All the death of the ‘Irishman’ is just entertainment … or is it?

6 mins read


It’s Saturday and I’m in our modest, two-storied house in Port Royal. This morning it’s bright, brisk and in an hour I’ll wander into the yard and begin an effort to remove the leaves, branches and moss that have fallen into the yard.

What I do in the yard could be more efficiently done by a landscape company; but somewhere coded in my DNA is a need to get my hands dirty. I think this has something to do with the fact that my mother’s people were North Carolina tobacco farmers; and my father’s people mined Anthracite coal in Ohio.

These farmers and miners only exist in brittle, yellowing photographs with writing (on the back) saying “Uncle Malachi holding little Ethel-Lee.” The lasting connection with these long-gone folk is a strange, Saturday morning urge to push a wheel barrow around the backyard.

Last night Susan and I double-dated with our friends, Dean and Wendy, driving to the Coligny Theatre on Hilton Head. There we saw “The Irishman” — a three-hour long movie about a man, Frank Sheeran, who killed people in Philadelphia. Frank started his “whacking” right after World War II and is portrayed in this movie as the man who “whacked” Jimmy Hoffa.

I’m aware that there is a fascination with Jimmy Hoffa; and a fascination with men who strangle other, unsuspecting men with piano wire while they sit in the front seat of a 1947 Packard Clipper Custom.

There is also something mesmerizing about shooting a large, bib-wearing Italian-American while he fills his mouth with pasta primavera. I understand the act of shooting someone in the head and watching his face fall into a bowl of spaghetti bolognese can be riveting. I myself have trouble identifying with either the shooter or the pasta-eating victim.

More to the point, I have trouble understanding why we need yet another movie that says this casual, its-just-business killing is interesting or anything but monstrous. And I know saying something as self-righteous as that will provoke the response, “For God’s sake Scott, its just entertainment.”

But is it?

I know that one is supposed to admire the direction of Martin Scorsese. One is supposed to appreciate the computer assisted graphics that turn the aging Robert DeNiro into a 30-year-old truck driving assassin; or the date and method of death graphics that are superimposed on the actors in most of the scenes; or the use of a Howard Johnson’s (motel) interior.

I know one should be intrigued with the connection between John Kennedy and the Philadelphia mob; or the connection between Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa; or the connection between Frank Sheeran and E Howard Hunt.

I know one is supposed to appreciate all of these devices and say, “Yep, Martin Scorsese has done it again. Surely “Irishman” will garner a Best Picture Oscar for Scorsese and a Best Actor Oscar for Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino.”

But I just can’t get past the killing — the head shots in particular. This, I’m sure, goes back to my father.

When I was 12 or 13 my father — hoping I would become a doctor — took me with him when he did his autopsies. This usually happened Saturday morning. I can remember him using a saw to remove the top of a deceased man’s skull and then using both gloved hands to remove his brain from the brain pan. I can remember him handing the brain to me asking me to weigh it.

“It weighs 3 pounds, 2 ounces,” I would stammer.

“You are holding the most wonderful 3 pounds that you will ever hold,” he would reply. “That incredible mass of jello controls how you move your hands, how your eyes create images, how you remember your math tables, what you feel when you hear music.”

I would then put the brain into a large glass autopsy jar and he would say, “We cannot understand one-10th of what those cells do. Or what they did. It’s mostly beyond comprehension.”

And so when Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) walks up to Crazy Joe Gallo (Bobby Cannavale) at Umberto’s Trattoria and casually shoots him in the head, I don’t think about a good bowl of risotto going to waste. I think of a wonderfully complex brain being completely, utterly destroyed.

I don’t think my Dad intended that I turn into an old, pontificating scold (on the topic of head shots); but I did.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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