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Thursday, February 12, 2009
The Greatest American Films Part 6: #6 A Coppola you can't resist
For the fifth entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.
The Godfather was a true landmark in Film history, particularly American Film history. This film was essentially a renaissance. Few films in American Film history can truly be called landmark in this sense. It brought quality cinema back to American shores and changed how we make movies. The studios were virtually taken over by a group of young vibrant filmmakers, inspired by tragic stark films like The Searchers, in search of a grand new way of making films. Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, et al. would define a generation and film forever. The Godfather really was the rallying point. An unproved director of Roger Corman films came out of no where to make the most successful film to date as well as garnering numerous oscars and critical acclaim. He also reinvigorated Crime cinema forever changing the face of heroes and anti-heroes alike. But aside from its historical importance the two part gangster saga is easily one of the greatest films ever made.
Aside from Nolan's two Batman films this duology is the greatest examination of the life of a person (or in this case persons) in cinema that I have yet seen. The films are extremely complex with dozens of important characters and yet there is no voice over narration and only small pieces of text to key us into the setting of the second film.
Much has been made of the three key performances of Pacino, De Niro, and of course Brandon. So I won't say much here about them except to say that I think Pacino's is ultimately the greatest performance of the three. His character is easily the most complex and is also the most subtle. I think his work in these two films is comparable to that of Brandon's work with Elia Kazan in the early fifties, which basically changed screen acting forever. They are both exercises in subtle yet complex acting. This is not to detract from De Niro and Brando's incomparable work on these films, I just think that Pacino's is the most significant for his generation of screen actors. Which is ironic because he redefines screen acting again with De Palma in the remake of the Howard Hawks' classic Scarface but that time it was in terms of audaciousness, not control and depth.
I think these two films are a deep examination of many things. The most prominent and obvious is what it means to be a man. But just as important is what it means to be American. The first line is of course "I believe in America."
When talking about the opening shot of this film it is important to understand a few things. Coppola had written a script for what has become one of my all time favorite films, the critically acclaimed Patton. But the script was odd to say the least and the studio wanted to go in another direction. But if you remember anything about that film you remember the beginning. A gigantic American flag with a speech pieced together from numerous pieces of Patton's public addresses. Patton is essentially a film about being a rebel. Which in many ways is what it means to be an American. To be individual, right or wrong. To stand out. This is a big part of America's identity, and it is a large part of Coppola's best films. Even The Conversation is about an odd character who doesn't really fit into his respective world: surveillance. But despite the studios protests agaisnt some of the scripts oddness (funny enough the memorable opening was one of their biggest problems) they eventually made the film and low and behold Coppola won a best screenplay oscar. In fact Coppola believes that it was because he won that oscar that he was not fired off of The Godfather. Its so funny looking back on all that now. Given how well received Coppola was as a director in the 70s after all this mess. Most people don't realize how tumultuous Coppola's start at the big time really was. But if you want to learn about all the difficulties involved in shooting The Godfather then I suggest you buy the DVD collection and watch the extras as well as listen to the commentaries.
But while filming The Godfather someone suggested that Coppola write a new beginning for the film that was similar to the beginning of Patton. A memorable opening monologue. And it just so happens that each opening begins with America. And it would just so happen that Italian Americans would define seventies cinema thereafter. Scorsese, Pacino, De Niro, Coppola, and of course who could forget Rocky! Because another part of being American is that we are all immigrants except for Native Americans of course.
This idea is dealt with even deeper in Part II which depicts Vito Corleone's journey into crime as being primarily motivated by his underprivileged immigrant status.
At the end of the day though these films are essentially about two monstrous men. Two men whose lives have become defined by two things: "Leave the gun, take the Cannolis." An entire book has actually been written about this line. It shows the dualism of the Italian Mafia life. Half of it is crime and violence and the other half is family. Balancing these two things was something Vito was an expert at. But Michael cannot. He loses his family because he becomes lost in his crimes.
Saying much else about this highly praised film saga seems redundant. One thing that is perplexing is exactly why we care so much about these characters. I am sure part of it has to do with the high quality of storytelling involved. But these people are criminals. They are essentially bad guys, villains. Yet we cheer when Michael wins at the end of Part I and we cry when he is alone and separate from everything he values at the end of Part II. I think it is because they are in fact humans. Not every character needs to be a Hero in order for us to care about their life. Just look at King David and his son King Solomon. These guys are in many ways heroic. They are strong intelligent men. Full of bravery and wisdom. But they are in so many ways flawed. Their choices lead to pain and destruction for themselves and for Israel.
It is in such men that we clearly see the central problem of human existence. If somebody as smart and capable as Michael or Solomon can't live a good life then what chance have we? After Vito Corleone kills Fanucci, essentially making his life as a gangster official he returns to his family and holds his son Michael telling him: Your father loves you very much. Michael's father loved him enough that he was willing to sacrifice good standing with the law to secure his future. In other words he was willing to kill for him. Our heavenly father was willing to kill his own son for us. It is a faulty allegory of course, but not one that is easily dismissed. Our savior gave up his good standing for us, taking on human flesh and sinfulness in order to redeem mankind and make our salvation effectual and possible. But where Vito was willing to kill for Michael and eventually Michael is willing to kill for his father Vito; the Christ was willing to live and die. In a sense the crime and murders are similar in that they are terrible things that these two characters are willing to do for those they love, things they don't want to do, things that are unpleasant, things that they have to do for physical protection as well as honor. Their imperfection as "saviors" of their families just seems to highlight and make more dear the perfection of our savior. I will eventually deal with some of the similarities between these characters and Nolan's Batman and how that all ultimately ties into Christology, but for now I leave you with my favorite quote from the series; Michael's ruthlessness is truly chilling:
Tom: I mean you've won...you want to wipe everybody out?
Michael: I don't feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies, that's all.
"...when [a man] puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says that the thing is beautiful; and it is not as if he counts on others agreeing with him in his judgment of liking owing to his having found them in such agreement on a number of occasions, but he demands this agreement of them. He blames them if they judge differently, and denies them taste, which he still requires of them as something they ought to have; and to this extent it is not open to men to say: Every one has his own taste. This would be equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as taste, i.e. no aesthetic judgment capable of making a rightful claim upon the assent of all men."