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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Intermezzo: Time, Who Eats His Own Young

“Who am I, to conquer time?” – Serge Catiline, Megalopolis

Can we actually for once talk about The Godfather Part III? It’s not easy. Not because there’s nothing there to talk about – on the contrary, there’s a lot, of both merits and flaws – but popular culture’s reference to the third film has only grown more rebuking in the last 21 years. Like Fredo alongside his brothers, it’s not easy being compared to two of history's most acclaimed films. Yet my life as a Godfather devotee has always consisted of taking Part III as the final Act and Epilogue, giving Michael Corleone his comeuppance and death, deepening the character and making the family more fascinating to me. Indeed, one of the things I hate about discussions revolving around The Godfather is the inevitable moment when some smart ass has to chime in about how terrible The Godfather Part III is; it’s a proclamation that I feel has more to do with fashion than honest evaluation. The picture is flawed and may even be a failure, not living up to its predecessors or great films that inspired it (The Leopard and Ran). But if it is a failure, it's the noblest kind. The filmmaking is often enough masterful that I have always held the picture in high esteem. Having seen it countless times over the years, The Godfather Part III’s flaws have worsened just as its bright spots glow more brilliantly. It's a troubling film that is stodgy, unbalanced, deeply moving, elegiac, and ironic. How unfortunate that it should be dismissed, as such films often invite compelling conversation.

I’ve always thought about The Godfather Part III as a cathedral drawn up by a master architect, whose blueprints point to something that would be a masterpiece. Through a series of obstacles, the final building looks unfinished, rushed, even abandoned in places, while other realms of the cathedral are sublime. That the most polished and complete section of the film is its final act is a great plus for an epic saga winding to its conclusion. When first I saw it, I was obsessed with knowing how Michael Corleone would end. I wanted him to pay for his sins, but I also wanted to feel pity and terror in that instant of retribution. Coppola’s payoff was precisely what I longed for in suspense and emotion.

I can see more clearly now the things from the first two hours I was able to overlook, and which now greatly irritate me: 1. Robert Duvall’s absence as the family brother and intermediary between Michael and secondary characters, adding dimension to all the players. 2. Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone, whose terrible first impression as a love object for the young godfather to come, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), often derails the story; it would have been more interesting to follow Vincent, the libidinous bastard son of Santino, live up to his Edmund roots and perhaps have conflicted motives for romancing his naïve first cousin. 3. The reliance on nostalgia, as Coppola cuts back to images from the first two films, not trusting the audience with its memory (which made Vito Corleone’s presence in Part II so powerful). When the ghosts are hidden, they're more potently haunting.

Coppola’s first instincts about the beginning were also probably right. Though I like the ghostly Lake Tahoe prelude, where the Corleone stronghold from Part II is now in ruins, what follows softens things. Coppola wanted to commence the picture on a note of family, having Michael write a letter to his children while photographs dissolve into each other. The warmth dulls the blade that cuts so mercilessly in the first two films. The special features on the DVD have the original Godfather III beginning, starting with a close-up of Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) and slowly moving back, the priest quoting Dante and striking a deal with Michael, where the godfather will have control of a multi-billion dollar European real estate organization, Immobilaire, in exchange for bailing the Archbishop out of debt (a handsome sum of $600 million to help pay off the total $769 million deficit; and you thought your student loan debt was bad). This would add a layer of suspicion to the Catholic ritual now beginning the picture, clarifying the relationship between the Corleones and the Vatican (this alternate beginning now occurs about 40 minutes into the film). It also serves as a startling mirror to Bonasera’s request from Part I. It highlights how obscenely rich, legitimate, and “respectable” Michael has become, in addition to how global, and how desperate, he is. “Seems like the power to absolve debt is greater than the power of forgiveness,” Gilday says to Michael. Even though Michael warns, “Don’t over-estimate the power of forgiveness,” when Gilday reminds him that being Immobilaire’s commandeer will “wash away” Michael’s history – in addition to the history of his whole family – it’s clear that, so much unlike Vito to Bonasera, the Archbishop may be pulling the strings here. Above all else, Michael wants to be absolved. The despair of the subsequent St. Sebastian ritual and the pleasant Manhattan party would have been amplified, and the tempo of that old Godfather feeling more properly channeled.
The Root to the Fruit
The huge maps in Gilday’s quarters, in addition to Michael’s reach for the European conglomerate Immobilaire, point to how this story is, so inverse to the “Go West” trajectory of Part II, an epic drift into the past, an impossible dream to control time and destiny. Michael has moved back east to New York, residing not in a Long Island suburb like the old Corleone estate, or near the ghetto of Genco Olive Oil Company, but in swanky Upper West Side Manhattan. His quest for peace takes him across the ocean, back to the island of his dreamy interlude from Part I, where tragedy strikes again and he at last dies, the Corleone fruit falling at its root like the orange from a limp hand. It’s another parallel to his father, considering that in Part II Don Vito also went back home to Sicily, retracing his steps. This journey home brings him closer to family, as we see the family at a grand table with relatives (presumably Carmella’s parents), and also solidifies his path as a criminal when he murders Don Ciccio.

I’ve pointed out that Michael’s unlikely double from The Godfather Part II was not necessarily his father, but Don Ciccio, the village mafia chieftain who murdered Vito’s father, mother, and brother. Like Don Ciccio, Michael hears the plea of a woman begging forgiveness on behalf of another: the Andolini widow for Vito, and Connie for Fredo. In both cases, the mafia dons choose logic and erase all of their enemies, even the most helpless ones (Vito and Fredo are referenced as equals, as Vito’s mother describes him as “dumb-witted,” while Fredo is very aware of how people think that he’s dumb). As with Ciccio, foul deeds come back in old age. In Ciccio's case it’s abrupt, an unexpected knife slashed through the torso; with Michael, it’s akin to his diabetes, slowly eating away at him over time, probably blinding and crippling him before he finally expires. His condition is aptly described by Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone), “The mind suffers and the body cries out.”

Vito’s Sicilian journey equals Michael’s dreamlike days in Part I and Part III. The luxurious and oneiric beauty and provincial kindness is nevertheless inextricable from a violent history of which his homeland has never been free, where “the rich pezzonovante” of the Church and State, and finally the mafia, exploit and ruin struggling families. Vito’s drive, were we to include deleted scenes where he kills the two Ciccio bodyguards who escorted him to the fateful villa in 1901, makes him more of a precedent to Michael – and himself a double for Ciccio – as he also wants to tie up all loose ends and “wipe everybody out.” But in the business of murder, his family remains paramount. Bloodlines matter more to Vito than the cold efficiency of Michael. The last thing he tells the elderly Don Ciccio before stabbing him is, “My father’s name was Antonio Andolini – and this is for you!” His father is at last avenged, and the town hall steps of Corleone are now dressed up in celebration. The Corleones are complete; Michael's parallel victory inversely casts him in darkness.

The murder of Ciccio conveys two poetic truths of The Godfather. Sacrilegious violence comes with a softly spoken whisper to the ear: Bonasera to Vito in Part I, Vito to Ciccio and Michael to Fredo (just before he says “I knew it was you”) in Part II, Vincent to Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) and Calo (Franco Citti) to Don Lucchesi (Enzo Robutti) in Part III. There’s something to voices in The Godfather, where words and how they are spoken mean something – or don’t mean anything. In life, on stage, in politics, at the altar: where is a true voice found? And is that voice an emissary of truth or lies? If truth, it may be violence catching up to us. There's a debt to Hamlet, Shakespeare's play about plays, how theatrics infect the royal court, and where fratricide comes with poison to the ear.

The other truth is that the fruit of your deeds will find you out. You are not safe from the past, faraway on the distant branches, or back at the root. Life and death are hand in hand in The Godfather, the lifeless corpses of great men made equal by their ends. Observe the similarities in how Gordon Willis photographs the bodies from a static distance as nature (the wind, vegetation, animals) moves around them. But also think of the oft-repeated orange symbolism in the series, the fruity omen of doom escorting us through this journey.

Here is a list of the dread orange’s appearances (and I may be missing a few): the one-day traitor Tessio tossing an orange in the air during the wedding; the oranges falling on the street when Vito is shot by Sollozzo’s men; the oranges so perfectly placed in the fruit bowls in front of Barzini and Tattaglia during the final narcotics truce, signal to their complicit villainy against Don Corleone; Vito’s orange-play with Anthony, just before the godfather dies of a heart attack;

the orange that Johnny Ola delivers to Michael as a gift from the deceitful Hyman Roth; during Batista’s meeting (an echo of the Part I narcotics meeting), an orange is in the fruit bowl set in front of Roth; Fanucci is tossing an orange in the air as Vito prepares to kill him; Michael sucks on an orange while plotting the deaths of Roth, Pentangeli, and presumably Fredo;

when Vincent bites Joey Zasa’s ear off, there is a painting with a bowl of oranges behind them; before machine-gun fire kills the Mafia Commission at the Atlantic City meeting, Coppola inserts a close-up of an orange rolling off the table; as Michael unveils the sordid conspiracy against him and is attempting to educate Vincent, we notice that the godfather-in-training holds an orange; suffering from an episode of low blood sugar, Michael ferociously downs a glass of orange juice; as Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) hires Mosca de Montelpre (Mario Donatone) to assassinate Michael, notice how Mosca’s den is decorated with oranges;

in the Corleone town square, a donkey with a basket of oranges passes in front of Michael and Kay, an eerie reflection of the donkey at Part II’s beginning, where the basket held the hiding Vito (haunting in the fruit-to-the-root light because Michael is in the heart of his retrospective journey at this point); and finally, to mirror his father’s heart attack, the elderly and lonely Michael drops an orange just before he dies.

I suspect that the orange’s function as a symbol and omen began as an accident, and gradually began to be irresistible, perhaps for its color on screen when compared to other fruit. Could what Clemenza be throwing at Vito’s window, to get his attention so that Vito will stash away a bag of guns (and so lead Vito down a fateful path), be an orange also, and so be the ultimate complement to the Corleone destiny and tragedy? Before this, Vito’s choice of fruit that bespoke contented familial bliss was “the nice pear” he brings home for his wife after he loses his job. The orange is one of the trilogy’s deepest mysteries, denoting family, maternity, death, murder, conspiracy, disease, and decay.


The Godfather Part II brings full circle a picture of old values withering and crackling away like dead leaves as a family is pulled into the future by modernity and the expansion of wealth. For its time, The Godfather Part II ends perfectly. It’s a film about Time, the theme that would preoccupy Francis Ford Coppola for decades. The lament of Don Vito, “There wasn’t enough time,” defines the struggle of an aging film director who dreamt big and was then unable to creatively pursue his cherished ideas.

Coppola’s motivations for making Godfather III, 16 years after the second film, were influenced by his financial interests. He had spent the last decade working on films meant to recoup money that he had lost from 1982’s One from the Heart, finding himself in a perpetual limbo. He wanted to make small and personal films (like 1974’s The Conversation), while working on a wide canvas of absolute freedom. As Jon Lewis’ 1996 book Whom God Wishes to Destroy documents, since bankrupting himself with an innovative studio within Hollywood (his company American Zoetrope), Coppola’s legend as a maverick was gravely diminished. His life as an artist mirrors Michael Corleone (whom Coppola gave the middle name "Francis" during The Godfather's baptism). He became his own kind of hermetical control freak: directing scenes from within his technological “egg,” a van called the “Silverfish,” while often clashing with other directors on films he was producing (such as Wim Wenders’ Hammett). His stature was devalued to the extent that, in the 1989 revision of Robert Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness, a marvelous book that explored the social themes of a handful of directors emerging in the late ‘60s (Kubrick, Penn, Scorsese, Altman, and Coppola) and originally published in 1978, Coppola found himself replaced by Steven Spielberg. In the introduction, Kolker lamented that Coppola had little to offer as a creative filmmaker. To be fair, Kolker seemed dismissive – as a lot of critics were for years – of Coppola’s fourth masterpiece, Apocalypse Now.

A sincere evaluation of Coppola’s ‘80s work is kinder than his reputation. One from the Heart (1982) is a dazzling and sensual romance that is, much like Dracula ten years later, in love with the artifice of movies, and if you fall under its spell is absolutely breathtaking. Its sins were tied to the great debt it incurred, in the publicity of outrageous expenses and risks over an unworthy story. A simple modern day fairy tale of a couple falling out and back in love with each other, it was not what admirers of The Conversation, Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now were looking for in a new Coppola production.

Though The Outsiders (1983) was wretched in its original theatrical cut, hampered by Carmine Coppola’s score, Coppola’s 2005 revision eschewing the score in favor of pop/rock music from the 1950s and adding 20 minutes of footage, is solid. Rumble Fish (also 1983), Coppola’s personal favorite, is visually and aurally fascinating, featuring some of Mickey Rourke’s and Matt Dillon’s finest acting work; it is an utterly bizarre experience (sometimes too bizarre) and further develops the themes of time and brotherhood so applicable to Godfather II.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) could have been little more than a very slight comedy, but in Coppola’s hands it’s achingly tender and lush as we follow a divorced homecoming queen (Kathleen Turner) go back to her teen years, balancing her wrong decisions against a 1950s teenager's available options (one wishes his 1996 time-is-fleeting fable Jack was handled as delicately). Tucker (1988), the only pet-project Coppola made in the decade (his first ambition was to do it as a musical in the 1970s with Brando), is an electrifying period biopic with outstanding performances, visual quirkiness, and a fireworks Joe Jackson score in perfect step with Vittoro Storaro’s colorful cinematography. In Preston Thomas Tucker (Jeff Bridges), Coppola succeeds in making the life of a radical inventor who challenged the auto industry seem autobiographical.

The failures ran deep, however. As in debt he was, Coppola was unable to make back ground with any clear successes. As an indie mogul for Zoetrope, his productions uniformly floundered; the few exceptions were collaborations with his old chum George Lucas, with whom he helped finance Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Paul Schrader’s Mishima, both great films. His most prestigious pictures as director, The Cotton Club and Gardens of Stone, were wastes of his talent, though the former has some wonderful set-pieces (and vocal defenders). The latter, set in a cemetery, was undoubtedly crippled by the death of Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo, which occurred during production. He ended the 1980s on his worst note, Life Without Zoe, a 40-minute short about a wealthy father and daughter included in the anthology New York Stories. Another rumination on time, co-written with teenaged Sofia Coppola, it plays like an embarrassing fall from grace, particularly when we consider that New York Stories’ other two films are very good shorts by contemporaries Martin Scorsese (Life Lessons) and Woody Allen (Oedipus Wrecks).

The subtexts of these films point to the personal stories Coppola was eager to do, but never could. With each laboring instant on a stalled production, he was running out of time to fulfill his dreams. He had owned the rights to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for years, but could never secure the financing; despite having Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt attached at different points, studios were tepid about Coppola's plans to shoot it in 16mm black and white. One from the Heart was in fact designed to the first of a tetralogy of romances influenced by Goethe’s Elective Affinities, each installment featuring a different city. Gian-Carlo’s death inspired him to adapt Pinocchio, thinking of Gepetto as an old artist who wanted to re-animate a lost son.

But the most significant project was Megalopolis. Coppola wrote a first draft during a rush of inspiration in 1983: a 400-page screenplay-as-novel about an architect determined to design the city of the future. Coppola’s utopian science-fiction film, constantly revised throughout the following two decades, has a conflict of art’s aspirations and bureaucracy’s stagnancy as the libertine architect and scientist Serge Catiline is ensnared against the virtuous and conservative Mayor Frank Cicero. With his discovery of an adaptable material, "molecular-modulated polymers," called “megalon,” Catiline’s team believes that their city design will wipe out the need for a labor force.

Megalon is described by Catiline as "plastic, in that it's organic and non-metallic. But the arrangement of its molecules and chains can be varied to suit a particular need. It's moldable, rollable, stampable, knotable, twistable. And it has built-in memories you can trigger with a specific kind of modulated current." Technology will do all the work while citizens, free of debt, will be able to dream, "learning, creating, perfecting, celebrating, teaching, enjoying art, sport, privacy, ritual, family, celebration, festival, etc." Catiline dreams that money will no longer make the world go round, but the human spirit will. "What is money really, other than plastic and computer sheets. The only reality is DEBT. This is my revolution. In my world of the future, debt won't exist. Ever since it was invented, debt is the shadow that blights every mind. Human beings endure debt in the hope that tomorrow they'll pay it off -- they won't owe. They'll be free."

In classic Coppola fashion, the interests of the present are combating the design of the future. Cicero is adamant that Catiline lives too much in the future; the architect’s reply, doubling for Coppola’s philosophy about Hollywood, is, “If we don’t care about the future, there won’t be one.” Catiline mirrors other Coppola protagonists (Peggy Sue, Dracula and Dominic Mattei from Youth Without Youth) in having the supernatural ability to stop time, slow it down and speed it up, at the expense of being able to love other people in the present. Cicero is a compassionate and wise man, but his inability to dream leads to harm the thing he cherishes most, his daughter. Time, meanwhile, is identified by Catiline as “the eater of his own children.”

The model for the narrative was the Catiline Conspiracy from Ancient Rome. For Coppola, Ancient Rome is related to fin de siècle America, debt being the plague of both societies while the moneyed structures at the top (government, church, banks, entertainment) are primarily concerned with keeping things as they are - which includes keeping people in debt so that they're never free. Secondary sources for the script included H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, and books by the futurist Alvin Toffler (Powershift). As he describes it in his Godfather II DVD commentary, Megalopolis is about a bad man who becomes good and good man who becomes bad. Dean Tavoularis was going to design the sets at Rome's Cinecitta Studios and Ron Fricke would be the cinematographer. It was a “Roman Epic” projected into the Future, an inverse of Fellini's Satyricon, at epic length (an available draft of the script is 212 pages) and scale. Professional wrestling doubles for gladiatorial bouts, a superficial pop star becomes the Vestal Virgin, coke parties are Bacchae orgies, rich bitches are incestuous witches, subway psychics are oracles, the prescient Cassandra is a beautiful stock-market analyst, Soviet satellites falling from the sky are judgment from the gods, and a Saturnalia of masks concludes everything, the peasants uprising and burning their savior in effigy. The violence is out of time, as in addition to gunshots there are crumbling temples, lethal arrows, and a crucifixion. Some of the discussed cast members included Warren Beatty (as the Mayor), Parker Posey, Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, Nicolas Cage, Paul Newman, James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Claire Danes, Kevin Spacey, and Meryl Streep.

Megalopolis never occurred, and it likely never will, being that the events of 9/11/2001 (which transpired as Coppola was shooting second-unit work for Megalopolis – and the images he captured are quite stirring) have changed New York to an uncomfortable extent, for him anyway. The script has elements of some of his best work, but also much of the ambivalent aspects of his fantasist stuff that remains unpopular. It’s a strange blend of Tucker and Godfather II, and that might not work though it would probably be, I guess, the “definitive Coppola” (I found the script to be a wonderfully complex page-turner; some of the dialogue could use a good revision and various plot strands are rushed in their conclusions). But what’s in the pages and in the outline is a naked portrait of Francis Ford Coppola’s philosophy and hopes. The ironic thing is that the "Coppola" film that critics complain about never seeing is in Megalopolis, as it is clearly a project in line with The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now. Some of Megalopolis’ themes re-emerged in his Mircea Eliade adaptation, Youth Without Youth (2007), but the limitations of the film's period setting makes Coppola's gargantuan ideas a whisper. Maybe an original film detailing Coppola’s wonderment would have been more successful than a direct adaptation of a philosophical novella.

Knowledge of Megalopolis is helpful when applied to discussing Godfather III because it was obsessing the filmmaker’s mind in 1989, when he was sitting down to once more write about the Corleones. He knew that the inevitable success of Godfather III would enable the making of Megalopolis, so finally Francis Ford Coppola could again be “Francis Ford Coppola,” both to himself and to us. But Godfather III wasn’t as successful as forecasted, and Coppola had to wait for the surprising success of Dracula two years later to move ahead (and even then, Dracula wasn’t enough to get Megalopolis made; rather, it saved Zoetrope and his winery. He endlessly rewrote his script while working on the travesty Jack from 1996 and the bracing, terrific adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker in 1997).

Watching Godfather III, we can see the lingering phantom (or developing embryo) of Megalopolis’ ideas and images. The final Godfather does, after all, feel like a film projected deep into the past with its pagan Roman colors. There's something archaic within it, which was apparent in the first two films, but here Coppola wants to draw attention to the Greco-Roman Colosseum of where tragedy is staged: invoking the past to comment on the present, while dreaming of the future. Its main character is an independent loner, eager to propel his own business – and America’s business practices – into the future with innovative ideas, bridging America and Europe to the establishment of a Unified World (Coppola‘s diaries during the writing of Megalopolis exhibit a desire for a one-world government). There are references to debt and equivalencies of debt to sin, and a need to eliminate both. Standing in the hero’s way are the Establishment's paradigms  – leaders of Government and the Church, propelling us in a storyline that, while not based on Sallust, certainly has the medieval flavor of the Borgias’ Italy, if not the Roman Republic centuries before that. Remembering Coppola’s remark on the progression on his dual protagonists of Megalopolis – a good man who becomes bad and a bad man who becomes good – how can we not think about Michael Corleone, who possesses traits belonging to both Catiline and Mayor Cicero? Isn't he the bright star who has become thick night, and the dying murderer yearning for redemption? Through the course of this final narrative, he is seeking to be born-out of his corruption and set things right before it is too late. But his final maneuver, like Cicero, only leads to the death of the person closest to him: for the old men in both stories, the beloved daughter is killed by bullets intended for another.

In many ways then, perhaps Godfather III disappoints some of its viewers, unable to reconcile this new Michael with the zombie Michael, because more of its narrative is invested in Coppola’s Megalopolis than it is invested in Mario Puzo’s creation. But time is always moving for Coppola, and Michael cannot be the same person he was 20 years before. He is more affable, humorous, and public. But that’s his flaw, or a token of his flawed character, tying in with Coppola's interest in theater and performance. Hung up on respectability and washing away his sins from public thought, the mega-rich Rockefeller-like Michael Corleone has donated money to make hospital wings while giving to charities dedicated to "the resurrection of Sicily." But the intimate cracks of his soul, behind the mask, will not repent. He is a stuffed shirt, hunched over and appearing like a speech-maker even before his family in closed quarters. Sickness and Death compel the real Michael, despairing and thirsting for redemption, to at last emerge.
Theatricality in a Post-Godfather Age

Not only was Greco-Roman tragedy on the director's mind, but so was Shakespeare’s Lear, and more than that, so was the Lear adaptation of his idol, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, released just five years before. Influenced by Noh Theater, Kurosawa’s Lord Hidetora has a mask-like visage, and Coppola has taken this cue with Michael’s face, worn out and ravaged by time, disease, and guilt. Kurosawa had said that was frustrated him about Lear was that Shakespeare did not fill in the details of his past. The Japanese filmmaker make his Lord Hidetora (Tatsuyo Nakadei) a brutal warlord, years removed from his cruel conquests. The past was not finished with him. When we see Michael Corleone in Godfather III, he is light years away from the Dorian Gray-styled lethal reptile from Part II. And that makes his downfall here a unique spin on tragedy. Coppola's film is about masks: Michael the speechmaker, the tacky Meucci Spokesman Joey Zasa, and Don Altobello, who likes to appear as an infirm and senile 80-year-old, but has razor sharp acumen and is determined to outlive the young. He has a flair for the theatrical, and Eli Wallach's ham-fisted performance makes Altobello an irresistibly amusing Godfather character. Whether faking his geriatric role ("I know nothing about those 'new people.' I must accept my age and grow my olives and tomatoes!"), or perfectly mouthing the words to an opera, he is an actor. A reader of Megalopolis can see similarities between him and Catiline's uncle, the billionaire banker Gene Hamilton (whom I think was to have been played by Paul Newman), who fakes a stroke, discovers his trophy wife is having an affair with a scheming protege, and on the "stage" of his death bed lifts the sheets, unveiling a bow and arrow, and memorably shoots both. It could have been a classic Coppola moment, more especially when we see that the three characters had just returned from a costume party: Hamilton as Robin Hood, the wife as Cleopatra, the protege as Mark Antony.

One of the flaws of Godfather III is its reliance on nostalgia for the other two films, which particularly hurts it throughout its first 90 minutes. Maybe the hardest fact to get around in making a third Godfather is that it is a post-Godfather film, and the culture of the Corleones has only gone farther from the Old Country into the New World of a high-tech America of appearances, such as we saw at Lake Tahoe. Instead of merely having foes who grew with the Corleones from the good old days, the face of the antagonist is represented by the “new” kind of Mafioso, Joey Zasa, a “bela figura” dapper don featured on magazine covers, in part based on men like John Gotti and Joseph Colombo. Zasa, like Colombo (who openly protested production of the original Godfather), claims to represent the pride and culture of Italian Americans, handing the “Meucci Award” to Michael Corleone (“Meucci is the Italian American who invented the telephone; he did it one year before Alexander Graham Bell”) and giving cars away for gifts at parades.

He’s not as deep of a character because the culture itself has become bland. Zasa’s Meucci Foundation is a front. He’s a man always out in the open, “mingling with people,” and being photographed, loudly declaring the greatness of Italians and denying the existence of a Mafia (though even his praise of Meucci is tempered when he admits that “we have Don Ameche, who played the guy who invented the telephone.”) Along with Michael’s mask-like face, Joey Zasa tips us off how this new Godfather universe is one based on an abundance of paper fronts, where art and life are reflected, both as pastiche and gravely serious moments. Only when we reach the Old Country are the duplicities and dramas more intriguing because, as Michael notes to Kay while acting out his own suicide, they are in the land of opera. "Give me the order!" he jokes to her, holding a knife to his neck. "Is that supposed to make me not dread you?" she asks. "It's Sicily, it's opera," he says, putting the knife down. Soon later, the line "give me the order" will be asked by Vincent, asking for Michael's blessing to take charge of the family, instigating a new series of highly theatrical Godfather slayings.

Zasa’s enemy, Vincent Mancini, is similarly a new kind of post-opera rock-and-roll styled gangster, wearing leather at a formal party, whose “kind of town” is Atlantic City (a place that’s derided by Catiline in Megalopolis), and whose approach to history mirrors Zasa’s one-dimensional interpretation. He gives a Cliffs Notes history lesson to Mary (Sofia Coppola), standing outside the original Genco Olive Oil Company: their grandfather began as a delivery carrier, and three years later he owned the company. “Only in America,” Mary says as Elvis Costello’s “Miracle Man” plays. It’s a little too simplistic for our comfort, but it’s just fine for a spoiled third generation Corleone.

The force of history is replaced by mere information in the post-modern context of 1979. Though Vincent Mancini is an attractive character, his reckless lack of perspective doesn’t permit him the tragic dimensions afforded to his uncle Michael. He has no qualms about upsetting the manners of Michael’s party and bites Joey Zasa’s ear when the dapper don calls him a bastard. More telling is the festa during which Vincent pursues and kills Zasa. The sequence is meant to recall the festa from Part II, when Vito stalks and kills Fanucci in secret. But the ritual is dragged into Vincent’s private conflict. A Corleone assassin wears holy garb, pointing a shot-gun and killing Zasa’s bodyguard; an icon of the Virgin and Christ falls to the ground, the baby Jesus being decapitated; people run fearfully through the streets, a woman draping her coat protectively over a child. The exquisite “rustic chivalry” which was so theatrical and finessed in the first two Godfather films, performed with the concentration of ritual, is now, Coppola is showing us, a shameless spectacle, with cheap sex (Vincent’s one-night stand with journalist Grace Hamilton, played by Bridget Fonda, daughter of one of the era’s rebels and icons) thrown in. Joey Zasa himself is gunned down in front of the theatre Fanucci passed by 60 years before. The stage of rustic chivalry has moved into the streets.

The Godfather Part III, or as Coppola wanted to title it, The Death of Michael Corleone, is a very ironic film. It’s quite possible that in making the film personal, he was criticizing the industry that fell by the wayside with him, in 1979, the year when the film is set. Just as Coppola is surely making light of how Michael Corleone’s last adventure is set on the eve of Reagan’s Greed is Good era, where "Malaise" was exchanged for No Apologies, he was thinking about Hollywood and where the Corleones’ legacy – along with his – had come from in the prior decade, and where it had disappeared. The mavericks like Coppola, Arthur Penn, Scorsese, Altman, and De Palma found themselves in a tough spot when movies like Star Wars, Jaws, Rocky, and Superman became studio-mandated. Glossy spectacle ruled. Godfather III is a return to the kind of epic storytelling that no longer existed during its release in December of 1990, but it also playfully reveals how the next generation will be more dominated by the pop-superficialities of the present culture than by its deep heritage.

In his rave review of Godfather III (which basically voices my own reaction to the film), Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleibermann writes that the first two films represented the greatest fusion of art and commerce in Hollywood. “When Coppola signed on to direct Godfather III, he wasn't simply agreeing to carry on the saga of the Corleones, the Italian-American family who made organized crime seem at once horrifying and weirdly romantic. He was agreeing to revive the kind of richly detailed classical storytelling that has all but disappeared from the American cinema...The miracle is that he pulls it off. The Godfather Part III isn't the overpoweringly great movie the first Godfather was (let's be reasonable — how could it have been?), and it lacks the bone-chilling gradations of darkness that made The Godfather Part II a singular American tragedy. This one is slower, talkier, and more prosaic: two hours of exposition and 40 minutes of payoff. What's more, its narrative seams sometimes show. Yet by the end, the movie has attained a deep-grained emotional grandeur that can hold its own with that of the other two films.” For me, Gleibermann articulates what we should take home with Coppola’s final chapter, in addition to why we shouldn’t be stuck comparing it to other nostalgic long-in-waiting franchise installments like The Phantom Menace or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The finished picture has sincere questions to ask about our culture, our families, and even our relationship to cinema in the years between 1972 and 1990, when the Golden Age gave into Schlock and Awe.

It is a commendable film with glaring flaws, its disappointments all-too-resounding to ignore, but its triumphs and ironies making it, in the final analysis, worthy of standing alongside its much-superior predecessors as an epilogue (in addition to standing over most other films generally). Nevertheless, unlike the first two films which endlessly hit high notes of perfection, we leave Godfather III wondering “what if?” What if Paramount gave Coppola an additional six months for rewriting and re-editing, as they had on the first film? What if Coppola had the extra $1.5 million needed to secure Robert Duvall? What if Coppola had Winona Ryder to play Mary after all, and didn’t have to cast Sofia, whom many blame for injuring the movie? What if he got his wish to title the film The Death of Michael Corleone, an ironic title that would establish that this was more of an epilogue than an essential chapter of what is something of a perfect saga?

We can never know, but to speculate on these things might make us more forgiving of Coppola (who has taken the blame for Godfather III’s reputation), and more angry at the Paramount executives, those money men without foresight who were always the bane of Coppola’s artistic existence, who short-changed him – and us. The company Michael seeks to control is Immobilaire, surely as much of a joke as “Unobtanium” is in James Cameron’s Avatar. Is it a coincidence that several of the men who influenced the characterizations of Michael Corleone's rivals here were true-life figures who, in addition to being involved with Vatican bank scandals and mafia murders, were frequent visitors to the Gulf + Western Paramount offices, riding the elevator with a young Francis Coppola as he was shooting the original Godfather? Hollywood and those forces arrayed against Catiline in Megalopolis are bent on being immobile in the face of innovation. Michael, Catiline, and Francis Coppola all succeed and fail against the Establishment of Immobility in unison. In this trilogy where Theater and Life ceaselessly intersect, there’s irresistible poetry in that.

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