Today: June 11, 2024

BFI Film Classics: Mean Streets & The Deer Hunter

Referred to as “possibly the most bountiful book series in the history of film criticism” by Film Comment’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, BFI Film Classics – celebrating film for over 30 years – is an incredible series of short albeit incredibly detailed analyses on the most important pieces of cinema. Two of the latest films to receive the treatment are Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets – perhaps coincidentally, two Robert De Niro films, in the great actor’s 80th year.

Cimino’s controversial 1978 Vietnam epic is ripe for discussion, with debates surrounding it still going on to this day. Despite the outrage surrounding the film’s initial release, the dark and harrowing film went on to earn five Academy Awards and has since been recognised as a classic of American cinema. Brad Prager’s book is an illuminating look at the film’s critical reception and its significance in the war film genre, while examining its realism and comparing it to other depictions of US-led military intervention. It’s a cracking read that puts the film in a new light, which in itself is fascinating as the film is just five years away from its big 50th anniversary.

Then, Scorsese’s third feature Mean Streets is covered by Demetrious Matheou. With the great filmmaker’s 28th narrative feature – Killers of the Flower Moon – due for release this October, this is a great time to revisit Mean Streets and study its legacy. The book argues that the film may even be a more significant achievement for Marty than his more celebrated classics like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver – and reading this book is certainly convincing of that theory. 

The books are beautifully produced, too – lovely thick, glossy paper stock and generously illustrated with colour images, they’re certainly lavish little books that are fit to carry the BFI’s prestigious name. Stunning new artwork on the covers, too, by Cris Vector and Joe Gough, respectively.

These two books offer truly fascinating insights into these 70s classics’ cultural significance and enduring legacy. With such an enormously rich wealth of cinema classics to choose from, there’s no surprise this book series shows no signs of slowing down – and that can only be a good thing for film fans. Each entry in the ever-growing catalogue deserves a spot on any enthusiast’s bookshelf, and these two are definitely worth it.

The Deer Hunter by Brad Prager

Published September 7, 2023

Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was met with both critical and commercial success upon its release in 1978. However, it was also highly controversial and came to be seen as a powerful statement on the human cost of America’s longest war and as a colonialist glorification of anti-Asian violence. Brad Prager’s study of the film considers its significance as a war movie and contextualizes its critical reception. Drawing on an archive of contemporaneous materials, as well as an in-depth analysis of the film’s lighting, mise-en-scène, multiple cameras and shifting depths of field, Prager examines how the film simultaneously presents itself as a work of cinematic realism, while problematically blurring the lines between fact and fiction. While Cimino felt he had no responsibility to historical truth, depicting a highly stylized version of his own fantasies about the Vietnam War, Prager argues that The Deer Hunter’s formal elements were used to bolster his troubling depictions of war and race. Finally, comparing the film with later depictions of US-led intervention such as Albert and Allen Hughes’s Dead Presidents (1995) and Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods (2020), Prager illuminates The Deer Hunter’s major presumptions, blind spots and omissions, while also presenting a case for its classic status.

Mean Streets by Demetrios Matheou

Published October 5, 2023

Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese’s third feature film, and the one that confirmed him as a major new talent. On its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1973, the movie critic Pauline Kael hailed the film as “a true original of our period, a triumph of personal film-making.” The story is set amid the bars, pool halls, tenements and streets of the few blocks of Manhattan known as Little Italy, Scorsese’s childhood neighbourhood, one whose “very texture was interwoven with organised crime,” and this in turn informs the texture of his film. Demetrios Matheou’s study of the film considers the contexts of its production, namely the New Hollywood and the rise of a young generation of film school-educated directors striving to break the stale mold of studio pictures. He analyses the significance of Scorsese’s background and its influence on the film’s themes; its production history; the particular aspects of his filmmaking process and style; Scorsese’s relationships with stars De Niro and Harvey Keitel and writer Mardik Martin; the reception of the film and its subsequent influence. Matheou argues that while Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are considered Scorsese’s greatest films of the period, Mean Streets may be the more significant achievement. In it, Scorsese supplied the more enduring template for future crime movies, whether his own Goodfellas, or films as diverse as Donnie Brasco, Reservoir Dogs, La Haine, Man Bites Dog and State of Grace; and beyond the big screen, on television dramas such as The Sopranos.

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