Saturday, October 13, 2012

Francis Ford Coppola | The Godfather

i’m with you now
by Douglas Messerli

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay, based on a fiction by Mario Puzo), Francis Ford Coppola (director) The Godfather / 1972

Suddenly in facing writing about one of my favorite films, The Godfather, I become stumped. Not because it’s a “difficult” film to discuss; it’s absolutely a straight-forward work, with an easily summarized plot, which is central to the form of this narrative “gangster” film. But to simply focus on the story would do a great injustice to this complex work.

    The first third of the movie (at least it feels that way) is devoted to a  lavish wedding that is meant to be demonstrable evidence that Don Corelone (Marlon Brando) is a wealthy being, willing to lavish everything on his beloved daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), and his large community of “friends.” Ironically, he himself must spend hours during the immense celebration in a dark room, listening to the demands of some of these “friends,” or want-to-be friends about their sufferings as they seek his blessings and answers to their problems. One, in particular, a small-time undertaker, Bonasera, complains of the rape of his own daughter by young American boys; he wants revenge. The Godfather’s entire position is laid out before us in his response; the supplicant has first sought justice in American courts rather than attempting adjudication—most often violent—through the more palatial court of the Don himself. Money is not required, but absolute devotion and later demands for services are. In short, once you sell yourself to the devilish Don, you are his servant for the rest of your life.

      The transactional world of The Godfather, in short, is quickly presented to us in the very first scenes, and the rest of the movie, heavy on plot machinations is simply a playing out of those transactions. Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino), a stand-in for Frank Sinatra tearfully requests the Don help him obtain the part in a new film, controlled by the studio head, Jack Woltz (John Marley)—the role I presume Sinatra eventually played in From Here to Eternity—resulting in one of the most horrific scenes in the film, after Woltz refuses and abuses the Don’s consigliere, an adopted family member, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), with the decapitating and placement of Woltz’s prize horse in his bed. Other transactions include the heir-presumptive son, Sonny’s (James Caan) fucking of a young party-goer, his wife below joking about the size of, presumably the groom’s, penis and one of the don’s thick-headed underlings begging a meeting with the Godfather, simply to thank him for being invited.

Meanwhile, back at the party, the spirited Mama Corelone (Morgana King) sings the Italian favorite "Luna mezz' 'o mare" (an important song in this film, of which in Godfather II the local Nevada-based orchestra has no conception) and another of the Corelone’s son, Fredo, is quite drunk. Photographs are snapped, and the photographers ejected, their negatives destroyed. This is a closed affair. But even the hired wedding photographer cannot get the family together for a
group photo since the beloved youngest son, Michael, has not yet arrived. When he (Al Pacino) arrives, with his girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), he introduces her to the rambunctious family, remaining someone apart from the rest of the celebrants, recounting to his girl friend some of their savory actions, while insisting he is not “them.” As we immediately sense, they have sent Michael out in the world (he is an educated war hero) to live a life separate from theirs, serving as a kind of symbol of the aspirations to which this immigrant family has aspired. Michael is a man created by but existing outside the family, in every sense of what that word might mean. He is their talisman for the world at large—despite Corelone’s great wealth, more importantly, despite all the criminal activities it has taken to achieve their wealth—that represents not only their American dream, but oddly justifies everything they have cheated from the world about them.

       Yet Michael is at the heart of this entire family, father, mother, sister, brother, friends: he is their “spoiled prince,” the emblem of what they are as a family. And unless you recognize this at the very beginning of this powerful movie, you will never understand the tragedies that lie within the narrative of the remainder of the first move and the other films following. Michael, is the beloved family member who must remain an outsider. And for the first several scenes in this film that is how he perceives himself, the protestant school teacher, Kay, being the perfect mate for him, despite their obvious differences.

      Most of the rest of this nearly encyclopedic fiction, including all the complex plot intricacies that take the film and its later manifestations through the family’s rise in New York with returns to Sicily and Rome, including the Vatican City, are almost tangential to the central story: Michael’s Faustian pact with the devil.

       In short, it hardly matters “what happens” for the rest of the story. Of course, it does very much matter in terms of the cinematic experience of Coppola’s beautifully filmed myth. It’s Christmas 1945, Michael and Kay shopping in the lush stores of midtown New York. They’ve just enjoyed a film at Rockefeller Center and have been shopping at the stores thereabouts. How could they have known that in the days following the wedding, Michael’s father, meeting with another outsider, “The Turk,” (Al Lettieri), backed by the Corleones' rivals, the Tattaglias, another crime family, had rejected his offer to the Corleone’s to become involved with drugs? How could they have known of Sonny’s impetuous interruption of his father’s careful rejection, which has made it clear that there are cracks in the family ideologies? The details, in some respects, are insignificant to the larger rhythms of the film. Suddenly Kay notices the newspaper headlines: Don Corelone has been “hit,” is possibly dead.

       One might say it is at the very moment that plot is swept up into the psychological portraiture that Coppola has established, as Michael, with no other alternative, returns to the family circle, the purposeful family outsider returning to the den, a house presented in Coppola’s designer’s set as a kind of cave a warm-lighted room where the men are in control, but the women hover over them. It is a world right out of myth, particularly Sicilian life.

       Their discussions remind one of a war-time movie, plans of attack being intensely debated. Michael, the ex-soldier, is an expert warrior. Although he is kept out of the early discussions, the absence of his father allows him to reenter family conversations from which he has previously been purposely excluded. Still, basically he is ostracized, remains the outsider. Sonny and Tom are in charge.

A visit to the hospital, however, one of the most tense scenes in Coppola’s work, changes everything. Strangely enough, little happens in this desolate world which Michael suddenly uncovers. The large, unlit structure is suddenly empty, all guards, nurses, doctors (one cannot even imagine doctors within this space), all ancillary help has disappeared. If there was ever a vision of a collapsed center, here it is. No one is where all of us expect everyone to be, protecting, doctoring, bringing people to health. There seem not to be even any patients—except one, Don Corelone, all alone, a single nurse still there despite the abandonment. All have been told to evacuate the place. We follow Michael’s traumatic recognition of the events. Clearly, enemies (one must be paranoid, obviously, having grown up in the world that Michael has) have emptied the public space in order to kill Corelone. With the help of the dawdling worker Michael transfers his suffering father to another room, ordering a surprised and subservient visitor to the Don to stand by the entrance, pretending to have a gun.

       The entire scene, with its echoing emptiness is one of the most dramatic scenes in the film, perhaps in all of cinema. Yet its quietude represents one of the most frightening moments in cinematic history. As Michael moves his father to another room in order to protect him from inevitable “hit,” the Don confusedly awakens, Michael assuring him, “I’m with you now,” a simple pledge of protection which, in the context of the entire film, is also a commitment to evil. A tear falls from his father’s eye in recognition of what has just occurred. All the family hopes for Michael’s separateness have suddenly vanished.

Michael does not comprehend what that statement implies, nor, I might suggest, did I upon first viewing: Michael, the purposeful representation of family “salvation,” has, perhaps unintentionally, but most certainly, become one of them and all the evil acts the family has committed.

      It is no wonder, that a few scenes later, after the not terribly bright and rash Sonny has rushed to the New Jersey turnpike to his death, that Michael, now truly a family member, determines to destroy “the Turk” and the Tattagila-controlled cop by shooting them at a small Italian restaurant in the Bronx.

       An escape to the beautiful Sicilian landscape and Michael’s sudden love and marriage with a stunning local beauty only reiterates the pattern: love and death, revenge and revenge again. The small town of Corelone has no males left. Michael—whose beautiful young wife is blown up in a car explosion intended for him—can no longer comprehend his own devolution, his  commitment to his own and everyone else’s destruction. When he returns to the US, his “new” life serves only as a repetition of the revenge tragedy filled with lies, as he manipulates the death of all his enemies, including Connie’s double-crossing—he has been indirectly involved with the attempted killing of Don Corelone—and wife-beating husband whose marriage the movie celebrated so enthusiastically in its early frames.

     While avowing his commitment to serve as godfather to Connie’s newborn son, Michael takes on the larger role of Godfather, killing most of those who have betrayed the family, including the child’s father. Murders in Las Vegas assure the family’s takeover of the city’s major casino. Michael is no longer an individual but is a monster created by his family’s very attempts to protect him from becoming one. The infection, as his wife Kay later reports, seems to be somehow in the blood, embedded in the ritual Sicilian commitment to eternal revenge, dooming generation after generation.

       As the Don dies the natural death of a heart attack, we realize that, despite the family’s great wealth, there can be no enjoyment in that fact. One need only think back to the small New Jersey  house of the Don’s early associate, Clemenza, to realize that crime does not truly pay, that the wealth these figures might have sought is really a search for power that ultimately has no effect. If they have survived, it has given them little joy of life. An imprisonment of mattresses and homemade spaghetti is surely not what they originally sought.

Los Angeles, October 12, 2012

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