It's always been what it is
Subjects discussed: The Irishman, The Many Saints of Newark, Turnstile, TikTok, the scene teens
Sometimes you want to start a newsletter with some bit of arch commentary and sometimes you want to start a newsletter with some memoiristic retelling of a day both poignantly devastating and devastatingly poignant in your personal history and sometimes you sweep all of that into the bin and blast the news like a neon sign: The Irishman is a masterpiece, maybe my favorite of Martin Scorsese’s movies and certainly the one that affected me the most. I’ve seen it four times now, and every time my respect and appreciation for it expands to the point where I’ve now begun thinking “Man, is The Irishman underrated?” like this is sports, and I’m not talking about a movie with an eight-figure budget and a Netflix release and a half-dozen of the 20th century’s most important actors directed by one of the most venerated directors ever.
And yet: Is The Irishman underrated? By which I mean that its release did not tilt our cultural discourse off its axis and manifest a new appreciation for life and its many indignities across the United States, brokering peace across generations hitherto cursed to inaccurately generalize each other through David Brooks columns and viral tweets. Let me chill for a second, say hello. Perhaps you have seen The Irishman, but in case you have not: The film tracks the life of real-life labor union official Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) as he jointly progresses through the ranks of the Teamsters and the mafia, a dual role that both affords him everything good in life, and rips it all away. Contextually, The Irishman is the latest and I assume final of Scorsese’s mob movies, given his age and other ongoing projects: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Gangs of New York.
Maybe he’ll make another one, but the more I think about it The Irishman feels like a thematic capstone on his involvement with that genre — which has inadvertently ended up characterizing Scorsese as “the mob guy” even though these are just a smattering of his films across a long and varied career — and perhaps his career altogether. Recently Jen and I decided to rewatch it, because the next day we were seeing an IRL screening of Goodfellas and something in my bones said “This will make a fitting companion piece.” Not an inordinately original presentiment, given the commonalities in cast (De Niro, Pesci) and subject matter (the mob, the things that mobs do), but sometimes simple ideas are the best. And because The Irishman was very long we ended up watching it in two chunks, with Goodfellas sandwiched in between.
In particular that scheduling allowed me to better draw out the primary contrast that some critics remarked on: Goodfellas is about how fun the mob life is, and The Irishman is about how it’s actually depressing. Goodfellas is a party; The Irishman is the hangover. Goodfellas is The Hangover; The Irishman is The Hangover Part III. (Okay, I’ll stop.) It’s true on some level, though not entirely: Many aspects of mob life are depicted as fun in The Irishman (the Teamsters party; the steak dinners; getting roasted by Don Rickles) just as the reverse is true in Goodfellas (when a babyfaced Michael Imperioli gets shot for being a wise ass; when Pesci gets shot in the face at the ceremony that’s supposed to “make” him; the shooting stuff, mostly). The narration of Goodfellas is more explicitly upbeat, but here I must remind you of the concept of “dramatic irony.”
More obvious to me was that The Irishman is about a minor character, while Goodfellas is about a series of major characters. By minor I mean a character whose emotions and actions are never allowed to lead the story; someone who wouldn’t even get a fun cutaway in Goodfellas with the Ray Liotta voiceover going, “That was Frankie Irish, who was called that because he was Irish.” As Frank Sheeran, DeNiro spends most of the movie flattening his feelings in order to accommodate whoever he’s with. Several times, it’s mentioned how no one is ever quite sure what he’s thinking. If The Irishman is autobiography, it’s telling that most of Sheeran’s memories involve his subservience: stealing steaks for local tough Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale); pulling off hits for ominously paternalistic mob boss Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci); carrying out Teamster business for doomed union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The most psychological depth he willingly reveals is when Buffalino prods him to reminisce about World War II, and here the simplicity of Sheeran’s worldview is teased out: You have your orders, and you see them through, whether that means executing German soldiers in the woods, or executing your best friend under the guise of a peace meeting. And the most affecting sequence is when Buffalino informs Sheeran about the decision to execute that best friend, whereupon Sheeran doesn’t say anything, not a single word, as he listens and frowns and nearly weeps, processing this impossible task.
There’s another sequence where Sheeran is used as the middleman between Buffalino and Hoffa, as he tries to avert what can only be Hoffa’s impending death. Sheeran is put in the unenviable position of translating between these different main characters, neither of whom will budge, so used are they to their emotions and actions being prioritized above all else. Whereas Sheeran, the minor character, understands nuance and compromise, how to adjust himself to the situation at hand — an instinct that is flatly untranslatable to these big swaggering dicks, as Sheeran’s attempts to mediate make the situation worse and only accelerate the end we know is coming. The sequence is partially played for laughs due to the editing, but there’s something very sad in Sheeran’s desperation as he realizes he’s not being understood, that his instinct to find the middle simply does not matter when you’re dealing with people accustomed to selfishness. It’s all or nothing, a mindset that must be very lucky to possess for those with the power, money, and privilege.
Anyways, as I said before the ways The Irishman explores these emotions did not tilt our cultural discourse off its axis and manifest a new appreciation for life and its many indignities across the United States. “It is what it is,” as Buffalino says when nothing more can be done about the Hoffa situation, and Sheeran must simply accept it. By the way, I’ve recently discovered a fascinating trend on TikTok, an app I just downloaded and have since been horrified by about 3,802,283 times as I inhale all of society’s most insipid beliefs within seconds of scrolling. There is now an overriding viral sentiment in “men’s mental health” circles that the phrase “it is what it is” is indicative of someone who has walked through the fires of hell — someone who understands life is shit, because he has personally experienced it. Okay, but: Sometimes it just is what it is. Nonetheless thousands, if not millions of people, believe this is true! So perhaps it’s not surprising that The Irishman was too next level.
Martin Scorsese has made a lot of movies spanning a lot of genres, and he is obviously appreciated by the entire filmmaking apparatus (viewers, critics, studios, awards organizations), so maybe he too can say “It is what it is” re: how The Irishman was received. (Still, let me say on his behalf: You fucking ingrates.) Someone I wonder more about is David Chase, who wanted to direct films and only ended up permanently redefining dramatic television. That, too, is what it is. I can’t find the viral tweet that cued me into his sentiments about this career trajectory, but from what I understand Chase is still disappointed by the fact that he never really ended up making movies — only 2012’s understated debut Not Fade Away (which I remember being charming but clearly minor, not that anything ever has to be major, but still) and the recently released, tepidly received Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark.
The Many Saints of Newark isn’t even really a movie, more of a two-hour Sopranos TV special. It reminded me of the “annual,” a type of extra-sized comic book that used to drop once a year (and still does, with some comics), and was meant to be an independent, self-contained story for newcomers, but which still required some knowledge ahead of time. (Put it this way: If you pick up a Spider-Man comic, you’ve got to know who Spider-Man is.) It’s hard to imagine the Many Saints viewer who hadn’t already seen some of, or most of, The Sopranos; I imagine it would view as a film, because there is a beginning and a middle and an end, but so much context is required to understand its myriad emotions and themes and character moments and plot points and references and allusions and basically everything, I guess now that I type it. If you don’t know who Christopher Moltisanti is, for example, I imagine that beginning and end would resonate a lot less — astonishing to consider, given that the prevailing reaction in my circles to his inclusion was “… why?”
Still, I found the movie interesting inasmuch as it’s complete fan service but also makes some very dark points within the broader Sopranos thing. We're getting the backstory of Dickie Moltisanti, who's held up in the TV show as this mythical, heroic presence who everyone worshipped. Instead, we discover that while he was indeed charming, he was also just an incredibly violent, angry, racist man not unlike many of the characters in the show. “These people are really bad” is not the newest observation within this universe, but here it is hammered over and over within what’s ostensibly a fun TV special, the first return to the Sopranos universe in over a decade: These people are really bad. I’ll tiptoe around some spoilers in case you’re reading this and haven’t yet seen it, but Dickie commits some particularly unsettling acts of violence that sync with Chase’s talent for capturing the brutality and intimacy of murder.
Last year, Jen and I started rewatching The Sopranos, and stopped in the final season when we realized we didn't want to watch our favorite characters die. (Silly, yes, but it was early pandemic; much coddling of the mind.) After Many Saints, we decided to put on the next episode from our rewatch, and by total chance it was “Stage 5,” an episode where Tony talks to Dr. Melfi about how Dickie looms so large for him — very explicitly, the most verbose he is on this topic in the show — and how his relationship with Christopher is entirely different and much worse. It plays into the larger idea — written about most effectively in my man Willy Staley’s epic piece on why everyone is watching the show — that the final season is about how Tony has let down his children, be they blood (AJ, Meadow) or surrogate (Chris), as well as this larger idea that everything is worse than it used to be, as Tony and his lot find themselves at the end of history.
Only Many Saints reveals how this formative understanding of his Uncle Dickie is, itself, completely bankrupt. Tony was happier then, but he was a kid. Everyone around him was completely miserable; he just couldn’t see it because, as a kid, he was walled off from the private lives of adults. He has this rosy view of a man who was totally a piece of shit, but whose bad behavior and inner struggle was completely obscured to him; his memories, laid out in Melfi’s office, are not literally false, but very off-the-mark. Ergo the film's fan service is like extra commentary on the bankruptcy of this nostalgia, I thought. It's a little too galaxy brain to be like "David Chase intentionally made a bad movie," as it has been by some critics advancing the idea that Christopher produced the script from the afterlife, but I think there is something being suggested about the way that our memories (whether the audience or Tony's) betray the true heart of reality. Chase is happy to make a living, but in Willy’s piece it’s laid out how uneasy he is with the earnest “yes king!” boomer identification with Tony’s misdeeds, now recast as ironic “yes king!” millennial identification by a newer generation. So maybe he’ll just double down on all this, as he continues to make Sopranos shit for the rest of his life, as a way of telling us: No, no, you got it wrong, it’s much worse, it’s always been much worse. It is what it is, as they say.
A word on nostalgia. Last week Jen and I went to a newly opened rooftop venue at Manhattan’s Pier 17 in order to see Turnstile, an acclaimed and vibrant hardcore band that we, and many others, like quite a lot. Turnstile dropped a new record called GLOW ON earlier this year, and in addition to the positive reviews, anecdotal evidence abounds that this is their time — they have caught fire in the way that exciting bands do, and everyone I know who’s seen them reports some kind of transcendental rock n’ roll experience as fans lose their minds, women and children weep, the vivifying effects of guitars and screaming in conjunction act as a repeated F5 (or Command + R, if you’re a Mac user) for the soul. My buddy, the writer Paul Thompson, once said he watched a man almost die (!) at a show. Magnificent, magnificent.
We were expecting all that, which is why I overlooked the more salient factor on this particular night: Turnstile were just one of several acts on a bill thrown together by the New Orleans emo rap group Suicideboys, who are located closer to the Salem x Yung Lean x Lil Peep etc extended universe of misanthropic white boys who’ve decided people = shit. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s not quite my thing at this stage of my life. But the Suicideboys are a big deal for Tri-state area teenagers, which is why the average age at this all-ages show was maybe 15 or 16. Moreover the teens were all dressed semi-identically, following some broader aesthetic North Star within this sad boy ethos: lots of mesh shirts, underwear doubling as outerwear, black jeans, black shirts, black anything, etc. One group had given themselves fake face tattoos, using Magic Marker; several boys were not wearing shirts; the most stunning, and worrying look, was a girl with a buzz cut and a fully missing front tooth.
I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was definitively older than I used to be. That night, we were also planning on attending a party for buzzy new literary magazine The Drift, and I admit that a part of me was thinking: “I wonder if we would be too old for that.” Not the case, as the party drew a cross-generational demographic of well-read New Yorkers, but also because it’s hard to be “too old” for anything that’s intended for adults. Age is a mindset, right? But sometimes, age is a legal distinction. And the Suicideboys show, filled largely by citizens not yet old enough to vote, was like a time warp back to my own teen years, attending the scene show with my scene friends and wondering what other scene kids would be there. Maybe you remember that feeling: “I’m going to put on my outfit, and I’m going to try to feel cool, and I’m going to have my eye on everyone else there who’s trying to be cool, though hopefully not cooler than my friends and I.” The mix of defensiveness and performativity that manifests when you have no real idea how to act.
Turnstile were fantastic, but the crowd was fairly reserved. A little bit of moshing, not much. Enthusiastic cheering, not a whole lot of movement. Notable because the rappers who played earlier in the night got the crowd going, but here I was blessed by the perspective of outsiders. Before Turnstile’s set, Jen and I struck up a conversation with two guys on the older side (22 years old each, I’d guess). One of them was a construction worker who told us about watching a coworker die about a month ago, when he fell off a four-story building. The other used to be a car salesman. They were Suicideboys diehards, and had never heard of Turnstile. “You’re going to love it,” I said, right as Turnstile took the stage. “It’s hardcore music, so it kicks ass, but it’s also pretty melodic.” (I lose my critical faculties when drinking and talking to strangers.) Turnstile started playing “Mystery,” the lead song from GLOW ON, and the former car salesman listened to this for 30 seconds before he said, “Really? This doesn’t seem melodic at all.” And then I remembered that hardcore is very abrasive, and if you aren’t prepared for it, it might just sound like noise — certainly when compared with the druggy, down tempo Ottawa rapper Night Lovell, who’d performed just before. You can’t just casually dance to it; you have to know what you’re in for.
This healthy skepticism was bracing, given the unqualified evangelism of my age-appropriate peers and even the 20-somethings I regard as “young,” though they would scan as total adults to the teens in attendance. As the night wore on, I kept on noticing more things that indicated the ages of the people around us. The alcohol lines were very short, partly because most attendees were under 21, but also because alcohol is expensive and these were teenagers who’d commuted on public transportation. We left after Turnstile to eat at a downstairs restaurant, and closed the tab just as the Suicideboys show was ending. Walking back to the train, nestled in the slipstream of all the attendees, we noticed how every dollar pizza joint and fast food place was completely filled up, and I remembered what it was like to attend a show with the money you’ve reserved for buying merch, the money you’ve reserved for getting home, and the $5 reserved for eating afterwards. Near the train, one group of boys could be heard calling out to anyone who’d listen: “Do you know where Port Authority is?”
Babies, truly. I felt that I was definitively older than I used to be, but I also felt this immense tenderness for the young person I used to be, a perspective that I think is very important. Something I notice as I get older is that people like to sell out their former selves — disavow their tastes, their emotions, and their experiences, with the gravitas of a person who knows much better now. “All of that was so stupid, and I am smarter now,” they imply. Bu the person you used to be is still there, somewhere, and you’ve got to be kind to them. Who else will be, if not you? I admit that my paternalistic instincts kicked in, at the Suicideboys show. Watching all these kids, desperate to impress each other, I hoped someone was taking care of them. The fake face tattoos — could you imagine being that pure of heart? And the missing tooth on that girl, my God. I didn’t want them to grow up, and realize they were remembering it wrong, that everything was much worse than it seemed at the time. Even as that’s often the case.
I made my debut in the new Gawker, losing my mind about how you can trace the erosion of popular cinema through the decline of the Spider-Man franchise. Just the week before, Jen published something on the same site about why she loves Paul Walter Hauser, and the tone of her piece was so lovely and precise that I felt a little bad for going full Adderall brain on my own subject. (Though I was not actually taking Adderall.) But here’s something I was heartened to see, in the comments on YouTube rips of scenes like the one above: People talking about how they didn’t fully appreciate the emotional thrust of these scenes until they were adults, and knew something a little more about life. These movies aren’t high art or whatever but they remain as evidence that even within very recent history, you could make blockbusters with a glimmer of human emotion. And I’ll always cape for that, even when it feels silly to care so much about Spider-Man.