Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Three Voices

"It was tribute, just like in the old country, except they were doing it here in America."

An experiment: try watching the first 15 minutes of Goodfellas with the sound off. Those lush colors, those expertly coordinated pans, those impossibly graceful cuts spanning days, months, years...it's suddenly the film I always wanted it to be. Goodfellas was the first Scorsese film I actively sought out once my timidly burgeoning cinephilia pushed me in the old master's direction. The film's M.O., as I understood it, intrigued me: a gangster film focused on a lifelong sprawl rather than a rigid vertical arc, built around the mid-level careerist types rather than the tortured self-examination of the bosses (The Godfather) or the fireworks antics of the street rats (Christ, take your pick). All that and Joe Pesci--how could this fail to be the best movie ever?

I know, of course, that it is exactly that for many people. But Goodfellas dies for me the second the camera freezes on Ray Liotta's blank schmuck face and his grating, flat voice stumbles into the movie. It proceeds to stick around for the next two and a half hours, saying dumb, clumsy, and hilariously unnecessary things, distracting from and gutting the (increasingly threadbare) film playing out underneath it.

It would only perpetuate my boredom to list this all of the voiceover's particular sins against the film's momentum and mise-en-scene, and I'd rather ask: why does it exist? Certainly nothing happens in Goodfellas that requires overt explication. There's no confused perspective or opportunity for ironic contrast. A voiceover can become an essential element of an unforgettable aesthetic; Terrence Malick has wrung as much passion and Edenic tragedy out of off-camera monologues as he has out of montages of trees. Yet the voiceover is still more often a crutch, adding ill-fitting omniscience, distracting from a film's visual lyricism, and reducing that which should be mysterious, ambiguous, or playful to dull narration. I'd argue that Goodfellas is guilty of all of the above. But if Liotta's VO is a crutch, what is it a crutch for?

Take a look at the DVD cover (or what have you). That's Liotta simpering on the left; that's Robert de Niro, arms folded and badass, in the center. Watch the credits. Liotta's name follows De Niro's. Return to Scorsese's early masterstrokes, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Unlike Goodfellas, they're stark and unsparing in their depictions of their protagonists' frustrated brutality. What saves them from becoming mere exercises in ugliness is the blinding charisma of the man at the center of both--and that man is Robert de Niro, for all that he brilliantly disappears into Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta. With his irreducible grace, the flashes of warmth and humor and unshakable intelligence in his eyes, de Niro pretty much single-handedly saved the classic cinematic tough guy from kitschy irrelevance, and took him to places more mean, twisted, and hopelessly sad than he'd ever imagined possible.

So, of course, he couldn't be the mouthpiece for Goodfellas. Henry Hill's delirious arc requires an avatar of insinuating stupidity, a stumbling wannabe who falls into murder and coke without a hint of reflection. Naturally, Ray Liotta couldn't even pull that off. His featherweight performance only makes that dead-weight voiceover worse, underscoring his utter unworthiness of the spotlight. De Niro is given the greater weight, voiceover duties shift more and more frequently to Lorraine Bracco, and every attempt is made to emphasize how non-individualist this story is. It's about a family, a pattern, an eternally translatable arc. It's the sturdy old American Dream, taken to its proper position. It's the "old country," but now it's "America:" the ultimate personal-tribal-universal conflation. The voiceover ties those ideas together, binding Hill's perspective to the accepted gangster template while keeping Liotta's character transparent enough that anyone in the audience can imagine themselves saying those lines.

I call bullshit. This film, supposedly about a specific group in a specific time and place, goes out of its way to avoid alienating any of its audience, and so avoids the specificity of drugs, character, and, yeah, ethnicity.
Scorsese adequately conveys the lifestyle's addictive nature, but he never comes close to approaching Scarface's compelling/cautionary cocaine-as-aesthetic, even in the scenes involving, uh, cocaine. Italian heritage is converted to hastily assembled good-ol'-boy American-ness, until the Jewish characters are made to seem more alien to this country than the gangsters. Perhaps the film's greatest disappointment lies in that incongruously leading name: De Niro just phones this one in, trotting out greaseball cliches without the slightest hint of his usual rueful self-deprecation, let alone ruthless self-critique. Far from reveling in Scorsese's intimate memories of the time (as is the usual interpretation), Goodfellas takes every opportunity to smooth the mob out and make it palatable. This isn't a case of cutting away from blood--that would hardly please audiences. This is a case of cutting away from humans worth watching and thinking about. The voiceover serves as a reminder of what a weak facsimile the film hangs on, and what a slapdash job the filmmakers did covering that emptiness up.

"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."

Jack Nicholson's dry monologue launches The Departed straight into Goodfellas territory. Jack's cackling mob boss is a cracked kaleidoscope of potential loyalties, carrying with him ambiguous relationships to the church, Irish pride, American dominance, and his own uneasy ur-father status. He's the obvious locus point for all the film's zany, speedy plot loops, and the only one who ever seems to have the time to wittily comment on the sheer anarchic madness exploding all around. Giving him a voiceover might make narrative sense. That is, if The Departed were interested in narrative sense, or ethnicity, or religion or America or fatherhood, or anything at all, really.

If Goodfellas (along with its immediate predecessor, The Last Temptation of Christ) marked the beginning of Scorsese's attempts to fuse his signature individualist focus with explicit explorations of collectivity and real history, The Departed finds him gently mocking his own seriousness. In the sixteen years in between the two films, he certainly gave himself plenty to mock. The Age of Innocence was a total misfire, mired in groaner period fetishes and far too humble in the face of its Wharton source material (Scorsese being accustomed to biographies of assholes, after all). Kundun was resplendent in red and yellow, thanks to the always-gorgeous work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, but Scorsese was again too polite, focused on translating the Dalai Lama legend (in English, durrr) for us wiseguy American dumbasses while letting his searching humanity lapse. When the new millennium dawned, he turned to Leo DiCaprio for rejuvenation, but his new obeisance to stale context grabbed him by the ankle. Gangs of New York was a self-righteous mess of laughable "history", losing Leo completely in a stew of clumsy, half-thought ambition with all the craft and gravity of a high school theater production. Sadly, The Aviator proved that individualist focus would work no better as long as Scorsese remained lost in nostalgia, this time for the old Hollywood his early films provided an energizing antidote to.

Leo does his best, but it's becoming unmistakably clear that he and Scorsese will never quite have the same synergistic spark the director had with DeNiro, that perfect fusion of ambition and specificity that makes character studies larger than life. The Departed, easily the most successful of Scorsese's new wave, cheerfully dodges that nuanced characterization. Context remains, but it becomes "context," elements randomly tossed in and juggled for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it all: dubious accents, random ethnic slurs, phrases like "lace-curtain motherfucker" that sound utterly delightful--and delightfully meaningless--when spat out by a never-better Mark Wahlberg. Substance gets sacrificed along the way, and the film becomes forgettable even as you're watching it, but it's the best Scorsese's likely to produce from the corner he's backed himself into (as the dead-end Shutter Island recently demonstrated), and it ably serves up loving, if empty, fun calories.

Jack drops the voiceover after that opening yarn, and the film promptly drops the issues he waves so tantalizingly before us. Scorsese's just having fun here, with all fun's attendant cell phone drama. The voiceover's just another tool in his box now, something to drop into the mix so "Gimme Shelter" doesn't get lonely. Hey, there are worse fates.


But there are better ones, too. Taxi Driver establishes its sinuous subjectivity as quickly as Goodfellas exposes its personal-collective fusion and The Departed builds and destroys its red-herring ambitions. While those two, however, use the voiceover as a launching pad for their towering narratives, Taxi Driver first establishes its groundbreaking aesthetic (flashing eyes, blurry lights, an eternally shifting score) and sets up its voiceover to act as counterpoint. Travis Bickle lavishes desperate praise on Betsy, and the camera seems to confirm it, drawing her out of the anonymous crowd as someone finally worthy of individual attention. Then Travis' speech slows, and he struggles every word out. Cut to the would-be philosopher scribbling laboriously in his diary, his controlling gaze and authorial flair undercut by his human limits--one of which is catastrophic mythologizing, of himself and others.

Several scenes later, Betsy shows Scorsese's hand: "A walking contradiction. You are that." Travis, of course, focuses on protesting that he's not a pusher. That's the tragedy of Taxi Driver: even sadder than Travis' relentless, futile search for a philosophy to call his own is his seeming unawareness of his own rootlessness. The contrast between what we hear and see of him clue us in to the disconnect. He raggedly admits to not following music, movies, or politics, but clings to his increasingly vague voiceover rants against the "scum" and the "filth" of the city streets. Here's a man...here's a man...here's a man who would not take it any more. Just before he introduces Betsy to the narrative, he admits that he has to "try to become a person like other people," but his attempts at doing so, all centered around women stronger than he is, are unqualified disasters. Travis' voiceover both humanizes this weirdo and clashes with his story, leaving Taxi Driver a fragmented, exhilarating trip both around and through a pathologically slippery psyche.

More simply put, it's a mess; but The Departed's mess was one of creative and cultural chaos, a jumble happily devoid of a frame beyond the even more convoluted storyline of its Hong Kong source material. Travis Bickle is a carefully curated shamble, running up hard against the world outside himself. That world, one of urban decay and bleak post-Watergate politics, resonates as very real, but is never as hermetic or self-satisfied as Goodfellas' memory machine--there's no comfortable wiseguy to hold our collective hand and include us in his banter. The world is perceived only via the chameleon protagonist's perspective, and we quickly come to understand it through his tortured eyes: confusing, forbidding, both faintly nauseating and casually, heartbreakingly beautiful. His voiceover, then, compartmentalizes his reactions, distilling Travis' desperate bravado and his need to craft his own polemic. But he can't even match "We Are The People," and by the end of the film, he's sunk into wordless violence, and thereafter into pure fantasy.

That last post-massacre sequence has, of course, been the subject of much debate. I side with those naming it a fantasy as a matter of course--the whole film is practically hallucinogenic in its loyalty to Travis' perspective and, more crucially, his inflated imagination, and it only makes sense that after his traumatic catharsis, his angry, unfocused id would take full control. I'm more interested in the film's last use of voiceover, which doesn't belong to Travis. It belongs to Iris' father, thanking Travis for rescuing his daughter and praising the taxi driver to the heavens. As we hear his narrated letter, the camera pans along a series of newspaper articles declaring Travis a hero. For the first time in the film, the internal polemic matches the fractured reality. So maybe I'm cruel, but that's what convinces me of this scene's complete unreality. The voiceover in Taxi Driver is both more revealing and more simplified than what's seen on screen, exposing Travis, but only in terms of the lies he tells himself. The cinematic voiceover at its worst is pure excess and laziness, either drowning the film in overly staged artifice or revealing the material as tragically underwritten. At its best, though, the voiceover is a careful balancing act of realities and points of view, and while Scorsese would go on to abuse it and gleefully desecrate it, he never employed it with more careful grace than in Taxi Driver, still his finest film.

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