Blog-post response: Why I loved ‘Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic’

This is a mushy response to Melissa, Melanie and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic from someone in the oh, five percent of the Western world who had never seen Martin Scorsese’s Mafia epic before two little words popped on the “Arts, Criticism and the City” class schedule: “See: Goodfellas.”

Perhaps another work of art will explain why I have lived 66 years without seeing this movie. When I was growing up in rural Alberta, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was published. The non-fiction book told of two convicts invading an isolated prairie farmhouse at night and killing four people. Living as I did in an isolated farmhouse with no lock on the door, the idea was so horrifying that I have not read it to this day. As an adult, I never got over that aversion to depictions of violence and blood. So, Goodfellas: Suspense, revenge, gruesome deaths, twisted remorseless people. In spite of the accolades, I avoided it.

But this GLS course, for me, was about exposure to unfamiliar territory, so I “watched” Goodfellas, skipping about 30 of its 145 minutes to avoid the worst of the bloody bits.

Even still, I loved it. The speed, the brashness, the exhilaration of swooping non-stop through a world that was deeply familiar and yet utterly foreign. Set in the late 1960s and into the ‘80s, this was the world of my young adulthood– the music, the fashions, the cars, the sexism, and everybody smoking everywhere. For me, placing that familiarity side by side with the vicious violence of the gangster world gave the movie a split-personality feel. I reveled in one side of it; I was appalled by the other.

Melissa, who obviously knows the movie well, helped me understand what got to me about it. Look behind Scorsese’s sleight of hand, she said, and notice the way the camerawork, shot composition and soundtrack help tell the story. The fact that the camera shifts viewpoint just before Ray Liotta opens the thumping trunk shows his unease just as much as his expression does, she noted. “Every shot, every sequence contributes to the overall narrative and taking us on the journey through it.” We’re enticed – certainly I was – by the excitement and energy, even as it was clear horrible things were on the way. Melissa analyzed how Scorsese makes us care about clearly awful people: Was it the way Henry was beaten by his father? The way Paulie sliced garlic? I cared because the people seemed real. I remember the glow on young Henry’s face as he showed his mother his first flashy suit, and his mother’s horror: “You look like a gangster!” she said. A small moment, but it revealed the irreparable split between mother and son. He was utterly committed to a criminal life and she was powerless.

To me, Scorsese has always just been a name, but Melanie Friesen’s first-hand description of working with him turned him into a real person. Now when I think of Scorsese and Goodfellas, I will think of a sickly kid at his window, watching gangsters across the street and absorbing every detail. One of Scorsese’s most powerful films came from real-life observation, his former head of development said in her talk, titled “Art: Do what you know.”

Between Friesen, Melissa, and the movie itself, I now have something new in my life: I will never be able to listen to a hovering helicopter in quite the same way again.

— Carol Volkart

 

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3 thoughts on “Blog-post response: Why I loved ‘Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic’

  1. Carol, thank you so much for this. Veronica and Linn’s insightful comments really challenged me to evaluate some of my own impressions of the film. Where I was fascinated by the film’s ability to transcend my disgust of violence, the film was not as effective for them on that score. I really appreciated reading your impressions on this too – finding things to enjoy, admire and relate to despite the violence you fast forwarded. I actually watch a lot of violent films, and you all have made me think about why and how movie violence does not automatically turn me off a film. I think movies put us a really odd state as viewers. We enter into this strange place where we simultaneously suspend disbelief while being acutely aware of the un-reality of film. And our brains have been conditioned in other contexts – the nightly news, for example – to believe what we see, and to trust what we see in a recording is a “true” representation of what occurred. The experience of watching film is working on us psychologically in so many weird and wonderful ways. I suspect we all have a different balance of suspended disbelief and awareness of un-reality in our individual movie watching experiences. I find myself marveling over the practical effects and brilliant make-up of movie violence, while somehow still managing to stay in the imaginary world of the picture. I don’t entirely understand how this works but maybe there is something about my balance that lets me circumvent the disgust response? In any case, these are fascinating things to think about.

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  2. How differently we all respond to depictions of violence! I’m on the same page as Linn, whereas you obviously have more tolerance, for whatever reason. I think people do develop a tolerance for scenes like that just through exposure, and those of us who have always turned away do not — of course — develop that tolerance. The interesting question to me is what film-makers are trying to achieve through their portrayals of violence. A skilled film-maker can say a huge amount with just a hint or a brief glimpse of gore, but Scorsese does give us long lingering looks at it. I wonder what he would say about his choice to do that? I feel like I “got” the film without the bloody scenes; what did they add?

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    • I think there needed to be a brutality. I think it was a real look at mafia life – people are complicated – they can be quite sympathetic and likable, but at the end of the day, they do really horrible things. And we needed to see Jimmy and Tommy flip that switch from affable guys to brutal cold-blooded killers so we could understand how much danger Henry and Karen got themselves into.

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