had to talk to a few people, pay a few people in certain buildings -- they didn't want cameras all around."

Of course, all this time on Mean Streets was cutting into his journeyman work on other projects, and so he was actually grateful to be a recipient of a friendly-firing (see the anecdote in the video) in which he was taken off of the Rock-docs he was working on, but also given a room to do his own film in. "I cut it in the same building where they fired me" he laughs, noting that the firing came with the added dividend of some major talent seeing his work in progress: "Brian DePalma and others would all come in and try and help me cut." By way of a further note on his music documentary work, he quips that even though he worked on Woodstock, he didn't even own a pair of jeans until after said event.

Exhibiting what one can understand as a never-fading wistfulness in appraising his trajectory, he confesses that "Psychologically it was a big transition from New York, because at the time these things were sorta taking place, I was going to Washington Square College and I was living in my mother and father's apartment on Elizabeth Street, and I so was in this sort of split-world, so to speak, and cinema was opening up many possibilities for me, particularly not to, you know, to not live that way, you know?"

He adds, with a detectable admiration, "I couldn't handle it. I was not uh, physically tough enough; you have to be really tough... you can't... you gotta really stand up to it. I was more interested in being in the priesthood -- that was the difference, you know?"

And it is within this dilemma (higher callings notwithstanding) that he bespeaks the universality of NYC neighborhoods; in Scorsese's case, and for the character of Charlie (Harvey Keitel) with whom Scorsese is most aligned, the world of Mean Streets is quite simply the pressure-cooker that is the mind of the kid who has to walk a fine line between being a bad boy (sometimes to survive school, and walks through other neighborhoods) and being honest and true to the stuff his Mom loved so much.

And while he was a good boy, Scorsese describes a tale of two hoods: "On the Waterfront, the scene where he's breaking down the door was the first one that really showed what we looked like. And then, you had a different sort; I come from a different world -- that [the world depicted in On the Waterfront] is the world I come from, but also, it's the world of, to a certain extent -- and I'm not a great fan of that movie, but you know that movie, Marty? Marty has this -- Marty has a sense of a home-life that you don't see in this film [Mean Streets]. You see, that [film Marty] has a truth to it, but to me, it was always... a little much, that picture." He says the name of the teleplay-turned-Palme d'Or-and-Oscar-winning-film almost as if he were saying "Voldemort."

Continuing on the New York theme, Scorsese fabulously conjures up memories of tenement life, recalling a place "with everybody's door open" and "of coming into each other's apartments and breaking up fights; the doors were open, the windows were open, so whatever went on in the apartment everybody heard. And so, if there was a party or some sort of altercation, or if there was a fight, your friend would come in and settle everybody down... the heat got everybody crazy too, it was like a beehive, so to speak... it was amazing and the music was coming in from everywhere... and it all sounds sort of romantic, but it was pretty miserable."

And hearing him say this, you realize that even though Scorsese's anecdote about the proposed re-casting of Mean Streets is hysterical, Corman's instinct was wholly correct: the dramatis personae playing out the generational, tribal and individual existential dramas of strata mal are found in every borough, and every ethnic group has its own story. I recall first hearing of Mean Streets and thinking it was an adaptation of Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas' classic New York memoir Down These Mean Streets.

Throughout his career, Scorsese has remained true to his directorial bailiwick, and in the process, delivered more than a few challenging moments. The reactionary racism of many Scorsese characters is not unlike the honest depiction of workaday racism expressed by a wide range of New Yorkers delivering one-liners during that great scene in Do The Right Thing, or the lively, tense exchange between detective John Shaft and a mob middle-man in Shaft; what is essential is not whether you like, or can relate to the characters -- which is never valid as the sole basis for a negative review ("Who really cares about these people?" quoth one New York Times reviewer. "I did" declares Scorsese in this video). What matters for Scorsese is that the people in their universe never break character, perhaps not unlike in, say, the universes depicted by Bret Ellis or Tyler Perry.

In the case of Mean Streets, adherence to this dicta, coupled with a classic coming-of-age tale, made for what must have been one helluvan opening night at the 1973 New York Film Festival, and it certainly made for a worthy flashback and a poignant victory lap for both a director and festival, decades later, on a New York winter night.

Extra-credit viewing and reading:

Hangin' With The Homeboys -- a quietly powerful New York story about four friends from the Bronx, written and directed by the late Joseph B. Vasquez.

The Killing of Joey Gallo -- A fascinating true story, this may be where Scorsese got the idea to include a lion cub in the nightclub. By way of New York trivia, Umberto's Clam Bar, the Little Italy eatery where Gallo was shot to death in '72, (and where this writer's mom would take him once a year during school-clothes shopping trips downtown) shuttered this past winter.

Random notes:

By way of an important side note on someone who is increasingly and most correctly being refocused on as anything but, Corman's life-story-made-celluloid, Corman's World, played its worthy part in this year's NYFF much like last year's doc on Jack Cardiff delivered a study of an utterly unique individual who was privy to some highly pivotal times in film and made his contributions to the careers of a canon's worth of directors. Hopefully, there will be available for curation in 2012, a film (or films) to continue these encyclopedic, multi-decade career-retrospectives.

Given that Lennon and Harrison docs were screened consecutively, in 2010 and 2011 at the NYFF, perhaps the festival will go the completist route, if docs on Starr and McCartney are made?

Deferring to the large audience eager to ask questions, I didn't ask Scorsese whether he, by way of research for his George Harrison documentary or life experience, took mushrooms. I also wanted to ask if he will be developing the excellent Bronx auto-bio and essential Graffiti history chapter Fuzz One for the big screen. Whilst reviewing the book a few years back, I'd heard from the hard-working publisher who worked closely with author Fuzz One to develop the memoir, that Scorsese was interested in bringing the story to the screen -- which makes sense, as Fuzz One's Huck Finn-ish tale seems most apropos to Scorcese's sensibilities.

File under "Cinema History" unresolved at evening's end:

What was the first film to use popular music within the mise en scene as a kind of temperature-taking?

The NYFF @ 50 series of retrospective screenings, director appearances, extended interviews and audience Q& A sessions resumes through 2012, covering three years of opening nights, this coming Friday and Saturday: NYFF '74: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Fri Jan 13, at 6:15 pm, NYFF '75: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog), Fri Jan 13, at 8:15 pm and NYFF '76: Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders), Sat Jan 14, at 2:00 pm
categories Movies