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film The Mafia as the Capitalist Avant Garde: On Scorsese and The Irishman

The Irishman is the end of the mob film as statement, the end of the figure of the Mafia. This signifier no longer has the power it once had, as it fades into the ruling class itself.

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The Figure of the Mafia

In his essay on The Wire, Fredric Jameson makes the point that while the show is essentially a representation of capitalist social relations as a whole, capitalism itself is functionally invisible. Of course we see corrupt politicians and cops, real estate con artists and even Stringer Bell attending business courses. But power, the power that allowed for, and in turn requires, the set of social-spatial relations of David Simon’s Baltimore, is only visible refracted by the figure of the Greek, the invisible mystery man, the denizen of the wilderness of mirrors who supplies the heroin and, it is implied, he is someone quite “high up”. The Greek is a signifier, essentially, only functional to the plot insofar as he exists. This is to say, capitalism as such can only be represented by way of a form of mediation. Like Marx’s vampire, or Boots Riley’s Equisapiens – or the Greek, that is to say, through the figure of the Mafia. Our image of the Mafia as omnipresent power, both romantic and fearsome, is largely as provided to us by Martin Scorsese.

There is a telling moment in what is widely taken to be Scorsese’s mob masterpiece, Goodfellas. Arrested after a “job”, that is to say, not a murder, but a robbery, a crew of gangsters are arrested and hauled off. One of them jests to the cops, “why don’t you go to Wall Street and arrest some real criminals”. Some may take this to suggest that the implication of such a moment is to glorify these elements that essentially skim the fat off the milk of capital, as compared to those who structurally drive the train itself. Yet in the context of Scorsese’s body of work, like that of the best of his contemporaries (Schrader, DePalma, Coppola), Organized crime, broadly conceived, and Wall Street are co-constitutive, indeed, are structurally inseparable. This is how it really works.

Scorsese’s work, and the mob-film genre at its best, engages in the historiography of the last one hundred years, give or take, through the story of the ubiquity of criminality. Criminality, in what we can call Coppola-Scorsesean films, is a dual power, to a certain extent, or rather, it is its own sovereignty, with its own internal relations, sets of rites and rules. And by virtue of following – this – code, they provide a structural role as part of an apparatus at the service of capital, by which they attain varying degrees of sovereignty, taking on a multiplicity of forms.

This not at all unrealistic, indeed it nearly perfectly captures a time in which there is a geopolitical battle playing out, to varying degrees, between various factions of global organized crime with tentacles within various states and private entities. “Private Military Contractors” are today’s mercenaries, a role played proudly and in a romanticized way by the Mafia for US Empire from World War 2, all the way through the Cold War. Their power depended upon their willingness to play the long game – as Joe Pesci’s Russell Buffalino says to Robert DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, they needed to accept the attorney general Robert Kennedy’s crackdown on the Teamsters and mob as Kennedy’s brother John was making sure the Mafia could gain back what was theirs but taken by Castro in Cuba.

We are now living at a time in which the window dressing is no longer drawn. The figure of the gangster is insantiated in the president, and his colorful henchmen. Indeed, in the public mind, not just the president, but the entire political class is seen as – obviously – connected to organized crime as organized crime is obviously connected to politics. Witness the ubiquity of the “Jeffrey Epstein Did Not Kill Himself” memes. It is taken for granted all over the world that the ruling classes and organized crime, sex trafficking rings, drug dealers and the like, are inseparable. How then, does one represent the specificity of the Mafia? What is it that makes it unique, worthy of inquiry, dramatic, literary and cinematic adaptation? To what degree is there still a possibility of gangster-as-antihero, in the Dillinger vein? It is to Scorsese’s credit that this potential critique is taken on in The Irishman.

From Gotti to Trump

The Irishman is Scorsese’s most sophisticated, if esoteric mob film. Indeed, it could be the most bleak, sad crime film ever made, tragic in a Hegelian sense. At its heart is the overlapping but distinct codes of business unionism and organized crime, the former with a displaced loyalty to a corporatized and clientelist but nevertheless abstractly pro-worker values, the latter by doing right by one’s family and one’s family alone. There was a confluence of interest between these layers, going back to when they worked together, with the early CIA, in Europe, to disrupt the communist-led unions. Frank “Irishman” Sheeran, played by Robert DeNiro is a man who attempts to live by both codes, and has warm, even loving relationships with powerful men in both realms. Yet his mentor is not his beloved Jimmy Hoffa, played brilliantly by Al Pacino in a sort of Tony Montana-as-Labour-Bureaucrat high camp schtick, it is the soft-spoken and cool-headed Buffalino. But at the same time, he is a proud Teamster to his dying days.

It is remarkable and telling, in terms of what Scorsese is doing in this film by casting Pesci, who has signified the hot-headed out of control gangsters in his previous films, as the rational, long game type. As this film acts as not so much a corrective but an inversion of the role of the Mafia in this film and his previous collaborations with Pesci and DeNiro, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino. He is not the guy who you think may shoot you when he doesn’t take a joke, he is the one trying to de-escalate things. He is by all appearances and within his own logic, a very kind human being. In the earlier films, the Mafia are just “tough guys”. Certainly they kill, indeed viciously so, but that is not their purpose for the audience.

In Goodfellas, they are a way to escape being what Henry Hill ends up memorably calling a “shnook”, eating spaghetti with ketchup. They provide a romantic way into a realm that retains a connection to the working class street while living the high life. They are not romanticized so much as portrayed as an inevitable feature of Italian-American working class life at a given stage of postwar American capitalism. Like David Chase’s Sopranos, they – really – want to be regular bourgeois people with bourgeois habits like cocaine. The audience has no choice but to identify with them, to cheer them on but also do feel melancholy about it, but to somewhat enjoy that melancholy. After all, it is clear that they are but structural players in the grand scheme of things, and the real criminals were on Wall Street.

Yet Goodfellas, like all mob films, from The Godfather to Scarface, does lend itself to a romanticization of the mob as there was something “cool” about them. Yet what seems “cool” about the mob seems nothing short of sad and pathetic in the Irishman, yet its pathos is what makes for “cool” viewing, as in the audience is reminded of these previous signifiers but sees them in new ways as befits our current set of circumstances. One enjoys seeing the old gang back together, not to mention a number of excellent small performances, notably from The Sopranos’ “Charmaine Bucco”, Kathryn Narducci, and its heart is with DeNiro’s daughter, played by Anna Pacquin. Yet one is not seeing them for the same purpose and the same feelings are not evoked. One doesn’t come out of the theatre (where it should be seen, if possible) awe-struck, but rather ponderous. As to Scorsese’s influences, is more Bergman (especially Wild Strawberries) and Fassbinder (especially the BRD trilogy) than Rosselini and Leone. If Goodfellas was the mob film for the era of the fashionable John Gotti, The Irishman is the mob film for the era of Trump, not to mention Netanyahu, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and the many other “world leaders” with unhidden connections to the criminal (not so) underworld.

Of course, most of all, it is influenced, structurally, by what amounts to almost a cover version of Godard’s Breathless. The film, told in a circuitous order until the final act, surrounds a Breathless-derived road trip and the great open highway, with mundane and sometimes hilarious hijinx, between Buffalino, Sheeran and their wives. They stop for smokes and food, they make calls. The episodes, largely improvised, are exquisite. Scorsese never had such tenderness and such spite for his characters as he does here. There are also plays on many of his own films, notably Taxi Driver and Raging Bull more than the mob epics, save for one sequence that exemplifies the differences with the Pesci/Buffalino character, indeed the dark, sad and pathetic heart of the film.

There is no antihero here. This is not to simplify to make the point that the primary characters are all pure archetypal villain. Rather there is that same degree of mediation used with the mirror in Taxi Driver yet the mirror is only towards Sheeran’s daughter. It is through her gaze that we see his life. We see her as a young girl repelled by the seemingly tender – but in fact quite creepy “Uncle Russell”. Yet Jimmy Hoffa evokes the opposite response, a genuine warmth. This is an implicit suggestion that in spite of his flaws, Hoffa was not an evil man, or perhaps, more likely, he was an evil man on the right side of the class struggle. Or a class traitor who genuinely believed he was engaged in class struggle gangster-unionism. And later, given her father’s choice of loyalty, she never speaks to him again for the rest of his life. Like Buffalino, he dies alone, with no family but the church. Yet the somewhat less repellant Hoffa has his blood paint the wall of a house. The bad guys live a long and lonely life, while the somewhat less bad guys die relatively young. Nothing romantic here at all. And no antihero, not even Hoffa.

The previous films were about the Mafia supplying a need to American society and were critiques that addressed the audience of the eighties and nineties, one still presupposing a formal separation between organized crime and the ruling class as a whole. They had their antiheroes, their Ray Liotta or DeNiro himself. These antiheroes, like Donnie Brasco, Tony Soprano or Stringer Bell made choices predicated upon the parametric determinants of the Mafia, but rose above or sank below this status in a way not unidentifiable to the late eighties/early nineties American. Thus, these previous films, while they were partially didactic in a classic sense, more than a few spoons of sugar went down with the medicine. With their culture-defining moments, this added sugar was top shelf, not high fructose corn syrup. They were entertaining but intelligent parables about a structure as exemplified by a specific figure or cluster of figures, decontextualized, history bathed in parody. This being said, the very revelation of the “secret history” of Las Vegas in Casino (as well as Warren Beatty’s Bugsy) served a purpose of demystifying this great American anomaly, as it came to a new era – as DeNiro’s Ace Rothstein says, the corporations took it from the mob. Yet in order to develop Las Vegas in the first place, the mob was dependent, like Donald Trump, on unorthodox means of funding, like the Teamsters pension fund. It is to this far more tragic story that is partially told in The Irishman.

He Has Big Ears

In one beautifully tragicomic scene in The Irishman, Sheeran participates in a weird operation supplying weapons to Cuban exiles, training with special ops and the CIA ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He is told by Buffalino that his contact person would be a guy named Hunt, and he had big ears. This, of course is E. Howard Hunt, famed CIA operative and spy novelist, often said to have been one of the “hoboes” arrested in Dallas on the day of the Kennedy assassination. Yet the humor here is not about it being Hunt, except that being an extra signifier. The role of Hunt in this moment is a McGuffin. It is the ears that matter. Hunt, both the man and the character did not sport ears that were that big in a memorable sense. Yet after a comically awkward silence, Hunt says to Sheeran, “Are you looking at my ears?”, and repeats himself, somewhat like Travis Bickle in the mirror in Taxi Driver. Yet there is absolutely nothing to indicate that Sheeran is looking at the man’s ears. More than a decade later, watching the Watergate hearings on TV he sees Hunt, who had been one of Nixon’s top mystery men, testifying. “Oh I know him, it’s the guy with the ears”.

This scene and its aftermath do nothing to with driving the plot forward per se except insofar as it introduces by signifier the Mafia’s organic link to the American intelligence services in space and time. There are a great number of episodes told in no coherent order, all seemingly meant to drive home the structural role of the Sheeran, Hoffa and Buffalino within an unvarnished if stylized context of the fifties and sixties and Hoffa’s eventual imprisonment and release. This alongside tales of legendary mob figures and their demises like “Crazy” Joey Gallo, romanticized in a Bob Dylan song. We also learn partially how Hoffa rose up in the Teamsters through a willingness to engage in militant and combative rank and file unionism, striking back hard against raiders in the CIO, and treating scabs the way scabs should be treated. Though it is not mentioned in the film, it is worth noting that Hoffa learned about tactics and strategy from the great Minneapolis Trotskyist Teamster Farrel Dobbs, including a powerful, if vulgar, Marxist analysis of class struggle, boiled down to “between two rights, force prevails”, that is to say, power comes from below. Hoffa was one of the great (if megalomaniacal and sectarian) labour organizers of his time as he worked his way up, and were it not for his turn to gangsterism by way of the American state, he may be seen in a different light.

Yet like many a militant unionist before him, Hoffa was not so much tamed as co-opted into the power structure in the post-war years on his own terms, and in reality, he was the power brokering nexus with whom the CIA was able to make contact with the Mafia. The same skills with which he fought scabs and raiders were used to train those who were set against CP dominated trade unions, particularly in Italy. Yet by all accounts he was a true believer, and was able to, for a time, bring workers good deal after good deal. Indeed he was a thorn in the side of capital, and his connection to the mob (which had its point of origin in many unions in the thirties, seeing the bosses hire goons, recruit goons of their own, or adapt some goon-like tactics, fighting the proverbial gun thugs with their own gun thugs) was used as a cassus belli to particularly go after him. The Teamsters were exiled from the CIO and retained their power only by their numbers, their treasure chest and their connections to the emerging American nomenklatura and the Mafia simultaneously. Thus the collaboration with Hunt and his colleagues on arming Cuban exiles is treated in the same way as the frustration of a fellow “connected” Teamster showing up late for a meeting and wearing shorts. They are but a series of tableaux broken up by returns to that long road trip to what Sheeran pronounced “Dee-troit”. What happens in the outskirts of the motor city can be surmised, but are best not “spoiled”.

Wearing shorts to a meeting was a violation of a code, but even more disturbing to Hoffa, as well as his mob colleagues, was the actions of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a rich kid going after the mob and Teamsters in spite of the fact that the mob, at least in this narrative, were instrumental in getting his brother into the White House. The hegemonic thought of the sober wise men of the mob was to play the long game, as they’d get back their voluminous properties that had been expropriated in Castro’s Cuba. The aftermath of the Cuban revolution looms large on the Mob, but not in a melodramatic Godfather II sort of historical glory, but in terms of the concrete material losses. But after the Bay of Pigs, it is implied that perhaps the mob was involved in the Kennedy assassination but this is an afterthought. The point of the inclusion is again counter-intuitive. Buffalino and Sheeran, mob middle management and soldier alike are mournful in spite of themselves, but Hoffa, if anything is happy. He refuses to fly the flags at Teamster headquarters at half mast.

Some critics have complained that many of these episodic ventures in mob/union social history amount to a sort of “Mafia greatest hits”. But it is how they are adorned that is the point here, insofar as they are inseparable with the real human practice under a given set of parameters. There is a Brechtian quality to the three primary characters, like Travis Bickle and Harvey Keitel’s Sport in Taxi Driver. And the point is that in reality, this social type, if successful, does not die in a hail of bullets, nor do they end up in a witness protection program. They end up dying in jail or ending up convalescing in a Nursing Home, alone and out of touch with their family. They inevitably turn to the church, the last refuge of the scoundrel. In reality, as we see them through the eyes of their daughters, we know they are irredeemable.

The Irishman falls in the tradition of late style in its classical sense, as in Adorno or Edward Said. Rather than being more comfortable in the world around him, Scorsese, and frankly, the actors who make this film what it is, display, if anything a greater alienation, a greater sense of loss, of homelessness, than in their earlier work. Pesci in the most vivid way, but more subtle with Pacino. Pacino uses the over-acting style that, when used best – in Dog Day Afternoon or Scarface – is glorious, but when used in much of his work, becomes nothing more than a schtick. Business unionism gives Hoffa a mixed consciousness of aligning with the most reactionary and criminal forces while retaining righteous hatred of “big business and the government” and enunciating the word “sol-i-dar-i-ty” repeatedly. De Niro evokes his entire career as he goes through Lucasfilm’s somewhat disturbing, yet not offputting de-aging process. He even takes on a “Fockers” vibe in his later life. All of the performances, even the small but memorable ones from the likes of Keitel, are a reflection on being increasingly out of place, like the shorts on the gangster. There is something exceptionally old fashioned about this film.

The Irishman is the end of the mob film as statement, the end of the figure of the Mafia. This signifier no longer has the power it once had, as it fades into the ruling class itself. Fading away is what these figures do. The classical tragedy is not how it ends, but its inscription of tragedy rightfully onto this tragic history of gangster involvement in the labor movement, forcing Sheeran to think he can play both sides. For a time both sides really are inseparable. He was after all first approached by a mobster with a sign of solidarity, helping with a problem with his truck. And he couldn’t help but feel that sense of solidarity, even as he violated it. Of course he outlives everyone else and wears his Teamster hat to the end. It is here, not with Hoffa, that one sees the victory of business unionism, as conjured up by Scorsese.

Jordy Cummings, once called the “Tinpot Beria of the Counterculture” is an editor at Red Wedge.

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