Friday, December 4, 2009

Lessons from The Godfather

I confess to being a big fan of The Godfather movies. I think I've seen Godfather I about a dozen times; Godfather II about a half dozen times and Godfather III about three times. What's amazing to me is how, over time, your perspective on the movies changes.

When I first saw The Godfather, I was much younger and being a young man, I was attracted to the whole "mafia" thing. Yes, the story seemed kind of long, and the wedding scene was boring, but seeing Connie's husband get beat-up by Sonny, seeing the horse head scene, etc., ...the all made up for it. As I grew older I began to see how parts of the movie that I simply glossed over before, such as the Johnny Fontaine scene during the wedding, were actually pretty entertaining ("Be a man!"). That phase, where I learned to appreciate the movies in their totality for entertainment value, lasted a while.

Over the past year, I think I've grown into a new appreciation of I, II, and III. I now see the moves through a much more complex lens, and a few things stand out:

Innocence Lost
In Godfather I, we see how Michael goes from this more or less detached (somewhat innocent...at least in terms of the operation of "the family") college graduate and war hero to the de-facto head of the family. It's the circumstances around him...the assassination attempt on his father (by drug dealer Sollozzo), the murder of Sonny, his marriage in Sicily (and then the bombing death of his wife) that force the change in him. You can actually see the turn in Michael being made when he volunteers to kills both Sollozzo and crooked cop McCluskey. There is a telling scene in the movie where the Godfather tells Michael that he "never wanted this" for him, that instead he could have been "Senator Corleone". What innocence that Michael had was taken away from him, and he is left becoming something that was never supposed to be in his destiny.

In Godfather II, we see how the Godfather himself was just a child named Vito Andolini, innocent and (according to his mother) not so bright. The movie just barely touches on how this child goes from being just another kid (with a dead father, something that happened a lot in Sicily we learn) to his position leading a crime family. The sharp turns in his life, such as the death of his father, his hiding and immigration to America, his oppression at the hands of the local street Don and how he reacts to that oppression all shape his future. It's amazing really, these sharp turn I mean; it's as if you are looking at road map where you can see what's down the way from that fork in the road. Vito kills the local Don and then becomes the de-facto leader of his neighborhood. In II you also see the complete transformation of Michael from college kid/war hero into hardened Don. The capstone of the transformation, at least in my own mind, is the death of his brother Fredo. In a culture where family rules supreme, it takes a hardened man to order the death of his mentally-slow brother.

Godfather III is much tougher to watch. At first I thought it was just simply not as good of a screenplay, as you can't fault the acting (well I can fault George Hamilton's acting, but that's another point); I've come to the realization that part of what makes III tough to watch is the nature of the story: it's how the consequences of all those turns in his life result in Michael losing what seems to be the most important things in his life, including his daughter Mary. It's Mary that seems to embody Michael's ambitions for more of a legitimate existence, but yet Mary falls victim to the violence that always follows as a consequence of how Michael has chosen to live his life. In the end you are left with Michael as an old man, sitting in a chair in Sicily, where he dies all alone.

Great art, in my opinion, constantly challenges you...

...in music, it's to hear the subtitles of the instrumentation (such really hearing that bass line for the first time or picking out the individual voices in a harmony)
...in paintings, it's seeing some unforeseen detail or taking that step back and noticing something about the totality of the work that you missed before
...in a story, it's seeing the layers built into the author's work and how those layers change the the very meaning of the experience

The Godfather movies are truly great art.

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