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“It Had Nothing to Do With Me”: The Moral Sloth of Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Raging Bull. This week, we’re looking at Goodfellas. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white boxing film.

There is a long-running debate concerning the films of Martin Scorsese, one that arose most recently around The Wolf of Wall Street.

To his critics, Scorsese is seen as a director who glorifies and venerates a certain form of toxic masculinity. There’s a certain logic to this argument. After all, whatever Scorsese’s intentions may be, there is no denying that his films attract a certain unironic fandom that gets swept up in these stories of tough men who do terrible things. This is reflected in everything from the ubiquity of Goodfellas as a “dorm room poster” to celebrations of its depiction of masculinity to the fact that real-life gangsters reportedly love it.

This criticism largely derives from the fact that Scorsese effectively surrenders control of the film’s narrative to his central characters. His movies are often literally narrated by their central characters: Henry and Karen Hill in Goodfellas, Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in Casino and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. These characters are given ample room to espouse their worldview and their philosophy, to craft the story that they want to tell.

Scorsese undoubtedly pushes back against his characters in interesting ways – often ironically juxtaposing their conceited monologues with brutal imagery to underscore the dissonance between their narrative of events with the reality of the situation. However, Scorsese largely avoids overtly moralising. He avoids the easy route of having external characters comment too obliquely or too loudly on the moral decadence at play. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Karen Hill is her own complicity in Henry’s immorality rather than any condemnation of it.

To be fair, there’s a lot to recommend this approach. American cinema has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the Breen Office, and there is a lot to be said for the importance of treating an audience as mature enough to grapple with complicated ideas or giving them room to reach conclusions on their own terms. Psycho is a classic piece of American cinema, but it suffers greatly from a closing scene where a new character shows up to lecture the cast (and implicitly the audience) on the film that they just watched.

Indeed, this is ultimately the beauty of Scorsese’s approach to these characters. Scorsese gives them all the room that they need, and they still manage to incriminate themselves. Their robust attempts to glorify and mythologise themselves inevitably backfire. Like a good detective or lawyer, Scorsese shrewdly just allows characters like Henry Hill to talk and talk and talk, knowing that they have been given enough rope with which they might hang themselves.

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New Escapist Column! On the Fan Reaction to the Final Season of “Game of Thrones”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. It’s the one year anniversary of the end of Game of Thrones, so it seemed appropriate to look back on the fan reaction to that final season.

The final season is admittedly a flawed season of television. However, that doesn’t quite explain the level of vitriol that it provokes online. After all, the finale was widely enjoyed by general audiences, performed reasonably well at the Emmys and is doing very well for itself in streaming in social isolation. This contrast is interesting, suggesting that there’s something particularly prickly about the final season that alienated its most vocal fans so extremely.

In hindsight, this seems to be the actions of Daenerys Targaryen in the second half of the season. In the home strange, Daenerys ceased to be seen as a “liberator” of the continent, and instead became a conqueror. She did what all conquerors do, raining down death and destruction on those civilisations that do not welcome her. This was all very clearly seeded across the previous seven seasons, but it turned rather sharply against the audience’s sympathy for Daenerys. In doing so, it made the audience complicit in the carnage. One suspects that complicity stings.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Black Mirror – Bandersnatch (Review)

What exactly is Bandersnatch?

In narrative terms, it is very difficult to describe Bandersnatch, given the structure and format of the latest installment of Black Mirror. After all, two people consuming Bandersnatch might have very different experiences of it. It is possible for certain audience members to experience the narrative fundamentally different ways. Conversing about Bandersnatch largely involves defining what each participant experienced of the narrative, establishing a frame of reference for discussion. It is fascinating in this regard.

However, that is arguably an even bigger question. Is Bandersnatch an episode of television, given that it is being released under the Black Mirror brand by Netflix, even though it is being released on its own terms? Is Bandersnatch a film, given that it is a self-contained narrative? Is Bandersnatch just a video game, given how much it relies on audience participation? These are three very different classifications, and Bandersnatch blurs the line between each of the three.

Marshall McLuhan famously argued that “the medium is the message”, but Bandersnatch takes that a little further. What if we’re not sure what the medium is at all?

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