Thursday, December 29, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 20, 19

20. Casino

(Casino Censored)

The embarrassing confessions just keep pouring out on this blog lately. Until this year, I’d never watched Casino all the way through. I’m pretty sure I’d seen something approximating the whole movie over the years in the bastardized version that plays on AMC and Bravo in which a bad Joe Pesci imitator interjects a fulmination about whatever ‘mother-lovin’ rock-chucker’ he happens to be mad at at that given moment. I don’t know why so much of this movie’s essence is lost without the profanity..... but apparently many people thoguht something was lost even with the profanity.
The original reviews of Casino were unforgiving. Scorsese had spoiled us, and it wasn’t enough that he gave us another movie so close in spirit and quality to Goodfellas. People were mad that he issued yet another masterpiece about macho hoodlums from Brooklyn. It’s only with a decade’s distance that people began to appreciate what Casino was: perhaps the last great film of Scorsese’s long Golden Period. What we all would give for Scorsese to consistently make movies as great as Casino again....
Recently, a piece ran in GQ that made a case not as controversial as it once was: Casino is in fact a better movie than Goodfellas. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a perfect companion piece that, if anything, deepens our appreciation of Goodfellas. Both movies are epics, Casino is a great look at the corruption which made and unmade Vegas, but Goodfellas is about the romance and rot at the core of the Mafia itself. It’s foolish to compare two movies so great, but I can’t shake the feeling that Goodfellas is still slightly better.
Goodfellas is a movie with an incredible amount of detail, but the details are secondary to how the characters perceive the details. What matters is not how Henry Hill steals but the joy he takes in stealing. In Casino, the encyclopedic detail is the whole point of the movie. Ace Rothstein has a job to do, and he does it, with absolute doggedness and compulsion. He does not feel joy or love, only monomaniacal obsession. The obsession itself is compelling, but it doesn’t make him quite as compelling as the much more human protagonist of Goodfellas.
What gives Goodfellas a run for its money is Ace’s wife, Ginger. Scorsese has never seemed much interested in women - he tends to portraythem more as objects for male lust than people with their own motivations. In Goodfellas, Scorsese finally gives us a very human woman in Karen Hill. But in Casino, Scorsese finally seems to tackle his Hitchcockian obsession with beautiful blondes. Yes, Ginger McKenna is very much a sex object, a pure incarnation of Vegas lust. But few movies are brave enough to show the emotional damage that goes into a desire to maintain that facade. Ginger is like a caged tigress, supremely dangerous and possessing no idea what she wants except a vague longing to be free from men’s influence. She’s also the emotional heart of the movie and easily the most fully human of Scorsese’s women.
The mafia’s decline has taken an interesting turn in movies. Hollywood took great pleasure and pains in romanticizing gangsters in the years that the Mafia was at its height. But there was no real attempt to document it realistically until The Godfather, which dealt with the experience of life in America’s top crime family. As mafia movies became more common, the portrayals worked their way down the gangster heirarchy. In the 80’s, we got moderately successful mafiosi in the form of Tony Fontana in Scarface, and Noodles and Max from Once Upon A Time In America. By the early 90’s we were getting stories about gangsters stuck in the mafioso equivalent to middle management like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, and Vincent and Julius from Pulp Fiction. By the second half of the 90’s, we were getting portrayals of low-level gangsters like Lefty from Donnie Brasco and Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects (ok...not necessarily low level). By 2000, we were ready for The Sopranos, a panoramic map of gangsterism at all levels in America. And now we’re living in the age of Boardwalk Empire, which reboots gangsterism as something so alien to our time that it can only be a costume drama.

19. Ron Swanson

I watch Parks & Recreation every week. I’m well aware that it doesn’t reach to comic glory often enough. In terms of actual laughs, it doesn’t equal the standards set by NBC’s other great but fundamentally standard issue sitcoms like The Office and 30Rock. But I don’t care. Why? Because Parks & Rec has one asset on hand which nothing on either The Office or 30Rock could ever hope to equal.

In each of their standard issue sitcoms, NBC seems to allow only one character to break free from assembly line sitcomery and to become something far more - a character without any predisposition to being liked or relateable or sympathetic that seems to have wandered from the set of Arrested Development or Monty Python. At times, these characters may earn our sympathy, but only because it makes them more complex, and therefore funnier. The Office has Dwight Schrute, 30Rock has Jack Donaghy, Parks and Rec has Ron Swanson.

Neither Dwight or Donaghy were ever drawn with the incredible specificity of Ronald Ulysses Swanson - the well-mustached, meat tornadoed guardian against government encroachment who heads the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, Indiana with the singular goal of destroying it. Every episode seems to have its own Ron Swanson moment (see above), and whatever else happens in the show, the Ron Swanson moments will be almost guaranteed to make any amount of dithering about the irritating subplots involving Tom and Chris worth sitting through.

It must have been tempting to make Ron Swanson into a cartoon villain against whom his assistant, the liberal idealist Leslie Knope, must always take a stand. But that would have been far too easy. Instead, we see Ron as a hypocrite and not a little self-loathing, who maintains his ultralibertarian facade as a way of distancing himself from people after a series of bad life experiences.

At its best, Parks and Recreation taps into a certain kind of America which we don’t much see on the coasts. Ron is such a specific character that he taps into an American character. He’s the epitome of a certain kind of American for whom life has not worked out as he planned, and therefore wants to simply be left alone. He’s the archetypal Angry White Male. Because Parks and Rec is a network comedy, he invariably displays a hidden side as a friendlier, more caring person. But in reality, it’s the anger of people like Ron Swanson whom Americans most have to fear lest Ron turns America into the country he thinks it already is.

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