Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tuesday Night at the McCarren Park Pool: "Mean Streets" at Summerscreen

We hadn't gone to any of the previous movies on Tuesday night at the McCarren Park Pool's series because we've been teaching an early evening course called Close Reading & Critical Analysis. But last night we were not so tired after class ended and so were walking the few blocks after dropping off our books and papers at the Dumbo Book HQ - because The L Magazine's Summerscreen featured Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese's 1973 breakthrough movie.

As we strode up the not-so-mean Lorimer Street, we called Arizona on our cell phone. "I said it was you," our father said. When we told him about being on our way to see Mean Streets, Dad said, "I just saw it again last month, great film."

For several months during our teenage years, we suspected our father was in the Mafia. He did know Crazy Joey Gallo, right? Not too well, but he talked about seeing him a couple of times at one of his customer's stores. And there seemed to us other signs.

"Is Mom there?" we ask. "She's right here," he says. Mom has Alzheimer's, says the same thing to us every time we speak to her, how much she loves us, misses us, when are we coming back, it's so long since she's seen us - even if it's the day after we've returned from Phoenix on JetBlue.

She doesn't really remember her 20 years living in Florida, and of her first 48 years living in Brooklyn, she remembers not so much the 20 years at our house near Kings Plaza ("the one with the swimming pool?"), her first 18 years with her parents on East 43rd Street and Church Avenue, our apartment on East 54th Street ("where the landlord yelled at of you?") -- but talks more about the place on Ocean Parkway by Avenue V & Gravesend Neck Road where we rented an apartment in the house of her aunt's mother-in-law's house, who also lived with her three unmarried sons who went to the track a lot.

Of that house, which she hasn't lived in since she was 22, Mom always says, "That was where the gangster lived next door. He liked you. What was his name?"

"Mr. Tomato Man," we say back. "Carlo Gambino." Supposedly he would pat our head every time we came by. We were two or three, so recall the tomatoes more than the man.

Why she recalls Carlo Gambino and not that she has a brother is a mystery of the human brain.

It's about 8:45 p.m. and we've missed the 7 p.m. music by Brooklyn's Second Dan, but we get there not too late into Mean Streets. As we step down into the pool, the first line we hear is Robert De Niro's "Let's go to the movies."

And there's a shot of a row of Times Square movie houses, all lit up at night, long gone. We first saw Mean Streets on a late fall Sunday afternoon when we were 22, a few weeks after it debuted at the New York Film Festival, at the only Manhattan theater where it was playing, the Cinema I on Third Avenue at 60th.

We were going for an M.A. in English at Richmond College, a long-gone (subsumed by The College of Staten Island) upper-division CUNY school near the Staten Island ferry terminal, so we had our tear-off weekly Rugoff chain student discount pass. The film danced in our head as we ate afterwards at the old Bun 'n' Burger chain ("Eureka! A good burger!" - Craig Claiborne read a big sign in front of every store -- and the New York Times food critic was right.)

Now we pass up the free drink offered at a Starbucks tent as we walk back, way to the back where the pay-for-food regular tents of San Loco, Smoke Joint, Blue Marble Ice Cream and Brooklyn Brewery stand. We find a space behind a big blanket of five picnicking young people -- most everyone, as always, is young, but Mean Streets has brought out a few more older people from the neighborhood sitting in those convenient if not quite comfortable black canvas portable chairs.

And there's Harvey Keitel in his 1973 suit, good Catholic on the Lower East Side, back when there were, it sometimes seemed, more mean streets in this city than not. Charlie's torn between the church, his Old World gangster uncle, Teresa the shunned epileptic and her relative, Robert De Niro's kinetic, crazy-impulsive, not-too-much-up-there Johnny Boy. Okay, everyone's seen it. Or maybe not.

We actually saw De Niro and Scorsese making a film over Christmas vacation in 1990, our last year of teaching at the Broward Community College campus in Davie, Florida, where they filmed part of Cape Fear. The English Department and our faculty office was in Building 65, and our building's theater-auditorium upstairs played the high school auditorium where Robert De Niro's vengeful psycho talks to the teenage daughter of the family he will terrorize, played by Juliette Lewis.

An office near ours had a sign taped up: "Marty's office." And in a strange coincidence, the screenwriter on Cape Fear turned out to be Wesley Strick, who back in 1978 was the young editor, younger even than us at 27, who accepted our first book of stories for Taplinger Publishing and sat with us over weekends as we edited the typed manuscript with white strips and lots of caffeine at his Yorkville apartment.

In late April 1991, we were out in California teaching at a Long Beach State writers' conference when we visited Wes and his family at their house in the Hollywood Hills. We were sitting at his pool, where Jack LaLanne had trained for his marathon swims when he lived there, looking down at the Hollywood sign, when he had to take a call from Martin Scorsese. We heard them talk about the film, which was then being edited.

That's our lone connection with the great Scorsese. Wes has written many more movies, directed a couple, and written a fascinating, underrated novel about a Reaganesque actor and World War II-era Hollywood, Out There in the Dark (2006). We lost touch years ago, the way people do.

People can lose touch with films they like too, but once you see them again, it's like being with an old friend you connect with even after 20 years.

The yuppie picnickers annoy us with their constant talking -- one woman lies with her back to the screen -- so we get up and find a seat almost directly in line with the center of the screen, a great view in an outdoor venue filled with great views (the obstruction in the middle being the exception that neatly bifurcates the audience), but it's up against the back of the pool and the ground is pebbly and the concrete behind us feels unpleasant, so we get up again.

We find a good spot up by the sort-of bleachers created by the edge of the pool at its southwest corner. We're in a posse of multi-ethnic male skateboarders who smoke too much but whose sullenness (or is thoughtfulness?) keeps them totally silent.

Actually, unlike other movies we've seen at the pool, Mean Streets keeps the crowd pretty silent. There are a few subdued laughs when Keitel tells Amy Robinson in bed that he can't get involved with her "because you're a cunt." There seems to be uncomfortable shifting during a scene with a horribly stereotypical gay man of the 1970s. And there's not much reaction as the film moves toward its relentless climax even with the local reference:

"Do I know Brooklyn? Do I know the jungle?"
"Yeah, you know Brooklyn."

Scorsese knows old New York, before Little Italy was reduced to a two-block theme park of nostalgia lost amid NoLita and Chinatown. He knows the mob.

Around the time this movie came out, our parents, with four other couples, including our mother's now-forgotten brother and his wife, owned a Borscht Belt hotel, the former Nemerson, that they renamed the DeVille Country Club ("where the elite meet," said the bumper sticker). Somehow my parents brought in a partner, a guy named Frank (we're still nervous about giving his last name), who managed the Bensonhurst catering hall (still there, so we won't name it) where one of our brothers had his 1968 bar mitzvah reception. We recall seeing our mom sitting with Frank at the bar at 3 a.m., laughing.

Anyway, after their "partners" had been in with them in the South Fallsburg hotel for a while, we came down one morning to breakfast to find a light-blue-backed legal document on the kitchen table. We read it. Our parents and the four other couples were selling their share of the hotel to their partners for the tidy sum of - one dollar.

Later, we asked our father about it and he just quoted from the Coppola film: "They made us an offer we couldn't refuse."

The Family (theirs, not ours) assumed Gov. Carey would soon bring casino gambling to the Catskills. When it didn't happen, they sold the hotel to Swami Muktananda for a song. Maybe an aria. The swami performed multiple weddings in our old Penguin Room nightclub, where we saw Robert Klein bomb, Myron Cohen triumph, Billy Daniels still manage to sing and Hines, Hines & Dad dance. Take my hotel - please.

The audience applauds at the end, but they're pretty silent. With Mean Streets, it's understandable, commendable. Instead of streaming out quickly, as we've seen at other McCarren pool movies, they don't seem ready to move fast. Most are just still sitting on the floor or the folding chairs as a woman announces the next week's film -- 28 Days Later -- and a few other things.

We're not sure the guarded exit behind us on Leonard Street is for audience members or just for the food vendors taking stuff back to the trucks, but we walk along with people carrying huge packages of food and the stuff that heats it, and go out. The crowds leaving McCarren pool go another way.

On Leonard Street by Skillman, we snake around six beach chairs on the sidewalk, five old women and an old man speaking Sicilian. Coming up to our block, there's another couple of old women sitting in the chairs, talking the same dialect. "'Scusa," we say, or something like that.

It's well after 10 p.m. but life still seems wonderful.

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