One of the most striking aspects of
It certainly struck me, while watching
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
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