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Good Art is Not A Self-Help Manual

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There is a familiar kind of inept criticism, sometimes covered here, which assumes that when bad behavior is portrayed with insufficient didacticism that the creators must endorse it. Noah Berlatsky’s critique of GoodFellas flirts with this argument, but lands at a different, more original kind of terrible argument:

And that’s precisely why Smith’s callow reading can’t be dismissed. Goodfellas shows the ugly, stupid, humiliating consequences of the manliness Smith touts, but it has nothing to offer in its place. If you’re not the guy screwing people over, then you’re the guy being screwed. Goodfellas’ gendered imagination allows for no other positions.

So Berlatsky concedes that GoodFellas is not presenting us with role models, even if Scorsese assumes that the audience can draw the conclusion that robbing and killing people for a living is immoral on its own. He even seems to concede that Scorsese sees this conception of masculinity and the horrible behavior of the characters as being linked. But where is the constructive alternative? Why can’t this movie about Brooklyn mobsters tell us how to live?

I’m curious how Scorsese could have made the movie less of a “chore” for Berlatsky to sit through by showing modes of masculinity other than those practiced by the characters the film was about. Perhaps Henry Hill and his friends could have been urbane, feminist intellectuals who made sure to get home in time from the hijacking to ensure that they took an equal share of the domestic work? Or maybe he could have had lengthy coda from Hill’s witness protection period, in which Hill explains in lots of expository dialogue over some egg noodles and ketchup how the particular form of masculinity he was embedded in was a trap, and dammit a man is a man when he can offer his hand, he don’t have to perform like John Wayne in some B feature flick. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that Western art peaked with After School specials and The Newsroom.

Or maybe Scorsese could tell the story he wanted to tell and assume that his job is to make the best movies he can, not to tell people how to live ethically. I’m still inclined to think he chose the right course. Glenn Kenny’s remarks about The Wolf of Wall Street are also relevant here.

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