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Articles by: George De stefano

  • Art & Culture

    Naked Music, Well Dressed

    I had modest expectations of Musica Nuda, the Italian bass and voice duo that made their American club debut September 23 at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. I’d listened a few times to 55/21, their new CD on the legendary jazz label Blue Note, and enjoyed it. Vocalist Petra Magoni and contrabassist Ferruccio Spinetti (late of Avion Travel) boast serious jazz chops and an eclectic pop sensibility. The album’s 17 selections cover canzone napoletana, contemporary Italian canzone (Lucio Battisi, Fabrizio de André, and Adriano Celentano are major influences), Brazil, American standards, and The Beatles.  

    Like I said, it’s an enjoyable record, cleverly conceived and impeccably executed.

    But it doesn’t capture the excitement of the duo’s live performances. At Joe’s Pub, they blew me away.

    I had actually doubted whether they’d be as good live as on the album. Magoni’s and Spinetti’s idea of “naked music”— stripping a composition down to its intimate essence – works well on a recording. The appearance on several tracks of guest musicians, including the brilliant pianist Stefano Bollani (Magoni’s husband), trombonist Gianluca Petrella (from Enrico Rava’s Italian band) and flautist-guitarist Nicola Stilo add tonal color and variety to what is a highly restrictive concept. I feared that in performance, the limitations of their approach would result in tedium. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    Magoni is an exciting performer with phenomenal vocal skill and charisma to burn. Conservatory trained in Livorno and Milan, she also studied with the American jazz artists Bobby McFerrin and Sheila Jordan and fronted a punk rock band, Senza Freni. The thin (almost alarmingly so) and gamine-like singer called upon all her influences and experience during her and Spinetti’s superb set, whether they were serving up a soulfully understated medley of “Anema e core” and “Senza Fine” or deconstructing  “Nature Boy.”

    Actually “deconstruct” hardly describes what they did to the standard made famous by Nat King Cole. In Magoni’s eccentric and electrifying rendition, the “strange, enchanted boy” has rocked her world, made her un po’ pazza, and she conveyed this erotic derangement with dazzling vocal technique and uninhibited body language.

    Up and coming singer-songwriter Pacifico, who played a brief set before Magoni and Spinetti, joined them for “Pazzo il Mondo,” his composition that opens the new Musica Nuda album. It’s a twisty number with a chorus reminiscent of Vincio Capossela’s “Moskavalza,” a fine vehicle for Magoni’s vocal dexterity and vivacious persona.       

    The bespectacled Spinetti, with his unruly nest of black hair, beard, and deadpan expression, made a striking visual contrast to the animated Magoni. An excellent musician, his work was melodic, harmonically sophisticated, and rhythmically in the pocket.

    Magoni and Spinetti more than earned the rapturous ovation they got from the full house at the end of their set. I was applauding and cheering as enthusiastically as everyone else, captivated by the duo’s brilliance and their infectious joy in music-making.  

    Buy their CD 55/21 (the title comes from Neapolitan numerology, “55” signifying music, “21” a nude woman) but don’t miss an opportunity to see them in concert. Naked music rarely comes so elegantly attired.     

  • Op-Eds

    Guidos!



    “Guido” is a pejorative slang term for a young, lower class or working class, Italian-American... male from the urban Northeastern United States ... most often New York and the surrounding area…The Guido stereotype is often portrayed as humorously and incorrigibly uncultured, with a thuggish and overtly macho attitude and an unyielding pride in his Italian ancestry.

     

    Clothing associated with the stereotype includes gold chains, working class clothing such as plain T-shirts, muscle shirts or "guinea t’s" (derived from the term "guinea," an ethnic slur for Italians), leather jackets, sweat or tracksuits, scally caps, unbuttoned dress shirts, and dress suits.

                                                                                                             -- Wikipedia

     

    Ken Pringle, the mayor of Belmar, New Jersey, ruffled guido feathers (loaded with “product” and spiked) when, in July, he complained about their presence in his seaside resort town.

     

    “We think of Guidos as a kind of rare bird: They flock to our shore towns during the warm months, and are as welcome as, oh, Canada geese,” he said in a column he writes for a local newsletter.

     

    “The call of the Guido,” he added, “is bellowing, and frequently slurred, invariably starting with the sound, ‘Yo,’ followed all too often by some creative variation on an expletive beginning with the letter ‘F.’”

     

    Guidos, as the Wikipedia entry notes, hail from various parts of New York and “the surrounding area.” Pringle’s ire was aimed at those who come in droves from Staten Island during the summer months to purportedly wreak havoc in Belmar.

     

    No sooner had Pringle’s comments been published than local media were reporting the reactions – mostly indignant, some mildly annoyed, and a few in agreement with the mayor -- from Staten Island. (Or, as I like to call it, the Borough That Time Forgot.)

     

    One Vinnie Guadanino told the New York Times, “I’m a guido – I have no problem with that word – and I used to go to the Jersey Shore.” Guido-ism, he added, runs in the family.  “My daughter goes to Belmar – she’s a guidette.”

     

    In the weekly New York Press, another self-described guido, 37 year-old Sebastian Mauro, waxed indignant (and possibly also his chest hair) in response to Pringle. “The next thing he's going to say is that every guido is in the Mafia. What? I'm supposed to have a ‘goumada’?”

     

    As Guadanino’s and Mauro’s comments make clear, there are Italian Americans who are “guido-identified,” that is, self-proclaimed members of the tribe. But as Mauro observes, some associate the type with an offensive stereotype, that of the Mafia gangster. Wikipedia states that “guido” often is used “as a term for an Italian criminal in the Mafia in areas where Guido culture is common, much like the term ‘goombah.’ In fact, ‘goombah’ and ‘Guido’ have often been interchangeable.”

     

    “Guido,” then, can be both an ethnic epithet and a badge of ethnic pride. And, like other loaded expressions such as “queer” and “nigga,” it’s who is speaking that determines whether it’s a slur or a statement of identity.

     

    (Some years ago I explained the meaning of “guido” to an Italian visiting New York. He was horrified to learn what this name, so common in Italy, signified in America. “No!” he cried. “You mean it is like ‘cafone’?”) 

     

    To further complicate things, some Italian Americans not only don’t identify with the term but are contemptuous of those who do. For them, “guidos” are to Italian Americans what “niggers” are to black people, to borrow the distinction comedian Chris Rock made in a notorious routine from his show “Bring the Pain.”

     

     “Guidos and guidettes are an absolute embarrassment to Italian Americans,” according to a posting at the website of New York magazine. “These mindless conformists are arrogant, ignorant, and belligerent…Kudos to the Mayor of Belmar for telling the truth. The guidos and guidettes are nothing more than a pollutant to the Jersey Shore.”

     

    Another poster, calling himself Mickeyitaliano, put distance between himself and guidos while also decrying the implicit bigotry in the way some use the term:

     

    “I am Italian and I am completely 180 degrees different from these bozo, cruisy suzies in their freakin 'dadillacs'. But, that is beside the fact… I give two fucks for political correctness; have a sense of humor, right? But, single out a whole nationality...Fongul.”

     

    Guidos, whatever your view of them, constitute a substantial Italian American subculture. In fact, the type is so well-established by now that other urban “ethnic” males who affect the sartorial and lifestyle trappings can be called – and call themselves – guidos. There are Jewish guidos, Latino guidos, Greek guidos, Arab guidos. Up here in the Northeast, it’s Guidoworld.

     

    Moreover, it’s not only in the United States. As Wikipedia informs us, guidos also are found in parts of Canada, where they’re called “ginos.”

     

     

     

    The guido phenomenon is all over the Internet. On You Tube, three uber-guidos called Bobby, Tony, and Nunzio are starring in a comedy series called “Douchebag Beach.”  Here’s the promo for the series, which currently comprises 11 “webisodes”:

     

    It's summer, and three 20-something douchebags from Northern New Jersey have packed up their Axe Body Spray, collared striped shirts and house music CDs for their annual trip to the Jersey Shore. But this year Bobby, Tony and Nunzio aren't looking for a piece of a*s, they're searching for something much bigger: True Love… They're three douchebags looking for love in South Jersey -- what could possibly go wrong?

     

    The creators of “Douchebag Beach” obviously know their guidos. Their dispatches are often very funny and very on-target. One segment, “DJ Twink,” hilariously skewers the unacknowledged homoeroticism that often underlies guido male bonding. My first impression was that “The Three Douchebags” were a young Italian American version of The Three Stooges, only more knowing and satirical.

     

    But then I checked and found out that none of the performers actually is Italian American. “Bobby” is Greg Siff, “Tony” is Jason Zumwalt, and “Nunzio” is Bryan Feckart.

     

    Does that affect my reaction to “Douchebag Beach?” I guess it does. As my parenthetical sarcastic comments about guido grooming and the borough of Staten Island indicate, I’m one of those Italian Americans who tends to regard these guys as something of an embarrassment. Yet the “it depends on who’s speaking” rule applies here. That the three “douchebags” aren’t Italian Americans doesn’t make the series less amusing. But it does give it the whiff of minstrelsy. And maybe worse?

     

    So what do you think about guidos, the real thing and the media-mediated images? Slap on a little Axe, “fix” your hair, and tell me what you think. Comments from guidos, guidettes, non-guido Italian Americans, etc., are all welcome, yo.     

     

       

     

    Meet the “guidos” of Douchebag Beach (http://www.youtube.com/user/DouchebagBeach?ob=1)

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Justice Denied?

    Then came the ugly episode at the Diaz School, which resembled not so much a police operation as a wicked and violent abuse of power with the sole purpose of venting a repressed lust for revenge.

                                                                Andrea Camilleri, Il Giro di Boa

    This is a story of a terrible crime, and how the perpetrators most likely will evade justice.

    The crime: The atrocious violence against nonviolent protestors attending the 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa. Sickening brutality that rises (or sinks) to the level of torture.  

    The perpetrators: Italian police, police officials, and most likely right-wing politicians.

    In July 2001, some 200,000 anti-globalization demonstrators converged in Genoa, which was hosting the G-8 Summit of world leaders. The overwhelming majority of protestors came to peacefully express their opposition to corporate-driven economic globalization. Yet the Italian police treated them as brutally as the Iraqis unfortunate enough to end up in the notorious U.S.-run prison at Abu Ghraib or the Chileans sent to the torture chambers of  dictator Augusto Pinochet.

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    This is not about the violence police employed against demonstrators in the streets, which resulted in injuries and the death of one protestor. It’s about what happened elsewhere, away from the cameras of the media, at a school housing the demonstrators and at a police detention center.

    The British newspaper The Guardian reported July 17 that on Monday, July 14, fifteen police, prison guards and prison medics finally were convicted for their involvement in the violence. But it appears that none actually will serve prison terms. In Italy, defendants don't go to jail until they have exhausted the appeals process. Moreover, the convictions and sentences will be wiped out next year by a statute of limitations.

    And as The Guardian’s Nick Davies explained, “…the politicians who were responsible for the police, prison guards and prison medics have never had to explain themselves.”

    Davies notes that the horrific violence was not simply “the story of law officers running riot, but of something uglier and more worrying beneath the surface.”  But before we get to the larger implications, a recap of the police riot itself is in order.

    The demonstrators were being housed at the Diaz Pertini School, which the Genoa city council had made available to them. When the police poured into the school on the evening of July 21, some of them were shouting "Black Bloc! We're going to kill you." The Black Bloc is a small group of anarchists notorious for their violent tactics. But the protestors at the school had nothing to do with the Black Bloc. In fact, the school had posted guards to make sure none of them could get in.

    Given this, it’s highly unlikely the cops really believed they were moving against a group of violent anarchists.

    The invading cops swarmed over all four floors of the school, assaulting anyone they came in contact with. “Several victims,” Davies wrote, “describe a sort of system to the violence, with each officer beating each person he came across, then moving on to the next victim while his colleague moved up to continue beating the first. It seemed important that everybody must be hurt.”

    The brutality continued after demonstrators were taken by police to the Bolzaneto detention center:

                 The 222 people who were held at Bolzaneto were treated to a regime later described by public prosecutors as torture. On arrival, they were marked with felt-tip crosses on each cheek, and many were forced to walk between two parallel lines of officers who kicked and beat them. Most were herded into large cells, holding up to 30 people. Here, they were forced to stand for long periods, facing the wall with their hands up high and their legs spread. Those who failed to hold the position were shouted at, slapped and beaten.

                  Shivering on the cold marble floors of the cells, the detainees were given few or no blankets, kept awake by guards, given little or no food and denied their statutory right to make phone calls and see a lawyer. They could hear crying and screaming from other cells.

    One of the cops’ victims, Marco Bistacchia, “was taken to an office, stripped naked, made to get down on all fours and told to bark like a dog and to shout ‘Viva la polizia italiana!’ He was sobbing too much to obey.”

    Fascist Hit Parade

    The uniformed thugs of Genoa, however, didn’t demand submission only to their authority.  “Some officers had traditional fascist songs as ringtones on their mobile phones and talked enthusiastically about Mussolini and Pinochet,” Davies reports. “Repeatedly, they ordered prisoners to say ‘Viva il duce.’ Sometimes, they used threats to force them to sing fascist songs: ‘Un, due, tre. Viva Pinochet!’”

    One anonymous officer, perhaps pricked by a twinge of conscience, told La Repubblica that he had seen cops urinating on prisoners and beating them for refusing to sing that Fascist groove thing “Faccetta Nera.”

    The purpose of all this abuse, Davies notes, was not to get the detainees to talk but simply to terrorize them: “And it worked. In statements, prisoners later described their feeling of helplessness, of being cut off from the rest of the world in a place where there was no law and no rules. Indeed, the police forced their captives to sign statements, waiving all their legal rights.”

    What followed was almost as sickening as the brutality at the Diaz School and Bolzaneto. The Italian police lied to the media about what had happened, telling reporters “…as the bloody bodies were being carried out of the Diaz Pertini building on stretchers…that the ambulances lined up in the street were nothing to do with the raid, and/or that the very obviously fresh injuries were old, and that the building had been full of violent extremists who had attacked officers.”

    The day after the police riot senior officers held a press conference to announce that everyone in the school would be charged with resistance to arrest and conspiracy to cause destruction.  At the press conference, police displayed an array of what they described as weaponry. It turned out all of it -- crowbars, hammers and nails, aluminum knapsack frames, and two Molotov cocktails – had been planted at the school by the cops as the raid ended.

    Italian courts ended up dismissing every charge against every person.

    But this didn’t inhibit Genoa’s finest one bit. “With the courts refusing to charge the detainees, the police secured an order to deport all of them from the country, banning them from returning for five years. Thus, the witnesses were removed from the scene. Like the attempted charges, all the deportation orders were subsequently dismissed as illegal by the courts.”

    Justice Compromised

    None of the police crimes would have come to light if not for the persistence and courage of the prosecutor Emilio Zucca.  Fighting official denial and obfuscation, he pursued his investigation for seven years, gathering statements from hundreds of witnesses and analyzing hours of video and thousands of photographs. (Zucca received invaluable assistance from British journalist Mark Covell, who was severely injured at the Diaz School.) In his report, he documented the denials by all senior police officers of any involvement and the contradictory and clearly false statements of police officers.

    Davies notes that 28 other officers, including high-ranking cops, are being tried for their part in the Diaz School raid. “And yet,” he observes, “justice has been compromised. Not a single Italian politician has been called to account, despite “the strong suggestion that the police acted as though somebody had promised them impunity.”  Davies reports that one unnamed minister visited Bolzaneto while the detainees were being mistreated “and apparently saw nothing or, at least, saw nothing he thought he should stop.”

    And guess who else was on the scene. Gianfranco Fini, the “post”-Fascist pol who at the time was the deputy prime minister in Berlusconi’s second administration, was at the Genoa police headquarters. Fini, Davies notes, “has never been required to explain what orders he gave.”

    Davies notes that most of the several hundred law officers involved in Diaz and Bolzaneto have never been charged with any crime or even disciplined; some, in fact, have gotten promotions. Moreover, the trial of the 28 officers who have been charged “is in jeopardy because the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is pushing through legislation to delay all trials dealing with events that occurred before June 2002.”

    Nick Davies concludes that what happened at the Diaz School and Bolzaneto detention center, as well as the ensuing police lies, obfuscation and cover-ups, “is about fascism.”

    “This isn't fascism with jack-booted dictators with foam on their lips. It's the pragmatism of nicely turned-out politicians. But the result looks very similar.”

    And now, in Italy, those fascist politicians, with their fine tailored suits, perma-tans and immaculately styled hair, are fully in charge. Their leader, Silvio Berlusconi, like all fascists, cannot tolerate an independent judiciary, so he continues to wage war against honest and dedicated prosecuting magistrates, like Emilio Zucca, absurdly accusing them of being communists engaged in an ideological vendetta.  

    Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri, in his novel Il Giro di Boa (published in English as Rounding the Mark), has his fictional alter-ego, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, express white-hot outrage over the Genoa events. In a phone conversation with his girlfriend Livia, he cries, “I never once fabricated evidence, not even against the worst criminals! Never! Do you realize what happened, Livia? The people attacking the school and planting false evidence weren’t a bunch of stupid, violent beat cops; they were commissioners and vice commissioners, inspectors and captains and other paragons of virtue!”

    In today's Italy, these fine men can sleep easily, knowing they'll never have to answer for anything they've done.

  • Art & Culture

    An Italian Minotaur in New York City


    “The Italian minotaur is back in town,” Vinicio Capossela announced after playing “Brucia Troia,” the opening number of his July 2 concert at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan.


    Slipping off the horned mask and full-length furry robe he dons to perform the mythological rocker, the 43 year-old singer, songwriter, and self-described “enchanter” gazed out at the largest audience he’s ever had in New York. His last two shows here were at Joe’s Pub, an intimate downtown venue. This time he brought his idiosyncratic tunes and theatrical sensibility to a mid-sized Chelsea rock club, and filled the place.


    The move up to a larger house certainly augurs well for Capossela, and perhaps for new Italian music, which thus far has made limited inroads on the American pop scene. Capossela, Sicilian singer Carmen Consoli, the pop band Avion Travel, from Caserta, and the Milanese rock quintet Afterhours have played club shows and even major rock festivals like South by Southwest in the past few years, earning strong reviews and building enthusiastic, albeit modest-sized followings.


    Capossela’s Highline concert was intended to expose him to a larger audience and in that respect it succeeded. But the show itself disappointed. The fans who stood and cheered will no doubt disagree, but the evening, if not exactly a missed opportunity, was not the triumph it should have been. The performance never built momentum or caught fire; though there were strong moments, overall it felt desultory, at times even flat.

    The sound mix didn’t help, either. Capossela’s voice and piano generally came through fine, but the other band members, on upright bass, drums, saxophones, laptop, and guitar, sometimes were lost in the muddy mix. That’s particularly disappointing when the guitarist is Marc Ribot, one of New York’s most exciting musicians.


    I had just heard Ribot two nights earlier with the band Italian Doc Remix at the Italian Culture Institute. At that gig, you could hear – and feel -- every note he played. The first time I caught him with Capossela at Joe’s Pub, he at times stole the show, especially when he unleashed paint-peeling blues leads. Too bad the Highline concert didn’t show off this remarkable player to full advantage.


    The Capossela-Ribot collaboration, both onstage and in the recording studio, is one manifestation of the Italian’s longstanding fascination with America and American culture.


    Born in 1965 in Germany to parents from Calitri, a small town in Campania, he returned to Italy as a child. Early on Capossela demonstrated a literary bent and an attraction to underground American culture and the myth of the open road, Bukowski and Kerouac his heroes and inspirations. His recordings from the 1990s, with their jazz-cabaret ambiance and exploration of a certain raffish strain of Americana, earned him the sobriquet/marketing tag “the Italian Tom Waits.”  So it makes sense that Capossela would team up with Marc Ribot, Waits’ longtime guitarist.


    At the Highline Capossela introduced several new, American-themed songs from his forthcoming and as-yet untitled album, recorded in Brooklyn. One, he said, had been inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short-story collection “Winesburg, Ohio.” (Capossela’s not the first cantautore to draw inspiration from the literature of the American Midwest. In 1971 Fabrizio D’Andre released Non al denaro, non all’amore, né al cielo, a concept album inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.”) Another new song spoke of “il silenzio d’America.”


    Capossela’s new songs may have been inspired by America, but they rarely sounded American. Whether subdued and moody or more extroverted, they came across as unmistakably Italian, and at times Neapolitan, both melodically and emotionally.


    Capossela also has an affinity for Italian American culture, something rare among Italian singer-songwriters. Louis Prima, the novels of John Fante (who currently is much in vogue in Italy) and Martin Scorsese’s films all have fed his fertile imagination. (When I first heard Capossela perform “Brucia Troia” at Joe’s Pub, he called himself “a raging bull, like La Motta.”) At the Highline, he played “Agità,” a comic number sung by Nick Apollo Forte in Woody Allen’s film “Broadway Danny Rose.”


    As Capossela accurately observed, it’s a “terrible” song, and he disposed of it quickly. He fared better with an exuberant take on the Italian American standby “Eh Cumpari.”


    If the Mediterranean and the Mississippi run through Capossela’s music, so does the Caribbean. Two Cuban-flavored numbers, “Che Cos’è L’Amor?” and “Medusa Cha Cha Cha” were highlights. In the latter, Capossela, in a mask, impersonates the serpent-coiffed Gorgon gal, who protests she’s not really a monster, “only a little nervous.” On the bolero “Con Una Rosa” he quoted “Besame Mucho,” but turned the title’s Spanish imperative into “Baciami.”  At the song’s conclusion Capossela treated the front rows to a shower of rose petals.


    Capossela closed the show with “Ovunque Proteggi,” the title track from his most recent album. His rendition of it at the Highline was Capossela at his best: no costumes, no theatricality, and no insistent eccentricity, just a lovely, heartfelt love song, affectingly performed.


    “Everywhere protect/protect me from evil/everywhere protect/the grace of your heart,” he sang tenderly.


    For this reviewer, it was the enchanter’s most enchanting moment in a less than magical evening.

  • Art & Culture

    Mangia La Musica



    “Great music!” our friend Paul exclaimed during dinner with Rob and me at our place. We were enjoying the linguine al pescatore I’d prepared, along with a good aglianico, the background music provided by my I-Pod on shuffle. (I do listen to albums in their entirety, unlike these short attention span kids today. But when entertaining guests it’s more convenient to let Apple’s little device play DJ.) So, cari i-italiani, if I can’t serve you my seafood pasta I at least can offer a tasting menu of musical delicacies. And some even have Italian flava. Here they are, in no particular order.       

     

    Al Qantarah, Ammaraccicapa (CNI)

    Ammaraciccappa, a new band from the Salento area of Puglia, is the brainchild of percussionist-vocalist Umberto Upapadia and digitalist Antonino Chiaramonte. They connect southern Italian idioms -- pizzica, tammurriata, tarantella -- and North African gnawa and rai, with electronics as the cement in this sonic bridge. The fusion often is so seamless that you are momentarily disoriented, unsure which shore of the Mediterranean you’ve landed on.

     

    Salento Senza Tempo, Nidi D’Arac (Promo Music)

    After the driving techno-taranta of their great 2006 album St. Rocco’s Rave, Nidi D’Arac (Spiders Nests), the Salentine band founded by singer-guitarist-percussionist Alessandro Coppola, stepped back and made Salento Senza Tempo (Timeless Salento), an all-acoustic, but not entirely traditional, album. There are acoustic guitars and tamburello (large southern Italian tambourine), but also trap drums and string quartets. Though I prefer its more adventurous predecessor, Coppola’s latest is a thoughtfully conceived and beautifully executed homage to Salento’s roots music.

     

    Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket (ATO)

    I’m a latecomer to this Kentucky-based quintet, whose concerts are legendary for infusing kick-ass rock with a spiritual yearning that aims for, and often reaches, the transcendent. But now I’m a believer. Jim James, the band’s lead vocalist and shamanistic frontman, writes terrific songs that somehow manage to sound familiar (influences include the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Prince, Neil Young and Dylan) yet totally distinctive. Evil Urges, MMJ’s latest, is sprawling but cohesive, full of killer pop hooks and moments of wonderful weirdness. 

     

    History Mystery, Bill Frisell (Nonesuch)

    “Jazz guitarist” doesn’t quite capture Frisell’s musical identity, although he indeed is one. He’s also explored other strains of
    Americana
    as well as African and Brazilian music. His latest, a two CD set, manages a pretty impressive feat. The tracks were recorded live and in the studio, over two years. There’s jazz (including a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing”), blues, folk, country and R&B. Yet it all hangs together as a unified and satisfying work.

     

    Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Allison Kraus (Rounder)

    Like everyone else, I’m in love with this. Who would’ve imagined that Led Zeppelin’s golden-tressed wailer and the cool queen of bluegrass would make such beautiful music together? Plant sings more subtly, and with greater warmth, than in his former band, although traces of his old lubricious yowl crop up now and then. Krauss supplies ethereal vocals and sweetly soulful violin. The songs are mostly by other writers, including Tom Waits, Gene Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Doc Watson and the Everly Brothers. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, who put together a great band that includes New York guitar wizard Marc Ribot.     

     

    Uno, Raiz (Universal)

    Fans of ex-Almamegretta vocalist Raiz who were put off by the pop leanings of W.O.P., his first solo album, should like Uno just fine. Here the husky-voiced napolitano returns to the sound that made him and Almamegretta famous. Dub, reggae, tammurriata and Neapolitan melody dominate, with Arab, Spanish and Brazilian flavors as well. On some of the tracks he laments the dire conditions of his native city; in fact, much of the album is suffused with melancholy and anger, which seems just about right these days.

     

    The City That Care Forgot, Dr. John (429 Records)

    Mac Rebennack, the piano-playing avatar of
    New Orleans
    funk (or fonk, as they say in Nawlins), is still furious about Bush and Company’s malign neglect of his hometown post-Katrina. On his latest he’s enlisted some illustrious pals (Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Ani Di Franco and Terence Blanchard) to join him on 13 songs that celebrate his hometown and damn the powers that be. The good doctor’s righteous anger is bracing and the musicianship is fine, but the songwriting is inconsistent. “My People Need a Second Line” is the standout track.

     

    Made in Dakar, Orchestra Baobab (World Circuit)

    This seminal Senegalese band went on extended hiatus after its propulsive but relaxed Cuban-flavored style lost favor to the harder-edged mbalax introduced by Youssou N’Dour. Bandleader and ace guitarist Barthelmy Attisso even gave up music altogether to practice law in Mali. But the Baobabs regrouped to record Specialist in All Styles (2002), with N’Dour as producer. Their comeback was a brilliant mix of reworked versions of old hits and new material. Made in Dakar is even stronger.  

     

    Passaggi, Luigi Cinque and the Hypertext Orchestra (Radio Fandango)

    Saxophonist-digitalist Cinque crafted one of the more memorable “world music” recordings in recent years, Tangerine Café, with a stellar international cast of musicians and vocalists (including Raiz). Passaggi, while not quite as striking, retains its predecessor’s rhythmic drive and mysterious aura. Collaborators this time include the superb griot singer Badara Seck, Italian jazz stars Gianluigi Trovesi, Danilo Rea and Sal Bonafede, and organetto master Riccardo Tesi.        

     

    Salento Senza Tempo and Al Qantarah are available from CD Roots (www.cdroots.com)

    Uno and Passaggi are available from CD Universe (www.cduniverse.com)

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Italy to Gays: Drop Dead


    Italy hates homosexuals.

     

    I know of no other way to express the disheartening, infuriating truth that Italy, a nation with which I have strong historical, familial, and emotional ties, despises people like me. It has become the most anti-gay nation in Western Europe, a sorry distinction that used to belong to Greece.

     

    Italy long has lagged behind Great Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia and Spain in its treatment of sexual minorities. Other European nations have strong anti-discrimination laws, openly gay or lesbian elected officials (the mayors of both Paris and Berlin are gay men), and have granted various forms of legal recognition to same-sex couples. Italy however rejects even the mildest equality initiatives and instead offers its non-heterosexual citizens a toxic blend of violent repression, religious bigotry and reactionary social policy.

     

    Italian newspapers in May reported a particularly ugly hate crime: the stabbing of a young gay Sicilian by his own father, who declared that it was a “dishonor” to have a gay son. He probably would have preferred to have had a son who was a member of ‘la società onorata’ -- better a mafioso than a frocio.

     

    But, as the Italian gay rights organization Arcigay observed, this crime isn’t just about “a certain southern Italian subculture that is difficult to defeat.”

     

    “It is an entire country that has been seized by a fit of homophobia,” claimed the organization in a press release. The hatred has been “fed in recent years above all by the Catholic hierarchy and sectors of the Italian political and social right-wing.”

     

    Though homophobia is nothing new in Italy, it has markedly worsened since the recent elections that returned Silvio Berlusconi to power in alliance with Lega Nord and Alleanza Nazionale.

     

    Romano Prodi’s timid, feckless government, cowed by the Vatican and its rightist allies, and by the bigots within its own center-left coalition, did nothing to advance same-sex partner rights. Gays and lesbians have proved among the centrosinistra’s most reliable supporters, a solid left-liberal voting bloc. But Prodi and company evidently felt that pacifying the Vatican and its boss, Josef Ratzinger (I cannot bring myself to call this bloody-minded reactionary “the Pope,” much less “Holy Father”) was a higher priority than taking care of one of its most loyal constituencies.

     

    But as bad as Prodi’s administration was, it looks enlightened compared to what has followed it.

     

    In February of this year, members of Berlusconi’s former Forza Italia party organized a seminar titled “Woman, Life, and Family.” The chief organizer was one Mara Carfagna, a Forza Italia parliamentarian whose main claim to fame was having been a beauty queen who posed nude for a calendar. At this gabfest of cretini, Carfagna declared that “gays are constitutionally sterile,” adding the usual right-wing, natalist boilerplate about the “fundamental requisite” being “the ability to procreate.”

     

    This genius is now the Minister of Equal Opportunity in Berlusconi’s government.

    More recently, she declared that gays and lesbians are not at all discriminated against in Italy.

     

    Arcigay would beg to differ. It has compiled a dossier of anti-gay hate crimes and acts of discrimination that have occurred in Italy during the past two years. It can be viewed online at: http://www.arcigay.it/dossier-omofobia-italia-2006-2008

     

    This shocking tally of violence, including murder, as well as bullying, vandalism of gay gathering places, and hate rhetoric does not include a recent outrage: the June 2 beating of two young gay men by ten or so thugs at a train station in Naples.

     

    This past weekend the Gay Pride celebrations were held in Mlian and Rome. Gianni Alemanno, Rome’s new right-wing mayor, made quite clear his attitude to the Pride parade. He denied the parade the official support (il patrocino) that the previous Rome administration had (half-heartedly)provided. He also refused to permit the marchers to end up at Piazza San Giovanni, as the organizers had requested, because there’s a major church there. Once again, in today’s Italy, the “right” of the Catholic Church not to be offended outweighs the constitutional rights of Italian citizens.

     

    I had feared far worse than this. Given the recent resurgence of far-right violence by such groups as the Hitler-loving Forza Nuova, I was certain there would be attacks against Gay Pride participants. And sure enough, a group of right-wing extremists, some carrying knives, did try to disrupt the march at Piazza Venezia. They carried black Fascist banners and screamed at the marchers, “We will stab all of you.” Fortunately, the police held them back.

     

    Rome’s gay march was successful, with several hundred thousand in attendance, according to Repubblica. (The police absurdly underestimated the crowd size at between 10,000 and 20,000. The New York Police Department used to engage in this politically-motivated undercounting after each year’s Pride parade, but no more.) The parade combined colorful spectacle and political protest, including symbolic celebrations of gay marriages. About 30 demonstrators also held a brief protest at Piazza San Pietro under the rubric “No Vat,” a double entendre playing on the unpopular value-added tax (VAT) and the Vatican. They unfurled a large banner that declared, “The Vatican occupies Italy, we occupy the Vatican.”

     

    So Italy’s gay population, or at least the activists, refused to be intimidated by the powerful forces arrayed against them.

    But where are their supporters, the liberals and leftists, the grassroots Catholics and just plain decent Italians who in the past spoke out against homophobia?

     

    As Arcigay’s president Aurelio Mancuso stated, “the intellectuals, the large cultural and social associations, the unions, all have been totally silent.”

     

    “This, our evident aloneness,” Mancuso concluded, “is not only our problem because if this wave of violent homophobia is not stopped, Italy is at risk for further decline and social barbarization, of unpredictable consequences.”

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    “I Don’t Recognize My Italy Anymore”


    Recent media coverage of Italy has been overwhelmingly negative, focusing on the constellation of political, economic, and social crises plaguing the nation. These include the return to power of corrupt tycoon Silvio Berlusconi in alliance with the far right, rising inflation, Naples drowning in garbage, the depredations of organized crime and growing anti-immigrant sentiment that has led to violence against foreigners.

     

    How does all this look to Italians living abroad?

     

    One, a 34-four year old woman from Puglia named Maria Vinci, wrote to President Giorgio Napolitano to decry the growing xenophobia and racism in her homeland. Vinci, who lives in Great Britain, where she works as a cancer researcher, said that she is “ashamed of the Italy portrayed these days on the front pages of national and international newspapers.”

     

    “Is it really possible that the strongest feeling among the [Italian] population is the fear of the stranger, the migrant, the immigrant?”

     

    “Security certainly is a serious problem,” she noted, “but I don’t think that the right way to deal with it is to feed fear and intolerance…rather I think that a stronger political effort at social integration is the solution to the problem of immigration that in my opinion does not coincide, as the government wants to make us believe, with the problem of security.”

     

    Vinci goes on to note that she lives in England, a country with both many legal and undocumented immigrants. She describes going to Easter Mass in Oxford and marveling at how “there was the whole world represented in that little Catholic church.“

     

    “I was struck by and moved by the diversity of skin colors, attire, but at the same time the likeness and unanimity of all these people. I ask myself, when in Italy will it be possible to breathe this same atmosphere of integration that one by now finds in the rest of Europe?”

     

    Vinci appealed to President Napolitano to oppose those inciting anti-immigrant bigotry and violence and to be a spokesman for a policy of social integration.

     

    La Repubblica opened a forum at its web site for readers to comment on Vinci’s letter. The last time I looked, there were more than 40 pages of responses. Many agreed with Vinci, adding that the Right was stoking the fires of racism and intolerance. Others claimed that the hospitality and generosity she recalled had never really characterized the way Italy receives foreigners.

    To read Vinci’s letter and the responses of Repubblica readers, click here.

     

    Much of the press coverage of the immigration issue has focused on Romanians and Rom, the latter also known as gypsies. In Italian media, the nationality of these immigrants is always mentioned when one is accused of a crime. In her letter Vinci wondered why there was a need to do this. “We are in EUROPE [capital letters hers] and I believe it is absurd to still read newspaper headlines like ‘Italian girl raped by a Romanian.’ I don’t want to downplay at all the brutality of the crime, I only hope that justice takes its course independently of whoever committed it.”

     

    What, one wonders, do Romanians think of the negative coverage in Italian media? My friend Paul just returned from Romania, where he was visiting friends. He says Romanians are very upset about what they see as defamatory portrayals of themselves in Italian media. And in their view the worst part is that the coverage links them, the Romanians, to a people unloved by them and often persecuted throughout Europe, the Rom.

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    “The Sopranos: A Wake”. An International Conference at Fordham University


     Who could have imagined that a cable TV series about a New Jersey mobster, his family, and his “family,” would inspire an international conference featuring more than 60 speakers from different countries, including the US, Canada, England, and Europe?

     

    “The Sopranos: A Wake” has been organized by David Laverty of Brunel University in London, Paul Levinson and Al Auster of Fordham University, and Douglas Howard from Suffolk Community College. It opens at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus on May 22 and continues through the 24th.  Laverty and Levinson are both hardcore Sopranos devotees. Levinson puts the show up there with the Beatles and Shakespeare and Laverty has edited two critical anthologies, This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos (Columbia University Press, 2002) and Reading The Sopranos: Hit TV from HBO (I. B. Tauris, 2006).  

     

    They, along with Auster and Howard, have put together an event of amazing scope, with speakers who will expound on virtually every aspect of David Chase’s mob saga – ethnic identity, food (you could do an entire conference on that theme alone), masculinity and violence, crime and justice (with two prosecutors from Palermo), psychotherapy, the show’s dream sequences, obesity (Tony’s), race and racism, sexuality and gender. And I’ve only scratched the surface of this three-day cultural studies throwdown, which promises to be the definitive post-mortem on the beloved (if controversial) and sorely missed series.

     

    The conference, which is free to the public, will be held at Fordham University, Lincoln Center Campus, Lowenstein Hall, 60th Street and Columbus Avenue.

     
    For more information, click here.
     
    Ci vediamo!
     
       

  • Op-Eds

    Il Bruttopaese


     

    There’s an American saying about gullibility that bears repeating in light of Italy’s recent elections.

     
    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
     

    What do you say when a nation decides to be fooled three times?

     

    After two stints in office, Silvio Berlusconi has been re-elected as Italy’s premier. What does this tell us about the Italian electorate?

     

    The New York Times, in its editorial after the elections, noted that Berlusconi’s previous administrations produced “shockingly meager achievements.” This is like saying that George W. Bush is inarticulate – true, but hardly the point.

     

    If the “paper of record” was laughably clueless about the meaning of Berlusconi’s return to power, other publications were far more perspicacious.

     

    Martin Jacques, a correspondent for the British daily, The Guardian, noted that “The emergence of Silvio Berlusconi as the dominant political figure in Italy is the single most depressing event in Europe over the last decade.”

     

    The return to power of the man that satirist Beppe Grillo memorably christened “il psiconano” (the psychodwarf) suggests to Jacques that Italy today may not even be a democracy in any but formal terms.

    “True, Berlusconi has been elected via the ballot box,” Jacques wrote. “But when he controls all the major private TV channels and has reshaped the state's channels in his own image, while also owning several newspapers, then the dice are hugely loaded in his favor.”

    Given Berlusconi’s near-total control of Italian media, Italy’s par condicio law, which was intended to give equal media access to parties across the political spectrum, is a bit like treating metastasizing cancer with tea tree oil. But even this attempt at media balance is too much for Berlusconi, who calls par condicio “undemocratic” and vows to get rid of it.

     

    Jacques also cites the corrosive influence of big money on Italian politics. “Democracy depends on a separation of economic and political power. The growth of lobby interests in the United States has significantly weakened that separation. So has the rise of the rich as the main funders of Britain's two main parties. But the degeneration in these cases is on nothing like the same scale as Italy.”

     

    “Essentially, what Berlusconi represents is the conquest and occupation of the state by private interests. It is the underlying weakness and lack of legitimacy of the Italian state in the popular mind that makes this possible,” Jacques concludes.

     

    A Case for Lesser Evilism

    I’ve heard all the explanations for the victory of Berlusconi and his rightist allies, the xenophobic Lega Nord and the “post”-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale. Most center on the utter failure of the Left – mainly the political parties, but also the unions and the left-leaning civil society movements -- to mount a credible challenge to the Right. The blame game is in full swing right now in Italy.

     

    Certainly the Italian electorate had good reasons to be angry with the ineffectual and pusillanimous center-left government headed by the hapless Romano Prodi. Its many failures have been amply documented.

     

    The ire of left-wing voters was, in my view, particularly well-founded. There are times when strategic alliances between leftists and centrists are appropriate, even necessary. But the leftist parties who joined Prodi, hoping to push him in a more progressive direction, just ended up compromised and discredited with their own constituencies.

     

    Why would leftists support a government that failed to re-write Berlusconi’s labor laws, that voted to continue to finance the military presence in Afghanistan and to send troops to Lebanon, that increased military spending by more than 20 percent in two years and approved the building of an American military base in Vicenza despite strong local, and national, opposition?

     

    The center-left administration didn’t drop the ball only on these critical concerns. In the face of the fierce and even shockingly bigoted opposition of rightist and Catholic forces – some of the latter within Prodi’s own government – even mild proposals to extend some legal recognition to Italian gay couples and got nowhere. Everywhere else in Western Europe, the rights of sexual minorities are protected by law. But not in Italy, where the cult of La Famiglia and a masculinist culture still prevail.

     

    Still, if ever a case could be made for “lesser evilism,” the Italian elections made a compelling one. Even the considerable failures of the center-left hardly justify electing a government of crooks, racists, and fascists. And make no bones about it – that’s exactly who will govern Italy.

     

    What seems closer to the truth is that Italians were not fooled by Berlusconi. More than half the electorate willingly bought what he had to sell.   

     
    What Lies Ahead
    And what they’ll get for their votes won’t be pretty.
     

    The culture of cronyism and clientelism that has deformed Italian political and economic life will flourish unchecked. 

    The fight against the Mafia will be impeded and undermined, as during Berlusconi’s previous administrations. As The Nation’s correspondent Frederika Randall reported, “The most chilling moment during Italy's election campaign came when Silvio Berlusconi declared that his onetime factotum Vittorio Mangano-- a Cosa Nostra boss later condemned to life imprisonment for two murders -- was ‘a hero.’ It was as close as he could get to making an outright promise to Italy's Mafia that they would have a free hand if he were elected.”

     

    Italy needs immigrants, given its low birth rate and the unwillingness of many Italians to do work they believe is beneath them. But immigration policy will be harsh and punitive and racists will feel few constraints on their rhetoric and actions. Frederika Randall quotes an example of the Lega Nord’s “racist, xenophobic rhetoric from Radio Padania Libera: ‘It's easier to exterminate rats than eliminate the gypsies.’”

     

    Women’s rights and the movement for gender equality are unlikely to advance under the new government. Rightist forces have been attempting to weaken Italy’s abortion law and those efforts are sure to continue, even accelerate. Sexual violence and workplace harassment are all too common in Italy. But one doubts that Berlusconi, notorious for his sexist pronouncements, will oppose these ills with the same fervor he’s brought to his crusade against “communist” magistrates. Legal bans on stem cell research and fertility treatments that the outgoing government failed to reverse will remain in place.

     

    The situation of sexual minorities also will worsen. Not only will any attempts to secure legal protections for homosexuals be stymied; gay people may even find their physical safety, their very existence, at risk. Gay-bashings, not uncommon in Italy, are likely to increase, especially in Rome. There voters have elected as mayor Gianni Alemanno of the Alleanza Nazionale, the far-right party whose leader Gianfranco Fini once proposed that gay and lesbian teachers be fired from their jobs.

     

    Fini, by the way, is now the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament.

     

    Even before the elections, gays, lesbians, and transgenders faced a hostile and intimidating atmosphere in Rome. In February, the Coming Out Café, a gay venue near the Coliseum that I’ve visited with friends, was firebombed. The perpetrators have yet to be identified or arrested.

     
    Fascists Unbound

    Rome’s rightists, flushed with victory, now feel totally unrestrained. After Alemanno’s election was announced, a bunch of them gathered at the Campidoglio, where they gave the Fascist roman salute and chanted, “Duce! Duce!”

     

    Their leader Fini, who once called Mussolini “the greatest statesman of the 20th century,” now claims to head a post-Fascist, non-racist, “modern” right-wing party. But the Alleanza Nazionale rank and file, including the braying imbeciles thrusting their arms skyward in the Fascist salute, pays no mind to their leader’s PR gestures. They believe the Mussolini years were glorious and they are passionate supporters of Fascism’s violent, racist, and misogynistic ideology. It may not be the 1920s all over again, but it’s certainly, chillingly close enough.

     

    As The Independent of London noted in an editorial, “Mr. Alemanno's victory is another boost for Mr. Berlusconi, but a bitter blow to anyone who dared to hope that Italy had buried its far-right demons.”

     

    A few commentators have tried to downplay the awfulness of the election results. British author Tobias Jones, for example, admitted that the sight of roman salutes at the Campidoglio was a bit disconcerting. But, he assured us, this is all just the “teatrino” of Italian politics, nothing to get too worked up about. Well, I wouldn’t condescend to Italy’s rightists like that, or trivialize their agenda. I also suspect that those Italians most likely to suffer from Italy’s drastic right turn will not be consoled by Jones.

     

    Right before the elections, Italy lost a soccer match to Spain. That indignity was compounded by the news that Spain's economy outperforms that of Italy. Spain, once the most reactionary nation in Western Europe, is now the most progressive, with a socialist government, legal protections for gay people, including the right to marry, and a majority-female cabinet. Berlusconi, ever the neanderthal, remarked that President Zapatero’s cabinet was “too pink,” i.e., too many women.  

     

    Spain, having shrugged off the vestiges of its fascist past, looks to the future. Italy appears to be marching in the opposite direction, its fist raised in a salute to its darkest days.  

     
     
     

  • Art & Culture

    Mafia Cheese


     

    Mafia movie classics like Coppola’s “The Godfather,” Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” and David Chase’s recently departed HBO series “The Sopranos” remind us that in the hands of gifted artists the gangster genre can produce works of great merit. We love the classics for their artistry, dramatic power, and social critique. But then there are the mob dramas that, in their sheer awfulness, make you appreciate Coppola, Scorsese, and Chase all the more.

     

    I recently had the dubious pleasure of seeing two of the cheesiest gangster flicks ever, “Family Enforcer” and “Mob War.”

     

    The latter was made in 1989 by that celebrated Danish auteur J. Christian Ingvordsen, who, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, has “written, produced and directed eighteen feature films” since 1982. Most of these works, one suspects, went straight to video.

     

    “Mob War” features raging bull Jake La Motta as Don Ricci, an old mobster threatened by the rise of a younger hood with better hair. (After Scorsese and De Niro apotheosized the ex-boxer, La Motta parlayed his new fame into a minor acting career.) The story is obviously inspired -- though inspiration hardly is a quality to be associated with this movie -- by the Paul Castellano-John Gotti rivalry. As all mob aficionados know, that clash ended with Castellano’s whacking by Gotti’s hoods outside a
    Manhattan
    steakhouse.

     

    The Gotti figure, here called John Falcone, is played by a reputed actor named David Henry Keller, who apparently also is a physician: the IMDB notes that he’s sometimes billed as “David Henry Keller, MD.”  I can only say, physician, heal thyself, and thy movie. As Falcone, a preening media whore of a mobster, Keller has the Gotti hairdo but he comes off more as a petulant yuppie executive than a ruthless gangster.

     

    Falcone has gotten some bad press because of his dope dealing. To refurbish his image he hires a young PR hotshot named Todd Barrett (Johnny Stumper, a name that suggests a career in amputee porn might’ve been a better option). Barrett has the hopeless task of re-branding the drug lord as a philanthropist and all-around good guy. Falcone pays him well but keeps him in line with generous amounts of cocaine.

     

    To make a ludicrous story short, Barrett eventually realizes that Falcone is a really bad guy and that no amount of image-polishing will help. He’s really sure of this when the mobster kidnaps his wife, played with impressive lack of affect by Adrianna Maxwell. With the blessing of Don Ricci, whom Falcone plans to whack, Barrett tracks down Falcone and, after a car chase that will make no one forget “The French Connection,” kills him.

     

    In the final scene, Barrett and Don Ricci meet up. The old gangster informs the PR whiz that he’s now a mafioso. “Welcome to the family, kid,” he chortles. No knife and pistol on the table, no burning picture of a saint, no blood oath. And who needs these mafia movie conventions when you’ve got the searing drama of Stumper’s dyspeptic facial expressions and La Motta’s orange hair.   

     

     “Family Enforcer,” though a stinker, is more interesting than the ineffably bad “Mob War.” Also known as “Death Collector,” it was the only film directed by Ralph De Vito, who was shot to death in 1983. (No word whether the killer had seen “Family Enforcer.”) Released in 1977, it is notable for two things: the appearance of Joe Pesci, in a secondary role as a mafia bagman, and the cavalcade of outré 70s hairdos and fashions.

     

    Joseph Cortese, who still works today -- he most recently appeared in Abel Ferrara’s 2007 film “GoGo Tales” -- plays Jerry Bolante, a
    New Jersey
    tough with a hot temper and a fetching wedge-cut hairstyle. He wants money to buy a camper so he and his girlfriend can hit the open highway, leaving
    North Jersey and its corpse-filled meadowlands behind. (Spoiler alert: he never achieves his dream, and instead ends up as one of those interred stiffs.) He gets work as a debt collector and stick-up man from Anthony Iadavia (Lou Criscuola), an opera-loving boss who for some reason has a soft spot for the sullen, unlikable Jerry.

     

    One of the deadbeats who owes Anthony money is a crooked Jewish businessman named Bernie Feldshuh, played by – are you ready? – mafia movie stalwart Frank Vincent. Vincent, who, as disgruntled Jersey mob guy Phil Leotardo, would go on to have his skull popped in the final episode of “The Sopranos,” doesn’t aim for ethnic verisimilitude as Bernie. He never utters a single “Schmuck!” or “Oy vey is mir.” But he does sport a fabulous jet-black poodle ‘do and impressive 70s-style mustache.

     

    Joe Pesci, touted on the DVD box as the star of “Family Enforcer,” has more hair than he did in “Goodfellas” but a lot fewer scenes. In one of the better, if bizarre ones, he throws peanuts at a gay nightclub entertainer to make him stop warbling the songs of “Mr. Stephen Foster.”  He’s also tight with a dimwitted hood named Serge, who’s constantly thumbing through a copy of Playgirl magazine. Hmm. Maybe director DeVito should have made the homoerotic subtext the text. That might have at least clarified Anthony’s affection for Jerry.

     

    But Jerry’s impulsivity and lack of respect infuriate his boss, with predictable results. When he goes to a junkyard to claim the longed-for caravan camper, he’s surrounded by gunmen who have to be the lousiest shots in mobland, a real gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They eventually finish off Jerry and bury his corpse in the swampy meadowlands. We weep not for him, but for the loss of his stylish pleather jacket, with its nipped waist and wide lapels. It deserved a better fate.

     

    Martin Scorsese cast Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in “Raging Bull” after seeing them in “Family Enforcer,” according to the IMDB. And Ralph De Vito’s sole production is an obvious Scorsese rip-off, but with none of Scorsese’s cinematic brilliance, psychological acuity and social realism.

     

    But as I mentioned, sometimes seeing a genre’s duds helps one appreciate the  good ones, how some directors can take the same thematic elements and tropes and make gold while others serve up only dross. Now that virtually any pop culture product, no matter how lowly, can generate dense academic analysis, some film student should explicate “Family Enforcer.”  He – and I’m sure it will be a he – can even use my title for his paper: “Wedge Cuts and Wide Lapels: Sartorial Signifiers in the Sub-Scorsesean Universe of ‘Family Enforcer.’”

     

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