Note: I know, I know I’m behind: But I am going to catch up! You just watch me!
9/8. Goodfellas/Casino: Pistol whipped/Cornfields
Ladies and Gentlemen…Martin Scorsese.
The ranking on this list has taken an unfortunate turn because it seems incongruent to go from condemning the horror of violence to ‘Check out these cool beatings!’ in just a few days. Because let’s not mince words-These scenes are disturbing but I enjoy them. They work within the context of the stories they are telling. However I stand by the ranking of these individual moments. After all fiction often has more long term impact than real life pain simply because we need that detachment from the happenings on screen to really process what our subconscious is trying to sort out. The despicable realities of the evening news is not what really makes me tick creatively.
So we are back to fictional violence and of course, goes without saying really, I can appreciate beautifully choreographed cinematic beatings without wanting to grab a weapon and join in or suggest anyone should. The previous post was about cinematic recreations of senseless death and the horror of a real life tragedy. This? This is just about two scenes that made me go: ‘Oooh-that’s gotta hurt!’ in a terrible Brooklyn accent. Both Goodfellas and Casino stem from real life events but dramatic license has been heavily applied along with the use of the Animals version of House of the Rising Sun and a voice over that is halted by a surprise attack so I reserve the right to treat the material as entertainment more than a biographical account of true horror.
With that half hearted explanation out of the way let us look at Scorsese. Dude is a master story teller who has a way of presenting his subject matter free from judgement-He doesn’t tell you how to feel about them, what it is is just what it is. Goodfellas and Casino are kind of two sides of the same coin so it seemed appropriate to put them together. They both explore the world of the American gangster, just in different eras and settings. Goodfellas follows Henry Hill from the 1950’s to the 80’s as he works his way up the crime chain in New York while Casino charts the rise and fall of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein as he runs a top casino in Vegas in the 70’s on behalf of Chicago gangsters.
Both films follow a format: the beginning, the golden years, things start to go bad, things go really bad, things go really and truly actually tits up, the lead character ends up sort of not quite learning a lesson as he falls from the top with a thump. Along the way a story unfolds, using music, multiple character narration, attention to real life detail coupled with a wonderful disregard for continuity, more music, memorable dialogue, beautiful editing, some more music, time cuts, slow motion, freeze frame, panning shots, wonderful acting…and of course-lots and lots of violence. To an awesome soundtrack.
To be honest, I feel like the likes of the Saw movies and Wolf Creek have their place in cinema but the reason I am not a fan of stuff like Hostel is they seem to make the violence the condition when it should be a symptom. Fuck me that was a pretentious thought from a film where a guy tries to walk with his tendons cut. The sub genre of torture porn hasn’t ruined the usage of physical pain in films but it drags the art down a bit. If there is going to be blood, agony and terrible imagery splattering all over the screen it should know what it is trying to do and say.
If you think I’m being OTT you don’t realise how hard making a film is. It is a long frustrating process and whatever makes it to the final cut should be there for a damn good reason. Superfluous gore isn’t story telling. It is shlock. Scorsese may not be perfect but he is no hack: If shit goes down in his films, you really feel it. It has purpose, it has gravity, it has Joe Motherfucking Pesci.
Don’t move…He can’t see us if we don’t move…
Have you ever wished a three hour film was longer? God, I love these movies. To me, Goodfellas is the out and out leader of the gangster movie pack despite the love the Godfather movies have and the baffling fact there have been a lot of ‘Goodfellas VS Casino’ articles over the years. One is distinctly sloppier than the other (take the attempted murder that opens Casino: The change from actor to dummy is painfully clear…How did that even happen?) and just by virtue of coming out first when they are both so similar stylistically, Goodfellas feels fresher and more exciting.
I will never forget my first viewing of Goodfellas. It was a late night showing on channel 4 when I was about 15. I was alone in the house and it was a Friday night. I was very, very popular at school so all my friends had given me the night off so I could relax with a movie. I remember that even when the adverts came on I couldn’t move. I was so scared I was going to miss something. I couldn’t even sleep that night. Goodfellas and Scorsese had moved me in a way I had not expected. I was thrilled. Utterly thrilled. It is one of a handful of works of art that have made me feel lucky just to have seen it. I remember when Scorsese finally won an Oscar for directing, I stayed up late to ensure justice was done.
There are so many memorable moments in Goodfellas it seem wrong to only talk about one, short, brutally violent scene. But here we are. I don’t have too much to say about it either: It may be at the upper end of the list but there is no complicated reason-It just stuck with me is all.
Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill has a new girlfriend named Karen who is assaulted by her neighbour and long term admirer and Henry is not impressed. He gets out a gun-I thought I knew where the scene was going. He was going to scare him. With a gun. And be all like ‘I will shoot you if you don’t leave Karen alone.’ Or maybe even just shoot him. Then Henry walks up to him…that walk though…You just know SOMETHING is going down:
Every strike of the gun makes me wince even now…You really feel the pain in that beating. Of all the infamous moments of criminality in this film, you might be surprised I picked this one. But really, can you honestly tell me you don’t get it? There is something animalistic yet contained about Liotta’s work here. His performance is often overlooked due to the admittedly magnificent work of De Niro and Pesci but the dude works every single moment. Here his rage is untouchable. If you saw that guy coming across the street towards you, you would run the other way before you even saw the weapon. Unless you were the kind of knobhead that would try and square up to him. That sound of the gun making contact with the unlucky face of that particular knobhead still makes me go ‘ow’ every time I see it. Which is a lot. Cause Goodfellas is still my favourite film. And if a year goes past and I have not watched it then my soul might escape through my eyes.
Or Joe Pesci will play me his album. Or something.
I couldn’t not share this photo. Also the album is called ‘Little Joe Sure Can Sing’ You’re welcome.
On to Casino. This one is significantly more unpleasant so if you didn’t like the sight of a man getting a gun smashed in the kisser, you may want to skip the following scene. Also:
So the film is wrapping up and many of the characters are being killed off due to the big Bosses being on trial for bad behaviour. The old guys don’t just want to rely on the kindness of long time friends and companions and set to work whacking everyone who might provide evidence against them. All to the tune of the Animals version of ‘House of the Rising Sun.’
As the sequence draws to a close we catch up with Nicky Santora, played by Pesci as he and his crew meet out on the desert to handle some business-Only his narration gets cut off when he is suddenly attacked.
I still struggle to sit through this. You wait through the whole film for Nicky to get his but you wouldn’t wish this on your worst enemy. Hell, it is entirely possible that someone like Nicky could be your worst enemy. In a normal film, he would be simply the antagonist and nothing more. But in the world of Scorsese it is never that simple.
He is held up and forced to watch as his friends beat his younger brother to death with aluminium bats before it is his turn. Both brothers are stripped to their undies and dumped in a hole in the desert like many before them. Trouble is, they are still breathing as the burying begins. Again the sound is horrible, the brutality, the graphic bruises on their swollen bodies, the sight of Nicky gasping in dirt but the most uncomfortable thing of all is listening to the usually terrifying Nicky plead for the life of his sibling. Watching Pesci in this scene it is so unpleasant to see him weep for his brother, completely unable to do anything about their fates. It is a grim ending that does not get easier with repeated viewings especially watching him strut around Vegas like he owns it, knowing where it is all headed.
Hell it needs to be a brutal scene to be more disturbing than the bit where he and Sharon Stone make out.
Allow me to speak for us all: Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww
The only silver lining on these silver bats is the fact that the actor Frank Vincent is the one doing the swinging. Eagle eyed viewers (or frequenters of IMDB) will know that Frank gets beaten up not once but twice by Pesci in Scorsese films and it is quite nice to watch him finally take cinematic revenge in Casino. Kind of like watching a little kid who sucks at baseball finally hit a home run…By smashing one of the other kids to death.
A happy ending.
So is horrific aggression in films justified if it even leads one person to hurt another in order to replicate what they see on screen? There is that old saying about whether we want to live in a world with or without pyramids…They came about because of unthinkable abuse to people deemed slaves by the more powerful and people died so we could pose next to them on our gap years. But they are also beautiful and inspire awe in even the most cynical of people. So what is the solution to the conundrum that many of the best things in life come from human suffering?
Well I could live without pyramids. But I will not live in a world without the films of Martin Scorsese.
Tomorrow…A Policeman waits for God to provide and keeps on waiting…#7