Monday, December 28, 2009

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect...I discover The Godfather

[from The Godfather: Part II]

The 2000s, A Decade in Retrospect is a series where I will be professing my love to the pop culture wonders that I discovered during this decade, but not specific to this decade.

When I was eleven, the only legitimate live-action "classic" I've seen and loved, released before 1990 was Rain Man. I loved the movie to pieces. Thought Dustin Hoffman was fantastic. Tom Cruise as well. The ending touched my tremendously. I still think positively of that film, though repeated viewings have diminished my heightened adoration.

But The Godfather was the film that turned on my curiosity for the realm of cinematic classics. I'd like to think that, without The Godfather, I would have never touched It's a Wonderful Life, The Philadelphia Story, or Roman Holiday with a ten-foot pole. Anything before the 80s would still be, sadly, off-limits for me, as far as my interests go.

I saw The Godfather by accident.

I was surfing the TV Guide website on my old dial-up Internet connection, looking for a movie to watch with my mom for the remaining duration of a lazy Saturday afternoon. I told her that The Godfather was going to be on network television today later in the afternoon. While I may have been bored, sitting in front of the television for four hours watching a single movie didn't sound very inviting.

But my mom managed to live forty years of her life avoiding The Godfather movies altogether. She said she wanted to see it. I told her I was uninterested.

I remember seeing The Godfather movies on the shelves of the local video rental store and while I was curious about them, a 70s mafia epic was never supposed to suck me in. I still preferred Mary Kate and Ashley movies at the time.

But I was really bored. When the movie started, I decided to sit down and give that sepia-tinted world a whirl. I knew I could leave at any time. But I didn't leave, unless you count in the occasional bathroom breaks.

While I wasn't too impressed with the first half-hour or so (I have learned to appreciate those scenes by now), the iconic scene when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) goes to the restaurant and shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey to prove his allegiance to his family pulled me right in.

There aren't many scenes like that and even less that are so well-acted and well-directed. The intensity boils at such a high temperature that the moment everything cracks, it feels like someone just kicked open that imaginary cinematic door for the film and the audience become one.

Pacino's performance was the reason I stayed around to watch that phenomenal scene. He is simply an incredible actor. While his recent film choices have been questionable, Pacino has unquestionable screen presence. I couldn't leave my seat, not after the moment where Michael tells his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton) about who his family is and what they do.

While I wasn't completely sucked in yet, but I was already partially invested in Michael Corleone. I tend to forget about Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) altogether. I haven't seen many Brando films, but from what I have seen (this and A Streetcar Named Desire), I don't care for him, but that might as well change in the future.

That said, Michael Corleone is my favorite film character of all-time.

This is perhaps why I love The Godfather: Part II. I saw it two years after I've seen the original (I don't know why it took so long) and thought it was absolutely brilliant. In the winter break of eighth grade, I watched The Godfather: Part II four times. And considering it clocks around 3 hours and 20 minutes, I believe I achieved something fantastically awesome. Or that I have no life. But either way, it was worth it.

Parallel storytelling has never been done better. Robert De Niro is intimidating, touching, devastating, cunning, and self-assured as young Vito. The scene where Vito kills Fanucci is a powerful scene, the kind that you watch and gasp for breath afterward. And when Vito joins his family and tells baby Michael that he loves him very much, we get a telling glimpse into the Vito-Michael dynamic.

We realize that Michael's destiny has always been to inherit Vito's crime empire. While Vito may have respected Michael's initial wishes to not be part of the bullet parade, Vito knew, deep down, that Michael was the only son with the potential to keep things in order.

We see Vito's rise juxtoposed with his son's modern personal downfall. Michael has everything a mafia don desires: Intelligence. Power. Success. Michael is sucking up the American Dream with a vacuum. But his personal relationships are crumbling.

Michael's wife, Kay is pregnant and unhappy; Michael has failed to keep his promise to make the family business legitimate. Michael's brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is jealous and angry of his worthless and easily replaceable position in the business. Michael's sister, Connie (Talia Shire) is still mad at him for what he's done to her husband and tries to distract herself with escapades with randon men.

While Vito was loved and respected by his family, Michael is too cold to be embraced by anyone. He can get the job done, but no one close to him is going to bother to congratulate him at the end of the day.

The Godfather: Part II also features two of the most criminal Oscar snubs of all-time: John Cazale and Diane Keaton. Sure, Lee Strasberg is an interesting antagonist and Talia Shire delivers a good performance, but Cazale and Keaton's performances are explosions in epic proportions. I think of Cazale in the boat house scene. I think of Keaton in the hotel room scene. The fact that their performances were dismissed by the Academy back in 1973 was, and always will be, blasphemous. I can't think of better examples of Academy injustice.

But it goes back to Pacino, who is brilliant in every frame of the film. I have never felt so much sympathy for a fictional murderer in my life. I think of the person Michael was, and the person he became. He didn't want any of this. But he's completely capable in fulfilling his duties. He's incredibly good at the job he unwillingly (and over time, willingly) does. Somewhere down the road, he got lost. He doesn't know if he's doing this for his family, his deceased father, or for himself. But he's constantly keeping everything together when he so desperately wants it to all shatter.

The last scene is heartbreaking, every time I think about it. It masterfully creates the desolate state of loneliness. Michael has lost everything he cares about. He has become the man he feared he would become.

But the transformation is complete and there's no going back.

Yet he does in The Godfather: Part III. I love that movie and will defend it when necessary. I even wrote a self-titled "love letter" to the film this past summer because I wanted to.

Pacino is, once again, excellent in The Godfather: Part III. Michael is softer now and more like Vito. But his ex-wife, Kay, still doesn't respect him. Michael's family business is still not legitimate, although he really is trying this time around. It's a riveting portrait that is indeed crumbling, yet everything still feels so alive.

It is an inescapable spiral that never ends.

I became obsessed with The Godfather for a while. I went on GangsterBB practically everyday to read the posts. I watched films that Godfather fans enjoyed (Scarface sucks, GoodFellas rocks). I watched a crapload of Pacino movies for a period of time because damn, the man's thrilling to witness as any character in any movie. I even read Mario Puzo's novel, which pales in comparison to the films.

While the choice trilogies of my generation usually included only The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, I rebelled and embraced The Godfather. Because there is no other story in cinema quite like it.


  1. You have sublime taste, my girl. If you have to be obsessed with ANY films, the GODFATHER series is definitely where it's at.

    They are the ultimate in American cinema, fresh from the supreme heights of 70s. There isn't much out there that can ever compare.

    I will defend III to the death. Even though I will readily acknowledge that it isn't as good as the first two. I think that's the thing that most people get hung up on.

    It's not on the same level. So many individuals just dismiss it outright.

    Nuts to that, I aay.

    The film has its problems. But it is such a gorgeous experience on a purely aesthetic level. Al's fantastic. Diane is wonderful.

    Andy Garcia is...mesmerizing. There's something about that red silk bathrobe. But (seriously) whiplash charisma is something that you can not manufacture.

    Francis will always be one of my all time favourite directors. I've worshipped both Al and Diane for years.

    I had the exquisite pleasure of seeing all three over a period of months - fairly recently - at our plush elegant film festival theatre. It was an unforgettable experience.

    For the record, II has always been the living end for me.

    Marcy, if you want to hear something that will really break your heart, get a load of this.

    John Cazale appeared in three Best Picture winnners before he died (I, II and THE DEER HUNTER) as well as two BP nominees (THE CONVERSATION and DOG DAY AFTERNOON).

    No Oscar nomination for him. EVER.

    I'm sure you're aware. But it's awfully hard to wrap your head around that.

    "Tell Michael I always liked him. It was just business."

    "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

    "It was you, Fredo. You broke my heart."

    Hundreds of years from now people will still be talking about those three extraordinary motion pictures.

    Brilliance never gets old.

    Thanks, Marcy.

  2. This is a great post (and a pretty well-thought-out comment by Miranda too!). I can't remember all that much about my first time, except to say that when my younger brother was watching it before me...I inadvertently spoiled the end of the trilogy.


  3. I've still not seen The Godfather, and I've been studying film for five years! The film that did it for me was It's A Wonderful Life. Until then I was dead against films older than me and it kickstarted my love of classics like Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, To Have and Have Not and all things Hepburn and Dean. City of God did it for me with world cinema too

  4. @Miranda - Thank you for your extremely thoughtful comment. I know how you feel about Al Pacino and Diane Keaton. I've always loved Keaton the most in the Godfather films, even more so than her performance in Annie Hall. Kay could have been a forgettable character in the hands of another actress, but Keaton made the role hers.

    And really, how awesome was Kay in Part III? Keaton had that part down.

    Andy Garcia is terrific in Part III. There goes a well-deserved Oscar nomination...

    John Cazale could have been one of the greats. He picked great films to be in. And he's one helluva an actor.

    I've always wanted to see the Godfather films in theaters. That would be an awesome opportunity, if it ever rolls around.

    @Mad Hatter - I'm guilty of accidentally spoiling movies all the time. My mom is prone to that as well, which frustrates me. And that pretty much makes me a hypocrite. So don't feel too bad.

    I've always felt really lucky to have watched Psycho spoiled-free. I didn't see that ending coming. At all. That's why I love it.

    @filmgeek - Watch The Godfather. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

    It's a Wonderful Life is the first B&W movies I've ever watched. I saw it on NBC in its annual telecast. I loved it. It jumpstarted my love for 30s, 40s, 50s classics and James Stewart.

    Casablanca is (currently) my favorite movie. I just watched it again in my high school film class (a disappointing elective, btw). I have a feeling that it's the kind of film that gets better as you age. The Philadelphia Story is one of my favorite rom-coms of all-time. Hepburn, Grant, and Stewart are a dream together...especially Hepburn and Grant.

    I wish I've seen more foreign movies. I loved 8 1/2 and Fanny and Alexander. Thought My Life as a Dog and Jules and Jim were excellent. City of God might get me hooked.