21 February 2009
"One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin', 'Whadda ya want from me?'" Goodfellas, A Case of Great Story Telling.
The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant said that we never truly know what the outside world is like because all knowledge of it is based on perception and that all perception is based on the structure and limitations of our senses. Another philosopher, William James, went to far as to say that the only truths that were at all relevant were those with beneficial effects. I suppose him to mean that it is true that drinking water is healthy while drinking battery acid is harmful. If Kant and James are at all correct, how can their be any universal truths or agreements about films?
We all watch a movie with our set of biases, beliefs and experiences. What resonates for one person may be utterly meaningless, perhaps even silly for another. While some may have weeped while watching Love Story (1970) others might burst out laughing. Some consider The Seven Samurai (1954) high art and others are bored to tears by it. Moreover we see films at different points in our life. A movie that thrilled us as a teenager may seem tedious as an adult. A movie may seem more or less meaningful to a person depending on the given day they see it. External stimuli, recent events in our life can alter how we perceive a movie.
Some people, foolishly, I believe, try to convince others that they are wrong about liking or disliking a movie. It's akin to saying, "no, you had a great time at the party" or "no, you did not enjoy that meal you just ate."
Even the reasons several people have for liking or disliking a film may and often do vary. For example there are any number of different reasons for liking Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas(1990). Amazingly, there are some people who don't like the film. To any of those people reading this post I say, try back another time, this one's not for you.
Goodfellas is the amazing and largely true story of Henry Hill's raise and fall as a New York gangster from the late 1950's through 1980. Hill entered the witness protection program after a narcotics arrest. His story was the basis of Nicholas Pillegi's book WIseguys upon which Goodfellas is based. Goodfellas chronicles his life from teenaged errand boy for local mobsters to an affiliate with the Lucchese crime family. It includes depictions of such other real crime figures as Jimmy Burke, Tommy DeSimone and Paul Vario, portrayed by Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Paul Sorvino, respectively.
I am not alone in regarding the film was one of the greatest ever made. However, in the spirit of this particular post I will allow that there area all variety of opinion on the movie and whether and why it deserves a place among the greats in film history.
The case has been made that Goodfellas glamorizes organized crime. Some people have objected to the violence, drug use, sex, and profanity in the movie. Still others claim that it is a cautionary tale about the devastating costs of the criminal life such as early death, prison and drug addiction.
I'm not particularly interested in either view. I simply see Goodfellas as vibrant, exciting film making. Pacing is everything in Goodfellas. With the aid of multiple Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Goodfellas flows like a river. But this is no placid stream. It's a wild ride folks. A hint of what is to come is in Goodfella's amazing opening sequence. It's a prologue in which a supposedly dead mobster in the trunk of car being driven to his burial starts raising a ruckus. Hill, played by Ray Liotta, and two cohorts park by the roadside and make sure their already bloody victim is good and dead with a few well placed knife thrusts and pistol shots. As Hill goes to close the trunk, freeze frame on his face and we hear his voiceover in which he says: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Then, prophetically, we hear Tony Bennett sing, "Rags to Riches." The opening credits then zip vertically across the screen. Beautiful.
As is the closing shot of a bored Hill now a participant in the witness protection program living in suburbia. Hill complains, “I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Then Scorsese offers an homage to the closing scene of The Great Train Robbery (1903) with Pesci’s character firing shots at the camera. As the closing credits come on we hear My Way, sung not by Sinatra, but Sid Viscous.
Great movies attain their stature both because of their seamlessly and memorable scenes. Goodfellas is lousy with unforgettable cinematic moments such as Pesci’s “what’s so funny about me scene?” that doubtless helped him secure the best supporting Actor Oscar.
For Goodfellas, Scorcese pulled out every trick in the book. Freeze frames, fast cuts, long tracking shots, narration from two characters (besides Hill we hear his wife, played by Lorraine Bracco). It all works. There’s not a wasted second in the film.
One reason Mafia films in particular and crime films in general have been so successful is because they are often populated with colorful characters. With a cast the likes of Pesci, DeNiro, Sorvino and Frank Vincent, Scorcese brought a perfect team to play those characters. He also brought his unerring sense of what music to use. No director, current or past, save Woody Allen, is better at integrating music into film. You notice the songs and you also notice how well they work, how they add tension, or irony or mood.
Goodfellas succeeds at the highest aspiration of film: it entertains and illuminates. It shines a very bright light on myriad issues of contemporary and philosophical natures. The lure of living outside society, flouting its rules, unhesitatingly resorting to violence when necessary. All these seem temptations. Says Hill: “For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”
But of course we see where it all ends and the grim reality of the criminal's lot is never more evident than in a memorable sequence of a coked up Hill on the day of his arrest. We can practically feel his heart-pumping, anxiety, his hangover, his very obvious paranoia as a helicopter hovers above wherever he goes. It is at once uncomfortable and exhilarating to watch. The whole damn movie is like that. When a gangster is beaten to death it's ugly and unpleasant (as it should be) but a thrill to watch.
Crime doesn’t pay. But this movie pays off. Goodfellas is great story telling --at least in my reality.