Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TV Bites: Mean Streets


Got some crazy chest cold/flu thing the last few days which hit me hard. Lots of sleeping, eating lots of Thai soups, catching up on work, and planning my schedule for Fantastic Fest next week. The best part of Fantastic Fest is that my buddy and director Eugenio Mira will be my house guest for the duration. If you're unfamiliar with Eugenio's work, one of the coolest things he's ever done is actually in front of the camera. In the upcoming film, Red Lights, he got to play a young Robert De Niro! Check it out! That's mighty awesome, in my book. So how appropriate and coincidental that this is the film I chose for this edition....

Tomorrow, the 15th of September is the first day of the Feast of San Gennaro. And there's only ONE movie to watch, and only ONE food to eat to celebrate. So let's get to it....

This is one of those movies I never tire of watching. It's like a yearly ritual. It's a shot in the arm of New York. It intoxicates me with all the sounds, and smells, and the streets I knew as a youth. But I'm not one of the guys. I'm one of the kids in the parka standing on a street corner on a Saturday night buying fireworks out a trunk from a bunch of mamalukes in a '71 black Lincoln before heading over to Luna's (now gone) for some raviolis. All I have to hear is the opening drumbeat of The Ronettes "Be My Baby," and I'm there.

But the best times were had at the Feast of San Gennaro (see below). Old cheezy-carnival games, throw the ball and dunk the guy, water pistols you shoot in the clown's mouth and bust a balloon. And of course, the zeppole. Ahhh....

I spent my high school years living in a small town on Long Island, which was populated by religious Jews and Italian mobsters (Meyer Lansky spent time there, Sonny lived and died there in The Godfather... so did actor Peter Lorre in its heyday). A kid in my school's dad was found dead in his car trunk in a garage at Kennedy Airport. I knew those guys in Mean Streets. They were my neighbors. On the corner of my block was this big capo guy I don't remember his name. When we kids would play ball on the street, we'd have fun tossing the ball into his yard because then we'd have to go to the edge of driveway and yell for the two big chested guys in suits who would come and they would have to retrieve it for us. He had a big cage of pigeons in the backyard, and three peacocks that were like watchdogs that roamed his yard. One summer, I worked in this pizza joint delivering pies. There was this young waitress, even though we never had sit down customers. One day she showed me the album of clippings of her family. They were all pictures cut out of the New York Post or The Daily News of guys walking between a row of policemen, her uncles all shielding their faces from the cameras - their hats or hands covering their faces. I do not make this stuff up.

Watching this film is the New York I once knew that is mostly gone. (Like Mad Men is, as well.) It's like eating a great slice of real New York pizza. No toppings. Just a great orange-greasy slice of cheese.

Mean Streets is home rentable from NetFlix and can be streamed and purchased @ Amazon.

P.S. - This is the first a New York double-bill for this month. Stay tuned for another New York related film.... Have fun trying to guess what it is.


"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullsh-t and you know it."

Before we go any further, something needs to be said. Scorsese told a story about how at the premiere during the New York Film Festival in 1973, people were coming up to his mother afterwards asking what she thought of the picture. Her response - and this, we should make perfectly clear as per her wishes - was: "I just want you to understand. We never use that language in the house!"

Okay, so let's do a quick run down of Martin Scorsese, the early years. Raised in Little Italy on the Lower East Side of New York, Scorsese suffered from asthma and his parents used to take him to the movies since he couldn't play outside much with the other kids. He became obsessive over the movies, but also was drawn towards the Catholic church. He began a path to become a priest, but - as the quote from Mean Streets above explains - he decided it wasn't for him and got himself into NYU film school in its nascent days. "I couldn't become a priest because I couldn't resolve how one could take the concepts of Christianity and make them apply to daily life. You hear how life's supposed to work from priests, then you watch how it really works on the streets," Scorsese said, then adding, "Another reason, of course, was that I'd become aware of girls." He made a couple of student films, then began what he dreamed at the time would be a trilogy of films about, well, basically himself and the world he had grown up in.

That first film, though it is the 2nd story of the trilogy, was called Who's That Knocking at My Door?, and was released in 1967. It is the story of a young man trying to find a way to live his religious convictions in the real world. The film starred a young actor/court stenographer who had answered an ad placed for the movie, Harvey Keitel. When it was done, Scorsese met critic Jay Cocks who showed it to filmmaker John Cassavetes. Cocks recalled Cassavetes exclaiming: “'This movie is as good as Citizen Kane. No, it's better than Citizen Kane, it's got more heart.' Marty almost fainted. He couldn't believe this guy was saying this stuff. And John meant it, and from that day on, he loved Marty like a son.”

Scorsese was already working on the script for third part of the trilogy (the first part was entitled Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which took place at a Christian retreat - which is brought up several times in Mean Streets). He co-wrote the script with his NYU buddy Mardik Martin, who had grown up in Baghdad and moved to the US as a young man. The script was called Season of the Witch, after the Donovan song of the same name. (At one point in Mean Streets, Charlie says, "If I had my own place... I'd call it somethin' like Season of the Witch. Get it?")

"[T]he first version of the script was steeped very much in the religious conflict. See, the whole idea was to make a story of a modern saint, you know, a saint in his own society but his society happens to be gangsters. It should be interesting to see how a guy does the right thing, that's the old phrase they use, 'the right thing,' in that world. Somebody does something wrong, you've got to break his hand or you shoot him. It's as simple as that. He became a character who refused to acknowledge that and eventually did the worst thing he could do which was to put everything off, put all the confrontations off, until everything explodes. It's the worst thing you can do," Scorsese recalled. "But this character wants to avoid unpleasantness at all costs. You notice he's always separating people when they fight. 'Come on, we're all friends,' he says.'"

In 1970, Scorsese was invited to work as 2nd Unit Director and one of the editors on Woodstock, which then got him to Hollywood where he began editing for Roger Corman. He tried shopping Season around town, but no one was interested. Corman then promoted him to direct Boxcar Bertha in 1972. The film did well, got good reviews, so Corman offered him a choice of two pictures to do next - I Escaped from Devil's Island, or the chick-gladiator pic Arena (aka Naked Warriors). But Scorsese had shown Boxcar Bertha to Cassavetes hoping for another dose of approval, and instead Cassavetes challenged him: “Nice work, but don't fucking ever do something like this again. Why don't you make a movie about something you really care about.”

So he returned to Season of the Witch, reworking it with input from his then girlfriend Sandy Weintraub (who appears in Mean Streets as one of the girls Johnny Boy picks up in the Village, and is daughter of Fred Weintraub), adding more stories of the streets and taking out some of the religious overtones. Now rechristened Mean Streets ("It was suggested to me by Jay Cocks, from Raymond Chandler's [line,] 'Down these mean streets a man must go.' I thought it a little pretentious, but it turned out to be a pretty good title,” Scorsese said), he hit the Hollywood streets again hoping to find someone to produce it.

"We brought it to a lot of people. Roger Corman was the first I brought it to. His readers loved it," explained Scorsese. "I said, 'Can we do it?' Roger said, 'Marty, I understand we go a script from you and everybody here says it's one of the best scripts we've received. However, I'd like to ask you one thing.' He said, 'I haven't read it. Has it got gangsters?' I said, 'Yes, it's got gangsters.' He said, 'Has it got guns?' I said, 'Yes, it's got guns.' He said, 'Has it got violence? Has it got sex?' I said, 'Yes.'"

Now, Roger's brother Gene had just had a big hit with a film made in Harlem called The Cool Breeze, a black version of The Asphalt Jungle," Scorsese continued elsewhere. "So Roger said to me, 'If you want to make Mean Streets, and you're willing to swing a little' – I'll never forget that phrase – “and make them all black, I'll give you $150k and you can shoot it all with a non-Union crew in New York.' I asked for more time to think about it. But I soon realized.... It just wouldn't work. The plot wasn't really anything, it was the characters that mattered, so I stuck to my guns.... I put the clip from [Corman's film] The Tomb of Ligeia in [the movie] because he really got it started.”

Enter Jay Cocks again, whose wife Verna Bloom introduces Scorsese to former Bob Dylan & The Band road manager Jonathan Taplin who wants a career change to become a movie producer. Taplin raises the money and preproduction begins. And to clear up any confusion (like on the DVD I have which gets this wrong!), they shot only about a week in New York doing exteriors, the rest of the film - all the interiors, and even the final shoot-out, were all done in Los Angeles.

[Now, I could write pages and pages more about the casting, the production, the post production, the distribution, the music... BUT, I really, really want to get to this where Scorsese talks about what Mean Streets means. You can look that other stuff up yourself, OR if you send me enough emails, I'll add some of it in the comments section. So, let us continue now....]

"I never thought the film would be released," Scorsese said. "I just wanted to make, like, an anthropological study; it was about myself and my friends. And I figured even if it was on a shelf, some years later people would take it and say, 'That's what Italian-Americans on the every day scale – not The Godfather, no big bosses, but the everyday scale, the everyday level – this is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did in the early 70's and late 60's. Early 60's even. This was the lifestyle.'

"Mean Streets dealt with the American Dream," he continued in another interview, "according to which everybody thinks they can get rich quick, and if they can't do it by legal means then they'll do it by illegal ones. That disruption of values is no different today.... These guys' idea of making money, maybe a million or two, is by stealing, beating, or cheating someone out of it. It's much sweeter, much better than actually earning it. At the beginning of the script of Mean Streets, there was a quote from Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues: 'Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift. Or, 'forget it, we're not going to do it.' Of course, Dylan meant something else. But I wanted to delineate that attitude, to understand how these people suddenly find themselves in a quandary, where the only way out is very often death.

"They begin by hijacking cigarettes, selling them for a little less than the normal price, not hurting anybody really, and then it gets a little higher. Selling dope would be another level altogether. Very often the leaders of these different groups and mobs don't like the younger guys selling dope – not for moral reasons, but because it draws attention to them. In my own case, in my neighborhood, if it had come to the point where I'd have to pull a gun and kill somebody, I wouldn't have been able to do it. I wouldn't even get into a brawl and ruin my suit at that time; I'd smile and walk the other way. But the people who received the most respect in my area where I grew up were not the working people, they were wise guys, the gang leaders, and the priests. And that was what inclined me towards the priesthood, which was a tougher profession, I'm afraid!

"[The film] was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like then in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or sociological tract. Charlie uses other people, thinking that he's helping them; but by believing that, he's not only ruining them but ruining himself. When he fights with Johnny against the door in the street, he acts like he's doing it for the others, but it's a matter of his own pride – the first sin in the Bible. My voice is intercut with Harvey's throughout the film, and for me that was a way of trying to come to terms with myself, trying to redeem myself. It's very easy to discipline oneself to go to mass on Sunday mornings. That's not redemption for me: it's how you live, how you deal with other people, whether it be in the streets, at home or in an office."

Mean Streets shows that organized crime is similar to big government," he said shortly after the film was made. "They're both machines. In the Sicilian culture, we learned never to expect much from the government, having been trod upon by one government or another for some 2000 years. That is why the family is the unit we always look to for strength.... There has been more underhanded stuff done in Washington than we'll ever be able to fathom. It's almost been worth two terms of Nixon to find out just how things work. Peter Boyle caught on to Mean Streets. We were at a party in Hollywood recently, both of us drinking a lot, and he came up and grabbed me by the arm and said, 'Hey, you really slipped it in under them, didn't you? No sermon, nothing. You just showed them that our whole way of life in this country has been leading to one place and one place only – Watergate.'

Scorsese has noted that some people are confused about what happens at the end of the film. He explained, "Some people think – and I just read a new article on Mean Streets in a magazine with the same viewpoint – that Charlie drives Johnny Boy at the end to meet his fate. They think Charlie sells him out, so that Michael shoots him. A lot of people believe that. But that's not the case at all. The idea is pure random violence and the idea is that they were followed. Charlie would never sell Johnny out that way. If it was unclear in the filmmaking then it's a fault of the film. But people are really trying to say, 'Well, Charlie set Johnny up.' And also people say they're both dead at the end. They're not. They're not. Or they say that Johnny Boy's dead, and Charlie's just wounded. They're not. They're not dead. The fact is they have to go on. That's the worst part. That's the whole thing. Going on. So I'd like to clear up those two things. Charlie didn't sell Johnny Boy out, and they both live.”

And finally, Scorsese noted on the film's 20th Anniversary in 1993: "I haven't sat down to look at Mean Streets from beginning to end since I made it. It's so personal and I love the music and I love the guys - I look at parts of it sometimes, but it's a little painful for me, like most of my movies. At the end of the 'mook' scene, where they have that big fight, I had a scene in the street with them running away and the big fellow throwing a garbage pail after them. The kind of thing I used to see all the time. Never had time to shoot it. I'd have liked another 10 days to get a little more coverage, go further with the performances too. I really would have liked to shoot the whole film in New York, let's face it."


Charlie (Harvey Keitel) shares his feelings about the Feast of San Gennaro in the movie: "With that feast on, you can't even move in your own neighborhood. I hate that feast with a passion."

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, what we know about Saint Janarius (aka San Gennaro) is "next to nothing," and even that little information is "untrustworthy." But he is the patron saint of the city of Naples where 18 times a year believers gather in the hopes of seeing the "Miracle of San Gennaro."

Et quod hoc miraculum, you ask? Well, it's something called "liquefaction," which means the "miraculous act of liquefying of solid matter, especially congealed blood, as reported of certain relics of saints." What this all entails is that people come to the Church, they bring out a silver bust which supposedly encases the head of Janarius, then hold above it a vial of congealed blood which supposedly was Janarius' blood, and - now this has happened apparently 500 times since 1389! - when put near this silver bust the blood in the vial "becomes liquid and bubbles up as though it were fresh." As of today, there has been no proven scientific explanation for this phenomenon, but there are theories.

Whatever makes that happen, what happened on September 19, 1926, was that a group of restaurateurs who emigrated from Naples to the Lower East Side decided to string up some party lights, set some tables on the street, erect a little chapel with a statue of their beloved saint, and invite passersby to sit and order some coffee and cannolis, as well as donate some additional money to charity. It was such a success that it became an annual event, which has since evolved into an 11-day festival with music, carnival games, and of course, food.

"Although there is a party atmosphere that permeates the Feast, this is really a religious celebration that has become a proud tradition handed down from our grandparents," said Emily DePalo, board member of Figli di San Gennaro, Inc., which has produced the festival since 1996. "For 11 days and nights the streets of Little Italy are filled with happy people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds eating fabulous Italian cuisine, listening to great live entertainment and just having a wonderful time. But there is a religious purpose behind it which is never forgotten, and that becomes evident on September 19th, the Saint's Day." On the 19th, a celebratory Mass is held at the Most Precious Blood Church, followed by a procession in which the Statue of San Gennaro is carried from through the streets of the festival.

But those 11 days are not happy for everyone it seems. "I have cannolis frying in front of my store! They come in with greasy hands," and damage leather handbags and $300 dresses, said Ying Ying Chong, owner of White Saffron, which the NY Post described as "one of the hip shops that have popped up on Mulberry Street" where the festival is held. Even though there are over 1 million people who attend the festival, with about 100,000 people a day, Ying responded that these people are not her "target clientele."

These store owners and other new residents of the area complained to the city and wanted the actual physical length of the festival shortened for starters. But (and I'm not saying that, you know, this has anything to do with it) the city does receive 20% of all the fees charged by the festival to vendors. Since 1996, when the Figli di San Gennaro took over the festival, it has donated $1.6 million to local charities. Let's just say the city considered the complaints and decided not to make the festival smaller, but agreed that it will start this year at 11:30AM, not 11AM.

The other change this year is that "for the first time in its history, the feast will ban the sale of garb that glorifies organized crime." So you'll just have to go to Sicily to buy your Mob-related t-shirts.


When Theresa and Charlie are walking along the beach, Theresa asks him what he likes. He answers her: "I like spaghetti with clam sauce. Mountains. Francis of Assisi. Chicken with lemon and garlic. John Wayne." So, if you want to go all out and make a meal for this movie, I'd make a nice salad for starters, then the pasta, then the chicken, and finish with the zeppole. In fact, maybe sometime next year I'll do a class with that menu. What do you think?

The first problem in making zeppole is that there are two very distinct items that share the same name which makes for great confusion. There are the ones that look like the ones below, and then there are these. The latter are served for St. Joseph's (or San Giuseppe, in Italian) Day, rather than the former which is served at the San Gennaro festival. Saints preserve us! So you don't want to confuse the two, okay?

To make this even more challenging, when I started to search for recipes what I found was that no one seems to know how to duplicate how they are made at the festival. Some recipes had ricotta in them, other none. Some with butter, others with none. Some with yeast, some without. Then, a couple of recipes would say things like "We love the zeppole you get on the streets of the San Gennaro festival. But we decided to make our recipe better/different/lighter/crispier/whatever." Well, if you "love" them so much, why are you making yours so different? Huh?

So I decided to start from square one. And, I'm sure y'all know by now I'm not a baker (but I'm willing to dive into the flour for yours and my adventure). To begin with, a zeppole is not a donut, funnel cake, nor beignet. Let's assume that if you're making them in bulk for a street festival, you're not using butter or ricotta - too expensive. I found this video and the guy seems as authentic as it comes, so I started with his list of ingredients and tried to figure out the right amounts for a small scale version. If you want to see how it's made at the festival, this video is pretty awesome.

As always, cook, watch, eat, and enjoy!!

Click for Printer-Friendly Version

1 teaspoon yeast
1 1/8 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar (+ 1/2 teaspoon for yeast starter)
2 cups All-Purpose Flour
1 pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, such as Crisco
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
vegetable oil, for frying
powdered sugar, for serving

Add yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar to water and let sit for 5 minutes. If yeast doesn't start activating, get fresh yeast.

In a food processor or KitchenAid, with dough attachment, add all the ingredients, then pour yeast water in. Pulse to begin with, then mix for a minute or so to combine. The dough should be thicker than pancake batter, but lighter than a bread dough. Cover and allow to rise for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat oil to 375*.

When dough is ready, wet hands and grab about a golf ball size of dough and drop it in the hot oil. Fry until golden all around. Remove, let thoroughly drain on paper towels or bag.

To serve, spinkle with as much powdered sugar you can handle and eat.

Mean Streets - Original Screenplay
Interview w/De Niro & Scorsese about Mean Streets, French Television 1976 (overdubbed in French) @ YouTube
Scorsese discusses Mean Streets @ The Film Forum, NY 1996 @ YouTube
The Word on the Streets: Scorsese Interview on Mean Streets 20th Anniversary @ The Telegraph UK
Great Movies: Mean Streets, by Roger Ebert
Filmmakers on Film: Mean Streets, by Shane Meadows @ The Telegraph UK
New York's Feast of San Gennaro website
Italiano Americano: A Guide to America's Little Italies, by Felicia Campbell @ Saveur

Mean Streets (Special Edition) DVD
Martin Scorsese: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), edited by Peter Brunette
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Scorsese on Scorsese: Revised Edition, by David Thompson & Ian Christie
Martin Scorsese: The First Decade, by Mary Pat Kelly

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