I Couldn't Refuse
Jeff Reichert on The Godfather
It seems fitting that one of America’s best-loved (and oft-quoted) cinematic touchstones should be set immediately following Americans’ best-loved war, focus on organized crime, one of America’s best-loved subjects of fiction, and showcase an encounter in which its protagonists (the Corleone crime family) assert their influence over Americans’ best-loved art form: the movies. There’s an air about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather—in its confluences and conflations (family, Mafia, capitalism, America, movies), in its accessible intricacy (three-hour films this heavy on shadows and symbolism yet so light on their feet remain rare), and in its ultimate value as pure entertainment matched by obvious striving towards serious artistry and import—that’s a little too careful, perhaps a little too perfect.
At least that’s the sense I had before I saw it, as I vaguely followed its ever-shifting back-and-forth with The Shawshank Redemption at the top of IMDb.com’s poll (The Godfather is #1 at the time of this writing), absorbed its near-fetishistic critical and popular hagiography, and acknowledged and catalogued the myriad cultural allusions to it, most of which tend to center around imitations of Marlon Brando’s Don Vito. I even worked for a time with a cheeseball local television personality dubbed “The Sportsfather,” who took more than a few of his show’s cues directly from the source. By the Nineties, when I started watching movies seriously, it’d become a popular totem—an inviolable, sacrosanct text allegedly on par with Citizen Kane in terms of import and influence over American cinema. Reacting against the orthodoxy, my only thought in relation to The Godfather was: Did I need to spend three hours on a film about the mafia (I’ve never really had a yen for mob-related material) especially when I’d already absorbed heaping portions through cultural osmosis and had other, more exotic cinematic curiosities from around the globe higher on the agenda?
Many years later, my inaugural viewing left me with a ready answer: Plain and simple, for better and for worse, The Godfather represents the best of what commercial American Cinema has the ability to accomplish. It is perfect, in its way—no other nation’s cinema since World War II has so consistently offered filmmakers the level of resources of available in Hollywood (and perhaps in no other have they been squandered so regularly), and The Godfather is as absorbing and engrossing as Hollywood’s so-called “invisible style” demands yet as comprehensive, and epic in scope as its intense level of capitalization affords. It’s certainly the most coherent and digestible work of Coppola’s regarded four-film streak, also including The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now (although I’d call it five and add in One from the Heart, probably my favorite of the bunch), and if all movies made today were at least this good, the cinematic landscape would be in absolutely terrific shape. I was surprised by its effortlessness, having expected something more precious and convoluted (1972 was, after all, the year Scorsese and Altman turned out oddities like Boxcar Bertha and Images) and certainly more ponderous. But perhaps what was most surprising was how much there was in The Godfather that I didn’t know, even with years of peripheral exposure.
Coppola’s nearly imperceptible cinematic technique (in marked contrast to the excesses of Apocalypse Now and One from the Heart) is a more than adequate precondition for The Godfather’s briskly paced, tightly woven narrative that stretches, but never overwhelms the figures who inhabit it. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its ability to craft character—Brando’s Don Vito, Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, and James Caan’s Sonny are indelible and rich; even though Brando’s Don is most famously flattened out into hefty jowls and a gravelly whisper, there’s less talk of the urgency in his attempt to avoid assassination, his remorse after Sonny’s death (and subsequent remove that allows him to label his dead son “a bad don”), or the playfulness with which he chases his grandchild through their garden. But perhaps The Godfather’s cleverest trick is ceding the film slowly and surely to a character that’s a little slipperier, at least until one makes it through the trilogy’s second installment: Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, fresh-faced war hero whose initial assertion—“That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me”—is chipped away slowly until murder is “strictly business.” By aligning its perspective with Michael, The Godfather feels not unlike watching Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard through a looking glass—instead of Burt Lancaster realizing at the final ball that his time is past, we view the changing of the guard from the vantage of the younger generation whose time is about to come. Having spent more time with Al Pacino the wide-eyed, greasy, raving irrelevancy than Al Pacino the hungry young actor, his Michael, here and in the sequel, surprised me with a depth more often associated with novels.
But there is the nagging matter of “at leasts” that demands a bit of attention. Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon, and perhaps years spent rummaging through the mediocre foreign sections of the video stores of my youth for Ozu, Herzog, and Tarkovsky turned me too far from the pleasures of American studio cinema at exactly the point when I should have been enveloped in them, but I can’t help but admire greatly without really loving The Godfather, a film that, for me, only barely hints at the personality of its creator through its camera and editing (admittedly to appropriate effect for film’s needs) and seems a little more invested in boosting the American Dream than its simultaneous moves towards teasing out the symptoms of malaise at its core. (Contrasted with Brian De Palma’s Scarface, where America was a “big wet pussy waiting to be fucked,” The Godfather’s first line is “I believe in America.”) I imagine this duality results in some of The Godfather’s appeal—instead of characters striving to get “made,” we have a focus on a figure drawn into family business through a mixture of filial ties, curiosity, pride, and seeming aimlessness, but this tidy prodigal son narrative coupled with the reserved aesthetic leaves the impression of fastidiousness. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, sure, but I still wished for more sequences like the finale’s blood-soaked baptism, or more garish bloody horse heads resting on silk sheets. And even though I found The Godfather Part II’s temporal shifts a bit too jagged, a little of that kind of rambunctious energy might have proven welcome in its predecessor.
If all movies were as good as The Godfather, we’d never be forced to reckon with tripe like Everything Is Illuminated or Wedding Crashers, but we might never be leveled by works like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Before Sunset, and Eyes Wide Shut, as well. Coppola’s film may represent the best of what commercial American Cinema can accomplish, but it certainly isn’t the best that American Cinema has accomplished within the commercial studio system. With history being written by the victors, the films of my generation may someday come to supplant the American Seventies in the canon, but this is not to say that I feel my generation’s cinematic choices are necessarily better, or above The Godfather, even if I do like it less. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by lurid train wrecks: to bring Welles back for a second, I tend to prefer a film on the order of Lady from Shanghai over the sturdier Citizen Kane, or King of Comedy over Raging Bull, hence my appreciation for the bizarro One from the Heart over The Godfather. For as much as movie love comes from what we grow up with, there’s a simultaneous element of discovery and ownership over the impossibly rare; The Godfather’d been with every guy at the dance by the time my turn came. And as much as I was delighted to see that consensus need not necessarily align itself with the lowest common denominator, it wasn’t long before I was hungry for new ground to break. Bring on the next Manoel de Oliveira.
“You haven’t seen _____??” being the nervous moment of traditional cinephilia, I’ll admit I’m glad to have shed this fairly hefty albatross, even if I’d started to wear it proudly, and stupidly, like a badge. Given the immense, ever-expanding production of films worldwide, even with those cherished programmers who dedicate themselves to seeking cinema’s apocrypha so that filmgoers today can get a look at the works of an Andrzej Munk, Valerio Zurlani, or Mikio Naruse, there will always be pockets couched in obscurity, never to see the light of day, and there’s no way to know how many masterpieces will remain lost to the ages. The best the new generation of film lovers can do, with over 100 years of cinema behind us, is to take cues from our elders, and carve out our own personal canon—some may find refuge in genre pictures, others in a certain nation’s cinema, others in the work of a particular director. No one way of reading film history is better or more valid than another, but there is something satisfying in being able to chime in—yes, everyone’s right, The Godfather is really quite good. The best American movie ever made? In my mind, not by a long shot. Even though there is something to be said for a film that daringly shrinks its most outsized performer through the course of its length until he’s left inelegantly, dumped like a sack on the ground, in the end it’s still not really my bag.