MARTIN SCORSESE: GOODFELLAS
It isn’t difficult to get Martin Scorsese started. You just have to bring up the subject film. Once he gets on the track, though, it’s almost impossible to stop him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry ”, he smiles, realizing that his words were gushing out at an almost hallucinatory speed, or, better yet, in unformed sentences more similar to frames than phrases. “I can go too fast at times.”
One has to understand that films are to Scorsese more than his life. They are his food and oxygen and pleasure and, most of all, his passion. “You have to think about films to know how to make films ”, he says, referring to his two-year tenure as a teacher in his alma mater, the prestigious University School of Film. “My only influence over my students was this: How to make films in a sense is how to give passion to them.”
AN INTERVIEW BY ANA MARIA BAHIANA
Besides film, only music and Robert De Niro can speed Scorsese’s speech one notch up. He gives constant musical references when talking about his work, and is known for playing the future soundtrack on the set. To inspire actors and guide his own work, he filmed one climactic sequence in his newest offerings Goodfellas, while Eric Clapton and Duane Allman’s soaring guitar riff in “Layla” was blasting from the set’s speakers. “I happen to see things to music”, Scorsese admits, adding that his taste can be as eclectic as his filmic appetite: “pop and rock and Italian folk songs and opera and country and western, and church music”.
De Niro, a life-long friend and collaborator in almost all of his films, is “someone very, very special. He’s family. You’d have to be there to see how he works, how he still surprises me.”
De Niro has a somewhat back seat in Goodfellas, Scorsese’s scorching, casually epic view of the intimate life in organized crime, based on journalist Nick Pileggi’s non-fiction bestseller, Wiseguys. But he’ll play the lead in Scorsese’s next venture, a remake of the thriller Cape Fear (Jack Lee-Thompson, 1962), originally starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.
“You have to do some things for yourself and some things for the market”, Scorsese muses. “This one will be for the market. This is America. ”
In Goodfellas, you have a world populated entirely by “bad guys”. There are no heroes, no uplifting morals, no judgements, no lessons, and certainly no ethics and no redemption for your characters. What was the intention behind that?
Well, this question comes up with every person I speak to. In all the history of theatre and cinema, novels or whatever, characters who are on the bad side are always more interesting than the good guys. It goes all the way back to Greek tragedy. You always had an antagonist who is more interesting than the protagonist.
Because we are human beings, and there’s good and evil in all of us, these guys, these villains, act out the worst part of ourselves, the things we always feel. We like to live vicariously through these characters. We also like to see them get punished at the end – in certain cases, not all cases.
In this film, there’s no discussion of guilt of any kind. I think there’s no mention of God. I have a feeling the guilty characters don’t feel [a need for ethics]. They have special ethics and, because of that, or the lack of ethics, it brings attention to it. That was the plan: just show how they act and then let the audience judge, or think about, what their actions reveal as characters.
As far as redemption, I don’t know. The story still goes on.
There is also a good deal of very graphic, and almost casual, violence. Some critics here in the U.S. were offended by it.
I don’t know what are the criteria of the deans of American film criticism, or what their credentials are in terms of knowing what that lifestyle is like, of knowing what violence is really like in the streets. Have they grown up with it and lived with it as a daily expression?
One has to deal honestly with the enjoyment of violence at certain times in growing up, when one doesn’t know if it’s good or bad. You see how people act and realize, after a while, that it’s not right. But some people don’t [realize that]. There’s a kind of thrill of violence, an attraction to violence and in living that way. In certain characters, certain people, there’s a thrill. But I do question the credentials of those who pontificate from a very safe distance about others’ lifestyle.
How did your own upbringing influence your vision in making Goodfellas?
Over the years there have been a lot of great pictures made of underworld figures where gangsters arc shown as very solemn, very serious people. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be presented like that – there must be some gangsters who are that way – but it’s not what I remember from growing up in an area where there was a certain percentage of small underworld figures.
It is a small parochial area on the east side in lower Manhattan; Elizabeth Street between Prince Street and Houston Street. We never went six or seven blocks over to the wrest side, because we had everything we needed in our neighbourhood. It was an incredible place filled with great life and vitality, and a village mentality – not a Greenwich Village mentality, but a Sicilian village mentality.
I knew the minor crime figures from when I was eight or nine years old, first as people. The person whose candy store I stood in front of was very nice to me, always very jolly and happy. But across the street we couldn’t stand in front of this other guy’s store; he didn’t want kids there for some reason. Of course, it really wasn’t a candy store, it was a place where all could congregate and do business.
At the time, you just took them as people; you don’t know what they did and only later did you find out what was going on. And when you discovered that certain lifestyle, you were faced with certain choices – street choices.
You have to be tough to survive on the streets. If you have severe asthma, like I did, you have to survive another way. It’s very difficult surviving in the underworld if you aren’t physically capable of defending yourself, so you defend yourself by your wits. You work out your values another way.
So, I became more attracted to the church, which was the other main force in that neighbourhood. You had a choice, either to become a gangster or a priest. I told this to Gore Vidal and he said: “It’s great. You became both.”
But did you entertain thoughts of choosing the underworld?
When you’re a kid you look and see these guys and they’re very interesting people. To a kid, they are beautifully and elegantly dressed, and they command a great deal of respect in your small world. And it is the quieter ones who are always the most powerful. You see an older gentleman in front of the candy store, let’s say, on a chair and wearing a mohair suit; you see the change in the body posture of the people passing by him. Nobody gets in front of him or does anything disrespectful. That’s an amazing amount of power for a man who doesn’t have to lift a finger.
Naturally, those sort of people become role models to you and, at a certain point, sure you think, “Oh boy, I’d like to be respected like that person.” But to be able to do that you have to live that lifestyle of violence and violent behaviour, and a contempt for any kind of morality and codes of living.
Then you see that the other kind of person who is pretty much respected is the priest – pretty much, but not too much.
So, in a way, this film continues a series of neighbourhood tableaux that you started with Mean Streets?
I’m attracted to the same subject matter, the same material. It’s like looking at the world again from a slightly different angle. There’s a direct line between Mean Streets, Raging Bull and this film. It’s almost a trilogy.
Mean Streets is pretty much about myself and my friends. The period covered in that film is when I was a film student at New York University, going back and forth between the two worlds, the east side and the west side. Mean Streets is a very clear, almost autobiographical movie of that time. I hopefully have a couple more in mind to chronicle that lifestyle.
Were you surprised when Raging Bull was chosen best film of the 1980s in almost all lists compiled by the American press?
I was very surprised and very, very pleased, because up to that point I thought it was pretty much … well, not forgotten, but sort of played down. And it was chosen by individuals whose votes were collated, not worked out politically in some room, like by a jury at a film festival, when you have to encourage certain kinds of filmmaking as opposed to others.
The other thing is that Raging Bull was filmed in 1979 and released in 1980. That means it stayed in people’s minds for more than ten years, and that’s pretty good. I hope it stays in people’s minds.
You made Raging Bull at a turning point in American cinema, when the spectacle, effects and big budgets were becoming more and more important. How do you relate to American cinema now?
I don’t now. The ’80s were a difficult time because I couldn’t get films made, and the films that were being made were very broad audience-participation films like Flashdance, Spielberg pictures and Simpson-Bruckheimer films [Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.]. They are high concept films, quote unquote. I’m not putting them down, or saying anything negative about them, and they were megahits.
Hollywood is very American. The film industry is very, very concerned about making money. A lot of the energy and talent went into trying to make megahits during that period. Now it seems to be coming around a little bit the other way.
Which films couldn’t you get made in the 1980s?
After Raging Bull, Bob De Niro and I tried to make King of Comedy very quickly and I found I couldn’t make it quickly. It had a very difficult shooting procedure. It was a very hard picture to make and I think it got caught in the politics of the studio changing hands. And when the film didn’t perform the way the studio thought it should perform for the amount of money that it cost to make, they dropped the film from distribution. I no longer cared.
Then I proceeded to start on The Last Temptation of Christ. But after working on it a year, and just as we were about to start photography, the studio pulled the plug on us. That left me with the realization that I couldn’t get made anymore the kind of pictures I wanted to make.
How did you find your way out of this impasse?
I figured what I had to do was start all over again and learn how to make pictures for the least amount of money. Then I could afford to make riskier films in this country. You see, unless I do something that doesn’t relate directly to my personal experience, it is very hard for me to do things in England or Italy or France or Spain. It’s difficult because I’m really American. So I kind of put the pieces together and did After Hours, which was a very low-budget, $4.5 million film, all included.
Then I raised the stakes a little by doing The Color of Money a year later. It was a very commercial venture in a way, a straight Mean Streets kind of movie made with a movie star. That was made cheaply, too.
Then the people at Creative Artists Agency [the most powerful artists’ representation and packaging agency in the business] took notice of The Color of Money and suggested that I come over to their agency, which I did. They asked me which film I’d like to make most, and I said The Last Temptation of Christ, the most impossible film to get made in Hollywood. I hadn’t been able do it, not because of the money, but because of the exhibitors. They simply would not show it in the theatres. So it had become a kind of a joke in Hollywood, like “You have as much a chance of making this film as in making The Last Temptation of Christ.” It became a total humiliation.
How did The Last Temptation of Christ finally get made?
Within one month or so of my signing with CAA, there was some movement at Universal. Mr Tom Pollock came in [as President] and Michael Ovitz [UAA’s owner and powerbroker] spoke to him about the project, which was by now a cause célèbre in Hollywood. We had this meeting at Universal and talked about making the film for $7 million all in, with no salary for me and scale for the actors. And it was made that way.
It was a very difficult period the ’80s. From 1981 to 1987, I thought that I’d never be able to get another film like Raging Bull made again. After ’87, things started to get back on the track.
Is there any particular reason for doing this remake of Cape Fear right now?
Basically just because it’s a thriller, a mainstream film. It’s like going back to school.
Usually, the pictures I make are for myself. I can’t, no matter how much I try, make a film like Spielberg does. He has a certain sensibility and a certain command of the craft which is quite remarkable, and that’s what commercial means. But very often in America you have to be able to make one or two of these pictures that do fairly well at the box office so you can make two or three of your own.
So, for you, it must be especially hard to shoot a film like Cape Fear.
Oh yeah, very hard. You do the best you can. The problem is that I really prefer stories that are not told in a straight sense. To make a film, I prefer a story that’s broken up and told in a more interesting way. But to make a thriller, you have to tell the story in a certain way, with certain moves and certain moments. And you have to know how to hit that, which is pretty hard.
I like thrillers but they are hard to do and dangerous in that I can get very bored. But I can’t afford to bore myself, nor can I make the film too flashy because I might destroy the mood. I have to find that fine line. It’s a big challenge. We’ll see what happens.
Which director do you think has had the biggest influence on you?
I like so many movies, so many directors! The first director I can remember liking, and I was too young to understand what a director did, was John Ford. I just saw his name in all the movies I liked. Then there was Orson Welles, when I learned about what a director really does.
At the same time, I was living with movies by Michael Powell. I saw them on television all the time. And those by Carol Reed and Sam Fuller and Vincente Minnelli… it goes on and on. There are so many, so many…
Is there any particular reason why we are now seeing so many gangster movies?
I don’t know. There’s no reason other than things happen in cycles. What was the other recent one? Comic book heroes. And films like Big, with people switching roles and children becoming adults. I don’t know.
Francis’ The Godfather was very’ important in the ’70s because of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam war and how we all felt in this country. He was showing a law, a code. Now he’s coming out with Godfather III. I think Francis really felt he was able to find an angle on the story of The Godfather at this point.
But the appeal of gangster films? I don’t know’. It’s the old story, I think. The bad guys, quote unquote, are more interesting than the good guys.
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AN AFTERWORD BY RAFFAELE CAPUTO
“From the opening shot of Goodfellas, one knows one is in familiar territory. The camera careers up to the rear of the car, pulls out alongside and then overtakes it. There is an immediate feeling of recognition: this shot is to be found in the past, in the closing sequence of Mean Streets…”
“There is a saying in Naples: I have shared my sleep with a friend.”
Giuseppe Marotta, Don Vincenzo and Don Eligio.
Martin Scorsese has said of Goodfellas, “It happened very casually, sort of old friends getting together again, which is the spirit of the film …” (Scorsese on Scorsese, Faber & Faber, p. 115). From the opening shot of Goodfellas, one knows one is in familiar territory. The camera careers up to the rear of the car, pulls out alongside and then overtakes it. There is an immediate feeling of recognition: this shot is to be found in the past, in the closing sequence of Mean Streets (1973) just before Charlie (Harvey Keitel), Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and Teresa (Amy Robinson) are hit by Michael and his hired hand, Shorty (played by Scorsese himself).
Coupled with the sense of familiarity, however, is also an ominous, grating sense of dissatisfaction lurking about the film. It as though the get-together with old friends has lost some of its magic; though the spark is certainly still there, the feeling that things have changed is more definite and overrides the magic. By all accounts, there arc the obvious signs of a return to one’s roots, but the reconciliation just isn’t the same. It is probably this kind of spirit that Scorsese is really pointing out.
There are a number of things that cannot be reconciled in Goodfellas. Perhaps it is because Goodfellas is a little too familiar. For the moment that’s just a “perhaps”. There is probably another reason. From the opening sequence, it is difficult to reconcile the words that have become the film’s guiding inscription – “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster”-with the freeze frame of the face of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). It is not because of the freeze frame itself, but the brief, incredulous expression it catches on Henry’s face at the instant Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy ‘The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) respectively hack into and blast away at the half-dead victim stuffed in the boot of the car.
Certainly, the expression takes its cue in an ensemble of action with a timed purpose – the build-up to the final, violent dispatch of the victim, the camera zeroing on Henry’s face, the Roadrunner-like freeze frame, and then those mnemonic words over the momentary, incredulous stare – that works to great comic effect. But, as with the opening shot, where is this expression to be found? The sequence as a flashforward singles out Henry’s expression as something to return to, that indeed it also suggests something of a moral stance, and that part of the film’s movement will be toward understanding that expression.
As most would already know, Scorsese is one to structure and thematize his own personal desires in relation to cinema’s history. But with Goodfellas it appears double-edged, for what cannot be mistaken with all the close-knit marks of a return to his earlier films, especially Mean Streets, is that Goodfellas also inscribes Scorsese’s own place within film history. In one way, Henry’s stare does tend to look to what has become the classic trajectory of the Scorseseian figure: the passage through hell to the point of redemption. Still, one cannot be so sure. What also has to be emphasized is not only Scorsese’s doubled-edged inscription, but that this includes the spectator’s precarious fascination with cinema, and Scorsese’s cinema more so. Again, where is Henry’s stare to be found?
Well, for one thing, it can certainly be traced to a past, and at least we know it is the story’s past. Immediately following the opening sequence in 1970 is a flashback to 1955, where Henry, himself a spectator, gazes trance-like through the blinds of his window down at the congregation of gangsters across the street. With the camera’s slow-motion insistence on the emblems of gangsterism (the cars, the shoes, the rings on their fingers, the suits, the cigars), and all revolving around a nodal abstract, power, this segment lays claim to Henry’s desire to be a part of this world, to be a “somebody in a neighbourhood of nobodies”. It is a perfect, fantastical lifestyle set at play in one’s consciousness.
Yet, there is something of a tiny crack that appears in this seductively hermetic world, something that is so much a part of this world and still it arrives as if purposely embedded. There is the point where a man, shot, staggers to the doorstep of the local mafia’s hangout. When everyone else scatters away, Henry wraps aprons around the man’s wound. Henry cannot explain why he did that exactly, except that Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), the mob chief, would have shut the door on the guy. But Henry just couldn’t let him bleed all over the place. This scene certainly differentiates Henry from the others, and points the spectator in both directions: it draws us back to Henry’s incredulous expression, and, in so doing, pulls us further along to its return.
Now it is time to move Henry to some place else in the film. What becomes discernible are more tiny cracks turning into fissures, moving in tandem and reflecting back on one another. Another thing that cannot be reconciled in Goodfellas is Henry’s belief in a glorious lime where “we could go anywhere and do anything” with this belief s visual realization, and how, in part, this relates to his extraordinary friendship with Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito. Fora man who is continually on the move and who can virtually have whatever he desires, there’s the burgeoning sense that Henry’s belief in this dictum is a false one. That is to say, the people who can actually “go anywhere and do anything” in Goodfellas are the ones who do very little and do not move very far. The one obvious figure to spring immediately to mind is Paul Cicero; it is even Henry who cues us in very early on with “Paulie may have moved slow, but that’s because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody. “Power is measured not through one’s actual movement, but through one’s ability to mobilize others. Paulie sits as if on a throne, dispatching orders with the mere nod of his head, or communicates through underlings running back and forth relaying telephone messages for him.
Next are Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway and the repulsively attractive Tommy DeVito, though, unlike Paul Cicero, how power is rendered with regard to these two figures is both more complex and more subtle. For DeVito his power rests in his ability to transgress codes, to turn them inside out – all codes, including the mob’s – irrespective of the consequences. In visual terms, this is brought out through the space which is occupied before him, or which is in his sights. On the one hand, he can be mobilized as a proficient killer with a logistical purpose, as with the murders of Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson) and Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low). On the other hand, Tommy cannot be contained: his killing of Spider, the stuttering waiter, and Frankie Carbone, the “made-man” and boot victim, come about impulsively, uncoded, in the netherworld ofjokes taken as insults. Perhaps this is the significance of his mother’s painting: one dog looks in one direction, the other dog looks the other way – two sides of the same coin.
In this sense, the distance between the two types of killing Tommy performs is minimal, for the locus of his power in both instances is always outside of himself: it becomes a fact that anyone who stands before him is a potential target. One should recall the tense grilling Tommy gives Henry over an off-hand remark: “What do you mean I’m funny? I’m a funny guy, you said it! What’s so fucking funny about me?” Jokes turned into insults; insults back into jokes. But the point at which this knowledge is suddenly testified is the chilling, sad moment of his death. It is also the point at which Tommy himself realizes this knowledge: he gets whacked precisely at the moment he opens.the door for his initiation as a mob chief, and all that he comes face to face with is an empty room.
If Tommy’s power resides outside of himself, Conway’s power, on the other hand, is inside him, in his being and what it can suggest. When we first meet Jimmy, unlike all the others gathered about the gambling house, he glides through the door in a blue shimmering suit. It is as though light emanates from his body. He gives out one hundred dollar bills for even the most insignificant of duties, and it is as if to touch him is to have some of his magic rub itself onto you. But this is also deceptive: Jimmy is as liberal with death as he is with his magic, with his charm. One of the most curious scenes having to do with his power is the scene where he suggests to Henry’s wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), that she pick out a Dior dress. It becomes such a menacing scene because of the gaping deception of where this man’s power resides. In a way, like Tommy, Conway’s power rests on the confusion of particular codes having to do with his expressions and gestures, again in the netherworld of uncertainty concerning his charm.
An essential condition of Scorsese’s films is that what we are watching seems to somehow unwind naturally and directly onto the screen from the consciousness of the central character. Given his voice-over narration, it would appear that Henry is at the centre of Goodfellas. Yet, in placing Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito together, there appears to be another centre, one that has all along the line displaced Henry. There are a number of instances one could cite. For example, there is the scene already mentioned of Tommy’s grilling Henry’ with his incessant questioning about being funny. No other central Scorseseian figure has suffered this indignity; it is usually the other way around. Then there is Jimmy’s very serious playing off of Henry’s position within the make-up of their friendship in a sort of game of inclusion and exclusion. This is certainly played out with Henry in regard to Morrie Kessler’s murder: setting up the hit with Henry, then cancelling it, in order to kill Morrie without Henry’s knowledge. In other words, for a man who is continually on the move, Henry is hardly the agent of that movement.
But there is one moment in particular that brings this out, and, yes, returns the audience to the opening sequence. It begins just before Tommy’s arrival at Henry’s bar, with Frankie Carbone, celebrating his return from prison, offering a drink to his “Irish friends”. Conway’s response is an innocently telling one: “There’s only one Irishman here.” Who, in the film’s scheme of things, could Conway be referring to but to Henry. But there is more. Characters appear to be forever making returns, for after Frankie has insulted Tommy with his “go get your fucking shine box”, Tommy returns to take his revenge. To the exclusion of Henry, it’s as if Conway implicitly knows of Tommy’s return, and awaits him, and both take out their revenge. Indeed, one could say this scene occurs as though Jimmy and Tommy have already planned the murderous scenario. It is also here that once again we come across Henry’s incredulous expression, not due to the brutality of Conway and DeVito’s violence, but at the moment DeVito, placing the tablecloths on the floor, utters the words, “I don’t want to get blood on your floor.” Where does this point to? Where else but die scene of Henry wrapping the man’s wound with aprons. But these two scenes do not belong to the same world. It is as though to re-confirm that the kind of world we have been watching through Henry’s eyes is a false one, an illusion.
There is only one place where Henry’s point of view can be reconciled with another’s. It is that of Karen’s. Their voice-overs are virtually identical, especially when their extraordinary life in the mob world is “all the more normal”. What could this be about but the sad truth that Henry and Karen are really normal and ordinary nobodies?
In the aftermath of Henry’s betrayal, there are three ways in which to read the ending of Goodfellas, all of them are complementary. The camera pans along a nondescript neighbourhood at ground level until it meets the figure of Henry walking out the front door to collect the morning paper. Here is the first way: Henry gazes out into the camera and our gaze meets his. He is our reflection: average nobodies. Where is his expression to be found? In the audience.
The second way: Henry’s gaze is also met with the image of the killer pointing his gun. By the codes of the mob, this image is the informant’s projection of his fear that there will always be a killer waiting no matter how well protected.
And the third: the image of the killer is that of Tommy DeVito. Once realized it is as if this image passes back over the film. It was a glorious time and now it is all over, and what Henry misses most is “the life”. Henry speaks about loss, but it is a loss which is also about our implication in Scorsese’s yearning to return and the impossibility of that return. As already stated, the get-together with old friends just isn’t the same. But with the image of Tommy, Henry’s loss is also speaking about his desire and our desire. It brings to mind one of die nobler dictums of the mob, put beautifully in the short story by Marotta, quoted at the beginning: “I have had friends for as long as I can remember and I hope it will be a friend who closes my eyes for me. ’’What is it that Henry says at one point? ‘They come with a smile, they come as your friend.”
CINEMA Papers, December 1990, Number 81, pp. 18-26