Monday, January 6, 2014

On Donnie Brasco And Comparing It To Goodfellas

Donnie Brasco

In my brief exchange with a friend, in part about some ways in which Goodfellas bothers me, which he nicely encapsulated by the phrase "amoral narrative," I mentioned Donnie Brasco as an example of a mob movie that doesn't in any way glamorize or make seem appealing or treat as funny thug life.

I just watched Donnie Brasco again.

Newell treats that life with all the grey and somber disrespect it deserves. He shows consistently what stupid, low life slugs the gangsters are, how sickeningly violent they are, what scum they are, without Scorsese's bizarre morally qualifying touches of sardonic humor as when he shows corpses in various aspects, sitting shot in a car, floating to the surface in a huge heap of trash, hanging frozen in a truck on a meathook among frozen carcasses of meat, all in reposes more humorous than horrifying, as a result of Jimmy the Gent's murderous paranoia and just plain greed. That Scorsese makes these corpses look funny in death is, I'd argue, as morally numbing as it is baffling. What's the point of these macabre humorous touches, of thuggery as a kind of hi jinx in death?

Donnie Brasco, mind you, is anything but a a moralizing tract or a one dimensional portrayal of its hoods. It tells both Lefty's and Joe Pistone's fully human stories, painting a portrayal of them as individuals and their relationship as deep and subtle as are Pacino's and Depp's great acting.

(Someone once commented that Goodfellas suffers from how consistently loud it is, though Robert De Niro is never loud. But compare Joey Pesci, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, who all bring the word "shrill" to mind, and who I wish would just hush up some, to the relentlessly understated, almost whispery, beat up quality of Pacino's acting and speaking and to Johnny Depp's intelligently modulated expression of emotions, which houses occasional and vividly contrasting kinetic outbursts of temper and frayed nerves.)

So, unlike Goodfellas, which presents no discernible character development or moral dilemmas, only its thugs trying consistently to get by and get over, Pistone roils in his personal life as he increasingly becomes Donnie Brasco and as his relationship with Lefty becomes real, deep and enduring. It survives his knowledge of Lefty's twenty six hits, of his unqualified immersion in "the life" and, most intensely, his execution before Depp's eyes of Bruno Kirby.

In that, Lefty murders the man who's been his close friend and associate for over twenty years, just like that. That killing fires up Depp's outspoken disbelief at its ease such that he demands, to the point of shouting, that Lefty say his murdered friend's name as the slightest token of some humanity and decency, as the slightest token of recognition of, of owning if only a little, what he has just murderously done.

There are scenes in Donnie Brasco of powerful and unerring human reality, so vivid in their depiction of complex emotions and frustration. I'm thinking, for example, of our first view of Pistone at home in the midst of his deep undercover having evolved from a scheduled two weeks to two years. He takes out his frustration and marked psychological disturbance from dangling between the identities of Pistone and Brasco on his wife, Anne Heche. Remarkable too is his being overtaken slowly but surely and subtly by the Brasco identity. Powerful is his explosion of anger in the motel room in Florida dealing with his Mormon FBI boss and with some taped conversation being ruined. And what can surpass the beautifully acted, quietly elegiac manner Pacino goes to his certain death after the final, inevitable "sent for" phone call on Donnie Brasco, who he vouched for, being exposed as Pistone?

There's something profound in that elegiac penultimate scene. For just as Pistone feels deep, irreducible friendship for Lefty, loves him really, as Lefty loves him, right to the end, despite Lefty's murderous criminality, so do we as audience feel the sadness of it. That paradox, compassionate, sympathetic feelings for such a homicidal thug, is, I'd argue, the rich and complex ambiguity of highly affecting art. It's that same mixture of moral horror and sympathetic attraction that, in a different way to be sure, marks the genius of The Sopranos. My contention is that that ambiguity contrasts positively with what I find to be the confusing ambivalence of Goodfellas.

And what of the subtlety in the contrast between Depp's inner experience and tormented love--as--friendship for Lefty and the FBI's treatment of the entire matter as just another operation to be worked, albeit a significant one? So Newell shows the pro forma honouring of Depp, the FBI official getting Pistone's name wrong after stumbling over it, awarding him a medal and a paltry $500.00 bonus, its pathetic minginess a measure of its utter hollowness for Pistone. That $500.00 contrasts with the $300,000.00 Pistone accumulated undercover, and unless I missed it, has no intention of returning. (And that $300,00.00 is late seventies early eighties money. Consider what it would amount to now.)

The point, I think, is that the $500.00 measures meaninglessness while the $300,000.00, apart from being a great deal of money, measures the depth of Depp's undercover immersion to the point of becoming what he was pretending to be and measures how meaningful it all was and is to him. The depth of that, too, shows in Depp's dazed, hollowed out and robotic going through the motions of that FBI honouring ceremony. He, in the end, Lefty surely dead, rejoins his wife and kids in what might seem a resolutionary way. But, in my view of the movie at least, he's a changed, haunted tormented man, indelibly marked by his experiences with Lefty and Lefty's fate as a result of Depp doing his job.

Another powerful instance of contrast, by the way, is the FBI putting the final stamp on Lefty's death warrant by showing an incredulous Sonny Black, Michael Masden, the pictures of Donnie Brasco as Pistone, hoping to flip him and others, maybe score some guilty pleas. The FBI in its indifference to Lefty's resulting fate can't be blamed, I suppose. It's just doing its crime fighting job. But this indifference is so opposite to Depp eating himself alive with torment and anxiety over what the consequences of just doing his job hold for Lefty.

What I want to say is that Goodfellas has none of this subtlety, human torment, agonized friendship, moral dilemma or psychological depth. For me, despite its broader canvas, its greater vivacity, and seeming bravura performances, Goodfellas is noisier, morally ambivalent, less affecting--really without any poignancy or humanity--and, generally, simply a lesser movie than Donnie Brasco.

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