1980, 129 min.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
1990, 146 min.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Man oh man, things are getting good. During the Summer Film Series I recently got to partake of old favorites (Bogart, Hitchcock) and have been introduced to some new ones (Thin Man, Kazan, Robert Shaw). Wednesday was another treat with a double feature by the man I've considered my favorite director for about two decades. Martin Scorsese is so familiar and revered by me and a good number of my friends, we refer to him in conversation as "Marty" (as if we ever met the guy). Since Cape Fear in 1991, I have seen every one of his films theatrically. Even Kundun, which was no easy feat at the time. It played in my tiny hometown for about 4 days in a theater only as large as most people's kitchens.
So it was with another dose of undiluted giddiness that I was looking to attend the mid-week features. Wednesday's double feature was two of Scorsese's finest, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. These two films were made ten years apart and are now widely regarded as the best films of the 1980s and '90s, respectively. Oddly, neither won Best Picture or Best Director, a fact that led many to believe Scorsese was "Oscar cursed" until The Departed finally won both in 2006.
Before the show, there was to be a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Raging Bull presented by Steve Wilson. He is the Harry Ransom Center's Associate Curator of Film, located on the University of Texas campus. Doing a little research on the HRC, I discovered that there is a current exhibition on "Making Movies," showing the collaborative efforts behind many film classics. Imagine that, a little more cinematic gold, right here in Austin! Elation ran through my veins as I quickly decided this was another film mecca I had to visit in the next couple of months. What a great summer this is turning out to be!
When I got to the Theatre, Wilson was already giving his presentation. It was quite impressive, with stills and storyboards to underline his points and illustrate the making of this film. I immediately got a "college lecture" kind of vibe, and felt incredibly embarrassed to have walked in late. Like a guilty student I simply sat in the closest seats I could find (way in the back). It was fascinating and I felt like taking notes; an old condition from my college days when I was afraid the information would reappear on a future exam. Old habits die hard, even if I was never a motivated student in my youth. Ha ha.
Now, as I recall, I had seen most of Raging Bull back in my early high school years, but I don't remember much of it sticking with me. The vivid and violent imagery stuck, but was hazy on the sequences of events and the story itself. I was curious to see if time had ripened me into a more attentive viewer, particularly now that I am more familiar with Marty's work. To make a long story short, it did.
Raging Bull is the biopic of boxer Jake La Motta, a middleweight fighter who contended in the 1940s and '50s. In it, Scorsese creates a character study of a completely despicable man. Also starring Joe Pesci as his devoted brother and Cathy Moriarty as La Motta's wife, both are also punching bags for the troubled boxer. While a story of a simple (and seemingly unimportant) man, Scorsese's extraordinary direction and skill illustrate that even the most insignificant of lives can tell a story and provide a moral lesson, even if as a cautionary tale of wasted opportunity.
Brutality aside, this is a marvelously beautiful film. The cinematography is top notch, and the pacing and editing is superb. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Scorsese have spent most of their careers working together, and Raging Bull may prove to remain the zenith of their working collaboration. The entire film is operatic in its tone, and is underlined by the use of the symphonic Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. Even the boxing bouts have a unique tempo and dark musicality in their choreography, a rhythm punctuated with violence. To me, Raging Bull is also the quintessential film on the sport of boxing, knocking Rocky to the mat easily. It depicts the poetry of men in the boxing ring, exposing the magnificence of the sport beneath its violent exterior.
Although the film is renown for its high level of technical craftsmanship, it is arguably even more famous for the award-winning portrayal by Robert De Niro. His performance as La Motta is a rare tour de force, and can be described as brutish, masochistic, jealous, and ferocious. Throughout the movie, La Motta tests the patience of his family and friends as he lashes out in fear. It's like watching someone banging their forehead against a concrete wall, and even for the audience it can be tough to endure. This rage makes for decent boxing fuel, however, as he channels the fury and insecurity into vulgar displays of power in the ring. He's a man bent on controlling his life: trying to challenge for the title without any assistance, keeping his wife on a short leash, and pulverizing anyone who challenges his manhood.
Perhaps most significant in De Niro's showcase of method acting is his massive weight gain to portray a washed-up La Motta during the post-boxing days. He gained 70 lbs to transform himself and cement this role as the stuff of legend. It also set a precedent for Oscar gold; gaining or losing weight and transforming oneself physically for a role. For additional examples, see Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Charlize Theron in Monster. Be sure to note they also received little gold statues for their work.
Still, he's riveting to watch, and is reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando. He specifically evokes the Brando of Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, as the embodiment of animalistic rage and self-loathing. After watching Raging Bull, it's very easy to see the comparisons of Brando and De Niro as acting titans. Raging Bull took the role of the self-delusional male to new extremes, and the final scene of La Motta's delivery to a mirror would be heartbreaking if he was a sympathetic character in the very least. Never have delusions of grandeur and narcissism blended so well, and its a powerful scene of a man who hit rock bottom. So strong, in fact, that Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't help echoing the scene in Boogie Nights.
Because Raging Bull isn't the most accessible of movies, I can see how an audience may find it hard to digest on first viewing. Often difficult to watch, and by no means is it a conventional uplifting biographical movie. It's a siren's song of a film, luring you with its inherent beauty while daring you to gaze upon this repugnant character's life. A raging bull in his own personal china shop, La Motta never seems to learn the old adage, "you break it, you buy it." And even after he loses everything, he masks his loss with his continuing contempt for those around him... forever paying the price for his sins.
As the lights came up after the movie, I myself felt a little battered. Time for a Dr. Pepper; but trust me, I was tempted to drink something stronger. I did not, however, want anything interfering with the enjoyment of the follow-up feature, Goodfellas.
Now, "Goodfeathers" is a cartoon short about three pigeons who- wait, that's not right. I meant Fellas, not Feathers. Hold on, let's back up and start again...
For film buffs, there is always a private mental list of movies one wishes they had seen in a theater. For me, Goodfellas has always been near the top of that list. It was one of those seminal films that awoke a new sense of appreciation for cinema when I saw it on VHS at age 14. At certain times in my life since, I've become fanatical about the film. Not to the extent that rap stars get with Brian De Palma's Scarface, but my intoxication with Goodfellas sometimes runs hot like a fever.
Much like a latent virus, my fascination with Goodfellas manifests into a bit of an obsession every few years or so. Look no further than the picture on the right. Yes, that's an old photo of me wearing a custom shirt using artwork from the movie. You may know the scene:
"One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin', 'Whadda ya want from me?' Guy's got a nice head of white hair, it's beautiful."
I made it about six or seven years back, and stopped wearing it once I had lost some weight. If I recall correctly it became a garage sale item, meaning someone out there is wearing it. Although, they most likely don't know the image and simply use it while mowing their grass or something. Oh well. One man's treasure can become another man's disposable shirt.
Like many pointless disputes, there seems to be an eternal argument of the ultimate Mafia movie, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas or Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. It's a futile exercise, akin to fanboys arguing who would win a fight between Superman and Batman. Now, I would never dispute the greatness of The Godfather, but I just can't bring myself to proclaim it as the greatest mob movie of all time. For me, the reason is because I refuse to label it merely as a mafia movie. The Godfather to me was always more personal; a story about a clan over generations. It's a cinematic saga about an American family tree come to life. Goodfellas, on the other hand, is about American fraternity painted with broad strokes of nostalgia. This is like the stories of guys you grow up with or work with. It's about strangers who, through the pursuit of a common goal, become like family. That friendship bond is similar, but very different than that of relatives. The greatness of both films can not be denied, but the question of which is greater is merely a matter of opinion. There's no formula to figure out, and one should just be happy there are two quality pieces of art to dispute. No one ever has these arguments about... say, Deep Impact versus Armageddon.
Anyway, back to task. Goodfellas is a biopic about Henry Hill, who grew up and became immersed in the New York mob over a few decades. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," he narrates at the beginning of the film, and the story of his humble beginnings prove it. Some kids dream of becoming President, or a fireman, or a veterinarian, but Hill doesn't want to be anything so blue-collar. Why work to make a living when you can make a living without the work? Ah, that's the very allure of crime itself. There is temptation to shortcut across laws that are usually there for a reason, and these guys succumb to that desire. These wiseguys run around New York like kids in a candy store. This movie is not hesitant to show how many good times can be had in this life. Yet the film reminds us that, while it may be seductive, this life is inherently dangerous.
The film's signature scene perfectly encapsulates the charm and terror of the criminal life depicted. Joe Pesci, in his Oscar-winning role as Tommy DeVito, is a hothead mobster with little man syndrome and a temper as big as his ego. He does whatever he wants and yet seems to be a helluva guy to hang out with. But it's certainly not wise to ever cross him. He can strike like a viper in the blink of an eye. One such scene starts innocently enough, with a funny anecdote over drinks in the company of friends. But when Henry makes a vague compliment about Tommy being a "funny guy," things quickly veer into a scary new direction.
"What do you mean I'm funny?"
"It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy."
"What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What?"
"It's just, you know. You're just funny, it's... funny, the way you tell the story and everything..."
"You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little f---ed up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to f---in' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?"
"Just... you know, how you tell the story, what?"
"No, no, I don't know, you said it. How do I know? You said I'm funny. How the f--- am I funny, what the f--- is so funny about me? Tell me, tell me what's funny!"
No matter how many times I've seen the movie, I always find myself holding my breath during that scene. The long pause after this exchange is excruciating. It's like waiting for a bomb to go off, and that's the very point. Life may seem like fun and games with no consequences, but there are always rules to follow. It's the peek at this culture that holds your interest and doesn't let go. Hill narrates and tells his story to us, and it's our privilege that turns into our pleasure.
Scorsese's use of Henry's voiceover narration drives the film. It heightens the ease with which the audience can identify with these characters who live a life we could never imagine. Midway through the film, Marty wisely shifts the narration over to Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as a girl who dates Henry and eventually becomes his wife. Her insight into the lifestyle is another viewpoint and equally fascinating. She is charmed by Henry, just as Henry was by the life as a kid. As the story continues, Karen and Henry slowly see life isn't so rosy. They descend into new positions of desperation, always chasing rewards with as little effort as possible. As I said, there are always rules to any workplace (even the Mafia), only the Mob won't let you go with a pat on the back and a letter of recommendation. The Hills know this all too well, and their paranoia is contagious to the audience. We can see the twisted logic of their perspectives, even if we can barely understand why someone would do the things they do.
Marty constructs Goodfellas with his usual technical expertise. The performances and Nicholas Pileggi's screenplay are its core, and again Schoonmaker's editing propels the movie like a roadster tearing up the highway's asphalt. Also, the film's vitality is sustained by a litany of pop songs from the timeline depicted, just like a midnight race on the blacktop would. the sequence using the piano exit from "Layla" is so good it gives me the chills thinking about it. And that incredible tracking shot through the Copacabana club? OMG. No words can describe its excellence. Make no mistake, Goodfellas may be a modern tragedy of people chasing a perverse version of the American dream, but it's a damn fun ride. Perhaps not as heavy as Raging Bull, but no less brilliant. I prefer to look as this film as part of Scorsese's "Self Destruction trilogy." I see Raging Bull as part one, Goodfellas as part two, and 1995's Casino as part three. All are similar thematically, and all bear Marty's signature touches. Grade A, top-caliber stuff, at that.
"You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, :You're gonna like this guy. He's all right. He's a good fella. He's one of us.: You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys." -Henry Hill
Goodfellas is such a quotable movie, but in the "hanging out with your friends" not "in front of Grandma at Thanksgiving" forum of quoting lines. My old friends and I were all enchanted by the film back in the 1990s. Women may have been from Venus, but my friends and I thought we were from a Nick Pileggi screenplay. For years, the biggest sign of disrespect amongst my friends (usually while playing video games) was the phrase, "go home and get your shinebox!" This was oh so long ago; shouted during games of Mortal Kombat or NBA Jam. There was always something amusing about us shouting obscenities at each other while playing such childish games. We were wise asses, maybe, but not wiseguys. The closest we got to Italian was Mario and Luigi. Unlike Henry Hill, we all must grow up sometime. Occasionally, I miss that sense of fraternity with those old buddies. It's one thing that Facebook can never bring back. It's why I treasure my favorite films, and one more thing revisiting cinema can evoke inside us. For a couple of hours, we can remember who we were when we first watched a favorite movie... the emotions you felt, and the people you shared it with. Yeah, those were some good times with good friends. Good fellas, indeed.