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Monday, March 26, 2012

Coda: My Debt to The Godfather

I first saw The Godfather during an Easter break weekend while attending St. Hubert’s Catholic School in Chanhassen, Minnesota, 1991. At my cousin’s house for the Sunday holiday, I was looking for a VHS to watch and saw The Godfather on his shelf. He said that at three hours it was much too long. For some reason, I was determined to make it the next movie I rented. There was a lot of Godfather and mob stuff in the air. The Godfather Part III had just come out over Christmas and had been nominated for several Oscars, along with a little movie called GoodFellas (the new edition of Cracked magazine also included a Godfather III parody, The Clodfather, and Alec Baldwin recently lampooned Pacino's "they keep pulling me back in!" line in the sci-fi based The Godfather Part IV on Saturday Night Live). There was also State of Grace, Miller’s Crossing, Dick Tracy, The Grifters, The Krays, Mobsters, Men of Respect, television shows like Wise Guy and Crime Story, and coming over the next year there would be Billy Bathgate, John Sayles' City of Hope, and Bugsy.

Over that summer I watched the first two Godfathers repeatedly, memorizing speeches, wishing I was Sicilian, and imagining the biographies of the various characters. At Bethany Christian Academy in the 7th grade, I started a little mafia club with my English and Science teacher being the don (not that we could really do anything other than fetch him his coffee). I wrote a mob story about a hairdresser named Ron Harris who becomes a mafioso. My homeroom teacher discussed how reading books like Mario Puzo's Fools Die was inviting the devil into my life. From The Godfather I moved onto GoodFellas and Raging Bull, The Untouchables, and at long last the forbidden VHS of Scarface, which my mother wouldn't permit me to see until my nagging drove her crazy. Two years later she took my friend Joey and I with her to see Brian De Palma and Al Pacino collaborate once more with Carlito's Way.

The Godfather Part III hit video stores the second week of October, 1991. It was a golden autumn Friday, matching the look of the film, when I reserved my copy along with the first two videos. As soon as my mother’s daycare duties ended for the week, I slipped Part I into the VCR, got to Part II before 9:00, and finally, at long last, well past midnight I commenced Part III. I was so enthralled and wrapped up with this steely character of Michael Corleone, wondering about his demise and desiring the tragic comeuppance he deserved, that any of the final chapter’s flaws were easily overlooked that night. I felt for Michael in his final hours, and maybe the esteem I hold for Part III is owed to how I was reacting during that final half-hour, kneeling in front of the TV, my heart beating fast, Coppola masterfully layering on the suspense as the trilogy concluded. By the final frame, he gave me the ending the way I dreamed it. I felt like I had lived through the entire life of Michael Corleone, and yet the face in those final moments still held a host of mystery. I wanted to know what was behind those sad eyes, what the intervening years were like after his breakdown and howl on the opera steps.

It may have seemed like another misstep for Paramount, Mario Puzo, and Francis Ford Coppola to begin the preparatory steps for The Godfather Part IV in the late 1990s. But assuming that Coppola knew his limitations this time around, maybe it would have worked (and hey, Mary Corleone's dead!). Adopting the dual father/son narrative arc of the second film, Godfather IV would have followed “the good old days” of the Corleones, the rowdy Prohibition period where Puzo says “they didn’t kill us and we killed them,” and the final annihilation of the family, as Vincent Mancini embraces drug cartels and is gunned down Pablo Escobar-style in South America, with no heirs or links to the glories of the old Corleone family. The bastard who knew his father only through myth bastardizes the family he inherited, and the whole Corleone family line evaporates into that same terrain of myth.

Godfather IV would probably be a more action-based film than Godfather III, a less remorseful or introspective film, with brutal drug wars (the content of most discarded Godfather III scenarios before Coppola agreed to do it) and Prohibition-era disputes, some of which are featured in the original Godfather novel. At one stage, Don Vito Corleone is wounded by a gunshot to the throat, his would-be assassin being his eventual ally, Luca Brasi (this is the reason why Vito is a little weary of seeing Luca at Connie’s wedding: “Is this…is this necessary?”) Leonardo DiCaprio, who had been planning on playing Sal Paradise for Coppola’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, was going to be the young Santino Corleone, a decision that may have upset some of the series’ more macho fans after DiCaprio’s rise to stardom with Titanic. But the intensity and single-mindedness of characters he’s since played in The Departed, Blood Diamond, and The Aviator point to DiCaprio being an effective Sonny. Andy Garcia would return as Vincent Mancini Corleone, and Al Pacino’s aging Michael would have one more important scene to counsel his protégé, considering that the exact date of his death at Part III’s conclusion is not known.

Presuming Coppola knew what he was doing, and had Gordon Willis, Dean Tavoularis, and Walter Murch once more behind him, I’m content imagining that this final Godfather would be a success, perhaps mending the troubled reputation of its predecessor. But Mario Puzo’s death ended discussion, and Coppola refused to work on the script without his collaborator. The Godfather Part III was post-Godfather enough; in 2012, we’re more than post-Godfather, but we’re post-Sopranos (for better maybe) and post-Jersey Shore (for much worse). Still I wonder about those elliptical moments in the Corleone universe’s good old days, along with the fall of Vincent Mancini, and the old age of a broken and defeated Michael. Maybe those images are best left to the malleable formations and scenarios in my imagination, along with the mysterious death of Tom Hagen.

Coppola is now 75 years old (his birthday is April 7). After The Godfather Part IV fell through, he remained outside of the Hollywood game for a decade, holding steadfast to his destructive and demanding Megalopolis, which proved to be unfilmable. As comrades from his generation, now in their seventies and late sixties, still occasionally are hired for prestigious studio projects, Coppola, himself the godfather of the Movie Brats, makes money from wine and tourism. His profits fund small-budget eccentric work: Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and ‘Twixt (2011). The last film has not been able to secure distribution. The other two met with mixed reviews, not making a dent in the box office. I think they're all well worth seeing. 

How much time does this godfather have left? His brother August died recently at the age of 75; his father was 80. The logistically complicated process of filmmaking, covering all avenues from writing to distributing, may prove increasingly exhausting for a man entering old age. After Tetro, an intensely personal story about a family of artists, Coppola admitted that he had perhaps made the film he really wanted to make all along, and wasn’t sure if there was anything more to say. His children seem to be doing quite well. Though Sofia Coppola’s films divide audiences (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring), I think they are sensuous and moving pictures about the difficulty to articulate what one is feeling; her body of work is already more consistent and fulfilling than her father's, without touching the transcendent heights of his four classics. Roman Coppola has become a producer and collaborator with his sister, in addition to working as a writer with the increasingly marvelous Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom).

I’ll continue to have my Godfather marathons every year, watching all three films back-to-back-to-back with a bottle of Coppola wine, and some starchy Italian food if my health allows for it. Drifting into the Corleone world hasn’t gotten tiresome after 23 years. As long as I read about what’s happening in the world and continue to encounter my past, comparing it to the present, The Godfather remains significant and fresh, applicable to me as to the whole world. Everything changes, I guess. 

Recommended Stuff:

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’N’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.

Biskind, Peter. The Godfather Companion: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About All Three Godfather Films.

Cowie, Peter. Coppola: A Biography.

Coppola, Francis Ford. Megalopolis. Unproduced screenplay.

Coppola, Francis Ford. “Journals: 1989-1991.” In Projections 3. John Boorman and Walter Donahue, editors.

Lebo, Harlan. The Godfather Legacy.

Lewis, Jon. Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood.

Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks. John E. Woods, trans.

Puzo, Mario. The Godfather.

Puzo, Mario. The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions.

Santopietro, Tom. The Godfather Effect: Changing Hollywood, America, and Me.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Godfather Part III, or The Death of Michael Corleone: "The Body Cries Out"

Other posts in this series:
The Godfather:
1. Coppola's Decline of a Family; 2. "I Believe in America"; 3. Enough Time / The Godfather Part II: 4. The Horizon of Time; 5. "Fruit of Thy Womb"; 6. Revolutions; 7. Between Brothers / 8. Intermezzo: "Time, Who Eats His Own Young" / The Godfather Part III: 9. "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"; 10. "The Body Cries Out" / 11. Coda: My Debt to The Godfather

The Godfather Part III, or The Death of Michael Corleone: "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"