Friday, January 3, 2014

A Note On Ambiguity And Ambivalence In Scorsese's Goodfellas

I don't credit Scorsese with ambiguity as a rich means of complexity in theme and vision, which makes for great art, in Goodfellas, but, rather, an ambivalence between wanting to show the many sidedness of gangsters and gangster life that, I'd argue, reduces itself to an overarching vaunting of them and that life, reducing their homicidal, preying, blood sucking thuggery to their putative attractiveness--money, getting whatever you want, doing whatever you want, high life, women, fraternity--as the movie has it.

So Ray Liotta is only nostalgic, nothing else, no remorse, no insight into what's so horrible and blood sucking about it, for that life as he has to leave it behind to get into Witness Protection. There's, for me, a disturbing element of moral idiocy in that. As somebody put it, "the filmic affirmation of scum."

I don't judge art insofar as it confirms my biases. I'm neither philistine nor self righteous prude. But that said, I distinguish, as noted, between ambiguity and ambivalence in art, the former a virtue, the latter a sign the artist didn't achieve a coherent work, that the work's tensions weren't under control, that its contrary impulses worked against each other incoherently.

A good example of that is The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is both so vile and so majestic and the surrounding Venetian society, meant to be such a contrast to him, is empty and itself cruel,, making the ending and final treatment of Shylock so emotionally unsatisfying.

Too there can be coherent works richly created with themes and portrayals that are nevertheless repugnant by most people's lights. I'm thinking as an example of The Olympiade.

My approach to art is essentially to want to grant the artist his vision and subject and see what he's done with it. But Goodfellas increasingly emerges on my re-seeing it as a well made and compellingly entertaining movie that doesn't ultimately know what it's about. David Denby caught what l feel about Goodfellas well in his piece on The Wolf of Wall Street. He says the exultancy in the depicting of so much vibrancy in the excesses the movie wants to expose and take on makes Scorsese trip over himself. His film becomes one with what he wants to take down. In a word, Denby's criticism is, for me, apt for Goodfellas.

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