Friday, August 20, 2004

"What's Right Is Right": A Brief Review of Goodfellas

I lost most of today to the new Goodfellas Special Edition DVD, part of the new Martin Scorsese 6-disc box set of his films with Warner Brothers. Scorsese's always been one of my favorite filmmakers, and this set has two of my all-time favorites (Goodfellas and Mean Streets) , plus three other films (Who's That Knocking At My Door, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, and After Hours) which have never been released on DVD.

The nineties maybe remembered as the decade when independent film triumphed, as arty, intelligent, violent films like Pulp Fiction won newfound critical acceptance and success at the box office. It's easy to connect this moment with that of the 1970s, when a similar group of young (and not-so-young), independent (and not-so-independent) directors emerged from the ashes of the studio system, making the films that the directors of the 90s saw as they came of age.

In the early 90s, however, before the independent boom, a few films appeared that directly connected the films, filmmakers, and stars of the 70s to those that would appear a few years later. Perhaps the two most striking are Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven -- another favorite of mine -- and the remarkable Goodfellas.

Scorsese is one of the rare directors who pleases both the theory-quoting critic and the cable-watching fan in me. He makes Fellini-quoting popcorn movies about existential dread. His photography, editing, and scoring always look and sound great -- he manages to do genuinely revolutionary things that don't seem particularly radical, or even unusual. Watching Goodfellas with the commentary track on and the regular sound off, I was surprised at how tightly framed and edited every shot and sequence is. Michael Ballhaus's camera is hardly ever stationary: there's always a nearly imperceptible pan or zoom to force the eye into motion and increase the tension of the scene.

Goodfellas refuses to let you sit still, and yet it rivets your attention to complicated dialogue and often mundane, relatively action-free sequences. One of the best scenes in the movie involves a coked-up Ray Liotta trying to fry veal cutlets in between looking out his window for police helicopters. Another where Liotta and Lorraine Bracco's character get a table at the Copacabana -- hardly exciting stuff in a movie filled with multiple murders, drugs, sex, and trials -- is perhaps in the top five scenes in the history of the medium. It's done in a single long steadicam shot (a special kind of camera that allows the operator a great range of movement without the jitters of a handheld) from the opening of the car door, walking across the street, down into the basement, through the kitchen, across the restaurant, where a table appears out of nowhere, closing on a shot of Henny Youngman (yes, the real Henny Youngman) telling a joke. All the while, The Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" plays in the background. How this film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Kevin Costner's craptastic Dances With Wolves simply escapes me.

Scorsese is one of a handful of geniuses in American cinema, easily mentionable with D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles. He may even be the best director of his generation (the best in the history of cinema): better than Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, Eastwood, DePalma, Woody Allen, and Terence Malick. The box set is dirt-cheap ($40 for five movies) and the upgrade, especially for Goodfellas, is well worth it. (Goodfellas was originally released on DVD in the early ages of the medium: no extras, and you had to flip the disc halfway through the movie, like an old record.) It's well worth familiarizing or re-familiarizing yourself with this film, and with the possibility that the coarsest, fastest, and most violent of films can be the most profound and substantial.

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