It is exactly the contradictory attitudes toward freedom and fate . . . the simultaneous and mutually exclusive admonition to accept/wait and adapt/initiate which form at least part of the dynamics of the American mind. These same dynamics provide the basis for the significance of American gangster films.- Edward Mitchell
One of the most troubling of all existential issues may be the question
of determinacy because every moral question relies upon the assumption
that we either have or do not have the power of agency. Although,
in our day-to-day lives, most of us tend to think we have freewill, our
experiences sometimes indicate otherwise, and this bothers us because a
world of determinism--a world in which we are not in control of our actions--can
be a scary and hopeless place. Perhaps even scarier is that an espousal
to determinism can be twisted to suit one's personal agenda and situation,
as there are few better ways to shirk responsibility for one's actions
than to claim that some power larger than oneself was actually calling
the shots. This is the discussion in which Abel Ferrara engages his audience
in his 1996 film The Funeral, a film that utilizes the gangster
genre to carry Ferrara's unique vision of a dark and unforgiving determinacy.
The issue of free will verses determinism is deeply imbedded in the tradition of the gangster genre. Stanley J. Solomon suggests that there is a "fatalism implicit in the genre" that can "promote our sympathy and pity" for the gangster character, a "doomed hero" who "could have been something better had he lived in a better world" (164). The implication here is that the gangsterís environment essentially causes him to live his life of crime, that his environment limits--or perhaps negates--the possibility for him to choose an alternate course in life.
In "Apes and Essences: Some Sources of Significance in the American Gangster Film," Edward Mitchell shares Solomonís attention to the gangsterís environment as a chief determining factor. Mitchell suggests that the gangster's sense of determinism is established by the genre's conflicting and contradictory patterns of Puritanism, Darwinism, and the Horatio Alger Myth.
Mitchell explains that the Puritanism pattern reflects Calvin's version of Puritanism, which posits three types of condemnations relevant to the gangster. The first is that we are guilty from the start--unalterably born in sin. The second condemnation is one of helplessness, for "election [salvation], if it comes, is an action initiated by God over which we have no influence." And third, "we are inescapably moral agents . . . we cannot escape the onus of choice even if that choice is ontologically meaningless" (160). Essentially, the gangster believes that he is indeed a moral agent, but he also believes that he has no hope of escaping from his natural state of degeneracy without the grace of God. Consequently, the gangster believes he is completely subject to the will of God regarding his moral success or failure.
The Darwinism pattern is perhaps best explained, as Mitchell suggests, by considering "Social Darwinism" as a type of "determinism , a kind of naturalistic Calvinism in which human beings were subjugated to their environments rather than to the will of God." That is, rather the fate of the gangster is determines not by Godís grace, but by his natural adaptability within the process of natural selection. Within this "survival of the fittest" world view, the brightest and the most daring of the species survive. Mitchell explains that the manifestations of this include "a rationalization for economic and geographic rapaciousness, while numbing moral judgement" in the name of progress and survival (160). The gangster lives in a violent world, and he believes that he must do whatever he has to do to survive, no matter what the moral consequences may be.
The perversion of the Horatio Alger myth as a determining pattern in the gangster genre addresses the gangster's determined downfall. The Horatio Alger myth involves a young boy who has been denied his rightful position in society, but through his wits, hard work, and a little luck, he ultimately regains that position and subsequently his security. Mitchell explains that the gangster, who often comes from rags or has been knocked down by either society or others in "the business," works toward achieving and maintaining this security but never achieves it in the end. Just when the gangster seems to have secured his survival--when he becomes the fittest, has risen to the top of his world--it is only a matter of time before his descent begins. His life of crime always leads to self destruction, denies him of the security he has worked so hard for--hence the perversion of the Horatio Alger myth.
The perversion of the Horatio Alger myth and the Darwinism patterns are woven into the gangster's commitment to preserving the family structure and his loyalty to his family. The gangster's family is both a part of his environment that shapes him and a motivating force fueling his rags to riches quest for success. The gangster's business is a family business, and he learns the rules and codes of the business from his family. And the business of the family is, ultimately, to protect and take care of the family. According to John Hess in his analysis of Godfather Part II, the means by which gangsters ensure their familyís security and values is through their manipulation of capitalism. They see a necessary connection between financial power and success through the capitalist system and the insurance of their family values and that "the family is the last apparent refuge against the . . . alienation of human activity under capitalism" (82). Family is all he can count on in the world; hence, it is the primary thing the gangster seeks to protect and ensure.
Each of the determining patterns mentioned thus far are present in The Funeral, but what makes Ferrara's use of the gangster genre so interesting in light of determinacy is that the three gangster brothers in The Funeral appear aware of that determinacy. They seem to know that because of their environments--their tendency to sin, their dirtied hands, their blind commitment to their family--that theirs cannot be a Horatio Alger ending. And each brother deals with this knowledge in his own way.
The Funeral centers on a gangster family in 1930s Brooklyn. The youngest of the three Tempio brothers, Johnny (Vincent Gallo), has died. Johnny's death sets up the entire determinism question in the film. The film focuses on what may have led to Johnnyís death and the actions his brothers take to find and punish Johnny's murderer after his death. Johnny was shot to death under dubious circumstances; no one is completely sure about the identity and motivation of the shooter. Regardless, Johnny's death is immediately assumed to have a connection to the family business, and the two remaining Tempio brothers are committed to discovering that connection.
While alive, Johnny appears strangely aware of the deterministic nature of his life in that he knows he doesnít quite fit in to his gangster family, that he doesnít share the same value system as his brothers. Johnny's brothers are capitalists to the core: they make deals that benefit themselves and are not concerned about the consequences the business has on the lives of others. And, as Hess reminds us, the gangsterís vision--even when ostensibly focused on maintaining social order and family values--is necessarily coupled with the drive to appropriate both power and wealth through exploiting the capitalist system. Johnny is a communist, and his vision is much different than his brothers'. Johnny's criminal acts aim at helping the working class: he torches the stores and trucks that carry goods produced by factories that are putting the squeeze on their union workers.
Johnny's refusal to blindly accept the corrupted capitalistic business his family practices and the tension this causes between the brothers is evident when the Tempio brothers meet with Gaspare at Chez's bar. Gaspare, a politically influential crime boss, has brought the owner of a local factory that has just laid off a bunch of workers. The owner is experiencing trouble with the union because of the layoffs. With Gaspare as his middle man, the owner asks the Tempios for their help in mollifying the union radicals. No one in the room knows that Johnny and his buddies have recently held up a truck from that factory, stolen some merchandise, and set it on fire. Johnny is verbally opposed to the deal which would give the Tempio brothers $1000/month to lean on the union. By vocalizing his opposition, Johnny shows weakness in the family, and embarrasses his two brothers. After Gaspare and the factory owner are gone, Chez announces, "we take the money, and we stick together." Johnny gives in but only because he knows he can't change his brothers.
Johnny's actions in the weeks preceding his death are those of a man who finds little meaning in capitalism--especially in corrupted capitalism, the business of his family--and he continues to defy his family. Johnny shows up at Chez's with Gaspare's wife in the middle of the night. Chez orders Johnny to take her home, but Johnny refuses--again challenging the order of the family--and pushes things even further by suggesting Chez is gutless because of his petty capitalism. Johnny says to him, "You stink the ground you walk on. You're nothing. I shit on you now . . . You wanna get in bed with him, you better watch yourself . . . and your store too." Chez reacts violently, throwing Johnny to the floor and punching him repeatedly because Johnny's challenging the family business goes beyond money: it threatens the stability of the family itself, and the gangsterís chief concern is ensuring his familyís stability.
Johnny's dissension from his family's business interests and his general recklessness seem the manifestations of a man who is aware of his fate as a member of a gangster family and is "acting out" in protest of that fate. His "acting out" is the result of being born into a way of life that holds no meaning for him. This world--the gangsterís world--is a moral universe that "in many ways resembles the real world but does not attempt to cope with the real worldís value systems" (Solomon 167). Johnny is concerned about his world's value systems, about whether or not workers are paid a fair wage and why a factory owner can afford to pay gangsters to break up the workers union but canít afford to pay his workers. So he seeks meaning elsewhere. "I'd say life is pretty pointless without the movies. Wouldnít you agree?" he asks his friend. Ironically, Johnny meets his destruction after seeking out meaning in life outside of the values of his family: he is murdered while walking out of a movie theater.
While Johnny never fits in the gangster value system, his eldest brother is completely immersed in itóand had been since a very early age. Through a flashback, we learn that Ray (Christopher Watkin) committed his first murder at age 13. At his fatherís bidding, Ray shot a man because that man stole from Ray's family. His father informs him that he must kill this man because his father says, "life doesnít allow enemies to live side by side forever." He puts all the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the family upon Ray by saying that if Ray doesnít shoot him, he will allow the man to go free which he says will result in the manís returning to kill them. At 13 Ray pulls the trigger, and commits his first murder. His hands are stained, and he has learned what it takes to ensure the safety of one's family. After the shot is fired, Rayís father takes the bullet shell out of the gun, hands it to Ray, and says, "Carry this with you. Nothing will cost you more." Mitchell's conflicting patterns of Darwinism and Puritanism are present here. As a member of gangster family, Ray will be required by his environment--by the transgressions of his fellow man--to do whatever it takes to ensure his family's safety and well being. And "whatever it takes" often entails a mortal sin, a sin that stains oneís hands forever.
Ray's initiation exemplifies how at some point the gangster chooses to value the family structure and loyalty above anything else, and he commits an act of immorality--he dirties his hands, crosses the lineóas a means of ensuring these values. Warshow says that by the time we first meet the gangster, "he has already made his choice, or the choice has already been made for him," which prohibits us from asking whether or not the gangster could have chosen otherwise (131). The gangster is conditioned through his environment (his family) to espouse his lifeís moral vision. Once he is committed to this vision, many of his subsequent moral decisions appear determined. The gangster appears unable (or unwilling) to reconsider his own agency in earnest. From the moment he crosses that line, the gangster views his options as fewer and fewer in number as a result of that initial choice he madeóa choice that dirtied his hands and was essentially predetermined by his environment.
The social conditioning the gangster experiences causes him to believe that he will be punished--punished himself or through the punishment of his familyóif he deviates from the established guidelines for gangster conduct. Therefore, Ray's thoughts are necessarily focused on revengeóon protecting both himself and his family--after his brotherís death. Ray's wife, Jean (Annabella Sciorra), knows her husband well. Anticipating his plan to seek revenge, she says, "Just bury him . . . Let him [Johnny] take his fights with him." This of course is an absurd request to Ray. He learned at 13 what is required of him when someone threatens his family. He believes this with all his soul--he must because if he doesnít everything he has believed up until that moment will be rendered meaningless.
The connection between Ray's moral reasoning and Mitchellís determining Puritanism pattern is apparent when Jean confronts Ray a second time. She pleads with him to not seek revenge, arguing that shooting Johnny's murderer is pointless because nothing can bring him back to life. In response Ray delivers what could be the gangster's manifesto of moral rationalization:
You wanna get deep on this shit? All them Catholic scholars say everything we do depends on free choice, but at the same time they say we need the grace of God to do whatís right. Now if I do something wrong, it's because God didnít give me the grace to do whatís right. Nothing in the world happens without his permission. So if this world stinks, it's his fault. I'm only working with the tools I've been given.Despite the fact that Ray cites Catholic scholars, the Puritanism pattern is there. The gangster admits that he is a sinner, that he may have "chosen" to sin, but that his fate was actually determined by Godís denying him the strength not to sin. So his actions are--conveniently--self justified.
You think you deserve to live? You killed a man. Two men are dead over this. How can you live with that on your conscience. Once you pull the trigger, thereís no going back. My wife, who don't even know you, is praying for your life. If Johnny had raped your girl, I would have let you go. You have no respect for life, people like you. There's no place in society for you. I don't see how I have a choice.The kid reminds Ray that he does have a choice, that he can do a good thing and save a life. Pleading with Ray to exercise his free will and have mercy upon him, the kids says, "You have the chance to do something good instead of something bad, and thatís better than justice." But Ray isn't buying it: he understands his determined nature. The tragedy is that Ray knows that his violent lifestyle and his sense of justice are flawed, but he canít seem to consider an alternative. Instead, he is resigned to simply accepting his fate rather than trying to change it. He is Mitchell's disillusioned Puritan, aware that he has been passed over for salvation, accepting of his fate in hell, and clinging to his moral vision. Ray explains, "Maybe one day, they're gonna find me with my blood draining into the sewer. I'm gonna burn in hell, I believe that. But the trick is to get used to the idea--" and then shoots the kid dead.
How ëbout I give you twenty. You know why I'm gonna give you twenty?Chez hands her the twenty dollar bill, pushes her against the wall, and essentially rapes her. This girl has a chance to keep her hands clean--he hands her that chance--but she decides to dirty them anyway. Chezís little experiment has positively proven his hypothesis, and he punishes his subject for it.
Because you just sold your soul. You sold your soul. You got twenty, but
you sold your soul you little tramp. You're gonna be a tramp for the rest of your filthy life.
Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is an English teacher at Albert Lea High School, Albert Lea, MN.
This essay was written in 1999 and first published on the web in 2000.
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Warshow, Robert. "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." The Immediate
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