Sunday, February 9, 2014

Casino (1995): A Review


The mob movie's hold over the American psyche has its obvious explanations.  Money, sex, power, and the ability to physically dominant and intimidate others-- some part of ourselves always wants these things-- wants them unblinkingly-- and we will always enjoy possessing them vicariously through fictional characters.  But there are plenty of other realms where these things are equally abundant, but which we aren't as hungry to inhabit.  Nobody ever made movies about the binges and excesses of the Cold War power elite, say (The Resistible Rise of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has yet to find a studio).  The boardrooms of Reagan-era financial firms only seem to have provoked contemptuous satire (American Psycho) and moralizing criticism (Wall Street).  It seems the appeal of the mob movie has to do with something more deeply rooted than naked bodies and dollar signs.  


I would posit the secret of its success lies in an emotional propensity that is more strangely admirable, and perhaps because of that, more insidious: nostalgia.  It is nostalgia above all for the notion of rules-- for a single overarching code of behavior which, once mastered, would ensure a decent life.  The longing that drives us to see these movies is not so different from that which led the American psyche to dwell among Andy Griffith and Ward Cleaver.  The mob movie is Horatio Alger for the 20th century "institution man," but refracted just enough-- through a criminal subculture and the immigrant experience-- to have the added fascination of the exotic.   As Eric Hobsbawm diagnosed it in a 1985 article: "The Mafia, so far from challenging the values of 'Americanism,' embodied them."  There is a reason the modern mob fixation took off in earnest in the late '60s and early '70s, when "Americanism" seemed uniquely embattled to many of our citizens.

Mob movies don't just appeal to our licentious or atavistic impulses, therefore-- they appeal to our moral natures.  The power exercised by Don Corleone, say, is not just physical power; it is also moral power: a paternal authority, the Olympian Sky-father respect he gains as a dispenser of justice. (Corleone: "That is not justice; your daughter is still alive." Bonasera: "Let them suffer then, as she suffers.")  The fact that what Corleone distributes is not really justice, and that we can recognize this even while the appeal of the fantasy lingers-- is what gives these movies the power to disturb, in the hands of skilled filmmakers like Coppola or Scorsese-- and hence what gives them their artistic interest.

*****

I recently checked Casino (1995) off my list of unwatched Scorsese films and found it to be an underrated piece of work.  Viewers might complain of its similarity to Goodfellas and argue that it does not explore any untrod ground.  (This is true: but merely to keep up the frenetic energy and punchy dialogue (so to speak) of the earlier work is a rare achievement.)  Some critics have also regretted that the Robert De Niro character is so distant, cold, and emotionally deadpan.  In my view, however, these are exactly the traits which make the performance so effective, for what the movie ultimately achieves.  I will explain.

Apart from long-suffering wives and harpy mistresses, there are really only two characters in any mob movie: the brains and the muscle.  The De Niro character is the brains in Casino, which explains the emotional vacuum reviewers have been complaining about.  It would be improper for the brains to display too much emotion-- just as Don Corleone would never raise his voice in argument (unless it is strictly a family matter, concerning his rotten godson, for instance).  The brains wishes to prove his strength just as much as the muscle does: but the highest display of strength, as Nietzsche pointed out, is not to display it at all.  The De Niro character never strikes anyone in anger in Casino.  He floats around in frigid, pastel-colored elegance.  He loves his daughter and dotes on his wife.  But we see his underlings variously knock a man's teeth out, strip a casino cheat who's wearing a wire and smash his hand with a hammer, and hoist a cowboy bodily from a poker table and ram his head through a door.  The brains makes the call to do violence, but only the muscle carries it out.  At least, this is how it is supposed to work, according to the rules of the mob movie world.  But Casino is in part the story of what happens when the brains and the muscle get misaligned.  

The muscle in Casino is Nicky Santoro, but let's just call him the "Joe Pesci character," because he is basically the exact same person Pesci portrayed in Goodfellas, but with a new name.  The Joe Pesci character is probably the most deeply frightening -- and deeply pathetic-- character I've ever encountered in a work of fiction.  Diminutive in stature, and with a high-pitched voice, he is belittled in both films in which he appears by the bosses and the "made men."  The higher-ups in Casino  refer to him as "the little guy," and one leering big-shot in Goodfellas calls him a shoe-shine boy ("Go and get your shine box").  As a result, the Pesci character is an all-too plausible cauldron of resentment and rage-- one that is pathetically incapable of expressing himself other than through violence or profanities.  One gets the impression that a lifetime's worth of humiliations and grievances are compacted into his spring-loaded form.  

This leaves him with an apparently insatiable appetite for cruelty and a need to vent his savagery on any available target.  The guy who makes the "shine box" crack in Goodfellas is killed in a bar by Pesci's bare fists and repeated kicks to the head, while Pesci sobs broken curses in inarticulate fury.  In Casino, he either kills or reduces to half-life a similar barroom loudmouth by stabbing him in the neck with a pen.  His criminal "schemes" are as sadistic as they are depressingly unimaginative.  When he moves into Las Vegas, the first plan he carries out is simply to bet on various sports, collect when he wins, and rough up anyone who tries to obtain his money when he loses ("It wasn't exactly scientific," says De Niro).  His temper flares when a friend tells him not to let a particular resentment bother him ("Who says it's bothering me?").  In Goodfellas, a girl he is seeing remarks that Sammy Davis Jr. is attractive.  The audience, and all the characters on screen, immediately tense up, expecting the worst.

Though an evident psychopath, the Pesci character is full of generous feelings and advice.  He makes his young son breakfast every morning (pancakes with syrup), and when the De Niro character's wife shows up to complain about her husband, he lets her vent before gently reminding her how much the man loves her.  He has as many wise saws and moral chestnuts as an Italian granny, and dispenses ethical verdicts even as he commits the most appalling crimes.   

In this, the Pesci character, like the De Niro character, reflects the central fantasy driving all mafia movies: the ideal of the businessman who "does what it takes" in the big world of money and power, but is prince charming to women and gentle as a lamb to the kiddies.  He may be a ruthless bastard in the outside world, but it is only because he has to be, in order to secure the inviolate domestic paradise in which his innocent family resides.  There are a lot of abiding American obsessions on display in this: masculinity, rugged individualism, the idea that all it really takes to get ahead is to work hard and keep to the man code.  One of the refrains of both the De Niro and the Pesci characters in Casino is "Be a man": advice they especially dole out to deadbeats and moochers.  Pesci gives a lecture about fatherhood to a man who gambled away money the mob had given him for groceries and the heating bill ("you're a f***ing degenerate gambling prick, ya know dat?").  The fantasy, again, is not just one of physical prowess and the ability to order people around; it is one of moral certainty-- of simple rules that make men men.  

But, like all the best and most artistically serious mafia films, Casino proceeds to disturb the fantasy, even as it places it on offer.  It puts these cherished American pieties into the mouth of an abhorrent sociopath-- a human rifle coil waiting to unload.  Immediately after the scene in which Pesci makes his young son his pancake breakfast, we see him go after a new thug in Las Vegas who has just shot up an adversary's bar.  In what is one of the most disturbing scenes I've seen on film, the Pesci character tortures the man by clamping his head in a vice.  I'm fairly easily affected by violence in movies, but it's not often, at this age, that I am so upset by a scene that I feel it getting stuck in a ruminating loop in my mind.  That happened here.  

The horror of the sequence doesn't come from its gore, which is more limited than it could have been, given what it depicts.  It has something to do with the complete powerlessness that the Pesci character inflicts on his victim.  Most violence in mob movies, by contrast, is quick-- the silenced bullet, the cord around the throat.  If the character is sufficiently unlikable, these can seem to our pre-rational selves almost like justice.  But the ongoing violence inflicted on the person who has already been incapacitated is simply intolerable to us, even at an instinctual level, no matter who it's done to.  This is, after all, not a particularly "sympathetic" character with his head in the vice.  We just saw him gun down a bar full of innocent people in the previous scene.

I'm not sure whether it's salutary or not to put this sort of thing in movies.  Using violence on screen to shock people, even for a good reason, has certain inbuilt limitations.  People can only be appalled by something so many times before it starts to seem normal.  On the other hand, this scene achieves something important: it takes whatever fantasy life we had constructed as the film progressed and wrings it out of us by force.  It takes the fact that some part of us wants to admire-- even emulate-- the people on screen, and says to us in effect: Ok, here it is: you asked for it.  If we had been constructing in our minds some romantic vigilantism, some noble ostracism from respectable society, we see here what mob violence actually looks like.  It looks like the same things they do in Syrian prisons or in CIA black sites or in Iranian dungeons or wherever else one person is handed complete and utter power over another.  

The best mafia films are able to disrupt our fantasies in much the same way as this scene disrupted mine: Godfather Part II, for instance, shows us Tom Hagen, a beloved character, helping to murder a prostitute in order to frame a politician.  Tony Soprano in one episode of the eponymous show interrupts a trip with his daughter to look at colleges in Maine in order to strangle an old enemy with wire.  As he expires, the man tells Tony that he could have killed him the day before, but didn't do so when he realized he was with his daughter.

Mafia movies play out our wish-fulfiullment scenarios, but they also call them into question-- at least, the better ones among them do.  They ask why we fantasize about being mobsters when in the end, they are just like powerful thugs everywhere, whether in political movements or governing autocracies or terrorist cells.  

Of course, one shouldn't go to mob movies to get one's criminology or sociology.  Mario Puzo complained that it was the story, The Godfather, that he pieced together out of newspaper articles in a public library that was remembered by the world, whereas the story which actually drew on his own life experience-- one of hard-scrabble immigrant life wholly removed from organized crime-- was forgotten.  But if mob movies fail in realism, which they probably do, it is surely not because the real underworld is less violent and more appealing than the one these films they show us.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that not many readers of this blog project themselves into the role of the "muscle" when they watch mob films.  Our fantasy scenarios don't usually take the form of wishing we were Joe Pesci's character.  That style of direct brutality is alien to us, and his character's displays of physical strength are too obviously products of a deeper weakness-- a weakness of character and of mind and of the capacity to articulate his thoughts.  He is an awful but basically pitiable figure.

But we may be somewhat more likely to identify with the "brains."  Whenever a flicker of conscience disturbs the bloodletting in these films, after all, it crosses the face of the "brains," never of the "muscle."  This is not because the brains is more guiltless, ultimately, but because he is further removed from the violence at the heart of his enterprise.  Goodfellas opens with Henry Hill looking on as the Joe Pesci character knifes a bleeding man in the trunk of a car.  Hill closes the trunk afterwards with a look of queasy disbelief.  Perhaps one of the most memorable and perturbing scenes of the film occurs when Joe Pesci gets into an altercation with a club-footed, stuttering boy nicknamed "Spider" who works for the mob.  Spider has been the target of the Pesci character's casual abuse throughout the movie, and in retaliation, he eventually mutters a soft "Go f*** yourself."  The Pesci character stares at him in silence for a minute before pulling a gun and killing him.  The other mobsters proceed to argue with one another about who's going to "dig the hole" to hide Spider's body. Henry, the brains of Goodfellas, is the only one who actually squats next to Spider's body and mutters in a cracked voice: "He's dead."

So too, in Casino, the brains-- De Niro in this case-- is the only one likely to garner any sympathy from the viewer.  He is, after all, the "reasonable" character.  He mostly wants to run a "legitimate operation" (by his standards-- which involve giving all the cops and politicians a cut of the proceeds and beating cheaters with hammers-- and of course, robbing desperate people blind through the ordinary operations of the casino).  The De Niro character is the only one in the film who appears capable of some degree of self-restraint.  This is especially so when compared to his wife, played by Sharon Stone, who arranges to marry the De Niro character for mercenary reasons and sinks progressively into a despond of liquor and drugs as a result.  Though this sounds in part like a nightmare, it too is actually part of the masculine fantasy that animates the mob movie: the mafia boss, the "company man", is the lone voice of reason, surrounded by unaccountable feminine hysterics.  Tony Soprano, for instance, always refers to himself as "the strong, silent type."  One of his refrains in his series is, "What ever happened to Gary Cooper?"  The De Niro character similarly presents himself as an idol of atomic age patriarchal dispassion.  He is apparently calm, collected, and free of pride or envy-- whereas his wife is a junkie who ends up tying their daughter to the furniture one night, because she is too lazy to find her a babysitter.  

The difference between the brains and his wife, however, is not actually one of greater rationality or moral superiority on one side.  Rather, it is one of power.  The brains has a lot of it and his wife has none of it.  It is easy to seem dispassionate, after all, when no one around you would ever dare to arouse your anger.  Who needs pride when your ego is constantly massaged by every human face you encounter?  A character in Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel remarks: "People make me laugh when they talk about the modesty of an Einstein, or someone of his kind.  My answer to them is that it is easy to be modest when you are famous." (Peden transl.) The brains and his wife are just animals like the rest of us-- his animality simply has room to expand, whereas hers is busy clawing itself bloody against the walls of its gilded cage.

In this way, again, Casino throws cold water on its own fantasy.  The "brains" seems at first like a moral authority-- rational, calm, versed in "the code," and a dispenser of justice.  But he is not.  He orders the killings and tortures that grease his palms.  The very power that gives him his aura of patriarchal largesse is bought by the blood of the guy under the hammer or the man inside the vice.  In a way, he is a lower order of life, in the moral scheme, than "the muscle," who at least carries out his evils directly.  And yet, even after this is shown to us, I suspect some part of us still wants to be the brains.

The disturbing power of the effective mob movie comes from the way in which it makes us look twice at our own lives and our own quest for success and esteem.  The world of the mob movie is different enough from our own that we really see it, in a way we don't see our world.  It is different because it is more violent and cruel.  The hypocrisy of the "brains," who looks on while the muscle roughs people up but doesn't stoop to dirtying his own hands,  is an unusually flagrant one.  But the world of the mob movie is also similar enough to our own as to raise unsettling questions-- and in that discomfort and ambivalence lies its artistic value.  This is partly because the mafia in the films is supported by various moral cowards and engines of sleaze in the "legitimate" sectors of politics and business, who are ultimately even worse than the former, because more hypocritical.  But it is also because we, like "the brains," live lives that rest on violence-- albeit (again, like "the brains") violence that is removed, and distant-- violence with which we don't need to dirty our hands.  The clothes we wear were stitched in God knows what unconscionable conditions in the Third World.  Same goes for the shoes on our feet and the coffee in our cups.  We tolerate abuses in our prisons and in our anti-terrorism policies that give us the illusion of greater safety.  Our world is not as hypocritical as that of the casino mobster.  But it is not as entirely different from it as we like to believe.

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