The Martin Scorsese Syndrome
Either I accepted the verdict of my peers that I wasn’t really Italian because I wasn’t on a first-name basis with Santo Trafficante, or decided for myself that mob ties and a love of Scorsese films does not an Italian make.
During my teenage years, in the 1990s, gangster movies were like a religion to Staten Island Italians. Scorsese may have tapped into a really accurate portrayal of what Italians had been like during the 1960s and 1970s, but the modern-day, middle-class Italians had lost their edge and strove to regain the toughness of their parents and grandparents by doing impersonations of characters from gangster films. Of course, some of these gangster wannabes were still tough, blue collar fellas, but it was often hard to tell where their real personalities ended and the characters from The Godfather and Goodfellas began.
Effectively, of all the thousands of movies produced during one hundred years of American cinema, only three counted as must-see viewing on Staten Island – The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Casino. And they were not only must-see films, but also a way of life to virtually all the Italian kids I knew growing up. I wasn’t fully aware of the phenomenon until I reached junior high school, when the cult of the gritty celluloid Italian was at its most grotesquely obvious. It seemed that everywhere I turned in Intermediate School 72, local Italian boys were dressing, talking, and behaving like the characters played by Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and John Travolta. I had somehow managed to reach my early teens without ever actually seeing any of these films in their entirety. From the glimpses I did catch of the movies, they seemed tedious, depressing, and pretentious. My mother had watched Saturday Night Fever several times when I was growing up, primarily for shots of “the old neighborhood” and the great dance segments, often complaining about how Italians were portrayed in the movie. She really hated the spaghetti dinner scene, in which the father figure curses constantly and keeps slapping his son, Travolta’s character, in the back of the head. The scene famously offended the Mormon Osmond family with its blue language, but it offended my mother for different reasons.
“My parents didn’t curse like this,” she declared each time she had to sit through the spaghetti segment when it was being broadcast with the swearing obviously dubbed out on Channel 11. “And we never sat half-naked at the dinner table smacking each other with wooden spoons. This is ridiculous. There’s no love in this movie. Italian families love each other.”
But the kids who went to school with me had no such objections. They thought that all three films were very accurate portrayals of Italian life. In fact, the kids had collectively decided to use the movies as a standard against which they measured how Italian they were. If you didn’t dress cool like Travolta, curse like Pesci, and raise hell like Pacino, then you weren’t really Italian. This caused me great consternation, since I was about as far from the movie stereotype Italian as one could get. I possessed none of Travolta’s cool fashion sense, had been trained since I was an infant never to curse, and was far more concerned with getting good grades, reading comic books, and getting a beautiful Italian flute player in the IS72 band out on a date than I was interested in raising hell like Pacino.
Also many of the young boys at school liked to walk around claiming that their dad or uncle or cousin “Benny” (Benito) was in the Mafia. Now, nobody in my family or among my friends was in the Mafia, so I was again at a disadvantage. So, either I accepted the verdict of my peers that I wasn’t really Italian because I wasn’t on a first-name basis with Santo Trafficante, or decided for myself that mob ties and a love of Scorsese films does not an Italian make. I chose the latter, deciding to forget about what everyone else was doing and be myself.
To be fair to these wannabe gangster youths, I also enjoyed dressing and talking like my personal heroes, just as they did. It was only the heroes who they emulated that I took issue with – that and the lack of any variety or creativity in their choices of heroes. Instead of gangsters, I latched onto the heroism of the Doctor, the alien hero from the British science fiction series Doctor Who, and Lt. Columbo, whose mysterious, funny, anti-establishment personality was, in some ways, similar to the Doctor’s. I actually went to great lengths to figure out and emulate how the character of the Doctor would react to a given situation. I also took to wearing a raincoat, like Lieutenant Columbo, the only Italian role model I could find on television who I actually liked. Years later, the actor David Tennant would don a sort of raincoat in his portrayal of the Doctor, making the raincoat still more of an iconic piece of clothing for me to adopt. And my thick, unmanageable hair would sometimes stick up like David Tennant’s Doctor, which made the resemblance even stronger.
To hell with Champion shirts, high-top Reebok sneakers, and spiked hair. To hell with gangsters. The Doctor and Lt. Columbo were my models for the ideal Italian-American hero, and the raincoat was the perfect trademark for Marc Friggin' DiPaolo!