Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

The Multiplicity of Generic Discourses and the Meaning and Pleasure of Mean Streets

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

The Multiplicity of Generic Discourses and the Meaning and Pleasure of Mean Streets

Article excerpt

Résumé: Au contraire de la majorité des analyses du film Mean Streets de Martin Scorsese, qui se concentre sur le caractère ethnique (italo-américain) et religieux (catholique) du discours, cet article situe le film dans le contexte du « New Hollywood » du début des années 1970 et considère ses dimensions sociales ainsi que le plaisir qu'offre sa forme trans-générique.

There has been a great deal of theorizing about the increasing amount of genre mixing in the American cinema during the period of the New Hollywood.1 However, this theorizing has rarely been applied to extended analysis of the style and meaning of individual films. This is especially true of Mean Streets (USA, 1973, Martin Scorsese), whose importance to the New Hollywood has been greatly undervalued. Instead of looking at the film in its generic context(s), critics have imposed an ethnic and/or religious meaning on the film.2 The problem with these Italian/Catholic readings is that the style of the film is often ignored and, more importantly, the social dimension is neglected. Instead of grounding the film in the personal, the religious, or the ethnic, why not try to approach the film from its position in the American cinema of its time, where it can be dealt with in a concrete manner? In other words, Scorsese's career needs to be read diachronically (the films in their contexts) rather than synchronically (and ahistorically). Along this line of inquiry, this essay will analyze the different and interlocking generic discourses used by Scorsese in order to specify what cultural anxieties and problems the film is dealing with, and ultimately how those problems are or are not resolved.

It is not the purpose of this essay to make broad theoretical claims around New Hollywood and genre-mixing, but a brief discussion of these highly contested areas is needed to establish the ground for the textual analysis that will be the focus of the paper. New Hollywood has established at least two definitions: that of the "Hollywood Renaissance" on one hand, and that of "Blockbusters and Corporate Hollywood" on the other.3 These form the two opposite poles of an argument around New Hollywood as a "post-classical" cinema: Hollywood moved towards either art cinema films or huge blockbuster spectacles, making the notion of the well-constructed tale of classical narration an outdated notion.4 However much a part of the Corporate Hollywood structure Scorsese has become, he is now firmly entrenched as a member of the Hollywood Renaissance, often held up as its greatest and most durable survivor.5 This is largely based on Scorsese's early work, particularly Mean Streets, a film produced independently and acquired for distribution by Warner Brothers in 1973. This time period is important to recognize: the film comes after the establishment of the Hollywood Renaissance with such films as Bannie and Clyde (USA, 1967, Arthur Penn) and The Graduate (USA, 1967, Mike Nichols) but before the blockbuster mentality initiated by Jaws (USA, 1975, Steven Spielberg) and Star Wars (USA, 1977, George Lucas). And although the film can be seen in relation to arguably the first Hollywood blockbuster, The Godfather (USA, 1972, Francis Ford Coppola), it also offers, as I will argue, a very different depiction of the gangster genre.

Probably even more contentious than the term New Hollywood is the place of genre within this framework, the main question being if and how genre has changed in this post-classical era. One of the explanations offered is that New Hollywood incorporates a much greater level of genre-mixing than the classical era, a viewpoint that has been critiqued repeatedly, again, as with the term New Hollywood, from different perspectives. It has been argued that hybridity in New Hollywood has been overemphasized,6 and that the so-called "purity" of the classical era has to be reconsidered.7 I would not necessarily dispute either of these claims, but rather offer Mean Streets as a specific example for textual analysis along the lines called for by Peter Kramer in his discussion of "Post-Classical Hollywood":

Critical debates about developments in post-war American cinema have dealt with stylistic change only in a cursory, abstract, and unspecific fashion, quickly moving from observations about individual film examples to claims about fundamental shifts in the overall aesthetic and industrial system. …

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