Thursday, April 8, 2010

Engl. 339: Goodfellas

One of the things that struck me the most about Martin Scorsese, both in Goodfellas and in the clips we saw on Tuesday, was the prevalence of food as part of the storytelling. In The Gangs Of New York, we saw a rich family sitting down to a lavish breakfast. When the mob broke in and the breakfast table was overturned, I admit I felt a pang for all that lovely food gone uneaten. In The Age Of Innocence, there is that marvelous long pan along the dinner table, over all sorts of dishes that I couldn't name but looked delicious. In Goodfellas, the fellas are constantly sitting down to hearty Italian meals; whether they're about to go bury a body in their trunk or they're doing a stint in prison, they have pasta and wine and fresh bread and cheese. The movie devotes quite a bit of time to eating and cooking - who can forget the bit about slicing the garlic with a razor blade to get it thin enough, or Henry having Karen smuggle him cheese in prison? There was also an overabundance of sausage, but I figured that was saying more about the masculine nature of the film.
Generally, people eating together is a sign of unity. In these instances, though, Scorsese uses the idea of a family dinner to emphasize strife and discord: in The Gangs Of New York, the breakfast table with its sumptuous food, blue china, and vases of flowers directly contrasts the growing rioting and the poverty in the outside streets; it is the first thing to be destroyed. In The Age Of Innocence, the dinner table is laden with amazing food and flowers, but the company around it, friendly though they may seem, are all backbiting and treacherous society people. Likewise, in Goodfellas the dinner scenes begin by emphasizing the familial nature of the mob, where they all share food together and even the Made Men cook for everyone, but it gains a darker tone as we realize that the family attitude is only a veneer, and that the two men eating next to each other can turn on the other in a moments' notice.
Scorsese uses food as a dramatic technique in the same way that another director might use lighting or sound. It can trick the viewer into feeling sympathy for the characters, or alert them to the dissonance in a scene.
Also, I think he really likes food.


  1. This is a really good point, he does seem to like food and use it as technique, but its so subtle that I never really thought about it or noticed it because it seems so normal that people would eat. Also he might just like dinner scenes because it’s a great way to get all the characters in a room interacting with each other showing the audience what the relationships are like and it’s an easy way to set the mood of the film at the time they are eating by watching them socialize and seeing their mannerisms.

  2. I'd have to back Lauren up, when she says that food as a medium for discussion is the common reason (that I've heard) directors include dinner scenes. John Houston's films are famous for how he was able to have two or three conversations occurring simultaneously, as groups around the table talk to each other. And if you've ever been in an Italian household (like my grandmother's) you know that this is exactly how people interact. Three conversations at the table, arguments, the radio on in the kitchen and the television blasting from the living room.

  3. These are all great points, Fawn--yours and Walter's and Lauren's. I think that the way in which the camera lingers over the perfection of the food does set up that contrast between it and the conflict that goes on around the table. It's really the only place where perfection is achieved in a Scorsese movie.