Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Godfather: Overrated

I just saw the movie again, this time with my son Nat. He had not seen it before and I suppose this is why I saw it rather differently this time. It seemed better crafted but also shallower than ever before. As I suggest in my title, it seems obviously overrated to me.

This is hardly the most original thought I have had so far today. After all, how on earth could it not be overrated? It is consistently at the top of lists of the top ten or top one hundred greatest films of all time. Maybe this shouldn't bother me. After all, I remember a time when every guy's favorite movie was "High Noon" or "Casablanca" (and his wife's favorite was "The Red Shoes"). That was when "Gone with the Wind" was often regarded at the ultimate in Filmkunst. But this was before there was such an academic discipline as film studies. These people were plain folks, not intellectuals. I don't mind it a bit if they watch "Gone with the Wind" until their eyeballs roll down their cheeks like big gelatinous tears.

But The Godfather's inflated reputation does bother me. There are people whose judgment I respect who take it seriously as a work of art, or claim they do. It is now #2 on the loathsome AFI list. This seems really, really silly to me. The Godfather doesn't even belong in the same league as "High Noon" or "Casablanca," let alone that of "Citizen Kane" or "Vertigo" (and would it be a cheap shot to mention "The Rules of the Game,""Tokyo Story," or "M" here?). The reason is that, unlike all these other films, this one lacks a center.

I'll explain this in a minute, but first I might as well make some admissions. Yes, it has one of the greatest casts ever assembled, and all the thespians in it are doing a great job. It also is persistently watchable. No boring parts at all. Really reaches out and grabs you by the short hairs.

Also, Nino Rota's score is of course excellent, considered simply as music. But as a contribution to the film? Here the problems begin. This Italian opera based score has the very regrettable effect of romanticizing these brutally nasty characters. This is one of several ways in which this film, which is about morally compromised characters, is itself guilty of the same sort of opportunism and hypocrisy. (In The Sopranos there are many joking hints that this is the real-life gangster's favorite movie. I bet it is. Nothing in the world is more flattering to them than this film.) Here is a detail that has bothered me for a long time. In the climactic baptism scene, you can hear very clearly, as part of the diegetic church music, Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. There is something wrong with this. And I don't mean that Bach was a Lutheran and there is nothing remotely liturgical or religious about this piece, so that one could not have heard it in a Catholic church at the time at which the scene is set. Okay, I admit those things do bother me a little, but that's not my point. It's that the minor mode tonality of the piece adds a distinctly Dracula-like creepiness to the scene in the church. The problem with this is that it undercuts the whole point of the scene, which is the ironic* contrast between the holy events in the church and the half-dozen gory murders, from here to Las Vegas and back, that we keep cutting to. Why did they choose this piece for this scene? I suppose the answer is that, dude, it just sounds cool. And it does! It's rather obvious, somewhat cheap, and thematically pointless, but undeniably it does sound cool. And, emotionally, it works. Not that it results in thematically meaningful emotion -- it actually fails where that is concerned -- but it does result in more emotion.

That's this movie in a nutshell. All this obvious shlockiness really does work. Never lets go of those short hairs. There is nothing wrong with liking a movie like this. Heck, I happen to love Viennese operetta myself. But I don't claim that Lehar and Kalman are Wagner. And I don't list Zigeunerliebe as the second greatest musical drama of all time. I just let it sweep me me off my feet, that's all. Isn't that enough?

Again, I admit that the film has many images that stick in the memory, which I ordinarily would take as a sign of movie greatness. But what sorts of images are they? Moe Green's eyeglass lens suddenly going white as he is shot in the eye with a 22 pistol. Capt. McClusky's fingers quivering over his throat because he has been shot there by Michael. Paulie Gatto's head resting on the steering wheel as blood drips down his nose. You don't have to be a great artist to make such things memorable. The art is in managing to forget them. (Note that Godfather, Part II, generally a better film, is entirely lacking in such going-for-the-easy-effect shots. As I recall, the murder of Fredo is depicted at long distance. You just hear a single hollow report. Now that's how you do a hit! In a movie, I mean.)

So what did I mean by lacking a center? In 1952, Manny Farber published a classic essay, "The Gimp." In it, he introduced a critical concept that should have caught on but never did. The gimp was a device supposedly used by lady golfers during the Victorian period. In involved a hidden string running from the hemline to the waistband of her skirt. At a crucial moment (to distract her male adversaries?) she would flick the gimp, revealing briefly a some lawn and high-buttoned shoes -- but suggesting so much more! The male would get the impression he had really seen something (an inch of living, human ankle?) but in fact he had been shown nothing.

Movie gimps are details that suggest profundity without delivering it. "He chomps on his cigar that way because he has a father complex," the viewer thinks, giving the artist an undeserved free ride.

The Godfather has the biggest, most effective gimp of them all. Sprinkled throughout it are hints that it is really about the true nature of America. The first line is "I believe in America." Then there is the Statue of Liberty in the background of the "leave the gun, take the cannoli" scene. My favorite by far is of course Kay's line: "Oh, Michael, do you realize how naive you sound? Senators and Presidents don't have people killed." (In 1972, this was a laugh line.) But what is this movie actually saying about America? That the American government is a gangsterish organization? That the heads of American business corporations are no better than Mafia Dons? That the American state is gangsterish? That Americans themselves are a marauding mob of thugs, imposing their protection racket on the rest of the world? That the American cult of success inevitably involves gangsterish methods? Or are they merely saying that the mafia was a part of the process by which poor immigrants became integrated into American society, so that it is part of the story of how America became what it is?

Of course, it's not saying any of these things. It combines the gimpy hint that it is somehow about such things with obvious-effect images, schmaltzy music and other highly effective devices to ravishing effect, creating the illusion that the powerful feelings it arouses are deep, whereas they are merely powerful. Pauline Kael once said that Ingmar Bergman is the favorite director of people who don't like movies -- in other words, of intellectuals. The Godfather is the favorite movie of the opposite sort of person. It brilliantly appeals to the dumbass in all of us.
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* I can't resist the obvious point that this is very heavy-handed irony. There are no subtle touches in this movie. If there were, it wouldn't have the particular sort of emotional power that it actually has.
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