Stephen Whitty Continues the Conversation With ‘Sundays With Scorcese’

Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in Scorcese's "GoodFellas"

You talkin’ to me?

Well, I’ve been talking to you for more than 20 years now, over at the Star-Ledger and And I’m thrilled, now that that’s ended, to find a new New Jersey home here at NJNext, where I’ll be dropping by regularly. Movies are a communal art and almost as good as seeing them is arguing about them; I’m glad to be able to keep the conversation going.

And I’ll be talking to a whole bunch of you this month if you drop by Montclair State University for their Film Institute’s ongoing “Sundays With Scorsese.” We’ve already unspooled “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” – next up is “After Hours” on February 18 and the whole thing concludes with “GoodFellas” the following week.

The screenings are free, starting at 2 in the afternoon; all you need to do is save yourself a seat by registering here.

The program is part of the Institute’s ongoing engagement with the community. They regularly host conversations with directors, screenwriters and other filmmaking professionals, as well as workshops, symposia and screenings. There’s been a very popular horror-movie series on Friday nights and last year I hosted a different Sunday screening series, that one spotlighting “Hitchcock’s Blondes.”

The afternoons start with a mini-lecture before the film and conclude with a lively audience Q-and-A afterward. In between, of course, we see the movie, as movies are meant to be seen – in a lovely, plush new theater on a big, bright screen. That’s especially important for directors like Hitchcock, or Scorsese, who were primarily visual artists, and devoted an extraordinary amount of thought into everything they put – or purposefully didn’t put – in that frame.

Although most of the films in the Scorsese series are “musts” – how can you not show “Taxi Driver,” or “GoodFellas”? – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing “After Hours” again, which we’ll be screening February 18. It’s a movie that came at a particularly low point in Scorsese’s roller-coaster career – although “Taxi Driver” had been a commercial hit, the brilliant “Raging Bull” had failed to find the audience it deserved, while both “New York, New York” and “The King of Comedy” had flopped. Meanwhile “The Last Temptation of Christ” – a movie he had invested years in – had once again been shelved at the last minute.

Returning to his NYU roots, Scorsese began to think about shooting something dark, downtown and cheap. When, in 1984, his lawyer passed along a young screenwriter’s script about a yuppie’s nightmarish date with a SoHo eccentric, Scorsese recognized just the change of pace, and tone, he needed. Griffin Dunne, who had been developing the material, signed on as the hero, and Scorsese put together an eclectic cast that ranged from Roseanna Arquette and Teri Garr to Cheech and Chong. The entire movie was shot at night, on location, and tapped into a Kafkaesque sense of futility – which was pretty much how Scorsese was feeling, at the time.

AFTER HOURS, Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, 1985

I’ll talk more about that before the screening, and then afterward dig a little deeper with the film’s screenwriter, Teaneck native Joseph Minion, who’ll be joining us for the Q-and-A and some behind-the-scenes stories.

The following week, February 25, the series concludes with “GoodFellas,” probably the most quotable of mobster movies. (Yes, I love “The Godfather” pictures too, but you’d have to put them all together to rack up enough lines to rival a movie that starts with “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster” and just goes on from there like a bullet.)

Every director has their own angle on the mob – the family bonds, the bloody violence – but only Scorsese really interweaves that with the idea of crime as not just a business, but a carefully structured business model. The gangsters of “Mean Streets” are basically interns; the ones in “Casino” are executives. (If you include “The Wolf of Wall Street” among his crime movies, and I think you should, by that stage, they’re CEOs.)

But “GoodFellas” comes in the middle of his gangland saga, and in this movie they’re middle-managers – “good earners” who are, nonetheless, still basically working on commission, and trying to prove themselves to their bosses. It’s a movie about strivers – about guys who just want to get ahead, anyway they can. As mob wife Karen says, “None of it seemed like crimes. It was more like Henry was enterprising. Our husbands weren’t brain surgeons. They were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.”

And a few throats.

Karen, of course, is played by Lorraine Bracco – one of the many future “Sopranos” stars (including Frank Vincent, Tony Darrow, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore and Michael Imperioli) who show up here. And I hope you show up that Sunday, too – for a movie that’s one of a great filmmaker’s best, and the conclusion to a month-long series that’s part of a great university’s ambitious outreach to the community. All you need to do is sign up, and drop by.

You don’t even need to get your shinebox.