Monday, September 20, 2010

on the boardwalk in Atlantic City ...

On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City
Life will be peaches & cream.
I'm originally from New Jersey, or more accurately, "da Shore." But I haven't always connected with how New Jersey has been depicted in popular culture. I got bored with The Sopranos after the first season. Springsteen, although born a Stone Poney's throw away from me, is O.K. in my book, but I don't even own an album. I haven't watched any of the Jersey Shore series, because those sort of botchagaloops drove me nuts when I lived in Jersey—why would I subject myself to their antics on T.V.—with commercials, even? But for some reason I wasn't going to miss Boardwalk Empire. Who am I kidding? There was a reason. Steve Buscemi. And he did not disappoint.

Now before the endless "Martin Scorsese is a genius" chorus starts, I'll just say that I just don't go crazy for gangsters, Scorsese's strong point. The ultimate gangster movie, The Godfather, I love, but as much for its stunning depiction of the New York Italian immigrant experience and the Italian-American concept of family as it's operatic story and Brando performance. Most folks probably view those aspects of the film as the backdrop of the story, with crime at the center. But The Godfather and its murderous set pieces have been so often imitated (yes, even by Scorsese) that the crime has become the backdrop for me and the other elements the deeper takeaway.

Scorsese is a good filmmaker, and with gangster drama he found his niche. Goodfellas, although I really never want to see it again, was great. As was Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, After Hours, etc. Even when he doesn't hit a home run, his movies are interesting—Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Age of Innocence. He is forever faithful to his muse and comfort zone, the streets of New York. But now he has traveled south to Jersey, about 120 miles out of his comfort zone—and happily, it works.

What I liked most about Boardwalk Empire so far, apart from the fantastic Buscemi, was the attention to detail—the capturing of the Boardwalk's split personality: viewed with your back to the beach it is pure honky tonk—bright and sleazy and tawdry and flashy and fun—even in broad daylight. Turn your back to the penny arcades and you can gaze at the sea—relentless and peaceful and contemplative. That aspect of Atlantic City's personality has always held true, from the time depicted in the series to my childhood, pre-casinos, when it had really gone downhill, to the post-casino era of today.
Cinderella you will find your fella
Someone waiting for you...

The young gangster wannabe, played by Michael Pitt, fresh from the trenches of World War I also helps set the 1920s context. As does the young Irish lass played by Kelly McDonald, set up to become very important to Buscemi, who, thank god, doesn't seem to be written as the typical "complex" bad guy. Buscemi, who is also out of his comfort zone with crime boss Nucky, is one of those actors who, whenever he shows up, no matter what type of character he's playing (and he's played some weaselly ones), you are happy to see him. Personal favorites include The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Reservoir Dogs and a bit in The Wedding Singer. He's also great in Ghost World, Miller's Crossing, Desperado—the list goes on and on.

So in other words, the show seems off to a good start and has definitely set up enough to make me want to come back for more. There is something about Boardwalk Empire that reminds me of the entertaining and good movie Ragtime, which, I think may end up being a good thing. Ragtime was a sprawling, episodic book with lots of characters—probably too sprawling to ever be turned into a great movie, along the lines of The Godfather, which had a sharper, honed-in narrative. But HBO, with the ability to tell an extended story, is the perfect venue for such a saga. Scorsese is also a producer of Boardwalk Empire and may return to do a few more episodes as director. As long as he continues to approach his comfort zone subject matter with fresh eyes I will be eager to see what he sees. He has gotten things off to a good start.
In romantic, enchantic,
Atlantic City...
Down by the old New Jersey shore!
"On the Boardwalk at Atlantic City" Lyrics by Mack Gordon

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