THOSE AWARDS March 1994
Writing in late January, it is already too clear that the fix is in, even more than usual, on the Academy Awards. The earlier awards, of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Golden Globes of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and other lesser lights, have presaged the main event.
The Oscars have increasingly taken on the dimensions of a racket. Since the eligible movies are those that emerge at any point during the calendar year, and since the producers fully understand the minuscule attention span of the typical Academy dimwit, all the Big Pictures, calculated to appeal to said dimwit, are held back until December 30 or 31. As a result, the experts were confidently predicting awards in late December to movies that no one had yet seen. The major studios have always had special previews for Academy members (i.e., Oscar voters) for the pictures they are hyping for the awards; now, that has been supplemented by videocassettes expressed to the homes of each voter.
To the average Academy moron, the only movie deserving an award is that reeking with pretension: slow, ponderous, boring and therefore inevitably pregnant with what the “Saturday Night Live” comic calls “Deep Thoughts.” In recent decades, as Hollywood culture has gone sharply leftward, this has also meant a blend of leftish nihilism and what used to be called “social significance.” 1993 was a year even more nightmarish for these attributes than usual. As far as Big Movies go, it was year to head for the storm cellar.
If the Pretentious Pictures come out in late December, the early summer is the time for movies that people may actually enjoy: a time for the fun movie. Last summer, even I was lulled into a false sense of security, for the summer movies, in recent years strictly for the teenage monster-loving crowd, were in 1993 a relatively superior lot. The Fugitive, my own personal choice for Best Movie of the Year, was magnificent; in pace, timing, and tight editing a throwback to the great suspense and adventure movies of the past. It’s a taut thriller from beginning to end, with not a moment wasted. It’s one of the best films in many years. Other movies of last summer were not as superior, but still noteworthy, especially Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire, about a veteran Secret Service agent blocking the villainous John Malkovich from assassinating the president. Also excellent was Search for Bobby Fischer, an unusual film that catches the spirit of the chess world and centers on a remarkable child actor himself a chess prodigy. Further down the list but still worth seeing as what used to be called “good hot weather fare”: Jurassic Park, a fun movie if not taken seriously. (Can anyone imagine that billionaire Richard Attenborough and his team of crack scientists and computer mavens would construct a dinosaur park (a) in a hurricane belt, and (b) without a protective backup if the electrified fence went out?) Also Sleepless in Seattle, which however was a pathetically far cry from the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s it imitates. It’s one thing to meet by accident, lose your love, and then find her again; it’s quite another, however, to fall in love very intensely without ever having met. The movie also lacks the crackling wit that is usually the hallmark of director Nora Ephron.
But don’t worry: none of these movies will come anywhere near the Oscar bullseye. (Except for the marvelous actor, Tommy Lee Jones, who will get the Best Supporting Actor prize for The Fugitive when he really deserves Best Actor.) For, as we said, the fix is in, and the winners will be the most repellent lot of Politically Correct cinema in many a moon: Best Picture: Schindler’s List; Best Actor: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia; Best Actress: Holly Hunter in The Piano. Best Supporting Actress will probably be Winona Ryder, in the Age of Innocence, a movie which is indeed pretentious but not repellent, although La Ryder scarcely deserves the honor. The only suspense left in the Oscars is whether the sainted Steven Spielberg will get the Best Director spot for Schindler’s List. (The problem is that while the entire Academy votes for the other spots, only directors vote for Best Director, and the veteran schlockmeister Spielberg is less than popular with his peers.) The only other suspense at this writing is who will get the coveted spot as comic MC to keep the interminable award ceremony going, now that Billy Crystal has withdrawn after several years in the post.
Since I am not a professional movie critic I am not obliged to see what I know in advance I will dislike, so I haven’t seen either Schindler’s List or Philadelphia. Schindler’s List is a movie which has become not only Politically Incorrect but even taboo to be less than worshipful about, since it purports to enable us, for the umpteenth time, to Learn About The Holocaust (the latter term always capitalized to emphasize its solemnity and to assert its Absolute Uniqueness in the grisly world historical record of mass murder).
And yet anyone who tries to Learn About History by going to a Hollywood movie deserves to have his head examined. Did we really learn the true story of Moses by watching Charlton Heston, or by seeing the great Yul Brynner, as Pharaoh, say finally, in his Siberian accent, after being visited by the plagues, “Go, Moses, take your people and go”? Or did we learn the facts about the monster Cromwell by seeing Richard Harris in the hagiographical movie of the same name? And yet, we are supposed to sit respectfully and in awe, as if we were in church, for over three hours, to watch what is admittedly a fictionalized version of a novel, and to act as if this is new and shattering History we are imbibing! While Thomas Keneally’s novel was fiction loosely based on fact, the Spielberg movie is far more loosely grounded fiction based on the shaky foundation of a novel: fiction-squared, so to speak. Also the idea that a German concentration camp commandant would shoot prisoners at random with a rifle, just for the sport, goes against everything we know about German military discipline or about the way any large concentration camp has to be run. These dramatic scenes in the movie, of course, have no grounding in historical fact whatever.
Apart from that, watching a concentration camp for three hours is not exactly my idea of a fun evening at the theater; anyone who enjoys watching concentration camps is better advised to watch the French film Shoah, which is a full nine-and-a-half hours long, to be topped off by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s absurdist seven-hour German film, Our Hitler. Then, if your appetite for watching Nazis hasn’t yet been slaked, you can segue to the fifteen-and-a-half hour German film Heimat. And then, maybe, as they say these days, we “can put it all behind us,” and get on to other topics. Or is that too much to ask?
And yet, the only criticism of the film has come from reviewers who claim that the movie is not pro-Jewish or anti-Gentile enough, since the protagonist Oskar Schindler, a contractor who saved Jews in his employ, was a Gentile. At this point it is difficult to see how Schindler could have been made to be Jewish, since if he were he would undoubtedly have been an inmate of the camp rather than a contractor.
The idea that watching Schindler’s List should be treated as a religious experience led to an amusing culture clash in Oakland, California (L.A. Times, January 21). In celebration of Martin Luther King Day, a group of black high school students in Oakland were shepherded to see a showing of the movie, presumably to Uplift them from their usual movie fare. The result: disaster. The kids acted the way they usually do in a movie: making noise, laughing and giggling in the wrong parts, generally not treating the picture with the reverence that the more elderly folk there thought it deserved.
As a result, as the theater owner puts it, “About 30 outraged patrons poured into the lobby, complaining about the derisive laughter and offensive comments during the atrocities when Jews were murdered on screen. I’ve never seen such furious, hurt customers. Some were Holocaust survivors and one woman was sobbing.” The owner thereupon stopped the movie, and ordered all the high school students ejected.
The four teacher-chaperons who had herded the kids there were themselves outraged at the ejection. One, Dean of Students Tanya Dennis, claimed that the students were “evicted unfairly, with no warning,” and she hinted that the cause was racism: “Some elderly white people were wondering what black kids were doing at the movie. Our kids have seen more violence and suffered more oppression than these people.”
Perhaps the most interesting defense of the young lads and lasses was by one of their chaperons, math teacher Aaron Grumet, who, according to the L.A. Times, had “lost relatives in the Holocaust.”
“Most of my students have seen people shot, so they laughed when the shooting didn’t look realistic. They’re not Afro-American kids laughing at Jewish horror, they’re the inner-city, hip-hop generation, desensitized to violence because they see it everyday.”
So what does Spielberg expect, if he won’t make shooting scenes sufficiently realistic?
Shalon Paige, aged 14, one of the black students in question, set forth the student point of view: “When the Jewish girl got shot in the head, she moved weird so some kids laughed. They didn’t have to kick nobody out. Maybe they’re so upset at us, prejudiced because they’re white.” Ms. Paige went on to explain the student disaffection: “They didn’t want to see a three-hour movie in black-and-white. We don’t know about the war. It was long ago and far away and about people we never met.” So much for History! Other students explained that the only reason they went on the field trip was because it included ice skating afterward, and many of them took the opportunity to duck out of Schindler’s List and sneak into the adjoining Pelican Brief and Grumpy Old Men. Smart kids, even though budding historians they ain’t!
As for Philadelphia, what do you need to know about it except that its hero, Tom Hanks, is an AIDS Victim?
This brings me to The Piano, a movie which I fell into in a weak moment. The Piano is far and away the Worst Movie I have seen in many years, perhaps since what may well be the Worst Movie of All Time, the absurdist-nihilist Fellini monstrosity, Juliet of the Spirits (1965). (Note: to qualify as a Worst Movie, it has to reek of pretension and deliberate boredom: therefore, Grade Z movies such as the latest teenage monster movie don’t even begin to qualify.) The Piano has no redeeming feature: it is excruciatingly slow and boring; it seems to have been filmed in muddy brown, so that it could just as well have been in black-and-white; it is irrational and absurdist, with characters either having no discernible motivation or changing their motivations on a dime. And Holly Hunter, putative Best Actress of the Year, who has always been an irrational non-actress, reaches a nadir here, her ugly lantern-jawed face made even uglier by being framed by a black bonnet, and her face fixed in an unvarying expression of grim hostility. She is also accompanied by a daughter, conceived without benefit of a husband, of about twelve, who is equally ugly and also framed by a black bonnet, and who is also unusually irritating for a kid actor. (Kid actress might even cap the horror by winning the Best Supporting Actress award.)
Hunter is supposed to have come from Scotland to New Zealand as a mail-order bride to what might be called a “planter,” except he and his tiny community seem to spend all their time wandering through the jungle. Hunter and many of the other migrs are saddled with a phony Scottish burr so thick that it is difficult to make out much of the dialogue. (Considering the nature of the dialogue, however, that’s probably a blessing.)
Crucial to the “plot” is the fact that Hunter is mute. Why is she mute? As she points out in her voice over narration, she stopped talking at the age of six with no idea why. So much for the comprehensibility of these besotted characters. The film critics, who, naturally, have all gone bananas over The Piano, gush about the fact that Hunter “expresses herself through her music,” her music being the piano in question. Unfortunately, we hear a lot of her piano playing in the movie. Hunter, of course, played the piano herself (there was no dubbing in of Van Cliburn or his moral equivalent), and it shows. Let’s face it, Holly Hunter is a lousy pianist, and without benefit of this excruciating movie, she would not have the opportunity of foisting her lack of musicianship upon the long-suffering public. But this is by no means all: the time is supposed to be around the 1840s. OK, there was a lot of great piano music current in that era. So is she playing Chopin, or Schumann, and at least giving us a glorious soundtrack? Not on your tintype. What she plays is newly composed New Age noodling, sans rhythm, melody, or structure. So much for the authenticity of this film.
And now we come to the toperoo of this move. The directress of this movie. The directress of the film is the New Zealander Jane Campion, and one of the reasons this movie has been getting a fantastic press is because: “At last! Now the movies are displaying feminist eroticism.” And on and on, about how erotic and “sexy” The Piano is supposed to be.
Puh-leeze! Emetic, not erotic, is the proper term. About the only character in the movie who both acts well and whose motives are comprehensible is Sam Neill, the unfortunate husband, who is so Insensitive and Male Oppressive that he actually is interested in sleeping with his bride. Naturally, La Hunter is as surly as possible, and instead falls into a relationship with a thuggish, beer-belly Harvey Keitel (“How wonderful it is to see a naked male body that is not ideal!”). Keitel, even though another jungle-walking “planter,” has Gone Native, hangs around with dancing, happy Maoris, and has gotten his ugly puss covered with some kind of Aborigine Tattoo or Paint or who knows what. Keitel manages to win Hunter’s favors in an elaborate kind of S-M game, where he will sell her back the Piano, which he, and not the husband, had paid the Maoris to cart through the woods to his hut, one “black key” at a time, in exchange for various degrees of seduction. Neill is also Insensitive enough to become enraged when he finds that his bride was fooling around with Keitel rather than himself.
In the end, the two “lovers” go off in a Maori canoe, carting the grotesque Grand Piano with them. For some unexplained reason, Hunter, who had spent the entire movie moping about her beloved piano, suddenly decides to tell the Abos to toss the piano overboard. Her foot gets caught in the rope, drowning along with her damned piano. Unfortunately, however, even that small moment of delight was denied me, and she is rescued.
The famous erotic scene of the two principals naked is enough to get almost anyone to swear off pornography. Holly Hunter in addition to her pointy jaw, has shoulders like a linebacker, and she behaves just as grimly in the allegedly joyful sex scene as she does in the rest of the picture.
One of the many puzzling aspects of The Piano, indeed, is why two grown men spend so much of their time lusting after La Hunter. At first it seems that she is the only female in the region, except that’s not true either, since there is a pointless skit put on at a church by some British settlers. But even if she was the only female, and even if Neill and Keitel’s sensibilities had been dulled by years in the jungle, their enthusiasm for Hunter remains one of the unexplained, irrational motivations in The Piano.
As I said, The Piano has no redeeming feature whatever. Except for poor Sam Neill, who deserves far better things (Neill was Reilly in that grand British TV miniseries, “Reilly, Ace of Spies”), everyone connected with this picture: La Campion, the actors, the costumer, the cinematographer, the whole kit and kaboodle, should have been drowned along with The Piano.
Directed by Guiseppe Tornatore with Philippe Noiret
Long-time readers know that I am decidedly not a fan of foreign language movies: not because it is a chore to read subtitles, but because they are invariably horrible examples of aggressively avant-garde, anti-bourgeois cinema. Hating as “commercial” movies that appeal to the average movie-goer, the foreign movie-maker proclaims his superior esthetic sensibility by scorning interesting plot, tight writing and directing, meaningful dialogue, glamorous photography, or colorful settings. Instead, the typical foreign movie has zero plot, minimal dialogue, and wastes enormous amounts of time on close-ups of the brooding actors’ gloomy faces, all seemingly photographed in the midst of some dark and dank box. The ineffable and pointless boredom of these motion pictures are apparently supposed to embody the alleged boredom of bourgeois life. In actuality, it is not life, but these infernal movies, that both embody and induce boredom.
The trouble, however, is not with foreigners per se. Italians and Frenchmen, for example, would rather and do spend their time watching Dallas and Clint Eastwood than waste their time and money watching their compatriots’ crummy movies. Moreover, it was not always thus. Jean Renoir, the wonderful 1930s French movies featuring Raimu, and much of the modern work of Eric Rohmer demonstrate that the problem is not with the nationality or language, but with the depraved riffraff who make today’s foreign movies.
But once in a while there comes a shining exception to the rule. In addition to granting Driving Miss Daisy its best picture award for 1989, the Motion Picture Academy gave its foreign-language movie Oscar to Guiseppe Tornatore’s lovely, charming, funny, and heart-warming (as well as heart-breaking) Cinema Paradiso. Disappearing fairly quickly from the screen the first time around, it came back in wake of the award. Go see it: it’s the best foreign-language movie in many a year, and splendid in its own right.
Cinema Paradiso is a heart-felt autobiographical valentine by director and screen-writer Tornatore to the small town in Sicily in which he grew up during and after World War II. The movie is a rich tapestry of life in the Sicilian town, a town without cars or means of entertainment except the local cinema, where everyone crowds in to see the latest Italian or Hollywood product. The central character Salvatore, marvelously played for most of the film by a child actor, is fascinated by the life of the projectionist, the center of movie magic. The projectionist, Alfredo, magnificently played by the great French actor Philippe Noiret, reluctantly becomes a mentor to the boy, whose father had been killed in the war. The local priest views all the movies first, censoring out the – horrors! – kissing scenes, which Alfredo lovingly clips out and saves.
When, over a decade later, the movie theater burns down, a large shining new theater is built, funded by a Neapolitan who had just won the lottery. (As one local complains: “Those Northerners have all the luck!”) In the new dispensation, the local priest no longer has censoring rights, and the local youth go bananas at the love scenes: “Kissing! After thirty years!” Loving the now grown boy, and blinded during the fire, Alfredo orders Salvatore to leave the stifling atmosphere of the Sicilian town, which has allowed him no real life and to go seek his life and fortune in Rome, never to look back.
The death of Alfredo, however, inexorably draws Salvatore, thirty years later and famous as a movie director in Rome, back to his home town for his funeral. He finds enormous change; the town, now packed with automobiles and TV sets, has no more use for the movie theater, which is being torn down for a parking lot. I won’t give away the climactic discovering of Alfredo’s carefully wrought final present for Salvatore, but suffice it to say that it’s at least a two-handkerchief (decidedly non-avant-garde) ending. Don’t miss it!
Directed by Martin Scorsese, with Robert DeNiro
Hollywood has brought us two great, romantic genres, two forms of movies where the war of good versus evil could play itself out against a background of an entire complex fictive world grounded in a present or past reality. In this world, coherent action and struggle can emerge dramatically by heroes, villains, their rank and file supporters, and by innocents caught in the crossfire. The first classic genre was, of course, the Western: epitomized in Stagecoach, the great John Wayne movies, and countless others (one of my favorites: the long-forgotten The Bounty Hunter, in which Henry Fonda heroically plays a privatized and highly effective law enforcer hated – naturally – both by the villains and by the sheriffs and deputies whom he outcompetes for far higher pay). Unfortunately, the Western movie is no more, felled perhaps by endless and unimaginative repetition, but possibly, too, by the dogged leftist insistence in the later Westerns for the Indians to be the Good Guys and the whites the Bad. Look, fellas, it doesn’t matter what the literal historical truth may or may not have been; the leftist reversal – the insistence on destroying familiar heroes – simply don’t work, it didn’t scan, and it helped destroy the Western genre.
The more recent innovative Hollywood genre, ranking with the Western, is the Mafia movie: the clash of heroes and villains against a mythic but reality-grounded world, updated to twentieth-century America. Some of the great directors have contributed gems to this genre. John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, playing off Jack Nicholson and the incomparable Kathleen Turner, was marvelous. But the great classic, the definitive, superb Mafia movie was The Godfathers I and II, in which Francis Ford Coppola poured out a work of genius, grounded in his own and novelist Mario Puzo’s cultural history, which he has never approached since.
The Godfathers were perfection: an epic world, a world of drama and struggle, tautly organized and memorably written, beautifully and broodingly photographed, in which greed struggled with the great virtues of loyalty to the famiglia.
The key to The Godfathers and to success in the Mafia genre is the realization and dramatic portrayal of the fact that the Mafia, although leading a life outside the law, is, at its best, simply entrepreneurs and businessmen supplying the consumers with goods and services of which they have been unaccountably deprived by a Puritan WASP culture.
The unforgettable images of mob violence juxtaposed with solemn Church rites were not meant, as left-liberals would have it, to show the hypocrisy of evil men. For these Mafiosi, as mainly Italian Catholics, are indeed deeply religious; they represent one important way in which Italian Catholics were able to cope with, and make their way in, a totally alien world dominated by WASP Puritan insistence that a whole range of products eagerly sought by consumers be outlawed.
Hence the systemic violence of Mafia life. Violence, in The Godfather films, is never engaged in for the Hell of it, or for random kicks; the point is that since the government police and courts will not enforce contracts they deem to be illegal, debts incurred in the Mafia world have to be enforced by violence, by the secular arm. But the violence simply enforces the Mafia equivalent of the law: the codes of honor and loyalty without which the whole enterprise would simply be random and pointless violence.
In many cases, especially where “syndicates” are allowed to form and are not broken-up by government terror, the various organized syndicates will mediate and arbitrate disputes, and thereby reduce violence to a minimum. Just as governments in the Lockean paradigm are supposed to be enforcers of commonly-agreed-on rules and property rights, so “organized crime,” when working properly, does the same. Except that in its state of illegality it operates in an atmosphere charged with difficulty and danger.
It is interesting to observe the contrasting attitudes of our left-liberal culture to the two kinds of crime, organized versus unorganized. Organized crime is essentially anarcho-capitalist, a productive industry struggling to govern itself; apart from attempts to monopolize and injure competitors, it is productive and non-aggressive. Unorganized, or street, crime, in contrast, is random, punkish, viciously aggressive against the innocent, and has no redeeming social feature. Wouldn’t you know, then, that our leftist culture hates and reviles the Mafia and organized crime, while it lovingly excuses, and apologizes for, chaotic and random street punksviolence which amounts to “anarchy” in the bad, or common meaning. In a sense, street violence embodies the ideal of left-anarchism: since it constitutes an assault on the rights of person and property, and on the rule of law that codifies such rights.
One great scene in The Godfather embodies the difference between right and left anarchism. One errant, former member of the Corleone famiglia abases himself before The Godfather (Marlon Brando). A certain punk had raped and brutalized his daughter. He went to the police and the courts, and the punk was, at last, let go (presumably by crafty ACLU-type lawyers and a soft judicial system). This distraught father now comes to Don Corleone for justice.
Brando gently upbraids the father: “Why didn’t you come to me? Why did you go to The State?” The inference is clear: the State isn’t engaged in equity and justice; to obtain justice, you must come to the famiglia. Finally, Brando relents: “What would you have me do?” The father whispers in the Godfather’s ear. “No, no, that is too much. We will take care of him properly.” So not only do we see anarcho-capitalist justice carried out, but it is clear that the Mafia code has a nicely fashioned theory of proportionate justice. In a world where the idea that the punishment should fit the crime has been abandonedand still struggled over by libertarian theoristsit is heart-warming to see that the Mafia has worked it out in practice.
And now, weighing in, in the Mafia sweepstakes, comes a much acclaimed new entrant: Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. This repellent and loathsome movie, much acclaimed by all of our left-liberal critics (including a rave review in the Marxist weekly In These Times), is as far removed from The Godfather, in style, content, writing, direction, and overall philosophy as it is possible to be.
Instead of good versus bad entrepreneurs, all working and planning coherently and on a grand scale, GoodFellas is peopled exclusively by psychotic punks, scarcely different from ordinary, unorganized street criminals. The violence is random, gratuitous, pointless, and psychotic; everyone, from the protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liota) on down is a boring creep; there is no one in this horde of “wiseguys” or “goodfellas” that any member of the viewing audience can identify with. The critics all refer to the psycho gang member Tommy (Joe Pesci), but what they don’t point out is that everyone else in the gang, including the leader Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) is almost as fully deranged.
When Tommy kills friends or colleagues pointlessly, Jimmy and the others are delighted and are happy to cover-up for him. All of these goons are ultra-high-time preference lowlifes: their range of the future approximates ten minutes, in contrast to the carefully planned empire-building of The Godfather. Conway, after pulling off a multi-million dollar heist at Kennedy Airport, shoots all of his colleagues to grab all the money. This sort of behavior, as well as the random violence of Tommy, would put these guys out of business within weeks in any real Mafia organization worth its salt. Street punk short-term greed and whim-worship would get you killed in short order.
Since there are no good guys among the GoodFellas, the audience doesn’t care what happens to them; indeed, one wishes them all to meet their just deserts as quickly as possible, so that the movie will be over. The rest of the film is as odious as the central theme; the direction, as in all of Scorsese, is edgy, hurky-jerky, quasi-psychotic; the photography, in contrast to the epic brooding of Godfather, is light, open and airy, totally out of keeping with the theme. The writing is flat and pointless. Great actors like DeNiro are wasted in the movie. And the much-praised Don in the film, Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) is grimly quiet and slow moving, but he too is pointless and his role ineffectual, and therefore he fails as any sort of menace.
Contrast the ways in which Godfather and GoodFellas handle a common theme: the attempt of the leading Don to keep away from traffic in drugs, and the destruction wrought by succumbing to the temptation. In Godfather, one Mafia leader of the old school clearly and eloquently rejects traffic in drugs as immoral, in contrast to other venerable goods and services, such as liquor, gambling and “loan sharking.” “Leave drugs to the animals – the niggers – they have no souls,” he admonished. (All right, I never said that the Mafiosi were racially enlightened.) Here is a powerful and dramatic theme of keeping the old Mafia moral code as against the temptation of making a great deal of money in a technologically innovative field.
But how in contrast does GoodFellas handle this conflict? Don Cicero simply orders his gang to stay out of drugs, pointing only to the stiff sentences the Feds were handing out. And whereas in Godfather, everyone knows that disobedience to the Don will bring swift retribution, Conway, Hill and the other wiseguys disobey Don Cicero and nothing happens to them. What kind of Don is that?
Clearly, the critics admire and apologize for the left-anarchic punks of GoodFellas the way they could never admire the Mafiosi of the Godfather, despite the universal respect for the older movie’s technical brilliance. Alas, the corrupt nihilist value-system of avant-garde left-liberalism relates happily to the value-system of the deranged GoodFellas. “This,” say these critics contentedly of the world of the GoodFellas, “is what life is all about. Godfather romanticizes life (and is therefore wrong).”
Will GoodFellas succeed in wrecking the Mafia genre, the best Hollywood discovery since the death of the Western? There is hope, on two counts. First, I would point out that these punks are not true Mafia; they were never “made” by the Mafia families. These are riffraff, hangers-on, lowlifes compared to the epic grandeur of the world of the Mafia. In fact, in the only act of violence that makes sense in the entire movie, the only one that is not pointless and that is eminently justified, the rotten and demented Tommy gets his just deserts at the hands of the genuine Mafia. Told that he will at last achieve his life-long goal of being “made” by a Mafia family, the monster Tommy reaps his just reward. Bang, bang!
The other ray of hope is that, at long last, and after two decades, Godfather, Part III is scheduled to hit the screens around Christmas. What a Christmas gift! The whole crew is back, older and perhaps wiser, continuing the great saga of the Corleone family. The only hitch is that the superb Robert Duvall, one of the great actors of our time and Mr. Consiglieri himself, asked for too much money and therefore could not be included in the picture. But that’s OK. If luck is with us, Godfather III will restore our vision of what a Mafia film is supposed to look like. Make way, riffraff of the Scorsese famiglia! The true Don, Corleone, is back, and you, like your creature and comrade Tommy, are going to reap your just reward.
Directed and written by Whit Stillman
Social realism, we sometimes forget, does not have to be about the poor, the underclass, or upwardly mobile immigrants. Social realism, even in New York City, can be about the glamorous, wealthy, preppie Upper East Side. In this lovely gem of a movie, this low-budget “sleeper,” Whit Stillman, in his first film, brings us a sweet, affectionate, autobiographical valentine about WASP preppie youth in New York. Not since George Roy Hill’s wonderfully and hilarious The World of Henry Orient (1964) has the preppie/deb life been so perceptively and admirably portrayed.
Realistically but affectionately, Stillman shows us a slice of life during Christmas week, when the life of these college freshmen and sophomores is one continuous round of expansive deb parties followed by all-night flirtations and bull-sessions. As one reviewer marveled: these people speak in whole sentences! Yes indeed, they are articulate, concerned about ideologies, the future of their class (or whether it should have a future!), about their own lives, and the intellectuals among them about literature and culture. All this recalls the days not only of my own youth, but also of all generations of youth until the cultural cataclysm of the late 1960s. But the most heartwarming aspect of this sketch of college youth today is the sweetness and fundamental innocence of these young people. The one girl in the group who sleeps around is known to one and all as “the slut,” and it is gloriously as if the various phases of the Sexual Revolution had never happened. The Old Culture still lives and this fact gives all of us hope for the future of America.
Not, of course, that the Old Culture is or was problem-free. Many of these young people come from broken if upper-class homes, and suffer from paternal-and-stepmother rejection. But they cope with these problems as best they can, with sweetness, determination, and wit. The amiable, earnest, and artless hero, living in relative penury on the dclass West Side (the only spot in the film that looks – realistically – grubby), is a particularly touching case of such rejection.
This hero, by the way, begins this Christmas week as a seemingly dedicated Fourierite socialist, but at the end of the week and the film, agrees with his new-found friend: “Who wants to live on a farm with a bunch of other people, anyway?”
The photography is superb: never has the Upper East Side looked so sparkling and glamorous; the only analogue is those wonderful Art Deco Park Avenue apartments of 1930s movies, replete with 50-foot ballrooms, alluring gowns, seltzer bottles on the sideboard, and Fred and Ginger doing a turn. Here was a New York that served as a beacon and a Mecca for decades of American youth. The 30s effect is enhanced by the camera direction. Stillman writes that a low-budget required him to go back to the stationary cameras of that Golden Age, and to do so without the self-conscious preening swoops and zooms of modern cinematography, gimmicks that mainly serve to call attention to the camera itself rather than to the life and the action on the screen. Budget or no, the technique fits extremely well and becomes part of the overall magic of this movie.
If you want to imbibe some hope about the future of American youth and culture, rush to see this film before it disappears amidst the welter of contemporary glitz, grunt, and gore. And who knows, one muses on leaving Metropolitan, maybe even New York City, that once wonderful Babylon-on-the-Hudson, can one day be brought back to life.