Thursday, March 31, 2016

Watch This: Goodfellas

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Goodfellas (1990)
Co-written and directed by Martin Scorsese

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster."
                                                                 -- Henry Hill, Goodfellas

There is no denying that the gangster has been one of the most compelling and appealing personalities in American culture.  There has long been a widespread fascination with real-life organized crime figures like Al Capone and John Gotti, and films like The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983), as well as television series like the groundbreaking The Sopranos (1999-2007), have captured the imaginations of millions of Americans.  The life of a gangster is undoubtedly dangerous and often immoral, and yet this lifestyle, at least as depicted in popular culture, has a powerfully seductive allure.  Perhaps it is the possibility of attaining power and influence over others, or the notion of living outside of mainstream society's laws and accepted norms.  Whatever it is, the gangster lifestyle, in particular that of the American Mafia, holds a strong attraction for many Americans, and no film captures that lifestyle better than Martin Scorsese's mid-career masterpiece, Goodfellas.

Based on the book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi (who also co-wrote the film's screenplay), Goodfellas tells the true story of Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who joins the ranks of the local Mafia gang as a teenager and works his way up to become a mid-level gangster.  Henry narrates the story in the first-person, offering us a detailed insider's glimpse of everyday life in the Mafia as he hustles, steals, and commits all manner of other crimes alongside his fellow mobsters Jimmy "the Gent" Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, in an Oscar-winning performance).  Early in the film, he meets a young Jewish woman named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and the two date and eventually get married.

Karen is enamored with Henry's charm and influence, as evidenced by a virtuoso early scene in which Henry escorts her through the staff entrance of the Copacabana nightclub, through the service corridors and kitchen area, and into the main showroom, where a table is set up just for them in front of the stage.  She is frightened by the violence of Henry's lifestyle, yet also turned on by it, and after a while, she even begins to appreciate his criminal activities as proof of his enterprising ambition and commitment to providing for their young family.  However, things begin to turn sour after the fallout from a robbery sows the seeds of distrust and betrayal among Henry's peers, and after Tommy's short temper leads to the death of a high-level mobster.  Henry's marital infidelities strain his relationship with Karen, and his drug smuggling activities put him on the outs with mob boss Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino).  Overcome with guilt, regret, and fear, Henry is forced to make a difficult choice in order to ensure the safety of himself and his family.

One of the factors that makes Goodfellas stand out is its unusual narrative style.  Most films are either heavily-plotted or episodic in nature, but Goodfellas doesn't really fit either of these descriptions.  It doesn't have a plot, it tells a story, and its storytelling strategy might best be described as a progression of sequences rather than scenes.  While there are certainly a handful of scenes in the film that are allowed to play out over the course of a few minutes (Tommy's famous "What do you mean I'm funny?" scene is a prime example), the film is primarily composed of heavily-edited sequences which pull together key moments related to the voiceover narration.  This strategy allows the story to emphasize the countless details and glimpses of mob life that make the film such a pleasure to watch, and also gives the film a tremendous sense of nostalgia and memory.  This narrative style is especially potent in the long, frantic sequence late in the film that follows a paranoid, cocaine-fueled Henry over the course of a single day, as he rushes hurriedly back and forth trying to traffic drugs, visit his mistress, pick up his disabled brother, and cook dinner for his family, all while a surveillance helicopter seems to be following him around.  The frenetic editing and camerawork, combined with the sound and voiceover narration, create an almost palpable sense that the walls are closing in.  Rarely has a film done a better job of putting the viewer inside the mind of its protagonist.

There is so much to praise about Goodfellas that it is difficult to squeeze it all into just a handful of paragraphs.  The editing by the great Thelma Schoonmaker is masterful, Michael Ballhaus's cinematography works perfectly to communicate the director's vision, and the all-time great soundtrack, featuring the type of popular music that Martin Scorsese has used so well throughout his career, contributes immeasurably to the film's mood and sense of nostalgia.  The performances are uniformly great, and although Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his performance as the explosive Tommy, it is easy to think in retrospect that De Niro's measured, less showy performance as the charismatic, dangerous Jimmy, may have been the more deserving of the two.  Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is in making these characters, who commit so many despicable acts over the course of the film, so very likable and even enviable.  There is an admirable sense of camaraderie among Henry and his friends, and the gang is like a big family (at least until they begin murdering one another out of distrust and greed).  It is easy to relate to Henry's desire to become a gangster, which is as much about economics as anything else.  His voiceover quote at the start of the film, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," is followed immediately by Tony Bennett's song "Rags to Riches," and it feels like Henry's wish to join the ranks of the local gang is just another variation on the American Dream.

There are many who would say that The Godfather is the best gangster film ever made.  It is undeniable that The Godfather is probably a better film, and it is difficult to understate The Godfather's lasting cultural impact (even those who have never seen the film know the expressions "sleep with the fishes" and "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse"), but I would argue that Goodfellas is without a doubt a better gangster film.  The Godfather is more about the corrupting influence of power and the relationships within one single family than the day-to-day existence of a gangster, and it tells its story in a much broader social and historical context.  Goodfellas, on the other hand, focuses on the everyday life of a gangster, and not a high-level, wealthy mafioso like The Godfather's Vito and Michael Corleone.  The characters in Goodfellas are blue-collar, low-level gangsters who work long hours to hustle and rob their way to a level of power and financial well-being that never even approaches that of the Corleones.  Goodfellas is all about what it is like to be a gangster, not just an "average nobody," and it is this insider's attention to detail that makes the film so memorable.  Who can forget the scene in the bar where Henry's narration introduces us to gangsters like "Freddie No-Nose" and "Pete the Killer, who was Sally Balls's brother," or the way Paulie Cicero uses a razor blade to slice garlic in preparation for cooking dinner in prison?

The real Henry Hill has stated that the film is 95% accurate in its portrayal of mob life.  Perhaps this authenticity is what really makes the film's details stand out.  Of course, much credit should also be given to director and co-writer Martin Scorsese, who was also very familiar with the film's character types and milieu, having grown up in New York City's Little Italy neighborhood watching the local gangsters from his windows.  In any case, Goodfellas is a pure joy to watch, and it remains perhaps the best film made yet by America's greatest living director.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

ebrary website is down

The ebrary site is undergoing maintenance beginning at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 30, 2016.

It should be back up by tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Easter Break Hours

Have a safe & blessed Easter break.

March 23 & 24    8:00 a.m. - 4:50 p.m.
March 25 - 27      CLOSED
March 28             8:00 a.m. - 4:50 p.m.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Watch This: The Spirit of the Beehive

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Co-written and directed by Victor Erice

In a remote Spanish village on the Castilian plain, a truck rumbles into the central square, preceded by a gaggle of excited children shouting, "The movie's coming!  The movie's coming!"  They swarm around the rear of the truck, in awe at the stacks of film reels piled inside.  Later that afternoon, the children crowd into the cramped town hall with other villagers for a screening of the classic 1931 horror film, Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as the monster.

So begins The Spirit of the Beehive, one of the greatest Spanish films of all time, and one the best films ever made about the power of cinema.  Although Frankenstein only factors directly into the storyline in the opening sequence, its powerful effect on the film's child protagonists will dominate the remainder of the film.

Among the audience members in the town hall are two young sisters, Ana and Isabel (played by Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería).  Ana in particular is captivated by the movie, especially the scene in which the monster is befriended by a young girl tossing flowers into a lake.  Those who have seen Frankenstein will recall that this sequence ends tragically, with the monster accidentally drowning the girl, only to be killed later by vengeful townspeople.  Later that night, as they lie in bed, Ana asks her sister why the monster killed the girl, and why the villagers then killed him.  Isabel, in the age-old tradition of older siblings who taunt their younger, more impressionable brothers and sisters with scary stories, replies that they didn't kill him, and that everything in movies is fake.  She goes on to say that the monster is really a spirit that she herself has seen near their village, a bodiless entity that can disguise itself to look like anyone, and who can only be seen by someone who is its friend.

The next day, Isabel points out an old abandoned house where she says the monster lives.  We see Ana return to the house later by herself.  She finds an adult-sized footprint in the mud that seems to be fresh, but there is no one around.  However, she comes back again to find a sleeping man, haggard and dirty, who is armed and has a wound on his leg above the ankle.  We understand that he is hiding from the authorities, but it is unclear whether Ana believes this man to be another incarnation of the spirit her sister told her about.  She is eager to help him, bringing him food, clothes, and a pocket watch that belong to her father (Fernando Fernán Gómez).  After the fugitive is later shot and killed, the stolen articles are returned to Ana's father.  When he brings the pocket watch out at dinner, winding it up to play music just as the fugitive did, Ana realizes that something has happened to her new friend.  She rushes to the abandoned house, finding only a bloodstain, and when her concerned father appears in the doorway, she is frightened and runs away, perhaps mistakenly thinking that he is the one responsible for the death of the fugitive.  As search parties comb the countryside looking for her, Ana's fantasy world begins to intrude further upon her reality, leading to an intensely powerful confrontation with the product of her imagination.

The story of The Spirit of the Beehive is told primarily from a child's point of view, and provides an evocative portrait of the way children's imaginations shape their understanding of the world.  Ana's failure to comprehend that what she sees in movies is not real, along with her ready belief in her sister's spooky stories, is emblematic of young children whose rich imaginings and curiosity about the world lead them to accept the uncanny as part of their everyday reality.  This child's perspective is apparent right from the opening credits, which play over images of children's drawings, ending with a zoom into a picture that includes the caption "Once upon a time ... ."  The film's score, especially the recurring flute and piano motif, also lends the film a fairy tale quality.  Many scenes in the film, even before the final scenes after Ana has run away, offer keen depictions of a child's inner life.  In one sequence, for example, we see Isabel painting her lips with the blood from her finger after being bitten by the family cat, then lying on the floor and pretending to be dead.

The scenes with the girls are intercut with the daily activities of their parents, and we get a portrait of domestic life that suggests detachment and anxiety.  The girls' mother (Teresa Gimpera) rides her bicycle to the nearest train station to mail a letter she's written, and stares longingly at the train as it pulls away from the station.  Later, we see her lying on her side in bed, pretending to sleep as her husband readies himself for bed, and she again has a look of longing in her eyes as she hears the sound of a train passing in the distance.  Her husband is preoccupied with his hobby of beekeeping, writing in his journal about the activity inside the hive, and the honeycomb-like pattern on the windowpane in his study is itself suggestive of a beehive.  Even the film's form hints at the family's disconnectedness.  The parents and children are never once shown together during the entire film.

Some viewers may find the film's storytelling style a bit puzzling, as many character motivations and actions are merely suggested.  The film is set in 1940, just after the Spanish Civil War, but there are only hints of the conflict's aftermath.  The wounded fugitive is perhaps the most obvious of these, but there is also the postmark on one of the mother's letters, which makes it clear that she's corresponding with someone in a Red Cross camp in France.  Likewise, it is never made explicitly clear how young Ana interprets the presence of the fugitive and his subsequent death.  However, the film's enigmatic plotting is one of the aspects that make it such a beguiling, dreamlike viewing experience.

The Spirit of the Beehive was produced near the end of the decades-long dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, and there has been some debate about the film's political content.  As mentioned above, the film only deals indirectly with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and life in Franco's Spain, but its use of fantasy and allegory, as well as its portrayal of domestic disconnection and repression, have been seen as a form of critique.  However, like many other international films of the period (the great 1967 Czech comedy The Firemen's Ball comes to mind), The Spirit of the Beehive can be enjoyed without knowledge of its political subtext.  With its haunting portrayal of children's fantasy lives, it remains a vital and timeless cinematic work.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Watch This: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
Co-written and directed by Fritz Lang

The German cinema of the 1920s and early 1930s represents the artistic highpoint in the era of silent film and the transition to sound.  There was a blossoming of filmmaking talent that led to the production of numerous great films, many of them influenced by the Expressionist movement and the country's bleak atmosphere in the wake of World War I (Robert Wiene's nightmarish The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) being a prime example).  In particular, a cadre of great directors produced a nearly unrivaled string of masterpieces.  F. W. Murnau directed Nosferatu (1922), The Last Laugh (1925), and Faust (1926) before leaving Germany for a career in Hollywood, while Georg Wilhelm Pabst made The Joyless Street (1925), The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Pandora's Box (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), and The Threepenny Opera (1931).  However, the undisputed master of this period in German cinema was Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) rank among the best films ever made.  It is these two films that receive the most attention in discussions of Lang's early career in Germany, but one of the most underrated films of this period is Lang's innovative and influential crime film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), a sequel to Lang's great two-part, silent epic Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922).

In the earlier film, Dr. Mabuse (pronounced Mah-BOO-zuh) uses his background as a psychologist to mastermind an elaborate criminal scheme involving theft, murder, blackmail, and stock market manipulation.  Mabuse himself is a master of disguise and hypnosis, controlling his victims through psychological means.  By the end of the film, after his criminal enterprise has been thwarted, Mabuse goes mad and is locked away in an asylum.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse picks up a decade later, as another vast criminal conspiracy is underway in Berlin.  The criminals have been organized into sections, each operating somewhat independently of one another, but all reporting to a mysterious mastermind, Dr. Mabuse.  We get a glimpse at the workings of the criminal organization through the story of Kent (Gustav Diessl), whose commitment to his unlawful career begins to falter after their activities start to include murder, and as he falls in love with the beautiful and innocent Lilli (Wera Liessem).  Kent and his colleagues receive their orders from Mabuse without ever seeing his face.  He issues his directives from behind a backlit curtain in a bare, dingy room.  And yet, as we find out early in the film, Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) has still been locked away in the asylum under the care of Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi).  Mabuse is silent and unresponsive, his only activity being the incessant writing out of his detailed plans for an "empire of crime."  We even see midway through the film that he has died.  If Mabuse has been securely confined in his cell before his death, then who is the mastermind behind this new crime wave?

After a desperate and mysteriously interrupted phone call from disgraced ex-cop Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), followed by Hofmeister's disappearance and descent into insanity, Police Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) begins to investigate.  A series of strange clues leaves him mystified, but his rational mind and determination keep his investigation moving forward.  We see early on that the key to the identity of the mastermind may be Mabuse's writings.  One of Dr. Baum's colleagues, Dr. Kramm, notices remarkable similarities between Mabuse's scribbled schemes and a jewelry heist that has recently taken place, but Kramm is murdered shortly thereafter, before he can report this information to the police.  Eventually, Lohmann finds links between this murder and the incident with Hofmeister, and the evidence points to one man: Dr. Mabuse.

The character of Dr. Mabuse has comparatively little screen time, and his death midway through the film is rather unexpected.  However, it is Mabuse's influence over the other characters and the events of the plot that make his role the most significant in the film, and that make him such a powerful figure.  Dr. Mabuse was arguably the first truly great supervillain in all of cinema, and you can trace a direct path from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse to Heath Ledger's unforgettable portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).  In both cases, the villain is motivated not by greed or revenge, but by a desire to create chaos and destruction on as massive a scale as possible.  Dr. Mabuse's frightening criminal philosophy, advocating "crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror," finds its echo in Alfred's description of the Joker from The Dark Knight: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Fritz Lang was one of the first true innovators of the sound era.  Films like M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse reveal a keen understanding of sound's artistic potential beyond simply allowing people to talk aloud on screen.  Lang's mastery of sound design is on display in Mabuse's opening sequence, as the steady, almost overpowering mechanical hum of the printing presses used by the counterfeiters adds a great deal of texture and tension to the scene.  Later, when Dr. Kramm is murdered in his car while sitting at a stoplight, the killers use the noise of honking horns to mask the sound of the fatal gunshot.

Lang finished The Testament of Dr. Mabuse just as the Nazis were taking power in Germany, and the film was banned by the Third Reich, who perhaps saw something of themselves in Mabuse and his criminal gang.  Many of Lang's fellow German filmmakers and screen actors had emigrated to Hollywood by that time, and this mass exodus of talent, paired with the devastation of the Second World War, left a gaping hole in German cinema that would last for an entire generation, until the emergence of a new wave of visionary directors like Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Volker Schlondorff.  Lang himself fled Germany for France, and later the United States, where he enjoyed a successful decades-long career that produced a number of great noir-tinged genre films like Fury (1936), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Clash by Night (1952), and The Big Heat (1953).  However, none of these American films could match the brilliance of his earlier work in Germany, and while he often worked in the crime film genre, he never again directed a film that could equal his unheralded masterpiece, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

March DVD Spotlight: Spanish-Language Films

Watching foreign films is a great way to familiarize yourself with new languages and learn about other cultures.  With that in mind, Reeves Memorial Library is featuring Spanish-language films from our DVD collection all through the month of March.  We've got cinema from Spain and Latin America, from great directors like the legendary Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados) and contemporary master Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También).  Featured titles include:

The Aura (2005)
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Nine Queens (2000)
The Sea Inside (2004)
Simon of the Desert (1965)
Solas (1999)
The Spirit of the Beehive (1972)

Check one out today!