"The mafia have created the anti- establishment establishment"Warner Bros

Watching Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese, one in a string of gangster films, including Casino and The Departed, (which essentially constitute their own sub genre now) allows for a meditation on what shapes the watcher’s experience.

The act of re-reading (or watching) is a process in which one’s perception changes between each exposure to a text or film. But watching this movie in a theatre, surrounded by others sharing the experience, completely altered my understanding of it. I last watched Goodfellas at home over Christmas and I laughed a lot. At the Picturehouse I was unnerved by the laughter of those around me. The mixture of violence and humour was something I had not noticed, and crucially I have never heard discussed by any of the many other fans of this film whom I know.

“The thing about Scorsese’s films is that their characters don’t assimilate, they strive to the top and along the way they meet a bad end”

Scorsese produces films that chronicle a world that fascinated him in his youth. The Mafia has become associated with Italian America in the public imagination. These movies tell stories of people struggling to get a foothold in the American melting pot, to clear a space for themselves in a constantly shifting culture. His work tells the story of groups divided racially, from ‘just off the boat’ to the gilded tip of the American capitalist structure. One reason for the popularity of the genre is that it shows the experience of the diaspora, one of the themes of twentieth-century American culture and society. The other big theme that these films grapple with is American corporate capitalism. The Mafia attempted to climb to the top of society by creating a version of the corporation itself. In Goodfellas we see that when Tommy upsets the stability of the system he gets whacked under the pretences of becoming a ‘made man’. This very concept in itself signifies another point about the American experience: the way in which the various groups pull together. Only one of the three central male characters can become a member of the criminal organisation with which they are all affiliated. This is a mirror of the wasps private member’s country clubs. The mafia have created the anti-establishment establishment.

Watching Goodfellas, released in 1990, is different in a post-Sopranos environment. That show, over 86 episodes, showed a family of third- and fourth-generation Italian Americans, headed by a mob boss father, that held onto its roots, distrusted outsiders yet slowly assimilated into the American mainstream, with a daughter at Columbia, country club membership, and card games with surgeons and professors.

The thing about Scorsese’s films is that their characters don’t assimilate, they strive to the top and along the way they meet a bad end. Success in one hierarchy doesn’t mean success in another. Watching the The Sopranos, the audience becomes empathetic towards Tony as he juggles family life with ‘work’. We have seen him in various emotional states; indeed, we see his vulnerable side, seated in his psychiatrist’s office trying to overcome his panic attacks. Similarly when Henry Hill gets nabbed by the police there is an empathetic ‘aw’ from those seated alongside me. He gets caught preparing to drive a drug mule to the airport and I doubt that many of those from whom this audible ‘aw’ was emitted would condone this immoral behaviour.

How did Marty manage this? Henry Hill is perceived from more than one point of view: he shares the narration with his wife, a good Jewish girl who goes down with him. Her complicity gives the audience a juxtaposition – it conveys that the characters do not start out crooked, that myriad factors combine to create this trajectory, that their story is nuanced.

Films reflect the times in which they are made; the preoccupations of the film-maker are shaped by their past and present. Yet so much of how we watch a film is not down to us, but to our past and present

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