Monday, April 27, 2009

Divorcing the Mob: Gomorrah and the Deglamorisation of Organised Crime.

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008) is a searing, quietly seething polemic against the toxic influence of the Camorra mob on all sections of society in Naples. Dating back to at least 1471, the Camorra is the oldest criminal organization in Italy, and remains an insidious, all-pervasive presence in Naples, particularly in the high-rises and slum-areas that Gomorrah concentrates on. Much of its power, and explosive volatility, derives from the fact that it has never been a coherent, centralized organization. Differing from the pyramidal power structure of the Mafia, the Camorra is a loose, horizontally organized confederation of families and mobs. This means that bloody feuds are rifle within the organization, and it remains particularly difficult to combat: according to the testimony of Camorra boss Pasquale Galasso, “Campania can get worse because you could cut into a Camorra group, but another ten could emerge from it.”

Gomorrah articulates this pervasive, hydra-like social corrosion of the Camorra through a multi-generational quintet of interrelated narratives, concentrating on the fortunes of a group of low to mid-level players, in a style not dissimilar to that employed by David Simon in The Wire. Toto is a thirteen year grocery boy who is just starting out in the gang-fraternity; in a striking initiation sequence, he and a group of youths are shot at close range while wearing bullet-proof vests. Marco and Ciro are a pair of slow-witted, hapless would-be gangsters in their adolescence, whose cartoonish conception of criminality is derived chiefly from de Palma’s Scarface. Don Ciro is a terse, timid middle-aged Camorra delivery man who brings money to the families of imprisoned gang-members, dispassionately doing his rounds in the blasted, crumbling housing blocks that form the film’s primary milieu. The bosses remain tangential, incidental figures, and in this way Garrone conveys a strong sense of the Camorra as an inescapable net stretched around every facet of Neapolitan society and social life; a contagion or a cancer that dovetails neatly with the plot involving toxic pollution.

I found Gomorrah to be a puzzling experience as a viewer and critic. It is undoubtedly commendable as a social document and galvanizing polemic. More than that, it’s a faultlessly directed and acted film. Garrone resolutely avoids glamorizing or excessively egging-on his subject matter; his approach as a film-maker is admirably controlled and clinical, and his utilization of the multi-strand narrative is a model of clarity and cumulative effect, in stark contrast to the convoluted jigsaws of Guillermo Arriaga and his elk. Nevertheless, at the end of the movie, I didn’t feel particularly incensed, or depressed, or inspired to any large degree. Instead, Gomorrah got me thinking about the strange, contradictory relationship we have maintained with mobsters on the screen, and the competing demands of social responsibility and cinematic art.

One of the most striking aspects of Gomorrah, for international audiences at any rate, has been its blunt rejection of the various degrees of romanticism, identification, or ambiguity which have characterized representations of organized criminals in the past. In its opening sequence, a massacre which tellingly takes place in a tanning salon, Garrone indicates that his mobsters will be far more Paulie Walnuts than Michael Corleone. Gomorrah’s mobsters, when we encounter them, are for the most part ugly, narcissistic, and resolutely tasteless individuals, who possess none of the august sanguinity of Coppola’s iconic gangsters. And this, of course, is the pivotal part of Gomorrah’s strategy as a movie: it seeks to document and condemn the consequences of organized crime, and move as far as possible away from the contradictory allure which seems to inhere in other crime cinema. This, naturally enough, became something of a critical by-line for the movie. According to Scot Tobias at the A.V. Club: “Say this for Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah: It succeeds in siphoning every ounce of glamour out of gangster life”; and Roger Ebert: “The film is a curative for the romanticism of The Godfather and Scarface”.

It certainly struck me, while watching Gomorrah, the extent to which charismatic and sympathetic sociopaths form as innate a part of our cultural heritage as boy meets girl stories. You become very aware of them, by virtue of their absence in Garrone’s movie. The reasons for this abiding fascination are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, the cinema has always provided us with the opportunity to identify with, or vicariously experience, a variety of activities and choices which we are compelled to eschew and condemn in real life. Wes Craven has often utilized evolutionary psychology to explain the paradoxical appeal of horror cinema. He argues that since aggression was so instrumental in making us an adaptive, successful species, so a small part of our brain remains in that reptilian, amoral, pre-civilized mode, and craves sensations that our societal superego can’t sanction. Tarantino expresses a similar sentiment, with characteristically less eloquence, when he said that violence was deplorable in real life, but “cool” in movies.

On the other hand, I think people are intensely fascinated by contradictions, and contradiction forms the major kernel of our abiding mobster obsession. The ability of gangsters to lead double lives – to be ordinary loving, familial creatures in one situation, and cold-blooded sociopaths in another – persists, from The Godfather to The Sopranos – as a major component of our popular mythology of the mob. If one traces the representations of organized crime – from the Godfather through Goodfellas, to contemporary television milestones like The Sopranos and The Wire, we begin to see that the mob mythology has been constantly evolving, investigating its own assumptions and validity, and moving perhaps inevitably towards a movie like Gomorrah.

It is important to note that none of Gomorrah’s significant predecessors unambiguously celebrate or glamorize mafia life. The Godfather, which we now tend to regard as a highly aestheticized depiction of organized crime, is nevertheless a movie with a strong moral outlook. Viewed as a bildungsroman of Michael Corleone, the Godfather movies represent an excoriating depiction of the corruptive poison of patriarchal and political power, both in the family unit and American society as a whole. Nevertheless, as a condemnation of crime, the moral shrinks in the face of painterly beauty, Machiavellian intrigue, and Shakespearian, operatic passion. The tragedy of the Godfather movies are experienced through the Corleones themselves, and not their victims. In this sense, the Godfather remains a romanticized experience of the criminal underworld, and this, no doubt, is why real Mafiosi enjoy it so much. (Something very similar happens with anti-war movies like Apocalypse Now, which apparently generals and military people adore.)

Goodfellas represented a major move towards greater realism. Narrated in a sprawling, episodic fashion, it couldn’t have been less a Greek/Shakespearian tale of power, corruption, and redemption if it tried. Scorsese’s mobsters, for the most part, were foul-mouthed, hedonistic, and emotionally stunted thugs. Many significant aspects of the Sopranos, including the tasteless wardrobes and intellectual paucity of Paulie and Christopher, the messy randomness of the violence, and the prevalent tone of black humor, derive ultimately from Goodfellas’ considerable contribution to the mob mythos. In stark contrast to the Godfather, which stressed the cohesive bond of familial attachments, Goodfellas depicted its criminals as wedded ultimately to the adrenaline of committing crime, the luxuries resultant form it, and, in times of stress, concerned strictly with their own self-interest. And yet, while Goodfellas does much to deglamorise the mobster in comparison to Coppola’s treatment, the ambiguities not only remain, but become even more pronounced. Everything I’ve just written can be easily inferred from Goodfellas, but actually experiencing the movie is always more a matter, for both audience and director, of identifying totally with the world of the mobsters, and becoming carried away by the reckless adrenaline rush of their amoral activities. If Goodfellas condemns its mobsters by implication, it also derives all of its energy and momentum from them; Scorsese’s attitude seems to be like that of the smart kid in school, who knows the trouble-makers are going nowhere, but can’t help but admire their high-spirited truancy.

The ambitions of David Chase’s The Sopranos are difficult to adequately summarize. On the one hand an exploration of the uncertainties and surreality of family life at the postmodern turn of the century, The Sopranos is also simultaneously a homage to/commentary on The Godfather and Goodfellas. As self-consciousness was endemic to postmodern culture/social life, The Sopranos was the first major crime saga to depict mobsters who were hyperconscious of their mythic representations on the screen, and the first to contain within itself a hyperconsciousness of the unsettling contradictions and ambiguities in our fondness for mob anti-heroes. Chase never tried to revolve these contradictions, but rather heightened them, and rubbed our noses in them. We were never allowed to attain any degree of comfort or closure in regard to our feelings towards those characters. The Sopranos expressed a very Faulknerian vision of the world, as a place whose dominant genre or mode is never fixed, but constantly shifting between differing registers. In this way, Chase’s mobsters were alternately lovable, tragic, funny, pitiful, and utterly deplorable, in a fashion that never resolved itself, and allowed Chase to imbibe both the mythic grandeur of the Godfather, and the deflating black humor of Goodfellas. In consequence, his notorious cut-to-black non-ending is a particularly apt conclusion to such a vision of the world in which nothing ever ends, or ever resolves itself to the finality of clarity.

It is interesting to note that in The Wire, which is most like Gomorrah in terms of intent, we continue to experience mixed feelings about the criminals. The reasons for this are two-fold. First of all, The Wire is similar to Goodfellas in that in attempts to view criminality entirely from the inside, without any explicit authorial judgment. (It differs in that it also views the other side of the law with similar verisimilitude and detail.) Secondly, The Wire operated principally as humanistic journalism, and had a sufficient duration to develop a complex overall societal picture, in which the most contemptible villains are the lawyers, commissioners, and politicians who lack the integrity or courage to change an inherently rigged game.

Gomorrah is also, in essence, a work of righteous indignation and humanistic journalism. Its failure to really impact, to be a truly great film, may lie ultimately in its lack of humanistic detail. The communities in The Wire, hard-pressed though they were, were nevertheless alive with the energy of finely delineated character, and of colloquial language and humor. The housing blocks in Gomorrah, in contrast, are entropic, purgatorial spaces, delineated with all the formal austerity of a John Pierre Melville or an Antonioni. Nevertheless, I think Gomorrah is film that may rise in my estimation with a second viewing. Gorrone’s technique occasionally yields striking dividends, and certain key sequences, particularly those which bookend each of the significant characters, have an understated, devastating power which grows long after the movie ends. However my estimation of the movie may change, I suspect that it will not supercede the longevity of The Godfather and Goodfellas as works of art, despite its keener sense of social responsibility; Gomorrah may represent the logical conclusion of a long process of demythologizing the mobster, but it will not be the end of our fascination with what The Asphalt Jungle called the “left-hand form of human endeavor.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Legends of the Fall: The Last of the Mohicans.

In one of the best scenes in Miami Vice, Sonny and Isabella dance passionately in a night club, unaware that they are being intently observed by John Oritz’s envious and volatile gangster Jose Yero. It’s a big turning point in the movie: the pent-up emotions that have simmered throughout Vice’s purposefully sluggish pace suddenly erupt, and the various characters must relinquish their tight-lipped masks of nonchalance, and reveal their true natures. In this sense, Sonny and Isabella’s dance encapsulates the movie’s essential emotion: the kinetic charge, and close proximity, of passion and violence. These are themes that Mann had already essayed in his 1992 feature The Last of the Mohicans, an operatic, elegiac song of love and death set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War of 1757.

Mohicans is a historical romance/adventure movie, and as such its setting and ambience make it an anomaly in Mann’s filmography. Outside of Mohicans, Mann has worked, roughly speaking, in two specific genres: crime drama and true life/biography. (The forthcoming Public Enemies is a combination of both.) What remains a constant in all these movies, both visually and thematically, is an iconic exploration of contemporary life via the omnipresence of modern architectures and technologies. (Even Ali feels strikingly modern in its style and execution, including as it does the earliest of Mann’s experimentation with HD digital technology.) Mohicans is thus an initially puzzling experience for many aficionados of the director’s work; envisioning Mann without synthesisers and sodium streetlights, without the cool modernist sheen which has become so much his signature, is a little like watching a John Ford movie without horses and dust.

I was myself a little slow in coming to Mohicans, largely due to a dislike or suspicion of the modern historical adventure picture. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and The Patriot have always struck me as broad, bombastic exercises in melodrama, dubious history, and outdated celebration of nationalistic fervour. I appreciate that Gibson is a canny and very capable popular filmmaker, but for my money his martyrdom sequence in Braveheart is among the comically overblown I have ever seen on film. Mohicans, needless to say, is an entirely different beast. Its passions are heightened and operatic, but never quite bombastic, and instead of nationalistic rabble-rousing, one finds a subtle rumination on the grand promise and deep tragedy of the American frontier.

In the last essay on Manhunter, I was discussing the dichotomy between civilisation and the wilderness in Mann’s movies. Civilisation is contradictory quality in Mann’s world. On the one hand, it offers the potential for stability and domestic happiness, and yet so many of Mann’s protagonists are drawn to a more rugged existence outside of the societal mainstream. Civilisation possesses many perils: the threat of sterility, mendacity, and the kind of corporate dehumanisation that Mann critiques so trenchantly in Thief and The Insider. Mann’s attitude towards modernity is thus complex and contradictory; his gleaming cityscapes are both extraordinarily beautiful, and deeply sterile and lonely places. The best way to view Mohicans in relation to the rest of Mann’s filmograhy is as an evocation of the American frontier as an Edenic wilderness prior to the urbanised, corporatized world of Mann’s other films. To put it more precisely, it is an Edenic wilderness which is in process of being civilized, ironically enough, through struggle and violence. The trio of Nathaniel, Chingachgook, and Uncas are clearly presented in the introductory scenes as a prelapsarian ideal of roaming independence, decency, and piety for the natural world. It is part of Mohicans tragedy that this ideal is not destined to survive, either for the characters as individuals, or as a prevalent way of life in the future America whose birth pains form the film’s backdrop.

LOTM’s concern for the making of a future nation is a persistent undercurrent to its primary function as a romantic adventure. This theme is signalled most prominently by the chief obsession which seems to preoccupy most of the main characters: procreation, bloodline, and progeny. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out eloquently in his essayStay alive, no matter what occurs”: sex and survival in The Last of the Mohicans: “In the movie’s political/historical background, Native tribes, white settlers and British and French military forces compete to control the mountains and forests, which they hope will be overrun someday by their descendants. Mohicans shows that both an individual’s goal to mate and pass on genes and a civilisation’s desire to possess and transform the land issue from the same biological urge.” This idea is expressed in its most extreme form in the figure of Magua, who envisions the ending of Colonel Munroe’s bloodline as the ultimate revenge, and in its most melancholy form in the figure of Chingachgook, whose sorrow that his people will not see and participate in the future forms a keynote for the movie as a whole.

The making of a nation is also signalled by the complex melting pot of combatants who are embroiled in the films central conflict. The French and Indian War is waged between the Old World colonial powers of France and England, who in turn form opportunistic alliances with the settler and native populations. Mann presents his Old World characters primarily as a critique of the venal, mercenary, and hypocritical aspects of civilisation. The English and French generals distinguish themselves from the supposed “savagery” of the New World by virtue of a set of high minded ideals of honour and propriety, each of which they are prepared to sacrifice in the name of self-interest.

In contrast, the frontier settlers are a robust, honest, family-orientated community, who seek a land where they might live a modest, self-sufficient existence. Most tragically in LOTM, the native Indian characters face an intruding enemy which seeks to remake the wilderness in its own image. They face the disruption and extinction of a complex, age-old society and way of life which is intrinsically in tune with the natural world, by the imposition of a New World which is the order of commerce, urbanization, and modernity. In his speech towards the end of film, Nathaniel encapsulates much of this dark shadow side to the American dream, and the danger for Native Indians of succumbing to the worst vices of their oppressors: “Would Magua use the way of the French and the English? Would the Huron make his brothers foolish with brandy and steal his land to sell for gold to the white man? Would Huron have greed for more land than a man can use? Would Huron sell the furs of all the animals in the forest for beads and strong whiskey? Those are the ways of the English, and the French traders, and their masters in Europe infected with the sickness of greed. Magua’s heart is twisted; he would make himself into what twisted him.”

The sad resonance of this speech derives from our awareness of how much loss of tribal culture, environmental exploitation, and greed would come to pass in the America of the future. In this sense, LOTM is a melancholy legend of America’s fall into modernity from a prelapsarian ideal of lush, unbounded wilderness, lovingly evoked by Dante Spinotti’s extraordinary cinematography. At the same time, there is much about LOTM which is buoyant, celebratory, and romantic. It posits the birth of America as a time of immense contradiction, promise, energy, and struggle; at one point Cora comments that the whole world is on fire, speaking to the amorous and martial passions which swell and intertwine throughout the film. Contrasting Duncan and Cora, Mann emphasizes two very different methods of interaction between the Old World and the New. Duncan envisions the wilderness as a backward colony to be remade in the “higher” values of his own culture; Cora, on the other hand, through her courageous, adventurous character, and her romance with Nathaniel, comes to appreciate the New World as something that must be engaged with on its own terms. As she tells Nathaniel, the frontier is “more deeply stirring to my blood than any imagining could possibly have been.”

In this contrast, LOTM finds a redemptive note to off-set Chingachgook’s sorrow at the end of the film, where he, Nathaniel, and Cora gaze into the future, into the impossibly distant, transformed world of LOTM’s audience. Much of the future America will be characterised by the hypocrisy and greed of the Old World, and much of Chingachgook’s world will truly vanish; but the romance of Nathaniel and Cora speaks to the possibility of understanding and integration between individuals of vastly different cultures, and the subtle birth of new cultures via such marriages. Lost in the impersonal drift of history, there is nevertheless Chingachgook’s powerful assertion: “The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier and men like you will go too, like the Mohicans. And new people will come, work, struggle. Some will make their life. But once, we were here.”

No consideration of LOTM is complete without some reference to its justifiably acclaimed climatic set-piece. The hilltop battle sequence, scored so magnificently by Trevor Jones, is a revelatory fusion of music, staging, choreography, acting, and editing. According to Madeline Stowe, “The best directors I’ve worked with have always had a strong sense of music and movement. Those two things are inseparable. And Michael used them so effectively in LOTM, particularly during the last ten minutes of the film. Sometimes I’ll turn the channel and there’s the movie, and I can honestly say those last few minutes always fascinate me. Its one of those rare instances when image, music, and drama work effectively.” Clive James once commented that cinema, in essence, is still silent; the final looks exchanged between Jodhi May and Wes Studi are among the best silent cinema of the modern period, and the sequence as a whole is surely one of the purest, grandest pieces of opera in popular American cinema.