Friday, July 18, 2014

Olde Review: The Godfather Part II

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Senator Geary: "I despise your masquerade. The dishonest way you pose yourself. Yourself and your whole fucking family."

Michael Corleone: "Senator, we're both part of the same hypocrisy, but never think it applies to my family"

This Saturday's ASUW film in 130 Kane is Francis Ford Coppola's production of The Godfather Part II.

Imagine the plight of Francis Ford Coppola. He is hired out of relative obscurity in the movie industry to direct The Godfather which becomes the #1 box office draw in history. Not being prone to attempt originality, Paramount Studios asked Coppola to make a sequel. Coppola agreed, stipulating that it be a more ambitious project, but above all else, it had to be necessary to "The Godfather" story. 
Incredibly, it is. Part II needed to be told. And it is a better film than the original.

Part II tells two stories, the ones on either side of The Godfather time-wise: Before (between 1900 and 1940) when Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro, played by Marlon Brando in the original) comes to America and rises to power; and After (between 1958 and 1963) when his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is attempting to expand his empire, while, at the same time, losing his family. It is possible to enjoy Part II without seeing the original, but I don't think it would be as rich an experience. But don't worry about it. If you do, you might miss what is on the screen, which is considerable.
Vito Andolini (named Corleone by an uncaring immigration official) comes to America to escape a family-wide vendetta by the Don of Corleone, Sicily. He is only eight years old at the time. A vendetta of this type--the very strong against the very weak was never present in The Godfather. All wars were between strong men, young and old. But in The Godfather Part II, the differences between stalker and prey are more apparent, the difference between stalkers less so, for Vito Corleone in avenging his family's death, takes that revenge on the same Don, who has grown old and infirm and helpless.

Coppola perfectly captures the look and feel of New York's Little Italy in this section (which is almost completely subtitled so, again, go early if you want to read them, and understand what's going on)
* In the Italian ghetto, families are kept close together, in fact, the community is kept close together by the conditions, and it is upon this unity that Vito Corleone builds his dynasty. He already has a family (an unquestioning wife, and sons who will follow in his footsteps) and friends, for whom he uses his power. Don Vito rises to power for the benefit of his family, his friends and for himself.
It is not that way for Michael Corleone, Don Vito's favorite son, onto whose shoulders the reign of his father has fallen. It is interesting to note that first Michael became Godfather, and then established his family, as opposed to his father, for the two men, as Coppola wishes to show, are completely different.

Above all else,
Michael is a businessman in this film, manipulating everyone in his business dealings. The turnings and twistings of plot in Michael's sequences are subtle, very convoluted, so try to keep the names straight if you want to understand what is happening.
But the main point in Michael's story is that while he may continue his brilliant business career, he does so at a cost. Though he may be able to protect his family from outside forces, he cannot control the forces attacking his family from within. So that, at the end, Michael, though still powerful, probably the most powerful Mafia chieftain, is left alone, to brood over his success...and failure. Coppola who wrote and directed Godfather II said this soon after the film was made:
"One of the reasons I wanted to make Godfather II is that I wanted to take Michael to what I felt was the logical conclusion. He wins every battle; his brilliance and his resources enable him to defeat all his enemies. I didn't want Michael to die. I didn't want Michael to be put into prison. I didn't want him to be assassinated by his rivals. But in a bigger sense, I also wanted to destroy Michael. There's no doubt that, by the end of the picture, Michael Corleone, having beaten everyone, is sitting there, alone, a living corpse...I admit I considered some upbeat touch at the end, like having his son turn against him to indicate he wouldn't follow in that tradition, but honesty...wouldn't let me do it.  Michael is doomed.
I think we can be thankful that Coppola chose to elevate this film from what it might have been in other hands to tell us something extra about those two men--father and son--about our times, our country, and ourselves.

I wish I could talk more about this film, but time prevents me. I will say that it is a beautiful fim, visually; done with genuine feeling and just a touch of spectacle. It is also very violent, though not as much as the original, that Pacino and DeNiro, in their respective parts are brilliant...and that it is being shown Saturday, October 9th at 7:30pm.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM October 8th and 9th, 1976
In a post-"Sopranos" world, it is necessary to re-inforce that the "Godfather" movies weren't supposed to celebrate the Mafia, but cast them in a Shakespearean sense of tragedy. Michael may win his battles, but descends into his own private Hell, the complete refutation of everything that his father represented, and the annihilation of the life that both father and son envisioned for him. Coppola always wanted to put the screws to Michael; to make him a King with riches but no heirs, and for all his success, to lose everything that he should be valuing.

But, a lot of people just saw him winning all his battles. The hell with his family. The hell with his dreams. He was livin' large, man!

So when Coppola was enticed to make Godfather III, he presented a withered, frail Michael, and tempted him with a clean slate, the re-unification of his family, and maybe a chance at happiness—a pure soul—and snatched it away from him, and closed the book on Michael's life.

But nobody liked that. The film was a failure and it is regarded (among many, but not me) as not a worthy successor to the other films.

But, it's not because of the film—the fault is with ourselves. And our sick national, cultural zeitgeist.

It is our custom in this country to venerate our villains. I've noted before that Marlon Brando was appalled when his biker bad-ass in The Wild One was embraced by the youth culture. In Star Wars, Darth Vader was the coolest; in the prequels, when Lucas deconstructed Vader as a tragic figure...and worse, a lackey, it was rejected. Pacino's mui-loco-in-the-cabeza Tony Montana from Scarface is an icon now.

We venerate our villains. We tear down our heroes.

What's up with that? Are we that morally corrupt that we keep making heroes out of scum-bags...and haven't learned anything from it? That maybe...just maybe...we shouldn't?

That quote at the beginning is right. We're all a part of the same hypocrisy and it infects our country, despite the good intentions with which it was created.

Coppola's comparison of America to the Mafia is more on-the-nose than he might have envisioned it to be.

* Though it sounds smarmy and somewhat condescending, I think the issue was the seating at 130 Kane. Sitting in the balcony made it an eye-strain to read sub-titles, so getting a seat on the main floor was preferable.

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