Saturday, 19 September 2015

Wise Guys

DVD Notes: “GoodFellas”


Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's gangster epic "GoodFellas"

On this day, the 19th of September, 1990, the first audiences were shown Martin Scorsese’s newest film, GoodFellas, based on a true story of a life in the mob, and rounding off a decade of a few commercial disappointments in the star director’s career, despite the continued support for him from most critics and his overwhelming beginning to the decade with – what I maintain is his greatest cinematic achievement – Raging Bull. But GoodFellas proved a success – commercially and especially critically – and began a new decade with rays of hope (for his career, that is – no one doubted the quality of his output) for the man whom it was now something of a cliché to call “America’s finest filmmaker”.

Scorsese really was America’s finest filmmaker, and, I affirm, retains that title today, though not on his own – he shares it with Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) and Wes Anderson (whom, incidentally, Scorsese named as “the next Scorsese” a few years after the release of GoodFellas). And GoodFellas remains one of his most popular films. (Perhaps the most popular, but it’s difficult to compare public opinion of works released over a range of more than 40 years.) It’s the movie people kept talking about for a decade and a half – with many naming it as the best movie of the 90s – until Scorsese finally won his single Oscar for The Departed, when the conversation changed to something like, “I rather like The Departed… He should have won for GoodFellas, though.” It was quite right, I should think, for moviegoers to hold his earlier hit in a little higher esteem than his Bostonian remake, but since his Academy Award victory he’s surpassed even the achievement of GoodFellas with the triad of Shutter Island, Hugo, and The Wolf of Wall Street. These are the films of post-LaMotta Scorsese that stain the moviegoer’s imagination, and haunt his consciousness.

Nonetheless, GoodFellas is as great a film (and better) as nearly any other of the 90s and the surrounding decades, and no film of authentic power – such as is carried by GoodFellas – can really be diminished by comparison to other great films; but it can only be boosted by comparison to films of a class closer to average. Not that it’s entirely possible to mark out a complete comparison between GoodFellas and an average movie, for a number of reasons. Firstly, GoodFellas doesn’t possess much by way of plot. Or else it possesses an inordinate amount. The plot is one of a life in the mob. It’s as simple a story as can be contained by any film, but also as capacious and as heavily stocked with incident and spectacle. Secondly, it’s far less family friendly than the average film. Those who’ve seen The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street know of the minefield of expletives they’re heading into with this movie, and the viewers of Gangs of New York and, again, The Departed know how special sometimes is the Scorsese sequence free of shootings and stabbings and gratuitous gore. And, of course, in the mode of any story of gangsters of depraved and prosaic proportions, there is no shortfall in racist and homophobic slurs. Oh, and the Scorsese staple: the copious intake of cocaine, and the resulting heavy imbalance in emotional and mental keenness. Children under twelve are strongly recommended to watch this film with a red-letter New Testament within reach.

Of course, the real difference between this and most other films is that they were not directed by Martin Scorsese. Besides Malick and Anderson, is there any other director working today who pays as much attention to precisely where everything is in the frame, precisely what is in the frame and what isn’t, precisely how the frame moves, precisely when the frame changes from one image to another, or precisely the effect of the accumulation of these attentions? Scorsese has used the same editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, for all of his films since Raging Bull (which won her an Oscar for editing), and together they work to the most minute degrees of crafting a work in which every single moment (of which there are 24 in a second) is stained with the consciousness and, in this case, virtuosity of its maker.

Take, for example, the opening scene. Three men are driving along a highway at night, in upstate New York, in 1970. They are gangsters: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is the protagonist and narrator; Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) are his friends and colleagues. They – and we – hear a knocking sound, whose source is unknown, although they have strong suspicions it’s coming from the boot. They pull off and stop somewhere out of sight of the road, and open up the boot, revealing to us the body of a well-dressed middle-aged man covered in blood. He’s still alive, to their chagrin – but barely, to our horror – and Jimmy and Tommy summarily resolve the situation by alternately stabbing and shooting him. From these first minutes, we’re drawn by our curiosity into a story of a life and a world of which few of us know very much, but while the reward for our curiosity is often absorbing, seductive, and delicious information, there are also scenes of horror and clear, revolting evil. And, as with the white-collar criminals in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s unmistakable that Scorsese has no illusions about the distorted morality of his characters. But nor does he condemn them. The enduring appeal of the film lies in the fact that it shows the corrupted values of those working in the mob and the horrors they perpetrate on a whim, while simultaneously showing why anyone would want to be a part of it. And here, at the coalescence of these two threads, is where Scorsese derives his most intense expression from.

Roger Ebert is the journalist who reported how the childhood of Henry Hill – looking out of windows, watching the gangsters of his neighbourhood – reflected the childhood of Scorsese, who was asthmatic and couldn’t go out much as a child (which, incidentally, is why he turned to movies, first as a pastime, and later as a career). But where Henry Hill watches the gangsters and their activities cravingly, and longing to be a part, Scorsese saw something to fear, and a fate to avoid.

The comment – in the case of this film it’s hardly a criticism – is made often that GoodFellas is two and a half hours of exposition. There isn’t really any crisis, any rising action, any climax, or any resolution or tying-up of story threads. This is not the type of script that gets taught in screenwriting workshops – which shows just how worthwhile screenwriting workshops really are. GoodFellas is made like a long trailer, beginning like a gunshot, and speeding up right until the end, which is what conveys the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and helps us to understand why people are drawn to it.

One of the most famous sequences in GoodFellas is the breathless chase of Henry running through the items on his to-do list on the day he is finally arrested for his crimes. As the net draws closer around Henry – which he senses but doesn’t fully realise – and as he grows more and more paranoid because of his wild cocaine use, the editing grows more frantic, as does the accompanying soundtrack of rock music. We’re drawn with tightening tension into his destructive life and restless attentions (the helicopter which he is convinced is following him around all day garners no more of his attention and efforts than does the tomato sauce he’s making for dinner). By the time the sequence ends, we’re out of breath, without having moved a muscle in our seats.

Scorsese draws his own sublime metaphor for the double view we – and the characters in the inner circle – get of the mob. It’s the most famous shot in GoodFellas, and is consistently voted in polls as the best tracking shot in mainstream cinema. The shot lasts about three minutes, and shows us, from behind, Henry and his then-girlfriend (but later his wife, with whom he shares the voice-over narration) Karen (Lorraine Bracco) entering the popular Copacabana nightclub. To avoid the queue to enter the club, Henry and Karen use a backstreet entrance, which leads underneath the club through the kitchens and backrooms to the main floor. Throughout, we get the sense not merely of passing through scenes and details, but the accrual of a milieu and an atmosphere of fear (below-stairs) of gangsters’ ruthless reputations and of respect (above-stairs) for their flashy wealth. Karen and the audience get to see both the public persona of Henry as he greets his friends in the club, and the private, dark underworld, heading through the backrooms of the club, moving past labourers and kitchen staff who move out of his way.

The camera is not often still in the movie. GoodFellas is rich with energy, enthusiasm, hostility, brutality, tension, risk, the thickness of the American Italian social constructs, and – my favourite – inflection. Nobody can forget the frightening and unpredictable moves of Pesci as Tommy – an undiagnosed psychopath, for which Pesci lugged home an Oscar – and the tension only increases each time you watch a scene where Tommy may or may not explode in wrath (nearly always with fatal consequences), and is branded into our memories with fire-irons by Pesci’s astoundingly distinctive movements, naturalism, furious and high-pitched tones, and entirely incalculable changes in mood.

The aesthetic of GoodFellas is very similar to that of The Wolf of Wall Street, but the later film is the one ultimately with the darker, more profound, and more formidable vision, which overwhelms all of us in its implications. The Wolf of Wall Street is the exaltation of the secular sacrament (the cinema) which asks us what we become when we’ve cast off sanctity. GoodFellas is the exaltation that asks what is it that makes people cast it off.

GoodFellas is available on DVD.

GoodFellas is directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, based on “Wiseguy” by Pileggi; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. Running time: 146 minutes. 1990.


Ray Liotta with Lorraine Bracco: the two narrators of "GoodFellas"

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