Sunday, December 20, 2009

For Love of Money: American Crime in the 90's

(Note: This post represents another paper from my college days.)

At some point everyone daydreams of a life without work. The theme of bucking the system in earning a living features in a multitude of stories. Within the world of film this notion exemplifies itself most in the crime genre. Audiences are captivated by the lives of criminals and the underworld they inhabit. The films hook us in; depicting risks that we would never undergo ourselves, but don’t mind watching others perform. After all, the criminal life bursts with excitement, possibilities, and sometimes wealth. But while crime films draw us into the world of criminals, they simultaneously jerk us out. The underlying greed that drives some of the characters ultimately becomes repellent to an audience. Besides, most die for positioning money over anything else. The wealth-oriented criminals portrayed in films such as Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Fargo, and Jackie Brown would not inspire anyone to resemble them. By each film’s end, plans go awry, betrayals are made, people go to jail, and many are killed. Through the criminals’ failure, these stories ultimately emerge as morality tales that reinforce the idea that the quick cash and potential prestige of criminals ultimately burn out. The only potential for redemption and a fulfilling life for these characters originates from honest work and fixing their focus on others above themselves.

Although ultimately hollow, the appeal of gangster life remains inescapable. In Goodfellas Henry Hill details how, even from his early days of fraternizing with the mob, he scored the perks. He divulges to the audience that, “One day the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother's groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.” Aside from the clout commanded by the mob, they exhibited a bounty of material goods (“Anything I wanted was a phone call away.”). The crooks in Goodfellas drive swanky cars, dwell in decorative homes, wear tailor-made suits, and consume sumptuous meals. Criminals not portrayed as wealthy at least get stylized in ways that build them up. Look at the opening of Reservoir Dogs for example. The film introduces us to a team of thieves as they take in their last meal before they push off to their heist. As with any Tarantino film the character’s dialog is more dynamic than it has any right to be as they ramble over what should be mundane conversation. There’s an energetic rhythm that flows through their talk that compels us to lean in and join them. In the next scene the gang strides in slow motion, as the poppy tune of “Little Green Bag” trumpets over the soundtrack. During the song each member receives a close-up to mug for the camera. This sequence portrays the thieves at their height before they fall.

The lives led by these criminals do not embody as much allure as they might at first seem. Even when they flourish, as in the first half of Goodfellas, there is an undercurrent of unpleasantness. Goodfellas records the story of Henry Hill, documenting his involvement with gangster life. A good example of uneasiness in the midst of an affluent life arises during a scene when Karen, Henry’s new wife, meets the other wives of the men that Henry works with. The scene focuses on how the women conspicuously cover various bruises they have sustained from their husbands. Karen’s voiceover comments on how “they wore too much makeup” and overall “didn’t look good.” As the women discuss violent events that characterize their husband’s lives, Karen realizes the temperament of the world in which she’s consumed. The ritzy lifestyle she and her husband lead comes at a price. For example, any wealth that these criminals compile tends to be directly juxtaposed with the brutal, unsavory crimes they must commit. In Jackie Brown criminal Ordell Robbie constantly looks over his shoulder in order to protect his money - not to mention his freedom. To contrast with his beautiful residence on the beach, Ordell’s work often leads him to dark areas. In one sequence Ordell exterminates his protégé Beaumont out of fear that Beaumont might testify against him. Ordell comments, “Now that my friend is a clear cut case of him or me.” Paranoia fills the air in this dog-eat-dog world.

To heighten the unglamorous aspect of their lives, quite a few of the criminals portrayed are deficient at their jobs. While on a stake-out at a target’s home, the hit man Vincent in Pulp Fiction makes the deadly mistake of leaving his gun sitting out on a counter-top while he uses the restroom. When his target, Butch, comes back home, he spots the gun and shoots Vincent when he leaves the restroom. Another example appears earlier in the story when Vincent makes another deadly mistake. While he and his partner Jules drive, Vincent accidentally shoots a contact named Marvin in the head when their car may or may not have hit a bump in the road. In Jackie Brown, criminals Louis and Ordell engage in some serious mistakes as they underestimate the title character during a sizable score. Louis in particular bungles up when he glimpses, but thinks nothing of, Max Cherry at a money drop-off. Cherry is a bail-bondsman who has ties with Jackie Brown and emerges as her accomplice in her bait-and-switch plan. Only afterwards do Ordell and Louis piece everything together. In addition to being oblivious to Cherry, Louis ends up killing his female companion involved in the crime, Melanie, as he gripes, “she got on my nerves.”

As much as those characters fumble, Fargo takes the prize for the most botch-ups made by the various criminals involved. The film is essentially about a man, Jerry Lundegaard, who attempts to collect a ransom from his father-in-law for the kidnapping of his own wife. The two men hired for the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear, execute their job haphazardly. While knitting in her living room, Mrs. Lundegaard watches as Carl ineptly approaches a window and peers inside. There is unquestionably no striving for surprise. Although the two kidnappers succeed in their mission, it is in part due to Mrs. Lundegaard’s panic. When transporting Mrs. Lundagaard to an isolated cabin, the pair creates more turmoil when they get pulled over because they have no tags on their car. What could be a minor incident transforms into a bloodbath as Gaear kills the policeman. When dragging the body to the side of the road, a couple of passersby in another car witness the crime and they too are killed. Fargo not only portrays these characters as unprofessional, but sometimes they border on acting downright dim-witted. Many other events in Fargo, as well as other crime films, spin out of control.

Within each of these films, plans fall apart, no matter how thoroughly or shabbily rehearsed. The film Reservoir Dogs revolves around a group of men who set out to rob a jewelry store. Their off-camera heist is an utter catastrophe. One member of the team is eventually revealed to be an undercover cop who tipped off police members about the robbery. As a result, two of the six members of the team get shot down and another gravely injured during the robbery. The survivors spend the remainder of the film bickering over which one tipped off the authorities. During the finale, nearly all of the surviving members involved with the heist undergo a standoff which results in fatality for all. Only one man, Mr. Pink, wanders out alive, but by then the police arrive and shots ring out at him off-screen. In True Romance, a drug deal that culminates the film ends with a disastrous shootout exceeding the body count of the Reservoir Dogs confrontation. The story centers on the couple Clarence and Alabama as they venture to sell a suitcase of drugs they stumble upon. Both the police and a group of gangsters involve themselves in the eventual transaction. As in Reservoir Dogs, almost everyone dies in the final confrontation, although Clarence and Alabama survive.

The actions taken by these characters evolve out of greed. That greed is shown to ultimately be meaningless. None of the characters driven by greed are shown to gain anything. Instead they lose everything they have, including their lives in most cases. We discover emptiness at the end of the violence, illustrated by the complete disregard for human life. Fortunately for audiences, these films exhibit something more.

Among the greed or power-driven characters there is usually one or more who emerge to lay everything into perspective. In Pulp Fiction it’s Jules. Through a miraculous event where both Jules’ and Vincent’s lives are spared, Jules has a “moment of clarity” that leads him to withdraw from “the life.” He grasps that the career he has led means nothing and commits to reform. In the film’s final scene Jules and Vincent eat at a restaurant. A couple who decide to stick up the restaurant confront Jules. A stand-off develops comparable to the ones in Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. But, unlike those films, this stand-off ends peacefully as Jules assumes control and reasons with the thieves. He presents them with some of his own money and sends them on their way, soaking up a lesson through the ordeal. Jules’ decision to help people in need gives the message that there is more to life than easily won money and a potentially comfortable existence. True Romance strikes a similar chord as love ultimately vanquishes any thirst for monetary value. After the massive shootout, Clarence and Alabama feel blessed to be alive. The films final moments picture the couple a few years later with a son. As the family plays along a beach, we see that a modest family life provides all they needed to begin with. They appear entirely content without money.

Several films provide examples of the kind of working-class lives that criminals attempt to evade. In Fargo the character of Marge acts as the film’s center. She sublimely represents a working-class woman who remains unwavering in her role as both a policewoman and a wife. Her honesty and hard work juxtapose with Lundegaard’s sleazy plan for some quick cash. By the film’s end, when Marge breaks the case and apprehends Gaear, the theme of the film presents itself in her line, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know.” Resembling Marge, the mild-mannered Max Cherry in Jackie Brown wishes to quit his job as a bail bondsman because he finds the work unrewarding. He performs his job proficiently, but tires of spending time around hardened criminals and would rather move forward with his life. When he discerns that Jackie Brown needs help, he decides to aid her plan to rob Ordell of his money. Jackie’s only offense, after all, is stealing from a known criminal who would kill her if she ever got in his way. By Max’s selfless act, Jackie manages to launch her life over again with restored optimism. He generates a positive difference in one person’s life and asks nothing in return.

All of these characters epitomize that there is more to life than gathering money and possessions. They put value in other pursuits, such as career, family, and helping others as best as they can. Most of all they reinforce the idea that working an honest living and helping others shapes a difference. Their actions weigh against those who crave only after money and strengthen the message that crime demonstrates pointlessness.

Crime films have been a staple of cinema for generations. The narratives function as cautionary tales in a way. They insinuate that if you give up on working within the system, then you’re on your own. Destruction fundamentally concludes this decision. However, as long as people reside within the system, they hold the possibility to lead a productive and meaningful life. Jules walks the road less traveled by abandoning his criminal position. He explains to one of the restaurant thieves that, “The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.” While Jules may struggle with his transition, at least he discovered a worthy cause to believe in that surveys beyond himself. By acting on this cause, a fulfilling life becomes within reach.

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