Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire and Sin

I don’t know why this topic has prompted a post here, except that I haven’t posted for a few days and this happens to be on my mind a little.  I have to add as a disclaimer that I haven’t followed the series all that closely, but I think I’ve seen enough of it to get the flavor of it, especially in light of my preceding familiarity with Scorsese’s other work.

Martin Scorsese studied to be a priest.  I read a self-description somewhere to the effect that he has only two big areas of interest in his life:  films and religion.

The way he does films, I’m not sure these two things are all that separate with him.

Perhaps the paradigm of Scorsese films was 1990’s Goodfellas.  It was based on a true story, like Boardwalk Empire.

Scorsese somewhat graphically dwells on sin in his movies, whether in the form of violence or sex or some combination of the two, with other vices and failings thrown in here and there.  What’s peculiar about his approach is that it’s impressionistic, or maybe a better word is phenomenological.

I guess another way of putting it is, he just shows you.  He doesn’t particularly comment:  doesn’t condemn exactly, doesn’t approve exactly, he just introduces these characters and shows what they do.  And a lot of it is just god-awful – although that’s my take on it.  Scorsese never really says that.

Henry Hill is the main character of Goodfellas and a sometime narrator during the flick.  As the plot unfolds you see his ascension through the ranks of a criminal organization, the attraction of the accompanying wealth and power, the people – including wives – who are also drawn in by the glamor of evil, as it were.  You also see that in other respects these same people are normal, showing kindness and heroism here and there, looking after a disabled brother, looking after the babysitter, and so on.

And then you see the chaotic unraveling, everybody gets arrested, everybody betrays everyone else, everyone goes to prison.  It’s the “wages of sin”.  Again, it’s just shown, not preached.

Then you come to Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City at the beginning of Prohibition, and there seems to be another angle Scorsese is exploring:  hypocrisy.  Which is a brilliant context in which to raise that angle, I think:  what in history was more ridiculously hypocritical, or at least exposed more hypocrisy, than American Prohibition?

Yet this is a glimpse, probably inadvertently revealed, of a secondary theme of Scorsese’s work, having to do with the approach he himself takes.  We’re sinners.  Sometimes really ugly sinners, but still human. In the Boardwalk Empire series, there’s this character who is a federal agent.  He is trying to stamp out lawlessness; to stamp out sin.  And in Scorsese’s mind he is obviously just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the other sinners.

I used to dislike Scorsese’s movies because of the violence, and because I thought they were kind of depressing, and in fact I thought the impressionistic, phenomenological approach was offensive.  How can you put stuff like that on the screen, sometimes so matter-of-fact that it’s almost funny, and not say anything about it, was the thought.

But I’ve become more libertarian than conservative – at least that’s one way of putting it – and I appreciate his point of view more, even though I still often find his movies unpleasant.  Don’t get me wrong, I generally prefer pleasant stories, but I’ve grown more tolerant of unpleasant ones.

For one thing, Scorsese’s portrayals are more like reality.  Sin and evil are sort of nuanced in the way they actually occur in human beings.  Those of us who have done criminal defense are more aware than most people that even the guilty clients are still human beings, and one of the irksome things about  convicting the guilty is the degree to which it seeks to reduce, in a mentally lazy way, a complicated human being to cardboard figure, a dimensionless target for dart throwing.  A person is almost never like that – maybe absolutely never like that.

And there’s one more meta point here.  There are libertarians who describe themselves as anarchists – they dream of a world in which there is no government, and even claim that the complete absence of government is the more natural form of human social arrangements.  I think the evidence is to the contrary.  And I worry that trying to stamp out government is like trying to stamp out sin:  the cure is worse than the disease.

Somehow Scorsese’s work prompted that thought.



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4 responses to “Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire and Sin

  1. Rob

    Regarding your first meta point (penultimate paragraph): sounds like your hinting at the idea that people can’t face sin and evil in their fullness. For whatever reasons, we can’t look into the abyss for too long. Or we’ve tried, but we didn’t like the view and so we returned to the surface, only to remember our discomfort the next time we got the idea to really examine humanity in all its dimensions.

    So just as we practice reductionism and reduce criminals down to something comprehensible and palatable, so too do we reduce sin and evil into stereotypes. Perhaps Scorese is more courageous than most and is capable of simply showing and staring.

    Anyway, people seem scared of sin and evil, criminals, the “Other”, and so they reduce them to stereotypes that are understandable and digestible. Perhaps most importantly, we reduce them down to something that isn’t us.


  2. I don’t know if it’s that people can’t face sin and evil in their fullness; it’s more that it’s an ever present part of the human condition. There’s a paradox: you can neither tolerate it nor eradicate it; yet if you accept that you cannot eradicate it, that amounts to tolerating it.

    However much someone is flawed, no one else is so free from flaw that they don’t have a lot of effort to make with respect to their own flaws. That is perhaps why the efforts to eradicate sin in others always go awry. Like prohibition, such efforts become a grotesque morality play where the characters less and less resemble real people and look like caricatures. And then it leads to ruin. Objectifying evil, so that you can point to it as something “other” and say “it isn’t us”, as you imply, is a kind of virulent and false denial.

    But giving yourself wholly over to sin and evil and making no effort to eradicate it even in yourself leads to a different kind of ruin. That’s what always happens to the characters in Scorsese’s stories. He doesn’t make happy endings.

    It’s a fundamentally existential viewpoint. We trend one way or the other while we live, but we never quite get to the end of the trend line, and maybe it’s better that we don’t, or at least more real. That seems to be Scorsese’s point.


    • And similarly, I think, we get more government, or less, but totalitarianism is on the one extreme and anarchy is on the other. The problems of totalitarianism are familiar, being not too far from the end of the 20th century. The problems of anarchy are less familiar, so maybe they don’t look as bad, but that could be quite deceiving.


  3. Saw the season finale of the “Boardwalk” series and there it was, a line out of the mouth of Nookie Thompson, the main character: “We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.”

    This seems to be such a prominent running theme with Scorsese, especially in his later work. That, and more recently in both “Boardwalk” and “The Departed”, this notion that sexuality’s fruitfulness is compromised or even twisted when it does not yield children.

    Not that it matters to anyone other than me, but Scorsese and I are exploring a lot of the same intellectual territory lately.


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