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Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Godfather Part II: The Horizon of Time

In recent interviews, Francis Ford Coppola has downplayed the significance of The Godfather films, which have greatly overshadowed the more personal and independent work. He has insisted that the only Godfather that should have been made was the first, and that both sequels were done for money. Coppola’s loathing towards his best and brightest – if bastard – offspring was never more absurd than in a Charlie Rose interview from the mid-1990s, where he says that the critics got it wrong with The Godfather to such an extent that they got it wrong in reverse with Rumble Fish ten years later (Rumble Fish being Coppola’s personal favorite of his films). He does not see in these films from the 1970s (including Apocalypse Now) what everyone else does.

Though his cultural identification gave the first Godfather a personal touch that any other director would not be able to sire – in addition to his theatre background which emerged in the era immediately following Strasberg and Kazan, and his film training blossoming at the ripest time in world cinema, making him an idea collaborator for the actors in the film – the second and third Godfather films feel much more personal, born from the director’s gut: The Godfather Part II plays like a European-influenced director’s record of 1970s Nixonian malaise, while The Godfather Part III is authored by the anxieties of a middle-aged man struggling to construct his own business and legacy that will catapult him innovatively into a financial market dominated by reactionary fossils – while nevertheless being “pulled back in” the same old process that the established paradigm has constructed for him (and, so the story goes, failing). Just when Coppola was out and could go ahead with his long-delayed project Megalopolis and dreams for his studio, American Zoetrope, “they” pull him back in.

Michael Corleone is Francis Ford Coppola. Both men were trying to distinguish themselves in youth, separate from the shadows of a domineering tradition and family or long-held Hollywood methods of moviemaking; they decisively gave themselves to what they were rebelling against, believing they could use the bargain as a means of achieving their dreams quicker. Both became trapped.

But this shows how Coppola was very good at making the best of a bad situation. His ambition in going forth with The Godfather Part II was to go for broke and construct it in such a way that it would seem like the second half of a meticulously woven novel; it would have to seem that the writer of this novel never had any intention of not writing a second part. For example, the way Michael tells Fredo, “Never take sides with anyone against the family again,” becomes so much more haunting when we look at how the story of the brothers develops in Part II, concluding in fratricide. The way Michael so deliberately says “again” here, given our knowledge post-1974 that there are two Godfather movies, makes it seem ridiculous that we could imagine the events of Part II not happening.

Because of this, Coppola titled the film The Godfather Part II, which in movies was an unconventional way of titling sequels. At that time, sequels carried their own independent titles, like in the franchises of James Bond and the Pink Panther, or Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy. According to Coppola, “Part II” is the “literary” method, taking cue from Don Quixote, Faust, or Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry VI. After the success of The Godfather Part II, other sequels followed suit: The French Connection II in 1975, Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1978, and the franchises of Jaws and Rocky. (The older method still endured with the “Dirty Harry” films, and George Lucas’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones series). By 1989, when Coppola was preparing a second Godfather sequel, he was conscious of how whatever he was making could not be as rich or complete as the first two films; it was an epilogue, more focused on the interior world of its main character, a novella or possibly an appendix. He wanted to title the new film The Death of Michael Corleone. The fact that Paramount was unwilling to go along with him, and insisted that the title be The Godfather Part III, is evidence, for Coppola, of his comparative lack of influence in 1990 when compared to 1974, and also another reason for the audience’s collective rejection of the final film. Had they been expecting an epilogue for this aging and ailing character, instead of another full “book” of Corleone adventures, their expectations may have been tempered and even, given the operatic grandiosity of the final half-hour, pleasantly surprised. The title would also pinpoint a great irony of the final story, given how the main character’s death in the picture’s final moments is completely separated from the context of the previous 160 minutes.
The first problem Coppola faced with Godfather II was Marlon Brando: much of the first film’s legend and popularity simply rested with the image and voice of Brando’s Don Vito Corleone. To a large degree, his performance is what made The Godfather an iconic movie, even though his screen time doesn’t come close to Al Pacino’s Michael; an apt comparison may be Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. Though on screen for a limited amount of time, the force of the performance, in terms of its look and sound, is so unforgettable that it dominates every frame even when absent. For The Godfather Part II, now that Don Vito is dead, would audiences care to follow the Corleones into the 1950s, with a far more alienated protagonist?

The Godfather Part II’s solution is in its innovative structure. It is not simply about the next godfather, but is about how both godfathers reflect against each other in the horizon of time. Coppola took a great risk, and didn’t rest his faith in the popular film actor Marlon Brando, but in the character of Vito Corleone, trusting that the ghostly presence of the character would carry over during the scenes involving Michael in the new film: whatever Michael Corleone does, his father is always on his mind. Coppola also put stock in a young actor, Robert De Niro, to play the younger Vito in a flashback narrative complementing Michael’s story, beginning in 1901 and ending about 25 years later. We follow the development of this enigmatic Vito character, from being a seemingly dumb or dim-witted youth, to struggling family man, to street thug, to paternal crime lord.

Coppola had luck. Retaining most of the surviving characters from the first film, Al Pacino had grown in notoriety, earning an Oscar nomination for The Godfather and giving a Cannes winning performance in Scarecrow opposite Gene Hackman, followed by another Oscar-nominated classic performance in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico in 1973. De Niro had already turned heads with his satirical collaborations with Brian De Palma (Hi, Mom!, Greetings), and won praise and awards in 1973 for his work in Mean Streets and Bang the Drum Slowly. As the young Vito, he draws from the same source of power Brando had two years earlier; his performance might be the best by any actor in the whole trilogy.

The only actor unable to reprise his role as a surviving character from Part I was Richard Castellano as Pete Clemenza, whose contract demanded that he write his own dialogue. At the very last moment, Coppola replaced Clemenza with another caporegime from the old days, Frank Pentangeli, “Frankie Five-Angels,” who would, along with returning soldier Willi Cicci, be wearing a black arm-band in mourning for Clemenza during the opening scenes; Clemenza was apparently felled by a recent heart-attack (though according to Cicci, Clemenza may have been murdered by the rival Rossotto brothers, who have backing from the elderly Jewish gangster Hyman Roth). As Pentangeli, Michael V. Gazzo makes an even greater impression than Castellano did in the first film, though it’s curious imagining Clemenza in the same role, given how in the flashbacks we see Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) as Vito’s Mephistopheles, luring him into a life of crime. A similar last-minute replacement on Part III, where Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen is replaced by George Hamilton’s B.J. Harrison, would not be as successful, and prove to be one of the last installment’s great deficiencies.

The story Coppola and Puzo created lacks nothing in scope: it’s an epic of immigration, westward expansion and prosperity, where people from the Old Country come to the ghettos, then aspire to the suburbs of New York, and finally move out to Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas where their ties to the Old World are almost fundamentally severed. There are scenes then in Miami and Havana, with great ethnic parades and rituals and intimate conflicts set against the backdrop of world-changing political revolution. The Godfather Part II draws from Opera and Romance, but also, with its senate hearings on the mafia and Cuban revolution, has an aspect of urgent realism. Those evenly lit scenes drawn from headlines contrast to the Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro of intimate scenes from the past and present, as cinematographer Gordon Willis makes the contrast of light and pure darkness even more pronounced than he did in the first film: the dark is eating up the Corleone family as the future approaches. Alongside the two leads of father and son, Coppola and Puzo have an unforgettable assembly of supporting characters: Fredo Corleone, Tom Hagen, Frank Pentageli, Hyman Roth, Senator Pat Geary, Johnny Ola, Connie Corleone, Kay Adams Corleone, and others.

The Godfather Part II is perfectly executed, no moment feeling rushed as a non-stop cavalcade of classic dramatic exchanges occur minute-to-minute. I feel that more than any other film, including its predecessor, it has reason to be held as Citizen Kane’s most formidable competitor as the greatest of American movies, manufactured in the most artistically prosperous of Hollywood eras; its breadth and completeness as an epic is one of a kind, but is magnificently echoed by two masterpieces by American directors the next year, Robert Altman’s Nashville and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, to say nothing of its contemporary from 1974, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (all of these, including The Godfather and Coppola’s more intimate masterwork from 1974, The Conversation, have reason to consider themselves among the very best films ever made, by anyone in any country).

As a nation of immigrants, maybe Godfather II holds a special distinction as an American story. Nine-year-old Vito’s experiences at Ellis Island are plugged into a collective memory of forced assimilation as an official erases the boy of his father’s name – Vito Andolini – and is handed the name “Vito Corleone,” based on the town of his origin. When we see the newly “baptized” Vito Corleone singing to the Statue of Liberty from his Ellis Island window – which will soon be doubled with his grandson Anthony at a first communion 60 years later – we’re hurried into thinking of our own ancestral voices that sing to us. In his recent memoir The Godfather Effect, Tom Santopietro eloquently speaks of the impact this image first had on him as a young moviegoer: “Gently swinging his feet to and fro, he softly sings a song in his native dialect. It’s a sequence short in duration, but so powerful to me, so shocking in its unexpected intensity, that I choked up. I didn’t sob and didn’t even cry, but I was over overcome with a personalized emotion I had never before experienced in a movie theater, because to my twenty-year-old self, there on the screen, in the person of young Vito, was my grandfather, Orazio Santopietro, as a young man. My grandfather had come back to life. Time stopping – the hoariest of clich├ęs. But that’s how it felt, as if I had been forcibly hurled back seventy years in time.”

That’s the poetic resonance of The Godfather trilogy, and reason why it is our great American story, arguably even surpassing its peers in literature. It puts time in perspective, along with family and morality, and how these elements come together to impact our identity that change over the years. Good men become bad men, and vice versa. There are myriad paradoxes and mirrors: fathers and sons, the sacred and profane, the Old World and the New World, the past and present/future, crime and politics, the official and private, art and life, speech and deed, wealth and poverty, life and death, business and personal. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II came out in a period of national crisis, when America’s sins had become transparent, the dignity and legacy of our forefathers put into question by the atomic bomb, McCarthyism, the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate. The Godfather Part III was released shortly after the end of the Cold War and Greed is Good 1980s, set in 1979 when the Golden Era of Hollywood (and Francis Ford Coppola) ended and the introspective questions of Jimmy Carter regarding national identity were replaced by Ronald Reagan. The theme was victory at the price of emptiness; America, like Michael Corleone according to Cardinal Lamberto, had terrible sins and “could be redeemed; but I know you don’t believe that. You will not change.” Now in the 2010s, when the immediacy of information flows so fast that the past or any perspective is foggy, The Godfather, most especially the crowning installment of The Godfather Part II, is a tragedy whose sense was never so truthful and important.

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