03/09/2016

Goodfellas - Why We Love This Movie

Thoughts On: Goodfellas

Henry Hill's rise to and fall from a life of luxury, crime and fear as a wiseguy.


Another one of my all time favourites. But, who doesn't love this film? Who can in all seriousness watch this movie and not get sucked in, not feel like they would maybe want to be a gangster - at least until the third act? If you're raising your hand, well, I don't know... fuck you, you special, special snowflake. To all the sane people, what makes this film great is of course a combination of many things, of great acting, great writing and an insane basis of a true story. But, to me, what really pushes this film over the edge is Scorsese's direction. And no, I'm not about to finger myself over that one long shot, or the editing around the helicopter sequence. There's an awful lot more to Goodfellas than those two sparkling moments. So, the best way to sum up Scorsese's direction of this film is to compare it to some of Hitchcock's best works (Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho) and then inject some subtle class, a pinch of anti-hero and a whole heap of not giving a shit. To explain, Hitchcock is of course renowned for his philosophy of direction being tantamount to a conductor in front of an orchestra.


He compares close-ups, inserts, big images, to huge beats, blares of trumpets, the apex of a crescendo, whilst smaller images, slower movement, wider angles to a tremolo, a swell of notes, the beginnings of a crescendo. Scorsese does the same thing by emphasising certain images like money going into pockets, guns spilling bullets across a floor, rage livening the faces of murderers. But, unlike Hitchcock, Scorsese plays with a constant base line that charges forward at 200bpm. In respect to camera movement, Hitchcock is playing slow blues whilst Scorsese hammers out pounding thrash metal. We see this in the scene transitions with audio dictated cuts (transitions on the beat of a closing door) forever sweeping and panning scene openings as well as dramatic dolly forwards, zooms, sprints into focus and action. It's in this respect that we can see Scorsese's direction as somewhat Hitchcockian as he's playing  a composition to an audience at 24 frames per second (sometimes less with his slow-mos and freeze frames). But, not only is his camera movement invigorated by the hurtling pace of Henry's life, it's imbued with the nuance of character created atmosphere. All I mean to say by this is that a character's perspective hugely controls how an audience sees a film. With us put in a space with a group of well-written gangsters, our morality levels drop. It's as simple as that. We can watch Joe Pesci stab a guy time and time again, watch Ray Liotta do blow, cheat on his wife, beat her, watch a bunch of criminals cheat the justice system and somehow find ourselves on their side.

This is an interesting psychological effect of anti-heroes on an audience. We see their dominance (physical or mental), their likeability, slight vulnerability, human intent, their connection to us and we choose to join their group, to leech off of their stature, to feel a smidgen of what they feel. This is a huge factor of why we all love this movie, but let's get back on track to Scorsese's direction. With the atmosphere that characters create comes an aspect of control. The best two examples I could use here to explain would be The Godfather and Sicario:

  

It's the calm, cool performances of Brando, Pacino and del Toro that instate their control over the narrative, making them the domineering forces in scenes like the opening conversation of The Godfather...


... the interrogation in Sicario...


... and in the early table scene with Kay...


... it's these scenes that put us under their control. The same can be said for the V.O in A Clockwork Orange, just like it can Goodfellas. And once control is given to bad guys we're into their world, we believe in them and trust them to take us through a narrative. However, this atmosphere created by characters isn't directly down to writing or acting. In fact, it has an awful lot to do with who's behind the camera. The director, whether it be Coppola, Kubrick, Villeneuve or Scorsese present dominant characters through an emphasis of their blocking. So, if we look at the shot of Kay and Michael, Coppola is using colour and framing to emphasise the social exchange of the conversation. It's the bright, soft light directed onto Kay as well as the lighter more vibrant colours of her dress that force the focus of an audience onto her emotive epicentre - her face. It's in this singular frame that we know she is paying attention to Michael, that she is interested in what he is telling her (essentially that his father is murderer). But, it's not just Kay being the focus of the shot that tells the audience something. In fact, this shot says a lot more about Michael than it does Kay. Michael is dressed in his dark uniform with the light allowed to hit his back, his face to be turned away, the majority of his front to be doused in shadow. What's most poetic about this shot is the way Michael holds her hand. Not only does this show his multi-faceted intentions with her (of control and love) but we see how she's consumed by his darkness. And it's in later scenes of The Godfather that we see the control demonstrated at this table to contribute greatly to his rise to the head of his family.



In other words, the table scene foreshadows a lot about Michael's character, about how his reservedness, his strange relationships with those close to him, will later have him fold to the world of organised crime as well as never be able to free himself from it.

This demonstration of power, of control and of reserve is dominant across a huge swath of characters. Michael Corleone is probably the best example of this, but as said, so are Vito Corleone and Alejandro (Sicario). It's their presented personas shown dominantly through small character scenes drenched in drama that dictate how we feel about them. However, there's something huge that separates The Godfather from Goodfellas, and that's the viewing experience. The Godfather is a calculated masterpiece, cryptic, concentrated and deadly. Goodfellas is chaos, it's fun, it's excess and exuberance and then a whole lot of reality thrown under the sudden and pitch shadow of looming danger. What scenes, moments and characters from Sicario and The Godfather say about Goodfellas is of what Henry avoids, about his reversed perspective of violence as something acceptable, funny, almost legitimate. So, if you take the talk between Michael and Kay, you can see a scene meant to demonstrate Michael's controlled persona as well as foreshadow his hubris. This scene fundamentally sets up Michael's intentions to stay away from gangsters. What's intriguing is when you compare these scenes to their polar opposite:



The formative scenes of Henry's character linger on similar themes to that of The Godfather. There's an idea of trust, family and respect. Whereas Michael and Vito are on the 'higher ground' in their scenes, Henry is always learning, always the guy a step or two behind, a rung or two below on the ladder. Scorsese emphasises this just as Coppola does - with framing and colour composition. Henry is almost always shrunk into the frame, slightly lost, slightly isolated, always on the brink of danger. The 'How am I funny?' scene is the clearest example of this.


Scorsese builds around the mid-shot of Henry. He surrounds him with faces watching and reacting to his dialogue with Tommy and then he covers many of his expressions/gestures with the table and muted red lamp in the foreground. What's most important about this shot is the darkened back of Tommy, watching, waiting, testing, threatening. This is so important because close-ups in dialogue are their to show control and to strengthen a singular character's emotions - and to the audience alone. Dreyer most famously did this throughout his masterful, The Passion of Joan of Arc:


The close-up talks straight to the audience, and with a combination of great acting, writing and editing, a poignant close-up is practically a break of the fourth wall. It says very explicitly: look at this, feel this--and do it now. A mid-shot does something much more subtle and much more devicive.


With Tommy's back to us, but Henry's reaction being our focus, Tommy is made the domineering figure, we know Henry talks to him alone, there is no break of the fourth wall, he cannot speak to us, he wants help but we can only look on and watch him squirm. This combined with the line of the foreground cutting across him, slicing his mid-sot in half, makes sure we know he is trapped. The added greatness of this shot is the surrounding faces. We are made to see that Henry is trapped through social means, through his peers, their exploitation and their ulterior motive. To wrap this frame up Scorsese overlays an incredibly expressive colour scheme. He almost always uses earthy, muted colours. What this does is darken the frame, but also make it warmer. This is a very important aspect of why we are so easily immersed in this film. When we get intimate with characters (in scenes like this one) we are pushed into spaces that are kind of like our own bedrooms. By this I mean for you to picture your bedroom at night as you're in bed or just about to get in. The lights are off, everything is dark, warm, secluded, but comfortable. We are comfortable because our pupils are allowed to relax, deal with less light, less imagery, less information to track. However, this is a precarious kind of comfort - as all horror movies demonstrate - but handled well, a darker colour scheme can really settle you into a location or scene. Red as a recurring hue that fits into Goodfellas' colour scheme is probably the most expressive colour - it's also another reference to Hitchcock and Vertigo.


Crimson is often allowed to swell over the screen, wash frames over with an implication of danger and outright violence. The expressive nature of this can be seen when you compare the colour composition here with that of The Godfather...



Notice how the colour schemes are very similar, but keep their own personal nuance. Red is a colour that slots into Coppola's frame through lights in the background, a singular dress, or a flower on a suit jacket. Scorsese pushes red to the foreground, often allowing its spectra to wash over the screen providing a warmth with the undertones of danger and grime.




Hitchcock makes a point of using this colour to the same effect (implying danger). But, where the nuance comes in, the style of the directors and stories comes to fruition, is of course with the respective applications. Hitchcock is explicit in his colouration, Coppola sneaky, Scorsese subtle. This is because Hitchcock tells thrilling stories with expressive and emotive cinematic language. Coppola tells a story of rumbling violence, of hidden organised crime, giving reason as to why his malicious cues are concealed. Scorsese embraces the violence, he juxtaposes this shot...


... with Henry's reasoning for why he wants to be a gangster (the backstory) and the infamous 'as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster'. What this does is demonstrate Scorsese's use of colour as a device in between Hitchcock's and Coppola's. He does not condemn violence explicitly, or use danger as a means of bringing an audience to the edge of their seat, neither does he have it buried in themes of family, of respect and of business. Violence and the threat of danger are fun until they simply aren't anymore in Goodfellas. This is what the frames washed in red tell the viewer, they settle us into the violence, make it enjoyable, make it poignant, but only to a point, so that whilst the shootings, the robberies, the beat downs aren't something like infamous scenes from Drive and Irreversible...



... they still hold weight, but a gravitas that supports the power of our anti-heroes. It's then colour composition and certain pieces of framing that recur throughout the film that supply visual cues or settings that put us inside the world of gangsters, gangsters that for the most part are having a great time. But, taking a step back, there's more to be said about the character of Henry and a few opening scenes.



Henry is almost never the controlling figure in a scene, and this is ensured through direction, by shrinking Henry in a frame, immersing him into a world to a level we know is too deep, by constantly demonstrating that he's never the one who dictates. That's why these formative scenes of his character are centred on Henry's father and what becomes his father-figure along with the gang that becomes his adopted family. It's their faces, their voices, their ideas that always ring over Henry's presence. Just look at the poster:


Henry is not central despite being the lead character. In fact, De Niro's performance is almost tertiary, nonetheless, his presence is allowed to stand before Liotta's. You could make the argument that De Niro is only front and centre because he's the driving star-power of this film, which is completely true, but this only strengthens my point. Scorsese cast characters of lesser importance to the protagonist with much stronger screen presences to ensure Henry never seemed like the commanding factor in this film (despite it being his story). I mean, just look at Pesci. We all know he's not that tall...


... yet he's put on the same level as Henry. This subjugation is a great means of making Henry almost an underdog, a great means of putting him on the same level of the audience which contributes ten-fold to why we love this film. We feel comfortable in his presence. This is what direction around scenes like this...





... ensure. That is not to say that Henry is always made out to be weak...


,,, just made to seem weak to right degree. The camera does not adhere to his perspective, the camera doesn't take his side, instead leaves a gap for us to fill - which is why we like him so much - just like we would someone like Rocky.


As mentioned though, the overlaying voice over plays a huge factor - it gives Henry an omniscient presence that doesn't let him to shrink completely into the narrative. This is a great device that is actually very tricky to get right as you don't want your film to appear as a book you're having a hard time adapting, or have your characters seem aloof and distant. As we all know though, the V.O of this film is spectacular. Reasons being in the fact that it's used to fill a hole in Henry's character, not simply overlay the narrative with pointless details.

It's understanding character based direction that we can take a look into the general movement of the film. An important thing about Goodfellas is that the frame is almost always full (of colour of action) and the camera always moving. We see this in the movement into scenes. Scorsese utilises a sweep between two character time and time and time and time again. He'll move from a static shot or scene...


... say, Henry's celebration in the shower, into...


... Jimmy's open arms. And this scene moves around, sweeping from singles into a three-shot, behind us to the open door...



... and when you pay attention to how much movement there is within Scorsese scenes, you realise that the long shot...

Image result for goodfellas long shot

... yeah, it's not that special. Like Spielberg, Scorsese utilises the long shot carrying multiple shots, or frames within them, the oner, but also Spielberg's use of perspective throughout something like Saving Private Ryan.


What makes this film so visceral and real is simply that Spielberg shoots everything as if from the perspective of a soldier. Often, we are an onlooker, a ghostly passenger of Henry's life and story. And what does this do? It immerses us in his life, giving further reason as to why we love this film. Not only is there the psychological implication of comfort through composition, colouration, angles and blocking, but also through camera movement. What's so great about Scorsese's use of perspective amongst these many things is how he skates a thin line between what Spielberg did with Saving Private Ryan or Iñárritu with The Revenant and Birdman and what you'd see in Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lord Of The Rings or another spectacle picture. Lucas, Kubrick and Jackson create impossible shots in space, on alien planets, above armies of thousands, imbuing their movies with the true magic of cinema. As discussed, Spielberg and Iñárritu move toward verisimilitude with intent of emotional impact of putting us in a story. Scorsese stays away from either extreme by giving us the magic of cinema as well as the raw truth it can imply. He does this by combining his sweeping, ghostly POV takes with very unorthodox inserts. For example, Karen signing into prison, realising that Henry still meets with Janice...




Not only do we get a strange Dutch angle with the great visual metaphor of the shadow of the cage across Karen's face, but we get a blur of inserts, metaphorical lighting and then a break of the fourth wall. It's beautiful moments like these that are scattered throughout Goodfellas that once you pick up and extrapolate from the overall narrative don't seem to fit in. But, within the movement of the film, this strange change in direction is just utterly perfect, it works and it slides by like nothing. This magical, non-realist direction spliced in with hints of neo-realism as well as clear pick ups from the French New Wave provide a confusing blend of styles that ultimately culminates in the genius that is Scorsese's style.

More than this, Scorsese's style meeting Henry's story along with a tonne of other small details like freeze frames, slow-mo, picture inserts, tennis-match-like exchanges of camera angles, the constant shifting of audience perspective from one side to another, forever imperfect framing, the implication of an astounding soundtrack, the intensification of style, the numbing, the framing just beyond human natural perspective--all of those things and more I wish I had the space and patience to go through in one post--all of those things work towards expressing a fantasy that we can sink into. Scorsese holds before us with Goodfellas the power of cinema. It's art meets entertainment and there's no other way to say it. Goodfellas is why cinema is the best art form, it's a vast network of lessons, of interesting details, references, pick-up points, drop-off points--I could go on with overly compounded sentences, but suffice to say, Goodfellas is fucking good movie - through and through - enough said.

In the end, we love this movie due to many inputs from character, writing, acting, such and so on, but its the expression of them by Scorsese that pull together an undeniable masterpiece. All I can say is watch this film again for the 10th, 100th, 1000th time. Whatever it is, it's worth it.





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