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Goodfellas & badfellas: Scorsese and morality

[This was originally published at MSN Movies in 2006, but MSN has taken down their archives.]

"You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it." -- Charlie (voiceover by Martin Scorsese) in "Mean Streets" (1973)

If I do bad things, am I a bad person? Can I be a good person despite the bad things I've done? Can I compensate for the sins I commit in one part of my life by doing good works in another? Is forgiveness possible? Is redemption achievable? Or does it even matter if there's not really anyone, or anything, watching over us and keeping track?

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Those are some of the Catholic concerns that have preoccupied filmmaker Martin Scorsese throughout his career. His latest film [circa 2006], "The Departed," is based on "Infernal Affairs," a 2002 Hong Kong thriller directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, about two moles: an undercover cop who has infiltrated a criminal gang, and a crook who is embedded in the police department. So, who's the good guy and who's the bad guy? Frank Costello, the gangster kingpin played by Jack Nicholson, says: "Cops or criminals: When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" And what about when you're pointing one? In the cosmic sense, we're all facing that loaded gun, and brandishing one, every day. And the difference -- if there is any -- is what Scorsese makes his movies about.

Watching certain Scorsese pictures today ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas," "Casino" and others), you can appreciate the ways they both reflect and question the prevailing moral climate in early 21st-century America. It's a topsy-turvy universe in which the President of the United States himself insists that judgments about "goodness" and "badness" are not to be based upon actions, but are simply pre-existing existential conditions. Good or bad, right or wrong -- it just depends on which side you're on.

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[Left: Inferno with stained glass windows. The bar in "Mean Streets."]

"Right is right." -- Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), shortly before each is whacked, in "GoodFellas" and "Casino," respectively.

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Scorsese's early protagonists are young men struggling to find meaningful ways of atoning for their sins, seeking forgiveness or redemption -- if not from God, then at least from themselves. As "Mean Streets" opens, Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), the low-level hood who works for his uncle in the "family business," is already beginning to feel that his personal and professional sins have outgrown the Church's ability to assign proper penance for them. The mafia in this movie is nothing less than Original Sin, something Charlie is born into.

In voice-over (a technique used in many of Scorsese's most "Catholic" pictures -- and, in "Mean Streets," the voice of Charlie's conscience is Scorsese himself), Charlie grapples with the question of whether one action can atone for another: "OK, I just come out of confession, right? And the priest gives me the usual penance, right? Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, ten whatever ... Those things, they don't mean anything to me. They're just words ... I mean, if I do something wrong, I just want to pay for it my way, so I do my own penance for my own sins." But can sins be "paid for"? And what is the real cost?

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Throughout the film, Charlie places his hand over open flames, as if testing the fires of hell: "The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand, the kind you can feel in your heart -- your soul, the spiritual side. And you know, the worst of the two is the spiritual." For Charlie, his own redemption is tied up with his efforts to "save" his friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and Johnny's epileptic sister Theresa (Amy Robinson).

There's a Christ-like bid for redemption, by doing penance for one's own sins and those of others, that runs through "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and (of course) "The Last Temptation of Christ." In "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle (De Niro) drives a cab all night because he can't sleep; he's adrift and aimless, like so many people in their mid-20s, waiting to find a purpose that will give his life some meaning and direction.

Travis sees himself as "God's lonely man," not so much troubled by his own sins as by the filth and depravity of New York City that he rages against: "... sick, venal. Some day a real rain will come along and wipe all the scum off these streets," he says, in the film's most famous soliloquy.

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Travis is tormented by memories of his own humiliations and idiotic mistakes, like taking Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porno movie on their first date. And, slowly, an idea takes shape in his mind and he sees that his life is leading toward a single definitive, redemptive act: He will rescue 13-year-old Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of prostitution, and kill her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and others who are degrading her, robbing her of her innocence. Travis is "saved" in a baptism of blood, and what we see as the deranged act of a delusional psychopath is interpreted by a sick society as a heroic deed. God's verdict is silent.

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Scorsese has said he didn't want to make "Raging Bull" at first, because he had no interest in boxing and because the main character was so repellent. Jake La Motta (played by De Niro in the movie) wasn't even a particularly good boxer, mainly known for how much of a beating he could take and still remain standing. That self-destructive impulse, the wanton drive to destroy himself and everyone around him and to then pay for his sins with physical punishment in the ring, provided Scorsese with a way into the character, and a reason for making the movie.

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For the tormented Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe) in "The Last Temptation of Christ," the greatest sacrifice is not the pain he suffers on the cross. It's the years of "ordinary" life as a man that he surrenders -- and that are dangled before him by Satan, in a single second just before his death -- so that he can fulfill his destiny as the Messiah. In his temptation, he's reminded of his rightful place by Judas (Keitel), who implores him to accept it: "Remember what you said to me? You took me in your arms, do you remember? And you begged me: 'Betray me, betray me. I have to be crucified. I have to be resurrected to save the world.' ... What's good for a man isn't good enough for God. Why weren't you crucified?" There's nothing inherently heroic about embracing immortality; for Scorsese's (and Nikos Kazantzakis's, whose novel was the source material) Jesus, the greatest sacrifice is giving up mortality.

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By the time of "GoodFellas" and "Casino," Scorsese's mobsters are no longer troubled by guilt over their actions, because there's no God taking notice of them. Instead, they aim for an infallible position where they can get away with anything in the name of piling up cash. People make mistakes -- like whacking a made guy -- and they pay the price, but there's no spiritual dimension to these wiseguys' transgressions. You break the rules, you fall out of favor, that's all.

Narrator-protagonists Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in "GoodFellas" and Sam "Ace" Rothstein (De Niro) in "Casino" are attracted to the mafia and Las Vegas, respectively, because they offer godlike status through earthly immunity. As a boy, Henry watches the gangsters across the street and marvels that they could get away with whatever they wanted and nobody, not even the cops, would complain.

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For Ace, Las Vegas is a return to the Garden of Eden. We see him whisked from a limo through the glittery gates of Paradise (the Tangiers Hotel and Casino) as he recounts his ascension to a state of grace: "Anywhere else in the country I was a bookie, a gambler, always looking over my shoulder, hassled by cops day and night. But here, I'm 'Mr. Rothstein.' I'm not only legitimate, but running a casino, and that's like selling people dreams for cash ... Las Vegas washes away your sins. It's like a morality car wash. It does for us what Lourdes does for humpbacks and cripples. And along with making us legit comes cash. Tons of it."

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"Casino" is the story of how "street guys" were expelled from Eden because they screwed up. The movie ends in a vision of apocalypse, suffused with sadness and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, as Ace waxes nostalgic for the bad old days of Vegas. We see one hotel after another ignite, explode and collapse, as Ace's dream of Paradise crumbles. The old gods are expelled and the new gods move in. An old casino is demolished and replaced by an image of the hideous, soulless geometric lion at the entrance to the new MGM Grand -- an abstraction that no longer resembles or represents the mascot of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie studio, the old manufacturer of "dreams for cash," or the old Vegas where dealers knew your name.

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"The town will never be the same," says Ace, with the same wistful tone in which Henry Hill speaks of entering the Witness Protection Program at the conclusion of "GoodFellas." "After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland." This was in the mid-1990s, when the Vegas Strip had become a renovated simulacrum of itself, with places like the Excalibur, the Treasure Island and the Luxor as theme-park attractions for the whole family (and before the Chamber of Commerce decided it was time to inject an aura of sin back into the place with the "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign). "And where did the money come from to rebuild the pyramids?" Ace asks over a shot of the Luxor. "Junk bonds."

In "Casino" -- as in the "Godfather" films and "The Sopranos" -- organized crime is depicted as just one more manifestation of capitalism, a strain in some ways more direct and honorable than those exemplified by Wall Street, Michael Milken and Enron. Ace is contemptuous of "the corporations," who prey on the weak and powerless instead of other mobsters and high rollers, people who understand the rules of the game: "And while the kids play cardboard pirates," he says, "mommy and daddy drop the house payments and junior's college money on the poker slots."

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"That's what the FBI could never understand, that what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops. That's it. That's all it is. They're like the police department for wiseguys." -- Henry Hill, "GoodFellas"

"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster," declares Henry at the start of "GoodFellas." "To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States." Looking at "GoodFellas" today, you may wonder what's the big diff. The world is divided into "somebodies" (us) and "nobodies" (them), and any measures taken by the elect -- including fraud, torture and execution -- is justifiable in the cause of preserving their way of life.

A U.S. postman is kidnapped and (briefly) detained by wiseguys who threaten to put him in a pizza oven if he delivers any more truant notices from Henry's school. The freeze-framed shot of the "nobody" mailman's head shoved near the opening of the oven could almost be a snapshot from Abu Ghraib. "How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag and sit through good government bulls***?" Henry wonders. Yeah, how?

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Henry explains what it means to be a "good fella, a good guy," as the camera glides over the bones of a devoured feast at the Bamboo Lounge -- a meal nobody at the table will pay for. "To us, those goody-good people who worked [s*****] jobs for bum paychecks and who took the subway to work every day, worried about their bills, were dead. They were suckers ... If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice, they got hit so bad believe me they never complained again. It was all routine, you didn't even think about it. "

These are the words of a sociopath, reminiscent of Enron, where traders joked about fleecing "Grandma Millie" during the 2000 California energy crisis. Or, in the famous words of a Bush White House aide, reported by Ron Suskind in 2004: "When we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do." From there, it isn't far to Henry's statement from a bit later in the movie: "Murder was the only way that everybody stayed in line. You got out of line, you got whacked. Everybody knew the rules ... Shooting people was a normal thing. It was not big deal."

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The world Henry describes is one in which there's no higher power taking moral inventory. It's the same out West, where Ace describes the order of things: "In Vegas, everybody's gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men, the pit bosses are watching the floor men, the shift bosses are watching the pit bosses, the casino manager is watching the shift bosses, I'm watching the casino manager, and the eye in the sky is watching us all." He's talking about the surveillance cameras overhead, not God, but you get the idea. (And who's watching the cameras and the tables from the rafters? "Former cheaters" who know all the tricks -- cast-outs for whom toiling in purgatory above the ceiling is as close to paradise as they are allowed to get in a place where cheaters are banished, or, for the most serious transgressors, driven into the desert never to be seen again.)

Inside the casino, Scorsese cuts from table-level close-ups of cards and dice to cosmic God's-eye-views, as Ace outlines his moral universe. Sure, the casinos are owned by gangsters, and millions are skimmed straight out of the counting room, but from the point of view of the man in the middle like Ace, the bosses are the gods and the only real sinners are the cheaters.

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By the conclusion of "Casino," Ace is living and working comfortably in San Diego, still making money for the bosses, but deprived of his place in a Paradise that no longer exists. And in "GoodFellas," the all-seeing eye in the sky is finally nothing but a persistent FBI helicopter that follows Henry on his increasingly frantic, coke-fuelled Sunday errands.

In the end, Henry finds no redemption, and expects none. Living in a faceless suburban housing development, he becomes invisible, and insignificant: "I have to wait around like everyone else," he mopes, as we see him pick up his newspaper, dressed in a pale blue bathrobe. "Can't even get any decent food. Right after I got here I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook." It's not Charlie Cappa's inferno -- "the burn from a lighted match increased a million times" -- but maybe there's a hell, after all.

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