The Goodfellas of Kurashiki (revisited)

Tsutaya, the Japanese movie-rental behemoth, was having a half-price “campaign” (sic) on old movies this weekend, so I toddled down to the local shop near Nagai Station and rented Goodfellas, a movie I hadn’t seen since its theatrical release in 1990. I watched it last night and it seemed as though two DVD commentaries were running simultaneously in my head the whole time (an image I wouldn’t / couldn’t have used the first time I watched it because there was no such thing as a DVD).

The first commentary was, naturally, me comparing my reaction to that of the first time I saw the film. Often you can be disappointed when watching a favourite film years later (in college, I thought Amadeus the best movie I’d ever seen – yet the last time I tried to watch it, this past February, I could barely stay awake till the end). There are misremembered lines of dialogue, scenes whose sequence you’d confused and scenes you’d forgotten completely – but there was little of that when I watched Goodfellas. The movie had made such an impact on me that I remembered it virtually scene by scene. The violence didn’t shock me as much – was that because I now always knew when it was coming, or because nearly 18 years of the real thing on the internet have left me callous and jaded? The sequence (to the tune of “Layla”) where De Niro’s character has his accomplices bumped off in various interesting ways disturbed me deeply in 1990 – so much so that I replayed the whole thing in my dreams for years afterward. This time, I paused after they found the guy hanging from the butcher’s hook in the refrigerated truck, and unironically went to get some more Coke from the fridge.

Watching it the first time, you never know what Joe Pesci’s increasingly psychopathic character, Tommy, will do next. It is probably the last really unpredictable performance I’ve seen in a movie, so naturally, my eyes followed him the whole time in 1990. Second time round, I realized how strong the supporting performances were (and this is always one of Scorcese’s strengths – bringing out the ensemble-cast feel) – especially Lorraine Bracco as Henry Hill’s wife and Paul Sorvino as Paulie, the understatedly threatening mob boss. I noticed the camera work this time – the brilliant tracking shots, the very long, tense confrontation scenes, the disjointedness and speed of the action as Henry (the minor wiseguy from whose point of view the story is told) gets more paranoid from cocaine. The movie didn’t disappoint – it still holds up well.

There was however, one puzzling difference: the scene in which {SPOILER ALERT} Tommy enters a room and realizes that he’s not being made a full member of the Mafia family, but instead is about to be whacked. For 18 years, I’ve remembered his last words being, “Aw, shit!” But when I saw it last night, he said nothing. Misremembered, or second thoughts on Scorsese’s part when the DVD edition was released? {END OF SPOILER ALERT}

That was the first running commentary. The second one was comparing the contexts of both times I watched the movie. In November, 1990, a friend of mine invited me to Kurashiki for the long weekend of the then-new Emperor’s Enthronement ceremony (the Daijousai – it was declared a one-off national holiday that year). After seeing the sights of beautiful, downtown Kurashiki, we still had 2.5 more days to kill. The video shops had been picked clean (nobody watches these royal ceremonies, although they are duly televised – I’ve been told that video rentals were also brisk during Emperor Showa‘s mourning period and drawn-out funeral). Goodfellas was playing on Saturday night at the non-cineplex movie house. We’d never heard of it, but knew De Niro. Bought tickets.

I still remember the pasta we ate beforehand (dinner and a movie! How last century can you get!), the cappucino which, in those pre-Starbucks days, was still a relative novelty outside of Tokyo, the acquaintances of my friend, who joined us for the movie (one of whom un-ironically stated, for some long-forgotten reason, “well, we must always protect our interests”; yes, some Americans talked like that even then, in the presence of impertinent foreigners like me). The theatre was old (at least that’s how I remember it). There might have been a dozen people there – it wasn’t a big hit. In those bucolic surroundings, watching Goodfellas was a bit surreal. But I never forgot it.

Cut to 2008. I’m sitting in my room, eating smoked salmon and avocado on English muffins (the first ingredient unaffordable, the other two virtually unknown in Japan, c.1990), watching a movie in a medium that didn’t exist the last time I saw it, able to pause the movie at will and look up info about cast, crew, on the IMDB or Wikipedia. I wonder whether the movie would have had the same impact on me had this been the first time to watch it. I doubt it – as much as I enjoyed it, I was too easily distracted, knowing that I could always pause, rewind, look up, go for a pee. It’s a totally different aesthetic experience. Don’t worry – I’m not going to get all Luddite now and say one is better than the other. But still.

A semi-related afterthought: I just recalled my grandmother’s little movie notebook, which she came across in a drawer some years ago, and showed me. In the 1930s, she and her school friends would take in movies all the time. She would make a note of what she saw, where she saw it, who she saw it with, the cast, and a comment or two. Although going to the pictures was cheap entertainment, it was still the Depression and no one would dream of spending a good quarter to see the same movie twice. Seventy years later, she can still relate some of those stories, describe long-forgotten starlets.

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This entry was posted in Blogroll, culture, japan, movies, Osaka, travel, 大阪, 日本. Bookmark the permalink.

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