Philosophical Screens: Chinesisches Roulette/Chinese Roulette (West Germany/France, 1976)

Blogpost, German Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This blog is a written version of some of the things that I shall be discussing tonight (Wednesday 10 May 2017) at the British Film Institute in London, where there is a screening and panel commentary on Chinese Roulette as part of the BFI’s Philosophical Screens series, organised in association with the London Graduate School.

The film tells the story of the Christ family, which consists of Gerhard (Alexander Allerson), Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and their crippled daughter Angela (Andrea Schobel). Both Gerhard and Angela are having affairs and one weekend Gerhard claims to be going to Oslo and Ariane claims to be going to Milan on business, but instead both go with their lovers to the Christ mansion in the countryside.

As a result, when Gerhard comes back from a roll in the woods with his French lover Irene (Anna Karina), he walks in on Ariane in the arms of his colleague, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel). But they are not alone, for Angela then turns up with her mute Polish nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril), implying that their daughter has engineered this confluence of partners and has come to observe the fallout.

What is more, events are also observed by the mansion’s housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who has a mysterious connection with the family, and her son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), who fancies himself as something of a philosopher-poet.

What is set in action, then, is a lean eight-header, in which various tensions are unravelled and revealed in the mansion, which, together with the objects that fill it, plays a key role in the film, which culminates in a  game of the eponymous Chinese Roulette. This is a guessing game in which one group asks questions to another group in order to discover which person from the first group the members of the second group are describing.

***Spoilers***

The game culminates in an act of violence – as Angela, Gerhard, Traunitz and Gabriel describes Ariane in various ways, including as a worm-eaten apple (if this person were a painting, what would feature in it?), a gilded mirror (what object would this person take to a desert island?), a whore (is this person a saint, a mother or a whore?), already dead (what might be an appropriate death for this person?), and the commandant of Bergen-Belsen (what role would this person have played in the Third Reich?).

Although Kast believes that they must be describing her, as do Irene, Kolbe and Ariane, when it is revealed by Angela that they are in fact describing her own mother, she flies into a fit of rage, takes out a gun from beneath a transparent chess set and aims it at her daughter… before shooting Traunitz.

All good melodramatic stuff!

But what makes Fassbinder’s film all the more interesting is not just what happens in it (which ultimately is not that much given the minimal settings and the restricted cast), but how it is put together.

For although Chinese Roulette only merits a few brief mentions in Thomas Elsaesser’s Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, and while Christian Braad Thomsen seems positively to dislike the film, it is nonetheless a remarkable masterclass in mise-en-scène and cinematography, with the film being shot by Michael Ballhaus, also the director of photophraphy for Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (USA, 1990), which was discussed at Philosophical Screens earlier in the year.

(This is not to mention the strength of the acting in Chinese Roulette, which is superb.)

For, although somewhat spartan, the Christ mansion is filled with relatively elegant objects, including a prominent transparent drinks cabinet, which is matched by a second transparent cabinet that contains a high fidelity music system. These accompany the afore-mentioned transparent chessboard in which sits the gun used to shoot Traunitz.

Time and again, these objects take up space in the frame, the camera placing them prominently before us, together with a birdcage in which budgies tweet and flutter. While we are supposed to and in some senses can see through these objects (they are transparent), in some senses they also get in the way, mirroring, distorting, fragmenting the bodies that we see and the actions they perform.

That is, while transparent, they in fact also change our perspective on things, suggesting that any perspective, therefore, is skewed, inaccurate and not necessarily correct. That this takes place in a film lends to Chinese Roulette a self-consciousness that elevates it out of the realm of a typical fiction film, in which events are presented to us as if in an accurate, objective and reliable fashion, but instead a film in which it becomes hard to read what exactly is going on.

There are several things for us to pick apart, since these dimensions of the film relate to larger ideas concerning family, class, history, fascism and cinema itself.

For, if in Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène we get a sense of how all views are potentially distorted, then we also get a sense of how quite possibly we can never therefore access the truth. And yet, in a country that is going through the kind of self-analysis that Germany was doing in the aftermath of the Second World War, the need to get to the truth, the need for transparency is it were, is tantamount – such that is becomes a guiding myth for an entire nation.

The myth might be that in confronting its fascist past, Germany can perhaps move beyond it, becoming so open in its dealings that fascism will never be allowed to rear its ugly head. In some senses, this explains the Christs’ compulsion to ask about the role of the chosen person in the Third Reich: they must acknowledge that they, too, are capable of fascism.

And yet, when confronted by this fascism, Ariane (in this instance) cannot tolerate it, and  she is compelled to let out her violent tendencies somewhere – in this instance on Traunitz.

For all of the desire to remove fascism via transparency, it creeps into everyday life in invisible ways. ‘Fascist,’ says Kast as another road user cuts her up as she drives home to the mansion near the start of the film.

Even in our cars, then, we have a sense of the human who separates themselves from the rest of the world, and thus begins to treat others not as fellow humans with whom one makes contact, but rather as people to use and abuse. That is, the seeds are sewn of seeing other humans as disposable, of the sort that we might thrown into a gas chamber.

If fascism is thus invisible, we might say that fascism is beyond the purview of cinema, that cinema cannot gain access to the inner recesses and the darkness that lurks within all human hearts. And yet, I am not sure that this is quite right – and we can explore this by returning to the transparent cabinets.

For, if the transparent cabinets in some senses get in the way and obscure the reality or truth of what it is that we see in Chinese Roulette, in order senses, those cabinets do not get in the way, but they are the way, with the distortions and reflections that they create not taking us away from a true vision of things, but being the true vision of things.

That is, distortion is the truth (that there is no truth). But more than this, a cinema that claims to offer us an undistorted or transparent image of the world such that we can begin to understand something like the Holocaust does not so much get beyond or allow us to recognise fascism, but it is fascism. In its supposedly objective presentation of the world, cinema is fascist as it reinforces the necessary separation of humans from the world and from each other that objectivity would by necessity require (to be objective, we have to be detached from the world).

If a would-be objective cinema is thus fascistic, then how do we get around this? Fassbinder does this precisely through his distortions, which thus become not so much distortions as a kind of Brechtian verfremdungseffekt that makes us aware that we are seeing not an objective truth, but precisely a constructed fiction.

I shall return to Fassbinder’s cinematography imminently. But here I want to discuss how it is not just cinema that typically separates humans from each other, but perhaps even the concept of family itself – even if family is of course supposed to unite people. For, while families are units, that they are units who seclude themselves off in larger or smaller domestic spaces – i.e. houses – shows how they separate themselves off from the world and then from each other.

On numerous occasions in Fassbinder’s film do we see chandeliers and various other objects (including the feet of a doll whom Angela seems at one point to have hung) jut down into the bottom of the frame. Not only do these render strange the images that we see, in that rather than being rectangular, the frame can take on different, indescribable shapes as these objects are visible only as darkness, but they also suggest the oppression that hems the Christs and their guests in.

This we can compare to Gerhard’s brief moment of happiness in the woods with Irene: he has escaped from the family hearth, but it will be back in the home and with is family that the fascism will recommence.

In other words, the characters of Chinese Roulette clearly want connection – otherwise they would not have lovers and so on. But they find such connection almost impossible to achieve, and the house bears in on them, constricting them to the point where they lash out in violence. Family, then, provides connection of a kind, but it is not enough, so constrained, for the characters to feel free.

Take the opening shots: we see Ariane in one window before we see Angela in another. The two seem to be in the same room as Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Eidenrest plays on Angela’s record player. And yet it is revealed that in fact they are in separate rooms. Both clearly seek the freedom of the outside – hence being at the window; but they in fact are separate both from the outside and from each other – perhaps even wilfully.

But there is more than just a family in Chinese Roulette; there is also Kast and her son and Irene and Kolbe, after all. And yet there seems little connection even between these extended cast members. Separated by objects, seeing each other in reflections, rarely looking each other in the eye: the characters are together, but they cannot connect either, as is made clear when Kolbe, fully clothed, begins to strangle a topless Ariane in bed (although she curiously wears a hairnet), and by the class division that seems to separate Kast and son from the Christs and daughter. Various forms of separation, then, are all at play, suggesting an impossibility of freedom.

With its depictions of bodies, especially heads, in space, gazing off in different directions, Fassbinder’s film is very painterly, with the stasis of the characters here also suggesting in some senses their failure to connect (since they cannot move in order subsequently to connect).

Here Ballhaus’ roaming camera comes into its own. For, if the characters do not move so much, then Ballhaus’ camera roams freely. And if an objective cinema is fascistic, then the remarkable camera movements that Ballhaus has the camera perform may depict a world where people do not connect, but which endeavours and perhaps succeeds in creating a film with which we do connect.

It is important here, then, that these camera movements seem unmotivated – in order to remind us that we are seeing a film, rather than watching but not noticing these camera movements because they are integrated into a clear and objectively presented narrative.

In this way, we understand that if cinema is fascist, then this is because capital is also fascist. For the cinema of supposed objectivity, in which we should not be reminded that we are watching a film, but in which we should instead simply forget about the real world for a couple of hours, is also the cinema of making money, a cinema for profit rather than a cinema of art. If profit and thus capital are achieved through supposed objectivity and separation from the world, and if fascism is also predicated upon a perceived separation of self from world and others (such that one can treat those others as objects rather than as people), then capital is also fascistic, and the capitalist cinema a key tool in promoting this fascistic ideology.

Elsaesser describes how Chinese Roulette can best be understood by the title of an essay that Fassbinder wrote on Claude Chabrol. In ‘Insects in a Glass Case,’ the director criticises Chabrol for simply looking at but not really getting involved with his characters, with the result being that his work is superficial (much as Fassbinder otherwise likes the work). Compared to an objective view, then, Fassbinder shows how the case (the transparent cabinets, the house, the cars) shape the behaviour of the insects/his characters, while also not being afraid to have his camera move freely inside the case rather than simply observe from beyond.

And yet, if the characters pose as if in paintings, static and separate, perhaps it is because they want this. They want separation and they perhaps even want the humiliation of knowing that they want separation and can do little to overcome the tendency towards it. This is why the Christs laugh upon discovering each other’s affairs, as well perhaps as in how they supposedly started those affairs when it was revealed that Angela was a cripple: faced with an imperfection, they simply adopt an illusion in order to turn away from that imperfection.

And yet this imperfection only marks the imperfections, the fascisms, that lie within and which are embedded via a history of war and exploitation that extends far further back in time that World War Two.

The Christs are clearly wealthy and international jet setters: they travel for work, have a house in Munich, the mansion in the countryside and a place in the mountains (that Gerhard mentions at one point). As much is also made clear by the names of their business acquaintances, whom we also hear about as the film progresses. Gressmann, Farucci, Petrovich, Ali Ben Basset: this is an international lifestyle that they have.

But how did the Christs get here? For it is never quite clear how they make their money, although at one point Gerhard speaks with Kast about the murder of Ben Basset – seemingly a reference to Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan freedom fighter who disappeared in Paris in 1965. ‘We are the only two left,’ he says to Kast, as if they were now the only dissidents remaining.

But what kind of dissident owns at least three houses, one of them a mansion? What would the Christs’ interest be in something like Moroccan independence?

Conceivably the answer might come in the form of Traunitz. Towards the end of the film, when Ariane has shot her daughter, Kast calls for an ambulance, telling it to come not to the Christ mansion but to the Traunitz mansion.

At the start of the film, Angela turns to Traunitz and says ‘your great-grandfather should have won the Battle of Katowice.’ It is unclear to which battle Angela is referring, while it is also unclear where exactly the mansion is – but one gets a sense that the Christs have acquired the mansion from the Traunitzes, much as Katowice historically was occupied by the Germans and then liberated by the Polish.

What is more, Macha Méril, who plays Traunitz, was born and died in Morocco, meaning that her mute subservience as Traunitz to the Christs obliquely speaks also of a history of North African colonialism and exploitation, which in turn suggests a world of capital in which the rich are empowered through exploitation, an act of separation from the exploited that the capitalist does consciously and for which they must therefore atone through occasional bouts of self-humiliation and abjection – the search for connection when they know that this will be fruitless because they cannot let go of their sense of superiority towards others as a result of their capitalist separation from them that is the necessary precondition for hierarchies.

It is fittingly cruel, then, that it is Traunitz who should pay for Angela’s insult to Ariane – since it reaffirms Traunitz’s role as a voiceless victim to this history of exploitation – even if the film’s closing gunshot over a frozen image of the exterior of the mansion suggests another act of violence, perhaps Ariane now shooting Angela or shooting herself.

Fassbinder opens the essay on Chabrol with a quotation from Theodor Fontane, whose novel Effi Briest Fassbinder later famously adapted (West Germany, 1974).

‘Every debt must be paid on this earth, even that of showing shadows or half-shadows as human beings,’ the quotation reads (although I do not know its source).

Fassbinder would seem to suggest, then, that the debt owed by exploiters to the exploited may one day have to be repaid – perhaps here with the blood of Ariane, who cannot in the end tolerate the prison that she has made for herself in separating herself from the world.

More than this, in discussing the presentation of shadows as human beings, Fontane also predicts cinema as a debt – the fascistic tendencies of cinema that must also at some point be paid back. In his self-conscious cinema, Fassbinder would seem to foretell a cinema that does pay back this debt, or which at the very least shows us not shadows as human beings, but shadows as shadows. More: it is not that the shadow is separate from the human being such that one can be presented as and taken for the other. Rather, the shadow is perhaps always with the human, entangled and touching each other, much as the human is not separate from the world and from other humans, but inevitably also entangled and touching, even if we deny it and even if we deny denying it in such a way that our separation becomes unbearable, leading from repression to abject release and self-humiliation.

 

Philosophical Screens: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1990)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

This post is a written version of the thoughts that I shall be giving/gave about Goodfellas on Monday 23 January 2017 as part of the London Graduate School‘s Philosophical Screens series, and part of the ongoing Martin Scorsese retrospective being run by the British Film Institute.

Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who has always dreamt of being a gangster. As he rises up through the ranks of New York’s Italian mafia, however, his life begins to unravel in two ways. Firstly, as a half-Irish/half-Italian, he is not 100 per cent Italian and so cannot Get Made to a full fledged mafia boss. Secondly, against the advice of his boss, Paulie (Paul Sorvino), Henry goes into the drug business.

When Henry’s operations thus come unstuck with the law, it would appear that he cannot turn to his mafia family in order to rescue him; more likely is that they will kill him. And so he breaks both golden rules of being in the mafia, and he rats on and betrays people that might otherwise be his friends.

Henry’s situation is not helped by the fact that he is in cahoots with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), both of whom are loose canons, with the latter being particularly psychotic – taking pleasure in murdering various minor hoods with whom he happens to cross paths, and one major hood, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), whose murder will eventually bring about Tommy’s own undoing also.

The film is famous for various lines, scenes and sequences, including when Henry takes his wife-to-be, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) on a date to the Copacabana club, entering via the delivery basement entrance and touring her around the kitchen before entering the club where a table and drinks are laid on as the owners and other clients seek to impress the unassumingly powerful Henry with gifts and gimmes.

Other examples include Tommy grilling Henry about how he is funny (‘Funny like I’m a clown?  I amuse you?’), and a confrontation between Henry and Jimmy in a diner involving a celebrated dolly zoom (whereby the camera tracks backwards and zooms in at the same time, thus giving a vertigo effect) as Henry realises that Jimmy is setting him up for death.

However, a detail in the film upon which I’d like to focus and which will form the starting point of my analysis of the film is Morrie’s wig.

Morrie (Chuck Low) is a small-time hood who runs a wig shop. When we first meet him, we see a television advert of Morrie explaining how good his wigs are as he jumps into a swimming pool and as he is surrounded by women who kiss him on the cheek.

The advert is deliberately cheesy, and after seeing it, the camera pulls back to reveal that we have been watching the image of Morrie on a television screen that loops his advert. The camera turns to Jimmy, who watches the advert, and then back through Morrie’s shop to Henry, who talks to Morrie in person out back.

Morrie is refusing to pay Jimmy the interest on some money that he owes – which leads Jimmy to start to strangle Morrie with rope as Henry receives a phone call from Karen. As Jimmy strangles Morrie, his wig comes off – demonstrating that he is a small-time hood who clearly lies, since his advert declares that his wigs can withstand hurricanes (or words to that effect).

The moment is – like much of Goodfellas – amusing, even if violent. (Jimmy lets Morrie go – on this occasion.)

The aim here is not to discuss the comedy of Goodfellas, and perhaps of Scorsese’s work more generally, not least because this is something that John Ó Maoilearca will discuss/did discuss in greater detail at the Philosophical Screens event. That said, I shall end by making reference to the comedy of his work.

Rather, Morrie’s wig allows us to think about the ethos of Goodfellas as being one based upon excess. For, not only is a wig that is obviously a wig funny (especially when it falls off), but it also demonstrates the way in which humans use things that exceed their natural abilities/possessions in order to demonstrate (in Morrie’s case) a kind of youth, strength, virility – and thus power.

In this particular instance, Morrie’s pretensions to power are ironic given that he is about the most camp character in Goodfellas (although he is married) and also deeply insecure (hence his constant talking whenever he is onscreen).

The fact that we see Morrie’s wig at first on a television screen also plays into this. Jimmy himself says that Morrie should not have wasted money on the advert given that he could have used the money to pay him back. That is, the advert is excessive. Furthermore, the advert itself functions as a kind of ‘bad wig’ – in the sense that it is intended to show mastery of the image, but in fact comes across as cheap.

With both the wig and the advert, then, we get a sense of Morrie aspiring to power, but not being able to attain it – in part because the workmanship of both is too poor. Morrie aspires to excess – just as his fellow hoods do – but in some respects he is not excessive enough to be a successful gangster.

However, while Morrie might be a figure of fun (who ultimately gets killed by Tommy for being a probable liability after the crew steals US$6 million from a Lufthansa flight), Morrie in some senses unlocks the whole of Scorsese’s film and the philosophy of excess that it sees as key to the (attractions of) gangster life – even if at times this excess is disavowed.

For, while the film equally shows Jimmy criticising Johnny Roastbeef (Johnny Williams) and Frankie Carbone (Frank Sivero) for spending the Lufthansa money on pink cadillacs and mink coats – i.e. for being excessive – it is precisely this excess that Henry desires and which Karen, too, also finds seductive. Indeed, just after Jimmy has bust Frankie and Johnny’s balls for their profligate spending, we see Henry arrive home at Christmas saying that he bought the most expensive tree they had: Henry likes extravagance.

As we see the Hill family Christmas, Scorsese’s camera tracks in towards a bauble that hangs from Henry’s all-white Christmas tree. Why is this shot here? What does the bauble signify? The fact of the matter is that it is hard to tell. But the bauble is shiny and comes to fill the screen. That is, the shot itself is ‘excessive’ in the sense that it is unnecessary. In this way, Scorsese with his film does not simply show us excess, but he also takes us via his camera movements into the mindset of finding excess attractive. His film itself is excessive, full of ‘unnecessary’ shots and moments, which themselves come to be a chief pleasure of the film beyond simply the telling of a story.

(What is a bauble if not an excessive feature that is part of the festival of excess that Christmas under consumerism has become? These fragile balls that hang from trees for no reason, and yet which we pack away carefully each year, scared that they might break, too thin to hold in hand for fear of crushing them… The bauble perhaps is total excess.*)

With excess in mind, the Copacabana shot comes into its own. As Henry leads Karen around the kitchen, we can – if we pay close attention – see that Henry basically does a lap of the kitchen by ignoring the fact that he can go straight through into the restaurant. The lap of the kitchen is pure excess: he is showing off to Karen.

But more than this. In having a single, unbroken tracking shot that also takes us around the kitchen and into the restaurant, Scorsese is also showboating, showing off to us, showing us a film that also is excessive, and which certainly exceeds the perceived necessity of ‘economic storytelling’ considered to be so dear to the American film industry (the ethos of getting rid of everything superfluous, not least because time is money and it costs a lot of money to put it in there; Scorsese’s film, like the gangsters themselves, dishes out in spades ‘fuck you money’ in terms of superfluous shots).

What emerges from this showboating/showing off, though, is that Scorsese does not show us something that exceeds cinema. Rather, through the excess of Goodfellas, we come to realise that cinema is perhaps excess itself – especially when it lampoons the smaller television screen for aspiring to excess but failing miserably à la Morrie’s wig.

In other words, what Henry aspires to be or to become is cinematic, to lead a life of excess. And this becomes clear as we see how Scorsese’s film is rammed full of never-ending camera movements, which are punctuated not so much by static images as more specifically freeze frames, of which there are numerous throughout the film. In other words, even when Scorsese stops his frenetic camera, it also is done in the ‘excessive’ fashion of halting the narrative entirely for Henry to announce some insight, thereby also showing his mastery since it is as if he can control the film.

Soon after Karen has joined the mafia family, we see her at a wives’ gathering, where the women are described in her voice over as wearing too much make-up. However, when we look closely at the gathered women, it becomes clear (if not over-stated) that at least two of the wives are wearing make-up in order to cover up bruises and cuts that likely have been caused by beatings from their spouses.

In other words, we might consider make-up to be a form of excess, but really that ‘excess’ is here used as a way of masking damage in the form of bruising. What this in turn suggests to us is that the other excesses of the film – from the bling to the bravado camera movements – are also trying to hide over some form of damage or bruising, as Morrie tries to cover his otherwise bald pate.

But what is this damage/bruising?

In Tommy’s case, his excessive violence seems to be a standard little-man syndrome, as even he seems to suggest at one point during the story that leads to the ‘funny’ sequence (with Tommy’s storytelling and ‘funniness’ itself being a way of covering over his psychosis – and the film’s comedy as a whole being a way of covering over the psychosis of mafia life more generally). But Tommy’s little-man syndrome here also explains to us something that all of the other characters tend to carry, too: a refusal to be a ‘nobody’ but instead the desire to be a ‘somebody.’

In other words, it is the fact of having been born as a nobody that is the bruise that these gangsters wish to cover over.

There is more to it than this. When Henry betrays his ‘friends’ at the film’s end, he explains that only a Birth Certificate and a record of his previous imprisonment are what the government has on record about his existence. Earlier, when Henry begins to ditch school as a young hood, he says that he does not want to pledge allegiance to the flag or profess any ‘good government bullshit.’

In other words, it would seem that the damage that Henry wants to cover over is not simply being born a nobody, but being born a subject in America, which in turn is to be born a subject under capitalism, with the nation functioning as the structuring principle of the system.

A paradox: governments give to their subjects a name. Indeed, they give you a subjectivity. However, far from turning you into somebody, this assigned name confirms you as a nobody, since really the name functions as a form of what Louis Althusser would call ‘interpellation.’ That is, when the government calls your name, you respond, thereby affirming not your power, but the power of the government as you answer its call and respect its rules. Those with real power have no name (as Paulie perhaps understands in the film – always carrying out his business in secret). To be somebody, then, is paradoxically to have no name.

In this sense, excess – and the desire to show one’s wealth – is always the gangster’s undoing and why gangster films are always films about social climbers, or those who defy the power of the state and/or those in power – while power is really consolidated in hidden areas (even if Paulie does in the end die in jail). We do not know the names of the powerful.

(Read in this sense, Donald Trump is a gangster upstart – and we might even admire him for taking on the invisible corridors of power [represented by the Clintons?], were it not for the fact that Trump clearly does not seem invested in doing anything for anyone other than himself and his cronies. But like all gangsters, he is likely to come undone.)

Bearing in mind Henry’s avoidance of taxes and refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag, we can understand that the mafia (any mafia) functions as an alternative form of government. As Henry says, the mafia was simply protection – at least prior to its entry into the narcotics racket.

More than this, though, we can understand that the protection offered by a government, with taxes functioning as protection money, and with the government giving to its subjects a name (a birth certificate) and keeping tabs on them (police records) is really nothing other than a mafia. Governments are mafias; governments are the institutionalisation of gangsterism – as the Trump election perhaps clarifies.

Viewed in this light – that any national subject is really just a nobody paying protection money to a government that has convinced its subjects via interpellation that it is ‘good’ – it seems obvious that in order to become somebody, Henry will paradoxically go against his government, not pay his taxes, and in effect form his own republic.

More than this: as someone who will never quite be accepted into the mafia family on account of not being 100 per cent Italian, Henry will inevitably betray that family, too, since ultimately he works out that he is not really anything to them, either (they will kill him the minute he begins to get in their way).

It is a further paradox in the film that Henry must lose his identity as Henry Hill by entering into the witness protection programme. Ultimately, the government does get him – and his anonymous identity under witness protection confirms that the government does not care about its subjects, but it definitely wants to bury the competition by having the mafia bosses put away – as happens to Paulie and Jimmy.

And so Goodfellas shows us a world in which one is born a ‘nobody’ via being given a regular name. It then shows how to become somebody, one must rival government. In this process, though, one typically enters a world of excess – the need to show one’s power off and/or to cover over the bruises of being nobody. This allure of excess is one’s undoing, since it identifies one as a threat to all and every other person aspiring to power. Violence and comedy both ensue (as does violence as comedy), since rival powers will feel compelled to fight as long as power is perceived as unevenly distributed (the system of power is the institutionalisation of uneven distribution), and comedy will function as a way of covering over the bruises that cause the hunt for power and which also are caused by the lack of power.

Scorsese’s film does not just tell this story; it also embodies it with its own excesses – specifically trying to demonstrate that cinema is superior to/more powerful than television, with cinema thus being revealed as itself a key tool in the institutionalisation of power via consumerism (advertising and those who profit from it), the power of the media/cinema industry itself, and the sense that if you are not in a movie, then you are nobody.

(Even if the really powerful in the film industry are not the people whom we see – the stars – although these stars make bids for power on many occasions, but rather the unnamed people whom we never see. No wonder that at least one oppositional force has worked out that a potential way to rival governmental power is to be Anonymous. No wonder that show-offs with money in the UK are looked down upon by the quietly powerful as nouveau and gauche. No wonder that the storing of all data by government takes place as a means of precisely identifying who you are as a subject, in order that you continue to respect the power of government – cybernetics as, precisely, a form not of liberation but of government [both government and cybernetics have the same etymological roots])

There are many more things to discuss about Goodfellas, including its specifically masculine world – where women are in some senses part and parcel of the cinematic and excessive existence that these men desire (they want women, but not a woman who talks back/who tries to assert her power – with Henry’s demise being mapped from the start by his attraction to Karen when she upbraids him for standing her up, i.e. Henry is ‘weak’, a demise also signalled regularly by Henry’s lack of appetite for violence and so on).

There is also a racial dimension to the film, with the music equally playing an important role (perhaps it is telling that it is the second, piano-driven ‘movement’ of Derek and the Dominos’ ‘Layla’ that forms the film’s final theme – for this section of the song is also ‘excessive’ after the otherwise famous Eric Clapton guitar riff and singing that forms its first ‘movement’; notably the music also plays as we see Johnny Roastbeef and his girlfriend excessively murdered in the afore-mentioned pink cadillac, with the repetition of the song itself constituting some sort of ‘excessive’ use).

While a more complete reading of the film would look closely at these topics, however, I should like to end with two observations.

The first is that the name Goodfellas in some senses implies capitalist relationships, since the term ‘fellow’ means “one who puts down money with another in a joint venture.” That is, good fellows are ones who work with each other for money, and not for friendship.

(The film’s title differs from that of Nicholas Pileggi’s book from which the film is adapted, Wiseguys. The word ‘guy’ is derived from the same word as ‘guide’ – and by extension the Spanish term for a film script, guión. Wiseguys ‘see’ – whereas goodfellas invest. Perhaps the cinematic excess/cinema as excess of Scorsese’s film suggests how it, too, is trying to carve out an existence under the capitalist regime of filmmaking – getting away from the written form/script/guide/guión and into something different, a cinema of pure excess. Scorsese as gangster upstart filmmaker – with the arts clearly tolerating upstarts as a controlled form of excess, i.e. Scorsese is not really a threat to anyone, being much like a clown, the person who can speak truth to power and not get killed for it – obviously Tommy does not want to be a clown, since he does not want to speak truth to power; he wants power…)

Secondly, watching Goodfellas today, it is clear how closely Scorsese’s subsequent Wolf of Wall Street (USA, 2013) follows it as a guide – including various flourishes such as the lead character turning to camera and discussing what is going on. Indeed, it is almost as if The Wolf of Wall Street is a remake of Goodfellas transposed from the mafia and into the world of banking.

Two subsequent things can be observed from this parallel between Goodfellas and The Wolf…. Firstly, the rise of the mafia is more or less concurrent with the rise of investment banks in the 1970s and into the 1980s, a parallel that potentially alludes to the mafia-esque nature of banks (to which governments are beholden and not the other way around, as post-crisis bailouts would seem to suggest).

More than this: both the rise of the mafia and the rise of the banks are linked to the rise of the drug trade – as well as to media and the excesses of gambling. Gangsterism, banking, cinema, drugs, media: all are excesses, suggesting that the rise of neoliberal capital is precisely the rise of a world of excess in which to be a nobody is a humiliating failure and all will humiliate themselves in order to be a somebody. This striving for excess is ultimately a control mechanism to keep everyone consuming, thereby maintaining the power of those ‘invisible people’ who already hold it.

Goodfellas uses comedy to critique this world, with Scorsese emerging perhaps as the ‘King of Comedy’ through his ability to laugh at even the most sick violence. The comedy is done through Scorsese using excess against itself.

An ambivalence arises between critiquing and indulging cinema’s tendency towards excess, and this ambivalence is a rich vein that Scorsese has long since mined. May he continue to do so – even if this means that he is perhaps more complicit with capital than critical of it… Unless like Henry, Scorsese, too, is getting to the heart of capital in order ultimately to betray it and to put it behind bars.

* Note added 17 January 2019: it strikes me that when the camera tracks in on the Christmas tree and the bauble, the shot is in fact a reference by Scorsese to Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (Italy/France/West Germany, 1973), which thanks to MUBI I saw early in 2019. Visconti’s film, which tells the tale of the excessive life of ‘mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria (Helmut Berger), is equally excessive in style (lavish décors) and duration (just shy of four hours). And it also features a shot that cranes in on a Christmas tree that is decorated also by baubles, etc. In Visconti’s film, excess is equated with madness. Perhaps Scorsese also is suggesting that the propensity for excess is a sort of American madness. (Liotta as Henry seems to deliver a performance that at times, in its effeteness, seems not too far from that of Berger as Ludwig.)