The Nostalgia of the Copacabana Club in Goodfellas

Martin Scorcese, always the master of nostalgic filmmaking (if there is any doubt in your mind, please watch this), once again returns to his themes of nostalgia in Goodfellas (1990).  The scene here is set in the 1960s at the Copacabana nightclub.  Our protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), is a gangster who has failed to make a good first impression on his date, Karen (Lorraine Bracco).  Here, he is on his second date with her, and he decides he will wow her by showing her just how much power he wields because of his mafia connections.

Formally, Scorcese accomplishes quite a bit with his cinematography, as he often does.  As Jon Lewis writes in American Cinema, “Scorcese accomplishes [creative geography] in virtually all his films by incessantly and fluidly moving the camera, making the viewer an active figure within the space of the film” (304).  And such is the case here.  Scorcese’s marvelous Steadicam tracking shot establishes a feeling of dominance in the viewer.  It is a three-minute shot that runs uncut and entirely smoothly.  Despite all obstacles or barriers that the architecture that the club may impose, the camera floats onward, just as Henry does by bypassing all lines.  He is empowered by the mafia, and we, as viewers, are empowered, too, by the cinematography.

The impressive camerawork, in conjunction with the use of The Crystals’ song “Then He Kissed Me,” portray feelings of nostalgia.  It makes its viewer look back and remember those good ole’ days when we were constantly in control of our lives, when we didn’t have to worry about terrorist attacks, and when we didn’t even think of the possibility of Anthrax killing us.  Watching the sequence, we feel young and giddy with first love, much the way Henry does here.

Thematically, the scene is also an amazing example of politics at the time.  Henry is in the mob, so of course he would never have to worry about waiting in line with his date.  He is better than everyone else because he has connections to other mafiosi, and therefore he passes all the lines that normal people have to endure.  He is young, and he is rich, and he is perfect in every way.  Henry is meant as an allegory for many of the politicians of the 1970s and 1980s.  They started out young, privileged, and perfect, but eventually, their corruption caused their careers to end crash and burn.  This scene is nostalgic in that way because it yearns for a time when we were better people, when we didn’t have to deal with life’s obstacles.  And no other director could portray that better than Scorcese.  What a scene.

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4 responses to “The Nostalgia of the Copacabana Club in Goodfellas

  1. Agreed, the scene is fabulous and luscious and nostalgic! The sixties certainly were not a calm time in America– Vietnam, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights Movement– or elsewhere. Indeed, Henry serves as an allegory for 70’s and 80’s politicians, but also for the 60’s elite. This scene in particular is the calm before the storm: Henry Hill is getting high off the glamor of the mafia, as is Karen, with violent and horrifying results. In this way, I agree, Scorcese truly is the master; he paints a sumptuous portrait in order to shatter it, so that eventually we, along with Karen and Henry, look back upon this memory with longing. It’s nostalgia on several levels– it triggers our personal associations with the 60’s as audience members, and also strengthens the film’s structure and our connection to its characters.

  2. I was trying to think of a great nostalgic scene in a movie and I settled for one involving paranoia instead. I realize this is the perfect example of nostalgia that I was looking for. Coming from a very Italian family, I’ve seen Goodfellas a million times. All of my older relatives act exactly like the characters in the movie because they grew up in those “good old days”. This is definitely a great look back at the past for Italian-Americans

  3. This is a great choice for nostalgia. Henry’s narration and the detail of every single aspect of this dangerous lifestyle is depicted so naturally. The entire film is nostalgic, the way he describes how he got his start, the way his friends acted, how they lived in prison, and even the last line which also cynical of “the American dream” hints at nostalgia. His gangster lifestyle afforded him action and luxury, something we all hope for.

  4. Great post, Alex. “Hugo,” being an extremely nostalgic film, also features a couple of tracking shots (with CGI, nonetheless), confirming Scorsese’s trademark, and his use of camera movements to convey nostalgia.

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