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July 26, 2010


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At my previous job, I worked with a particularly dense young woman, a New Yorker, who had a fondness for the Mafia. She was not, I think it's worth mentioning, Italian. When discussing the Mafia at one point, and John Gotti in particular, she said "Giuliani should have taken a bullet for what he did to Gotti." Whatever problems anyone might have with Giuliani, I think we can all agree that this is a bit much.

Broadly speaking, it's that kind of attitude I object to when it comes to cinematic depictions of the mob, or criminals in general, although I don't know if this woman picked up her attitudes from movies or not, and in any case I can't really blame anything for this attitude except normal human stupidity. I despise DePalma's SCARFACE, but I don't do so on moral grounds, and it's completely beyond me how anyone could watch that movie and come away with the sense that Tony Montana is somehow an example to be followed. If anything, the film is too programmatic in that sense, and besides taht the guy's pretty miserable for much of the film. Also, then he gets killed.

Not only that, but I was watching GUN CRAZY the other day, and then later the commentary track by Glenn Erickson, and he said that the film "glamorized" crime. I don't know which movie he was watching, but apart from the inevitable highs -- as well as your point, Glenn, about the buried potential in everyone's id -- that would have to be a part of that lifestyle, otherwise nobody would take part in it, I saw a movie about a man and woman who were doomed the moment they met each other.

It's strange how people read these things, I guess, and I say that as someone who is firmly on record here for being anti-BONNIE & CLYDE. The point being, Breslin is right (as far as I know, which isn't as far as Breslin, but a little bit further than most, maybe), and the specific capital R reality of the Mafia, as opposed to its portrayal on screen, isn't something that I can bother getting worked up about. THE GODFATHER may be "wrong", but it's certainly got the spirit.

Finally, sorry this isn't more directly in line with what you actually wrote about...


Forget what I said about "a little bit further than most", as it implies something that isn't true. All I meant is, I'm possibly more interested in the topic than most people.

Stephen Whitty

He participated a bit to the glamorization, though, didn't he? "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight"? The various News columns over the decades?

Breslin's a terrific writer, but he certainly contributed his own bit to the vast shelf of forgiving, "Jeeze, what a bunch of colorful guys these mugs are!" literature.


I don't know how THE GANG THAT COULDN'T SHOOT STRAIGHT in any way glamorizes the mob. By presenting them as a bunch of practically sub-mental goons, it would seem to me to do the exact opposite.


Anyone who doesn't like DePalma's SCARFACE should be waterboarded at Guantanamo. Tony Montana is GOD.


Tony Montana is DEAD.

Matthias Galvin

what about Gomorrah?

I must say, I found it quite satisfying when the two teenaged idiots never realized they were in over their heads, and suddenly--

Stephen Whitty


No, not glamorizes, you're right. What's a better word -- trivializes? De-fangs?

I admit it's been a LONG time since I've read it, but what I remember was a book which saw the Mafia as a bunch of sort of colorful Mike-Mazurki-style goons, fitting subjects for a comic novel.

And I just wonder, since he's talking about how pop culture has ignored the ugly, vicious side of gangland for years, if he hasn't been a small part of that at times?

Not that we can't, as Glenn says, both adore art like "The Godfather" movies and see them as operatic works of fiction that don't (and aren't meant to) truly reflect reality.

Personally, though, of all the mob movies, I think I'm still fondest
of "GoodFellas." Yes, those characters are seductive, at first, but that's because the story is about Henry's seduction. And we learn pretty early on that those appearances are deceiving.

(Actually, I think as fascinated as Scorsese is by the violence and theatricality of those characters, he's always kept his eyes open -- right from "Mean Streets" -- about who they really are...)

Mrs. Dawson

I guess that particular part of my id has finally died or is just tired of jacking itself off, because for the last, oh, three years or so my viewing (and, more important, my interest in viewing) of gangster stories has dropped off to nothing. I never even finished watching the Sopranos, just quit a few episodes into Season 4. I think for me, the ground has been completely covered: the'life'isawastelandwhereyoursouldissolvesbitbybituntilthere'snothingbutablackholeandanytalkofhonororethicsdeservesnothingbutacoldhollowlaugh. OK, for the billionth time, got it. Yes, they're sometimes colorful characters with a lot of 'energy', who gives a shit...the energy is foul, and I haven't the slightest interest in hanging out with them any more.

Mrs. Dawson

Sorry, the end of my oh-so-clever run-on got cut off somewhere. It should finish: "anytalkofhonororethicsshouldbegreetedwiththecold,hollowlaughitdeserves."


@Stephen - Honestly, it's been a LONG time since I've read the book, too, but "trivializes" and "de-fangs" sound about right to me. And we could discuss the merits of doing such a thing, but I don't think Breslin contradicted himself before the fact by writing it. If ever there was a book that depicted the mob as a collection of high school drop-outs, it's that one.

GOODFELLAS is my favorite, too, for the reasons you state, and for a host of others. But I think the film that comes closest to illustrating what Breslin is talking about is the underrated DONNIE BRASCO. I've never seen such a collection of such sad-sack, dumb-ass gangsters in my life. I think that portrayal of the true mid-to-low-level gangster is the most accurate depiction of 99% of the Mafia I've ever seen. As far as I know, anyway.

@Matthias - GOMORRAH is pretty brilliant, and I agree, that particular storyline is especially strong.


GODFATHER may romanticize the gangster life, but doesn't GODFATHER II take that idea and throw it right back in our faces? (even more than GOODFELLAS, I'd argue, perhaps because I've always thought the film elevated Henry Hill into a little more than he actually was).

Aaron Aradillas

THE GODFATHER seems to romanticize the Mafia because it is the middle section of the story. It is the Good Times Montage of the GODFATHER SAGA. (I've always found it interesting when people say GODFATHER is their favorite of the 3 films. What they are really saying is they like the upbeat section of the story.) What makes the first film so seductive is that we are made part of a closed-off society. Don Corleone literally represents "good" in that world. We are never shown any victims of their crimes. Everything would've worked out if everyone had just followed the Don's example. This is something Michael comes to realize at the end of PART II.

What makes GOODFELLAS the greatest gangster movie ever made is Scorsese's slowly pulling away from The Life. Unlike MEAN STREETS, which puts us right in the middle of the action, GOODFELLAS observes with mounting horror just how awful this lifestyle really is. Scorsese is able to do this because Henry Hill is only half-Italian and Karen is Jewish. Their outsider status allows Scorsese to look in on what these guys are really like.

The first hour of GOODFELLAS is pure nostalgia. There is no real violence. What violence there is is mostly comic (the mailman scene, Jimmy threatening Murray). When Henry first sees a man shot he doesn't know how to process it. (The scene immediately cuts to the "Speedo" party sequence.)

Scorsese's ace in the hole is the opening pre-title sequence. The killing of Billy Batts in the turnk is fast and shocking. Hill's voiceover says, "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster." Tony B's "Rags to Riches" floods the soundtrack, washing away any memory of what we just saw. Scorsese literally shows us just how awful these people are, and we still luxuriate in their rule-breaking ways for at least the first hour of the film. The movie works it way back to that moment, allowing dread, guilt, and paranoia to take over. By the end it's every man for himself.

And, finally, Tony Montana pre-dates Gordon Gekko by about 4 or 5 years. Take away the drugs and killings and you have a guy whose ruthless business sense is perfectly acceptable by many CEOs.

Something tells me there isn't much difference between Tony Montana and someone like Trump.

Michael Worrall

Bill wrote: "I despise DePalma's SCARFACE, but I don't do so on moral grounds, and it's completely beyond me how anyone could watch that movie and come away with the sense that Tony Montana is somehow an example to be followed."

Tony Montana is a capitalist, and capitalists are heroes in American culture.


@Michael - Oh? Then why don't I see teenagers walking around wearing THE AVIATOR t-shirts?


A useful point of comparison with Breslin on the subject of the mafia and much else is the work of Murray Kempton, Breslin's great contemporary. In the Kempton collection "Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events," there's an essay about the full poverty of most mobsters that does an even more thorough job of deromanticizing La Cosa Nostra than the excellent "The Good Rat." (The audiobook recording of "The Good Rat" is wonderful, by the way.)

Tom Russell

Aaron: I'm not sure if people who prefer the first Godfather are "really" saying they prefer the upbeat section of the story. I mean, yes, it is more upbeat than parts two or three, and for some people that's certainly a part of it, but it is also less structurally ambitious than the others. It tells its story with a certain appealing classicism, straight-through and unmuddled, that appeals to some people much more than II's bifurcated fugue structure. Lucas apparently once told Coppola that the structure didn't work-- that he really had two movies and should just choose one or the other.

All that said, II is my absolute favourite of the three, both because of the darkness and because of its structure.

Michael Worrall


Why do you think teenagers wear Scarface / Tony Montana t-shirts?


Because TONY MONTANA fucking RULES, because life is about MONEY, POWER and VAG (though I'd switch out POWER for FAME), and because the AWESOMEST thing in the world is RISING TO THE TOP and fucking over everybody else and banging the hottest chick, then self-destructing in a BLAZE of fucking glory.

Anyone who doesn't understand the basic human appeal of rise/fall negatives really doesn't have the temperament where they should be loving or even watching movies. MOVIES ARE VISCERAL, movies are a way of BECOMING A GOD for two hours... Unfortunately most critics are a bunch of back-row dweebs who faint at the sight of a feather, and don't appreciate the Fascist-Nietschean power of DESTROYING OTHERS, rising up as ONE MAN above all others, of objectifying and CONQUERING WOMEN like the mighty Conan.

Most critics are a bunch of leftist collectivist tweedy pussies who give a shit about things like poor people and the environment. Fuck ALL that. They should have more coked-up pussyhound critics who fuck over their colleagues and RISE TO FAME instead of huddling around in the furthest section of the screen dry as toast and limp as a wet cracker just looking for something to complain about because it gives their delicate sensibilities a headache.

Critics should be more like Tony Montana, Daniel Plainview, and Tyler Durden, and less like AO Scott.


Glenn Kenny

Lex, I'm becoming more like Tylre Durden with every passing day, I promise you.


@Michael - The reasons they where those shirts has much more to do with the kind of tough-guy pose Lex describes above, and the romanticizing of criminals, than it does with capitalism. Again, if it did, DiCaprio as Howard Hughes would be a pretty big deal. Can you explain why he's not?


"WEAR those shirts"...

Michael Worrall


What is interesting is that Lex describes precisely what capitalists do and what capitalism is.


Okay, so you wear Che t-shirts instead. I think I got it.


Bill, Michael's analysis of Tony Montana's appeal has too much of a reductive, reflex-Marxist ring for my taste, but there is something to it all the same, and people probably wouldn't respond as intensely to Montana's tough-guy swaggering if they didn't see it as stemming from a delighted awareness of what it takes to succeed in America. Tony Montana epitomizes capitalism taken to extremes, and in his aggressivenes and acquisitive vitality he embodies the spirit of all-out, ruthless materialism. On the other hand, the Howard Hughes of THE AVIATOR represents something rather different: not the criminal as businessman but the obsessive, visionary tycoon--a capitalist phenomenon, I suppose, but one less likely to have a visceral appeal for audiences. Besides, even though the visionary tycoon may be an expression of capitalism, it's not essentially tied to economics, being only a capitalist version of the Great Man of History idea. Hughes could just as well be Napoleon or Alexander or anyone else who tramples on the "little people" in the pursuit of his grand schemes.

It's also worth noting that Di Caprio's Howard Hughes has none of the singularity and charisma of Pacino's wild performance.

Michael Worrall


By your reply, I take it then that you accept my point.

Joseph Neff

I agree with some of what both Michael & Bill have to say on this subject. I've always felt that the tagline on the poster, "He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance." was intended to shine a light on capitalism in the hands of a thug run amok. I think the film initially took hold as a cult object due to Tony Montana's role as anti-hero. That is, he seizes Opportunity, does a lot of shitty things while still being viewed as superior/sympathetic to the majority of characters that surround him, and then dies (the dying is important for it helps many people swallow the very not nice things he does).
On the other hand, by the time we get to Scarface t-shirts, we're in the zone of teens trying to look cold and hard as they stalk through the mall scaring the elderly. It's really all about attitude and fashion at this point, and Howard Hughes doesn't work for these kids because he's just not nasty or ruthless in the right way.
I guess I'm most in agreement with Aaron Aradillas on the similarities between Montana and Trump.


Point: BILL.

The fact that Michael Worrall seems to think capitalism is ANYTHING LESS THAN ABSOLUTELY AWESOME tells me he's a scholastic douchebag perennially stuck in freshman-idealist mode.

Yeah, okay, bro, the world would be a WHOLE LOT BETTER, right, if we just sat around by our Zapatista campire strumming acoustic guitar with the migrant workers and SPREAD THE WEALTH? Fuck that. Poor people are poor for ONE REASON: They're stupid. Come on, admit it, POOR PEOPLE SUCK, and you don't REALLY give a shit about them, elsewise you'd do volunteer work or house some political refugees or at the very least wouldn't cross the street six ways to Sunday to avoid a homeless man.

Besides, if we lived in Socialist Utopia, you DO know only Brad Pitt-looking guys would get pussy, right? The GENIUS OF CAPITALISM is MONEY CAN BUY SEX. If we're all equal, how are guys like us every gonna bang models and coke whores? It's just gonna be Gael Garcia Bernal pulling a train of hot vag because he's the best looking if you throw money out of the equation.



Michael - No.


I also take it that by your refusal to address my point about Hughes, that you don't have an answer.

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