I Tivo’d Goodfellas off Turner Classic Movies a while back and finally had a chance to watch it this week. I hadn’t seen it in at least 10 years and I always thought it was a great movie.
It was even better than I remembered.
Where to begin? I was struck with the moving camera and the exhilaration of forward propulsion. I had remembered this from years ago, but it blew me away all over again. For all the praise and excitement Paul Thomas Anderson gets for this (and rightfully so) for Boogie Nights, etc., Scorsese has always done this. I just had to be reminded. The feeling of hurtling forward through space and story is amazing. Besides camera movement, the use of music and editing to achieve this is phenomenal. The paranoia of the climactic sequence (circling helicopters, etc.) is palpable. Brilliant.
The characters and performances are excellent and feel just as real and authentic as Coppola’s Godfather movies. Scorsese’s mother steals the movie for me every single time (as Joe Pesci’s mother) because my wife has an Italian great-aunt who is exactly that character. Exactly.
I love this movie.
But the more I think about it afterwards, I am struck most by all the rules this movie breaks, especially in the writing. And these aren’t exceptions – the screenplay basically breaks all the major rules of the classical screenwriting paradigm. Think about it:
- Passive protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, Ray Liotta’s character does stuff. But he’s not your classic goal-oriented protagonist. He doesn’t drive the story. Other than survival and greed, he doesn’t want anything. He has no dramatic need. The story is not about that.
- Lack of a clear and specific antagonist. The movie is full of conflict, but there is no ultimate force to be overcome. Different characters serve as antagonists in various scenes, but there is no personified antagonist for the movie as a whole.
- Extensive use of voice-over. You could argue that with a nonclassical protagonist and the lack of a specific antagonist, the force really driving this story is… the voice-over. This is astonishing. Widely regarded as a “cheat,” voice-over – and its relationship to what is onscreen – really propels this story. And the voice-over doesn’t even follow the rules – we get v.o. from different characters in the movie at different times.
- Structure. Classical structure is designed to provide a familiar, intuitive template for the viewer. A context. So at all times we know where the character is now, where he wants to be, and exactly what stands between him and his goal. With classical structure we already know the shape of the story. We know what the character wants and what he has to do to get it, so that when the end finally comes, it feels like “the end” to us, and we know intuitively that the story is over. But Goodfellas doesn’t work that way.
The movie feels to me like a tight straight line of events with a propulsion of their own, like a force of nature. But after marveling at the “exhilarating sense of propulsion” through the movie but then realizing that it has no specific antagonist or classical protagonist, I am left with the question: what drives this story? How does it work?
The classical screenwriting paradigm would say that structure drives the story, but that falls apart here as well. The movie doesn’t have the traditional shape and feel of the three-act structure. I suppose somebody could break the script apart and find Syd Field’s plot points in there and everything, but the story isn’t told with that emphasis. It doesn’t feel that way for me. For me, the entire movie feels like a giant Act One, where we get a sense of the character in his environment and all the essential variables of his story are introduced until events finally come to a head, requiring the character to finally begin to act to control his own destiny. Ray Liotta’s character does a lot of stuff in the movie, but he doesn’t actually do anything to drive the story until after he is arrested. His sole affirmative, active “act” is this: he decides to testify against the mob in return for police protection. Once he does this, the movie is over. And even this single event is treated obliquely – we simply see him and his wife talking to a federal officer, and then he is on the stand ratting out his old pals. The decision to do this – the character’s one active story act – takes place offscreen. Talk about breaking the rules. But the really shocking thing is this: it works. Why? Because the story is not about the goal-oriented protagonist or about a human’s control of his destiny. It is about something else.
But wait! There’s more. Not only does the whole movie feel like a giant Act One to me, it also at the same time feels like a giant Act Two. Like the perfect Act Two, the one that is nothing but a straight, tight line. Where we are being shot forward out of a cannon and one event follows another and we cannot look away. Where we are moving so fast that we can’t imagine where the story is going but we sure know it is going in exactly the right direction. We are on the edge of our seats.
What am I getting at here? That we all want the same thing – to create a well-told story. That is the goal. The traditional rules of classical three-act structure, the active protagonist, a clear and specific antagonist,… these are tools that have been developed to help us reach that goal. But remember this: the rules themselves are not the goal. Following the rules is not the goal. The traditional rules are merely one set of tools, one set among many others. Goodfellas gives us a breathless, exhilarating story experience. How does it do this? It uses tools. Just not the same tools. Not the usual tools.
So remember this: the rules are not the goal. If the rules help, then follow them. If not, make different tools. It can be done.