Saturday, September 4, 2010

The 25: Part 14: Goodfellas

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

No film has ever made the wages of sin look so enticing as Goodfellas

If it’s not the most tactile movie ever made it’s very close. The minutia in Goodfellas is the focus. Every shot is centered on the details: the shocks of the Cadillac rising as the weight of the gangsters comes off, Powder sifting through a colander, sausage frying in a pan, the gleam off a pair of alligator shoes, off a pool of blood, off the barrel of a gun.

Whenever I hear any critic harping on how “Working Class” the mobsters in Goodfellas are, I know they grew up with money.

Sure as these critics love to point out, Henry Hill and his cronies, don’t live in Corleone like compounds, but suburban neighborhoods. They don’t run an empire, they run scams. And yet the world they inhabit, the world that Scorsese so skillfully etches is a world where its principles, for the mere cost of their souls, have access to anything they want. Suits, cars, money, drugs, houses, steaks a quarter inch thick, Champagne for Bobby Vinton. Action without consequences (the fate of Marie’s grabby ex boyfriend). Everything you could imagine for the mere cost of morality. For me and my working class friends who watched the film ad nauseum, Goodfellas was the most tantalizing portrayal of the seductive power of material things we’d ever seen on film. As surely a portrait of outsized “success” as Scarface. But even more so. Tony Montoya’s life of tigers, outsized mansions, and flashy cars was so foreign he might as well have come from Mars as Miami. Goodfella’s maintained a frame of reference. Goodfella’s lived on our street.

And that’s its triumph. Goodfella’s is not just a movie that recognizes the emptiness, beneath the flash of the gangster lifestyle. Those are a dime a dozen. Goodfella’s is the rare movie that recognizes the true value of the flash over the emptiness. No matter how “sophisticated” I like to think I am, I have to recognize that the primary emotion I feel, while watching Goodfellas is a lizard brained, completely morally bankrupt sense of envy. Henry Hill is a shit, with sociopaths for friends, but that doesn’t make the vision of a life of ease, pleasure and power he leads any less seductive.

I’ve long been enthralled by the narrative structure of Goodfellas, even before I was aware there was such a thing as narrative structure. The way the movie alternates between stretches of privilege and then the consequences there of. Each time the good life getting just a fraction less sweet, and each time the consequences getting a little worse. The joy of childhood, gives way to the cockiness of Hill as a young man, and finally the harried life of just another workaday professional. Standing before the judge with a congratulatory hundred dollar bill in his pocket, becomes an easy stretch in jail, becomes the deaths of friends, becomes the endangerment of everything he holds dear.

Until at last in that famous 1980 montage where the two blend until they become indistinguishable, for Hill there is no difference between heaven and hell. Only the insect buzz of Cocaine paranoia, a world in which the tomato sauce and the possibility that a DEA helicopter is following him are matters of equal import.

Goodfellas, is most important in my development as it is the film that introduced me to Martin Scorsese, the filmmaker who has meant more to me then any other.

Though I know its rather Pupkiney of me to say so, I have always felt about Scorsese as more of a favorite uncle I never had the privilege of meeting, rather then just a favorite filmmaker. I collected his films as fast as they where released on DVD, bought films specifically because he did commentary tracks for them, and am the proud owner of a copy of Faber’s Scorsese On Scorsese, dog eared and broken down from being carried in my backpack every day of high school. I’m the type of Scorsese fan who can not only tell you what the first film he saw in cinemascope was (The Robe) I can tell you what the priest who took him to it thought of it (Too gaudy).

Nearly fifty years separate our age. He lived on the east coast, I on the west. He was Italian, I was Irish. And yet, in his restless spirituality caught between the dual pull of Catholicism and Cinema, in his agitated intellect, and isolation and loneliness I saw a kindred spirit. And still do.

I don’t talk with other film fans about Scorsese. If we disagree about Buster Keaton, Joe Dante or Shane Meadows, we’ll have a spirited discussion. If we disagree about Scorsese, I’ll take it personally.

That kind of hero worship may seem unhealthy. Perhaps it is. But it misses the point. Other directors that I’ve covered so far in this series taught me many things about cinema.

Scorsese taught me to take film personally.


Rob said...

This and Casino are the only mob movies I've ever seen. None of the Godfathers and I walked out of Scarface (I really was too young to watch it), but Goodfellas is something else: I knew and know what a great movie it is--that said, I never hear Layla the same way when it comes on the radio...all I see is bodies churning around in the garbage.
Loved Larraine Bracco, remember some of her dialogue almost verbatim "They all had bad skin and wore a lot of double knits." !

Bryce Wilson said...

I LOVE that line.

And you're so right about this movie owning Layla.

Neil Fulwood said...


I first saw 'Goodfellas' aged 18, having just started a crap, low-paid job. I came from a working class background (granddad: miner; dad: truck driver) where everything was hard-earned and reluctantly spent. The milieu of 'Goodfellas' was just as seductive for me.

J.D. said...

This film and MEAN STREETS are neck-in-neck for my fave Scorsese films. I love the intimacy of MS but for sheer stylistic bravado and the much bigger scope, GOODFELLAS is incredible. Normally, an excess of voiceover narration can really hurt a film but in this case it really works to its advantage as it helps us get into the head of Henry.

So many great shots, quotable lines of dialogue and memorable scenes. Last time I watched it, I counted so many SOPRANOS alumni lurking the backgrounds of scenes. And doesn't even Vincent Gallo have a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo?

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: That's something of a relief, that someone actually agrees. I'd hate to be the equivilant of one of those people who feels compelled to draw Bugs Bunny as Tony Montoya.

@ JD: Huh I must of blunk. I love how the voice over never once ruins a surprise for you. Most of the time they're foreshadowing stuff that's not really that hard to figure out in the first place. Here its like "blah blah blah" and all of a sudden Spider is dead.

And you're right about the supreme quotableness of it, "I guess they must actually feed each other to the lions down there..."