Over at the Ordinary Gentleman, David Schaengold has launched an attack Martin Scorsese’s reputation as a grand homme of American cinema . Using the distinction introduced by our own James Poulos, he claims that Scorsese doesn’t traffic in the sublime, but only the “sense of the sublime”. Exhibit A is the famous tracking shot in Goodfellas , when Henry smoothly whisks Karen through the kitchen of the Copacabana to the best table in the house.
Schaengold thinks this is cheap because it makes us Henry’s accomplices. We want him to rise in the mafia so that we can watch him enjoy the fruits of his success. The viewer is thus morally implicated in Henry’s crimes. But the movie’s supposed to teach us that crime doesn’t pay. So this is a a false note, an elevation of style over moral substance, right?
Wrong. In Goodfellas , Scorsese refuses to moralize the principle that crime doesn’t pay. The lesson of the film is that mafia life is great . . . but doesn’t last forever. The characters who are beaten, murdered, imprisoned aren’t being punished for their sins. They’ve just bet big and turned up the wrong card—a result for which we’re prepared by the gambling scenes in the first act.
It’s possible that the fundamental amorality of Goodfellas prevents it from being great art. But Kubrick, whom Schaengold prefers, isn’t exactly Dostoyevsky, either. Is there a morally colder film than Barry Lyndon? And if you’re looking for sin and redemption in Scorsese’s work, look no farther than Mean Streets , from which the title of this post is taken. Seriously, what’s the matter with you ?