The Plank

Romance and the Gangster Movie

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Jonah Weiner has an interesting piece in Slate about Gomorrah's place in the history of gangster films. Weiner writes:

The thinking [of critics who hailed the movie] goes like this: No matter how bleakly mob movies end, they are invariably intoxicating. (What is Goodfellas' famous Copacabana tracking shot if not a virtuoso dance of seduction, tugging us tipsily through the warm belly of underworld privilege?) Gomorrah, by contrast, is great precisely because it's repulsive....A two-hour-plus stranglehold, the movie sends us back into the world gasping.

Alas, I think he manages to get Goodfellas (and Scorsese's work more generally) completely wrong:

The third convention Gomorrah tackles is central to mob-movie mythology: the romanticized outlaw. In the end, Goodfellas' Henry Hill isn't just a gangster, he's also a rebel, thrashing against the mind-numbing routines of law-abiding society (this motif figures often into the existential grappling of French New Wave gangster films, too). The final image of Hill living out his life in a bland, unnamed suburb chosen by Witness Protection bureaucrats shows us a caged animal who yearns to be free from the mundane American idyll: "I get to live the rest of my life as a shnook," he says.

The genius of Goodfellas is that Hill's narration is not only unreliable; it also contradicts everything we have been watching. It is true that the film has its romantic moments (the tracking shot that Weiner mentions is only the most memorable)--but how else does one show the characters' attraction to the mob lifestyle? Meanwhile, the last hour of the film consists of one miserable, violent event after another. By the time that Hill enters the witness protection program, everything seems more appealing than the mob. And yet, there is Hill, narrating away as if he wishes he were back in New York. The dissonance between what we have just seen and what we are now hearing adds layers of complexity to the movie.

A more concrete example of this tactic occurs in another Scorcese film, Casino. Joe Pesci--again playing a murderous gangster--is allowed to narrate large sections of the movie. It is not simply that the things he says are sick; no, they are factually wrong, too. We know this because a few hours earlier we have just witnessed reality. There is a brilliant scene between Pesci and Sharon Stone near the end of the movie in which the characters have a long conversation that is completely false. Almost everything they say is objectively incorrect, and yet no attempt is made to correct them. This might not seem too shocking, until you try to think of similar scenes in other movies. By letting his despicable characters have their say, Scorcese is not romanticizing them in the least. Instead he is allowing us to see them in full.

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