Cinema: A Closed Circle

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In Mean Streets a group of dull young men who live in New York City's Little Italy are anxious not to rile the Mafia if they cannot impress it. So they tiresomely hang around bars, pool halls and street corners, punching and grunting at one another until, as their mothers must have warned them, someone gets hurt.

One of them (Robert De Niro) is maniacally and inexplicably self-destructive, running up huge gambling debts and refusing to pay them. His friend Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who guarantees the loans, becomes simultaneously anxious and guilty, not only about this relationship but about life in general. He is anxious because he hopes to rise in the Mob and cannot afford to have a lot of blood spilled on his turf. He is guilty because he believes in Catholic hellfire. These hang-ups also cause him to behave abominably to his girl (Amy Robinson), who is smart and pretty but no hit with his uncle, the Godfather, because she is also an epileptic.

Though there is much to admire in Scorsese's film, one's feelings about it are finally ambivalent. Scorsese feels the chill of his mean streets in his bones, and he makes us feel it too. There is neither warmth nor comfort in the places his people seek to escape that cold. The very light of the film suggests a terrarium existence. The detailing is not just a matter of touches; it is an impasto that, instead of being a stylistic device, be comes the root substance of the work.

Admirable as the intensity of Scorsese's realism may be, it remains only realism. It is impossible to care as deeply as he does about people whose minds and spirits are stunted. Though the director obviously sees them as tragic figures, to a less committed observer they finally seem romanticized, pathetic primitives.

Given the care and the intensity lavished on this highly personal film, one would like to feel more strongly about the characters and their milieu. But even a talent as powerful as Scorsese's cannot compel that feeling, cannot force a stranger's entry into a closed and vicious circle. One leaves the film with the sense of having endured a class in social anthropology rather than an aesthetic experience. ·Richard Schickel