Martin Scorsese’s “Street Scenes” (1970)

“Not my President!”

This phrase, loaded not just with implicit political bias but with a readiness to reject the opinions of an entire demographic as inherently invalid, has been thrown around with reckless abandon over the past few years. We live in an extreme climate of political polarization, having nuked the common ground between our opposing ideologies. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s surprising to hear the same phrase barked out during a tense moment in director Martin Scorsese’s 1970 STREET SCENES. If nothing else, Scorsese’s documentary about a pair of anti-Vietnam and anti-war protests makes it clear that there’s always been two Americas, each absolutely convinced of their own superiority and righteousness as they lunge at the other’s throats. Add to that the image of a downtown bank’s windows boarded up in sheets of plywood in preparation for a riot, and one comes to an undeniable, sobering realization: all of this has happened before, and it will happen again.

To inhabit the world of academia in the late 1960’s was to apparently live in a climate of constant political agitation and radicalization. A new generation of Americans was rising up to assert their opposition to the military-industrial complex, using their God-given right to free speech as well as an unparalleled media literacy to issue forceful calls for peace. In the chambers and corridors of the constellation of buildings surrounding Washington Square Park that constitute the New York University campus, students were actively learning how to harness the tools and technology of media messaging to affect change. They found the documentary format a particularly effective tool in their efforts, having been turned on to the power of cinema verite by professor Haig Manoogian. He exposed his students to the groundbreaking work of documentary filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers, and Chris Marker, drawing a direct line to the narrative flourishes of the Italian neorealist and French New Wave pictures that inspired them so. Scorsese found himself particularly energized by the format’s truth telling qualities, vowing to always capture its powers no matter the nature of the project (2).

This conviction has led to a flourishing second career in documentaries that stands side by side with his theatrical narrative work. His earliest professional brush with the form occurred as a result of his taking a second job to supplement his teaching work at NYU. He was moonlighting as an editor alongside Thelma Schoonmaker at Paradigm Pictures, where they would spend business hours cutting the Merv Griffin show, and once everyone else had gone home for the day, they would cut his debut feature WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? The gig would ultimately lead to his very first professional screen credit, as a first assistant director and co-editor with Schoonmaker on Michael Wadleigh’s WOODSTOCK (1970). Though the film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, Scorsese eventually found himself locked out of the editing room because of his creative differences with Wadleigh (2). Thankfully, Scorsese had another documentary project in which to occupy his time.

As a member of a group of film students who dubbed themselves the New York Cinetracts Collective, Scorsese naturally emerged as a creative figurehead. Though the Collective championed the removal of individual authorship from their work, the production of STREET SCENES required a singular presence in the edit bay to supervise the assembly of disparate protest footage into a coherent story. In an attempt to capture the roiling anger of the student anti-war movement, STREET SCENES gives an eyewitness, street-level account of two protest rallies: the Hard Hat Riot on Wall Street on May 7th and 8th, followed on May 9th by the Kent State Incursion Protest in Washington DC. The film combines protest footage with heated symposiums in student dorms as well as dispassionate conferences in a newsroom in a bid to capture the unbridled passions of American youth fighting against the might of the military-industrial complex as well as the well-oiled engines of commerce and mass media. Featuring appearances by present & future collaborators like Verna Bloom, Jay Cocks, and Harvey Keitel (in addition to Scorsese himself), STREET SCENES is a raw howl for peace, rendered in the handheld, casual vernacular of direct cinema. Though IMDB lists the film gauge as 35mm, the hardscrabble mix of black & white and color footage suggests itself as the cheaper 16mm format— a far more likely scenario given their expectedly limited resources. Scorsese oversees the collective efforts of friends like Schoonmaker as well as his students, including a young Oliver Stone, who operates one of the cameras.

Despite STREET SCENES’ origins as a collective effort, Scorsese’s burgeoning artistic identity can’t help but assert itself. The inclusion of pre-existing rock tracks from bands like Canned Heat and Blind Faith might be the most conspicuous example, with the film’s general unavailability in the public forum likely owing to the expectation that these tracks were never properly cleared or licensed. There’s also images that speak to Scorsese’s upbringing in a world caught between crime and faith, with protestors climbing up on a cross, or clashing participants lobbying their fists against their enemy as a kind of impotent substitute for their inability to reconcile the simmering conflicts within their own ranks. Cinema itself becomes a kind of unspoken theme throughout STREET SCENES, a prelude to larger documentary explorations of the art form like A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES or MY VOYAGE TO ITALY as well as narrative meditations like HUGO. This starts with the formation of the Cinetracts collective itself, underlining the communal attitude towards filmmaking espoused by Scorsese’s generation as they searched for an alternative to the capitalistic hierarchy of traditional production. The opening finds students discussing the form & theory of cinema, especially as it pertains to conveying their anti-war message. Their formal education in film makes for a palpable media literacy rivaled only by professional craftsmen; that they grew up immersed in this medium allows them to harness its power to an unparalleled extent. 

There’s a reason why the filmmakers of the 1960’s and 1970’s loom so large over the art form, and why so many groundbreaking works were produced in that era. STREET SCENES, like other works from its time, is cinema by those with an over-abundance of passion and a complete lack of things to lose. Untempered by the cold, compromising realities of the adult world, these young voices endeavor to point out complicated injustices with the clarity of condemnation. They refuse to inherit this broken world; better, then, to simply smash everything up and start over fresh. The raw power that drove Scorsese’s early successes is clearly behind the wheel here as well— though it may be something of a “lost” work in his larger canon, STREET SCENES is nevertheless an important one. In its forceful rebuke of Vietnam and the events of Kent State, the film sees Scorsese step out from the shadow of his Old World heritage and embrace his destiny as an artist of his own time.

References:

1: IMDB Trivia Page

2. Shone, Tom- “Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective”- “The Documentaries” chapter

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