High atop the list of so-embarrassed-I-haven’t-seen-’em movies long has sat Goodfellas. Scorsese’s film is reminiscent particularly of Mean Streets, with more of a Godfather element to it. Above all, however, the generation who grew up watching Animaniacs cannot watch this film without fondly recalling the “Goodfeathers,” a parody that surely must have pleased Scorsese. The long Steadicam shots following protagonists into clubs give one that warm feeling only gotten when watching a cinematic artist at work. These sorts of shots are common now, though they nearly always have that sort of stop-and-go photography to them that renders them so effects-driven that severely limit the impression of talent. Or, they take the “Steadi-” out of “Steadicam” and the “tracking” out of “tracking shot.” The result is that shaky, camera-on-the-shoulder look that has been so popular for the last ten years or so. Like most of Scorsese’s films, Goodfellas is a saga that is driven by characters and whose art is subservient to an episodic narrative. Much less glitzy than Coppola’s Godfather films, Goodfellas immediately lowers the bar with a voiceover narration from its main character, who puts all his cards on the table for the audience. Both the mundane details as well as the unforeseen climaxes give it the flavor of truth. Scorsese himself is a talker, and so is Liotta’s character and, of course, Pesci’s. Many of the plot turns hinge on words: words spoken foolishly, words overheard, words not spoken that should have been. The breaking points of the characters are often illustrated through speechlessness. David Thomson’s Have You Seen…? suggests that Scorsese “wanted in” on the mob movie, and thus made Goodfellas. He also asserts that Pesci’s character is way overboard; overindulgent. The first allegation doesn’t warrant a response. The second seems to be the very point of Pesci’s character; hence his demise. One of the last shots of the film was one of the best: Liotta picks up the paper in his track housing development, stands up, and sees a mirage of Pesci in front of him shooting straight at him. Ironically, Pesci is the only (?) close cohort of his who can take no revenge, having already met his fate without seeing it coming. It’s one of the few real “art” shots in the film; it’s reserved for the end and happens so quickly that it provokes deeply while the credits roll.
Martin Scorsese can make compelling films with a great flare, and apparently Mean Streets was the first time he got popular doing that. But like some of his other stuff, this one didn’t seem particularly substantial. He was quite honest about the film being autobiographically based. As a boy in Little Italy in New York, he observed things happening on a regular basis that he integrated into the film. Because of that background, Mean Streets is strikingly authentic, or so people say who know New York intimately. Scorsese filmed the story in the armpit of Little Italy (surely it has/had a nicer side), complete with all of the peeling paint, 7-Up ads, and rust that seemed to cover the city at the time. The early montages set to rock music have been imitated ever since – De Niro’s bar entrance to the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was classic. Scorsese’s camera and editing are distinct: fast, driven, and landing like punches to the gut. It’s gritty, as it should be considering the mood. If he does nothing else well, Scorsese weds his style to his setting and story.
Notes: Opening credits – shows film projector, small screen – home video footage – from post-film time? Charlie’s inability to reconcile the church with the streets. Opening shots introduce each character, then name. Scorsese is voice of priest in church? Charlie always trying to hold finger over flame – be priest/God, but can’t do it. Identification with St. Francis fails. Charlie not driven by others, but by self. Quick cam, unstable cuts. Camera circles action. Broken-down Jesus on building, arms spread over streets. Church as business. Swastika on table. Shooting in bathroom – influenced by Godfather? Cut to different scene mid-conversation, resuming conversation. Charlie: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Drunk-cam. Johnny Boy lies on grave – foreshadow. 3 scenes with characters watching film within film.