Trapped on Celluloid

This year, America is celebrating the 45th anniversary of The Godfather, the 20th anniversary of Donnie Brasco, the 25th anniversary of My Cousin Vinny, and the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever?  Last year was Rocky’s 40th anniversary, and in 2019 we will all be regaled by the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos, and the following year the nation will, no doubt, have a blow-out celebration for the 30th anniversary of GoodFellas.

We can’t run away from our stereotypes.  They have been permanently implanted in our culture and perhaps in our DNA thru the medium of film.  These films are now considered classics.  Our culture on celluloid is easily greater than the one we think is real.

America takes our celluloid culture quite seriously.  This month, Long Island’s Newsday heralded the 45th anniversary showing of The Godfather accompanied live by the Long Island Concert Orchestra at the Tilles (TIL-les) Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Long Island University.  The arts have joined academia to honor us!  Imagine such an event for an old movie about thieves and murderers – that’s what The Godfather is about.  This isn’t Casablanca with good guys versus Nazis.  The Godfather is about scumbag Italians versus other scumbag Italians.  Or maybe, according to Coppola’s cover story, it’s not about Italians at all but about the struggle to succeed in America using the “purest form of capitalism.”

This month also brought our nation the Italian TV fictional crime series Gomorrah, now showing on the Sundance Channel – “It makes The Godfather look like Gilbert & Sullivan,” as one British tabloid put it.  Instead of the New Jersey Soprano family, these are the Savastanos of Napoli.  (I did catch part of an episode and I wonder why anyone would invest the viewing time.  It’s all in subtitles.  Even if you understand Italian it’s in dialect – mostly mumbled.)

How lucky are we to have an inexhaustible supply of Mafia and guido movies – half a century’s worth – to show America’s newly arrived immigrants the dirt we come from?  Who do you thank for such an enduring image?  Why us, of course.  We write them, direct them, and star in them.  I’ve given up wishing for an Italian equivalent to Fiddler on the Roof, or I Remember Mama.  The closest we come is A Bronx Tale with its questionable message that Italian American children must choose between being wiseguys or working for the Transit Authority.

It isn’t too difficult to figure out the secrets of Mafia filmmaking.  Compare Bugsy, the 1991 story of Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel with any Italian gangster movie.  Played by ethnic-neutral Warren Beatty with zero Jewish culture or mannerisms, Bugsy didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah scene like the Baptism in Godfather I, when the Corleone Family gunned down its rivals, or a saintly procession scene in Godfather II when Vito whacked his capo.  Catholicism is part of the scenery in the benighted world of The Godfather, especially in Godfather III.  In contrast, Bugsy didn’t take Judaism for a ride.  It didn’t leave a gun and take the rugelach.  I don’t recall a Jewish wedding or the old neighborhood to underscore the Jewishness of its murderers.  It didn’t even analyze Yiddish words like Donnie Brasco’s parsing of the Italian American fuggettaboutit.

It is a unique facet of our ethnic character that we can lament our negative images year after year, decade after decade, and still take pride in Italic filmmaking skills.  It is a flaw that we don’t quite understand how creating the wrong ethnic image can destroy a magnificent legacy.

If there is any good news, it’s that more discerning Italic people have three uplifting movies to enjoy, oddly enough, based on real people not fictional mobsters.  I speak of Unbroken, the harrowing and true story of Army Air Corps Captain Louis Zamperini (of course, written and produced and acted by non-Italians); and recent remakes of Serpico, the cop who exposed corruption in the NYPD, and Petrosino, the New York cop who created the nation’s first Bomb Squad and died fighting the Black Hand.

Will these movies reach the heights of popular acclaim accorded the standard mob movie?  Don’t count on it.  Nor will there be anniversary editions or live orchestra accompaniments.  Enjoy them while you can.           -JLM

3 thoughts on “Trapped on Celluloid”

  1. We would be remiss if we excluded the “reasoning” behind Italian-American participation in the aforementioned films, as the Institute has heard first hand……”Hey, you gotta eat!”—No other culture has ever engaged in the wholesale sellout of its heritage under this meme. Joseph Graziose

    1. Good point! It would be nice if the Italian-American community would sponsor and encourage great films on Italian history; perhaps a movie on Enrico Fermi, Leonardi da Vinci, all the various scientists, artists, musicians, instead of the obsession with Mobsters. Could you see the German-Americans fixated with Nazi movies and promoting them as their ethnic identity. My comparison is a bit extreme, but I use it to facilitate my point.

  2. Oh, you’re so right on! The last few weeks or so I wrote to the Tilles Center’s Executive Director, its season sponsor Capital One, and made a phone call protesting the concert. I received not even a whimper in response by letter or phone call. Deplorable!

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