Friday, May 7, 2021

CANON OF FILM: "GOODFELLAS"

GOODFELLAS (1990)
 
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese based on the book “Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family” by Nicholas Pileggi


"Goodfellas" at this point feels like it's greatness is so intertwined and accepted in our culture that it feels almost pointless and counter-productive to have to explain how or why it's so great. It's not like you run into people who don't like it or think it's greatness is questioned or anything. I can make a Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) reference without making an reference to the film and people will know exactly who I'm talking about. It's not like he's the most famous or infamous gangster, even in our recent history, but people know his name and it's because we know "Goodfellas". It's an American gangster classic that some put right there with Coppola's first two "The Godfather" films. In terms of Martin Scorsese's movies, there's so many great ones out there that debating which one is the best or your favorite is more like a personality test then it is an actual critical judgement on art, and yet, "Goodfellas" and "Raging bull" are probably the two that makes everybody's shortlists. I'd probably put "Goodfellas" number one, if I had to put a gun to my head, but   

It's actually difficult to explain how or why it's great these days. I guess the best way to look at is that, Scorsese's best films aren't based on plot. In fact, Scorsese argues that before "The Departed" he never actually made a movie with a plot. (Hmmm, I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but I get what he's saying.) "Goodfellas" isn't about it's plot, it's about the feeling of being a gangster, basically in the same ways that "Raging Bull" was the feeling about being a boxer. (Or, well, really the feelings of being Jake LaMotta) Henry Hill grew up wanting to be a gangster and he got his wish, and despite everything, he absolutely loved it. Scorsese probably felt a little of the same way; he famously grew up a sickly child and often would look over out his window and watch the gangsters of his neighborhood. He'd made several movies about them before, most notably, "Mean Streets", but that was a movie that was still on the outside looking in as it looked at the actions of the street-level hoods. Henry is a street hood but not for very long. Despite being Irish, he's brought in by Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) the local beloved kingpin and he forms his own little crew with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Oscar-winner Joe Pesci). They rise in the family and enjoy living the lifestyle of being mobsters. They all enjoy it, although some enjoy it more then others. Tommy is a loose cannon who nobody can ever tell what's gonna snap him off or not. The most famous scene in the movie is where he damn-near frightens Henry, and all of us, just by questioning a claim that "He's funny." We love that scene, but it's interesting how it sets up some later scenes where he kills an unsuspecting waiter in a fairly similar situation.

It's always his actions that gets them in the most trouble, like when he kills a made guy who was unkillable and they have to bury him as oppose to just disposing of regular dead body any-old-where, but not before stopping by his Tommy's mother's (Catherine Scorsese, Martin's mother) house to eat dinner. 

The movie's also vibrant. Scorsese uses a lot of his tricks here that him and his legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker had developed over their decades of working together. The freeze frames, the flashbacks, the long takes, most famously the three minute sequence through the backrooms of the Copacabana to the front row is legendary, the multiple voiceovers and the flat-out breaking of the third wall. The second voiceover with Lorraine Braccho, who plays Henry's wife and girlfriend Karen was noteworthy at the time because there really hadn't been a female perspective in an mafia tale up to that point; nowadays, I wouldn't think it's unusual though. "Goodfellas" is energetic, and it's not like all Scorsese's films are like that. "Taxi Driver" is quite slow and paced to intensify those senses of dread and concern for a psychopath's decent into potential madness. "Goodfellas" is driving headfirst towards an insane day where everything's going wrong for Henry, between the spaghetti sauce, the babysitter, the mistress, the cocaine, and the helicopters that seem to be following him.... It's one last manic day that's driving headfirst into his doom. 

And what's Henry's doom? Witness protection, he doesn't even go to jail. (Well, except for that part earlier where he went to jail, but even that was a cakewalk.) A life of looking over his shoulder, I guess. In "The Godfather" the tragedy is that Michael became the crime boss he never intended; in "Goodfellas", the tragedy for Henry is that he had to stop being a gangster. Scorsese's brilliant inversion of Catholic guilt that he isn't guilty at all for any of the crimes he did, he's ashamed he had to give it up. There's a reason "Goodfellas" makes pretty much every great movie list it's eligible for, arguably it's the most influential movies of the '90s. You can draw a direct line from "Goodfellas" to, basically all of Tarantino's work in the decade, and all those who were trying to copy him. That we can feel sympathy for a murdering, thieving mobster, who's remorseful not for the crimes he committed but the fact that he can't commit them anymore in the end is a tribute to Scorsese’s storytelling brilliance.





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