Perfect Movies: Goodfellas

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

This wry confession comes from the narrator and protagonist of the film–who will soon be formally introduced as Henry Hill–hovering over a body in the trunk of his car, bathed in the red light of his brake lights in the darkness of the woods in the middle of the night, just after watching his associates stab and shoot the man in the trunk to death. But we’ll get to that incident later: instead, we’re given a quick background of his childhood growing up in Brooklyn in a blue-collar neighborhood. He resents school, his family’s low-rent life, and the circumstances he’s born into. But he finds a way out of this lame destiny: by ingratiating himself with the local gangsters, who seemingly do whatever they wanted to–gods among schmucks. He graduates from parking cars to selling stolen goods on the street; when he’s eventually caught and brought in by the police, his new family–his mobster family–shows up at police headquarters to congratulate him for keeping his mouth shut. He finally found his place in the world.

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This is one of those films that I watch whenever I see it flick on TV while changing the channel and keep watching until the end. It’s a film that has sequences in it (such as the masterful fallout after a big heist set to the piano outro of “Layla” that signifies a shift between the “good old days” and the dark future for Hill and his crew, or the impressive long shot following Henry and his date/future wife Karen from his car through the kitchen into a club to the front row, or Hill’s drug-fueled final day just before the heat closes in set to a flurry of chaotic classic rock songs) that match perfection in cinema history. It’s a story that’s worth telling (and watching), and it’s impeccably told by a master of the craft.  

There’s something weirdly nostalgic about Goodfellas, where it looks back on better times in the past, and this sort of affection for the past is infectious to the viewer. Meanwhile, what we’re looking back so fondly on in this man’s life is his amoral association with a criminal enterprise, but he’s such a convincing narrator that we, the audience, stop seeing it in such black-and-white terms, instead finding ourselves identifying with Hill and his partners in crime as schnooks who were only trying to grab themselves a piece of The American Dream.

It’s all bullshit, of course, but it’s the way the bullshit’s spun that makes it so convincing: between Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction, Michael Ballhaus’s crisp and smooth cinematography, Thelma Schoonmaker’s riveting editing, and Ray Liotta’s character as the charismatic (if not dastardly) Henry Hill both on-screen and as the central narrator of the film, we are (half) convinced over two and a half hours that maybe he isn’t such a bad guy: maybe he’s just a good fella who got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Goodfellas – A Perfect Movie

And that last point is a significant one, and one that speaks to the power of film: just as Stanley Kubrick could convince an audience enough through images, narration, and music to relate to the psychopath Alex DeLarge in Clockwork Orange, so Scorsese convinces the viewer to end up liking a cocky criminal, adulterer, and accessory-to-murder figure like Henry Hill. Maybe it’s because of the very opening scenes that I described in the opening paragraphs: we see a young man grow up in front of our eyes and enter this world of crime, step by step, until finally being heralded by his fellow criminals like he was receiving valedictorian at his high school graduation.  

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And maybe it’s the complicit contract the moviegoer makes with the film they watch: that if the film delivers the entertainment it promises–and as an audience we are primed and therefore already susceptible to agree to its terms–than the viewer is more likely to identify with the protagonist, no matter how vulgar or immoral their acts. It’s coating a bitter pill with sugar–which is perhaps a succinct way to describe Goodfellas’ allure.

Humor has a large part in this honeying of the film’s otherwise distasteful characters and their occupation: instead of portraying their work of theft, intimidation, and murder as cold-blooded acts of criminals, Scorsese often portrays it as humorous farce. Even when Joe Pesci’s sociopath mob enforcer Tommy DeVito murders a recent conspirator to cover up connection to the crime, there’s a beat afterwards where he has a quick argument with his associate of whether they should bring the coffee that was made at the residence with them; or later, when he jokes about how the man in a painting in his mother’s house (that his mother made) while Hill and Robert DeNiro’s “Jimmy” Conway eat dinner looks like the very man they just murdered, on the way to bury him in the woods, it’s a genuinely funny moment. Which is chilling to think about in hindsight, but we chuckle along with these murderers in the moment.

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Perhaps escapism has a lot to do with why this film is still widely enjoyed and revered by film enthusiasts and general audiences alike to this point: Henry Hill’s sarcastic, sneering attitude in his narration, his characters’ transgressions against the law and general contempt towards  “straight” life in general, is appealing to said members of that straight society he holds in such disdain. Instead of following the rules, working a 9-to-5 job, and “hav[ing] to wait around like everyone else,” as Hill says in his closing narration, instead we get to watch as an average Joe breaks the law unrepentant, takes what he wants when he wants and lives a flashy life where he can walk into a restaurant with his date (through the back) and have a table immediately set up for him in the front row of a crowded club because fuck everybody else: he’s a somebody. He’s a Goodfella.

With these sorts of details, the more unsavory parts of his work the audience easily glosses over, preferring what they see as the “easy way” in life that has immediate returns without having to grovel day-to-day under a boss you can’t stand doing work you dislike and hoping to get through the week, month, and year without being laid off or falling into poverty.

But therein lies the rub: although it’s a great fantasy to imagine an “easier” life filled with access and autonomy, where you stick a gun in someone’s face or pull off a fantastic heist that guarantees cash money on the barrel, not only would most people be unable to transgress both laws of the land and basic morality to take that path, but the reality as depicted in this movie is also distasteful to us normal, law-abiding schnooks. Henry Hill is eventually sent to jail while his family struggles on the outside, now cut off from their source of income so the mob can distance themselves from a convicted member.

In turn, Hill begins to deal drugs on the inside, and then on the outside, to provide for them–eventually becoming hopelessly addicted himself. This slip is what leads to his eventual recapture by authorities and final break from the only family and career he ever had, leaving him and his family living in witness protection, cut off from their families and the lives they once lived, and being stuck back on Earth with the rest of us plebeians.

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Besides the allure displayed on-screen, the film has a hypnotic rhythm to it: between Schoonmaker’s editing, a wonderfully constant, catchy, and hip soundtrack, and Scorsese’s overall masterful direction, the overall film is an entertaining collage of visuals, dialogue, music, and scenes that pull the viewer’s attention–and holds it–throughout. The prerogative of the film is ultimately contradictory, which is what makes it so endlessly interesting: it glamorizes the criminal lifestyle while also decrying its underlying immorality. While it acknowledges the dark side and pitfalls of being a criminal, the biography of the protagonist plays like a sideways fairy tale for two-thirds of its running time, with only his addiction to drugs leading to his eventual downfall. It’s a movie that has its cake and eats it, too–and that ends up being satisfying for the viewer, as well.

Because of the distance between viewer and film, filmmaker and audience, the guilt doesn’t fall on the person who enjoys and watches a movie; if there’s any heat to be brought down, it’s on the people responsible for its production and creation. This is how so many good, bad, exploitative, demeaning, violent, and horrifying movies can be made and distributed to the enjoyment of a wider audience: film is, in itself, a blameless victim and a faultless crime. Better to enjoy the thrills of an unrepentant life virtually rather than first-hand, after all. You weren’t the one who dreamed this film up, got millions of dollars to finance it, or cast it, or wrote and directed it, or put such an evil out into the world: you simply sat there and watched a commercially available product. And so what if you enjoyed it? Isn’t that what film is there to experience, anyway?

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My point being that there are a number of violent, terrible, and exploitative films made and released into the world over the decades–some good, most bad, and none with much social redemption or relevance–and whether you enjoy them or find them deplorable is largely a matter of taste and preference. But for Goodfellas, it transcends all of those labels–if it’s exploitative, than it’s exploiting an already exploited figure and genre; if it’s violent, well, that just comes with the territory when dealing with such subject matter; but one thing it is not is terrible.

It seems to sidestep and transcend the negative associations with the crime genre (and crime itself) to be considered a work of art–which it is; that it uses the raw elements of its subject matter–of crime, violence, drugs, and general immorality–and makes from these nasty ingredients a compelling, enjoyable film out of these otherwise despicable characteristics. When Hill says early in the film that “Jimmy was the kind of guy that rooted for the bad guys in the movies,” maybe Scorsese was knowingly commenting on his audience more so than the character itself.

Maybe it’s the mainstream pop sensibility that’s brought to such subject matter, or that Scorsese dares to make seemingly terrible people so curiously likable and relatable. Maybe it’s the fantasy of living outside the law and by our own rules without having to take the chances, or the eventual sacrifices, that come with such a life. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the elements and more that makes Goodfellas a great–even perfect–movie.  

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Categories: American culture, culture, film, Uncategorized

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