I was standing in the office of Richard T. Jameson. I had taken a film class from him, and written what I thought was a pretty good final paper on The Godfather. But in looking at the posted grades on the bulletin board I saw that I had been given an "incomplete."
"So, why'd I get an 'incomplete?'"
Jameson surmised me cooly. "I think you know why..."
I gave him a look. "Uh...no-o, I don't."
He looked at me. "You bought that paper, didn't you?"
"C'mon! You bought it from a mill. This thing reads like Pauline Kael!"
(It should be noted that Jameson didn't like the writings of Pauline Kael)
"Honestly, I wrote it myself!"
"Well, how'd you get the quotes right?"
"I taped it off NBC!"
"Okay. How'd you get the camera angles?"
"When I hear the audio track, I can remember what the visuals are..." "Oh....okay. Sorry. Given that, maybe you did write it, after all."
Here's what I wrote, warts and all, painful though that proved to be to recreate. Richard Jameson's comments are in RED.
The Godfather begins with a black screen, behind which a single horn wails out a series of rising and falling notes, evoking a feeling of desperate sadness, as if some tragedy were taking place. The music would be appropriate for a funeral. And with that in mind, the first sentence is spoken in the film: "I believe in America." the man who says this, Bonasera, an Italian immigrant, has a daughter who has been ravaged and beaten by a pair of American toughs. He does not go to Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather, who gives assistance when it is asked, because, as the Don, himself, says, "You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, made a good living, the police protected you and there were courts of law. You didn't need a friend like me." But the police and courts have failed Bonasera and sent the thugs free. For him, Justice and America have not worked. "She was a beautiful girl," says Bonasera of his beaten daughter. "Now she will never be beautiful again." So can be said of his view of America. The Don, himself, says, later in the film, "I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by those big-shots. I don't apologize, that's my life." So it is with so many of the characters in The Godfather. If something does not go to their liking, they cross the criminal line and go to the darker side of America, represented by director Francis Ford Coppola, in the first few minutes of the film, by the blackness of the Don's office.
Good. However, the blackness is also associated, it seems, with an Old World sense of honor, of self sustained by the family and The Family. Of course this does not contradict what you have said--merely enlarges on it. (Darkness in the cinema is worthy of a whole book in which to discuss it.)
The Godfather, which Coppola, and maybe a quarter of the people who say did (?), adapted from Mario Puzo's trashy novel, runs in a circular pattern: a master circle in which smaller circles of lives and deaths, favors and rewards, and war tactics intersect. Favors are given out and paid back (Bonasera is revenged, then repays by trying to make Sonny's bullet-ridden body less hideous; the Don helps Enzo, the baker's assistant, stay in America, then, by chance, Enzo helps Michael pull off his hospital ruse to protect the Don from "hit" men; Johnny Fontaine gets his motion picture part, then helps attract other stars for the Corleone's Las Vegas business), traitors conspire and are paid back (Tessio arranges to kill Michael and is, himself, killed; Paulie Gatto, the Don's chauffeur, is "sick" when the Don is gunned down, and Sonny has has him killed in a field of reeds, overlooked by the Statue of Liberty; Carlo sets up Sonny's murder, and Michael has him killed, as well as Moe Green, Barzini and the other "Family" heads). The film is separated into three main sections: the wedding, Tom Hagen's business with Jack Woltz, and, finally, the war between the "Families." Throughout these stands the main story of The Godfather: the metamorphosis of Michael Corleone from a young man who rejects his family's way of life to becoming, himself, Don of the Corleone Family. His reign as Godfather and his father's reign before him are two circles that overlap, so that the film begins with Vito Corleone running the show, moves into a point where the father and son rule together, the father teaching the son, and ends with Michael's first "roar," as it were, as he systematically kills his business rivals, while he overlooks his nephew's baptism, becoming a Godfather, both literally and in Mafia tradition. He has replaced his father. The circle is complete.* And yet, it continues. During Vito Corleone's death scene, Michael's oldest boy, Anthony, who is just a toddler, childishly picks up a water can and with a machine-gun-like "AH-ah-ah-ah" sprays his stricken grandfather with it. As the original Godfather dies, another, still a child, is being "born," who will replace Michael. It's a chilling moment in the film, one that seems to confirm the suspicion that these people are locked into their fates, soon after they are born.
What with so many Paramount fingers in the pie, The Godfather cannot really be called an auteur film.*** Puzo contributed to the screenplay, as did Robert Towne, supposedly, and there are a few auditory touches that belong unmistakably to the film's "Post Production Consultant," Walter Murch. But still, there are so many consistencies in style throughout the film that one can tell that it is mostly Coppola's work. For example, Coppola, when shifting scenes, will set up a single placement shot of, say, Jack Wolz's (sic) mansion or some obscure office building in New York and then cut to what is going on inside. The movie takes place in the late 40's and early 50's and Coppola has strewn old posters on walls (defaced posters of presidential candidate, Tom Dewey, an avid mob fighter, can be seen as he beats up his brother-in-law, Carlo) and vintage automobiles on the streets to provide some period recognition, but also, to evoke the time, he has used 1940's-style movie techniques and set-ups, so that there are no zoom shots, high-on-the-roof-top-vantage-point-shots, split-screens, or slow motion violence, things that have popped up during the last eighteen years. And he uses fades! (Remember them?) More important, he uses them effectively as in the Woltz section, after Woltz has been rudely awakened by a severed horse head bleeding on him, Coppola shows a placement shot of Woltz's mansion, where it has taken place and then fades to the Godfather's face which is tilted in such a manner that he is looking up at Woltz's bedroom. That fade is like a signature for the deed.
Another example of this is when the Godfather lies recuperating at home, and Coppola fades to Michael, hiding out in Sicily. You know what the ailing Don is thinking about: his son.** In another instance, when Tom Hagen is walking through Woltz's studio, another director might have shot from a studio roof as he makes his way along the alleys and studios. But Coppola shoots at street level for these shots, one from the side, and one from the back. Then, when Hagen enters a studio, the camera is elevated up in the studio rafters, just the sort of fancy shot you'd expect in such a studio.
This seems a bit far-fetched as rationale for the shot.****
|"...up in the studio rafters." "Far-fetched," indeed.
* It should be pointed out this was written in 1974, three years before another "circle is now complete" movie—Star Wars—and just before the premiere of The Godfather, Part II.
** Murch provides an auditory compliment to those fades. Woltz's screams echo over the dissolve onto the Don's face, disappearing only at the next cut. On the shot of the Don in his hospital bed, before the shot fades, Murch inserts a distant church bell--a church bell that is actually tolling in that scene in Sicily. Echoes and the thoughts that follow them...
*** The auteur theory was a critical way of analysis (created by the French "Cahiers du Cinéma" writers in the 1950's (including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, André Bazin) that pinned the "authorship" of any film to its director. Film is an inherently collaborative medium with all sorts hands and minds and eyes touching and influencing a film, but just to get a handle on responsibility for the way a film tells its story to its viewer "the man who calls the shots" is far more equal than others. It's not a perfect theory, and there are certainly examples that dis-prove the rule from film to film, but if one is looking for a consistency in style and approach across film careers, the most observable and discernible through-line points to the director, something that only became more solidified when "the studio system" died out and film students began graduating to making films.
*** And it is. You'll find that Jameson's comments are cogent, thoughtful and helpful beyond just the obvious re-direction that he could have written. If you've never read any of his film-criticism, you're missing a body of scholarship that goes far beyond the simple snarky reportage you'd find in your local newspaper. Jameson capital "L" Loves movies, and he especially loves movies that reflect life in an artful way, and shines a light into the corners of life that don't see the light of day. On every film-lovers book-shelf there should be a library of his writing on Ford, Hawks and Welles. At the very least, there should be a published book of his (and Kathleen Murphy's) "Moments Out of Time" series that points out moments of brilliance no matter where in that year's films.
Tomorrow: More of Coppola's shooting set-ups...and set-ups of shootings.