Month: December 2010

Nucky Thompson: The Gangster who Won Me Over

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When Boardwalk Empire premiered on September 1 of this year, I was unenthused with Terence Winter’s decision to cast Steve Buscemi in the role of the series’ central protagonist, Nucky Thompson. Traditionally the gangster hero is played by an actor (almost always male), who is formidable in stature (Vito Corleone), personality (Rico Bandello), or both (Tony Soprano). The gangster is the very definition of a “tough guy.” If he shoulder checks you on the street, you’re not going to demand an apology.   The gangster inspires fear, even when he’s a puny as Little Caesar‘s (1931, Mervyn Leroy) Rico Bandello.

By contrast, Buscemi is a character actor best known for playing weaselly, neurotic, or pathetic characters. In Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino) he objected to his assigned alias, Mr. Pink (“Why do I have to be Mr. Pink!”) and petulantly refused to tip his waitress, inspiring one of my favorite movie lines of all time:

Mr. Pink: [rubbing his thumb and index finger together] You know what this is? It’s the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses.

In The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel and Ethan Cohen), he is Donny, one of  The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) bowling buddies. While good-natured, Donny is incredibly annoying and is often told to “Shut the fuck up!” Buscemi has a face that almost demands that it be told to “Shut the fuck up!”

Even when animated, as he is in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001),  Buscemi plays Randall Boggs, a duplicitous chameleon who delights in his profession (the scaring of children), and is consumed with jealousy over the success of his rival, Sulley (John Goodman). As always, Buscemi’s character  fails to master his bigger, smarter, braver and, almost always, better looking, foes.

As a fan of  Buscemi’s work, this is how I like him. He is a “character actor,” after all. Character actors, by definition, are not the leading men. They are there to support, antagonize, or bewilder the leading men. Thus, I was surprised to hear that he was cast as the lead in a television series. A movie only demands that an actor be charismatic for 2 hours but a television series asks that actor to command the screen week after week. As I watched the opening credits of Boardwalk Empire, which, like The Sopranos, features its protagonist taking stock of his domain, I was doubtful:

Buscemi stands on the beach, looking like something out of a Magritte painting; he appears stylized and  inscrutable, devoid of the fire and passion I expect of my gangster heroes. “This is not going to work,” I sighed to myself.

After the first few episodes of the series, I believed that I was right. A gangster story is only as good as its hero, and Boardwalk Empire lacked one. Nucky seemed too calm, too polite, too contained, too un-Buscemi-like, to carry the series. In his seminal piece on the genre, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948), Robert Warshow argued that “[t]he gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual.” Thus, Nucky’s seemingly reasonable demeanor stands in stark contrast to one of the gangster hero’s central qualities: his excessive nature. The gangster’s outsized desires and ambitions are what lead to both his success as well as his demise.

Nucky, by contrast, appears to be a conciliatory man. He gives money to anyone who asks for it, endures back talk from his ward/employee, Jimmy Darmody  (Michael Pitt), and wines and dines politicians whose piggish desires clearly disgust him. We don’t see Nucky lose his cool, punch a disrespectful underling, or accidentally kill anyone (as say, Tony Soprano might do). What kind of gangster hero is that?

But as I continued to watch the series I realized that Nucky was a  great gangster hero and that Buscemi was nailing the role. While other gangster heroes are defined by their unbridled passion, their inability to contain their desires and emotions (such as Tom Powers’ suicidal decision to avenger his best friend’s murder in Public Enemy), Nucky’s power lies in his ability to be in control at all times. And given Buscemi’s small, 5 foot, 9 inch frame, such control makes sense. A Tony Soprano can throw a punch when he likes, but a little man like Nucky would invariably fail as a physical aggressor. Instead, Nucky must rely on his intellect and reason in order to remain dominant.

This quality is best exemplified in the finale, when Jimmy, who has recently discovered the role Nucky played in the procurement and rape of his mother at age 13, confronts Nucky at a party. Jimmy is not just angry about the abuse his mother endured, he is also hurt to discover that Nucky took care of him out of an obligation to the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), rather than out of love. Jimmy always saw Nucky was a father figure but he now realizes that Nucky just viewed him as another item on his long to-do list. When Jimmy directly poses this question to Nucky, the aging gangster responds, “What difference does it make?” Nucky seems almost perplexed by Jimmy’s anger, as if the love between a father and a son is incomprehensible to him. And given Nucky’s abusive relationship with his own father, it probably is.

Just because Nucky appears controlled on the outside does not mean the man is not excessive. He is just adept at having others enact his excess for him. For example, when Nucky discovers that Margaret Schroeder’s (Kelly MacDonald) husband, Hans, has beaten her to the point that she has a miscarriage, he decides to have the man killed. But Nucky’s decision proves to be dangerous to his empire. It attracts the interest of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is sure that the murder is somehow linked to Nucky. We only find out in the finale that Nucky’s decision to have Hans killed was based purely on emotion; his son died when he was just a few days old and therefore the death of any baby strikes a nerve. Even when telling this story to Margaret, Nucky’s emotions are barely visible, registered in the twitch of his lips or perhaps a moment when we can detect tears in his eyes. But only for a moment. Then he shakes it off and once again becomes “Nucky Thompson.” For this reason, one of my favorite moments of the season was when Nucky burned down his father’s home. It was so out of character for him, but also very revealing of the emotions he normally keeps buried.

Nucky must reign in his emotions and dispassionately govern those around him in order to maintain his power. The few moments when he does slip up and allow his emotions to take over, such as the murder of Hans,  are the cause of most of his problems. Indeed, his hasty to decision to fire his brother Eli (She Wigham) will likely prove to be his greatest mistake yet: the finale closes with Eli, Jimmy, and the Commodore conspiring to oust Nucky from his seat at the top of the Boardwalk Empire.

In this way, Nucky hearkens back to one of cinema’s most beloved gangster hero’s, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Like Michael, Nucky uses reason to get ahead and both men know how to run a tight ship. Nucky  and Michael embody the mantra, first articulated by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) inScarface (1932, Howard Hawks) “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.” However, both characters inevitably alienate those who love them most because of their inability to emotionally connect. Terence Winter must be aware of these parallels because the season finale clearly references The Godfather‘s famous Baptism scene:

In the above scene from The Godfather, Michael and his family are attending the baptism of their infant son. As Michael’s son is washed clean of his sins, and Michael repeats the prayers, his henchmen kill off his rivals one by one, thus securing his place at the top. Similarly, in Boardwalk Empire, Nucky speaks at a voter rally in support of his hand-picked candidate for mayor of Atlantic City. As Nucky assures the crowd that a Republican administration will crack down on crime, specifically seeking out the individuals who murdered five bootleggers in the woods at the beginning of the season (the true culprits being Jimmy and Al Capone, of course), we see Nucky’s henchmen carrying out this “justice.” There is even a moment in which Jimmy slits the throat of Leo D’Allessio (Max Casella) as he sits complacently in a barber’s chair, a direct reference to Moe Green’s (Alex Rocco) execution as he received a massage.  If The Godfather‘s baptism scene was about the contrast between family and business, and how it is impossible to keep the two separate, Boardwalk Empire‘s homage is about the contrast between American politics and crime, and how it is impossible to keep the two separate. Applied specifically to Nucky Thompson, this scene is also about the contrast between reason and passion, brain and body, and how, soon enough, Nucky will not be able to keep them separated.

So while initially I felt that Steve Buscemi was wrong for the role of Nucky Thompson, and that Nucky Thompson was the wrong character to play the role of gangster hero, I am happy to say that Boardwalk Empire has changed my mind.  Buscemi, with his small, squirrelly body and his sad, trout face, was the perfect choice for a character who has spent a lifetime privileging his ambitions over his emotions.

So what do you (or did you)  think of Steve Buscemi in the role of Nucky Thompson? Do you find him, ummm, sexy? ‘Cause I certainly don’t. No, not me. Don’t find Buscemi sexy at all. Now look away, nothing to see here folks…

Me and My Twitter: Our Untold Love Story

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This week I taught the film Wall*E (2008, Andrew Stanton ) in my Film Theory and Criticism course. I selected the film to complement the week’s topic on digital cinema. However, my students were far more interested in discussing the film’s post-apocalyptic vision of an Earth so overrun with consumer waste that it must be abandoned for a clean, automated, and digitized existence on the Axiom, a spaceship that caters to humankind’s every need.  Robots take care of human locomotion (which is why these humans are no longer able to walk), food (lunch in a cup!), grooming (robot manicurists!) , and even decision-making:

My students were critical of these human characters: for their sloth, their apathy, and most importantly, because of their inability to form real human connections. “They only communicate with each other through screens!” they lamented. I then pointed out that the behaviors of the  humans on the Axiom are not too different from the behaviors of the humans on our college campus. As I walk to and from my office I see students, heads bent, eyes averted, typing away on their smart phones. Those who aren’t typing on their phones are talking on their cell phones or listening to their I Pods. Eyes plugged, ears plugged, the students I see each day rarely commune with the real world around them. Like the humans on the Axiom, we are surrounded by screens and by virtual relationships. This realization seemed to depress my students.

Actual photo taken on the ECU campus

But I’m not all that saddened by this vision of the future. No, I don’t want to become a rotund, infant-like drone, sucking my lunch out of a cup, but I am quite fond of the connectivity fostered by the internet and the proliferation of increasingly more affordable smart phones. In particular, I love Twitter. Man, do I love Twitter.

When I first joined Twitter in March 2009, I found it to be a lonely place. Gone were the hundreds of friendships I had accumulated on Facebook. Gone were those cute pictures of people’s babies and dogs (no really, I like seeing those). Gone was the instant validation I received when friends commented on my witty and hilarious status updates with their witty and hilarious rebuttals. Instead, I was faced with a long lists of 140 character statements, typed up by strangers, and  addressed to no one in particular.

My very first Tweet

But over time I grew to understand the role of Twitter in my life. As many people have pointed out, Facebook is for connecting with the people I already know. Twitter, however, is for connecting with the people I would like to know. Sound creepy? Sure it does. But really it makes a lot of sense.

In my profession (higher education), networking with colleagues is key. In the past, such networking took place mostly at academic conferences. For example, imagine you are the editor of a film studies journal and you hear someone deliver a paper that sounds perfect for your next issue. You might approach the speaker at the end of the panel and ask her if she’d consider submitting her conference paper for publication in your journal. Or imagine you’re a graduate student and you need to find a scholar outside of your university to serve as a reader of your dissertation. You can approach one of your academic heroes at the bar later that evening, introduce yourself, and pop the question.

Yes, that’s all fine and good for the extroverts among us. But me, I’m an introvert. Or rather, I am the worst kind of introvert — an extroverted introvert. In other words, I love to socialize and meet new people, but I hate being the one who initiates the socializing and I hate introducing myself to new people. I don’t make a great first impression, but I make an excellent third impression. So up until the advent of Twitter, I was not able to meet many new people or forge important professional connections when I attended conferences. Instead, I mostly hung out with my (admittedly awesome) friends from graduate school, getting very drunk in the hotel bar.

Me at my very first academic conference, circa 2002. Mmmm, pancakes!

But all of this has changed because of Twitter. Not only has it allowed me to meet with loads of new and interesting film and media scholars at conferences, it has also allowed me to develop professional relationships with people I have yet to meet.  Many of the people I follow on Twitter also teach film and media studies courses and, even though we have not personally met, are more than willing to offer advice.  For example, I am currently developing a syllabus for a new course, American and International Film History (1945 to the Present) and was having a hard time selecting a film for my week on New Hollywood Cinema. What to choose? So, I posed to the question to the Twitterverse:

And here are some of the responses I received:

This kind of conversation is especially important for someone like me, who teaches at a university in which there are only a few film studies scholars (there are three of us to be exact). Twitter provides me with an opportunity to brainstorm syllabus ideas, to get  research suggestions for upcoming projects, and even to receive feedback on works in progress (via this blog) with an unlimited, virtual community of colleagues. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Another thing that I love about Twitter is that it assembles an ever-present virtual community who is willing to listen, or at least bear witness to, my daily grievances. Here’s a post from a few weeks ago:

There is nothing profound about this tweet. In fact, it’s the kind of banal statement that most people would cite as evidence of Twitter’s utter pointlessness. But when I wrote this, I was having a bad day.  And the shoes that I had to wear during my long walk home in the rain were destroyed. So it felt good to send my annoyance out there into the Twitterverse. Even if no one read it, the Tweet exists, and that’s enough for me.

Twitter is also great for someone in my profession because much of my work is completed in solitude. Yes, I teach in front of large groups of students and yes I have to attend committee and department meetings, but by and large I work alone. Therefore, Twitter affords me the opportunity to drop in and out of ongoing conversations, to comment on someone else’s tweet, to read a recommended article, or to watch a clip of someone crying about a “double rainbow,” when the mood strikes.A few minutes here, a few minutes there. It’s just the break I need in order to remain productive and, oddly enough, focused on the task at hand. Twitter is like a virtual coffee house filled with hundreds of interesting, funny, and bizarre individuals, who can be tuned in or tuned out throughout the course of the day.

It’s true, Twitter has caused me to share more banal details about my life than Facebook ever did:

And no one really needed to know that my cat doesn’t clean his ass after he uses the litter box:

Nevertheless, Twitter has added real value to my life. When I got my very own smart phone almost two months ago, I joined the other screen-entranced zombies who shamble across the ECU campus. But it’s not so much that I’m tuning the real world out. I like to think that I’m bringing more of the world in.

If you’re interested in reading more about the impact of being “plugged in,” you may be interested in the much-discussed (at least in the Twitterverse) article by Virginia Heffernen, “The Attention-Span Myth,” as well as Michael Newman’s thoughts on her piece. Both were written with more time and care than this blog post. But that’s because I’m too busy tweeting, ya’ll.