There are many reasons why mob movies appeal to the masculine-obsessed and bravado-prone. For one thing, these movies almost always center around characters with unrelenting ambitions to attain the quasi-godly status of the alpha-male, and whose greatest fear is to be seen as a pushover.
Then again, maybe I’m just just talking from my own experiences. I first saw “Goodfellas” when I was eleven years old and “Casino” when I was thirteen. The cinephile part of me was attracted to all the usual cinephile stuff–the long winding tracking shots, the swift pans and abrupt freeze frames, the sprawling depth of narrative detail, like the hierarchal nature of who’s watching whom on the pit floor in “Casino”, all of which made us really feel like we were inside the world, and not just watching it as a spectator. The boyish part of me, however, was attracted to the utter power that these characters wielded, from the way Jimmy Conway decides last minute not to whack Maury, leaning into our apprehensive protagonist Henry Hill with a casual head shake, as if the entire issue of murder was but a minor dampening inconvenience to the day’s plans, to the way Nicky Santoro administers his own brand of swift pen-stabbing justice to some disrespectful douche bag who had, without warrant, called Nicky’s best friend a jagoff. In a large part of culture where being a man means viewing woman as commodities and suppressing feelings is a means of avoiding to appear weak, it’s easy to see why mob movies can be seen as nothing more than cathartic porn for the testosterone-driven.
It’s a minor shame because I truly think that “Goodfellas” and “Casino” are very telling films about the world we live in today. The former is about our compulsive thirst for what society dictates as “success”–flashy cars, adorning clothing, superficial admiration and respect, etc. It’s about how social institutions and the circumstances we’re brought up in, such as Henry growing up around the mob life, how these things all play a very vital role in who we want to be, as autonomous citizens of a society. If “Goodfellas” is about how and why we want to get to the “top”, whatever and wherever that is, “Casino” is about what we do when we’re finally “there.” Our major characters, Ace, Ginger, and Nicky pretty much have everything Henry and co. desired. In a milieu where social relations are nothing but a business contract, where people are not ends of themselves but a means to an end, one will seldom feel settled or even accomplished. Any meaningful relationships, whether its friendships or even love, become devoid of trust, the most important aspect of any meaningful relationship. In a world where self-interest is sacred, apocalypse is inevitable.
Hm, all of this reminds me of something that happened about a decade ago. What was it that crashed due to self interest run amok, where pretentious bellicose suits believed that “success” must be achieved regardless of the cataclysmic consequences that would follow? One need not say more about the necessity of the lessons brought forth to us by these two great films. Unfortunately, this is where one can see the moral limitations of art.
It’s been said that the best arts are the engaging ones. I once discussed the movie “Wolf of Wall Street” with my hometown boys and was not too surprised to find that their reactions differed pretty dramatically from some of my artsy-film friend’s reactions. Apparently, I had been at a liberal arts school way too long. My hometown boys expressed admiration for Jordan Belford’s self interest, business wit, and “entrepreneurial initiative”, and, of course, saw his hedonistic lifestyle as something to emulate (albeit underneath the surface). There’d even be half-jested remarks about where one could find quaaludes on the market. My film friends, meanwhile, admired it for all the reasons they loved “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, for its ability to tempt us into that world of excess, and even, at times, making us question our own motives for “success” and “ambition”. Either that or they reacted with a sort of ironic air— “It’s horrible but I loved Wolf of Wall Street.”