Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Thesis From Hell: An Excerpt

4. GoodFellas and 90s Ultraviolence
The significance of GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese’s first return to the gangster genre after Mean Streets, can only be appreciated fully by considering the way it influenced nineties film as a whole. It can, in some ways, be seen as a prelude to the films of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, films that pushed the boundaries of violence in crime films further. In its own right, the film is notable for its mixture of tones- on the one hand, it portrays the allure of an immoral but exhilarating lifestyle; on the other, it turns an irreverent eye towards the characters who live that lifestyle. It simultaneously invites the viewer to enjoy, to envy the gangster world, and to feel a moral superiority. It is, in other words, both a celebration and interrogation of a violent lifestyle.
A Precursor: Scarface
Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) is an important precursor to GoodFellas in this regard, though rarely acknowledged as such. The earlier film is less subtle in its satire, but the ambiguity of the portrayal of its eponymous protagonist is illustrated by divergent audience reactions: for instance, among the gangster rap community, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is treated as a deity, a fictional embodiment of the rags to filthy riches life trajectory that they idealise; some other viewers are appalled by Montana’s descent into decadence and his over-the-top violence. What those who mythologise the character as a hero seem to ignore is his tragically pathetic decline, which takes up most of the film’s running time. However, this is superseded in immediate impact by the spectacle of a final cocaine-fuelled shoot-out pitting a defiant Montana against a mass of armed invaders, and kicking off with the immortal line “say hello to my little friend!”.
Scarface is a departure from the more noble sentiments of The Godfather films; in a way, it returns us to the kind of petty hoodlums that populated 1930s gangster films (albeit, perhaps, on a larger scale). It satirises the greed of American society for money and for success and for things, useless objects that are not even there to be consumed, as such, but are rather to be seen as symbols of success, even if the symbols are gaudy or tasteless as well as bereft of practical benefit. In this manner, Scarface is a rarely-acknowledged precursor to GoodFellas.
But perhaps the best way to continue is by examining GoodFellas’ relationship with two earlier gangster films: again, Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather films.
GoodFellas and The Godfather Trilogy
“It would be impossible to understand Scorsese’s two important forays into the gangster genre [GoodFellas and Casino]..... without viewing them against the backdrop of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy” (Bondanella 271).
Through looking at its differences from The Godfather, we can see GoodFellas’ valid claim to being, partly at least, an interrogation of violence. The earlier Taxi Driver, as Kolker argues (230), had functioned in some way as a critique of cinema’s cult of the action hero. Its narrative deliberately mirrors that of John Ford’s The Searchers, and the heroism of John Wayne-type figures is questioned. Travis Bickle, in his own disturbed mind, sees himself saving the 12 year old prostitute Iris from her seedy circumstances. In reality he is merely a lonely, pathetic psychopath. By presenting a violent anti-hero who is alienated and alienating to the viewer, one who cannot elicit much sympathy, Scorsese interrogates our habitual identification with killers in the movies. He does something similar in GoodFellas. This time it is the myths developed by Coppola’s trilogy that are targeted. The Godfather encourages the notion that there is a code of honour amongst thieves, and that their wrongdoings may not impact on the normal people; on the contrary, the Mafia acts as an arbiter of justice on behalf of these people, when the police cannot put things right. In the words of Bondanella (272), “Scorsese shows that these defining myths developed in Coppola’s view of the Mob are, at best, cinematographic conventions useful to concoct a great story”. Scorsese’s mobsters are not noble, but petty. They have a certain seedy glamour, but it is tacky. Particularly in the case of Tommy, they act without any sense of self-consciousness. There is nothing noble about what they are doing, and for the most part, they do not care.
Rock versus Opera: Stylistic Differences in The Godfather and GoodFellas
Kolker agrees that GoodFellas functions to some extent as a parody of The Godfather films (202). While they both belong to the same genre, there are myriad differences between the films’ respective approaches- and not just the ideological difference outlined above. A fundamental contrast is in the pacing of the two films, and this may influence how audiences react to the violence. The contrast here is perhaps best illustrated by a musical analogy (and one that is reflected by the respective soundtracks): The Godfather is classical, operatic in tone, GoodFellas is a rock and roll film. Regardless of actual content or message, The Godfather appears more measured because of its often reflective mood, and is therefore less obviously open to accusations of gratuitousness in its violence. GoodFellas, on the other hand, flies along at a roaring pace, and violence is never far away no matter what the scene or situation. The first twenty minutes of The Godfather proceeds at a stately pace and is solely concerned with a wedding. In the first twenty minutes of GoodFellas, we see Tommy, Henry and Jimmy kill a nameless man who they had stowed away in the boot of their car, before the narrative shoots back to Henry’s youth, showing his seduction by the local mobsters, his running of errands, his first encounters with Tommy and Jimmy; it sets a breathless pace that never drops. It is not easy to argue that GoodFellas questions the actions of its characters, because it never gives the viewer much room for reflection, and much of what we see unfold is so enjoyable that we do not even wish to reflect too much on it.
Aestheticised Violence: A Terrible Beauty
Also, the violence in GoodFellas is undeniably aestheticised. The “exhilaration” that Scorsese mentioned in relation to his filming of Taxi Driver’s final scenes is clearly present again. Much of the devastation wrought in GoodFellas can be viewed as terrible beauty. A good, but by no means the sole, example of this is in the montage that shows how Jimmy has disposed of the other hoodlums involved in the Lufthansa heist. The piano outro to Derek and the Dominoes’ classic ‘Layla’ plays over the scene, making this montage of death paradoxically beautiful, and thus summing up the inherent contradiction in the film’s representation of violence.
At other points, the content is less dressed up, and more disturbing for that. When Henry finds out that Karen’s slimy neighbour, Bruce, has laid hands on her, he confronts the man and beats him repeatedly with the butt of his gun. This is presented in a single shot without any of the editing flourishes that pepper most of the other violent moments. It is difficult not to turn away as Henry batters the man’s face, his friends looking on in impotent horror. This unflinching, bare presentation of a beating is repeated at the end of Casino, in a scene mentioned earlier. Joe Pesci’s Nicky and his brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) are double crossed in the desert and set upon with baseball bats. As with the similar scene in GoodFellas, there is no music on the soundtrack to distract from or aestheticise the horror. We are subjected to the image of two men relentlessly beaten to a pulp, the sickening sound of metal on flesh. The two men are buried alive.
While Henry’s attack on Karen’s neighbour shows what a violent man he can be, it is inferred by the film that this is part of the attraction. The threat of violence, his power as an alpha male, is what gives him power over her. Her voiceover on the soundtrack intimates: “I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I’ve got to admit the truth, it turned me on.” Before approaching Bruce with his gun, Henry tells Karen to go inside and clean herself up. When he returns, his gun drenched in Bruce’s blood, Karen is still on the porch. The camera’s lack of movement, its unflinching focus on Henry’s violent act, may suggest that we are sharing in Karen’s point of view, her voyeurism. She does not turn away from the violence, but is strangely fascinated, even aroused by it. We are challenged, too, to look away.
The next scene shows Henry and Karen getting married. The famous Copacabana scene, in which a single tracking shot shows Henry guide Karen through the back door and kitchen of the club to a stage side seat, illustrates the allure of his illegitimately-gained power. The beating he gives Karen’s neighbour and her reaction to it suggest that violence is a part of the allure.
These scenes of unadorned violence are more effective in facilitating the interrogation of violence than other scenes that seem intent on making horrific violence palatable to viewers. In Scorsese’s films, a lot of this work is done through the jarring juxtaposition of sound and image, mentioned earlier as a component of Mean Streets’ presentation of violence. When Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) is battered in Henry’s bar by Jimmy and Tommy, after memorably inviting the latter to “go home and get your fuckin’ shine box!”, the soundtrack’s use of Donovan’s song ‘Atlantis’ and the use of editing gives the scene a paradoxically enjoyable quality. As the song kicks into its soaring chorus, Tommy begins raining blows on Batts. The camerawork concentrates more on Jimmy swinging his boot and Tommy aiming punches than on Batts’ beaten and bloodied face, which is mostly kept out of shot. This may seem like responsible restraint, but it can also be argued that the most effective way to show the ugliness of violence is to show the damage it does, unflinchingly, in all its gory glory.
The film’s refusal to take on a completely sombre tone in relation to its violence is embodied by the scene that follows, when the boys visit Tommy’s mother’s house to pick up the shovels necessary to dispose of Mr. Batts. Forced to stay for a bite to eat, they engage in amusingly mundane chatter with the old lady (played by Scorsese’s mother), and dissolve into laughter when they see that the man in her new painting bears an uncanny resemblance to the one they have just beaten to a pulp. It is hard here not to share a guilty chuckle. We have already discussed the link between laughter and violence in Mean Streets, and it is a recurring facet of GoodFellas too. The most celebrated instance of this in any Scorsese film is Tommy’s grilling of Henry early in GoodFellas. Tommy is telling an amusing anecdote about some previous wrongdoing, when Henry tells him he’s funny. Thus follows a scene of excruciating tension, in which Tommy repeatedly asks Henry what he means by the remark. Henry, everyone else at the table, and the viewer, becomes progressively more afraid until Tommy finally drops the facade and admits he is joking. He instead takes out his latent aggression on the restaurant owner, smashing a glass over his head to the guffaws of all and sundry, before chucking a chair at a waiter who has the nerve to look at him sideways.
This is more than just a wonderfully-executed scene of tension and release. Kinder says that Scorsese “puts us in this double bind to show how the incongruous reaction is increasingly pervasive within our desensitised culture, particularly when the lines between all genres, tones, and feelings dissolve” (79). The location of violence and humour together has the power to arouse guilt in the viewer; when Tommy barks at Henry, “what the fuck is so funny about me?”, the viewer may ponder that question herself. It is also a link that becomes familiar through the films of Stone and Tarantino, as we shall discuss.
An Incoherent Message
GoodFellas’ roaring pace, the fervour of its violent flourishes, the enjoyment on the part of Scorsese that is communicated to the viewer, cannot help but compromise the interrogation of violence. The film is deliberately contradictory. It says that, “yes, this lifestyle is glamorous and enjoyably chaotic, but if you give yourself over to it, you sell your soul”. Scorsese’s Catholicism informs the film’s morally judgemental aspects. Early in the piece, when a young Henry is setting cars alight, his silhouette is freeze-framed against the explosion, suggesting his future descent to hell. At another point, the sound of sizzling food on the soundtrack, juxtaposed with the image of Henry’s face, suggests a similar message. Ultimately, Scorsese does not depict any of his characters as a winner, as Tommy is killed, Jimmy is jailed, and Henry is left doomed to what he sees as the worst punishment of all: a boring life.
At the same time, returning to the contrasts with The Godfather, GoodFellas turns a less reverent eye on its central characters. In The Godfather, there is an air of nobility around the Corleone family. But in GoodFellas, the swagger of the gangsters is often undermined, whether by their evident poor taste, or by their petty disputes, or by their cruel and often fatal actions. Whereas in The Godfather one is always rooting for Michael Corleone, GoodFellas encourages us to adopt a rather different and more complex position. We can laugh with the gangsters, particularly in the early scenes of the film, but as the story progresses, more and more we laugh at them. When Tommy is executed, we do not share in any sense of tragedy. If anything, we are invited to feel a sense of revenge for the countless wrongdoings he has perpetrated throughout the film. While the young kid Spider (Michael Imperioli) is by comparison an insignificant character in the film, his death at the gun of Tommy is significant because we feel a greater sense of loss here. He is needlessly riddled with bullets, and only for quite reasonably inviting the psychopathic hood to “go fuck (him)self”, having already been shot in the foot by said psycho.
Emotional Impact in GoodFellas
As aforementioned, a lot of the existing literature on film violence posits that there are responsible and irresponsible, effective and ineffective ways of presenting violence in films. Devin McKinney cites some of Scorsese’s violence as weak, failing to engage the spectator’s sympathies and thus offering only empty spectacle and cheap thrills. Talking about GoodFellas, he problematises the scene of Tommy’s death, saying that his execution is played to the audience: “...director Martin Scorsese overtly plays this violence to the camera. The characters face the camera, and the composition gives the viewer the ideal vantage from which to watch the violence” (103). McKinney says this in the context of decrying modern violent films as bereft of emotional involvement. But sympathy is not the only emotion that someone can feel. Anger and disgust can also be teased out by films. Perhaps we are not invited to feel a great deal of sympathy for Tommy’s sticky end, but Scorsese does not simply invite us to look on coldly. We are not exempt from feeling that even the amoral mob life has its own perverse sense of justice (even if it is for the killing of the equally reprehensible Billy Batts, and not the relatively innocent Spider, that Tommy suffers).
As I said earlier, when Tommy asks, during what turns out to be a tongue-in-cheek grilling of Henry, “What the fuck is so funny about me?”, the viewer is entitled to ponder that question. Should we be charmed by this character? Scorsese effectively nudges the viewer towards answering in the negative. But the fundamental contradiction of the film is ever-present. Scorsese never commits fully to a condemnation of these men and the lives they lead. There is no coherent message to the film as a whole. Whether or not this is a great weakness of the film is a matter of one’s perspective on whether or not a film should be geared towards imparting a clear and preconceived message to its viewers. Perhaps there is a message there, that life is chaotic and much of the time, our civilising wishes clash in an irresolvable conflict with our primal drives and desires. Maybe these men tip their inner balance too far towards primal desire, but does it really dehumanise them? What are the things that make us human? When we become obsessed by following the rules of socialisation, of civilisation, do we not lose some part of what makes us human, and become almost robotic? These are questions that the film can be seen to pose without concrete resolution. However, we can see here that Scorsese’s oft-analysed Catholicism may have obscured an equally-pronounced Darwinian aspect to his work.
Henry’s Pathetic Purgatory: Unorthodox Closure
Henry Hill’s entrance into the Witness Protection Program ensures he is the only man to emerge relatively unscathed at the film’s end. But while the obnoxiously charismatic Tony Montana of Scarface has become the definition of poster image cool on the back of his spectacular death at that film’s close, Henry is denied such classically cinematic martyrdom. His is the most hollow of victories. The voiceover, in fact, suggests defeat, almost as if death would have been glorious by comparison: “I get to live the rest of my life like a shnook”, Henry sneers bitterly. His moments of uncertainty at the sight of Tommy’s excesses have faded again, it seems, leaving only a regret of a very different kind, an aching nostalgia for his good old gangster days. There is no suburban redemption then for Henry; he is left trapped in a pathetic purgatory.
Overall, the film portrays a world that while initially exciting, spirals downwards into one utterly devoid of honour- a world with violence and betrayal as the currency. It thus turns the myth of The Godfather on its head. This project is subtly continued by David Chase in his HBO series The Sopranos- something we will return to later.

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