Kent Wakeford: Redefining American Cinematography In "Mean Streets"

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This article explores the breakthrough visual cinematography of the motion picture "Mean Streets" shot by renowned cinematographer Kent Wakeford and directed by Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese.

"Mean Streets" was shot by Kent Wakeford in shadowy, muted colors using handheld camera techniques to capture the gritty, restless and self-destructive lives of small time hoods in Little Italy New York. The cinematography by Kent Wakeford is arguably the most original for this genre at the time and has been copied endlessly in other movies, down to his audacious tracking shots. The innovative handholding and lighting techniques used by Kent Wakeford have since become mainstream practice in American cinema.

"Mean Streets" was nominated in the film category of Best Drama in the Writers Guild of America Awards in 1973. "Mean Streets" is an early Martin Scorsese film starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, with cinematography by Kent Wakeford. Robert De Niro won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as "Johnny Boy" Civello.

Hailed by film critics, "Mean Streets" is called one of the best original American films of all time.

Well known film critic Pauline Kael described it "a true original, a triumph of personal filmmaking--dizzyingly sensual."

Vincent Canby of the New York Times reflected that "no matter how bleak the milieu, no matter how heartbreaking the narrative, some films are so thoroughly, beautifully realized they have a kind of tonic effect that has no relation to the subject matter."

The Los Angeles Times has called "Mean Streets" an "unqualified triumph" and a modern American screen classic, describing "Mean Streets" as a jazzy riff of a movie, zigging and zagging as if to the beat of snapping fingers. Its greatness lays in its leanness, with nary a word, a move, a gesture that's nonessential. A long-time Scorsese supporter, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "in countless ways, right down to the detail of modern TV crime shows, "Mean Streets" is a source point of modern movies."

In 1997, "Mean Streets" was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


Interview with Kent Wakeford :

Question: How did you get involved with Martin Scorsese on the film "Mean Streets"?

Kent Wakeford: Martin had filmed about 5 minutes of Mean Streets and didn't like what he saw. A mutual friend recommended we meet. In our first meeting, Martin was very direct and said if he didn't like what I shot he 'd fire me on the spot. I told him that's exactly what he should do.

Question: Tell me about working with Scorsese?

Kent Wakeford: He's in a class by himself. Martin inspires creativity. He's fantastic to work with. He fosters an environment for artists to push boundaries.

Question: Did you have a vision for your visual look in "Mean Street"?

Kent Wakeford: My vision ran with Martin's, to create a mean, dirty visual look. I wanted to create a tense feeling of needing to keep looking over your shoulder. Martin wanted to capture the anxiety and conflict in each character. It was key.

Question: And you generated this feeling. How?

Kent Wakeford: Handholding the camera throughout most of the film created an unpolished, gritty feel of life on the streets of New York.

Question: Mean Streets was one of the first American films to focus on handholding in 35mm. Was this a difficult technique in the early 1970's?

Kent Wakeford: It was a challenge. In the early 70's most 35mm cameras were noisy. Shooting handheld created a number of issues including disrupting sound and adjusting for the weight of the camera. 1970's cameras lacked the technical advancements of today. For Mean Streets, we secured the only Aeroflex BL sound camera in Los Angeles at the time. The camera was lighter, quieter than others. I built a shoulder unit and rigged the camera to my body to hold it in place. This process was just before the introduction of Steadicam in mid 1970's. Steadicam captures a similar visual effect--not as frenetic though.

Question: So you captured movement and anxiety. What were other benefits with a handheld?

Kent Wakeford: I could follow the actors. We both had more freedom of movement. Actors didn't have to hit their marks perfectly. They were able to be absorbed in the frenetic energy of their characters.

Question: Did you use this camera technique in every scene?

Kent Wakeford: No. I specifically didn't use a handheld camera in certain scenes to show contrast. When the main characters were in their environment, meaning on the streets or in their bar, I used a handheld camera to give a sense of instability. In scenes and locations that represented a more established lifestyle, I used dollies or a still camera to contrast the gritty movement with slow and steady camera movements. For example, there are scenes in a Church where the goal was to show beauty and stability in contrast to the inner conflicts and chaos of one of the main characters.

Question: With all of these innovative camera techniques, was Scorsese worried about the visual outcome or second-guess your recommendations?

Kent Wakeford: While filming Mean Streets, I developed a wonderful working relationship with Martin. We spent a great deal of time talking, sharing my vision and his until we came together. He trusted me to shoot it. We didn't have monitors for the director to watch the scene back then, so Martin had to trust me and hold his breath until the dailies were delivered.

Question: The legendary bar scene where Harvey Keitel is drunk, stumbling across a bar and falls to the floor -- how did you shoot this scene?

Kent Wakeford: The Aeroflex camera was relatively light so I hooked the shoulder unit I created to Harvey Keitel and turned the camera using a wide angle lens around to face him. Harvey stumbled through the bar, with the batteries tied around his waist. Martin and I were right there with him, ducking out of light and shadows.

Originally, the scene was set to end as he fell. But, as Harvey hit the floor, he stayed in character and passed out. When we saw the footage, we loved it.

Question: The fight scene in a bar - it's brawl. Great scene.

Kent Wakeford: The goal of the fight scene was to make it feel like a real fight and not a staged Hollywood fight. We had to grab the feeling of movement, fear, aggression. We needed a sense of the unexpected. The actors fought their way around the bar like wild animals. I followed, jumping over obstacles, shooting the entire scene handheld.

Question: When "Mean Streets" was released in 1973, a leading film critic wrote favorably about your visual use of red in the bar.

Kent Wakeford. Right, I remember. He likened the downstairs bar to Dante's Inferno.

Question: What inspired this visual parallel?

Kent Wakeford: Red simply felt right.

Question: And Harvey Keitel in the Catholic Church, putting his finger in the fire?

Kent Wakeford: The Church was meant to contrast the streets. Harvey Keitel's character struggled with inner demons, his devout Catholicism and life as an up-and-coming Mafioso. To realize this contrast, we used long dolly shots, slowing down the film's tempo, and encapsulating the character's moment of reflection.

Question: You were the first to use many innovative camera techniques in "Mean Streets". Your techniques have since become commonplace in motion pictures. How do you feel about other cinematographers copying techniques you developed in the early 1970s?

Kent Wakeford: It's a compliment. But I can't take all the credit. Inspiration came to me from many European cinematographers at the time. I funneled the inspiration into a collaborative brainstorm with Martin. Martin inspired me to push limits. Martin's vision and belief in me as an artist gave me the freedom to dare.

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