Shithouse rat

I'm a bipolar writer in the Naked City. I'm not playing with a full deck. I don't have all my dots on the dice. My cheese is sliding off my cracker. I don't have both oars in the water. I'm a bubble off plum. In other words, I'm crazier than a shithouse rat. These are my stories. Comments--short or long, nasty or nice--always welcome!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Love and let die


Dinner Table
Originally uploaded by spunkinator.
When I was a little girl, I had a painful epiphany that may explain why I seek out crime-family films as avidly as a junkie takes to the crack pipe.

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.

25 Comments:

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Walker said...

I have a liking for mobster movies to but I think it's for a different reason. I grew up with mobsters and their lifestyle is not as appealing as it looks.
Not being Italian may have been a good thing because you have to be Italian to join. But non the less what I saw and heard was enough for me.
The parties were extravigant and the houses HUGE.
Faqmily is what they put second to business though because business is what keeps their family in the lifestyle they have become accostomed to.
I have also been to a couple of funerals and missed a gangland shooting by 30 seconds so there is a couple of pitfalls.
I think I would rather just keep watchiung mob movies and save myself from any grief.

 
At 9:25 AM, Blogger NewYorkMoments said...

I think that's part of the universal appeal of mob movies...I love them too.

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger Neil said...

I think one of the reasons the Italian Mob lost much of its power in the real world (despite the Soprano-type leftovers) is because the new generation didn't have the same feelings for the traditional "family values" of the Mob. Despite it all, there were rules that were followed that made the Mob romantic to readers and moviegoers.

 
At 9:04 PM, Blogger Leslie said...

That was beautifully written. Isn't it amazing how our childhood influences our personality?

I just watched Goodfellas for the first time a few weeks ago. I really liked it. The characters were subtle but powerful. I don't think I'd want to be a wife of a mobster, despite the money. Too much at stake, methinks.

 
At 3:19 AM, Blogger dan said...

You don't have to explain gangster movies. Really. They're good by definition.

Now, say you were a Rob Scneider comedy fan. THAT you'd have to explain.

 
At 7:05 AM, Blogger Brink Craven said...

cool article--I grew up knowing some mobsters who had emigrated up from the city into the burbs- although they were always very good to "Thier Own" they defended one another to the death. Unfortunalety so much alchoholism and domestic abuse ran rampant in the families I knew-one in particular inside which I pretty much lived for several years (i had a crappy homelife too, and would create new adopted families for myself with my friends and boyfriends families)..anyway, I had never known a closer family which is what attracted me to them so much. unfortunately they suffered horribly from domestic abuse and issues of alcholholism. dont know if this is more prevelant in mob families but I would think that this may be so. I mean, how else does one live with the things they do? they go crazy and they drink to stuff the feelings of imeasurable guilt they must feel. otherwise they prolly BECAME mobsters in the first place because they were violent people to begin with (abusive etc)...interesting but not very romantic.

 
At 12:00 PM, Blogger jessie said...

happy belated valenties day.
You managed to name off almost every favorite movie of mine in this post! i too have a love for mob movies. Another good one was Heat, not so much a mob movie but an awesome crime movie all the same! i have always had a need to know sense about me and the mob, mafia or whatever you wanna call them has always interested me greatly, i have even taken up classes in college about such things, not really to get into the field but just for general knowledge purposes.

 
At 8:44 PM, Blogger !ce said...

Mommie Dearest reminded me of my mother.

I responded to your reply to the earlier post a few down.

 
At 1:28 PM, Blogger Nikky Egland said...

I love mobster movies, too - I really like "A Bronx Tale," which also has quite a bit of humor in it without being a "spoof."

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger Jacqui said...

I have only seen Goodfellas but I loved it. Your writing is wonderful - you make me want to watch more. The Godfather movies are on my mental list of movies to buy because from what I hear they are great movies & ones that you can watch time & time again.

 
At 12:54 AM, Blogger mrshellonheels said...

I'm with you..I love all of the Godfather movies. I could sit and watch them all day long.

 
At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Jen Merritt said...

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I'm PR Officer at the Martini Lounge and at the moment we're looking for writers and editors so i'd like to invite you to check us out and hopefully apply for a (volunteer) position.

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At 8:51 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Walker:
Wow--cool yet scary! I don't know anyone who actually had an inside look at the real deal. From a few movies I've seen like Goodfellas, I take it you can join if you're half Italian, but can never be a "made man." Guess Greeks can't make the cut unless they start their own mob (?)

 
At 8:53 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

newyorkmoments:
My 80-something aunt has been a movie fanatic since she was a little girl, and she's always stressed that even the crappiest movies usually have some redeeming value--they have beautiful scenery or music or nice-looking actors. So to my mind, the top mob movies have both a great plot as well as the scenes of domestic "bliss" that I find so compelling. I guess others do too!

 
At 8:56 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Neil:
Your observation seems right on to me. It stands to reason that once "family values" went out the window, the mob would lose some of the impetus that kept it from falling into complete chaos. I suspect that as loyalty to the family diminished, so did loyalty (such as it was) to the Family as well.

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Leslie:
Thanks for the comp! Goodfellas is one of those movies that I can watch over and over again, and I also love to recite bits of dialogue with BG--we have a lot of the movie nailed down pat!

 
At 8:58 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Dan:
Who's the white geek who's a sex machine to all the chicks!

Rob Shneider--can you dig it?

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Brink:

Wow, that is so awesome--you not only "adopted" other families like I tried to, but mob families just like the movies! Yep, I guess I can see how alcoholism and domestic violence might be a huge part of the underbelly of the underworld--lol.

 
At 9:02 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Jessie:
Do you mean they have college courses on the mob? I would have been the first to sign up for those back in the day!

 
At 9:04 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Ice:

Mommie Dearest--yep, not a mob movie, but definitely one that showed the horrors of living with an abusive family while the outside world had no idea of what was going on behind the glam surface. Oy vey!

 
At 9:09 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Nikky:
A Bronx Tale is another great movie. It reminds me a bit of Goodfellas because I think in both cases the main characters were half Irish, half Italian and so were kind of half observers/outsiders and also insiders. Although I haven't heard any updates, the lead actor is in some serious real-life trouble right now. I think he and a partner were burglarizing a (Yonkers/Bronx) home when an off duty cop apprehended them and the cop got shot. Don't quote me on that though, but isn't it strange when life imitates art like that?

 
At 9:10 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Jacqui:

Thank you--oh, I envy you when you see the Godfather for the first time! If you loved Goodfellas, I'm sure you'll thoroughly enjoy the GF saga. Well worth renting or buying.

 
At 9:12 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

mrshellonheels:

I love GF I and II, though III is a bit iffy to my mind. I'm also of two minds about the fact that they sometimes combine GF I and II and cut back and forth, but I'll take them either way!

 
At 9:13 AM, Blogger elvira black said...

Jan:

Wow, thank you--I'll check out your site!

 
At 2:23 PM, Blogger jessie said...

they're criminology courses on organised crime. really cool stuff. find out what college near you the police department uses to train their officers and therein you'll find a wealth of courses that can be taken for non credit.

 

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