Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Mighty Marty

I watched GoodFellas for the first time last night, and, as a result, have a bit of an observation about Martin Scorsese's work in general.
Is it possible that the man who's widely regarded as the world's greatest living director makes films that work as mental exercises but occasionally lack a beating heart? I've seen 6 of his films to date, and I've liked each of them. However, I haven't always felt an emotional connection to the characters on the screen. I wonder if this is something that is unique to me or if there are others who feel similarly.

I suppose that I need to qualify that observation. He's definitely got at least one film that I would consider a masterpiece. Raging Bull is an unqualified success on multiple levels, and, out of the Scorsese films that I've seen so far, is easily the best. There are reasons that this film is often considered in the discussion of the greatest movies ever made. I would not hesitate to consider this one of the greatest films of the 1980's, if not THE greatest.

It's important for me to get that out in the open. I don't want you to think that I'm at all dismissive of his work.

It's just that GoodFellas, while a good movie, doesn't really hit me on any real kind of gut level. Sure, there were moments where I was moved or felt that something in particular was fairly compelling, but, on the whole, it doesn't seem to add up to something particularly lasting. I marvel at those who say that GoodFellas is the cinema's greatest exploration of the mafia. I think that that honor belongs to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Case closed. No questions asked.

Here's the deal. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese obviously have very different interpretations of the mafia. Coppola's interested in showing life as a gangster from the top down, and Scorsese's interested in it from the bottom up. That said, there are, by necessity, going to be stylistic and structural differences between the films made from these two perspectives. I think the edge easily goes to Coppola.

Here's an example. In both GoodFellas and The Godfather Part II, there's a scene in which the main character's wife reveals something to him that creates conflict and confusion. In Coppola's film, in that moment, the performances were pitch-perfect. The scene was pitch-perfect. My jaw literally dropped. My opinion of Diane Keaton's skill as an actress skyrocketed in an instant. In Scorsese's film, while I felt a certain level of sympathy for the characters, when the two of them are sitting on the floor crying, I couldn't help but feel that, in Lorraine Bracco, I was witnessing an actress try really hard to make me believe that she was broken up instead of embodying that emotion.

What's more, Coppola managed to make a piece of art out what was essentially a great pulp novel. He discovered depths to the material that made it seem almost Shakespearean in scope. On the other hand, Scorsese's film feels somewhat scatterbrained by comparison.

Here are a couple of things that distracted me from what GoodFellas seems to have been trying to do in painting a convincing portrait of the mafia. First off, the persistent narration seemed to be trying to keep me at arm's length, particularly during the first act. I was prepared to get into a real, honest-to-god MOVIE, but the voice-over seemed to be self-consciously reminding me that I was experiencing something constructed by a filmmaker. Recognizing what one is watching as artifice isn't necessarily bad, but, in this case, it was distracting. I wanted the narration to stop so that the narrative could actually start. Also, I found it odd that there were two narrators. I think the film would have been more tightly focused by only having one. The contrast seemed slightly jarring when it was first introduced.

Additionally, I didn't think that Ray Liotta was entirely convincing as the lead character. This might seem like a minor complaint, but whenever Henry Hill laughed, it always struck me as seeming fake in some way. It may only be a slight nuance, but, if you're going to have guy laugh all the time in a movie, it's important that he doesn't look like he's faking it. On the other hand, Robert De Niro was solid, as was Joe Pesci, but the focus was clearly on Liotta, and I don't think he was up to the challenge.

What's more, by the time the final act rolls around, there's a change in tone that doesn't come across naturally. It's essentially one giant set piece that describes a day in Henry Hill's life, all that he must accomplish, and how he's going to go about doing it. Apparently, Scorsese was trying to portray the distracted, intensified mindset of someone strung out on cocaine, but at this point in the movie, Henry'd been on coke for a while and he'd never acted quite like that before. Scorsese's apparent intention is all well and good, but the sequence seemed inconsistent with the rest of the film.

I don't want to seem dismissive of GoodFellas, because I liked and enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I just didn't see the great film that I've heard about for so long. I'll watch more of Scorsese's work and see if other films of his have the same effect or if this is a somewhat isolated incident.


Chris W said...

There are SO many ways I disagree with this I don't even know where to begin. GOODFELLAS is genius on every level. It is one of if not THE best movie about the mob ever made and yes I'm taking into account GODFATHER. While I agree GODFATHER is a superior film it's a film that's about family, not the mob. The mob is just the setting through which it's told. I know people will argue that but Francis Ford Coppola won't. GOODFELLAS is actually based on a memoir written by Henry Hill a real life mobster that ratted them out and went into witness protection. The narration and every part of the movie is lifted from the book. I think what makes Scorcece so great is the fact that he connects on SO many levels and I think GOODFELLAS is a PERFECT example of this. Sorry but I WAY disagree on this one. Like I said I have more to say but for now...

Adam Zanzie said...

Your criticisms of "Goodfellas", to be sure, are valid. Just a couple of things:

a) Henry Hill's narration does seem overrepetetive at times, but if you see the film again, you'll get used to it. It's like the narration for "Barry Lyndon". Also, if you found the narration in "Goodfellas" annoying, you'll be kicking and screaming when you watch "Casino"; the narration takes up almost the whole first hour!

b) Ray Liotta, from what I heard, modeled that cackling laugh after the real Henry Hill. That's how he laughs!

Adam said...

Ah, Chris, not surprisingly, I disagree. To say that The Godfather isn't about the mob is to say that Star Wars is a movie about heroism, not outer space, and The Dark Knight is a crime thriller, and is not a superhero film.

See, all of those classifications fit, in one way or another. The Godfather is about family, but it's CLEARLY about the mob and that type of lifestyle too. Star Wars is about an old-fashioned type of heroism, but it's also about space travel and the narrative possibilities inherent in that setting. The Dark Knight is a crime thriller, but it's a superhero film too.

If you want to get into the book vs. the film, I'd suggest that you read The Godfather if you haven't already. Mario Puzo was a master of all things mafia and that knowledge translated wonderfully to the screen. Besides, loyalty to a book doesn't necessarily make a film adaptation any better or worse. Take "The Lord of the Rings" as a prime example. As loyal as he was to the books, if Jackson had been even more loyal, the films wouldn't have worked nearly as well. Think about it, the third film would have been even longer!

After seeing GoodFellas, I've realized how much of a takeoff on it The Departed is. Seriously, the films share a ton of similarities. I will give GoodFellas a massive edge as far as the editing goes. The Departed is one of the most poorly edited films to reach critical acclaim that I've ever seen.

So, Chris, love and respect to you, but I completely disagree.

Adam said...


First off, sweet profile pic! I had no idea that you looked so much like Omar Sharif. (wink)

I can see what you mean about the narration being something that I might get used to on a second viewing. As a rule, I'm not completely opposed to the use of voice-over in general. Many of my favorite films use this technique to great effect. (particularly Woody Allen) It was just that, in this case, it distracted to the point that I kept waiting for it to stop so that the narrative could start. I felt like it kept interrupting me in my attempts at immersion in the world of the film. A friend has told me that I ought to watch Casino. We'll see how that goes. . .

As for the laugh, well, what can I say? For some reason, it just stuck out to me.

Chris W said...

This is one of those things we're going to have to agree to disagree on because I'm not even quite sure where to begin with everything. I will say this about the GODFATHER though. Yes, the movie and especially the book are mob films but ultimately the point of the film is family. That's the movie Coppola tried to (And suceeded) make and that's why it's the greatest "guy" film of all time. As for THE DEPARTED, once again I don't even know where to start but oh well, the nice things about movies is you can disagree about them and not feel the need to enact a jihad. Some day though i will for sure further explore my feelings on THE GODFATHER.

Anonymous said...

Loved Goodfellas but if you didn't then you probably won't like Casino since I felt it was kind of the same film but more intense. I guess The Departed would be like a happy medium between the two.

Sadako said...

Didn't know that the laugh was modeled on the real Henry Hill. But agree that it came off a little phony--that was my impression when I saw it.