The actual 25th anniversary of the U.S. release of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas isn't until September, but already it is being commemorated; there was a special screening at the Robert De Niro-spearheaded Tribeca Film Festival, a newly mastered Blu-ray disc is out (haven't watched yet; I've been busy), and my proposal for a making-of book on the movie was passed on by at least a dozen publishers in the past year. And I guess others are preparing their own appreciations, and starting on their research; hence, a post last night on Twitter from New York Post film critic Kyle Smith, asking "Where oh where can I get a copy of the Martin Amis essay on Goodfellas," and calling me out by name, as if I were perhaps some kind of underground Premiere archivist.
Well. I did commission the Amis piece, for the 10th Anniversary special issue of Premiere (cover stars were Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and Kevin Costner, deemed "The New Visionaries," well that didn't exactly pan out), and I edited said piece (actually not so much—I made one suggestion for an amendation, via fax, to Amis' agency, and got back a fax from M.A. telling me to go ahead with it—the assent did contain a hint of audible eyeroll as I recall—and then I didn't even make the change I had proposed, but at least if I wanted to I could say I had done something), and I do have the issue in my not insubstantial but hardly complete personal archive of Premiere print editions.
The nearly 20-year print run of the magazine has never been digitized, and it's tiring to retell the story of why that's the case, and of how much I despise the individual who I hold responsible for the whole thing, etcetera. Every now and then I'll be looking for an old Premiere piece—one of my own, one of somebody else's; turns out it was a pretty good magazine overall, and a useful historical research resource—and I'll find that some enterprising soul with a lot of time on his or her hands has input the article (badly, in many cases, but that's a side hazard of amateurism in nearly every sense), which is considerate. Possibly not exactly legal but good God it's the Internet.
The question of who actually has the rights to digitize the print run of Premiere is not one that I can answer, although I've sometimes thought about a crowd-funding campaign to do it myself. If such a thing ever got off the ground, inevitably someone would approach me and say, "You can't do that," which might be initially unpleasant but would also force the issue: shit would get sorted.
In any event, I was up at around six this morning, and Amis' piece is pretty short (the David Foster Wallace piece on Terminator 2 that found a home in a U.K. bookstore house organ and is reprinted in Both Flesh And Not had originally been commissioned for this 10th Anniversary feature package, "10 Movies That Defined Our Decade" [cover line: "10 Movies That Rocked Our World"], but Dave, as was his wont, brought it in at WAY over the three-to-five-hundred-word length that our format for the package dictated, so we agreed to drop it rather than shoehorn it in, and Christopher Buckley ended up with the T2 piece which was aptly brief and crisp; Amis' essay is, hmm, let's see here, a hair under 500 words), so I figured rather than go out to Kinko's or something and scan a PDF of the thing, I'd just input it myself and put it up on my poor and often content-starved blog. So here it is. Thanks for the bug in my ear, Kyle Smith, and thanks to my now-neighbor Martin Amis. And apologies, maybe, to the Andrew Wylie Agency.
It’s hardly news to say that Francis Ford Coppola made three movies about the mob. They form an obvious trilogy, purchasable in a video three-pack. Rather less obviously, Martin Scorsese is responsible for a mob trilogy too. The films are Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino—with Mean Streets as a kind of poetic preamble or portent.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is essentially trash: gripping trash, but still trash. In Coppola’s hands, the Puzo novel is, so to speak, rewritten by Nabokov, and the penny dreadful becomes an operatic masterpiece. The elevation is drastic, and brilliant, but it isn’t quite seamless. Puzo was cowriter on all three pictures, and his vulgar romanticism remains a contaminant. Although Coppola’s moral critique is both intelligent and severe, a laxity in the script accidentally allows the Corleones to be taken at their own evaluation. These men are not, or not simply, the murderous whores of Mammon; they also owe allegiance to a Puzoan fritto misto of honor, blood, uxoriousness, church attendance, and Sicily. In real life, of course, the mob had long abandoned such marginalia. After the Godfather craze, ludicrously, obeisances came back into gangster fashion, as postmodern accessories.
Somewhere along the way, Martin Scorsese, or his subconscious, made a crucial decision; his trilogy is nonfiction, based on first-person accounts. “True crime,” as a form, always entails a certain trade-off. You gain in authenticity, but you cannot rearrange the narrative to give it artistic cohesion, artistic shape. You are left with happenstance and inadvertence—with the messiness, the loose ends and false leads, that attend any human life. Scorsese, however, finesses the difficulty. His visual logic provides a guideline through the chaos. And for him, anyway, the mess is the message.
According to Nabokov, the artist doesn’t punish the gangster merely by staging his downfall—a “tiptoeing conspirator,” say, with his cocked handgun. The artist punishes the gangster through ridicule. In Goodfellas the antiheroes blunder through a terrible anticomedy of shootings and beatings, of stabbings and stompings, their lives an unexamined nightmare of contingency. Coppola portrays the mob as a trade union of warrior capitalists. Scorsese’s hoods are sociopaths trapped in a category mistake. And they don’t even get the joke.
Scorsese has a literary model: Kafka. The influence is most obvious in After Hours, in which Kafka is explicitly quoted, but it also sustains Scorsese’s vision of the underworld. Nothing could be more Kafkaesque than the central tenet of mob life, which runs as follows: This man is your lifelong friend, but he may want to kill you for money; you have to understand that; that is “this thing of ours.” In its dealings with the cosa nostra, Scorsese’s camerawork displays all its inimitable edginess and urgency; but we shouldn’t overlook the director’s steely moral wit. His goons see mob culture as a vibrant alternative to the schmuckville of 9-to-5. Scorsese insists, however, that they are money’s slaves and money’s fools. And he has them bang to rights.