Why Taxi Driver Still Endures

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Besides being a masterpiece, Taxi Driver endures in part because the conditions that inspired it endure.

Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

travis-mohawk

The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

taxi-driver-1976-11-g

In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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Taxi Driver: 40 Thoughts for 40 Years

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Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

travis-mohawk

The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

taxi-driver-1976-11-g

In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Forty years. Wow.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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A History of Violence

When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.

But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.

To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong.

Exhibit A: Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer (pun intended) on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, outstanding!

Exhibit B: the jaw-dropping Tony Jaa’s instant classic (already immortal) one-take (!!) fight scene, which took over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Respect!

As kind of an antidote, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts an epic fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uneven, embarrassing. This is a clinic, made indelible by De Niro and Joey “The Mook”:

And as an intermission, or delicious palette cleanser, let’s appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes (which obliges us to turn to the ultimate in camp, the caped crusader played by the marvelous Adam West): this is the all-in battle royale, a brawl that involves all the assorted players (skip to the three-minute mark if you can’t stand the suspense). Three words: “Bon voyage pussy!” Holy blissful extravagance, Batman! (Much, much more on Batman, and camp, here.)

Speaking of camp: does it get any better (worse) than Patrick Swayze? This scene has so much homoerotic energy it almost sucks its own dick. You can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who’s gayer: Swayze, (the great) Ben Gazzara (“Can somebody geta drink around here?”) or the dude with pool cue? Are you kidding me? In very un-American fashion, embedding is disabled but you can enjoy a full ten minutes worth of “highlights” here.

Of course, the only cat who could challenge Swayze for the crown is Rob Lowe. First up, an epic romp with Andrew McCarthy (doing his finest work, which isn’t saying much) from the so-bad-it’s-great Class (two words: Jacqueline Bisset). Skip ahead to the 5.23 mark for the fight, but you can watch the whole thing to appreciate John Cusak in his first movie role. Recognize!

But this is child’s play compared to Youngblood(which gets you a young(er) Swayze and Keanu Reeves, demonstrating that at no time in his career could he act), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. The bromance battling the testosterone here is officially off the charts; the movie itself is one long fight scene between gay yearning and feel-good Hollywood onanism.

Of course, for both fight scenes and hockey, it’s all about the Hanson brothers and Slap Shot (six words: “I’m listening to the fucking song!):

Don’t think I’m going to sleep on Stallone. Any number of his movies could be considered (duh) but for the all-time camp, how you can top the over-the-top invocation of boxing and pro wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male. (Incidentally, Rocky III would be on the short list of all-time homo-erotic films. It may be in the top three alongside Road House and Top Gun.)

Now we’re approaching that elevated plane also known as the truth. Male gymnist? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Gayness off the charts? Big check. The only remaining question being, can you handle this truth? Let’s see:

But let’s stop screwing around and get to the glory. The scene, and I mean the scene, where all the elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good) acting, and wrestling) come together, are made manifest in John Carpenter’s They Live. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet-convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it’s one for the ages.

So what do you get, where else is there to go, when you have a scene like the one above, that parodies virtually every aspect of the entire history of fight scenes? You have a scene that parodies that scene. Enter Ernie the Giant Chicken, the recurring character from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. (The scene below is an appetizer; here is the main course.)

What else is there left to say? Why not tie it all together with the only genius who actually is capable of intermingling all of these elements into his own work. Martial arts inspired reggae? Lee Scratch Perry has it covered.

So what did I miss? Let me know what fight scene (good, bad, ugly or hopefully, all of these) you would put into the pantheon. Peace!

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Farewell to a Goodfella: Henry Hill, R.I.P.

Well, it finally happened, albeit a lot later than many of his enemies would have liked.

The world’s most famous –and recalcitrant– bad-guy-turned-FBI-informant, Henry Hill, has passed away at age 69. Details here.

His remarkable transition from relatively unpromising punk (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) to up-and-coming wise guy (“Oh! You broke your cherry!”), to rat (“Mr. Hill, you know everything about being a rat”) to exiled, very unpromising yuppie (“I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook”) is, of course, immortalized in Goodfellas, an instant-classic that, in 2010, I opined was the most definitive American movie of the previous two decades. That tribute is below. What do you think? Favorite moments from the movie? Other gangster movies that can hold a candle to the life story of Henry Hill? Let’s hear it.

 

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing –and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story: we’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather: when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is here and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating “—hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi (stuntman): De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low: I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ’em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!’ “)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody –real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but…let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t –or does not want to– believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe — an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.

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Goodfellas: The Most Definitive American Movie of the Last Two Decades

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing –and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story: we’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather: when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is here and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating “—hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi (stuntman): De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low: I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ’em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!’ “)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody –real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but…let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t –or does not want to– believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe — an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.

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Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’: A Late Masterpiece from The Master

Understanding that Dreams was among the last films Akira Kurosawa made inexorably adds a regal and elegiac air to the proceedings. The fact that the work is semi-autobiographical (based on or inspired by actual dreams the legendary director had during the course of his life) renders the final product a rather intimate look into Kurosawa’s mind. Perhaps most intriguing is the unguarded way we are able to understand and appreciate the great man’s muse: we are in a sense seeing the way he saw, artistically. As such, Dreams could be considered the maestro’s most human film.

The concept, eight “dreams”, rendered as vignettes (or tone poems, or short stories, or fantastical reveries—or all of the above), could—and likely would—in almost any other director’s hands, be a recipe for farce. In fact, Dreams remains controversial and critical opinion on the film’s success is decidedly mixed. Those who dismiss it find the material mawkish, preachy and haphazardly constructed. Those who endorse it accept it on its own terms and relish the opportunity to explore Kurosawa’s creativity and, more than occasionally, his conscience. Perhaps more so than any other great director, Kurosawa was incapable of separating artifice from morality, and the tension of this human (and artistic) struggle recalls Dostoyevsky perhaps more than any filmmaker.

If nothing else, Dreams is a visual triumph; the cinematography is truly epic and the film succeeds purely as spectacle. Indeed, most of the “action” is rendered through images, and the emphasis is on showing, not telling. Dialogue is minimal and the music, when utilized, is strategic and effective (the use of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude is particularly inspired). While each of the segments have a discernible trajectory, they don’t necessarily begin and end—at least not in a strictly linear fashion, as is appropriate for any authentic rendering of a typical dream.

The most affecting stories are associated with his youth. (Whether or not these were inspired by actual dreams is almost beside the point; Kurosawa imbues each segment with impressions that balance the surreal elements of dreams with the symbolic inventions of a creative mind. Both of these, then, are also commentaries on what drives an artist and compels creation.) “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard” serve as slightly surreal Aesop’s Fables, only instead of a lesson we get a revelation. In both instances a young boy is enticed by a love and appreciation of Nature, ultimately coming too close to some ancient and enigmatic authority. Rather than providing a clichéd contrast to “reality” or adulthood, Nature is at once capricious, inscrutable, and even vengeful. In other words, the mysteries of tradition and the unfathomable forces of history prove irresistible but also perilous. It is almost impossible to see these intriguing parables and not be moved by Kurosawa’s subtle commentary on the events and attitudes that influence an artistic sensibility.

Subsequent stories engage with the concerns and obsessions Kurosawa grappled with throughout his life. Both “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel” (which ostensibly concern survival in harsh elements and the aftermath of war) can also be viewed as allegories for perseverance, literally and artistically. The film does stumble a bit with the two “horror” stories, both involving a nuclear apocalypse. Certainly the subject matter is anything but trite but the results are a bit ham-fisted and, as many critics have opined, preachy. The last segment, “Village of the Watermills” is a peaceful meditation on existence (again, literal and artistic) and serves as a sort of living eulogy for a life well-lived (and featuring legendary actor Chishû Ryû as “the Old Man”, an actor as indelibly associated with director Yasujirô Ozu as Mifune was with Kurosawa and whose only other appearance in a Kurosawa film was at the very end of Red Beard). By the time Dreams is over, we’ve seen youth, old age, life, death, magic, enchantment, illusion, and redemption. What else is there?

Special mention must be made of the film’s centerpiece, “Crows”, which involves an extraordinary encounter with Vincent Van Gogh (played, more than a little appropriately, by Kurosawa disciple Martin Scorsese). The famously tormented painter discusses “devouring” the natural scenes he paints, but admits “it’s so difficult to hold it inside.” If there is a better or more succinct explanation of the forces that inspired and destroyed this delicate man, I’ve yet to come across it. The only thing to do, he asserts, is work; to battle the inhibitions and push oneself past where even the demons can go. That way lays Glory and down there, deep, resides Beauty. And madness. “I drive myself like a locomotive,” he says, staring defiantly at the sun. What happens next, I’m not at all sorry to state, must simply be seen to be believed.

Dreams endures as an exercise in the art of nostalgia: memories are elevated into visual splendor that is at once soothing and unsettling. Sort of like life. By experiencing this film we have the indescribable opportunity to behold the world through the eyes of an exceptional, sensitive soul who just happened to be a genius.

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A History of Violence

When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the cliched short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.

But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. And we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.

To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong.

Exhibit A: Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer (pun intended) on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, outstanding!

Exhibit B: the jaw-dropping Tony Jaa’s instant classic (already immortal) one-take (!!) fight scene, which took over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Respect!

As kind of an antidote, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts an epic fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uneven, embarrassing. This is a clinic, made indelible by De Niro and Joey “The Mook”:

And as an intermission, or delicious palette cleanser, let’s appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes (which obliges us to turn to the ultimate in camp, the caped crusader played by the marvelous Adam West): this is the all-in battle royale, a brawl that involves all the assorted players. Three words: “Bon voyage pussy!” Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

Speaking of camp: does it get any better (worse) than Patrick Swayze? This scene has so much homoerotic energy it almost sucks its own dick. You can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who’s gayer: Swayze, (the great) Ben Gazzara (“Can somebody geta drink around here?”) or the dude with pool cue? Are you kidding me?

Of course, the only cat who could challenge Swayze for the crown is Rob Lowe. First up, an epic romp with Andrew McCarthy (doing his finest work, which isn’t saying much) from the so-bad-it’s-great Class (two words: Jacqueline Bisset). Skip ahead to the 5.23 mark for the fight, but you can watch the whole thing to appreciate John Cusak in his first movie role. Recognize!

But this is child’s play compared to Youngblood(which gets you a young(er) Swayze and Keanu Reeves, demonstrating that at no time in his career could he act), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. The bromance battling the testosterone here is officially off the charts; the movie itself is one long fight scene between gay yearning and feel-good Hollywood onanism.

Of course, for both fight scenes and hockey, it’s all about the Hanson brothers and Slap Shot (six words: “I’m listening to the fucking song!):

Now we’re approaching that elevated plane also known as the truth. Male gymnist? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Gayness off the charts? Big check (special shout out to my beloved Meatbull for bringing this one to my attention). The only remaining question being: can you handle the truth? Let’s see:

But let’s stop screwing around and get to the glory. The scene, and I mean the scene, where all the elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good) acting, and wrestling) come together, are made manifest in John Carpenter’s They Live. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet-convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it’s one for the ages.

So what do you get, where else is there to go, when you have a scene like the one above, that parodies virtually every aspect of the entire history of fight scenes? You have a scene that parodies that scene. Enter Ernie the Giant Chicken, the recurring character from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy.

What else is there left to say? Why not tie it all together with the only genius who actually is capable of intermingling all of these elements into his own work. Martial arts inspired reggae? Lee Scratch Perry has it covered. So what did I miss? Let me know what fight scene (good, bad, ugly or hopefully, all of these) you would put into the pantheon. Peace!

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