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.