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June 1997, Week 4


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Dennis Rothermel <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 26 Jun 1997 12:19:11 U
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First-person narrative and Goodfellas
I wonder whether Mike Frank’s distinction holds, i.e., between first-person
narratives as primarily about the narrator and only indirectly about the
narrator’s world, in contrast to third person narratives where this is not
always so.  Off hand, I’m starved for good counter-examples, but I see no
reason in principle why the third-person narrative cannot be wholly devoted
to the exploration of the protagonist, and why the first-person narrative
cannot be used to explore the narrator’s world.
I’m not sure what would count as first-person narrative in fiction film,
but I don’t think it has to rely upon “mind-screen” POV shots.
Goodfellas indeed offers very good evidence for the contrary.
Several of Henry Hill’s voice-over commentaries accompany freeze-frame
images from his past.  Appropriately, these are images not only of what he
had seen, e.g., the grotesque expression on the mail-man’s face as he’s
shoved into the pizza oven, but also of himself *in* a scene, e.g., running
away from exploding automobiles, caught in the red glow of a tail-light after
he slams the trunk-lid over the murdered body of Billy Bats, etc.  We
remember and imagine remote experiences not simply in terms of what we
literally saw or would see, but of what it looked like or would look like, to
have been a *visible* participant in the scene.
The voice-over commentaries and Henry’s diegetic and non-diegetic states of
mind inflect the diegetic photoplay, most obviously in the frenetic montage
of the day of Henry’s arrest.  The long sequenced shot introducing the
litany of Henry’s friends all collected in the Bamboo Lounge plays upon the
coordination of Henry’s voice-over introduction of each character with the
diegetic conversation, as they each address Henry by speaking to the camera
head-on.  At the end of the shot, Henry steps into view and the camera then
follows him -- and in that moment we see how interchangeable are the literal
transpositions of first- and third-person narrative structures from
literature to cinema.  The remarkable smoothness of that sequence shot,
however, barely disguises its physical impossibility as the diegetic
subjective view of Henry Hill.  The camera fleetingly stoops to knee-level,
tilts up slightly, and zooms in, to get a better view of a man sitting at a
table.  Just as quickly it drifts up above and over the bar, panning back
around to view the patrons at the bar.  One by one they speak to “Henry,”
who ostensibly saunters down the length of the bar from the bartender’s
side.  The convenient arrangement of the all of Henry’s old friends who
each speak to him, as he (in voice-over) speaks to us about them, along with
the dreamy, irreal flow of the sequence shot mark this scene as a *synthetic*
remembrance -- i.e., not a scene from Henry’s life, but how he remembers
all his old friends.  By way of contrast, the celebrated steady-cam,
shoulder-high, follow-shot, long take of Henry’s first date with Brenda at
the Copacabana records how precisely he remembers every incidental detail and
how poignant is her concluding query, “What do you do [for a living]?”
It was at that moment that he knew she was intrigued.
In the penultimate scene, the trial at which Henry fingers Jimmy and Paulie,
Henry explains somberly in voice-over the lack of social identity in being a
mobster, which the surfeit of money, drugs and frivolous luxuries did not
quite counterbalance.  Almost in mid-sentence, Henry rises from the witness
stand and chases the camera across the courtroom, bemoaning how this is now
all over for him.  As the non-diegetic thus invades the diegetic, the
diegetic nevertheless remains oblivious:  the mundane movements of people in
the courtroom continue, as if no one had noticed that the prime witness had
just arisen and walked away, composing his memoirs aloud.  This, too, is
remembrance, of that day in court, of what Henry was thinking about as he
responded to examination, of what he was thinking about as he saw the cold
hatred in the return gazes of the two men who once counted most dearly in his
life, of what he thinks about now when he remembers that day -- or some
combination of these cognitive elements.  The scene segues to Henry’s
bitter, empty, anonymous life somewhere in suburban America, ending with a
paradigmatic view of Tommy blasting away at the camera -- a specifically
non-diegetic image, and a symbol of Henry’s deepest fears and longings,
that one day his old life would return to him, even for that instant of
recognition as someone just as maniacal as Tommy assassinates him.
Goodfellas is a film of the remembrances of a gangster, but it does not
revert to facile flash-back or POV conventions in which the audience is
encouraged to believe that we now see what had once happened, just as it had
happened, or what the narrator factually sees, etc.  Rather, Goodfellas is
imbued with Henry’s cognitive presence, replete with the distortions,
syntheses, conflations, fixations, moods, and so on, of that presence.  That
presence intertwines both diegetic and non-diegetic elements, and both the
content and presentation of the film’s images.  One could conceivably
translate all that back to a literary narrative, as either first- or
third-person, and probably equally effective either way.
Dennis Rothermel
California State University, Chico
To: [log in to unmask]
From: Film and TV Studies Discussion List on Wed, Jun 25, 1997 11:17 AM
Subject: Re: Adaptations/first-person narratives
in response to my admittedly provocative assertion that films can't be/have
first person narratives [at least not first person narratives about a
character] molly olsen asks:
>   . . . what about a film like GOODFELLAS or any documentary
>  film where the filmmaker is also the narrator (i.e. SHERMAN'S
>  MARCH) -- are these not "first person texts"?
it's a good question . . . i'm not prepared even to try to answer the part
about documentaries, about which i've thought much too little [and to
to have anything useful to say -- perhaps there indeed are first person
narratives in documentary film [although i would guess that in these films
the film-maker/narrator is not also the subject . . . but perhaps i'm wrong
about that]
in any case i was talking [or meant to be talking] about "fiction" films and
think GOODFELLAS is a good example of what i mean . . . for it seems to me
GOODFELLAS is far from a first person narrative . . .it's not only because
>   you could argue that, for instance, because the camera
>   is pointed at Henry Hill several times in GOODFELLAS, we
>   are not seeing the action through his eyes . . .
although that is at least part of it  . . . it's more that as i watch the
action of the movie i'm NOT constantly aware that what i'm seeing is
essentially a picture of henry's mind [what bruce kawin calls a
"mind-screen"] . . . instead what i register is that i'm seeing a
of the "real world" [the fictional diegetic real world, of course] and that
invited to consider how this world imposes itself on henry's life . . .
to some extent first person novel are ALWAYS and primarily about their
narrator and only indirectly [or instrumentally] about the world she
. . . while in film, the world being depicted is just too much with us . . .
the camera is always showing us "stuff," while the novel is inescapably
giving us nothing but words
mike frank
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