Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Society's Impact on Early Gangster Films

           This course is the first film course I have ever taken. Before taking the film communications class, I absolutely no idea as to what went on in making a film. I never thought about the underlying meanings that writers and directors put into their films. For instance, how writers and directors put in cultural, social, and political aspects that are occurring when the film is being made.  One reason the gangster film gained popularity was due to the Prohibition Era in the United States. Films about organized crime during this time in our country’s history, made the gangster genre gain popularity through social, cultural, and political events.
            It was not until the sound era and the 1930s that gangster films truly became entertaining and a popular way to attract viewers to the theatres. The events of the Prohibition Era such as bootlegging and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the existence of real-life gangsters, and the rise of organized crime helped to encourage this genre. Many plots of early gangster films were taken right out of the headlines from the newspaper. Crimes such as bootlegging and gambling brought these real-life gangsters to a hero status among the public. The American public, at the time, was very displeased with the government. The public blamed the government for the poor status of the country at the time and they would cheer on the gangsters in films as they would elude the police and fight against the law. The public liked the gangsters portrayed on the big screen. They enjoyed how the gangster flaunted and cruel, tough, and law-defying lifestyle.
The rise in popularity for gangster films brought in government attention. The coming of the Hays Production Code helped put and end to the glorification of gangsters and approving the violent ways of the gangster lifestyle. The Hays Production Code wanted to put a censorship on the gangster. The code wanted studios to present the gangster as a psychopath and stop depicting them as heroes. They wanted the studios to show that this lifestyle was morally wrong and that crime did not pay. One way that studios did this was making films that made the cop look like a gangster. They would portray cops as ruthless and violent as the gangster. Another way the code was enforced was how studios would show the consequences that the gangster would face for his violent ways. Either way, the Hays Production Code did not put an end to this genre. It would live on eighty more years to films that are being made today.

Binggeli, E. (2009). Worse than bad: Sanctuary, the hays office and the genre of abjection. Arizona quarterly: A journal of american literature, culture, and theory , 65 (3), 87-116.

Scene Analysis: The Baptism Scene

            Out of all the gangster films I have seen, one particular scene sticks out in my memory. In the film, The Godfather, the baptism scene is without a doubt one of the best scenes in all gangster films. The scene happens after Vito dies and Michael realizes what kind of situation he is in. He knows that he is going to take the lead role of the Corleone family, but he also realizes that there is something bigger. He realizes that he and the Corleone family is about to be a war between the Corleone family and Barzini family.
            The scene, like a few scenes in the film, uses montage editing. The scene cuts in and out of Michael at his nephew’s baptism and his men murdering his rivals. The montage editing also reveals that the baptism and the killings are going on at the same time. The montage editing cuts between the peaceful, calm, and religious ceremony to the violent murders that are going on. The background music and priests voice also adds suspense and excitement to the scene as well. The setting of the church also gives off a gloomy feeling as well. The lighting inside of the church is dark, which gives off a gothic vibe of the church. The music and voice of the priest seems to get louder as each man is murdered as the scene goes on. The voice reaches it loudest point when the priest asks Michael if he rejects the glamour of evil and if he rejects Satan and all of his works. The scene cuts and shows Michael’s rivals being murdered by his men. The guns blasting throughout the scene are very loud as well. The camera is stationary and uses medium shot and medium close-up on Michael. There are also camera shots that are medium and medium close-up of Michael’s rivals as they are being killed. One part of the scene where this happens is the rival who is lying down and getting a massage. The camera has a close-up and the viewer can almost see the bullet go into the man’s eye. The end of the scene ends with the conclusion the Michael is now the new Godfather of the Corleone family.
The editing montage separates the holy and unholy traits of Michael’s character. It shows the he is good and evil. It also captures what Michael’s new life as the Godfather may endure. The scene shows Michael in a ruthless light. It reveals how inhumane and violent he is by how he says he renounces Satan at the same time he has his men murdering his rivals.

Phillips, G. (2004). Francis ford coppola. Jackson: The university press of mississippi.

Here's a link to the scene:


Monday, April 25, 2011

Scorsese's Repeated Theme

Scorsese’s films are somewhat sporadic in terms of different genres, as well as themes. He has directed dozens of films with different genres and themes. However, Martin Scorsese uses on particular theme in several of his movies. From his first popular film Mean Streets in 1973, to a more recent film he directed in 2010 titled, The Departed, one theme that is present in four of Scorsese’s most highly publicized films is the theme of a replacement father. Generally, this father figure has a negative impact on each of the characters in some way, which helps build the conflict in the film. In Mean Streets, the audience is exposed to several levels of replacement fathers. Charlie plays that role to Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy, but inevitably fails in helping him stay on a legit path. Also in the film, Charlie’s uncle plays the same role to him, but also fails as a result of Charlie’s relationship with Johnny Boy. The theme of a replacement father is also seen in Taxi Driver. It is seen between the main character, Travis, and the character Iris; who is a teenage prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Iris gets advice from Travis on several occasions to leave the streets and go home to her family. Because of Travis’ influence, the viewer is lead to believe that Iris has returned to her family and has begun attending school again, abandoning her life on the streets. This same theme also appears in the film Goodfellas. Ray Liota’s character, Henry Hill, finds a father figure in Paul Cicero. Paul is also an Italian mob boss. Liota’s character also finds a father figure in Johnny Conway, who is also involved in the mob. The story ends in disaster. Anyone that is associated with Conway finds himself dead and Liota’s character ends up in witness protection. Similar to Goodfellas is the film The Departed. Two characters, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, also find a replacement father figure in a mob boss. DiCaprio and Damon’s characters find a father figure in Irish mob boss Frank Costello. With each on the opposite side of the law, and their only connection between them being Costello, the story ends in tragedy, with both of them shot dead because of their relationship with Costello. Even though Scorsese uses several different themes throughout his films, the theme of a replacement father is evident in these films.

Braudy, L. (1986). The sacrements of genre: Cappola, depalma, scorsese. Film quaterly , 39 (3), 17-28.

Tyrangiel, J. (2006). The gang's all here. Time , 168 (15), 62-66.

Gangster Genre= Film Noir

The gangster genre is a product of a much larger genre. Crime genre is very similar to the gangster genre. Crime genre films typically involve criminals or gangsters. The characters can be robbers, murderers, thieves, or underworld figures.  They also sometimes highlight the life of a crime figure and glorify the rise and fall of a particular criminal or group of criminals. Another category of films that is associated with the gangster genre is film noir.
Similar to the gangster genre is film noir. Film noir is typically a darker film. These types of films deal with hardboiled detectives, gangsters, or normal people who turn to a life of crime. These films also usually used low-key lighting. Film noir is used to describe crime dramas. Most film noirs take place in America, because it was originally identified with films produced in the United States. Film noirs were made mostly during the 1940s and 1950s.
Film noir is described as the type of mood that a film has. Some of these moods are gloomy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, uncertainty, corruption, evil, guilt, depression, and paranoia. The characters in film noir come from the dark and gloomy underworld of crime and corruption. They are dynamic, menacing, sinister, and fearful. Most of the characters are typically men as well. The narratives are complex and use numerous types of editing and shots.  These films also have share traits of having disorienting visual schemes, shadows, skewed camera angles, and low-key lighting. An example of a film noir scene would be a mobster sitting in a dark room with a dimed light overhead. The viewer can see the smoke rising off of the cigarette that he is smoking. They typically also have a setting that takes place in a urban setting such as Chicago. An example of an outdoor setting would be at night in dark alleys or streets The narratives also usually end with the character loosing his or hers conquest.
Film noirs show the darker side of human nature. They reveal how truly inhumane people can be. They have an atmosphere of danger, doubt, anxiety, realism, and the suspicion that anything can go wrong. They reveal to the viewer the underworld of crime that goes on that no one really knows about. They also reveal true stories of criminals and gangsters. Film noir is without a doubt a type of film that is different from the rest.

Silver, A. U. (1996). Film noir reader. Pompton plains, New jersey: Limelight editions.

Scene Analysis: The Copacabana Scene

              Scorsese’s use of cinematography, mise-en-scene, and sound is what seperates him from all directors. Out of the dozens of films that he has directed, the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas illustrates his fine expertise. This scene is portrayed through the eyes of Henry Hill’s future wife Karen, who also narrates the scene. In this particular part of the film, Henry is at the height of his mob career. The scene starts off when the pair sees that the line into the Copacabana, a prestigious nightclub, is outstandingly long. Henry then takes Karen through a side door, which is the employee entrance. She is scared, but it is giving her a sense of excitement. She describes all of the employees knowing Henry and that he is tipping them with hundred dollar bills for doing something as little as opening a door. She also adds that everyone there knows Henry and likes him as well. Once through the kitchen of the club, they walk inside to see that all of the tables are full. The owner then snaps his fingers, points to the pair, and then to the front of the stage. Two employees then place a table right in front of the stage by the performers. She describes Henry as someone that everyone there wanted to be around. She says that everyone knows him and he must be under a lot of pressure because of it. But she also remarks that Henry knew how to handle it. After they finally sit down, she asks what he does for a living and Henry calmly tells her that he is in construction.
The most notable aspect of this entire scene is Scorsese’s use of cinematography. This scene is barely over three minutes long. During the entire scene, one camera follows Karen and Henry from the street, into the back entrance, through the kitchen, and into their seats in front of the stage. The camera is only a few feet behind the couple, which puts the viewer at a personal distance.  The camera flows and glides through the scene. Every drawback they encounter from the moment they walk in is quickly taken care of.
The music during the scene also plays an important role as well. Before the scene, the viewer already knows that Karen has some feelings towards Henry. The Copacabana scene is the first date when Karen and Henry are only with each other. The music correlates with the emotions felt during a first date. The song played during the scene is called “Then He Kissed Me,” by The Crystals. The song’s lyrics give the notion that Karen is falling in love with Henry. Both the song and scene begin at the same time. It plays through the scene as it unfolds. The song and camera movement ends when the couple sits down at their table. The song is considered non-diegetic sound since it would not be assumed that it is truly playing in the world that the film depicts. The diegetic sounds are sounds the assumed to exist. This includes the dialogue between Henry, Karen, and the other characters, the background noises in the street outside the club, the noises in the kitchen, and the noises in the club itself. However, both the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are perfectly in sequence with one another. Neither ever over powers the other. It also allows for the viewer to get a sense of certain emotions being felt at the time, as well as a realistic idea of what it really sounded like inside of the Copacabana.

Kowalski, D. (2007). Goodfellas, gyges, and the good life. In M. Conrad, The philosophy of martin scorsese (pp. 31-52). Lexington: The university press of kentucky.

Thornell, P. (2010). The films of martin scorsese and robert de niro. Library journal , 135 (9), 70-75.

Here's a link to the scene:


Shots and Editing in The Godfather Trilogy

Editing may be thought of as the coordination of one shot with the next. A shot is one or more exposed frames in a series on a continuous length of film stock.  There are many different ways to edit a shot. Francis Coppola uses many different types of shots and editing styles throughout The Godfather Trilogy.
There are several differences in editing between the first and second film in the trilogy. The Godfather uses more of a continuous action throughout the film. The events occur in the sequence that they occur. From the opening scene at the wedding to the end when Michael arrives in Las Vegas, the scenes in The Godfather occur in chronological order. The plot of the film is about the transfer of power from Vito to Michael. Within that transfer, the viewer also sees the development of Michael from a boy to a man. Another editing technique used in the film is the flash-forward, or moving from present to a future event and then returns to the present. In one scene, Vito talks with Tom and Sonny about their upcoming meeting with another gangster. As the three men talk during the present, shots of them are combined with shots of them in the meeting with the other gangster in the future. It ends with Vito announcing that he will not allow the family to be involved in any type of drug trade. Another scene that uses combined shots is the famous baptism scene. It shows Michael participating in the baptism and combines shots of the war that he is waging against other gangsters.
The second film in the trilogy alternates between two separate narratives throughout the film. One narrative tells of Vito’s life and the other narrative tells of Michael’s struggle to escape his father’s reputation. The narrative of Vito’s life is prequel to the first film and the narrative of Michael’s struggle is a sequel to the first film. The underlying meaning of the two separate narratives is how the past affects the present. It explains how Vito became involved in mafia in the first place. The editing in the film allows the viewer to compare the two men. The viewer is allowed to make his or her own assumptions about Michael and Vito.  The second film also uses montage. Montage emphasizes relationships between shots and the association of images to create ideas not present in either shot by itself.

Braudy, L. (1986). The sacrements of genre: Cappola, depalma, scorsese. Film quaterly , 39 (3), 17-28.

Mis-en-scene in Scorsese's Goodfellas

Mise-en-scene is a term used to signify the director’s control over what appears in the film frame. Mise-en-scene includes those aspects of film that overlap with the art of a theatre: setting, lighting, costume, and the behavior of the figures. Realism is also tied in to this concept because it allows the viewer to determine if the setting, characters, and costumes are realistic. In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director stages the event for the camera. One director who is known for his cinematography and use of mise-en-scene is Martin Scorsese.
            Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, has multiple examples of the theatrical concept of mise-en-scene. One aspect of mise-en-scene is the setting.  Goodfellas takes place in Queens in New York City. It beings during the 1950s and ends in the 1980s. Historically, New York City is a known place for the Italian mob. By having the setting in this area, the viewer would believe that mob related activities take place there. Two other aspects are costumes and the behavior of the characters. In many gangster films, the Italian mobster is usually well dressed. They typically wear nice clothes such as a shirt and tie. Scorsese went along with this notion in Goodfellas. All of the characters where fancy clothes and look like they are Italian so they could be depicted as Italian mobsters. They have an Italian accent and many of their conversations are about illegal activities that they would partake in. They give off a hard and fierce attitude to those who do not know them.  Lighting is also an aspect of mise-en-scene. In the beginning scene of the movie, the three main characters are shown murdering a high-ranking Italian mobster. There is a red light in the scene, which has an underlying significance. The red light appears to almost look like a flashlight. The lighting resembles a blood like color and it does not allow the viewer to see the blood that is covering the characters. The red light gives off a notion of death.
            The beginning scene is the movie is a flash-forward to a later part of the movie. Scorsese uses a strong narrative form to tie in the significance of that scene to what happens to the characters after it. After the beginning scene in the film, it tells the story that builds up to that particular part of the movie. It is significant because after the murder, it turns series of events that leads to the demise of the three main characters.

Kolker, R. (2000). A cinema of loneliness. New york city: Oxford press.

Gender in Gangster Films

The gangster genre is a masculine dominated film genre. In most gangster films, the main character is typically a male. This could be due to the fact that the most popular demographic for film viewers is a male between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Women in most gangster films usually tend to play a small role in the film. This could be due to the fact to the time period in which the film takes place. For instance, some gangster films take place during the Prohibition Era in the United States. Unfortunately, women were of low status during this time period. Wives of gangsters tend to have less control over their husbands, but women sometimes have an impact.
In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s wife Karen has absolutely no control over Henry's actions. In one scene, Henry comes home late and opens the door to an angry and emotion Karen. As she begins to question him about his whereabouts, he just laughs at her and leaves. However, she turns out to be the only person Henry can trust towards the end of the film. In the film Public Enemies, the girlfriend of the main character, John Dillinger, has more of a presence throughout the film.  When Dillinger was not out robbing banks, he was spending time with his girlfriend Billie. Though Dillinger was faced with being arrested multiple times, he would risk it to see Billie. He never treated Billie as an object and he never took her for granted. 
Another character from the gangster genre that had more control over her husband compared to most of the wives in gangster films is Sharon Stone’s character from the film Casino. Stone plays the character Ginger McKenna. In the film she is described as one of Las Vegas’ best female hustlers. She knew how to work people in order to get what she wants. She marries Robert De Niro’s character Sam Rothstein who is the head of the Tangier’s Casino. The two endure an intense and emotional marriage. They would constantly get into domestic disputes. On one occasion she took their child and ran away with her former low life pimp. In another scene, Sam caught her talking on the phone about killing him or wanting him dead. Even with all of these conflicts, De Niro’s character always took her back. She had some sort of power over him. De Niro’s character explains his reasonings for taking her back was the fact that she’s the mother of his child and for that reason he will always love her. Her power and control fades after she admits to being with Sam’s best friend, and mobster, Nicki. Finally, at the end of the film they separate and she ends up dying from an overdose.
Women have gone through many stages throughout the course of gangster films. From the beginning that this genre was made to the present, they have made a larger impact in the movie itself. Women are portrayed as more of a vital role to aiding their gangster husband or boyfriend. Hopefully soon there will be a movie based solely on a gangster who is a woman.

Binggeli, E. (2009). Worse than bad: Sanctuary, the hays office and the genre of abjection. Arizona quarterly: A journal of american literature, culture, and theory , 65 (3), 87-116.

Brauer, S. (2001). An aesthetics of crime. American quarterly , 53 (3), 535-547.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Semiotics in Goodfellas

Gangster films as a genre has a connection with semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols as elements of communication. A sub-genre of the gangster genre is films about organized crime. Films such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, The Departed, Casino, and American Gangster all include groups of individuals involved in organized crime. The most popular group of organized crime would have to be the Italian syndicate. In this type of organized crime, the amount of power and respect an individual has, correlates with the status of that particular person. In the film Goodfellas, there are several examples of how an individual’s status determines the amount of power and respect that they have.
            Goodfellas is a true story based upon the life of ex-mobster Henry Hill. The film relives the rise and downfall of his career as a mobster. Early in the film, Henry comes across a man named Paul Sorvino. Paul, or Paulie, is the mob boss of the local Italian syndicate in Henry’s neighborhood. Henry gets a job as a young boy at the restaurant that Paul owns. He states in the film that Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody. Paulie had the highest status, which is being the boss. Every person that associated with the mob in film always answered to Paulie. If someone was making money, Paulie always received a percentage of what was made. In one scene, Henry and Jimmy Conway rob the airport and make thousands of dollars because of it. The first thing they did after the robbery was give Paulie a percentage of the money. This was because of Paulie’s status. His status entitled him to the amount of power he had over anyone else.
            Through the course of the movie, Henry also begins to move up in terms of status. One scene in particular demonstrates how Henry’s status affected the way he was treated. The Copacabana scene demonstrates how much power Henry has because of his status in the mob. Henry goes to the Copacabana with his date and they see that there is a long line to get into the club. Henry goes through a side door with his date and they go through a maze of rooms and finally get into the club. Everyone that the pair encounters is very friendly and polite towards them. This is because of whom Henry is and the status that he holds.
            The amount of respect and power an individual has in many gangster films is determined by what status that person has. Or having a high status means that a person holds a lot of power over everyone else.

Kowalski, D. (2007). Goodfellas, gyges, and the good life. In M. Conrad, The philosophy of martin scorsese (pp. 31-52). Lexington: The university press of kentucky.

The Gangster Genre

             Greed, deception, money, power, and murder; these are the basic themes of a gangster film.  Gangster films present a story of criminal life through struggles with the law or rival gangs. Film gangsters are street smart, dishonest, powerful, respected, and sometimes comical. Gangsters in films use brute muscle and fear in the pursuit of power and wealth. There are various types of gangster films. Some are very dramatic such as The Godfather or Casino. Others take a different direction. They are dramatic, but also have certain scenes that can be very comedic. One film that fits this criterion is Goodfellas. This genre has gone through changes through its history. Many sub-genres have been created within the genre of the gangster film. For instance, a sub-genre to come out of the gangster genre is the cop as a gangster. This is where the police officer is the violent and ruthless character to combat the gangster. In many gangster films, real life situations from crime history are often portrayed in the plot. Casino and Goodfellas are two examples of movies that tell a story of true events. There are also different types of gangsters in films. There are Italians, African Americans, Japanese, bank robbers, etc. The most popular crime organization in films would have to be the Italian syndicate. Though aimed at a mature audience, gangster films are and will continue to be very popular genre throughout filmmaking. 
             Gangster films arrived at cinemas in the early 1900s. According to Tim Dirks, the first popular gangster film was The Moonshiners in 1904. Two other early gangster films were A Desperate Encounter between Burglars and Police and The Black Hand. These films were produced in 1905 and 1906. However, their availability is very problematic, or almost impossible to find. “The first to mark the start of the gangster genre was D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (Dirks). Griffith’s film was released in 1912. These films we made without sound and used subtitle screens to allow the audience to know either what a particular character said, or how a particular character feels. The early gangster films were all shot from the non-criminal point of view. In other words, it was shot in the law-abiding view, or the character that was trying to stop the violence caused by the gang or robbers. According to Dirks, the first gangster film that was filmed in the gangster’s point of view was Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927). Many film critics agree that this film was the first modern gangster film. It is considered the first modern gangster film because it was shot in the criminal’s point of view. This is how almost all of today’s gangster movies are shot today. Underworld won various awards including the Best Original Story. Organized crime led to great popularity for the gangster genre. One aspect that was never really explored was the business side of organized crime. The gangster as a businessman is a sub-genre that is seen in many films made over the past twenty years. 
             The gangster genre is aimed at a mature audience, but this genre is and will continue to be popular in movies. The genre has a history of over a hundred years. What started out as one genre, turned into multiple different types of sub-genres. What really makes this genre unique compared to others, is how actual gangsters contributed to the success and popularity of this type of film. These films truly are exciting and original. They show a different side of society. They show the ruthless, crazy, relentless, and power hungry side of people. The symbols that represent gangsters are a lot of different things that are bad in this world such as guns, money, death, and drugs. This genre makes the viewer take the side of the bad guy, which separates it from many different genres. Greed, deception, money, power, and murder; this is what makes up the gangster genre.

Dirks, T. (2008). Crime-gangster films: Tracing the route of a genre. Film history: An international journal , 20 (3), 308-324.
MacLeod, D. (2007). A tall order. Film & history: An interdisciplinary journal of film and television studies , 37.2, 114.