Monday, June 15, 2015

If you think GoodFellas and The Wolf of Wall Street are inspirational stories of triumph, you need professional fucking help--and a lobotomy from Thelma Schoonmaker

Diminish the role she played in the making of GoodFellas, and she'll inflict cuts on you that are as bad as a jump cut in a Ridley Scott movie.
Thelma Schoonmaker

When I recently wrote about The Wolf of Wall Street, I said, "A lesser filmmaker would rain down judgment on Travis [in Taxi Driver]... or he'd make Rupert [in The King of Comedy] and Belfort... experience a personality change and become remorseful after their short prison time. But not Scorsese. He wants to sit back, let the audience judge Travis/Rupert/Jordan for themselves and see what happens. If many in the audience squirm over their behavior and the repercussions, that's great. If others view them as their hero or spirit animal--like how several Homer Simpsons out there cheered The Wolf of Wall Street on as if it's School of Hard Knockers... to the dismay of those who completely sympathize with Belfort's victims--that's great too. It's weird but great. As for a man named John Hinckley..."

Right-wing film critic Kyle Smith definitely belongs in the "It's weird" category. If you stayed away from Twitter all last week like I've been frequently doing lately, you might have missed the appalled reactions to Smith's umpteenth attempt to troll everyone: "Women are not capable of understanding GoodFellas," his so-ridiculous-it-could-be-easily-mistaken-for-a-ClickHole-parody New York Post op-ed.

It's funny how--like a clown--the New York Post published Smith's op-ed the day after GoodFellas re-entered my consciousness when I stumbled into the film's 25th Anniversary Blu-ray in a rack of Blu-rays at Target, and I became worried that I'd have to double-dip because the new Blu-ray contains a cast and crew commentrak with Scorsese, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino (I was relieved to find out a few days later that my copy of the 2004 GoodFellas DVD contains the same commentrak). In his article, Smith says things like "To a woman, the GoodFellas are lowlifes. To guys, they're hilarious, they're heroes. They rule the roost." Remember Henry Hill's coke-fueled meltdown on his last day as a wiseguy? Yeah, that was really heroic.

Fans of GoodFellas, both male and female, went apeshit on Twitter over Smith's sweeping statement--his op-ed is such a hacky '80s stand-up routine about the differences between men and women that I can practically smell the brick wall--but they went apeshit in sardonic and entertaining ways that made nuance-free, often way-too-shrill-and-humorless-for-my-tastes Twitter worth reading again.

Why do right-wing film critics often misread gangster movies as endorsements of gangster behavior, just like how so many right-wingers misinterpret rap lyrics? Smith's misreading of one of his favorite mob movies as Entourage with guns (I'm looking forward to someone--with way too much time on their hands--mocking the much-ridiculed Smith article by replacing GoodFellas' dialogue with dude-bro dialogue from Entourage) reminds me of when Armond White, who currently writes for the right-wing National Review, panned Better Luck Tomorrow in 2003 because he was dissatisfied with what he thought was the Justin Lin film's endorsement of the Asian American friends' slide into crime and bloodshed. Better Luck wasn't endorsing and fetishizing the murder in the garage towards the end of the movie, you old conservative fuck. Same to you, Mr. Rosso lookalike who prefers his entertainment to be Pollyannaish and, like White, condescendingly accused Lin of selling out his own people by making an "empty and amoral" portrayal of Asian Americans in Better Luck.

What GoodFellas and Better Luck--and in a not-as-gory way, The Wolf of Wall Street--are doing is initially reveling in the allure of a gangster lifestyle (for me, the most alluring part of the gangster lifestyle in Better Luck was Roger Fan's sociopathic character beating up at a party a racist jock who needed his ass kicked). Those films have to do so in order to sell you on why these characters are attracted to crime--Scorsese once described the Copacabana sequence in GoodFellas as a moment when the gangster lifestyle seduces Henry--but then they kick the seat from under you and switch to focusing on the downsides of such a lifestyle. Unlike the boring lifestyle porn of Entourage, those films intend to undermine the gangster fantasy they introduced.

GoodFellas excels at its hard right-hand turn into the downsides of its characters' behavior by not stupidly opting for the bad-movie-screenwriting route of having a character--or an on-the-nose pop song--flat out say, "This is bad, mmm-kay" (Scorsese's terrific use of existing songs to comment on a scene, but only "in an oblique way," was partly why existing songs from GoodFellas like "Monkey Man" were all over the playlist for the now-defunct AFOS block "Rock Box"). The pre-MTV Films, pre-DJ Shadow cut of Better Luck excels at that hard right-hand turn as well. The MTV Films cut? Uh, not so much. Lin, perhaps more rattled by Mr. Rosso's outburst at Sundance than he'd let on, tweaked the ending in the MTV Films version so that the characters, including a pre-Fast and the Furious Han Seoul-Oh, ended up being a little more remorseful about their actions.

Of course Smith wouldn't be aware that a woman edited GoodFellas because he strikes me as an idiot who never reads the credits on the boxes of things. Last time I checked, reading the credits of things is one of the requirements of being a film critic. The outcry over the New York Post article is a good time--hell, it's always a good time--to reassess or pay more attention to longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker's pivotal role in making GoodFellas a classic of adrenalized pacing, rock n' roll filmmaking and moral ambiguity (my favorite line from Schoonmaker about the editing of GoodFellas was her reply to someone's bafflement over how such a demure and unassuming lady could be the cutter of Scorsese's most violent works: "Ah, but they aren't violent until I've edited them").

Scorsese and Schoonmaker's partnership ranks as one of the all-time greatest director/editor partnerships. Without Schoonmaker in the editing suite, I don't think Scorsese would have been able to take four hours' worth of material he shot for The Wolf of Wall Street and whittle all that material down to three hours. Yeah, three hours can be demanding on someone with a weak bladder, but that's why I never buy any beverages at the movie theater or drink anything before the feature presentation.

The outcry over the New York Post article is also a good time to remember that all Rupert Murdoch's right-wing daily is good for is lining a bird cage. One of the 4,080 things I learned from listening to Public Enemy in its prime was to never take anything published by the New York Post seriously. Like Chuck D said, it ain't worth the paper it's printed on.

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