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Monday, March 19, 2012

The Godfather Part II: Revolutions

We relate to The Godfather films probably for two chief reasons. Firstly, because we can identify with the functions and rituals of family: weddings, funerals, parties, baptisms, birthdays, and so on, everything through the basic dinner table meal. And secondly, if we don’t identify with the aspect of function, we can see ourselves in the dysfunction of the Corleone family. The irony is that the more successful the Corleones get, the less stable they are as a family. As he laments in Part III, the higher Michael Corleone goes, “the crookeder is all becomes. Where the hell does it end?” The Godfather relies on our sense of memory to see the entropy of a family spiraling through decades, and it has more power from how that perspective is applied to how we compare our own families in the present to how we knew them in the past, for better or worse. Photo albums give us a clue as to whether we’re on the ascendancy or not. As Billy Costigan quotes Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, “Families are always rising and falling in America.” Nothing is static.

The Godfather films are a hall of mirrors, constantly reflecting on each other. All three open with a family gathering, and each respective gathering gauges the family’s symbolic power, which always seems in inverse proportion with its foundational or corporate power. Think of Anthony’s First Communion, where Vito Corleone’s grandson patiently waits for the holy wafer while surrounded by blond haired and blue eyed children. Whereas the Corleone family during Connie’s wedding in 1945 was still very Sicilian and culturally separate from the outside world of American law and government, the Lake Tahoe sequence displays the America that was outside Don Vito Corleone’s Long Island fence now as the principle guests. We remember in Part I how Tom Hagen relayed messages to Don Corleone of Senator Cauley and several other government and judicial figures apologizing for not being able to make it, though they’ve still sent gifts. We remember how Santino antagonized the FBI agents waiting outdoors. Sonny angrily spat on their identification cards (“Goddamn FBI don’t respect nothing!”) and then smashed a photographer’s camera.

Here, in the 1958 Lake Tahoe home presided over by the new Don Corleone, Michael, we have gone through the looking glass. The tango dancers on stage are 180 degrees from the Italian songs and dances that delighted Mama Corleone and Clemenza, belonging to a glitzier and glossier America. The old-school Pentangeli, who apparently never wanted to come out West, feels that the ritual is drifting too far from Italian culture and tries to re-direct the band into doing a tarantella. We now see law enforcement officials getting champagne cocktails from the hired Corleone servers; photographers are roaming about freely; and most importantly, the special guest addressing the crowd is a U.S. senator, Pat Geary, joined by his wife. The “covert” payoffs to politicians and the interests of state are now publicly acknowledged endowments: Geary holds a check as he speaks into the microphone, saying that it is a gift of $1 million made in the name of “Anthony Vito Corleone.”

But listen to how Geary pronounces the name, removing it from anything Sicilian: “Anthony Vy-toh Cor-leon.” Was this the old don’s original dream? To have the Corleone family’s apparent legitimacy so grounded in artifice? Geary asks that the signers of the check stand up: “Mike, Pat – er, Kay," a mistake that, in 1974, links the Corleones to the corruption of the Nixon Administration. Instead of the godfather being hidden in the shadows of the dark office where we can barely make out the whites of his eyes, Michael is wearing a light-colored suit and standing in plain view to receive social accolades. A choir has dedicated their performance of “Mr. Wonderful” to him. He’s posing for a photograph not with family members, but with Senator and Mrs. Geary, the two men shaking hands and smiling, holding a plaque.

This is all an illusion. The pleasantries of the opening turn bad when Geary sits down in Michael’s office, and we are again in the murky water of underworld dealings, albeit with a slightly different reverberation, as the windows are often open and the walls, for instance when Tom Hagen is sent outside, transparent. The contrasts between light and dark are both more extreme in some places, and in others, more muted: the underworld and the legitimate establishment are all co-existing in the same dark water (notice the abundance of fish in Dean Tavoularis’ production design, which of course ties into Fredo’s demise at the conclusion). Geary admits that he plans on being “blunt,” switching his attitude from honored guest to bellicose racist. Michael wants to settle an issue about a gambling license connected with a casino the Corleone family is acquiring. Geary’s fee – which is a bribe – is $250,000, plus 5% of monthly profits. It’s an unfair charge, meant to “squeeze” Michael, and an insult from a WASP native to the invading Eastern horde, as Geary pronounces “Corleone” in a parodying fashion.

“I don’t like your people,” Geary explains his reasoning for the “fee.” “I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country in your oily hair.” Coppola quickly cuts to the adopted German-Irish Hagen for a second. Geary continues. “Dressed up in those silk suits, trying to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is I despise your masquerade; the dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family." The mainstream ritual that indicated that Michael Corleone had steered the family out of whatever moral ambiguity is called out for what it is: a masquerade. Even in the “morality car wash” (as Scorsese’s Casino calls it) of Las Vegas, the Corleones are still Sicilian gangsters, a group separated from the mass of “decent” Americans (read: white, blonde haired, blue-eyed, Northern European).

Michael, with infernal cigarette smoke drifting from an ashtray, responds with reptilian lethality and calm. “We’re both a part of the same hypocrisy. But never think it applies to my family.” All corruption is equal (an interpretation of the scene I first received as a child, watching film students discuss Godfather II in Andrew Bergman’s wonderful mobster knockoff The Freshman starring Marlon Brando), in politics and in gangsterism. One form simply has a better reputation in the masquerade. Regardless, Geary replies that the socially established power of politics and government are insurmountable, as he points the trinket war canon towards Michael, saying that he wants payment by noon tomorrow. He then chides Michael for the publicity this day has given him. The establishment doesn’t want any part of the ethnic tribe, in spite of whatever stake these immigrants have in the American dream. The ghettos that we see in the flashback sections of the film still endure, now more psychologically than geographically. Progressive values shine in photography and stage scaffolds, but not in any sort of authentic discourse. The instant the office door opens, Geary is back to the absurd social performance, exchanging niceties with the wives.

Michael’s next guest is Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese), who greets the godfather with “an orange from Miami.” Ola is here to talk about casino alliances with “our friend in Miami,” Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), an old school Jewish syndicate gangster (modeled on Meyer Lansky) who is ailing but actively seeking expansion into Cuba, which has a government that will fully cooperate with the mafia's casino enterprises. Roth is established as another figure from the old days, a contemporary of Vito Corleone, Clemenza, Tessio, and Pentangeli. However, his Jewish heritage is cause for Pentangeli’s dismay: “Your father respected Hyman Roth,” Pentangeli tells Michael, “your father did business with Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth, or his Sicilian messenger boy Johnny Ola!” Michael doing business with Roth is to "take a Jew over your own blood."

Whereas the progressive Michael is eager to establish and affirm new alliances and build bridges in a pursuit for legitimacy, Pentangeli clings to old-school tribalism, or as he calls the present situation, “a street thing.” Pentangeli blames Roth and the mysterious Rossotto brothers for Clemenza’s death in a bid to take over old Corleone territory. Because of Roth’s association with the Rossottos, Michael is in something of a political dilemma. “I want those Rossottos dead!” Pentangeli demands. “No,” is Michael’s answer. Pentangeli immediately responds in Italian, “Morte.”

This is the most unsettling contrast between the godfathers of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and it points to Michael’s insecurities. Whereas Don Vito was a man held in awe, venerated, feared, and practically worshipped, Michael, despite his intelligence, calm, and lethality, is openly disrespected. First by Geary and his unreasonable fees and racial slurs; by Connie and Merle Johnson, who want money but won’t take instruction; and by Pentangeli, who, even though he is a Corleone caporegime, acts like he’s running a family independent from Don Michael.

This decadence in Michael’s family is palpable at the dinner table. We see Fredo’s wife Deanna annoying everyone with her lack of cultural knowledge and self-control. The table toasts cent’anni, and she asks, “What’s ‘cent’anni’?” Fredo gives the proper pronunciation condescendingly. "It means a hundred years." Connie clarifies. “It means that we should all live happily for a hundred years. The family.” Then she utters a remark meant to hurt Michael, “It’d be true if my father were alive.” Pentangeli is meanwhile spilling his drink and loudly disrespecting Michael in Sicilian. We couldn’t imagine Don Vito presiding over the same table. Times have changed. What's missing is the certainty of the old godfather, a stability people in the ambiguous times of 1974 also found lacking.

The Corleones cannot tread smoothly in the worlds of Family and Society at the same time. The wedding in Part I was a hermetical affair, and none of the transgressions, from Connie, Merle, Pentangeli, or Geary, would have occurred there. When they did – such as Santino’s affair with Lucy Mancini – the offender, who transgresses in private, is shamed. It was a conservative and autocratic system, though Don Vito’s way worked in keeping the family functional. Social circumstances – like narcotics for the crime world – have changed the world. The way of the future is ineluctable. Old Values have little choice but to die or adapt; even so, the society of decadence here is not fertile for new values that could progressively thrive.

Poor Fredo, meanwhile, sits defeated next to Michael, apologizing as Deanna is carried off by Rocco Lampone. “I can’t control her Mike.” Michael kindly reassures Fredo. “You’re my brother. You don’t need to apologize to me.” It’s the first moment of warmth in this Lake Tahoe sequence. Both brothers are trying to do something that their father was able to do so easily: control the structure, pull the strings, and be respected. The lament of Don Tommasino from Part I – that the younger generation doesn’t respect the older one, a Coppola joke being that for tens of thousands of years the young have never respected the old – is a perennial lament not related to a wide historical spectrum, but the life-span of an individual family that had long ago touched its summit and can only go downward.

The end of the Tahoe party has Michael and Kay slowly waltzing. Kay is pregnant with their third child (in the interim, a daughter, Mary, has been born). In his quest to be more like his father, or perhaps because he senses something odd about Anthony, Michael is fixed on having another son. “Does it feel like a boy?” he asks. "Yes. Yes is does Michael." He apologizes for all the people who came to the house during the party. "It reminded me of something you once said," Kay says sadly. “You told me that in five years the Corleone family would be completely legitimate. That was seven years ago.” “I know. I know,” Michael says. “I’m trying, darling.” As much as time affects people undergoing its changes, Michael is unable to get a handle on it.

Wealth affords calm domesticity. At home, Michael looks at a drawing Anthony made for him, with a check box waiting for the father’s approval. But the placid contentedness before bedtime is interrupted by gunfire: the open-draped windows (which are not supposed to be open) explode as bullets tear through it, sending both Michael and Kay to seek cover on the ground. The godfather's openness to society, much like his open windows, has made him vulnerable – either from without or within. Kay looks at him vindictively, Michael knowing full well how she dislikes “this Sicilian thing” and that it is his relationship to the business that has imperiled her and the children.

Michael confides in Tom his troubles and suspicions, believing that there is a traitor in the family. He wonders about his bodyguards, “Our people are businessmen. Their loyalty is based on that. Pop taught me to try to think like people around you think.” Loyalty is secondary to success and Michael, who is disrespected by Geary, Connie, and Pentangeli, envied by Fredo, and doing shady business with Hyman Roth, cannot trust anyone but Tom. “It’s because I admire you and I love you that I kept things secret from you,” Michael tells him. Hagen is the closest thing to his father that Michael has left. Should anything happen to Michael, Tom Hagen will be the don. This is another sign of times changing: in the flashbacks, a Sicilian ascends out of the ghetto and rises in America; women finally assume a voice and stand up to patriarchal order; the proletariat storm the streets of Havana; and now a German-Irishman is a step from becoming the head of an Italian crime organization.
The mirrors of The Godfather Part II call attention to the revolutions experienced by father and son. Unlike the people surrounding them, Vito and Michael understand that the “Black Hand,” be it the government, the mafia hierarchy, or a dictator, can be beaten. On the streets of Havana, Michael sees a revolutionary sacrifice himself in a military general’s car, and he brings it up at a meeting with Hyman Roth and the other moneyed interests who are setting up shop in Batista’s Cuba. “What does that tell you?” asks Roth, quite seriously. “They can win,” Michael says. The revolutionaries aren’t paid to blow themselves up. The reach of money can only go so far. Roth, even in old age, doesn’t see the unseen contingency threatening his utopian plans. For him, peasants have been fighting in Cuba for decades. "It's in their blood." They’re “small potatoes” (to use his description of Frank Pentangeli).

For Vito, Don Fanucci also has the power of a strong-arm dictator. He owns the police and collects money from all businesses in the neighborhood. An opulent figure in white, he is feared as the Black Hand, very similar to mob historians as one of the “Mustache Petes” of Little Italy, who were bested by characters like Charlie Luciano. When Vito asks why he has to pay Fanucci for the work he’s done, Clemenza and Tessio spell out how dangerous the Black Hand is. There’s a maverick streak of rebellion in these Corleones, whether it’s McCluskey and the Five Families in Part I, Batista, or Fanucci. Pay particular attention to the word Fanucci uses to describe Vito’s inability to pay him: it’s an “insult.” The prologue informed us that it was similarly an “insult” that got Vito’s father killed. In Fanucci, Vito’s rebellion is born out of standing up to the man who killed his family. As Michael tells Hagen about the “unhittable” Hyman Roth, “If history has taught us anything, it says you can kill anyone.”

The beginning of Vito’s strategy is echoed in Michael: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.” Michael seems to allow Roth to adopt him, though suspecting that the old man doesn’t have good intentions. Vito will impress Fanucci with his courage and calm, to make it seem that he wants “good work” as an eligible employee. The game is duplicity – it’s business, sure, but as we watch Vito stare at Fanucci (while the older man takes down his espresso), we can gauge how personal this act of vengeance will be. Fanucci is Ciccio. 

This prepares the way for The Godfather Part II’s most elaborate and brilliant sequence, the Italian Catholic festa. Fanucci walks through the streets, receiving adoration and respect from the citizens as Vito watches and follows from the rooftops above. Fanucci is blessed by a priest, tosses an orange in the air, and makes his sincere prayer to the passing icon. The charade is accented by the theater, when Fanucci stands to watch a medieval puppet show, joking “This is too violent for me!” Blood rituals are transpiring on the holy altar and the puppet stage, but Fanucci doesn’t know that soon he will be washed in a more concrete form of blood sacrifice. His power estranges him from the significance of the ritual, making him a strange double for the older Don Michael in The Godfather Part III, whose Commendatore ritual has the same music that plays during Fanucci’s walk, the Marcia Religioso. The Jesus decorated with money proposes the question of what god Fanucci is following, Christ or Money?

Vito has a hidden gun waiting for him (like Michael with the Sollozzo killing), and descends into Fanucci’s building, unscrewing the light-bulb to cloak him in darkness and wrapping a towel around his weapon to hush the gunfire. Fanucci ascends the stairs as the priest is giving a benediction outside, patrons of the festa lining up to kiss Christ’s picture. Fanucci is about to go inside his apartment when he notices the unlit bulb. He curiously studies it, tapping on it to make it intermittently glow (and so exposing Vito to light). Satisfied, Fanucci goes inside the apartment, but then notices an approaching figure.

A number of things make this scene unforgettable: the tapping of the light, the slow footsteps, the delicacy with which Fanucci turns the bulb, etc. Fanucci has a very affable reaction to seeing Vito. As the young assassin extends his arm, Fanucci smiles and asks, “What you got there?” The white cloth on Vito's arm explodes and smoke rises from Fanucci’s chest. He tears his vest open, buttons and blood spilling on the floor. His scream is silenced by Vito’s second bullet going through his face. Suspended in the air for a moment by brain damage, Fanucci abruptly collapses, lifeless. Vito’s towel catches fire. Coppola cuts to the fireworks outside, Little Italy’s populace celebrating. This parallels the fireworks and ecstatic revolutionaries in 1959 Cuba. A righteous workers’ revolution has occurred. And as Vito puts the gun in Fanucci’s mouth, firing one more bullet into the body, we understand that this revolution is not simply business. Revolutions are personal.

As I noted before, the final revolution in The Godfather Part II is a sexual one. As evidenced by The Rain People, One from the Heart, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Dracula, Coppola is keen to how men of a patriarchal heritage take the agency of women for granted. At the beginning of Godfather II, Don Ciccio claims to have reason for fearing the dumb-witted and weak Vito, but never assumes that the widow in black would hold a knife to his neck, ensuring her son's escape. This is how Roth and Batista take the Communists for granted in Cuba, and how Fanucci takes Vito Corleone for granted in Little Italy. Finally, it's how Michael takes Kay for granted. Her abortion is an act of rebellion tantamount to throwing herself into a general's car with a grenade. Just as Michael can shut everyone else out of his private actions, so too can Kay, as the active force of Woman, shut him out. “It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s UNHOLY and EVIL! I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this WORLD!” Michael’s eyes light up ferociously. Kay continues, “It was a son, Michael, and I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael, no way that you could ever forgive me.” Think of this in context of Fredo’s betrayal, whom Michael can’t forgive either. Kay addresses the root: “Not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years--”

She is silenced by Michael exploding, lunging forth with a slap and yelling “Bitch!” Michael has completely lost control over everything, absurdly declaring that his wife won’t take his children from him (the important thing to note is that they’re “his” children, not “their” children). All of Michael’s bridges are gradually burning: his link to his father’s generation (Pentangeli); Fredo; and now Kay; the abortion is the only method of revolt Kay has against the “Sicilian“ thing, and it closes the circle of Godfather II's revolutions: Vito‘s revolt as a poor peasant against the tyrannical Fanucci, and as we shall soon see, Ciccio; then the Cuban communist revolt against the Batista regime. Both of these revolts, deliberately meant to mirror each other, are “impossible“ successes, suggesting a kind of Marxist process of the inevitable toppling of ruling decadent capitalist structures. Finally, there is the Woman‘s revolt. Women, who have always had the door closed on them, now assert their own functionality in the oppressive and ancient family paradigm, which Michael is strangely blind to foreseeing (“There are things that have been going on between men and women that will not change!”). The most detrimental revolution in the picture then may not be an organizational one or political one, but for Michael, it is unforeseen domestic revolution. He can build amazing social and political alliances and tackle with the United States government, but he loses his wife, and ultimately his whole meaningful orientation as a family man. The moment, like Kay, is suddenly cut off (as opposed to “dissolved” as was the way Coppola cued all the other temporal transitions) with a jolt into the past: the family of Vito Corleone, perhaps around 1925, is getting off a train in Sicily, not far from where this exhausting narrative began.

So if everything changes, can you lose your family? Michael asks his mother this question in the dark of her Lake Tahoe quarters. Mama tries to console Michael, misreading him by believing that he’s referring to Kay’s (alleged) miscarriage. No; he wants to know if doing the right thing can result in losing your family. "No," Mama says. "You can never lose your family." “Times are changing,” Michael says. Brother has betrayed brother, old friends are becoming informants and enemies, and regimes are toppled. Michael and the whole family is at risk of complete exposure as a Roth-engineered Senate panel has witnesses to testify against the Corleones. The Family, so insular and protected in the “good old days” of 1945, is flayed out on large pieces of paper, scrutinized and decoded. The hypocrisy of the American dream, as government and mafia mirror each other, collide. But it’s Michael Corleone’s cunning, as a man so sensitive to the dynamics of family, that saves him. Even while his quest for preservation makes his soul a vacuum.

1 comment:

  1. great articles. like you, the godfather got me into film in general as well. and i was also obsessed with all things mafia for a while.

    it struck me reading this that no country for old men contemplates a lot of the same ideas as godfather part II. the passage of time and old and new ways and their effect on people...