Love and let die
My mother was going out for the evening -- perhaps for a one-night gig, since before she married my father she was a nightclub singer. She was all dressed up, and I can still almost smell the perfume that signaled her special night on the town.
My father was staying home with me, but I was inconsolable all the same. To appease me, Mom sang songs to try to lull me to dreamland, but after she left I still lay awake, miserable and bereft. I wanted the assurance that my mother was perpetually nearby, even while I was asleep.
My mother suffered bouts of depression that kept her from me at various times during my childhood. In addition, our house was devoid of visits from either friends or family. My mom, who had married late, was not cut out to be the typical '50s housewife and mother, and our apartment was dusty, desolate, and disheveled. And plagued as they both were by heart disease, I lost both my parents before I turned 15.
Being a lonely only child, I loved nothing better than to visit my cousins, or to spend time at my friends' houses. Here I experienced the kind of close-knit family life I craved. Growing up, many a Thanksgiving was spent at a pal's home, and I was invariably the kind of perfect, well behaved young guest that parents loved to have around.
And thus it is that I have forevermore been drawn to the richly welcoming interior life portrayed in "crime family" films in the same way I was to my friends' warm, inviting abodes.
Of course, like millions of others, I adore the thrill of watching mob murder and mayhem from a safe, vicarious distance. And the fact that the male protagonists are ruthless criminals and murderers in the big bad outside world -while their sheltered wives and children often seem oblivious to daddy's grisly day job - gives me a feeling of cozy comfort. As Vito Corleone once counseled his son Michael in The Godfather, wives and children can be careless -- men cannot. And I wanted to be that careless - and carefree - child I never was as I snuggled in the darkened theater.
Despite my omniscient "role" as engaged filmgoer, I am nonetheless blissfully, guiltlessly impotent to do anything but watch in awe as rival families slaughter, betray, and avenge each other. Although the violence can be graphic, there is usually a sympathetic bent in the film -- an opportunity to get to know the man behind the monster and tease out the underlying motivations for his crimes. And one of the prime motivations is always to protect and provide for the family as well as the Family.
One can see this dual dynamic in action in virtually all crime family film sagas. In The Godfather I and II, time and again the secret deals and cold-blooded murders are ironically countered and softened by scenes of idyllic bourgeois family life -- the raison d'etre behind it all. The opening Godfather wedding sequence, so full of gaiety and joy, is prefaced by a somber blood pact as the Don offers revenge for a brutal rape from the sanctuary of his dark, den-like office -- the selfsame room his daughter-in-law finds herself banned from at the end of Part I ("Don't ask me about my business, Kay!")
Similarly, at the moment Michael's sister and brother-in-law Connie and Carlo's baby is being baptized, Coppola cuts to flashes of merciless wholesale vengeance. (Carlo himself is soon garrotted with dispatch as well.) Later, Michael's shooting of his hapless brother Fredo at the family lake is put off until after their mother's death -- so as not to break momma's heart.
In Goodfellas,Henry Hill, not being the "old school" monogamous type, even enjoys a dual "home" life with multiple women to appease. A sequence where Henry enters his mistresses' pied a terre and exits again at dawn quickly segues into a scene of Henry's wife Karen, child on her hip, jubilantly entering "Uncle Paulie's" for one of the ubiquitious family/Family get togethers.
In the penultimate sequence in Goodfellas, the day Henry Hill gets busted is full of the ebuillent mundanities of home and family life: Henry preparing the sauce and veal for that night's dinner; picking up his wheelchair-bound brother from the hospital; Lois the babysitter making funny faces at Henry's baby before the drugs that she will mule to Pittsburgh are strapped to her body; making a panicky call to the Pittsburgh drug connection from the comfortingly banal setting of a Queens shopping mall.
Ten years ago, the late Chris Penn played opposite Christopher Walken as Depression era New York gangster brothers in Abel Ferrara's brooding masterpiece The Funeral. Here, the wives of Chez (Penn) and Ray (Walken) Tempio witness and comment on the behind-closed-doors torments, vulnerabilities and deep dysfunction hidden behind their husbands' merciless, take no prisoners persona.
A series of flashbacks gradually fleshes out the grisly sequence of events leading up to this grim family get together, which finds youngest brother Johnny (Vincent Gallo) also present - albeit in an open casket. But it is the late night kitchen and bedroom scenes of wives Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rosselini which are the most emotionally revelatory of all. As helpless, dutiful bystanders, they alternately pray and plead with their husbands not to seek the heartless revenge which will quite literally lead to the wholesale destruction of their family.
One late night scene where a sleepless Sciorra goes to the kitchen for a scotch (I can tell from the way she downs it that this is not something she does except in the most dire of circumstances) makes me see her as a "perfect" mom - beautiful, dignified, calm yet troubled - completely stripped of any illusion that there is anything remotely "romantic" about her husband's (Ray's) clan.
''They're criminals because they've never risen above their heartless, illiterate upbringing,'' she tells Johnny's disconsolate, erstwhile fiance (Gretchen Moll) who has wandered in, sitting down at the kitchen table teary eyed as Sciorra pours her a drink.
But nevertheless, I know that no matter what, Sciorra's character will never leave her murderous husband or her children "'til death do us part" - enduring her fate with a grim, eyes-wide-open resignation - so unlike the guilelessness of Don Vito's wife and young Kay Corleone.
Meanwhile, Isabella Rosselini's private, behind closed doors scenes with a seriously troubled Chez reveal why Penn's character is so unpredictably unhinged. Rosselini's prayers and pleas for him to enter a sanitarium make it crystal clear that Chez is dangerously insane. Nevertheless, there is a quiet serenity about her character which lends her the aura of an eternally patient Madonna. Here, Rosselini embodies another type of mother figure--perpetually steadfast, merciful, and forgiving.
And so it is that in a darkened theater surrounded by strangers, I so often find myself catching a privileged glimpse of my fictional, (mostly) New York "neighbors", as their unseen but all-knowing guest. And for a few precious hours, I feel like I've at long last come home.