Reflections

What a semester this has been. Overall, it has been crazy, but it has lead to lots of quality friendships and lots of learning. In this class specifically, I have grown greatly. There were plenty of times where I did not want to do the work or put in the effort, but, because I pushed through, I became a better writer. I learned the value of doing preliminary things as they helped me to develop my argument before actually starting to write. I now feel I can incorporate motive and stance much more effectively than I could before taking this course. Overall, I believe my ability to structure and deliver an argument has greatly improved.

Though not related to writing, I think the result of this class which surprised me the most was me gaining an appreciation of gangsta rap. I would not say that I am now a fan of the genre, but I have learned its importance culturally and the importance of the messages it sends. I understand the controversy surrounding it; however, I also know that I cannot fully understand its importance. Because of this, I believe I now have a healthy respect for and appreciation of it.

In Response

I recently asked my friend Rachel to write a guest post on a topic pertaining to this blog. The post she provided (the post published previously) explained why she believes gangsters, and gangster films in particular, continue to fascinate Americans. I find her claim that gangsters are captivating because they are practically god-like in their realm of influence to be interesting. It is a claim which is different from the claims of our readings, but it very well may be accurate, at least in part. In “Dressed to Kill”, David Ruth repeatedly referred to “inventors of the gangster”. According to Ruth, the gangster that is well-known to the public was created as a way for people to sort out or represent conflicts in culture and, therefore, often in themselves. When considered in this light, gangster films could certainly have been partly about examining the desire people have to be in control and in power; it also could be a commentary on the dangers of such power or the ways such power may be abused. Rachel used the opening scene of The Godfather as evidence for her claim, and I would be interested to see what other examples there might be in other movies.

Guest Post: Rachel Dominic

Since the 20th century, our society has held a fascination for the American gangster lifestyle represented in films. This societal fondness has been fashioned from the idea that people want a world at their fingertips, which is the world of a gangster. I believe the public appeal toward gangster is not violence and bloodshed, but the all-powerful god-like figure that gangsters seem to become. A gangster is able to operate and have complete control of his surroundings with a simple nod or snap of the fingers. Typical films portray gangsters as rich or well-dressed individuals who seem to capture and hold a room’s attention with a single look. For example, during the opening scene of The Godfather, we are meant to see the point of view of Don Corleone, which plays into the character’s favor. As the scene continues, the audience quickly learns the power and authority of the public officials is nothing compared to the authority of the Godfather. In today’s society, the public seeks for fame, fortune, and power, which is the ideal picture of a gangster.  In essence, the public is trying to gather the pieces to closely resemble an all-powerful being.

American Gangster (The Film Not the Class)

When in a class called American Gangster, watching a film with the same name is bound to be important. American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott, lived up to expectations of importance in its portrayal of the life of real-life gangster Frank Lucas. This movie covered most of the topics we had discussed throughout the semester. For example, Frank Lucas runs his organization very much as a business, a way which would be considered American because America is a capitalist system. Lucas is a wiseguy because he creates opportunities. Instead of accepting the system of acquiring product to sell, Lucas realizes a better way and puts it into practice. He acquires the drugs directly from Asia, allowing him to make considerably more money. Lucas keeps his business in the family, resembling the old crime families like the Corleones of The Godfather. He criticizes his brother’s choice to dress gaudily (in the way described by Ruth and similar to Gatsby), but his downfall begins when he himself wears an extravagant coat and hat to watch boxing. Finally, even though it is based on the life of a real person, American Gangster partially adheres to the tragic hero trope. Though Lucas does not die, he is “defeated” when he is caught and sent to prison. I personally could not help but feel disappointed; even though I knew his capture was inevitable, a part of me still wanted to see Lucas succeed. Ultimately, American Gangster was an enjoyable film which felt like the culmination of everything we had learned about gangsters in class.

Moonlight

A few weeks ago we watched Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, for class. The 2017 Oscar winner for Best Picture, this movie follows the life of Chiron through his time as a child, teenager, and young adult. In the film, Chiron wrestles with bullying, his mother’s drug addiction, and his sexuality. As a child, Chiron meets Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a mentor/father figure in his life. After being beaten up by his friend/sort of lover (who was forced to by the main bully at their school), Chiron breaks and retaliates against the bully by hitting him over the head with a chair. He goes to juvenile corrections where he meets someone involved in a drug gang, and, after release, Chiron also becomes part of such a gang. He eventually leads a drug gang.

Though we watched it as a gangster movie because of Chiron’s eventual joining then leading a drug gang, as well as Juan’s role as a drug gang leader, one of the things that stood out the most to me was that the movie did not seem to really be about a gangster. It did show how events in Chiron’s life pushed him into his role in the gang, but it focused a lot on his sexuality and personal relationships. Admittedly, those personal relationships and the issues he faced due to his sexuality pushed him into his life of crime. So perhaps I am wrong. When you look at the fact that the personal relationships were what led him to his gang activity, this movie becomes exclusively the story of a gangster. It shows how a good kid who has seen the disastrous effects of a drug addiction can end up as a leader in a drug gang.

Overall, the movie was beautifully made and presented a micro-level (to use criminological terms) examination of the cause of gang activity. Chiron faces many struggles in his life, and the sum total of these leads to his becoming a gang member. Moonlight reminds the viewer of how difficult life can be and encourages a lack of judgment of anyone because you never know what they may have faced in life.

Where is the Motive?

One of the things which bothers me the most about The Godfather is the explanation for Michael’s switch to a life of crime. In the beginning, Mario Puzo makes it very clear that Michael has tried to avoid becoming a part of the family business. He went to college and joined the military despite his father not wanting him to do either of these. Michael was the favorite son, and it is clear that Vito wanted him to become the next Don. With all of these indications that Michael wanted to remain as far from the business as possible, his sudden decision to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey is a bit confusing. Though his desire to protect his father and his anger at the attempt on his father’s life is made very clear, not enough of his logic in choosing to kill is shown. I probably would not have been so bothered by this if we had not been given lots of details when Vito decided to kill Fanucci. At this point, Puzo provides the progression of Vito’s logic as he decides that killing Fanucci is the best plan. If he was able to provide such good motivation for Vito, why could Puzo not do the same for Michael? Why does Michael’s decision feel so much more rushed/forced?

Gangs of New York

A film by Martin Scorcese, Gangs of New York (2002) follows Amsterdam Vallon as he attempts to avenge the death of his father by killing Bill Cutting, known as the Butcher. Vallon ingratiates himself with the gang of natives run by Cutting by hiding his identity from the gang leader. Vallon works to rebuild the Dead Rabbits, the gang formerly headed by his father, and he is eventually able to fight against and defeat Cutting in a battle which is eclipsed by the draft riot taking place in the city at the same time.

After reading pieces looking at the causes for the transition of immigrants into a life of crime, I think the return of Amsterdam Vallon to crime is a choice. Peter Lupsha discusses this transition in “American Values and Organized Crime: Suckers and Wiseguys” as a matter of choice, not fate; he says that immigrants see traditional American values as permission to engage in a twisted way to achieve the American dream. I think Amsterdam Vallon is like this perspective because he did not have to return to Five Points, he did not have to get back into crime, and he did not have to avenge his father. He chose to make revenge his goal, a decision which probably made the choice to return to crime feel inevitable, but it was a choice nonetheless.

Perpetuating That Which We Dislike

History repeats itself. When situations are not fixed, the problems caused by them will reappear over and over again. Gangs of New York is set in the 1860s, The Great Gatsby and bootlegging the 1920s, and street gangs/drugs the late twentieth century. Each of these is people reacting to a desire to overcome the situations in which they were stuck. Something was preventing their entering the main population and becoming successful. Instead of just submitting to the oppressive status quo, these people decided to circumvent the system in order to find a way to rise or just survive. While their methods were often not the most moral, they felt justified because of that which they had to endure.

The fascinating thing about this repetition of history is how long it took people to even notice the cause of it, much less propose possible solutions. People complained about the illegal activities and pointed to them as proof of the inferiority or problems of these groups instead of as symptoms of the oppression that these groups often faced. O’Kane notes how many of these illegal acts were reactions to what these people were tired of experiencing. Ultimately, those who used the actions of groups as justification for oppression perpetuated that which they disliked.

Dear Sparky Sweets,

While you certainly present your opinion on The Great Gatsby in a manner many would find entertaining, I feel you were a bit predictable in your interpretation. You, like nearly every person who teaches this novel, see the novel as a discussion of the American Dream and Gatsby’s hope. While this is a perfectly valid way of seeing the novel because, as the author John Green says, books “belong to their readers”. This means that people are allowed to look at a book in whatever way they want; however, your interpretation lacks quite a bit.

“Dr.” Sweets, you fail to mention that Jay Gatsby was almost definitely a gangster! How can you brush that idea aside? It provides a much more interesting way of reading The Great Gatsby than the overused idea that it is a commentary on the American Dream. Gatsby was involved in both bootlegging and stolen bonds, activities known to be associated with gangsters. He regularly gets phone calls connected to his business in cities, and, when Nick answers the phone, he finds that the calls certainly do not seem to be from upstanding business connections. He matched how gangsters displayed their wealth with cars, clothes, and possessions. No one seems to know anything definite about his background, but the rumors are filled with intrigue and violence. Wolfsheim, a character you completely omit from your discussion of the book, is practically identified as a gangster and specifically says that he is responsible for Jay Gatsby’s success. All of these details combined presents a strong case for Jay Gatsby being a gangster. Perhaps you should consider amending your views of the book to include these details.http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VEQRPm_HyA