Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Favorites - The Godfather (#19)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Godfather (1972/USA/dir. Francis Ford Coppola) appeared at #19 on my original list.

What it is • This grand epic, which uses the Mafia as its subject but takes as a model the mythical tales of kings and warriors, begins with the recitation of a sordid crime - the savage beating of a woman by two young men out for a joyride. This showcase for Marlon Brando and Al Pacino (among others) fades up not on their faces but on the unfamiliar expression of theater actor Salvatore Corsitto, born before World War I in Sicily, playing Bonasera the undertaker. This family drama, in which the clan is the most important unit and "Italian" (or really "Sicilian") is the only nationality that matters, begins Bonasera's monologue with the solemn sentence, "I believe in America." Despite its legend, The Godfather is full of surprises right off the bat. Perhaps equally surprising for those who have soaked up its influence from a distance, through the cultural osmosis of cartoons and parodies and casual impressions of Brando's raspy delivery (spoilers ahead if you're one of those people), "the godfather" himself, Vito Corleone, isn't really the main character. The narrative largely belongs to Vito's son Michael, who starts the film as a uniformed Marine hero, the family outsider, and eventually ascends to become the title character himself (literally as well as figuratively: the climactic christening cross-cuts between his ritualistic renunciation of Satan and embrace of brutal violence to solidify his reign over rival families). How many people are left to be surprised by The Godfather? Obviously young potential viewers come of age all the time, but are they interested? This was, in a sense, the crowning achievement of New Hollywood, a marriage of Hollywood glamor and raw violence which could still seem shocking in 1972. It brought together the maverick of the Fifties - Brando, encased in jowly make-up with a dental fixture obscuring his speech - with the new mavericks of the Seventies, behind and in front of the camera, a passing of the torch just as important as the one occurring onscreen. But nearly forty-five years after it became the highest-grossing film of all time, it no longer even cracks the top 500 worldwide box-office hits - it's been nudged out by the action-oriented, adolescent-marketed blockbusters (including several spawned by Coppola's protegee George Lucas) that began dominating the box office just a few years later. Does the film still speak to audiences of the present? Anecdotally, I think it does. It still seems to enthrall viewers, young and old, who come across it in frequent TV airings, home video releases, or digital rentals. The story is well-told, the world is immersive, and most of all the characters are fascinating. If theatrical features no longer seem to follow its form, television most certainly does: The Sopranos, itself godfather of a generation of cable dramas, is impossible to imagine without this film's obvious influence on subject and, more subtly, on form. And most other prestige dramas of the twenty-first century follow the template of a stately style brought to bear on family drama, masculine assertion, and corruption of the individual. Born as a pulp bestseller fifty years ago (author Mario Puzo had resisted writing about Italian gangsters for decades but finally "sold out" in desperation), troubled in production (Coppola didn't want to do it and was nearly fired, along with Pacino, early on), The Godfather has achieved a cultural impact that no one could have predicted.

Why I like it •
There are many films on this list I've only seen a couple times, occasionally even just one. Then there are others that I watched over and over again in close succession (spoilers ahead if you somehow still haven't seen it once. Lost in Translation fits this description for a brief period of a few months a decade ago. Easy Rider was a mainstay when I was in my early twenties, a straight hit of thunderous sixties energy, musical and visual. Others, like Goodfellas or The Big Lebowski were not films I would necessarily watch in a loop, but which I revisited many, many times, often as ritualistic communal viewings. Only a handful, however, have been subjected to such obsessive repetition that I could recite every line of dialogue on cue, to the point where I burnt out on them and had to take a break before a freshness and enjoyment could sneak back into my perception (fortunately, it always does). Star Wars is one such film, probably the record-holder for views when I was in jr. high. But The Godfather, which became a passionate favorite in the early years of high school, is not far behind. Like Star Wars but with much less merchandise to facilitate the phenomenon, The Godfather became an immersive multimedia experience for me. Certainly there were the sequels to revisit and incorporate into the larger narrative, but I could also partake in the soundtrack, the behind-the-scenes book, the many forms of media rip-offs and adaptations arrayed around the film itself like planets at various distances from the sun, and obviously the original novel (an entertaining but highly trashy read, with a lengthy digression on the Sinatra character's affair with Sonny Corleone's mistress, whom - I kid you not - he takes to Las Vegas for an operation to tighten her abnormally large vagina). This is quite the preamble to set up that essential "why" but my point is to demonstrate that for a few years, The Godfather was the air I breathed. I was engaged with one of my periodic plunges into cinephilic exploration so I was watching many other movies too but this film was the undoubted centerpiece. And no wonder...I'd waited nearly a decade to finally see it. My father described Vito's death to me when I was about six or seven, and I was drawn to the paradox of this murderous man rendered sympathetic in a moment of weakness (I also imagined an ornate walled garden rather than the modest patch of vegetables in the actual film). About a year or even a few months before I found the opportunity to watch The Godfather, I sat down before a library computer and devoured a detailed online summary of the entire plot! This did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of Coppola's realization - I finally cued up that bulky double-tape VHS with my cousin around the summer of 1998. I was fascinated with gangster films as a teenager, with the violence, the swagger, the power, the humor, the dance between operating under a specific code and living outside the law. The appeal of The Godfather, however, transcended that genre fixation; for one thing, their crime operation reached higher than politicians and police officers and made them seem more like feudal lords than criminals. Questions of morality still applied, but they weren't questions of "getting caught" so much as underlying justification. The aura of The Godfather, the rich texture of Gordon Willis' cinematography, the fearless drama of Nino Rota's score, the fullness of Coppola's framing (anchored in classicism, but willing to employ more experimental flourishes)...all of it seemed to summon an air of nostalgia, romanticism, and grandeur that I carried around with me wherever I went. I remember visiting a New England apple orchard on an autumn day and associating it with Michael Corleone's Sicilian pastorale. Or working on a school project as the soundtrack played on the CD player and I noticed how well the morning light out the window suited the mood. I would even bend English homework toward the Godfather arc; asked to write vocab sentences I incorporated the words into a long synopsis of the movie instead. I watched The Godfather on the big screen at either Harvard Square or Coolidge Corner, recreated it in plays and video-camera movies, and followed the news closely when a planned Godfather IV (with Leonardo DiCaprio as a young Sonny Corleone) fell apart with Puzo's death in 1999. When I started buying DVDs around 2002, The Godfather Collection was in my very first batch. There are so many moments which still evoke a swelling yet steely emotional reaction even on memory: Michael's hospital vigil when he notices how still his hand is as he lights a cigarette; the moment of truth when the camera slowly moves closer to the bruised, anguished young man seated in the shabby little Italian restaurant, the patriotic veteran whose second thoughts are drowned out by the lumbering overhead train; the shift into a new, aching musical motif as we dissolve from a weeping Vito to the Sicilian landscape where Michael wanders more freely than in the ever-on-edge postwar America; the crisp cutting from his intensely focused expression, candlelit in a vast church, as explosions of blood engulf all his enemies; and finally, that indelible moment when the score subtly picks up and tells us what we already know, and what will soon be confirmed by the door enclosing us in darkness as a wife stares in dawning horror at what her husband has become.

More from me • I reviewed both of the first two Godfathers, exploring their complex relationship, in my series "The Big Ones" (crowning the post with very different views of the Statue of Liberty from each film). I also created a visual tribute to the fall of Michael Corleone, mostly using images from the first Godfather. And a clip appears at 6:30, closing "Dispersed into the Seventies", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video series.

How you can see it • The Godfather is available for digital rental/purchase on YouTube, Amazon, and these sites, and on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix. (It's also on Japanese Hulu if that applies.)

What do you think? • Is The Godfather Part II superior? Do you sympathize with Michael when you watch the film, or are you increasingly alienated from him? Aside from Brando and Pacino, which member of the colorful cast gives your favorite performance - and who (including them) utters your favorite line of dialogue?

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