The Anatomy of a Scene – Goodfellas’ Copacabana

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The Copacabana sequence from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is an iconic moment within the canon of popular cinema. For a scene so short and simple in its execution, its continued appeal is a testament to Scorsese’s genius, perhaps his greatest collaboration with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus. Indeed, twenty-six years later, new innovations have saturated the film industry with technically impressive camera work, yet the Cobacabana sequence remains revered; only around three minutes in length, it is often cited as a masterwork of cinematography and storytelling.

Single-take sequences are fast becoming a staple of mainstream cinema. In 2015, the commercially successful films Spectre, Creed, and The Revenant all featured extended scenes shot in what appeared to be solitary, unbroken takes (although often stitched together in post-production). Two years ago, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar winning comedy, Birdman, seemed to be entirely comprised of one continuous shot. Considering the prevalence of the Steadicam in modern multiplexes, what is it that makes Goodfellas worth coming back to after all this time?

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In essence, Scorsese uses his camera to tell a story. Technical showmanship should never be employed for its own sake; the camera exists in support of the narrative, and nowhere is this clearer than in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. As the camera weaves behind our two protagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco), we follow their journey into another world. For Henry, it is a familiar one; he moves confidently and with ease, echoed by the smooth tracking of the camera behind him – our gaze never breaks away as one life transitions into another. Karen’s experience is altogether less assured – it is her first introduction to Henry and the unconventional life he leads. Much like the hubbub of the Copa’s kitchen, the shot is an assault on the senses, taking in exteriors, corridors, a kitchen, a dining room, and finally a table right next to the stage. In a film that enjoys feeding us a near-constant voice-over, this single shot tells us all we need to know without saying a word.

Of course, it would be a crime not to consider the technical achievement of the shot. The whole sequence, in all its complexity, was blocked, lit, and shot in half a day. Steadicam operator Larry McConkey has explained the difficulty he faced in blending close and wide shots within such a tight frame – it was this issue that necessitated the brief moments of interaction between Ray Liotta and the others in the hallway. Later, when Henry and Karen take a turn through the kitchen, they actually walk in an extended circle and exit through the same way they came in, which is hidden through well-timed changes in extras and scenery dressing. Michael Ballhaus discussed the struggle he faced in ensuring that every actor and movement was timed perfectly for the duration of the shot. Yet after only eight takes, cinema history had been made.

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Scorsese returns to screens this year with the long awaited Silence, but it remains my opinion that Goodfellas represents his best work. The Copacabana shot demonstrates that a story may be told just as effectively through action as with words or dialogue. It has always been my belief that Thelma Schoonmaker’s distinctive editing has had much to do with the iconography of Martin Scorsese’s films, but Goodfellas shows just how effective he can be without a single cut.

Oscars 2016 – My Reaction

Firstly an apology for a lack of content this week – I’ve been busy with academic and social commitments, so I haven’t been able to post here as frequently as I’d have liked to. For the time being things seem to have slowed down, so I thought I’d come back with a few thoughts on the recent Academy Awards ceremony.

It wasn’t a particularly surprising or upsetting night. Chris Rock did a good job of hosting, delivering a rightly scathing monologue on the diversity issues that plagued this years’ nominations process. Politics seemed to be on the agenda even more than usual; from Ali G to Sam Smith to Leonardo DiCaprio, there were references to race, gender, sexuality, and the environment throughout the proceedings. While some may have found this soapbox approach tiresome, it must surely be a good thing to see artists using their platform to raise issues of greater significance than themselves. Probably the most moving moment of the night came as things took a slightly surreal turn, with Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga and a crowd of sexual assault survivors for the song Til it Happens to You.

On to the awards, and here it was more of a mixed bag. My highlight of the evening was Ennio Morricone winning his first Oscar for the soundtrack to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Morricone is, in my mind, the greatest of film composers, and it’s a pleasure to see him finally receive Academy recognition (2007 honorary Oscar aside) for an outstanding body of work going back seven decades. Sixty years since he composed the iconic theme to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Morricone may cut a small and unimposing figure, appearing noticeably frail as he was helped to the stage, but his Oscar winning score for The Hateful Eight demonstrates that even at age 87 he remains a master.

Also pleasing was Mark Rylance taking the Supporting Actor award, as I had predicted in my Bridge of Spies review. While a Stallone victory would have been an undeniably refreshing development, stage veteran Rylance was a deserving winner for a film that otherwise went largely unnoticed. Similarly, witnessing Mad Max: Fury Road sweep the technical categories, with six wins, was a happy vindication for the level of craft and innovation that went into George Miller’s action behemoth.

Now, my disappointments. I was hoping to see Winslet take the Supporting Actress prize for a subtle and engaging performance in Steve Jobs, but I’ll admit to not having seen The Danish Girl as of yet, so I can’t comment on Alicia Vikander’s right to the accolade. My only genuine bugbear, however, was the biggest success story of the night – Leonardo DiCaprio.

There’s been a lot of noise on the internet over the past few years about DiCaprio never having won an Oscar (strangely the same fuss was never so vocal for the likes of Roger Deakins, Morricone, or Gary Oldman). But as much as I respect Leonardo DiCaprio as an individual and an actor, I have never thought any of his performances deserving of a Best Actor award, and I maintain that position having seen The Revenant. He simply isn’t a chameleon in the manner that the great actors are – he never succeeds in dropping the typical Leo mannerisms and really becoming his character. This remained obvious in The Revenant, pitted against Tom Hardy’s superior performance in a supporting role.

I’ll accept that DiCaprio’s opposition this year was not particularly strong, particularly compared with the last time he was nominated in 2014. I would personally have given the award to Fassbender, who was thoroughly convincing as Steve Jobs, without having to eat a raw fish or film in exceptionally cold weather. Dedication to a character and arduous filming conditions do not make a good performance, and The Revenant’s wafer-thin script didn’t really leave diCaprio much opportunity to act beyond the odd groan and a lot of dribbling.

I do not wish to come across as petulant or contrarian – I believe Leonardo DiCaprio to be a dependable performer with a slew of quality roles behind him, but he falls short of the legendary status that is often attributed to him. Of course, he’s still young and has a bright future ahead of him; I simply find the emphasis put on his abilities to be misplaced. From the beginning of the awards season, his claim to the Oscar seemed inevitable, and I can’t help but feel that this had more to do with hype than the quality of his performance.

As for Spotlight, the winner of the all-important Best Picture award, it’s difficult to argue that it was really the best example of film-making of the whole year. Nevertheless, despite being stylistically uninspired, it’s a great film, with an excellent ensemble cast and, above all, an important story to tell. Certainly a more welcome winner than The Revenant, Spotlight will likely be remembered as a deserving, if unmemorable, Best Picture.

That’s about all I’ve got to say for this year. I haven’t covered everything; after all it was a bloody long night, so this was just the awards and moments that I had a particular reaction to. Obviously not everyone is going to agree, but I hope I’ve put forward my case in a satisfactory manner. Please comment below with thoughts and responses, but until next year, that’s all for Oscar season 2016!