Gangster PriestThe Italian-American Cinema of Martin ScorseseRobert CasilloUniversity of Toronto Press, $39.95, 590 pp.
In one of his early poems William Butler Yeats memorably denounces those “old, learned, respectable bald heads” that “edit and annotate the lines that young men, tossing on their beds, rhymed out in love’s despair.” But if it weren’t for such boring old scholars, most of us would never have read that poem and perhaps never have heard of Yeats. Academics—the poor, slow unimaginative creatures—have always been an easy target, and Yeats was being as fatuous and unfair as, well, an academic, when he took potshots at them.
So a simple honest moviegoer ought to resist the temptation to denounce an ample and exhaustively researched volume of film criticism as a jargon-addled eruption of pedantic gasbagggery. But he also should be forgiven for doing so.
The prolific Martin Scorsese has directed some forty films, a rich and variegated canon in which Robert Casillo and other critics have noticed a sort of subgenre that they’ve identified as Italian American. People who like Scorsese’s work as much as I do will quickly notice that the category includes their favorites: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino. What they all seem to have in common is the marked influence of the family and community in which Scorsese, a third-generation Italian American, was raised.
Casillo, a professor of English at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, has considered and reconsidered and re-reconsidered these films and written nearly six hundred pages about them...pages a good editor would recognize as excellent notes toward a fifteen-page essay on how Martin Scorsese’s upbringing has affected his finest work.
Cruelly bereft of that editor’s services, Casillo’s prose often lacks traction and at times even brings to mind the splendidly goofy monologues of Professor Irwin Corey. For instance:
The key to grasping the persistence of Scorsese’s religious perspective in all his works lies in his characteristically Catholic immanentism and analogism, which permits him not only to envision the material world as pervaded by the divine spirit but to discover within persons, things, and events analogues of divine truth, to which they are related in terms of either resemblance or ironic parody.
A lack of precision obscures Casillo’s central assertion, which seems to be that an understanding of Italian America, and thus of Catholicism, is indispensable to an understanding of Scorsese’s work. That’s true as far as it goes, but how far is that? Some explanation is too much explanation. Readers of any criticism, especially film criticism, have a right to expect some discipline and restraint from those who presume to guide them through a work of art.
So they have a right to be slightly annoyed, or at least amused, when Casillo treats a gripping and ominous scene in Mean Streets in this tortured way:
Johnny Boy never lacks for an insult for Michael, as when, standing a round of drinks on an escalating tab, he answers Michael’s request for a drink with the affirmative: “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Typifying Scorsese’s Italian-American films in its mingling of humor and aggression, the insult anticipates Michael’s later mention that he deals in toilet paper from the army—a revelation that only underscores Michael’s status as a punk, the lowly position he assigns Johnny Boy. And in comparing Michael to a bear, Johnny Boy signals that confusion of human and animal that portends violence.
Even if all that were going on here, wouldn’t a viewer be better off leaving it unfootnoted?
Even before the opening credits are scrolling, most moviegoers will have appreciated that wiseguys, thugs, and extortionists are not gentlemen, but vicious scum. Casillo can’t even manage to pass by such an unremarkable truth without scurrying to The Leviathan for some reassuring intellectual authority. Noticing that a few of Scorsese’s nastier hooligans laugh at their victims, he edifies the desensitized popcorn eater in the cineplex back row or on the living-room sofa by reminding us that “Hobbes recognizes the cruelty often present in laughter in defining it as an expression of superiority felt in the contemplation of another person’s deformity or imperfections.” And here you’d thought they were simply expressing the sadistic impulses traditionally associated with their chosen trade, doing what gangsters do.
So there’s less to these hundreds of often annoying pages than meets the eye, and a reader’s assessment of Scorsese’s work is unlikely to be much affected by them, but when Casillo digresses from the films, as he often does, his book can be absorbing. In the ample footnotes, appendices, and, occasionally, in great swathes of the essays themselves, he has provided fascinating information about the history of gambling in Nevada, the politics and personalities of Cosa Nostra, and the anthropology of rural Italy. Such topics are interesting in and of themselves, regardless of what Scorsese, or Hobbes for that matter, have to say about them.