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Monday, March 3, 2014

March 3, 2014: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Scorcese Films

[Much of the time when I’ve highlighted something specific in this space, it’s been because I want to emphasize something positive about it, something I enjoy or appreciate. Well, the heck with that! For this week’s series, I’ll focus instead on stuff about which I’m not as keen, and try to AmericanStudy some of the reasons why. Nobody can be positive all the time, right? Add your own non-favorites in comments to help with a crowd-sourced airing of grievances this weekend!]

On why the acclaimed filmmaker doesn’t do it for me—and why that’s an American problem.
There’s been a good deal of controversy and debate over Martin Scorcese’s newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street (2012). More specifically, there has been significant debate over whether the film celebrates the Wall Street swindlers and criminals it depicts, especially Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort; whether it instead portrays those criminals as over-the-top buffoons; and, for that matter, whether Scorcese has any obligation to think about ethics or morality at all while making a feature film about such characters (a topic on which the daughter of one of Belfort’s real-life victims has weighed in). I haven’t yet seen Wolf, so I can’t offer an opinion one way or another—but I can say that I have found these same questions to be present and a significant issue in nearly every Scorcese film I’ve seen, and certainly in his highly acclaimed Goodfellas (1990).
The protagonists of Goodfellas, such as the three leads played by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, are of course far more overtly and proudly criminal and reprehensible than Jordan Belfort. But as far as I can tell (and I haven’t seen all of the film in nearly two decades), Scorcese’s film glamorizes and celebrates them far more than it offers any critique or even analysis. True, Pesci’s hot-headed and violent gangster is frightening even to his friends, but that’s due simply to his own character traits and flaws, and if anything is contrasted with the smoother (and not much less violent) other criminals. Moreover, Scorcese’s choices as a filmmaker—his montages and musical backdrops, his camera moves and bravura sequences—all seem designed to amplify the coolness and compellingness of these violent criminals. And his famous final shot of Liotta in witness protection, overlaid by the voiceover in which the character calls himself “an average nobody … [I] get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” likewise contrasts unfavorably with the glamorous gangster life.
I’d say much the same about the protagonists of many other Scorcese films—the Las Vegas gangsters in Casino, De Niro’s violent psychopath in Taxi Driver and his violent brute of a boxer in Raging Bull, even the Irish draft rioters in Gangs of New York. Scorcese may want to portray these characters with nuance and complexity, perhaps examine the social and historical worlds out of which they emerged—but I find more often than not that he ends up glamorizing their violence and their crimes, perhaps even more so because they allow them to transcend and (at least briefly) triumph over their settings. And in doing so, I’d say his works have tended to fall squarely into a tradition about which I’ve blogged a few times already: our longstanding and fraught national embrace of the outlaws and the gangsters, of the violent outsiders who seem to offer individual escapes from our social codes and limitations. Sometimes they’re targetting criminals (like De Niro in Taxi Driver), sometimes they’re the criminals (like in Goodfellas and Casino)—but the similarities seem to me more pronounced than the distinctions. As Jack Nicholson puts it in the (typically bravura) opening sequence of The Departed: “When I was your age, they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this non-favorite? Others you’d share for the weekend post?


  1. It's funny you start with Scorcese's films. Every time I being a film unit in my school my students will always ask for films that I've loved. Ultimately one of the students (usually a boy) will point out that I haven't mentioned Goodfellas or Casino, as though that's just a given and we all have to like those films. (Guess they are too young for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.) But I've never enjoyed his films. I just can't get into his narration or subject matter. Same goes for Coppola who I can honestly live without. Maybe it's because I'm a woman, maybe it's because I'm a geek but I just can't take that "tough guy" movie narrative. Like these mobsters are neo-robin hoods and not the drug pushing womanizing unreasonable violent jerks they are.

    The Searchers was good tho. :)

    1. Interestingly, I do really like Coppola; I guess I feel that the Godfather films in particular *analyze* their subject matter in a way that Scorcese's, to my mind, don't. But there's a degree of idealization in both cases to be sure.

      And The Searchers is definitely pretty good, although some of the racial politics are a bit frustrating.

      Thanks for the comment!