Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

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I come to Goodfellas with something of a curse. Of Martin Scorsese’s artistic mastery I remain unconvinced. Raging Bull is unstructured, self-satisfied, dispassionate, almost oppressively superficial. Only those last three also apply to the more tightly formed Taxi Driver, but it’s a far more contemptible effort in my eyes, a nasty, nihilistic washout built to wallow in its own dreamland depravity. Its central crime is the lack of awareness and identification Scorsese allows with his antihero; Robert De Niro’s psychotic Vietnam veteran living a filthy life in a filthy world could very easily make for a vivid character portrait, but instead Scorsese sticks to the simplistic and ends up with a film built around an incomprehensible man, a film about nothing except Scorsese’s own (considerable) virtuosity as a technical craftsman. In both of these movies I saw a love of the form, a desire to tell stories, a genius of visuals and editing and performing; I saw everything except passion for the story itself, for the characters. There’s plenty to see but it’s all bloodless. It’s cinema separated from the testosterone-injected Hollywood action film only by its mugging and pretension. His biggest problem is probably characterization — based on real people or not, everyone in these films is a chess piece and we get little sense of their depth or evolution.

All the same goes for Goodfellas, which is nevertheless a much better movie than Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. In fact, if I could stop the movie after the first hour, I’d even consider it much more than merely good. That’s saying a lot because if there’s one thing I know about me, it’s that I hate Mob movies. There’s nothing I find harder to care about (sports excluded) than the lives of gangsters, imagined or not. It would ideally be Martin Scorsese’s job to show me why I should give a rat’s ass about what happens to these people. Francis Coppola failed on that front in The Godfather, but oddly enough succeeded in The Godfather Part II. Goodfellas lands squarely in between, because it’s in possession of just enough wit and sense of absurdity to keep the outsier glued. Its first half is a rousing, enormously fun explosion, a multifaceted, sardonically comic examination of the underworld as it’s discovered by a teenaged boy who wants nothing more than to be a gangster. Scorsese envelops the viewer in this world, toying with the popularity of images set forth by movies like The Godfather, sending up clichés while using them with astonishing skill to tell an absorbing, thrillingly human story. It’s obvious from the beginning where it’s headed. For a while, that doesn’t matter a bit.

Warmth and humanity are just shorthand words for the vague and not entirely tangible force missing from Scorsese’s other two definitive works; I don’t know that those two words describe the gap that is filled by the early scenes in Goodfellas, but it’s something close, even if the warmth is less that of the characters than of the filmmaker, who seems to be giving up his own defenses to have a good time and let the odd tone of his story go where it wants. It’s a treat, especially in such a traditionally flat subgenre as the gangster picture. We can’t escape the Wiseguy story’s insularity and somewhat tiresome waving around of its own macho badassery — Ray Liotta isn’t enough of an actor, meanwhile, to sell the conflict we’re supposed to sense between his attraction to glamour and supposed disgust at violence; incomprehensibly, better performers like Pesci and De Niro are given simpler, even flat characters to play. But if the actors are pawns, they’re pawns who do their job serviceably. I wouldn’t consider De Niro or Pesci to have enormous magnitude in just any context, but this is the kind of material perfect for them; their skills are exploited by Scorsese to dazzling effect.

So just like the first time I saw this, I can’t help being taken in by just how compelling and vital nearly every scene is. Any given five minutes are top-drawer cinema. Where does it all go wrong, then? This time I didn’t feel it ever completely did, but something disagreeable does happen somewhere around the time young Liotta’s life does the same. He marries Lorraine Bracco; her voiceover’s random interjection clashes horribly with his, and begins to rip the tone of the film apart. Despite setting Bracco’s Karen Hill up as extremely sympathetic, this is another Mob movie with no use for women, throwing around all of its female characters as thoroughly empty whiners and basketcases. Karen comes close to being a fully realized figure, but after her beloved criminal husband is caught fucking and sugar-daddying a local sweetheart, she flies into tired, overbearing bold strokes, and the film only grows more unpleasant from there. Much as James Caan’s cartoonish fight with his wife in The Godfather left me emotionally tuned out of that film, Goodfellas lost me when Liotta wakes up to see Bracco in a laughably one-dimensional neglected wife stereotype pose, pointing a gun in the viewer’s face. It’s a stark contrast to Shelley Winters’ sophisticated portrait of a human at the bottom of love and despair in A Place in the Sun, also played directly for the camera. I might have bought the scene — Liotta sweet-talks her until she breaks down — if it didn’t end with the husband battering the wife, an undoubtedly realistic moment that exemplifies the problems of the latter half of the movie. The world is so awash in violence that the viewer becomes as numbed to it as its characters… and yet, by the finale, we are expected to actually relate to the lead character’s romanticization of his former life? We are even expected to feel sympathetic when a murderous bipolar weirdo in Joe Pesci garb is gunned down?

When I say the violence is numbing I don’t simply mean the stark, ultra-serious physical violence, the stabbing and killing and the resorting to bloodshed to solve any and all disagreements, a big playground for overgrown children. I mean the excess, which Scorsese revels in, apparently in most of his films. The reason I have a problem with the new widespread portrayal of the ’70s as a golden age of filmmaking is that many American directors in that era exhibited a knee-jerk resistance to restraint in light of the MPAA’s New Permissiveness. The censorship prior to 1967 was a problem indeed, but excess is not a statement in and of itself, much less a solution to any problem of expression. In fact, excess is lazy, or at least it comes off as lazy. I’m not against violence in films or even gratuitous violence, or else I wouldn’t count Frenzy as a cinema classic, Dawn of the Dead as a masterpiece.. Gangster films generally blur some kind of line for me because the violence pretends to carry some great moral weight, or no weight at all. Movie morality is a fuzzy business. No doubt in my mind that many people wouldn’t be put off at all by the buildup of angst and its most sullen, obvious release in Goodfellas. I ultimately find that I can’t go along the ride for this sort of thing, not because I don’t appreciate screen violence (though I sometimes think that has become something close to a truth about me) but because I don’t appreciate the illusion of heroism, at least not attached to the unchecked rampage of self-financed Lord of the Flies impulse.

The first time through, I left Raging Bull and Taxi Driver mostly just confused; it took me some time to determine why I felt the way I did about them — second viewings confirmed my status as what the kids call “a hater.” What seemed years ago like a mild preference for Goodfellas has now been revealed as a vast gulf in quality, not to say maturity. To be sure, this is much closer to what I would consider fine filmmaking, for reasons I will cover more broadly in a moment. But it’s also an exercise more than a story, undoubtedly a monument to itself more than a movie. It isn’t enough to bemoan hollow stylistics, a problem that lies squarely with Scorsese here (some of it could be pinned to Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver)… the film is hollow, and perhaps self-consciously so, because of a lack of real ideas, wisdom, compassion (though at least it makes basically no attempt at making a moral statement or applying its directionless catharsis, for which I applaud it), just mayhem for the sake of it. It may depict the real world but it doesn’t comment on it. I’m not even suggesting that it should, but it’s a misnomer to suggest it’s anything more than a simplistic, surprisingly asexual boy movie, an inflated masturbation, a masculine display of guns and power and blood to no end except its own reputation to Take You There.

But the stylistics! Scorsese, with his reliable staff, particularly editor Thelma Schoonmaker, makes this a great aesthetic experience to behold, which makes it more disappointing that the film is a tad unsophisticated. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “in terms of narrative fluidity it may well be the most accomplished thing Scorsese’s ever done.” The story thrust in Goodfellas is an almost miraculous improvement on the director’s earlier touchstones. The best way to enjoy the film may ultimately be to sit back and observe the process itself, another way in which the film is so thematically obvious it becomes about nothing but itself. But check out those tracking shots, in particular the one that closes with the iconic scene of a table brought out specially for Liotta and a horrible comedian performing; it serves no purpose and has no resonance like similarly far-out stunts in long takes seen in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent and Notorious or Welles’ Touch of Evil, but perversely, it becomes all the more impressive for its lack of purpose. As wild as the long takes were in the Hitchcock and Welles films, they were there to serve a story, not to distract from it. In Scorsese’s film, we are basically watching what the camera does more than we watch what the people are doing, so the narrative essentially gives us the break to say “wow, goddamn, that’s an incredible shot.”

Later in the picture, Scorsese’s montage of the day of Liotta’s downfall constitutes its most innovative and exasperating moment. It prefigures the disjointed, aggressive pacing of any number of popular films of today, even Wes Anderson’s, while bringing back the fabulously ironic comic tone of the opening half-hour. This sequence alone would make the film worthwhile, and it comes close to redeeming its many excesses in the final third. The exasperation comes as a result of another stylistic, meaningless (almost joyfully so) stunt… the pop music stacked wall to wall for the duration of the movie. None of it has anything at all to do with the narrative. There are good songs — the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas,” George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” the Marvelettes’ “Playboy,” many other excellent girl group and rock & roll chestnuts. There are bad ones: Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” the Who’s “Magic Bus,” Cream’s “Sunshine of YOur Love.” Basically it’s just like the radio. I don’t know what the hell Scorsese was getting at with this. “If you turn on an AOR FM sttion while you’re watching The Godfather, here is what will happen.” I don’t mind pop music replacing a score, but when it stops this rarely, it’s as obnoxious and tiresome as the characters and their bad behavior.

I know it all really happened, by the way. Lots of things really happen and they don’t make movies of them. I lost my keys once and forgot to turn off the radio when a Queen song came on. It was sad, discouraging, quirky, amusing, a real rollercoaster. And I also know this is unfair and only applies as an analogy to someone who cares as little about organized crime as I do. Still, of those I’ve seen, this is Scorsese’s best movie by a considerable margin, and it contributes a disproportionate number of indelible, iconic moments to the U.S. film lexicon. The last few minutes with their Great Train Robbery lift are one of those instances in which his skill as a director and his passion as a film lover coalesce beautifully. That having been said, while I appreciate Scorsese going out of his way to acknowledge his debt to that indisputable piece of perfection — the invention, indeed, of screen violence — I don’t find it plausible that Goodfellas is a successful transference of that kind of immediacy. I don’t have to resort to anything but numbers for that. Train Robbery is fifteen minutes. Goodfellas is nearly 150. Scorsese may yet prove to be a director I count among the greats, and in moments he is a master, but except on technical grounds I’m thus far unwilling to more than faintly praise any of the movies that supposedly made him what he is. Scenes and moments? Those I will revere.

[Originally posted in 2007, with some new additions.]

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