not in our stars, but in ourselves
Yes, you read that title correctly. I had never seen The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) before today. Go on, go on, get it all out of your system: “WHAT?! And you call yourself a film lover!” “How DARE you not have seen this movie up until now!” And so on. All right? Are you ready to proceed? Good.
Because this is one of those Monumental Films, it is a strange thing to approach it. Obviously, I already knew roughly what it was about. When I saw Woltz’s prize stallion, I thought, “That horse is not long for this world.” I’d heard all the catchphrases: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”; “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”; “He sleeps with the fishes”; “Are you ‘avin a laff?” Oh, sorry – that last one is from Extras. Without knowing all the details of the plot, without knowing all the intricacies of character and situation, I pretty much knew what would happen. Same with the Bible: if you’re from a Western country, you almost certainly know the gist of it, even if you’re an unapologetic heathen.
So this unwashed sinner sat through all three hours (or nearly), wondering what all the fuss was about. And…well…
I think I’m still wondering.
Now, hear me out. I’m aware that I’m going to alienate an awful lot of you (hypothetical though you may be) if I confess to being underwhelmed by a film everyone loves and respects, and utterly enthralled by a couple of slight comedies from the ’20s and ’30s. It’s not that I thought it was a bad movie. Obviously, it’s not. I just had a difficult time caring about anyone or anything. That’s my problem with a number of Monumental Films, some of which I’m sure you’ll see in future posts. But in The Godfather, we see the epic story of a family of thugs as they try to assert dominance over other thugs. Family, indeed, is the key word: nothing else matters as much as loyalty to your own blood. It’s not about survival, even: it’s about a creepy allegiance to your large and swarming clan. I understand that as a metaphor for American capitalism, but why am I supposed to care? Am I supposed to care? Do other people care about these vicious louts?
Maybe everyone loves The Godfather because of the direction, which was of course masterful. Beautifully shot, superb attention to detail, Italian culture everywhere. Coppola obviously knows these people and places. They aren’t just caricatures of Mafia hangouts and families; they’re places he’s been, families he’s known, scenarios he’s seen played out (albeit probably with less drastic results). He was reluctant to make the film, thinking that it would contribute to negative stereotypes about Sicilian- and Italian-Americans, but I do think that he’s done as well as can be expected (given the source material) to give these people and places as many real, remembered details as he could. I’ve seen these people. I’ve had their minestrone. It all rings true.
But about that source material. Perhaps I’m comparing apples and oranges, or cannoli and lake trout, but while watching, I kept thinking about The Wire – usually in terms not especially flattering to The Godfather. The Wire is also about gangs and families and the like, albeit in far more dire circumstances. However, one of many brilliant features of The Wire is that every character – from the corner boys to the soldiers to the addicts to the cops – is a fully fleshed-out person. You see how and why they’ve ended up where they are. You see the pressures bearing down on them. You see them grappling with impossible choices. You see loyalty to family fighting brutally against pride in some cases, and a bare instinct to survive in others. You see murderers with clear-cut moral codes. You see children brought up in this nearly inescapable cycle of drugs, violence, racism and neglect. The Wire is a television show, and it had five seasons to tell all its stories, but I submit this to you for your scholarly amusement: put on three episodes of The Wire, thus approximating the length of The Godfather, and see which story matters to you more.