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Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Godfather: Coppola's Decline of a Family

Even though The Godfather trilogy is a cultural phenomenon, the pity and terror at the kernel of the Corleone story arguably hasn't penetrated the world entertained by it. As we consume Mario Puzo's epic and process it as a series of sound-bites and pop images, the most stirring contemplations embedded, whether regarding an entire nation or solitary individuals floating through time, are lost. The mournful story of a son reflected against the legend of his father, along with a sense of history losing dimension as the friction of the “American” idea escalates with stories of rugged individualism, prosperity, acquiring power, and the virtue of selfishness sparring against status anxiety, empathy, and morality, is eclipsed. The Godfather engages us in the dialectic of America, unwinding through the 80+ year narrative of an immigrant family's rise and decline in conjunction with changing times. The story of Vito (Marlon Brando in Part I and Robert De Niro as a younger man in Part II) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is one of survival, prosperity, decadence, and annihilation. Yet I wonder if the reason these films are adored by so many people – and respected by many who haven’t even seen them – has to do with how the story is interpreted as a fairy tale of strength and individual achievement. We project our personal fantasies of success onto the Corleones.
"Your father has big plans for you." The concluding scene of The Godfather Part II.
This has long-been Coppola’s reasoning for why the rushed epilogue, Part III, was a mild disappointment (contrary to popular opinion, it was not received in 1990 as a monumental failure). The reason why people loved the Corleones was because they were unbeatable. Indeed, a trait that Michael Corleone inherits from his father is an inability to be killed, something that proves to be ironically tragic. No matter how many forces aligned against them---rival Mafia heads, corrupt public officials, stool pigeons, double-crossing business partners, and even the Roman Catholic Church---the Corleones always won. Superficially, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II comprise a great fantasy: the enemies who put one’s family in peril are justly punished in ways that are as memorable as Dante’s scenes in Hell. The films give our repressed sadism an outlet. Yet although the Corleones again tie up the loose ends in Part III, Michael is a different character. No longer a man of reptilian calculation, he is diseased and tired, laden by guilt and depression, attempting to be a legitimate statesman and businessman. Though the flaws in Part III warrant criticism, the wide dismissal of it leads to that question of why we love the first two parts. The success of the Corleones is actually a failure; it is the death of a man’s soul and the decay of morality. Part III wears ecclesiastical colors along with its shadows and autumnal light; Don Vito or the younger Michael would never pray in front of a corpse, or confess their sins to a priest. America has a history of not wanting to be introspective with its history, as a presidential candidate titles an autobiography No Apologies, and that’s precisely what the aging Michael Corleone is compelled to do. 

Though it is an indictment of capitalism, why do so many people of an Ayn Randian mindset worship it? In Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, the rich entrepreneur played by Tom Hanks refers to The Godfather as the I Ching. There is also a foreign policy manifesto called The Godfather Doctrine, a model for handling inevitable conflicts with Iran (e.g. Santino is the neo-conservative approach; Tom Hagen is liberal diplomacy; we need the pragmatic blend of soft and hard power, the Michael Corleone approach – “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Comedian Bill Maher has compared President Obama, master of cool rhetoric and killer of Somali pirates, Osama Bin Laden, and enabler of Gadhafi's fall, to Michael Corleone). Eventually there will be a self-help book for the lonely, Dating According to The Godfather. Be sure to wash your sheets after a break-up, for fear of what your ex might have left in your bed. 

Depending on which picture the viewer prefers, maybe there are two kinds of Godfather fanatics. One theory is that Part I is for extroverts, Part II for introverts. Part I is a tale of survival and revenge, more immediate, as the family stakes a claim to prosper in the future. We are more forgiving of Michael Corleone having his brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, killed because Carlo is a wife-beater and conspired with rival mafia heads to have Santino “Sonny” Corleone whacked. Even though the dichotomy of what’s Business and what’s Personal is a false divide, it’s easy enough for the practical side of us to embrace Michael’s methods. In Part II, Puzo and Coppola go deeply inward, asking us to confront ourselves in relation to the deep past and how history carries reverberations into the present.  When we see the bloodlines develop, as we do in the dual father/son storyline in Part II, the world gets greyer. Michael not only orders the death of his brother Fredo, but he also, as his confession in Part III makes clear, kills his "mother’s son" and "father’s son." The hidden strands of murder veiled by reason are exposed, and the truth is unbearable.
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Corleone / Buddenbrook
The Decline of a Family
In agreeing to direct Mario Puzo’s novel, Francis Ford Coppola didn’t think of the material as a “crime story,” but as the story of a great king with three sons, each with their unique characteristics. The family story would act as a metaphor for American capitalism, capturing the spirit of the production's period, the politically tumultuous and morally foggy days of the Nixon Administration.

In The Godfather we see Shakespeare, where the mafia den is more like the royal court than the environs of Martin Scorsese’s streetwise true-life depictions of wise guys. Whether deliberate or not, in Michael Corleone there are similarities to Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays, where the rebellious prince embraces his ailing father, turning his back on the spirit of his youth: “I’m with you now, pop,” Michael says to his father at the hospital, protective and swearing his loyalty. This sudden devotion changes his destiny. We see Macbeth in him, the increasingly paranoid king who wants to wipe everyone out, or “just my enemies” as he tells Tom Hagen. We see Lear when Michael suffers a diabetic stroke, thunder screaming behind him while his long-repressed feelings stammer out of his mouth, and more explicitly at the end of his story, embracing his slain daughter who died for his sins. We also see Richard II, who’s resigned his kingship and lost the will to act as he commits himself to speech. Just as Shakespeare’s plays have a plethora of rich supporting characters, The Godfather’s first two parts, and to a lesser extent Part III, are filled with distinctive personalities surrounding the heroes.

It’s also a kind of great cinematic novel, read over the course of nine and a half hours, detailing the origins and education of two men and three generations, beginning with a boy’s flight from Sicily in 1901, and ending with that boy’s son dying in that same place 90 years later. The aching truth of the journey westward is that it leads nowhere but back home, into the future before descending into the futile clutching of what was won in the past. The Corleone family has gained everything and yet still has nothing. 

Thomas Mann
It's as if Coppola made a gangster-laden Sicilian American-styled Buddenbrooks, after Thomas Mann’s 1900 novel subtitled The Decline of a Family (we could also compare it to Dickens and Trollope). Mann’s story, written when he was only 25, spans from the mid-1830s to the 1870s, its focus being a wealthy German mercantile family achieving the summit of social power and finally evaporating as a stable unit. Mann’s historical canvas features the development of the European Union, where smaller principalities and more idiosyncratic centers of power were dissipating with the international bridges growing between states and corporations, tied in with significantly evolving technologies, the railroad being the most important example. Social unrest, like the revolutions of the 1840s, further add to the breakup of bourgeois values until finally there is no longer a family but, in the 1870s, a solid and mechanically working German political state. Through its ironically detached narrator, Buddenbrooks laments the loss of strong cultural strands that hold the traditional unit of “The Family” together, as “strength for the family” becomes confused with strength for the family business. 

Like Coppola’s survey of the Corleones, Mann’s Buddenbrook family is a kingdom at war with other kingdoms/families, obsessively trying to position a good heir to sit on the "throne." Modernity and Culture clash, and old values are put into a position in which they cannot endure. Like in The Godfather, the Buddenbrooks are surrounded by the empty vessels of cultural meaning, specifically religion. Their house is across the street from a great cathedral, St. Marien’s, and much attention is paid to the various baptisms, weddings, and funerals occurring there. The novel opens and closes with the sentiments of religion: we first see young eight-year-old Antonie Buddenbrook (who could be the double for Connie Corleone – the similarities are spectacular) practicing the catechism, while her grandfather (skeptical of religion) playfully teases her. The practice of this recitation indicates that the symbolic marvels that hang about this world mean no more than the arabesque decorations or fine linens on the windows: it is memorized for its form, function, and ritual, the ultimate meaning of a prayer, much like the reality of death, not penetrating the Family. The way that Coppola uses religious ritual and iconography to complement the actions of the Corleones carries the same broad observation that Mann makes. As Cardinal Lamberto tells Michael in Part III, for centuries men in Europe have been surrounded by Christianity, but like a stone in a fountain, Christ has not penetrated them. Their souls are dry. 

Nearly 800 pages and a half-century after Antonie Buddenbrook’s catechism recitation, all the male heirs of the family have either died or are unable to lead (the surviving brother Christian Buddenbrook, the Fredo of Mann's saga, seems to be entering the tertiary stages of syphilis and is being institutionalized), and the women, middle-aged Antonie included, wonder of the family’s fall and future. An old hunchbacked lady, tremulous with desperation, loudly proclaims that God’s benevolent will must be triumphant: an absurd and incomparably haunting image, given all that this family has endured. Decline puts the Buddenbrook family in this serious contemplation of the Eternal. Michael’s hysterical cry and lonely death in Godfather III carries the same mixture of the sublime and the tragic. Mann and Coppola create masterworks relying on mirrors, where rituals reflects each other throughout the decades. The deaths of Vito and Michael are meant to be compared and contrasted, much like the photography in the opening rituals of all three Godfather pictures. At Connie's wedding in Part I, aside from Michael's girlfriend Kay, only the immediate Corleones pose for the main picture. By Part III's party photograph 35 years later, most of the proper Corleones are dead, divorced, or illegitimate offspring. Alien parties who turn out to be malevolent, like Don Altobello and the Archbishop Gilday, have invaded the composition. 

Prayers are there to save us from the emptiness of reality, but they are soon forgotten when we are in the comfortable delights of the present. This is what leads Michael Corleone to pray and swear on the lives of his children that he will sin no more; it is what leads Michael’s Buddenbrook counterpart, Thomas, to begin reading a volume of Schopenhauer, elevating his spirit and inspiring him to accept his life. In both instances, the gravity of reality instantly crushes any transformative thought or change of habit. Both men return to their flawed and logic-determined lives. 

The corpse of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III
The similarities between the families are remarkable, and a familiarization with their mutual struggles enhances the depth we can absorb from The Godfather trilogy, particularly given Coppola's sensitivity to the passing of time. The way that Mann writes his novel, microcosmically detailing the environs surrounding the Buddenbrooks, is something that is hard for a motion picture to achieve with such feeling and authenticity, particularly given the logistical problems of filmmaking. Coppola was fortunate to be able to return to his original Sicilian and New York locations for The Godfather Part III, made 16 years after Part II. This luxury in handling time is unprecedented for a fictional epic. When the Corleones return to a location, we do also. The sense of “time passing,” indeed of life passing, of our families and dreams and homes, is beautifully resonant in the families of Mann and Puzo/Coppola.

The Third Generation for the Buddenbrooks and Corleones both relate to the final decadence. Anthony Corleone is not exactly a misfit, but he is somewhat maladjusted, and that his father wants another son bespeaks a disappointment and desire for retrial (or maybe Michael just wants to make three sons, further replicating his revered father). Anthony, we discover, has an artistic temperament, drawing pictures in Part II and aspiring to be an opera singer in Part III, in opposition to a father’s wishes that his son have more financially lofty goals. In Buddenbrooks, Thomas’ only child (with a wife who, like Kay Adams in The Godfather, comes from a different ethnicity and “strange” culture – a Creole marrying into a mostly homogeneous German family), little Hanno, is also maladjusted and strangely isolated, immediately drawn to music. He presents the final bud of decay, sprouting limply, as Art, for Mann, represents decay and that which is opposed to “living.” And though Michael differs from Thomas in being – in the end – supportive of his opera-singing son, it is at the opera's performance that the Corleones meet their conclusion: the Family’s alignment with Art syncs in the Fall. The only other male heir we see, in addition to the unruly and illegitimate Vincent Mancini, is Tom Hagen’s son Andrew, a young priest with “the true faith.”  The third generation of Corleones is sterile.

Anthony Corleone (Franc D'Ambrosio)
The process of familial decline gives The Godfather its dimension and power. Watching this family, I find affinities to my own life and experiences of getting older, retracing lost steps from a dim and softly focused past. Perhaps in culture, we know The Godfather because of the brutal gangster elements or occasional displays of machismo; these, after all, add a texture of Catholic blood ritual, and so again relate to the story of a Family rising and falling under the weight of Eternity. The Godfather owes to violence its greatness no more than Shakespeare’s tragedies owe violence. In Shakespeare and Coppola, it is not the murder, but the fearful contemplation of the curious measure of how things change: great abundance and lofty celebration, on a path that exhausts itself and writhes on the ground in isolation, grappling onto a dwindling memory as history’s ornaments become solid ghosts of an individual’s dreams and unfulfilled longings....and a bullet in the eye, a horse's head, a foot popping out a windshield, a pair of glasses tearing into an aorta...
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Popular Values
Though the themes of 1970s American cinema are seen as being very pessimistic and dissenting to the mainstream, an overview of the decade’s great countercultural successes proposes The Godfather’s question of popular values, and we wonder if we like the films for the right or wrong reasons. A Clockwork Orange is a euphoric experience, something that may have disturbed Stanley Kubrick himself; young men idolize Travis Bickle and his climactic “cleansing” in Taxi Driver, just as they idolize the Corleones; The French Connection has a morally ambiguous hero, but people love Popeye Doyle more precisely for this reason, the same way they love Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films. Clear-cut dichotomies of good and evil, of positive identification versus negative, are projected onto pictures like Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We are carried away with the misfits and their anger without reflecting on their flaws or ironies. 

The best films of this alleged golden age are overshadowed by our popular notions of “right” and “wrong,” of success, of what is culturally popular, rather than being complemented by the questions that these films should be compelling us to ask of ourselves. Before long, the revolution that started with Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy was engulfed by Jaws, Rocky, and Star Wars. The Godfather films act as a central and significant bridge linking 1967 to 1975, inaugurating an era of blockbusters that would undergo further restructuring in the early 1980s (the near-miss of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now detailed in the press from 1976 to 1979, followed by the demise of Michael Cimino’s, Heaven’s Gate, Coppola’s One from the Heart, and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, all of which are then juxtaposed against Spielberg, Lucas, and friendlier and more accessible adult dramas like Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, and Prizzi’s Honor), and then going into overdrive with the advent of CGI and Jurassic Park in 1993. It's ludicrous to think that The Godfather Part II could have been made in 1990, much less today. People may point to films like LA Confidential, The Departed, There Will Be Blood, and others, but the perfect fusion of art and commerce possessed by the first two Godfather films is still arguably unmatched.

Reagan Republicans, nationalists, imperialists, sanctimonious pulpit yellers, and people who don’t believe in evolution love the classic 1970s masterpieces every bit as much as progressive academics – the same way they love the Beatles, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix (or Jesus Christ). The observations of art are easy to gloss over when we can ride the wave of pop artifice. Do we cling to the “fashionability” of a masterpiece instead of its content? The Godfather tops the list, according to a study, of films that people pretend to have seen but never have. In spite of its influential actors and performances, most actors and dramatic people I know have not seen it. The easy fixes of the post-Spielberg world and now serial television command the collective public interest. Did this enable an era of escapism to destroy the complex storytelling and characters of a film like The Godfather Part II utterly?

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