Romancing the mafia

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McGill Reporter
February 24, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 11
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Romancing the mafia

| North American culture is in the grip of mob mentality, says Fred L. Gardaphe, professor of Italian/American studies at State University of New York.

In a lecture in the Leacock Building last week, Gardaphe explained why the mafia remains a cultural fixture, both as villain and anti-hero.

"The history of Italian Americans, especially those who became gangsters, has been turned into myth by Italian Americans' own sons, novelists like Mario Puzo and Don DeLillo and filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma. The gangster has become almost as popular an archetype and myth as the cowboy."

The difference, at least at the beginning, was that the gangster played the role of the cowboy's natural enemy.

"Just as our Puritan ancestors needed North American Indians as a primitive 'other' against whom their cultural mores and identities were pitted, contemporary U.S. culture needs to have its 'other,' a common enemy to fight... The Italian American gangster became a perfect other by virtue of its connection to a tribal culture which does not always play the game of capitalism according to the rules. He does not resign himself to working hard so that others can be rich... upward mobility comes from stealing money, not from working."

The original gangster movie was Little Caesar in 1931, based on the life of the notorious Chicago crime boss, Al Capone. That movie "catapulted the gangster into mass culture." Imitators quickly followed that film's success, and a new movie genre was born.

"Gangster films are like porno-graphy and horror films — not because they corrupt, or because they are artistically inferior to other kinds of films, but because they expose our deepest desires and urges. The gangster genre mirrors not only our fascination and repulsion with a socioeconomic milieu which we prefer to shut our eyes to, but also with the most haunting depths of ourselves."

In the late 1930s, Hollywood came under pressure to stop making gangster films "which were believed to corrupt the morals of society." The genre was only revived after Mario Puzo published The Godfather in 1969, and it spent 67 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. For the first time, in the book and movie, mobsters became anti-heroes.

"In The Godfather, the mafia is seen as a natural force in the world from which Don Vito Corleone comes — a world which he attempts to recreate in his new home in America. In this world, the Don and his family are the good guys, while the institutions of law and justice are the bad guys... Puzo portrays the Don as a man of will, a man among men, who refuses the dominion of other men."

The original smash-hit film spawned two sequels. More recently, the HBO hit TV show, The Sopranos, presents a Don with which many males today can identify.

"The Sopranos is about the emasculation of the traditional male. There is only one way for a man to become a soprano; metaphorically, this is what's happening to Tony Soprano, a gangster in a time when the realities of manhood are changing."

So more recently, the mafia has become more than a source of bad guys to hiss at in a dark theatre. Part of the fascination comes from the connection between gangsters and capitalism; the mafia has often been portrayed as an outgrowth of free markets, and the gangster as a particularly ruthless businessman or entrepreneur.

"Prior to the emergence of the gangster, crime was portrayed as the activity of a deranged individual, who performed his deed singlehandedly in dark and dreary urban ghettos. Based on the realities of the 1920s, crime, in movies like Little Caesar and Public Enemy, moved from ethnic ghettos to downtown commercial centres.

"This enabled criminals to more closely resemble the rising business class. As gangsters started associating with the upper echelons of society, it became harder to tell the gangster from the corporate elite."

The Godfather and The Sopranos illustrates a dichotomy in how gangsters are perceived.

"Gangsters are guys who try to bypass the system any way they can. When they're successful, they give us a sense of how things could be if we were our own boss. When they fail, they give us a sense of relief that it wasn't one of us."

Gardaphe's talk was this year's McDonald-Currie Lecture in the Faculty of Arts.

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