Thursday, June 19, 2008


In my last post, I praised the skill and acumen of director Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, which I think is one of his best films. In a rather serendipitous turn of events, I also watched on television that same night the American Film Institute's 10 Top 10, which listed the top ten films in ten different categories (animation, romantic comedy, western, sports, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, gangster, courtroom drama, and epic). "Gangster" movies are probably some of my favorite movies of all time, so I watched with baited breath to see what the top three gangster films would be. I was sooooo happy to see Scorcese's Goodfellas squeezed in at #2, just between Francis Ford Coppola's first and second installments of The Godfather triology. For all of us who love Goodfellas and constantly bemoan the fact that it isn't given the respect that The Godfather movies get, this was a small but totally gratifying coup.

[Side notes about the non-gangster AFI rankings: I totally agree with the #1 chices in the categories of epic (Lawrence of Arabia), courtroom drama (To Kill A Mockingbird), fantasy (Wizard of Oz), and western (The Searchers). I would have switched #3 (Rear Window) and #1 (Vertigo) in the "mystery" category, but I'm okay with any Jimmy Stewart/Alfred Hitchcock combination. I think that Pinocchio should have gotten #1 in animation, and The Philadelphia Story should've gotten #1 in romantic comedy. And in the most egregiously bad omission, I can't even believe that Chariots of Fire wasn't included in the top-10 "sports" movies! I am inclined to say that it should've been in a dead-heat contest for #1 with Rocky. I mean, Jerry Maguire in the top 10? Really?]

Anyway, back to Goodfellas.

To attempt to capture the sheer brilliance of Goodfellas is as formidable an undertaking as Liotta's attempt to explain to Pesci, in the most famous scene from the film, why Liotta thinks Pesci is a "funny guy." Scorsese's prowess when it comes to the ambiguity and plurality of meaning are almost legendary. His (in)famous shady rooms and dim lighting within the surreal world of "made" men cinematically translate his obsession with the games life comically, cruelly, and consistently plays with its participants. The central theme in Goodfellas is quite straightforward, that is, just at the times when you think you've got it all under control, you don't. This kind of subjective impotence in the face of a world that refuses to be domesticated is only magnified by that world's relentless demand on select men to make their home in the world as it is. Scorsese's men are tossed into the game like poker chips in a smoke-filled room, all the while believing that they are bellying up to the table to play for a chance to be "made." Yet, in Goodfellas, the dealing is always from the bottom of the deck.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, directorial influence in the film is Scorsese's decision to give his audience an inside point of view. By placing us shoulder-to-shoulder with Liotta for almost the entirety of the film, the audience is provided a real sense of involvement in the mafia scene. The overarching narrative being told by Liotta directly to the audience provides us a semblance of inclusion, even participatory influence, and directs all the events at the viewer. Scorsese gives his audience a passenger seat on the fast track of an up-and-coming insider from the very start, and when Liotta begins to lose control and move out of the inside, we are alienated along with him. Most of the camera angles are tight shots, giving the audience the sense of an intimate, "family" surrounding, and encouraging all of the feelings that family engenders, including both familiarity and precariousness. Scorsese emphasizes the point of view of subjective control by aligning the audience with Liotta, and as Liotta's world becomes more disjointed and chaotic (as he begins to lose control, or be controlled) the audience's take on the action also begins to lose its coherence and rigid linear direction. Liotta moves from a slick insider, barely noticeable as he cruises in and out of the circles of made men, to a progressively more clumsy and conspicuous outsider, unable to blend into the shadows, glaringly out of place and out of control, until finally he seems the parody of the man he was. In the last scene, Liotta is standing anonymously, ridiculously, in a fenced-in suburban lawn. And, in the end, we're standing there with him.

The more technical of Scorsese's directorial influences on point of view are masterfully evident in his use of the Steadicam and the freeze-frame. Extremely long and meticulously planned Steadicam shots in both the wedding scene and the Copa Cabana scene determine the audience's involvement in the foreign world of the mafia. As the camera weaves in and out of tables at the wedding and the Copa Cabana, we are given a real sense of family and the enormous ramifications that entails. Scorsese puts us right into the subjective experience of backdoor handshakes, business deals sealed with a kiss on the cheek, and the endless stream of introductions and connections that weave together the fabric of a community based on exclusive interiority. The Steadicam shots intimate a sense of control, as if moving in and out of a system with the agility of one who knows which palms to grease, which backs to scratch, which guys to whack. For a good part of the movie, Scorsese lets us be "goodfellas," too. We get to walk where they walk, see what they see, know what they know. Yet, the Steadicam also produces a certain amount of uneasiness, a sense that the world of the goodfellas has an invisible control that is finally impenetrable.

Scorsese uses the freeze-frame for just such little epiphanies. There is no time to stop and think in the mafia world, but with the privilege of hindsight, and the medium of the narrative film, the freeze-frame arrests the progression of events and affords us a subjective commentary that may have well come straight from the director's mouth. The freeze frames in Goodfellas are Scorsese's opportunity to say: "Wait. Stop here. This is really important." They are the moments of ultimate intimacy between artist and audience, when the film is no longer speaking to us through the art of the story, but is rather speaking directly to us. Scorsese plays on the theme of control throughout Goodfellas, saying at times to us "you may be part of the story now" and at other times "you are completely outside while I stop and tell you this story." As with Liotta, Scorsese allows his audience to be close, even intimate, with the mysterious mafia world. He allows us to feel as if we are swelling our autonomy within this world, gaining control of our lives, making our own choices. But Scorsese never, ever, permits us to be taken in completely, never accepted, never inside, never "made." In the end the audience is again fenced-in to the narrative of a freeze-frame, just as Liotta is fenced-in his final suburban failure. Or, even worse, we are shot in the back by a naive belief in our own control, as Pesci ends up face down in his own blood, just on the verge of being made.

One last thing: it would be an injustice to overlook Scorsese's prodigious ability to perfectly place characters with actors. Liotta gives us the obsessively ambitious and flawlessly cool insider, as well as the cracked-up and falling-apart outsider. Pesci is the quintessential Scorsese-Italian: fast-talking, shady-dealing, story-telling, and temper-blowing. Deniro consecutively turns the same line over in dozens of different ways as he has done many times for Scorsese before, and as ingeniously as ever. Scorsese wants us to smell, hear, feel, taste goodfellas. And he gives us this Italian/Irish/New Yorker sensory blitz without missing one glass of wine, one pasta-filled plate, one grotesquely whacked traitor, or one gaudy pinky ring. As his characters play out their parts in the high stakes game, Scorsese involves his audience in such a way as to almost make the viewer another character. He stamps Goodfellas with his directorial mark by not only revealing once again the fascinating and opaquely intriguing world of La Casa Nostra, but doing so in such a way that the camera's involvement very realistically and concretely becomes the audience's involvement. The viewer is not only shown the illusory sense of control that Scorsese's story is attempting to convey, but is actually given that illusory control. In the end, one gets the feeling that the power and control of made men eludes both Scorsese and his characters (and us), and Scorsese uses his film as a commentary on his ultimate failure to enter a world that so passionately intrigues him. His camera is as much the control for Scorsese's involvement in what I would call "intimate distance" as it is his medium to communicate the paradox of intimate distance to us. It is Scorsese's alter-world, this world of made men and money and control, much like the alter-world Liotta set up for himself in the film with his mistress. As Deniro says of Liotta's arrangement:

"This... This is what this is. We all know what this is."

As ambiguous as it may be, it is the perfect encapsulation of the Scorsese project.


John said...

Leigh, Leigh, you are still so young and yet possess so much dark wisdom!

The problem I have with the movie Goodfellas in particular is that it draws the viewer into a world of amorality to the point that we the viewers actually feel this "gravitational pull". (How different from, say, Camus' The Stranger). You have skillfully outlined the space and the psychology of "intimate distance", I am reminded of the principle that "hell is other people" from Sartre's No Exit. This claustrophobic zone, this hell, is conveyed a little too well by the movie for me.

But the issue that I have more generally with mob movies (or advertising featuring references to gangsters, etc.) is that this genre of movies creates and sustains the illusion that we are basically dealing with a fiction, and (to various degrees) making the viewer forget the real phenomenon, with a historical dimension, of organized crime.

I find far preferable a somewhat more journalistic work, like the movie (mostly forgotten) Year of the Gun about the case of Aldo Moro, the former prime minister of Italy kidnapped by the Red Brigades. (The story is intricate and chilling, even read by following something like the Wikipedia entry on Aldo Moro). What I mean to say is that the viewer of a "mob movie" tends to lose the critical sense that can comprehend the dynamic of fear and power, and lose the ability to perceive or sense subtle ties between government and criminality.

Anyway Leigh, I know I am taking the discussion in a different direction, and I hope you can forgive my opening sentence, but this is how I feel. I do not get the Coke commercials with the gangsters. Too many have died
>in reality
because of-- what? I would say going to the root of the matter because of the diabolical within man, or what Derrida calls (citing Patocka) "demonic irresponsibility" in The Gift of Death.

Chet said...

I too have fondly appreciated Goodfellas for years. I like the way you describe the relation between the viewer and the director, particularly with your emphasis on Liotta's character's role in entering us into and then carrying us out of this dark world.

My favorite scenes in this film will always be the conversation at Pesci's character's mother's house (mother played by Scorsese's mom) where they are sitting there talkig about her most recent painting. It is clearly excess for Scorcese, but it is beautiful excess.

It is interesting though, what you say abotu this film, because I tend to think it has less to do with a statement about an individual than it does about this deeply ethically troubling moment in the history of the mafia, where they are switching from loan sharking, theft, etc., to the drug trade. Note that this is the conflict at the root of the Godfather films as well.

I share John's skepticism about the love for gangster films in American culture. There is something very disturbing about it and they are romanticized films. I cannot remember which film it is, but there is a line from a character in the film about how we adulate these individuals when really they are losers and psychopaths. And they are. The real question is, what do we admire so much about this reckless display of power and violence?

DOCTOR J said...

John and Chet-

Who thinks that gangster movies are accurate representations of the mafia world? I, for one, don't watch these movies as if they were documentaries, so I am not bothered by the fact that they run a little rough-shod over the finer details of criminal life.

That said, I don't think that films like Goodfellas or The Godfather trilogy avoid representations of the fear, power, and very violent violence that defines the world of organized crime. So, I think that what distinguishes later gangster films (like the ones mentioned here and De Palma's Scarface) from earlier 20th C. gangster films (like The Public Enemy or Little Ceasar) is that the more recent films don't shy away from sometimes grotesque representations of criminal violence, nor do they (in John's words) gloss over the "subtle ties between government and criminality."

So, I disagree with you guys that (the really good) gangster movies are cartoon-y fantasy films-- or, at least, I don't think they are significantly more fantastical than other works of "reality"-based fiction. (Do you guys criticize Hemingway's representation of the bullfighters?) Sure, American film has "manufactured" a particular archetype of the gangster, but I'm less intreeted in how well that archetype matches the men on whom it is ostensibly based than I am interested in what this archetype has tapped in our psyches.

Chet, I like your question: what do we admire so much about this reckless display of power and violence? I especially like this question in the context you provided, which is that these (anti-)heros are, in our normal interpretive frames, "psychopaths and losers." (Btw, Chet, I think that quote was from the movie Donnie Brasco.) I think that one of the reasons we are so drawn to these sorts of stories and these sorts of characters is that they demonstrate something about the control we pretend to have, but don't, in our own lives. Even still, there must be other factors at work, and I'd like to hear what you think...

Why does every frat boy in the country have every word of Scarface memorized? And-- in what amounts to the same phenomemon, I think-- why did we everyone love The Wire so much? (I agree with you, Chet, that the transformation of organized crime by the drug trade signaled a significant shift in both the American imagining of and the actual world of criminality.)

John said...

I do not think my point was that these movies are cartoony fantasy, or attempting to be accurate representations of reality. I think I was trying to sat that as soon as we begin to think in terms of generalities like the "criminal world", we lose sight of the singularity of crime-- defined as a single event of murder, death, loss, mourning. It is not a matter of how faithfully or accurately a representation is made, but rather the single event as opposed to the nth repetition of a shooting (which is somehow normalizing the horror of the event, is it not?)

As far as "what this archetype has tapped in our psyches" I think we have to be careful-- what would this archetype be exactly? Indifference to another human being? Capacity for evil?

I think the essential matter here is that the mafia film is basically unlike tragedy in its attitude toward death, its "being-toward-death" if you like.

In his essay "Philosophy and Film" Badiou writes "[extreme violence] is a complex zone which includes the theme of the torturing serial killer.. certain films about the mafia, and films about the end of the world with various tribal survivors cutting each other's throats. It is not a matter of variations of the horrifying film as a genre. The element of cruelty, the crushing of bones, the torture, prevails over suspense and fear. It is an ensemble which actually evokes the late Roman Empire, because its essential material consists of its variations on putting-to-death. The point is knowing whether all this could be exposed to a tragic treatment."

John said...

I should add that this is not a matter of being indifferent to death, but rather of distancing oneself from indifference to death.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I heard on Fresh Air that mafiosi types try to model their behavior off of the Sopranos (in the same way that I base my philosophy professing after American cinema's many representations of philosophy professors).

DOCTOR J said...

Ideas Man,

Just a little friend-to-friend advice: modeling your teaching on the American cinema's representations of philosophy professors can get you in serious trouble with the law. Or it could get you on TV-- on the show "To Catch A Predator," to be exact.

Just fair warning, ya know.

DOCTOR J said...


So, as I said in the post, I was shocked to see that "Chariots of Fire" wasn't included in the top-10 "sports" films... but then one of my friends informed me that the AFI only ranks "American" films, so "Chariots of Fire" didn't qualify for consideration.

I feel better now.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

It does seem true that in the movies all professors are borderline pedophiles (whereas in actuality only 30% of them admit to it ...)

Just for the record, the reason why I am in academia is the summers "off."

John said...

Just for the record, the one film about organized crime that stands out in my mind was The Firm.