Archive for Goodfellas

The Blacks

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2021 by dcairns

So, a couple of things that aren’t really connected except in the tangled thickets of my misfiring ganglions.

I’m enjoyed the all-fired heck out of friend Glenn Kenny’s Made Men, which tells the story of the making of GOODFELLAS. In fact, it alternates between the backstory and a close analysis of the film, a good way to do this kind of thing, especially when one considers that the movie went pretty smoothly so there aren’t lots of terrible/funny Herzog/Coppola/Cimino type stories to tell. Mostly professionals making smart decisions. (I’ve held tell of troublesome drug use by cast members, but I’m not far enough into the book to know if GK accessed such stories and felt able to use them.)

Anyway, crucially, the behind-the-s. elements and the close a. elements are equally strong and astute. There’s also a throwaway line about how frustrating it is that hardly anyone nowadays can distinguish between an older movie portraying obnoxious language or behaviour, and endorsing it, and that got me thinking.

What provided the other end of what passes for a thought was Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, the BBC clipshow that professes to let the viewer in on the methodology of various genres, but doesn’t. We decided to watch the episode on British Comedy — OK, first I have to get some grouching out of the way —

“I suppose I have to accept that the show’s just not aimed at me,” said a cinephile friend, but I have to scratch my head. Why would a movie show not be aimed at cinephiles, or at least include them in its target demographic? Kermode’s show is deemed successful in terms of viewing figures, but I have to think it could be more successful if it was BETTER. By better I mean two things — offering interesting insights, and using its clips to dazzle, excite and entertain. They are not always well-chosen, and when the show deals with comedy it’s particularly infuriating, chopping off the punchlines, or omitting the essential set-ups, or just using sequences that have no comic content whatsoever. (As editors of trailers will tell you, comedies are difficult to present in summarised form, admittedly, because a gag has a certain structure that’s rendered ineffective if compressed too much, and many only work in context. Still, the job CAN be done.)

The show made me kind of angry when I considered that an innocent viewer would principally take away the lesson that old British comedies aren’t funny. It does provide a valuable service in dispensing lots of information which may be useful to aspiring young film lovers, but the unintended messages sent out by its flawed assemblage could be damaging to the unwary.

(The show’s look is good — fun fact: the graphics are by Danny Carr, who designed the cover of my novel, We Used Dark Forces. Kermode’s glasses slide onto his face a bit like Michael Caine’s specs floating off in Maurice Binder’s opening credits to BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN.)

The bit that hooked up in my mind with the line in Made Men, however, was one of the moments of actual critique, when Kermode shows a moment from I’M ALL RIGHT JACK which displays casual racism by shop steward Fred Kite, played by Peter Sellers, who voices “concerns” — i.e. prejudices — about his men being potentially replaced by “blacks.”

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK does betray racism on the part of its makers when we see Marne Maitland as a shifty Arab stealing the silverware. Apart from being brownface casting, it’s suggesting that foreigners are crooked in uncivilised ways, inferior creatures to the crooked politicians and industrialists elsewhere in the scene.

But is Fred Kite an admirable character? Does the film endorse his words, ever, in any other scene? By showing the workers’ anxiety about being replaced by cheaper labour, the movie dramatizes that line which appears in Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR — “They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” (Schrader himself voiced a little regret that he’d had to put that message in words at the end of the film, instead of letting the film do the job.)

(It’s been fashionable to mock millennials for a knee-jerk response against scenes of bad behaviour in old movies — there’s sometimes an inability to tell when the behaviour is being praised or merely presented. On the one hand, I can understand how that happens — *I* don’t know for sure how much Altman intends the protagonists of M*A*S*H to come off as jerks — and on the other hand I can tell you that I’ve rarely encountered such misunderstandings from my students, so I’m inclined to think this kind of misreading has either been exaggerated or is more An American Thing.

Does the speech in I’M ALL RIGHT JACK make us uncomfortable? Sure. But we should be GRATEFUL to the Boultings for giving us a lesson in British race relations as they were talked about in 1959. And we can even be grateful for the naked racism in other old movies for the way it illuminates, often unintentionally, the attitudes of the time. Clear-eyed, sceptical, critical and awake, we can learn from this material.

Opening and Closing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2019 by dcairns

When I first saw THE WOLF OF WALL STREET I remember thinking that the closing shot (above) was like the reverse angle of the last shot of THE KING OF COMEDY (also above). And then I thought, after seeing THE IRISHMAN/I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES, that I’d like to see what other connections I could make.

Of course I don’t have a copy of THE IRISHMAN yet so I can’t include that one.

I’ve sometimes said that only two images make an end shot — the reaction shot (Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS) and the walks-off-into-sunrise (Chaplin in MODERN TIMES). But there’s a third category — everything else. Scorsese’s films tend to end squarely in this misc. category,

Three crosses. The flickering light in BOXCAR BERTHA is low sunlight coming through gaps in the train, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST it’s caused by the film running out (Mark Cousins, interviewing Scorsese, flat-out refused to believe that was an actual thing that happened on the day) and in SILENCE the light is an annihiliating fire.

CAPE FEAR, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD and GANGS OF NEW YORK all echo TAXI DRIVER (top) in their first shots after the titles (CAPE FEAR ends on the same image), and BOXCAR BERTHA prefigures it.

This is the only opener Scorsese has really harped on. His films are about bearing witness.

BOTD’s shot actually comes in BEFORE Scorsese’s director credit but it’s the first live-action shot of the film and it’s more suited to this post than the following image, a jittery tilt from ambulance headlights to the flashing roof lights —

— so let’s pair that one with the start of GOODFELLAS.

I always think of GOODFELLAS ending with Joe Pesci firing a pistol at the camera, which should be paired with Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, but we actually cut back to Ray Liotta as he enters his home and shuts the door. So that makes a nice tie-in with CASINO. One door closes and another one opens.

THE IRISHMAN has something to do with this also.

What I remember about CASINO’s opening is DeNiro’s car exploding, leading to the Saul Bass title sequence, but he has to get to the car first and this is the building he comes out of.

This is how AGE OF INNOCENCE ends —

Harvey Keitel walks off at the end of WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? which has the same vibe, albeit with a different angle. And then the last shot of MEAN STREETS (below) — Catherine Scorsese closing her blinds — might supply the reverse angle. Does Catherine see Harvey Keitel, in another movie, trudging away defeatedly?

I just now realized what a big debt this one owes to the ending of Fellini’s I VITELLONI, previously discussed.

These kind of endings are the closest Scorsese gets to a walks-off-into-the-sunset motif. Apart from ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, which has certain self-conscious genre elements, and so ends in a fairly traditional way — the forties studio opening is echoed by the seventies location ending, each as comfortingly familiar as the other.

ALICE’s title establishing time and place, or the kind saying that this has some relationship to a true story, are also familiar Scorsese devices, sometimes preceding his opening shot, though —

THE DEPARTED, SHUTTER ISLAND, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

AFTER HOURS opens with the camera dashing through an office in a hurry to get to our protagonist (and at the end the camera flies off and leaves him behind in the same office). The movie was made while THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST had been fully prepped and then shut down. When he Scorsese got it going again, he used an opening shot that’s doing something quite similar —

Only this time we’re flying through the treetops on our way to meet the Messiah.

KING OF COMEDY and WOLF OF WALL STREET also have some similarity in their beginnings. One is a promo video for a financial services company, the other is a TV show opening.

I put the end of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD next to the start of THE AVIATOR just because they’re both so very Robert Richardson. And have a religious feeling. Nic Cage is basically staging a pieta with his head comfortably pillowed by Patricia Arquette.

Tabletops are also a thing —

Opening shot of WHO’S THAT KNOCKING, closing shot of RAGING BULL, opening shot of THE COLOR OF MONEY.

New York looms large, as do other cities and places.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK ends with a kind of phantom ride, advancing down a rainy street — not precisely anyone’s POV. It’s haunting. And the credits start, one of those cases, as with TAXI DRIVER, where there’s no clear divide between film and titles. There’s no last shot, really.

I do not like the rat in THE DEPARTED.

The lighthouse in SHUTTER ISLAND is great. It has an ominous meaning established earlier and its appearance here is really grim.

KUNDUN’s similar first and last shots only reveal their poetry when placed together. The mountain seems merely an establishing shot at the start of the film: Tibet. At the end, we recognize it’s the closest view our protagonist can get of his homeland from his exile, through a telescope.

RAGING BULL is different from everything else — is it the film’s opening, or just a title sequence? Of course it’s fantastic.

TAXI DRIVER, SHUTTER ISLAND and SILENCE. Things emerging from fog are always good.

HUGO begins with cogs.

And then there are sunglasses.

“Hey, I’m BACK,” says Paul Newman, which was unquestionably Scorsese’s message to Hollywood after a dry spell. DeNiro takes of his shades and gives us The Look. Which takes us back to the top.

The ending of THE IRISHMAN does not resemble any of these. But it is very beautiful, and very sad.

Oh, here’s another Look —

But there’s more!

MEAN STREETS. Harvey Keitel wakes up, evidently from a bad dream. Like several other Scorsese characters, he then goes to the mirror… but what does he see?

“The future…”

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by dcairns

Wolf 1

All images, showing the characteristic Scorsese crucifixion-triumph pose (Pupkin on TV/LaMotta on the ropes) swiped from Apocalypse Now.

Maybe a tiny bit spoiler-y? Exercise your discretion.

The only problem I had with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET really is that it’s the same story as GOODFELLAS, and the earlier film is a more stylistically varied film (fast pace but also long takes) and benefits from Scorsese’s greater intimacy with the social scene depicted. (If, as Scorsese argues, nobody but an Italian-American should have been allowed to tackle that subject, arguably a WASP should’ve helmed WOLF). But that’s largely where my quibbling ends — the movie is rambunctious and loud and relentless, and I kept wondering how it could fill its running time this way, since it seemed to have reached a climax of excess before the first hour was up, but it keeps finding reasons to move forward in propulsive bulges, reminding me of the mutated Tetsuo in Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA, an obscene caterpillar of psychotic bloat.

the-wolf-of-wall-street-leonardo-dicaprio-slice

I don’t get why this movie’s attitude to its subject should be any more controversial than GOODFELLAS’ portrayal of the gangster lifestyle, awash with blood and cocaine and tacky furnishings and delicious-looking sauces. Scorsese has clearly articulated his philosophy of showing not telling, which in the stories he chooses means not editorializing or moralizing but making a moral point apparent by being truthful about the essence of something (even while frequently fictionalizing details). So you don’t have a cop make a speech like Huston was forced to do in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE — the closest to that here is the subway scene which makes a point of contrasting the lifestyle of the honest FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler, with what we’ve already seen of Jordan Belfort/Leo DiCaprio’s world, and what we’re about to see of his soft prison time. But this, like the film’s final shot, is accomplished visually, not by making speeches. The only speeches made are to represent what the characters think or pretend they think, not to allow the filmmaker a podium. This is known as treating the audience as adults.

Wolf 4

Like GOODFELLAS, the film’s moral standing is perhaps compromised or tainted by the fact that its subject is still at large and benefiting from his crimes, but GOODFELLAS would seem in some way the more problematic case. Henry Hill was this gangster who apparently never killed anybody, but just happened to be there when people got killed, or was involved in jobs where most of the other participants subsequently wound up killed. He’s our storyteller, so we have to take his version of events, which doesn’t exactly paint him sympathetically but does differentiate him from his more murderous buddies. Whereas, if Jordan Belfort was guilty of more outrageous abuses than are presented onscreen, it’s hard to imagine what they could be. His only possible moral edge over Ray Liotta’s character is that Belfort tries to save his best friend from the consequences of Belfort’s stool-pigeonry. But even this is portrayed as another example of his treachery (to the FBI) and stupidity. “You just learned the two most important lessons in life: never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” I always loved that line in GOODFELLAS, it’s so dumb: the two lessons are exactly the same thing. And are disregarded as soon as it’s convenient.

Others have also pointed out the stunning physical comedy perpetrated by DiCaprio during the quaalude abuse scene — I just have to echo that because it would be criminal not to. Flailing, writhing, attempting to walk on his shoulders while flat on his belly, the actor achieves a liquid spasticity undreamt-of by the nuttiest of professors (check out his comedy dancing too). This may be the first time Scorsese has appropriated from Jerry Lewis, even though he DIRECTED Jerry Lewis. And the pay-off to this bit involves an unreliable narrator gag in which the scene is rewritten before our eyes — a joke touched on at the outset of the film when Belfort’s Ferrari changes colour in one shot from Ferris Bueller red to Don Johnson white, because it’s important to Belfort that these details are correct. And that little CGI joke seemed to come from nowhere and vanish into nowhere, until it comes back to sideswipe your brain two hours later. VERY nice work from screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire).

Haven’t seen AMERICAN HUSTLE yet (I will!) so can’t comment on the other hot topic, “Which is the better Martin Scorsese movie?” Though I do have my own opinion about who has the better right to make Martin Scorsese movies.