Jan/Feb 2012 Nonfiction

Revisitation Blues: Goodfellas

by David Ewald

It's been a while since I've seen Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Six, seven years—maybe more. I didn't just like it when I was younger—I loved it. I could quote from it. I knew exactly which scene followed which. I bought the screenplay. And I showed this gangster crime drama to a lot of important people in my life. I showed it to my best friend in high school. I showed it to my sister. I showed it to an ex-girlfriend, and I showed it to a future girlfriend. Each time I showed it, I would say the same thing: during the opening, right after Billy Batts is discovered in the trunk of the car, and Tommy D. knifes him and Jimmy Conway shoots him repeatedly, and Henry Hill slams the trunk shut, looks up and says through voice-over, "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster," followed by Tony Bennett singing "Rags to Riches" and the opening credits whizzing by—I would say, "This is a bad movie." Of course I didn't mean bad as in awful then; I meant the movie was incredibly violent, gritty, foul-mouthed—and one to be respected because of those elements. I wanted everyone I made watch this movie to love it just as much as I did, and if they didn't, I would take their distaste as a personal affront, as if they were saying I was stupid or silly for adoring this movie and making such a big deal out of it.

Back then the only person to show strong approval for Goodfellas was my high school best friend. To their credit, my sister, the ex-girlfriend, the future girlfriend, they each got through it while not saying much during or after the screening. They just... watched, and I took their silence as approval.

Recently I watched Goodfellas again—this time with the most important person in my life: my wife. Since we'd just finished the entire series of The Sopranos, which she was very much into, I figured it would be a good idea to see Goodfellas as well. I had no idea this viewing would be such a change-up from the past.

At first everything went all right. I'm too old now to announce, "This is a bad movie," but my wife seemed into it at first, and so did I. Batts was dispatched, this time for good, the trunk closed, the first of the voice-overs came in, Tony Bennett belted out his song, the opening credits skidded across the screen, and it was just like all those years ago.

Only it wasn't. As I watched, as she watched, as we watched, I could feel this strange sense of deflation from the screen. The scenes played out exactly as I remembered them, the dialog was delivered exactly as I remembered it, but something was different. I was different. I didn't feel anything from the movie, the characters, what they said and did. The energy, the excitement I remembered was gone, and in its place was, well... voice-over.

In the 2002 movie Adaptation, there's a scene in which the screenwriting guru Robert McKee says to an audience of aspirants, "Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character." I used to think that criticism of voice-over in film was unwarranted. I still do somewhat: certainly movies exist in which voice-over really does work. Goodfellas, though, is not a film in which voice-over works.

I had remembered Henry Hill's voice-over being humorous, but it's not humorous, nor is it all that humorous when his future wife Karen breaks in with her own narration (the only point at which my wife perked up in all two and a half hours). What it definitely is: too much. It's as if this one person, and then these two people, are competing for our attention to tell us everything we can already see happening on-screen. I understand voice-over allows Scorsese to speed events up, move flexibly through the key points in Henry and Karen's lives, but watching again I see how gosh darn busy each scene is, how frantic the voice-over narration comes across, how much noise and music and yammering from incidental characters are thrown at us, and my wife and I were overwhelmed.

And bored. My wife was especially bored, even admitting her boredom just after Henry and Karen were married. By the time we were well into the sixties and headed toward the Batts confrontation on June 11, 1970, in Queens, New York, I did something I never thought I'd do with Goodfellas: I paused the movie and asked my wife if she wanted to keep going. I even went so far as to say I would be fine stopping at this point. She didn't really want to continue, but she felt she had to finish Goodfellas just to say she'd seen it, and so we soldiered on. I promised her that the scene with Tommy's mother showing her amateur painting of the two dogs and the bearded man in the boat would be great, but it wasn't great; it fell flat for both her and for me.

Revisiting Goodfellas, the flatness of the film surprises me. I believe this has a lot to do with having watched all of The Sopranos beforehand. The Sopranos is magnificent. All the characters—and I do mean all—are fully developed, so sharp and pulsating. I realized watching Goodfellas again that no character—not a one—has any real depth or development. The arcs are lacking. I expected to be gripped all over again by Henry's story, but this time around I had to agree with my wife that Henry is just not a compelling character, made all the less compelling by a sinking sense on our part that nothing is really at stake, that Henry never really has anything to lose, and if he did lose something, so what? He's portrayed as a greedy womanizer with a creepy laugh anyway.

For that matter, none of the other characters are compelling. I never realized how muted Robert DeNiro's performance was, and despite my best efforts to see Joe Pesci's Tommy as "a funny guy," I now see him as over-the-top and repulsive, less a character than a caricature. To paraphrase Tony Soprano: Is this all there is? Is this what's left?

I know it's unfair to compare Goodfellas, a movie telling a story in two and a half hours, to The Sopranos, a series telling a story in some 86 hours, but still, the characters in Goodfellas could be more distinct from one another, they could have dimension, their own stories told somehow, less of a glossed-over feel; they could even, occasionally, be nice to one another.

That last bit is the biggest surprise of all. I see now how mean everyone is to each other in Goodfellas, and how this movie is not only an exercise in filmmaking but an exercise in cruelty, akin to one of those baroque religious paintings that beckon the viewer with its brutality, its beheadings and such, while at the same time always keeping us at a distance. It's interesting to look at, but we can never become a part of it the way we should.

I wonder now what's changed. For just over two decades, Goodfellas has stayed the same, so ultimately I have to look at myself. The fact that I revered this exercise in violence, in spitefulness, in male-dominated greed and narcissism—what does that say about me? I was younger then, of course, and I loved the movie more than anything for the way it was made—the cinematography, the mise-en-scene, the editing, the soundtrack, the fact that it was Scorsese. But there has to be more to a movie; that can't be all there is, all that's left. I wonder now how those women—my sister, my ex, my future—must have viewed me when I said, "This is a bad movie," and what they thought of me after the end credits had finished and the screen had gone dark.


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