Study Questions: Week Ten

Rediscovering Ethnic Identities


Mean Streets (1973) and Italianamerican (1974)


Two very different but often interrelated themes might be described as the defining characteristics of Martin Scorsese's most successful films. One is his exploration of ethnic identity, specifically the Italian-American community he grew up in. From Mean Streets and Italianamerican to Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), in documentaries like Italianamerican he explores this community, and many more of his films reveal its cultural and spiritual influence. Equally important is the variety of ways in which his films reveal themselves as the product of other films. He often, as in the opening of Mean Streets, draws attention to the process of filmmaking, draws on the work of John Ford's The Searchers in Taxi Driver (1976), and experiments with a variety of film genres (including a remake of Lee J. Thompson's Cape Fear, 1962).

Mean Streets: You Don't Make Up for Your Sins at Church. You Do It on the Streets.

1. In the opening sequence of the film (before and during the credits) how does Scorsese use his camera both to call attention to the film as film and to present Charlie's (Harvey Keitel) ethnic heritage? Hoiw does it prepare viewers to understand his behavior in the story which follows?

2. What is the significance of the street festival in honor of San Gennaro , the patron saint of Naples,whose opening and closing days extablish the timeframe of the film's action? What is the importance of the religious imagery throughout the film. It is a reflection of Charlie's spiritual yearnings, an ironic comment on the life he lives, or both? Why? As a matter of fact, why do you think Scorsese never make specific reference to the saint being honored?

3. The central characters -- Charlie, Johnny Boy (Robert Di Niro), Michael (Richard Romanus) -- are introduced by subtitles. Why does Scorsese use this method? How doers he once again create a dpouble effect: giving the movie a sense of doucmentary authenticity and interrupting the Hollywood style of realism?

4. The scene of Charlie and Teresa (Amy Robinson) making love in a hotel room ends with an abrupt jump cut to the statue of San Gennaro. How does the juxtaposition of images express Charlie's dilemma? What other jump cuts in the film serve the same dramatic function?

5. The film is not only shaped by the culture of Little Italy (even his mother makes a cameo appearance), it also draws on other films. In the course of the film, characters watch John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Roger Corman's The Tomb of Ligeia (1965), and Fritz Lang's noir thriller The Big Heat (1953). There are references to Back to Bataan (1945), Point Blank (1967), and Season of the Witch (1972), as well as a more obscure allusion to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954). Each of these films are used to forshadow events, reveal character, and encourage the viewer to read Mean Streets as a film about film as well as a film about Italian-American life. Let's take two of these references the clips from The Tomb of Ligeia and The Big Heat and ask how they contribute to the films central themes. Consider the imagery of The Tomb: fire separating a dark woman who clearly resembles Teresa. Where else is fire imagery used, and how is it connected to Charlie's torments? What does the fate of the hero in Poe's Ligeia (the basis of Corman's film) have in common with Charlie? Later Charlie's Uncle (Cesare Danova) watches a scene from The Big Heat. How does the scene anticipate the end of Scorsese's film and link it to the film noir tradition?

6. What does Michael indroductory scene reveal about his character and competence? How, exactly, does Scorsese use visual images as well as dialogue to make this relevation? How does this scene set up the running joke about Johnny Boy making a "jerk-off" of Michael? And how does that joke help drive the film to its climax?

7. Throughout much is made of social and ethnic distinctions, with important references to Blacks, Jews, suburban WASPs, and gays. How are we to interpret these references? What does it say about the idea of America as a melting pot where everyone is assimilated to a common culture? What do these hostile attidudes say about the darker side of ethnic identity?

8. How does Scorsese use his sound track to express Charlie's many contradictions (between duty and desire, between the flesh and the spirit, between ethnic loyalty and his desire to share the American Dream)?

9. What is the significance of the Italian festival band playing the National Anthem and of Charlie's uncle having a picture of Robert Kennedy together with American and Italian flags on the wall of his restaurant? How do these images run counter to the ethnic divisions emphasized in the film?

10. How might Johnny Boy be seen as a mirror image of Charlie, both products of an older culture which cannot sustain itself in America?And finally, what are those tigers doing in the basement of Tony's bar? They are compared to William Blake's poem "The Tyger." How might this poem suggest that they symbolize the mystery of the lifves depicted in the film?


Italianamerican: We Thought Marty Would Grow Up to Be a Priest.

1. The title, which fuses the two words, suggests that the documentary about his parents will take up many of the cultural issues seen in Mean Streets. How many can you identify?

2. When Scorsese asks about life in New York's Little Italy a generation earlier, his father and mother recall the reaction to Italian immigration by the Irish, the views of Chinatown to the south, and the variety of Jewish shopkeepers. Both parents describe suspicion and hostility among ethnic groups, but his mother goes into the kitchen saying that she doesn't like to talk about "that." When pressed she says that "after a while... they all got on together." In your opinion, why does she insist on this optimistic view. It seems at odds with the ethnic attitudes expressed in Mean Streets. How does her view reflect the "melting pot" ideal?

3. After a trip to Italy both the elder Scorsese's emphasize the charm of the Old Country but say that there is "no work" over there. What exactly do they mean? How is the American Dream implicit in there comments (and in their description of the success of the second-generation children)?

4. How do their stories of their first Christmas trees exemplify the process of cultural assimilation?

5. Why does the interview end with Katherine Scorsese telling of her family's move to Staten Island? Consider the garden imagery, the job held by her father, and the earlier comment about there being "no work" in the Old Country.

6. How effective do you find Scorsese's use of old photographs? For example what does the face of Katherine Scorsese's mother tell us about the difficulties of everyday immigrant life? Or what does the portrait of her father (and its fate) say about the changes in patriarchal authority?

7. How does the relationship revealed between the parents in recurring visual images as well as dialogue appears to call into question the gender roles generally attributed to working-class families (and satirized in the 1970s most popular TV comedy: All in the Family? How does Charles Scorsese's description of his mother achieve the same effect?

8. Does the film encourage viewers to admire or smile at the elder Scorseses? What specific aspects of the film formed your judgment?


Mean Streets Information
Italianamerican Information