Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

Reliving the Jazz-Age and Ethnic Passing: Boardwalk Empire and Martin Scorsese (01 February 2011)

Boardwalk Empire is the title of a new, American television series, screen-written and produced by Terence Winter who is the producer of The Sopranos, that premiered on the new Sky Atlantic channel tonight. What captured my attention most about this television series from its trailer is the fact that it is considered to be the most expensive pilot episode of television history, which is probably due to Martin Scorsese directing the first episode.

I am a big fan of Scorsese’s movies and we also discussed some of his work in class. We examined his depiction of Irish-American ethnicity in his latest gangster film The Departed(2007). I also chose to write an essay on Scorsese’s handling of the themes of identity and ethnicity in the post-9/11 context of The Departed. My in-depth research into the topic of Irish-American identity and ethnicity, from reading the critics like Diane Negra who discusses the formation and application of Irish-American identity and ethnicity pre-and post-9/11, provided me valuable knowledge that is applicable to other texts dealing with Irish-Americans such as Boardwalk Empire.

The Boardwalk Empire series is set in the Prohibition era, which is a period of American history we discussed in class last term. We examined the depiction of immigrants and the immigrant experience in Jacob Riiss’s and Lewis Hine’s photography, and the representation of Irish-American ethnicity in James Cagney’s films The Public Enemy(1931). We also discussed his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces(1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandie(1942). In a similar vein, Boardwalk Empire is also relevant to my research of American society and the immigrant experience because it deals with Irish-Americans immigrants in Atlantic City.

Boardwalk Empire is an adaption of a chapter from Nelson Johnson’s novel Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City. Enuch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the historical criminal kingpin, Enoch L. Johnson, is performed by Steve Buscmi who also acted in The Sopranos. This allegorical descendant of Tony Soprano is and will not be the only echo from the series. Unlike The Sopranos, however, the leading villain is not Italian-American, but instead is an Irish-American gangster who is performed by an Italian-American actor with part-Irish ancestry.

Ethnic passing appears to be a recent trend in Scorsese’s filmography as we also see in The Departed, Billy Costigan, an Irish-American state trooper who goes undercover to infiltrate Frank Costello’s mob, performed by the Italian-American actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Another of Scorsese’s films that will contain ethnic passing is The Irishman, which has been confirmed as a future release. The Irishman is an adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses. Robert De Niro, an Italian-American actor, will play the leading role of the mob assassin, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who is believed to have committed 25 or more mob murders, and allegedly killed Jimmy Hoffa, an American labour union leader and author. Joe Pesci and Al Pacino will also star along side De Niro. Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci previously worked together on a trio of gangster movies, Raging Bull(1980), Goodfellas(1990), and Casino(1995), while De Niro and Pacino only shared screen time in Heat(1995) and Righteous Kill(2008).

With that in mind, race, ethnicity and immigration are central concerns of Boardwalk Empire. As a democratic, Nucky Thompson’s power stems from his reliance on the black peoples’ vote. The writers emphasize this in order to convey that Nucky is not a racist, unlike other whites, which may be read as an attempt to deconstruction the history of negative race relations between the Irish-American and African-American communities.


Immigration and ethnicity are conveyed through the multi-ethnic geography of the world of Boardwalk Empire. Atlantic city is an Irish ethnic enclave, New York City is a Jewish ethnic enclave, and Chicago is an Italian ethnic enclave, but things are not as simple as this as the plot reveals.

Margaret Schroeder is an Irish-American immigrant who is undoubtedly one of the best characters on the show. Her rags-to-riches story of rising from nothing is clearly meant to portray an American Dream with a nightmarish streak.

Although the social history of Boardwalk Empire may not be 100% accurate, the true beauty of it is its authentic re-envisioning and perfect replication of a long-gone, pivotal era of American history that is brought back to life with remarkable cinematography. From what I have seen so far, The Sopranos has been reborn. It may be a different era but the rules are the same.

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The Cop and Criminal in US: Irish-American Ethnicity in The Public Enemy and The Departed.

The history of the representation of Irish-Americans in American cinema demonstrates a trajectory curve that mirrors their gradual assimilation (which American cinema partly contributed to) into American society. Contemporary depictions of Irish-Americans have come a long way from the stereotypical images of aggressive, alcoholic, working-class ‘Micks’, ‘Paddys’ or ‘Boy-Os’ of early American cinema, which were short-lived because of the influx of a new wave of immigrants into America who were deemed to be less ‘white’ than the Irish. As a result, the Irish were repositioned further up on the ‘white’ spectrum and were utilized as an exemplification of assimilation. Benshoff and Griffin observe that “the Irish were regarded as an ethnicity and a nationality, whereas they had previously been considered a race” (59).

In the 1930s, however, a few gangster films portrayed Irish-Americans in an anti-Irish light by depicting Irish-American criminality and their involvement in organized crime. This negative image was counter-balanced in some films by the inclusion of the image of the Irish-American law abiding citizen. Both these images are evident in The Public Enemy, with Tom Power’s policeman father and patriotic brother, and in The Departed with Costigan and Dignam who are the most law abiding despite their few deviations. This cop-criminal image of Irish ethnicity is also present in films like Gone Baby Gone(2007) and the most recent film, The Town(2010).

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed(2007) are two examples of the way Irish ethnicity is represented simultaneously as both positive and negative on screen. As typical of the gangster genre, there is an abundance of violence in both films, which also demonstrate an interconnectivity between ethnicity and violence.

James Cagney wanted to transcend the stereotypical representations of the Irish-American by relocating that figure from the social stratum of the ghetto to the bourgeoise classes, which he achieves in ‘G’-Men (Smith qtd. in Barton 5). Cagney’s most memorable persona is that of the quasi-psychotic and unpredictably explosive gangster in The Public Enemy and White Heat.

Kevin Rockett claims that the success of The Public Enemy (1931) did for the Irish what Little Caesar(1930) did for the Italians (29). However, it also developed Cagney’s stardom with his performance of Tom Powers, the Prohibition era Chicago gangster. Despite the fact that following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 Italian gangsters dominated Chicago’s underworld, there is an abundance of Irish ethnic references in the film. This comes across most powerfully from the importance of the matriarchy, familial loyalty and kinship in the Irish family system.

This is clearly established with the juxtaposition between Tom’s criminality and his brother Mike’s patriotism and abidance of the law. Tom disrupts family unity by engaging in criminality and disputing with his brother, Mike, over it. Rockett contends that the disruption of familial unity is solidified by the deliverance of Tom’s dead body to his mother, at the apogee of the film (29).

However, there is also an attempt at transcending ethnic identity in The Public Enemy. The suit is synonymous with the gangster image. In this film, like the majority of other gangster films, there is a scene where Tom goes to a tailor to get fitted for a suit. This scene conveys a numer of significant transformations. Tom’s acquisition of a suit, a symbol of wealth and civility, suggests he has ascended the social ladder from working-class irish immigrant, but he falsely attains this status by criminal means. Tom attempts to masquerade his authentic working-class, Irish identity by dressing in a suit, which could be interpreted as a denial of his Irish ethnic identity in order to pass as an upper-class American citizen. As can be seen from the film, his attempts at passing is a failure, which culminates in his death.

On the other hand, The Public Enemy‘s fixation with the mother figure is the opposite in The Departed. Colin Sullivan and Billy Costigan are limbo characters who are fixated with finding a father figure and satisfying their, what James Herzog calls in his book of the same title, ‘Father hunger’ (6). Sullivan’s and Costigan’s purgatorial status is also implied from the title of the film, which is taken from a Catholic prayer for the souls in purgatory. Their liminal status is a result of their ambiguous professions. Both Sullivan and Costigan switch between the identities of a cop and criminal. However, their liminality is also a result of their hyphenated, ethnic identities because they are both Irish and American, but neither fully one or the other. To fully achieve one identity is to deny the other because both cannot simultaneously coexist.

Sullivan is desparte to evade his Irish ethnic identity so that he can pass as a fully assimilated citizen of American society. This is suggested by his exclusion of photographs-visual signifiers of the history of his Irish ethnic identity-from his new, 7th floor apartment that is architecturally aligned with the golden globe of the State House. The position of Sullivan’s apartment in the structural stratification of the building symbolises his position in the social stratification of American society. He has risen from the Southie projects of his childhood upbringing to a position that overlooks society, which is also reflected by his profession in the Massachusetts State Police because as a detective his duty is to overlook society. Colin attempts to achieve complete severance from his ethnic roots in South Boston by cutting the last remaining sinew connecting him to it. Sullivan kills Costello-who is appropriately wearing a T-Shirt with ‘Irish’ written on it- to terminate his Irish ethnic past, but total eradication is only possible with his own death. The close up shot of the rat in line with the State house on the ledge of Sullivan’s apartment balcony suggests that a rat has simultaneously infiltrated the hierarchical social strata of American society and its law enforcement system.

In terms of a post-9/11 context, The Departed‘s reference to the absence of an appropriate father figure could be read not only psychologically, but also in political terms as suggesting the absence of an appropriate leader in the American patriarchy. During the aftermath of 9/11, George Bush was overly preoccupied with establishing ‘us-and-them’ binary oppositions in order to vindicate his ‘War on Terrorism’ and his attempt to take economic control of the rich oil resources of the Middle East.

The Departed‘s reference to the absence of a patriarchal figure in society, the ambiguity concerning patriotic loyalty, the blurring of the lines between good and evil, as suggested by the opposition of cop and criminal, could be perceived as a critical commentary on the post-9/11 historical context.

Consequently, both The Public Enemy and The Departed are prime examples of how Irish-American ethnicity is represented on screen in a positive and negative light by juxtaposing the Irish-American criminals against the Irish-American law-abiders and enforcers, which is another way for America to exemplifying the good and bad immigrant that has been portrayed since early American cinema in films like The Black Hand(1906).

Works Cited & Consulted

Barton, Ruth. ed. “Introduction.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 1-14. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Herzog, James. Father Hunger: Explorations with Adults and Children. New Jersey: Analytic P, 2001. Print.

Rockett, Kevin. “The Irish Migrant and Film.” Screening Irish-America: Representing Irish-America in Film and Television Dublin: Irish Academic P, 2009. 17-44. Print.

 


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Progressive Era (1890-1920) 05 October 2010

“The longer we captivate someone and make them think about what they are seeing, the better chance we have of them understanding what it is we’re trying to say with the photography.” (Nighswander qtd. in Horton 223)

Figure 1: Kidnapping scene. The Black Hand (1906). 2011.

Early American films, photography and immigration from the Progressive era were the topics of discussion in today’s class. One of the silent films from what is known as the “primitive era” or “early cinema period” we examined is The Black Hand (1906). It is classed as the first gangster film and this is apparent from its titular connotations. The signing of the appellation “Black Hand” to a letter is associated with the Italian mafia’s means of communicating the significance of a threat, which will only conclude with death if requests are not fulfilled. The threat anxiety gangsters inflicted on society is symptomatic of a national xenophobia concerning the then-present mistrust of foreigners in the US. America’s treatment of white European immigrants in comparison to the treatment of blacks and Native Americans is a topic I am interested in because it exposes the racial inequalities of America’s race relations.

The film also differentiates between America’s perception of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrant by juxtaposing the non-assimilated, gang affiliated criminal with the hard-working, partially assimilated, butcher.

The moral bifurcation of immigrants is also evident from Jacob Riis’s photography. Riis was one of the first photojournalists of America who later became known as “the great Emancipator of the slums” (qtd. in Quirke 561). Photography was the most important propagandist tool of the Progressive era because it could be utilised to reinforce social ideologies.

Figure 2: Jacob Riis’s “Bandits’ Roost” (1888). Web. 2011

The title of this photograph is “Bandit’s Roost” (1888) (see figure 2) which is the name of an alleyway in Manhattan’s Five Points neighbourhood, which is also the setting of the Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York (2002).
The criminality of the immigrants is conveyed through their body language, the light and dark contrasts of the background and the weaponry in the foreground of the photograph. Riis is particularly interested in the concept of illumination, which conveys connotations of revelation and religion. His photography is illuminating their situation, while the photographic usage of light and its absence suggests the divine intervention he intends from social reformation.

There is also a sense of community apparent from the tight knit, proximity of the immigrants’ residency, which is sustained by the loyalty-at-all-costs ethos cementing their social unity. Martin Scorsese’s films emphasize the importance of group morality and intergroup loyalty in his microcosmic depiction of the mafia ethos.

Consequently, early American film and photography capture the social issues concerning immigrants, occupying America’s social consciousness.

Works Cited

Horton, Brian. Associated Press Guide to Photojournalism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Print.

Quirke, Carol. “Picturing the Poor: Jacob Riis Reform Photography.” Reviews in American History 36.4 (2008): 557-565. Project Muse. Web. 05 Oct. 2010.

 


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