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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Godfather Part II: Between Brothers

Compare the landlord Roberto’s inelegant exchange with Vito to Geary’s interaction with Michael. Vito is able to create stability on a symbolic basis; Michael has to have a prostitute killed in order to get Geary in his pocket. Vito is a full-blooded businessman and successful protector of cultural sentiments; Michael, we now see, is deathly pale and monotone, rarely smiling, never humoring, and on trial. During the hearings, the Roberto/Geary comparison continues, as Geary breaks from the panel with a dry and politically expedient speech honoring Italian Americans, which is given to satiate the demands of his Corleone captors. Roberto and Geary are both ass-kissers; in one instance, the gratitude and praise is reverential, fearful, and full of immediate liveliness (Roberto), while with Geary it is mechanical, processed, and sanctioned (and, in the interest of the panel, meaningless).

The drama switches to Pentangeli’s dilemma, as he is being protected by the FBI and will testify the next day before the same panel against Michael Corleone, an action that is also completely opposed to his values. The reactionary, in this instance, has become the servant of expediency, and this torments him. “My life won’t be worth a nickel tomorrow.” The FBI agents remind him that he’ll “live like a king” in this isolation, which is exactly what Pentangeli hates; the irony being that his isolation that came as a result of this FBI deal is in many ways similar to the isolation his rival, Michael, is headed towards.

If Pentangeli testifies, Michael will be indicted for perjury and undoubtedly be sentenced to prison; Neri cannot kill Pentangeli being that the old man is “air-tight” with 24-hour armed guard protection. But Michael has resources that are rooted in his own private traumas. Pentangeli may work for the Corleone family, but he too has his cultural and geographic origins that can be traced back to the old country: like Michael, he is a brother. The feeling of shame resulting from a betrayal to one’s roots, embodied in “The Brother” is much more powerful than any expedient deal or even the fear of death. Michael knows this because of Fredo.

We know that Fredo is the traitor in the Corleone family long before Michael does. It’s not certain if Fredo knew how detrimental his betrayal would be; was he envious enough of Michael to want him dead? Did he just simply take Johnny Ola’s word that there was something in it for him, and that his cooperation would “speed up the negotiations”? After the murder attempt, we can see how Fredo knows he erred. A late night phone call from Johnny Ola asks for more information about Michael’s whereabouts. Fredo says, “You guys lied to me!” and hangs up. The black cloud of remorse hangs over him, along with the frustrated impotence as a misfit middle brother lacking the strength of Santino and the intelligence of Michael. Indeed, by his complicity with Ola and Roth, Fredo has disobeyed Michael’s instruction from Part I: “Don’t ever take sides against the family again. Ever.”

In Havana to drop off a multi-million dollar suitcase for Michael, Fredo proves a feeble performer to the lie. He denies ever meeting Roth or Ola, which would be very unlikely. Having a drink with Michael, where he awkwardly orders “uno banana daiquiri,” he almost confesses himself, which gets the core of his insecurities. “Sometimes I think I should have married a woman like Kay. For once in my life…be more like pop.” “It’s not easy being a son, Fredo,” Michael says and for a brief moment the two are sharing an affinity in the inability of matching their father. Fredo says that, as a boy, Mama told him he didn’t belong to her, that he was left on the doorstep by gypsies. “Mikey, I was mad at you…” he confides, and then turns away. “Why didn’t we spend time like this before?”

Drunkenly showing American politicians “a good time” in Havana’s night life, Fredo makes his error, his exposure reflected on the “Superman” performer who is naked in front of an audience. “Say Freddie, where did you hear about this place?” Geary asks, hooker in tow. “Johnny Ola!” Fredo says. Michael, in the background, freezes. Fredo elaborates on how Johnny Ola knows all of the best places to go, even though “old man Roth” would never be found near them. The deceit is uncovered and everything has changed for Michael. At the New Year’s Ball at Batista’s palace, Michael grabs Fredo and kisses him: “I knew it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart…you broke my heart!” The kiss of shame sends Fredo fleeing – out of guilt and out of fear. As revolutionary winds blow violently, Fredo won’t leave with Michael. “You’re still my brother!” Michael yells, but Fredo runs away.

What soon follows in the drama between the two brothers is what might be the most dramatically compelling and heart-wrenching scene of The Godfather trilogy. Michael has figured out how Roth has plotted everything, from Fredo’s betrayal to the role of Pentangeli in the Senate hearings. He talks to Fredo.

On the patio, Fredo is lying like a corpse on a chair overlooking Tahoe. The way Cazale plays the scene, raising and resting his arms above his head as Michael enters to sit down, then turning his face far to his left for his inborn fear of looking his brother in the eye, is the most realistic and moving portrayal of a man’s internal struggle with shame ever in a motion picture. This is the most significant dialogue exchange in the film, placing Vito’s surviving biological children at different sides of the stage and revealing their current status, mountainously distant from where their father left them.

“I haven’t got a lot to say, Mike.” “We have time.” Michael says, recalling how he answered his father's regret that there wasn't enough time in a similarly important scene from Part I. “I was kept pretty much in the dark. I didn’t know all that much.” “What about now? Is there anything you can help me out with? Anything you can tell me now?” Fredo’s tone is one of confession; Michael’s one of logical necessity. He does not care about Fredo’s need for mercy and forgiveness. Michael, the zombie, needs to survive. Fredo looks at the ceiling. “They got Pengangeli, that’s all I can tell you.” This doesn’t help Michael. He gets up and looks to the grey blanket sky, rubbing his temples as Fredo struggles for the right words before this chance for confession slips away.

“I didn’t know it was going to be a hit, Mike. I swear to God I didn’t know it was going to be a hit.” Michael turns to him as Fredo tries to articulate, swallowing hard. “Johnny Ola bumped into me in Beverly Hills, and he said that he wanted to talk. He said that you and Roth were in on a big deal together, and there was something in it for me if I could help him out – he said that you were being tough on the negotiations. But if they could get a little help, and close the deal fast, it’d be good for the family.” “You believed that story? You believed that?” Fredo begins to rise, his arms raised and face frantic to communicate something that is simmering to a boil: a kind of longing and disappointment that he’s carried for years. “He said there was something in it for me…on my own…” “I’ve always taken care of you, Fredo.” “Taken care of me?!” Fredo shrieks. “You’re my kid brother and you take care of me?! Did you ever think about that?! Did you ever ONCE think about that?! Send Fredo off to do this, send Fredo off to do that! Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse nightclub somewhere! Send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport! I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!” Fredo is shaking, pointing at himself. “That’s the way Pop wanted it,” Michael says quietly. “IT AIN’T THE WAY I WANTED IT!!! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says! Like dumb! I’m smart and I want respect!!”

With his mustache, Fredo here looks like a twisted deformation of the respectable Don Vito; he's the sickly son who never developed properly. I know some people that believe that Fredo’s a useless individual, who deserves no mercy, and on a logical plane, they may be correct (which again, plants us in the troubling values espoused by The Godfather films and how our own values connect with it). But Coppola’s sympathy clearly lies with Fredo on a visceral personal level, given his own troubling relationship of love and awe that he has for his older brother August (which also served as a kernel element in Rumble Fish and lately in Tetro). Though he is the most successful Coppola, Francis as a youth felt overshadowed by his older brother, who was better at school and better with girls, floating through life with a natural charisma that the awkward young Francis envied and awed. Whereas greatness seemed to naturally come to August, Francis actively wished for it (when he was a child, he wrote a letter to his mother: “I want to be famous”). August was good looking to women, while young Francis was afflicted with polio which kept him bedridden and led to his legs not developing properly.

Looking back at Godfather I and remembering the few moments with Fredo, we notice how he lacks natural charisma and seems afflicted with a sweet longing for something surrounding him: his awkward and drunken introduction to Kay at Connie’s wedding; the way he fumbles the gun as his father is shot on the street, and then meekly crying over the fallen body; being the quiet family member as he tenderly sits alone with bed-ridden Vito as the old man is wondering about Michael (a beautiful moment where Coppola is giving an under-developed character a soul by just resting the camera on him); and his under-nourished need for success and attention dressing itself in the form of a loud Vegas sleaze-ball. This middle-child is in an awkward quandary of having no direction and no dictated life-path, damned to be overlooked and lacking the talents and charms necessary to be looked at in the first place. John Cazale is, as an overlooked actor, the perfect Fredo. It boggles the mind, that as deserving De Niro, Strasberg, and Gazzo were for 1974 Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (to say nothing of Duvall and Spradlin), Cazale was completely snubbed – as he was the next year for his work in Dog Day Afternoon; his premature death from brain cancer soon after the production of The Deer Hunter not only makes his own story more tragic, but also stirs heartbreaking poignancy in Fredo's character.

Michael, very mechanically, dismisses Fredo’s grievances. He again asks if Fredo has any more information on Roth. Fredo deflates. “The Senate lawyer, Questadt. He belongs to Roth.” This satisfies Michael, who then exiles Fredo with deletion as punishment for what Michael in the future will refer to as an “injury” to himself: “Fredo. You’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother. You’re not a friend. I don’t want to know you or what you do. I don’t want to see you at the hotels. I don’t want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won’t be there.” Fredo’s sin was his fraternal betrayal and opening himself up to opportunism from the outside, the very thing that has been plaguing the Corleone family for the whole of Part II: big business and reputation based in capital rather than symbolic exchange. Michael opens himself up to a suspended question that mirrors the plea of his grandmother, the widow Andolini. Mercy and forgiveness are not practical: but there was something in the pleas of the heart to which Vito was open, perhaps as a result of watching his mother die. Michael simply is not open. His sinister intentions are revealed as he talks to Neri: “I don’t want anything to happen to [Fredo] while my mother’s alive.”

Michael processes Fredo’s confession and sorrow for strictly utilitarian ends. He uses the brother’s shame as a means of defense against Pentangeli’s damning testimony. He has flown in Pentangeli’s own brother from Sicily, who simply has to show his face to Frankie in the hearing room to ensure silence. The brother’s face acts as a mirror for what Pentangeli really believes and what he finds honorable. The look between brothers is like a gunshot, the quick shot-reverse-shot rhythm reminiscent of Dede Allen and Arthur Penn's climax in Bonnie and Clyde. Pentangeli will deny all of his recorded statements regarding the criminality of Michael Corleone, and remain trapped within the FBI compound. When Kay questions Michael about what happened with Pentangeli, he simply answers, “It was between the brothers.” Though Michael has built an isolating wall between himself and the perennial values of his father’s generation, he will utilize those values in a cynical way in order to save himself. Utility is more important than Meaning. He is freed from any government inquiry, and as such, is insulted when the hearing committee does not offer a public apology that would serve to rebuild his tarnished reputation.

Mama Corleone has died. She was Fredo’s last link to his father’s family, and he is visibly shaken as he kneels close to the casket. The only one left for him to grapple onto is Connie, who has changed over the course of the narrative. Instead of being a sumptuous and spoiled mob-daughter ornament, she looks pale, aged, and more observant. Michael’s instructions to her at the beginning of the film – to stay with the family – have apparently worked in tempering her; and strangely, her commitment to the sanctity of family has eclipsed Michael’s. Fredo asks to speak with Tom, who coolly replies that Michael is waiting for Fredo to leave. Connie overhears this and once more, Coppola paints a mirror to the Widow Andolini and Don Ciccio.

The image in the boathouse of Michael depressively waiting is horrifying. He is seated across from Anthony and Mary, who sit in the same chair, static and lifeless, like puppets waiting for a go-ahead from their father. Connie enters and kneels in front of Michael, asking that they be alone. It’s interesting how Michael gives Anthony a vague expression, and the boy gets up to leave. There is no family here (no wife, for one thing; Kay is not at the funeral), only a cold system of secured power and control.

“I hated you for so many years,” Connie says to him, a feeling no doubt originating with Carlo’s death. “I think I did things to myself to hurt myself so that you’d know…that I could hurt you. You were just being strong for all of us, the way Papa was. And I forgive you.” She shakes her head. “Can’t you forgive Fredo? He’s so sweet and helpless without you. You need me, Michael. I want to take care of you now.” This plea seems to work with the cold figure, who caresses her face.

Cutting back to the funeral party, Michael walks to the sunken figure of Fredo, smoking by himself at a dining table. Michael extends his arms and they embrace, Fredo grappling tightly onto his brother, overwhelmed by Michael’s mercy. But, the recurring motif for Michael Corleone in Godfather II relates to how social incident matters much more than private matters. Michael forgives Fredo for the Public Record, but as he looks at Al Neri (just as his cold look could command Anthony to move moments before) he remains determined to wrap things up by severing himself from the weak link. Fredo must die; this, in its own duplicitous way, makes Michael Corleone something worse than Ciccio on more than one level.

The key issue is fratricide: incomprehensible to a man like Michael’s father (who couldn’t even fathom how Italians could give other Italians a hard time, based on the principle of being “paisan”). The theme of fraternal tension was developed by Coppola and made Puzo, a full-blooded Southern Italian, very uncomfortable. He didn’t want to allow Michael to have Fredo killed, being that it was so terrible, and only compromised as long as Coppola would have Mama Corleone die before it occurred. Michael’s system of power makes him a hegemonic son. The idiosyncrasies of the other Corleones are extinct with Fredo’s execution, and Michael can be absorbed in the darkness of his environs. His irrational impulse to solipsistic isolation, so much like Macbeth, is paralleled by Hyman Roth’s absurd desire for power when his mortality is running out.

Michael’s other two objects of interest remain Roth and Pentangeli. Roth, who once came close to living in a country with a “cooperative government,” cannot find any safe haven; his passport has been invalidated everywhere; Israel has denied him citizenship (a real-life frustration of Meyer Lansky); Panama and Buenos Aires won’t accept his bribes. And he is terminally ill. Michael nevertheless makes clear his intention of “wiping everyone out" (Roth included). Michael voices his plans for Roth (sucking on an orange) to a protesting Hagen the same way Vito explained to Clemenza that Fanucci could be fought. “It’s like trying to kill the president, there’s no way we can get to him!” says Hagen. “Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anyone.” Michael motions to Rocco, who admits that it’s “difficult, not impossible.” Rocco, for his part as a button-man, is really entering a suicide mission. Of course Roth can be killed because, with Michael’s logic and value on a life, such as a mechanical soldier like Rocco’s, anything can be accomplished.

Tom is floored by Michael’s logic, and finds himself at odds with his brother: Michael doesn’t trust him now either. After asking why Michael has to wipe everyone out (“I mean - you won!”), Michael asks, “Are you going to come along on these things I have to do, or what?” Tom is supposed to be the expendable brother, plastic, the German-Irishman who has been completely reprocessed as a Sicilian. Michael would just as well eliminate him also. “If not, you can take your wife, your children, and your mistress and move them all to Las Vegas.” The reference to a mistress is interesting, a judgment that points out how Michael, of all the Corleone brothers, is the only one who’s never had one. The implication, far-fetched as it may seem, is that this character is so self absorbed as to be onanistic (similar to Macbeth). “Why do you hurt me, Michael?” Tom asks. “I’ve always been loyal to you, I mean, what is this?” Michael speaks in Sicilian to him, “So, you’re staying?” And Tom conforms to the Sicilian model by answering that he is.

Hagen’s job will be to cut off the last old familial link, Pentangeli, not through violence but through suggestion. When they meet, the two are in absolute agreement regarding the decay that Michael has wrought on the family. But Hagen has to use the ancient principles in order to finish his job, and so again Coppola uses the past to stress the present age’s severance from it. “You were around the old timers,” Hagen says. “Agreeing how the family should be organized, based on the old home allegiance and called them regimes…capos and soldiers. And it worked.” Pentangeli agrees that it did. “Those were the great old days, you know. Hey, we was like the Roman Empire. The Corleone Family was like the Roman Empire.” A melancholy violin begins. “It was once,” Hagen nods. “When a plot against the emperor failed,” he continues, “the plotters were always given a chance to let their families keep their fortunes.” “Yeah, but only the rich guys,” Pentangeli is beginning to grasp what Hagen is telling him. “The little guys, they got knocked up and all their estates went to the emperors…unless they went home and killed themselves. Then…nothing happened to them. And their families…their families were taken care of, Tom.” It is understood. Pentangeli’s family will be taken care of, and he will slash his wrists while in custody. Death is the means of preserving family, the impossible paradox of The Godfather Part II.

Interestingly, it is Fredo who becomes the healthy image of paternity in the final act, forming a relationship with his nephew, Anthony. Fredo exchanges tackle-box information with Anthony, rubbing the boy’s head tenderly (with that longing for paternity in Fredo’s sad eyes) and relating a story (from Coppola’s own youth) of how he catches big fish by saying the 'Hail Mary’ before casting his line out. This is a tenderness that Michael fails to maintain with his son. The realms of personal and business are not separated in The Godfather’s universe, so if one is dishonest and duplicitous, or cold and ruthless as a businessman, so too must they be as a family man. Michael’s handling of Neri and Rocco is no different from his relationship to Anthony: the communication through silent glances. And so, as Michael looks out from his window after having Connie pull Anthony from Fredo’s fishing boat at the last minute, he sees Neri carry out his final order – burning his last bridge – and isolating himself completely, all for the sake of "protecting his family." Fredo is reciting the “Hail Mary” to himself, a quiet and intimate mirror to the saga’s other moments of crossing the vectors of Sacred and Abominable. The prayer is cut short by a gun-shot. There is no Family anymore.

Godfather II ends with a man’s complete estrangement from the world, and from himself as he once was. It’s fitting that Coppola’s epilogue takes us once more in the past – December 7, 1941, the day that America broke its isolation with the rest of the world because of Pearl Harbor. We see the familiar and forgotten faces of Part I enter the frame: Santino cheerfully introducing Carlo Rizzi to Connie. Fredo, much more innocent looking, sits next to Tom (who has hair). “And that droopy thing over there,” Santino says to Carlo, “that’s my brother Mike.” We can’t believe this is even the same actor: in this flashback, Pacino looks decades younger, full of bashful vibrancy and good humor, nodding to Carlo. Tessio soon enters, a birthday cake in his arms.

The event is Pop’s birthday – a surprise party, and with this scene Coppola masterfully solves the problem of Brando’s absence throughout Godfather II: this has been an epic about the passage of time, of erosion and entropy, of dreams and disappointments, of causality and fate. The story of Michael Corleone relates to living in the shadow of his father, and how that father lived on such a preternatural and enigmatic plane based on his actions and the mystery of his intentions, that he can never be understood. We, the audience, want to see Brando’s Don Corleone return, and being that we see James Caan, Abe Vigoda, and Gianni Russo, all ghosts by the end of Part I, it seems possible.

The conversation quickly moves to the issue of Pearl Harbor. “Can you believe the nerve of those slanty-eyed bastards, dropping bombs on Pop’s birthday?” Santino loudly begins. “They didn’t know it was Pop’s birthday,” Fredo absent-mindedly says. Though Santino’s racism against the “invading tribe” is pungent (he has similar tough words for African Americans in Part I), he ironically has an attitude that any kind of military retribution is stupid. After Tessio notes that 30,000 men enlisted after the attack, Santino calls them saps. “They’re saps because they risk their lives for strangers.” “Oh, that’s Pop talking,” Michael says. “You’re goddamn right.” “They risk their lives for their country,” Michael offers. Santino shoots back, “Your country ain’t your blood, remember that.” “I don’t feel that way.” “Well if you don’t feel that way why don’t you just quit college and join the army?” “I did.” This silences the table. “I enlisted in the Marines.” Fredo breaks his fork.

Tom questions Michael’s choice. “Why didn’t you come to us about this? Pop had to pull a lot of strings to get you a deferment.” “I didn’t ask for it,” says Michael. “I didn’t ask for a deferment and I didn’t want it.” As both a college student or as a soldier, Michael distinguishes himself among the Corleones for wanting to branch outside of la famiglia and be a part of the wider net of America. He has emerged as a puzzle: at the end of the film, he is completely isolated and devoted to a certain knowledge that he is right about what he’s doing, which has sapped him of ingenuity and values. His flaw lies in the very thing that makes him honorable and heroic: his independence. From this perspective, Michael, out of all the sons, is probably the most like his father – yet it is their differing social circumstances that created separate outcomes for them. Vito’s parents and siblings were dead when he acted decisively; Michael was surrounded by expectations. Those things that would make him a stronger person in our eyes are also the things that usher in his ruin, and the ruin of his father’s family. In this dining room, remember, there are three men that he is responsible for murdering in the years to come. All deaths were logically ruled as being necessary, each one a little more sacrilegious than the one preceding.

The family leaves to greet the father at the front door. Michael Corleone sits alone as the others celebrate as a unit, indicating that, after all this time from 1941 to 1959, maybe he actually has never changed. He was always too much his own person, perhaps. And under the wrong circumstances, this resulted in becoming a walking Dread Figure of Death, guilty of fratricide, eons removed from his father. That Coppola doesn’t give us the godfather, Brando, works in his favor. The absence of this haunting and mythic character is much more powerful in making Michael’s tragedy palpably despairing. Brando’s absence from the picture is Don Vito’s greatness absent from Michael’s grasp. The new godfather lingers outdoors, deathly autumn leaves blowing around him. Abstracted, his dark dead eyes stare backwards in time.

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