Archive | May, 2013

THE GODFATHER (1972) Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

1 May

The Godfather is one of those classic works of cinematography upon which so much has already been written that it would be a waste of semantics to regurgitate more of the same. The movie has its own Wikipedia page such is its legendary status. My main interest here is with several of the themes; the intention to consider how I can use them in my own life.

As any person trained in film studies or cultural analysis understands, the first five minutes of a movie are the most important. It is here – in the first few moments – that we are introduced to the colour themes, philosophical themes, points of interest, our attention is grabbed. The director directs the viewer with greater intensity (this compression psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud calls always-already); it happens whether or not it is deliberated so in most cases it is. Here, just a little beyond the opening, we get to grips with the look and feel of the completed movie.

A movie might have a beginning, middle and an end, it might have a story, follow a plot. But I would argue that a film is structured more like a paragraph than anything. A paragraph, of course, has a beginning, middle and an end but it also has a topic sentence. A topic sentence is a structure that contains the important information that the rest of the paragraph is built around. It’s usually the first or second sentence from the beginning or end of the paragraph. Every film has a scene that acts as a topic sentence – a kind of concentrated essence – a reduction. It may be located at any point during the film. In most cases it is at the beginning or end of ‘the middle’ section. It’s not the same aspect to the film as the opening moments.

In The Godfather coincidentally the ‘topic sentence scene’ is planted right at the beginning. It’s very simple and powerful. The entire film can be expanded from what we see happen. Just as a man is in the presence of Vito Corleone, head of the family (the family) Michael Corleone will rise from civilian to gangster, he will present himself to the underworld. The man sits and explains how his daughter has been disfigured by two boys who received suspended sentences and walked free. Michael Corleone will take over the family business once it’s power has been diminished, the perpetrators still at large. Can the Don offer a glimpse of justice? Will life as a gangster be an honorable, upright way of life for Michael?

As Don Corleone speaks in reply to the man we learn the following things are paramount to him:
1. Listening
2. Friendship
3. Respect
4. Honour. Being ‘a man of his word’
To our surprise, even though the disfigured girl is his godchild, he does not automatically agree to help. This is because her father has not sought his friendship prior to needing his help. Michael puts his family first when the options are given and the man has given his family priority too to some extent. I mean, really, who wants to get caught up in mafia business? But this same logic means that the act of asking for help is disrespectful. Friends are an extension of family. However, because the request is made on the Don’s daughter’s wedding day, it is custom to agree to whatever is asked. This makes the act of asking for help even more disrespectful, it’s agreed to out of obligation to fulfill promises, not because it is deserved.

The four qualities outlined above are what Michael Corleone must learn in order to be at the head of the family (the family). If he had listened to himself without hesitating, he could have saved Appolonia from the carbomb. His brother, Sonny, doesn’t listen. Friendship (and therefore emnity) is the ever important theme throughout the war between families. Friendship here means loyalty, trust, mutual respect and sharing. Michael stands by his beliefs and can be respected, whereas his brother and brother-in-law are not loyal and so don’t earn our respect or trust. I think Michael differs from his father in that his ‘honour’ is generally revenge rather than keeping his word. Again, this is more marked with Sonny, who doesn’t listen and therefore bursts into rages. Sonny raises his fist in a passion. Michael waits years to serve revenge cold.

On a personal level, I was told to watch this film to see what I could figure out about sustaining interest and keeping attention, so what did I learn? Well, it’s a three hour masterpiece and is entertaining. I’ve seen it several times before and loved the books by Mario Puzo when I read them in y2k. Knowing what to expect didn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching. The black, white and burnished red hues are exquisite and will only look better with time.

Listening is obviously an important skill. Without listening there would be no understanding. (I could have included reasoning in the list above but reasoning is a subsidary of the others in the same way that trust is a subsidary of honour and friendship). The music in The Godfather keeps us interested. There are scenes (like at the hospital) where no music would’ve had us hitting fast forward. If we are listening we are still, so the inner strength to stay in one place for three hours and pay attention is transferable, particularly possible when what’s going on in the background has that audible quality.

Friendship is comprised of many other components. In life, generally, I’ve had extreme experiences of friendship, some really outstandingly good, some unbelievably bad. I’ve moved so many times that I’ve learned that very few relationships are about more than what is readily available. I guess what Vito Corleone was saying at the beginning of the film I agree with – matey hasn’t come to him for friendship so why does he think he can come to him for justice? But I also have concerns about defining friendship so simplistically. He seems to be saying that friendship is sharing. From my own experiences, sometimes I’ll bump into people and they’ll say “I haven’t been in touch with you for six months” and apologise (beg forgiveness). This is always weird for me because I have moved around a lot and with this a perception of time changes. Six months, three years, a decade – it’s nothing. What is special is that the bond is still there without any scrap of resentment, without any fear of resentment. That’s friendship, for me. It’s more than just sharing in such simplistic terms. But is this enough to keep other people interested?

Also, what is rude about the request for help is a principle that I try to live by, much to the aggreivance of some who say “why are you afraid to ask for help when you need it?” The plain truth is that when I have problems, I try to keep them away from other people, in the same way that I do when I have a contagious cold because I care about people and believe in myself. So if I need something with alacrity (a job, a house, a confidante, a friend) then I try to confine myself to myself.

It didn’t used to be like that but when I needed my friends to support me this one time, they all vanished behind polite smiles, and – to cut a long story short – because I didn’t listen to gossip and tried to help someone genuinely in need. That incident changed my view of friendship. It make me see how superficial a lot of people are (I’m probably a really bad friend). That incident made it difficult to make new friends and believe in what most people think of as friendship. As a consequence, self-reliance became more important than dependence. Still, what Vito Corleone is talking about at the beginning of the film about sharing time together is interesting, especially in light of “will you add me?” rather than “can I add you?” In other words ‘will you show me you are my friend?’ rather than ‘can I be your friend?’: a contemporary situation where the dynamic is similar, where the show of friendship is the special quality. Don Corleone suggests that showing respect, sharing each other’s company, is the purpose to a friend. And that is a wise expectation of friendship, particularly when situated next to emnity.

While we’re on the subject, the ‘I haven’t heard from you for a long time’ indignance that supposes a kind of contempt is utterly absurd, particularly from my perspective when I have so many friends and so little time to contact everyone. When you are thinking in terms of a much greater area geographically then there is naturally the demand of the more compact zone to feel included within that. On a practical level ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and responsibility is passed.

Respect. I sometimes hear people speaking about how so-and-so has lost respect. But they still speak to them like they normally would. Surely interacting with the disrespected is odd as it leads to a circuit of disrespect? This led to the conclusion that respect is similar to value but not interchangeabe. If so-and-so has lost their value, then it isn’t necessary to lose respect. Better to respect all people at all times. Does Michael respect Connie when he murders her husband? Yes, he offers his compassion and understand her situation. Does he value Connie and her child amply, as they would like to be valued? No, he does not; the value he does have for them does not prevent his actions. Does he love her? That’s for Connie to decide.

Honour and integrity are intregral to civilised society. They form the core to morality and therefore interaction. We all each have differing morals, what is acceptable to some is unacceptable to others, religion shouldn’t matter on Earth because of the deeper truths and principles superceding all religion but in practice it defines an individual’s personal integrity. If you are raised so that you believe you can not make right a mistake you have made, then you will have a completely different set of values and use your integrity in a different way to defend your honour than if you have the inbuilt belief that it is possible to influence retribution.

Michael is forced to kill the husband of his sister to keep his integrity. He needs to be seen to have a certain standard and not deviate from it. In The Godfather, generally mistakes are ok as long as they are acknowledged, and as long as their resolution is beneficial for integrity. This is a positive safety net for personal growth. There is the fear of dishonour through loss of integrity rather than a fear caused by dishonour. Integrity is under a person’s control whereas dishonour is not. In The Godfather, believing that the outcome of one’s actions can be determined by striving to correct one’s mistakes is very different to the stark contrast of a purity of action, which many of us deceive ourselves is our own standard.

Writing this review has showed me how important enjoyment, consistency, listening, being self-effacing, being self-reliant and encouraging dependency are if you want to be captivating and therefore become trusted with rewards of loyalty. I wasn’t expecting a gangster film to be full of the kind of qualities I wanted to explore in this review but The Godfather is full of quality.