19 September 2007

The Godfather

I showed The Godfather (1972; dir. Francis Ford Coppola; starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, and Diane Keaton) to my Art of Film students tonight. The movie never ceases to improve with re-watching--for me, at least.

As with all of my posts here, this one won't attempt some sort of definitive comments on the movie. I don't have the time for that, and it would have to be a book (maybe someday). My goal here, as always, is to record something that struck me particularly while watching it. And there are two things tonight: Michael's "trajectory" and the nature of violence in The Godfather.

First of all, most people who watch the movie, and its sequels, note the long spiral of Michael's character from more-or-less happy-go-lucky war hero to cold killer (and then, in GFIII, which is hard not to discount sometimes, to something warmer? sadder?). But I noticed tonight that that trajectory is anything but smooth. In fact, there is this moment, it seems, when he does have a hope of redemption. In Sicily, as everyone knows, Michael gets married. What's significant about this is that the scene echoes Connie's wedding at the opening of the film in several ways--in terms of the narrative, it's a beautiful, joyous celebration of life, love, and family. Certain scenes in Michael's wedding echo Connie's wedding, even as they form a significant contrast. For instance, in Michael's wedding, Coppola shows the bride and groom giving the guests "gifts" from baskets they carry in their arms, while at Connie's wedding Paulie draws our attention to the purse-full of gifts that Connie receives at her wedding. At Michael's wedding, his dance with Apollonia is featured, while the camera lingers more warmly over Connie's dance with her father near the close of the opening sequence.

The two wedding scenes also echo one another stylistically. They are, more-or-less, the only brightly sun-lit, festive, celebratory scenes in the movie (the Sicily scenes are generally sunlit, and, oddly, Vito's funeral is also multi-colored). They each represent these beautiful new beginnings for characters who are destined for cold, sterile, unhappy lives.

But, tonight, I found myself praying that Michael would be able to use this opportunity for rebirth. He's murdered two men and begun his downward arc into the depths of his own inner evil, but Sicily seems to offer him a chance at redemption.

Or, perhaps not. We are constantly reminded that Michael is steeped in blood, not just because of his war experience and his recent crimes, but because of his ancestry. As we learn in GFII, Michael is the last member of his family, all the others dead from vendettas. In this first movie, we are constantly reminded that Sicily, though bright and beautiful (in an arid, desert sort of way) is bloody and fatal. Michael is constantly being chased across the countryside by bad news from home, by tidings that his hiding place is known and killers are bound to discover him. So, maybe it's foolish to hope...

But I did find myself hoping, tonight, in part because of one particular moment--Michael's dance with Apollonia. It's beautiful in itself, primarily because of the boyish smile on Pacino's face as he dances, a smile we've only seen in fleeting moments, early in the film with Kay. It's also beautiful because it does harken back to Connie's dance with her father, and the child-like love that she lavishes on Vito as they dance, resting her head against his body, and flinging her arms around his neck as they dance alone amidst family and friends. These are the moments when the Corleone family seems whole.

But violence does find Michael--it is a violence that destroys Apollonia's body, but, of course, it destroys Michael just as thoroughly. It seems to me that any hope of redemption for Michael dies with his first wife. Interestingly, we never see his wedding to Kay, and his interactions with her are low-key at best, most often icy, and occasionally violent.

Of course, the violence that kills Apollonia and wounds Michael irreparably is violence that he perpetuated. The trilogy is a story of Michael's life, but, just as accurately, it can be seen as the story of a single thread of violence that we trace back to his grandfather's murder in Sicily and forward to his daughter's murder in Sicily.

People look at movies like The Godfather and worry that they glamorize violence, but that's such a simplistic assessment. Like virtually any other media text, The Godfather is polysemic to an extent that defies generalized interpretations. I'm positive that thousands of people watch this movie and revel in the murders, explosions, assassinations, finding a sick pleasure in the brutality. But, for me, this is a "true story" about the nature of violence: it never ends. Michael may think he's tied up loose ends with the assassination of the heads of the 5 families (and Moe Greene, and Carlo Rizzi), but he's only guaranteed the violence around which the GFII revolves. It's not bad luck or freak chance that destroys his last hope of happiness in Sicily--it's his own decision to kill McClusky and Solozzo. This is a reality that is barely hinted at in The Godfather, but it forms the central text of the second two movies, culminating in the silent scream of GFIII (you can laugh at that scene if you want, but it still brings tears to my eyes, even when I simply think of it). Michael has very little time to think about chickens coming home to roost in this first film, but if GFII seems way darker than its predecessor, it's not just Gordon Willis's cinematography--it's also Michael's realization that it is his own violence that eats away at his family and his own life. I guess that's why Michael's confessional in GFIII is at once so moving, but, at the same time, so unsatisfying--we might want atonement for Michael, but we also know that the violence that has defined him won't let him go until he's reduced to a husk of a human being.

Glamorized violence? I don't think so. Stylized, yes, but not glamorized, unless you bring the glamorization with you. Maybe it's arrogant of me to think so, but I believe that if you let the movie build its own world and see its deaths and murders through that perspective, there is little glamor to be found.

I'm sleepy. And I have a lot of reading to do. This hasn't been what I wanted it to be, but it it what it is.

1 comment:

wunelle said...

It's one of my favorite movies. I love the arc of the story, and the dark recesses in the human psyche it trains a glinting spotlight upon.

I'm interested in the ways in which the Corleone family ethos resembles, in a grotesque, caricature-ish sort of way, the workings of society at large. There is an easy, simplistic satisfaction with problems solved with a life-and-death calculus; but we're also left with this icky residue that reminds us that it's a path that degrades us. It taps into the animal part of us that civilization by definition is supposed to rise above.

But it's a huge lesson wrapped up in a deliciously-told story. (I haven't seen GIII in years; maybe I oughtta re-watch it.)