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Bert Cardullo is Professor and Chair of Media and Communication at the Izmir University of Economics in Turkey.
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Screen Writings Volume II
Genres, Classics, and Aesthetics
By Bert Cardullo
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2010 Bert Cardullo
All rights reserved.
Shooting the City: The Gangster, Manhattanites, and the Movies
The archetypal creature of the city is the movie gangster, whom Robert Warshow described over sixty years ago as a tragic hero. "Thrown into the crowd without background or advantages, with only ... ambiguous skills," Warshow wrote, "the gangster is required to make his own way, to make his life and impose it on others." Frustrated by the facelessness of the individual in the big city, he sees crime as the rational way to establish his identity. Yet there is a tragic flaw in this ambition to rise above the crowd, for the successful racketeer increasingly becomes the target of both the police and his fellow criminals. The greater his success, the more precipitous his fall; in the end, "there is only one possibility – failure." The final meaning of the city for the gangster, according to Warshow, thus can only be "anonymity and death."
But Warshow understood that, like Greek tragedies, gangster films were not realistic works of art – they were mythological ones. And this means that, from an artistic point of view, the city, like the ancient Greek stage, is a metaphorical space and not a real one, even when gangster films are shot on location in actual cities like New York. So, for Warshow, the gangster inhabits the
dangerous and sad city of the imagination, which is so much more important, which is the modern world. And the gangster – though there are real gangsters – is also, and primarily, a creature of the imagination.
Warshow was writing about the movie mobsters of his own youth – most famously, Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1930), James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931), and Paul Muni in Scarf ace (1932). The formula of these films was repeated throughout the '30s in Warner Brothers vehicles for rising stars like George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield. By the early 1940s, the focus on the mobster's alienation had only intensified. Later in that decade, however, the gangster movie was updated. Just as concern about the "organization man" became part of the emerging debate over the effects on the individual of "mass society," the syndicate began to replace the solitary criminal entrepreneur in celluloid versions of the underworld.
In Force of Evil (1949), for example, Garfield played a syndicate lawyer operating on Wall Street; the same actor who had portrayed so many Prohibition- and Depression-era outsiders was now a crooked insider. Fueled by the Kefauver hearings on organized crime in the Senate and Joe Valachi's Mafia revelations on Capitol Hill, similar treatments of the banality of gangland evil continued in film productions over the next twenty to twenty-five years, climaxing with The Godfather in 1972. Significantly, that picture dealt less with the Marlon Brando character than with his family and its assimilation into American (business) life at a time when, in real life, the middle class was embracing the values of the counterculture. Francis Ford Coppola's gangsters were just as subversive of law and order and conventional values as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or even the Weathermen had been; but the Corleones combined antisocial, inveterately criminal behavior with the exceedingly conventional activity of making money and the intensely traditional project of keeping the family together. They were, you might say, unregulated capitalists at the same time as they were regular family men, and Brando himself, the rebel without a cause before Rebel Without a Cause (1955), was the perfect fusion of countercultural sentiments with those of the middle class.
(I have omitted Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets  and his later GoodFellas  from the previous discussion because, like their latter-day embodiment, the television series on HBO known as The Sopranos, they are less concerned with the gangster figure per se – and thereby with the gangster film as an ironic comment on hidden social dynamics, as a metaphor for the gangsterish spirit behind American get-up-and-go – than with what Dickens called "the attraction of repulsion" in characters so de-idealized that there is no gap, no hiatus, between what they want to do and what they do, to the point that the boundary between the conscious and the subconscious in them seems to have been erased.)
Beyond The Godfather, tragedy in gangster movies – as in history itself, it has been claimed – repeated itself as farce, with a consequent de-emphasis on the anonymity-cum-fatality of the urban jungle. After The Godfather's identification of the gangster with the most positive, energetic elements of American life – with what I describe above as unregulated capitalism in what is otherwise an atmosphere rife with family values – the gangster was finally ready to become Everyman, which is to say a figure ripe for farcical satire. From Prizzi's Honor in 1985, Married to the Mob in 1988, Miller's Crossing in 1990 (in which Gabriel Byrne was the first movie gangster to throw up from fear), and Brando's own send-up of Don Corleone in The Freshman in 1990, up to Robert De Niro's send-up of his Don Corleone in Analyze This in 1999 and Anaylze That in 2002 (both Brando and De Niro were throwbacks in this regard to George Raft, who satirized his own gangster image in Some Like It Hot ), the Mafioso was becoming a comic, less lethally threatening, figure, even as the Mafia itself was being steadily curtailed by the forces of law and order.
Even earlier than these films, however – in the musical spoof Bugsy Malone (1976), with a cast consisting entirely of children – the following changes in this crime genre had already occurred: mannerism had supplanted craftsmanship; distance and detachment had replaced audience involvement; and attitudinizing had replaced the moralizing of earlier gangster movies. Alienation – no longer an authentic reaction to the anomie of the urban experience – thus became simply a posture that patronized the past.
All of the above is by way of prologue to the real subject of this essay, which is the relationship to the city of film figures other than the (dying) gangster. Artists and intellectuals themselves – across the arts, not simply in the cinema – have generally been skeptical of city life, preferring the pastoral to the industrial, the peace and simplicity of rural life to the alarum and alienation of the urban. Yet the accursed anonymity of the big city has always been the protector of freethinkers' liberated ways. And the tension resulting from this contradiction, not unlike the flaw in the gangster's ambition, is at the center of five representative films from the 1970s – or it should have been at their center, not on their periphery, as should have been the tension resulting from the split personality of Metropolis as both a real and a mythic place. (Not by chance, I think, this is the period that also witnessed the beginning of the gangster picture's own decline into self-parody). I'd like to re-review those five movies here, not least because they continue to reappear in art-house, university, and museum film series, on television, and in video stores everywhere.
Let me begin with Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), written and directed by Paul Mazursky. It is the largely autobiographical tale of Larry Lapinsky (Lenny Baker), a young actor in the early 1950s who leaves his mother (Shelley Winters) and his Brooklyn home for an apartment in the Village and the beginning of a career in show business. Larry's new neighborhood is aptly named, for it is a closely knit community in the middle of New York City: a heterogeneous mix of would-be actors, writers, artists, and composers sharing cultural, political, and sexual values. Larry and his friends have come from all parts of the country – not just the outer boroughs – to seek their fortunes there, and Mazursky's affection for these struggling individualists is apparent. But our ironical understanding of Next Stop, Greenwich Village is that its vision of the city as the realm of yet-to-be-realized possibilities has to be set in the past. For one finds it hard to imagine a film set in the 1970s, let alone the first decade of the twenty-first century, with characters who have such a bright-eyed view of "making it" in Manhattan as these do.
To Mazursky's credit, he shows the ambivalence that underlay artistic ambitions even in the '50s. Sarah (Ellen Greene), for example, is a hanger-on who comes to the Village by day and goes home to her parents' house "in the provinces" at night to sleep. Larry himself – struggling with his guilt at leaving home but simultaneously exulting in the opportunity to employ his talents, as well as to pursue friendship and to exercise his newfound sexual freedom – acts out all the contradictory impulses of the individual searching for a sense of self in the city. Some of that "contradiction," or opposition, comes from outside in the person of Clyde (Jeff Goldblum), an ambitious Method actor whose competition with Larry for a bit part in a film degenerates into bitter paranoia.
Unfortunately, however, Mazursky's vision is a shallow as it was in previous movies of his (among them Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice  and Harry and Tonto ). Although he is quick to recognize his, and by extension his characters', contradictory attitudes and impulses, and equally quick to make these the target of his often incisive humor, he seems incapable of probing deeper than, let us call it, "laughter at the recognition." And thus, for him as for many another American artist, his own experience is a curse. In the United States more than other nations, you see, artists have been enjoined to create from personal experience: to write (or paint or whatever) about what they know. The worst of it is not just that artists (especially Method actors) feel lashed to their firsthand experience but that they take its use as proof of their – and their works' – worth. Mazursky's Alex in Wonderland (1970) and Blume in Love (1973), for instance, were pasted with pleas for praise because they were honest about what the author "knew." There wasn't much else in them, though, and the same goes for Next Stop, Greenwich Village: there's little more in this film than easy laughter at remembered characters who all too often lapse into stereotypes.
Shelley Winters' portrayal of Larry's mother is a prime example of the shallowness of Mazursky's sensibility. Between his conception of the role (if one can call it that) and her hysterically mannered acting, Winters becomes the archetypal Jewish mother – hardly a characterization, or caricature, that needed much elaboration in the 1970s in the wake of the film of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1972). Once more we get the whole routine of love and hate, protection and strangulation, flight and return – and any other antithesis you care to append. Mazursky's coolness in using this material (which by then was considered stale even for revue sketches), just because it happened to him, is the most remarkable part of the whole picture. The cruelest aspect of Winters' part is the extent to which Mazursky exploited her personality, for, by this time, she had been confessing on so many television talk shows that her life and her roles had begun to blur; and her director in this instance used this shared audience response in a particularly disturbing fashion.
Even the characters that are regarded with some fondness, though, are made to look foolish in Next Stop, Greenwich Village: the suicidal friend, the philandering poet, the homosexual who "comes out." Moreover, Larry and his friends never walk – they always appear to dance (the conga), hop (like rabbits), or strut (like Chaplin's Tramp, twirling imaginary canes); they always say "I love you" instead of "I like you"; and they are offhand not only about premarital sex, but also about drugs and abortion. On top of all this, their "intellectual" discussions of the Rosenberg spy case, or of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, are simpleminded at best. It is difficult to know whether Mazursky takes this drivel seriously, or whether he is rudely satirizing his characters (and thus himself) by having them mouth such banalities.
But Mazursky isn't finished: he has even managed the trick of making New York City look small. Though the movie was naturally shot on location, there are so few sites (and they are used over and over again) that the effect is claustrophobic. Part of this is intentional, no doubt to emphasize both the cramped Village housing and the tight (in both senses of the word) Village community. But the feeling of claustrophobia is exaggerated by the nature of Arthur Ornitz's cinematography, which seems to have been done, or processed, underwater, as a sickly blue-green hue suffuses almost every shot. And this lack of sensitivity toward the visual aspect of his picture helps to explain why Mazursky's nostalgia is so superficially expressed. To be sure, it is hard to render such a romantic (not to say naïve) vision – in the literal as well as the figurative sense – satisfactorily without lapsing into suffocating sentimentality, but the cinema has the resources to overcome this difficulty through nonverbal allusion and suggestiveness (in this case, for one thing, by opening up the frame to the expansive potential of a life in the arts, in New York or any other large city).
Mazursky's failure to take advantage of his medium, however, did not prevent some critics at the time from comparing Next Stop, Greenwich Village to Amarcord (1973), in which Fellini was nostalgic about his own past. (A direct homage to Fellini runs through Mazursky's work: like the hero of 8½ , Larry Lapinsky kisses his mother passionately on the mouth in a dream scene; and in Alex in Wonderland, Donald Sutherland played an admiring film director who visits Fellini – who appears briefly as himself.) But Fellini's memories were expressed visually, through subtle yet powerful images and metaphors that evoked a visceral romantic response: the omnipresent sea, on which the new and magnificent steamship Rex arrives; the old, blind accordionist who is a son of a bitch; the unidentified motorcyclist who periodically weaves through the picture; the lawyer who addresses the camera like a narrator or town manager; the grandfather bewildered in a thick fog that is like a prevision of his death, then his grandson bewildered in the same fog that becomes a prevision of his life.
Mazursky's reminiscences, by contrast – presented within Movieland conventions of plot and dialogue – too often lapse into the trite or the formulaic. Instead of exploiting the possibilities or potentialities of the urban experience, he has chosen to exploit clichés and his actors (among them people of genuine talent: Christopher Walken as the philandering poet and Lois Smith as the suicidal friend); and in place of a film rich with memory, desire for memory, memory of desire, we are given a feckless exercise in self-love. Why Mazursky chose Lenny Baker – an actor so lacking in "presence" that he never quite seems distinguishable from the scenery – to embody that love is a matter for Freudians, not film critics, to ponder.
Excerpted from Screen Writings Volume II by Bert Cardullo. Copyright © 2010 Bert Cardullo. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations; Introduction: The Film of Value; Part I. Film Genres, Film Classics, and Film Aesthetics; Shooting the City: The Gangster, Manhattanites, and the Movies;Back to the Future, or the Vanguard Meets the Rearguard; Flags and Letters, Men and War; Farce, Dreams, and Desire: Some Like It Hot Re-viewed; Interlude; Switching Genres, or Playing to the Camera, Playing to the House: Stage vs. Screen Acting; On the Road Again: The Road Film and the Two Coppolas; The Coming-of-Age Fim a la Fellini: The Case of I vitelloni; Early vs. Later Bergman: Winter Light and Autumn Sonata Revisited; "Everyone Has His Reasons": Words, Images, and La grande illusion in the Cinema of Jean Renoir; A Passage to Tokyo: The Art of Ozu, Remembered; Through the Looking Glass: The American Art Cinema in an Age of Social Change; Bibliography; Index
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'Among my contemporaries, the best film critic writing in English in America is Bert Cardullo, and 'Screen Writings' proves why.' —Dan Harper, American film scholar
'A lot of what Bert Cardullo has to say about contemporary world cinema would be interesting to a very wide audience… He is someone with an impressive and stimulating command of the difficult dance of the film review.' —Jerry White, University of Alberta
'Bert Cardullo's articles and reviews are invariably intelligent, original, and highly informed. I have been a sturdy admirer of his work for years; he’s a solid writer and an equally solid judge.' —Frederick Morgan, American poet
'The film writings of Bert Cardullo are fresh and lucid, in addition to being revelatory of his belief that the study of cinema is a sacred calling. I marvel at Cardullo’s profound perceptiveness – particularly on display in 'Screen Writings' – about the exemplary meaning as well as the ultimate magic of the movies.' —Andrew Sarris, Columbia University
'Bert Cardullo is a fabulous viewer of movies. He practices a kind of film criticism that gives first place to one’s instinct for seeing possibilities in films and for identifying films to see possibilities within. The selection of essays in 'Screen Writings' is remarkable for its range and masterful in its use of language.' —Dudley Andrew, Yale University
'Bert Cardullo's work is one of the brightest beacon lights in the world of film criticism, and 'Screen Writings' is a wide-ranging new collection makes that light shine even more brightly.' —Stanley Kauffmann, American film critic
'Bert Cardullo’s work is one of the brightest beacon lights in the world of film criticism, and ‘Screen Writings’ is a wide-ranging new collection makes that light shine even more brightly.' —Stanley Kauffmann, American film critic