Armchair Cinephile

Retracing the 'Mean Streets' with Mr. Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is an aspiring cinephile's dream come true, a fantasy guide through cinematic history. No head-over-heels movie lover has more talent for filmmaking, after all, and no greater filmmaker seems to have a more boundless love for, and knowledge of, the medium's history. As the DVD explosion finds him providing commentary on others' work (like Robert Wise's boxing noir The Set-Up) and releasing film-history travelogues such as My Voyage to Italy (Buena Vista) - not to mention producing TV fare such as the Blues series and a documentary about the Statue of Liberty (which aired on the History Channel) - fans may have wondered when he would turn that insightful passion on his own back catalogue.

Some of us have even refused to purchase existing DVDs of GoodFellas and Mean Streets knowing that this day would come: Five of Scorsese's key films are released this week by Warner Brothers (three for the first time), all boasting director's commentary tracks and documentary featurettes. (GoodFellas ups the ante with two commentaries and a trio of short docs.) It's an occasion for dancing in the streets, then? For pulling out the checkbook with confidence that these won't be reissued later with better extras?

Yeah, sorta.

The audio tracks found here aren't "commentaries" in the sense DVD fanatics expect. For one thing, they don't run the whole length of the movie; Mean Streets, for instance, contains approximately 80 minutes of chatter for a 112-minute feature. That's fine, you say, most commentaries are too much yapping anyway, and Scorsese's remarks will focus with hyperactive precision on specific moments in each film.

Not at all. He almost never talks about what you're seeing: no dissection of remarkable camera moves, no anecdotes about how he coached an actor for the scene in question. It's entirely possible that he wasn't even watching the movies as he talked.

The documentary featurettes back up theories of limited involvement: Practically everyone involved in each film is interviewed on camera except Scorsese. Now, it's a happy fact for audiences that the man is out shooting new movies instead of working up lectures on the ones he has already made. And what he does say - background information, how the project came about, where this came in his career, and so on - is almost always worth hearing. But surely an artist who can take time out to voice an animated character in the upcoming Shark Tale could set aside a couple more hours to, say, give some specific examples of what he dislikes about Who's That Knocking At My Door?

My Voyage to Italy
(Buena Vista)

After Hours, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Good Fellas, Means Streets, Who's That Knocking at my Door?
(Warner Brothers)
Scorsese compares thinking about Knocking (his first feature) to looking at embarrassing high-school yearbook photos, but he's far too hard on the film. Although it went through awkward early versions - the featurette reveals how much the first incarnation was missing - the finished product is raw, honest, and daring in all the ways that would later become synonymous with the director's name.

All the movies, in fact, are such welcome additions (or upgrades) to video-store shelves that quibbles about bonus features are secondary. GoodFellas and Mean Streets are well established in film canons, but the three more obscure titles are certainly worth seeking out. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore proved early on that the filmmaker wasn't limited to stories about Catholic, Italian-American New Yorkers; it's tender without being weepy and socially conscious without becoming preachy. After Hours is an underrated comedy that maintains a nightmarish vibe without killing the jokes. Set in lower Manhattan's empty late-night streets as they looked mid-'80s, before Starbucks and the Gap infiltrated, it also provides a more tangible sense of place than most other movies you could name.

The movies are the star here - and we hear way too much of Diane Ladd on the commentary of Alice and nothing at all from Harvey Keitel regarding two career-making roles in Mean Streets and Who's That Knocking. Maybe Scorsese will have to be wheelchair-bound and toting an oxygen tank before he really wants to analyze his own work as much as that of Robert Wise or Michael Powell; here's hoping there are many more new Martin Scorsese pictures between now and then. •

John DeFore on DVD

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