Let’s wind the clocks a few decades back shall we? You’re Martin Scorsese coming off of one of the more tumultuous but lucrative decades in your career; starting with the tremendous critical and commercial success of Raging Bull in 1980 to the controversial and ridiculed passion project The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. For your next project you want to make sure starts the new decade off right; so you search around for material that can be spun into gold in the form of Nicholas Pileggi’s Book Wiseguy, go back to the maniac gangster roots you established in Mean Streets and the rest is cinematic history. He wanted to go for broke in his rendering of the gangster life, and did he ever with the domineering seminal masterpiece Goodfellas. Considered the decade’s very best film by many a critic and audience members alike, so what else can possibly said about Scorsese’s Goodfellas?
To start let’s consider the amount of cojones it took the man to make a New York mob crime thriller in the overbearing dual shadows of The Godfather Pt. 1 and Pt.2 of the 70’s. To make another crime drama centered around the New York Mafia would mean scrutiny beyond measure; being compared to what are widely considered to be the finest American films ever made. Scorsese needed to throw out all the stops in bringing a new gritty perspective into the genre, and did he ever. The film throughly sands away the fine romanticized varnish put on the mobster life from the The Godfather films, giving us a startling and original portrayal of the corruption of the American Dream.
It was unique and fresh because it gave us something most Hollywood and American movies don’t give us: Truth. The truth was that these gangsters that had been idolized for fighting the system in various media were murderers, criminals and psychopaths. Not to bash The Godfather films as they without question deserve the praise they receive for changing the landscape of cinema as a whole. It’s just for some audiences the message might have been lost in translation due to the technical and emotional perfection of the work. Indeed for some viewers they might have taken away that they wanted to have the sublime coolness of Michael Corleone, without realizing what he had lost along the way. Goodfellas on the other hand wastes no time from the first scene in showing exactly what the lifestyle entailed. My thesis for today is that it served as not only a fresh take on the crime thriller but also as a guide-line and cornerstone for the trend of the decade’s most popular and acclaimed movies.
Two years later Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood decided to do a film in the same vein as Scorsese but only with the Western genre that he helped glamorized and romanticized in his early career. Unforgiven is an un-compromised vision of the old west without any sort of rose-colored nostalgic glasses. The violence, like in Goodfellas, is brutal and unflinching, the characters portrayed without glamor or glory, suddenly the old no longer seemed the way the golden era hollywood saw it. It was rewarded justly by the academy, awarding both it’s director and the film with oscars. The public was only starting to catch on to the trend of revision.
The same year that Unforgiven was released, having sold the rights to the screenplay for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino started work on his revisionist heist-gone-wrong thriller Reservoir Dogs rewriting the rules of that genre. Giving the audience an unfiltered vision of greed turned into violent madness. Of course, the director would truly throw all the rules out the window for what is considered his Magnum Opus with Pulp Fiction an examination of shades of morality in a seedy LA setting. Widely considered THE movie that embodied the 90’s, Tarantino changed the game forever by rewriting the book on the crime genre. The DNA of Goodfellas is without question infused throughout his early work, and furthermore showed that audiences were ready for a new un-compromised vision of the American Dream corrupted.
Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat would follow in 1995 in prominently showcasing that gritty style that had now come to define the crime genre. Additionally, examining the grey line between law enforcement and the criminals they pursue. The same year Usual Suspects would again modify the genre to with it’s shocking ending but towards the end of the decade two filmmakers would put an indelible stamp on another popular American film genre.
Steven Spielberg coming off of the critical and emotional acclaim of Schindler’s List a few years before, now wanted to widen the cinematic gaze of WWII with Saving Private Ryan. Originally intending the story to be a 70’s men-on-a mission homage Spielberg eventually decided on something wholly different. By doing it in a style that had never been done before, by portraying the soldiers that fought as regular people scared of the battles that they are dragged into. Fearless in its depiction of the war and the men under Tom Hank’s Capt. John Miller as they fight through Northern France. The film washed away the bound-for-glory war movies of old to show the men that fought as they were, people drafted into a hellish conflict.
After a 20 year career hiatus auteur filmmaker Terrence Malick made his come-back in his own style with the remarkable and visceral The Thin Red Line. Boasting my favorite tag-line of all-time: “Everyman fights his own war” the movie proves this little mantra in spades while depicting the battle of Guadalcanal. The tropes that had come to define a Malick film were all apparent, the natural imagery and the voice-over narration, but done in way of showing the Pacific theater of WWII in a never-before-seen perspective. That of the collective minds, thoughts and emotions of the men on the God-forsaken island. Between these two works War movies, especially American war films, would never be judged the same way. The former war movie tropes were now throughly obsolete.
The next genre to receive the decade’s gritty makeover was the suburban melodrama. Sam Mendes honed his skills in British theater world before making his debut with the searing look into the very heart of American Culture in the homes of everyday families and neighbors in American Beauty. Kevin Spacey, who perviously won for Usual Suspects, took another oscar for his work as the suburban dad who cannot stand it anymore; lashing out at the world around him (particularly his wife played by a never better Annette Bening) for emasculating him in humiliating and degrading ways. No longer would suburbia have the shine and gloss of a Rockwell painting. For better and for worse the what-lies-beneath the surface drama would never be the same.
Scorsese, Eastwood, Tarantino, Mann, Singer, Spielberg, Malick and Mendes all contributed in their own ways to shed the Hollywood glitz and glamor of films of old in the 90’s. By telling stories with a fresh realistic perspective, writing a new rule-book for film and storytelling. It was a decade of revision and audiences were more than happy accepting that new film styles and narratives. In a decade of saying “F*** the rules, let’s do this our own way!” our movies came to epitomize this in all its glory. With Scorsese, as he has done for decades, leading the charge.