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.”

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