by joan mitchell
Following 3 days of painting nearly all day, a day today social from 30 minutes after I woke until 6 when I came home and put on the movie of the day, Goodfellas, the 1990 Scorcese gangster film that is one of the great gangster films with Miller's Creek, Once Upon A Time In America, Godfather. I didn't recall seeing Goodfellas, but there was one scene I remembered, only one. The guy Tommy, I think his name was -- so many names to keep up with, they all ran together like French words in a sentence -- getting in Ray Liotta's face, "You think I'm funny? You think I'm funny? What's funny about me? What's funny about me?" That was the only scene familiar. Liotta's wife seemed familiar in her role, but only distantly familiar. Now I'm thinking I saw it something like 10 or 15 or more years ago when the first corporate video store opened in Sparta. That, I think, was first chance to see it since it came out in 1990. It was several years after it was new. Now, 21 years later, it's easy to say the film didn't date one minute. It is as fresh today as it was in 1990.
If I had to pick a favorite among American actors, it would most likely be Ray Liotta. He has a style. Not many white men carry style like he does. He's almost Latin in his awareness of style. He's a good actor too. In Something Wild, with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, Liotta took a good movie to greatness. That movie brought all three of these people to my attention. Jeff Daniels has been a disappointment ever since, and so has Melanie Griffith. She made a few semi-good movies, got her lips puffed up, made a few ordinary movies and vanished. Like Patti Smith, her best was in her beginning. Ray Liotta I've seen in several movies since, and he's a satisfying actor in every one. He brings a character to life. He becomes the character like only the best actors do. Robert deNiro playing alongside him was a good equal for him, actors sparring verbally like martial arts sparring between Steven Seagal and Anderson Silva.
Toward the end, when Liotta's character, Henry Hill, was on the stand in court testifying against his gangster colleagues, it brought back the time I watched a man rat on his drug world partners in a courtroom in Abingdon, Virginia. It was some time in the late 1980s when I was driving Independence, Virginia, lawyer, Lorne Campbell, around SW Virginia from courthouse to courthouse. In Abingdon I was sitting in the car reading while he was in the courthouse. He came out to the car and told me to come inside. There was something he wanted me to see. It was a man ratting on his friends to send them off to prison and keep himself out of prison. What I saw was the dark shadow his eyebrows made over his eyes, dark, dark shadows, the shadows of internal despair. I resented our government for the phony drug war, which Gore Vidal rightly called the war on the American people, putting American citizens into such fixes they hate themselves the rest of their lives for what they were tempted to do and took the bait. I felt sorrow for the man testifying and equally for the ones he was testifying against.
I've never forgotten their faces. I saw what Campbell wanted me to see. Liotta's eyes had the same shadow of overhanging brow as the man I saw on the witness stand in Abingdon. Campbell had the same regard for a rat as a serious criminal has. He was a serious criminal. He used the courtroom to do his criminal work. Did it by the letter of the law. When he first came to these mountains, he was 19 and went to prison in Wilkesboro 6 months for refusal to rat on a friend in court. He told me the only man he respects is the man who will not rat on his friends. He said there are very few. He was talking real manhood talk, manhood from the world of people with prison credibility. His life purpose was to keep mountain boys out of prison. "Mountain boys don't belong in prison." He saw himself a criminal just like the men he defended. He decided to take up law while in jail. There was a time he was legal representative (mind) for 5 different con men in SW Virginia. When I knew Campbell, only one of his con man clients was living, and he was in his early 90s. Campbell was in his late 70s at the time, able to operate in court, but unable to drive all day.
He taught me respect for the criminal mind and to leave it alone. I see these guys in movies bossing each other around in a hierarchy like the pecking order among hens. I don't have criminal mind and am glad I don't. People of a criminal mind right off see I'm not of that mind and they don't offer to take me there, because it's of no interest to me. But I have some friends of a criminal mind I admire and appreciate. I feel like I understand why in many cases. In the mountains it comes from a culture of poverty over a few centuries and having their only way of making a living rendered illegal by liquor corporation lobbies. You kept your mouth shut and didn't rat. Rats tended to have a short life span. It wasn't d-con that did it, either. This is pretty much the law of the mountains. No rats. It's serious business, too. This whole movie, Goodfellas, was focused on rats by threats, by paranoia, by revenge. In Scorcese's if-it-bleeds-it-leads style, rats usually got their blood sprayed over the wall, the furniture, the floor. I'm glad I saw it again, especially because I didn't remember it. It was new twice.