Eisenstein defines montage as a conflict between the meanings of two subsequent images that creates an entirely new meaning when viewed consecutively. For example, in his The Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein most famously meshes the shots of Russian soldiers gunning down revolutionary rioters, and a baby in a carriage falling down the steps of a building. These two images have their own entities, but viewed one after the other, their meaning is something greater: the cost of innocence – true goodness –during wartime or conflict. In this analysis, I will apply Eisenstein’s definition of montage to the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, and how Scorsese’s use of montage – the conflict of images – conveys new or ironic meaning, and how this use redefines the context in which the conflicting images are viewed.
In Goodfellas, Karen Hill is occasionally a narrator – this deviation from her husband Henry’s narration is supposed to give the audience a dose of normality into the chaos that is mob life. In the beginning of the film, we do see Karen’s normality and how she is repulsed by Henry and his attitude. However, as she is more deeply immersed in Henry’s world, she is the one that is profoundly affected by her environment. Karen begins to talk about family and how everyone Henry knew was very close. This narration is accompanied by Henry and Tommy hijacking a cargo truck. In a normal situation, Karen’s narration could probably be followed by a comfy scene in which her new Italian family was sharing a meal with each other. Instead the image is one of morbidity: Tommy and Henry (and the rest of the crime family, by extension) are close because they share in their sociopathic nature (albeit varying degrees); this is expressed through their insane laughter after they rob the truck. Karen then admits that being saturated in Henry’s environment made everything normal.
This over-saturation plays into a theme that Scorsese uses often in the film – the theme of self-deception. Being a mob wife has a strongly negative effect on Karen, even if she may not notice it. Her environment is like a coma, slowly sucking the life she used to have out of her and replacing it with a warped sense of reality and morality. This is illustrated by her lack of concern every time detectives come with a warrant for her house. She is so apathetic to the officers’ presence, so comfortable with the lifestyle that she has married into, that she has no protest when they come around. It is as if they are only the housekeepers; they soon become part of the background, less important than a television program. Karen doesn’t even have qualms about having her children immersed in that environment from their earliest years.
Throughout the film there is a constant parallel of the brightness of family and community against the shadiness of the men’s work. Eisenstein mentions the importance of color in montage as “the counterpoint of the two—the retained rate of vibration against the newly perceived one yields the dynamism of our apprehension of the interplay of color”. The dissonance between light and dark shades in subsequent shots is in itself a montage. Scorsese uses heavily conflicting color palettes to exemplify the irony of mob life – in the day, the mobster can love his wife and family, and in the night, he can stab a man for looking at him wrong. The discord created by the color differences is both visually and contextually upsetting; we are introduced into a bright world of family intimacy and delight in which a child’s wildest birthday dream can come true, and then plunged into the murky waters of the actions that made that kind of life possible.
Scorsese’s Goodfellas is permeated with the irony of mob life and the importance of deception and two-facedness for self-preservation. It is a film that actually relies heavily on Eisenstein’s definition of montage; in essence, it relies on the conflict of its parts to create a discordant whole.