Monday, March 12, 2012

The Godfather: Coppola's Decline of a Family

In commemorating the fortieth anniversary of The Godfather, for the next two weeks l'étoile staff writer Niles Schwartz of The Niles Files will be posting a series of thoughts on Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's three-film Corleone chronicle. As he publishes subsequent posts, links will be readily available to the other installments.

Even though The Godfather trilogy is canonical and part of a collective cultural consciousness, it appears that fewer people have actually taken the time to watch it. This is unfortunate, because as a post-modern pop-culture consumes the modernist epic and processes it as a series of sound-bites and familiar images, the most stirring ruminations about ourselves that are embedded in the films, whether as part of a nation or as solitary individuals floating through time, are lost. What’s eclipsed is the mournful story of a son reflected against the legend of his father; our sense of history so loses dimension. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the friction of the “American” idea has become more intense. Tea Party stories of rugged individualism, prosperity, acquiring power, and the virtue of selfishness are sparring against the status anxiety of the Occupy movement. The Godfather engages us in the same dialectic of America. The more I watch The Godfather trilogy, as I do at least once a year, the more it’s apparent that it is the cinematic equivalent of the “Great American Novel,” unveiling through an 80+ year narrative of an immigrant family's rise and decline in conjunction with changing times. The story of Vito and Michael Corleone is one of survival, prosperity, decadence, and ultimately annihilation; yet I wonder if the reason these films are adored so much by so many people – and respected by many who haven’t even seen them – has to do with how the story if interpreted as a fairy tale of strength and individual achievement. We project our personal fantasies onto the Corleones.

This has long-been Coppola’s reasoning for why the rushed epilogue, Part III, was a mild disappointment (contrary to popular opinion, it was not received in 1990 as a monumental failure; but being merely “sufficient” or even "very good" is insufficient for a Godfather picture). The reason why people loved the Corleones was because they were unbeatable. Indeed, a trait that Michael Corleone inherits from his father is an inability to be killed, something that proves to be ironically tragic for him. No matter how many forces aligned against them, manifested in rival Mafia heads, corrupt public officials, stool pigeons, double-crossing business partners, and even the Roman Catholic Church, the Corleones always win. Superficially, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II comprise the great American fantasy: the enemies who put one’s family in peril are justly punished in ways that are as memorable as Dante’s scenes in Hell. The film give our repressed sadism an outlet. Yet although the Corleones again tie up the loose ends in Part III, Michael is a different character. No longer a man of reptilian calculation, he is diseased and tired, laden by guilt and depression, attempting to be a statesman and legitimate businessman. Though the flaws in Part III warrant criticism, the wide dismissal of it leads to that question of why we love the first two parts. The success of the Corleones, which we emulate, is actually a failure; it is the death of a man’s soul and the decay of morality. Part III wears ecclesiastical colors along with its shadows and autumnal light; Don Vito or the younger Michael would never pray in front of a corpse, or confess their sins to a priest. America has a history of not wanting to be introspective with its history, and that’s precisely what the aging Michael Corleone is trying to do. This year's inevitable Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has a book, after all, called No Apologies.

Continue reading "The Godfather: Coppola's Decline of a Family" at The Niles Files.

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