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.
* 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.


"Q" the Enchanter said...

On the merits of Godfather relative to those of Casablanca, I'm with you. But Dumb & Dumber conducts a far more brilliant appeal to our inner dumbass.

Lester Hunt said...

I see that Dumb and Dumber is not on either of the AFI Top 100 lists. Another atrocity. Those bastards!

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, it has no center because it's all moral relativism.

One of the keys to the movie is Robert Duval's character Tom Hagen since he connects the old world Sicilian tribalism to American politics.

There's alot of subconcious "family" reference to Joseph Kennedy and his influence into American politics and of course the novel was written by Mario Puzo in the alte 60's and the movie was made in the 70's, only a decade after the JFK assassination which was still very active in the American psyche.

Lee Strasburg's narrative about Moe Green's death: "I didn't get upset, I didn't ask who did it, I just accepted it because I said to myself, this is the business we're in...."

"Dont ask me about my business!!!...OK Kay, just this once you can ask me..."..."Michael did you have Pauli killed?"..."No"

"Mama, in the old days what would pop have done?"

"It was a son Michael and I had it killed."

"yeah, we have contacts on the newspapers."

Of course the scene where Michael and Hyman Roth are talking in Roth's Miami house living room, "Michael, we're bigger than Genral Motors", as Roth's wife repeatedly enters the room and lowers the TV volume.

Lester Hunt said...

Oddly enough, I had never thought of this as relativistic. I guess your idea of what it means is something like, "We think of the Mafia as bad and GM as good, but each corporate culture judges itself to be good. When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Maybe the reason I had not thought of it that way was that it seems inconsistent with the other theme of the picture -- ie., "the story of a man who only wanted to be a better man than his father and ended up being much worse." There's no way to make that one relativistic. Also, if one relativistically rinses away the badness of his "business" activities, then it is no longer true that Michael becomes worse than his father. Ie., we have a pretty direct contradiction. But you could still be right -- ie., the film might be incoherent. Very possible.

Anonymous said...

"You're a great man Hyman Roth." Why do these people equate each other with Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln? When you offer people drugs, gambling and prostitution you are granting them freedom in a twisted or relativistic sense.

"The Corleone family will be legitimate in 5 years." Which references Joe Kennedy's bootlegging activities in the 20's and JFK himself was associated with Sinatra, the mob and Vegas in the 50's.

The whole story plot about the Cuban Revolution in GF II referencres the US Gov'ts sanction of Cuba as a capitalist client state for American corporations during the first half of last century. Castro has fed on US involvement for in Cuba and SA for the last 50 years. Michael himself recognizes the Cuban desire for freedom when the revolutionary allows himself to be shot instead of captured.

Actually Michael's dad wanted him to be Senator Corleone (or better than him) but the actual Senator character in GF II was very corrupt.

Michael kept turning up the TV volume during his meeting with Hyman Roth because he was paranoid about gov't buggging.

We can say that the underlying human desire for freedom whether it is in the gov't, society, corporations or the mafia is always corrupted by fallen human nature so that "fine men" and "great men" are lead astray, which is why they all need the lawyers.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"the story of a man who only wanted to be a better man than his father and ended up being much worse."...I don't think that was the theme of the picture but rather what we "wished" was the theme of the picture or what was papa Vito's altruistic ambition that his son would rise to "legitimate" power as a senator. In reality Michael was just as ambitious and cunning as his brothers and seized upon his opportunity with the "altruistic" idea of whacking the Turk and the Irish-American "untouchable" police officer in order to protect his father's life.

Anonymous said...

I concur...the godfather is overrated. But, i feel it deserves to be on the AFI list somewhere. personally, i think Kubrick needs more credit!

Anonymous said...

The Godfather is the most overrated film of all time. It's a good movie. But its not even a great movie, it's just good. A lot of jerk-offs claim it to be the greatest film of all time, because they think it makes them cool or something. But it wasnt all that great, it was pretty good, but thats all it was.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree on all counts here. The Godfather 1 and 2 are the greatest films ever made IMO. Why? Because they are as close to perfection on all accounts. Great acting from a great cast, check. Perfect casting, check. Great story, check. Great pacing, check. Real, complex characters that STILL entertain, check. great cinematography, check. Great direction, check. Dialogue that has become mainstream culture, check. I can go on and on.

And there is a CLEAR center to this film. Do you have to be Socrates to figure this out? It is FAMILY. It's the story of a family. And regardless as to whether or not you find misgivings about a true morality within the story...that does not matter. All that matters is whether or not Michael Corleone feels what he believes is moral or not. Everday, every person on this planet does something that questions his or her morality. This film is that simple.

I cannot out another film higher.

Anonymous said...

"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."

By the same logic we would have to assume that the astronauts in 2001 had Strauss piped into their space helmets, or that the Janet Leigh character in Psycho put Bernard Hermann's screechy violin score on the phonograph before she jumped into the shower.

Lester Hunt said...

In fancypants critical theory "diegesis" refers to the world of the characters in the story. Thus "diegetic music" in a film is music that the characters can hear.

Anonymous said...

We don't have to suppose Bach was any more audible to Michael and family than it was to Moe Green and the other hoods gunned down in the sequence. If it was extra-diegetic in a barber shop, a massage room, an elevator and a courthouse entrance, why not also a church?

Lester Hunt said...

The music does continue over into the intercut shots, but so do the voices of the priest and Michael (saying "I do"). Also, the intercut scenes, except for gunshots, are mostly silent (eg., no footstep sounds). Plus the sound of the the organ sounds as if echoing in the huge chapel we see. All of which indicates to me that the music is supposed to be diegetic. We are seeing visuals of the murder scenes and the sounds of the church scenes simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

Lester Hunt said: "The music does continue over into the intercut shots, but so do the voices of the priest and Michael (saying 'I do')."

Yes, but what of it? If the music and voices of the priest and Michael are unheard by the hoods and their assassins, it does not follow that the music must be heard by someone in the film.

Hunt: "Also, the intercut scenes, except for gunshots, are mostly silent (eg., no footstep sounds)."

Except for the gunshots and the sounds of a gun being assembled and a badge clicking against a revolver and Clemenza mounting a staircase andthe anguished cries of the victims.

But even total silence from the assassination intercuts wouldn't establish that the source of the background music was the church organ at Michael Rizzi's baptism.

Hunt: "Plus the sound of the the organ sounds as if echoing in the huge chapel we see."

Is it inconceivable that this particular recording of Bach was made in another church with a great pipe organ?

The most telling evidence for ruling out the music as diegetic are the dramatic and non-musical pauses in the organ during the question and response of the priest and Michael. See 2:19, 3:38, 3:46, 4:13 in the link below. It is far easier to suppose that the grand pauses are the work of a sound editor than an organist cued to go mute at each instance of Michael's perfidy.

Lester Hunt said...

I'll have to listen to the C Minor again, but I assume those rests were written by J. S. Bach over 200 years ago, mainly because they seem to be more or less randomly related to what we see and the other things we hear. Some speeches and dramatic events coincide with them, while other speeches equally important or events equally dramatic get the organ played right through them. The one impressive exception, I have to admit, is Michael saying "I do renounce them," referring to the works of Satan.

Anonymous said...

GODFATHER series is overrated simply because it is about power & display of power which any average male dreams about in his life. Glorification of mafia and depicting that even mafia guys are "family guys"???

For academic film students its a good movie for the technique & performance. But there is no reason for average moviegoers to be so fascinated about it coz they dont understand the technical aspects of the movie in detail.

lastly, liking GODFATHER series is considered to some kinda macho thing in males. So most of the guys claim that they are the greatest fans of the movie.

Guna said...

it is a symbol of macho to like godfather and thats what the movie has achieved for itself ;even the present generation youth like it ;a movie that is same through out generations is called a classic and GF is one

Unknown said...

This is the most absurd/egotistical review I've ever read. I mean, you lost me when you were talking about the hits at the end of the movie. "Now that's how hits are supposed to be done!" Hehe, I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they are terrible, misguided ones.

Lester Hunt said...

Jeez, Nathan, take a deep breath. Also learn to read. You misquote me and mis-identify the movie in which that particular murder takes place (Godfather II, not The Godfather).

Also, why "egotistical"??

For these reasons, I almost didn't publish this comment. But I figured it does have some merit as an example of how over the top emotional people get over this movie. You'd think it is holy writ or something. I'll never understand that.

Anonymous said...

Thank God there's still some good sense in the world. You're the first intelligent person I've ever seen mount an articulate piece of criticism about this most overrated of films.

You're also old and experienced, that only makes all this even cooler. AND you are a philosopher. If everything goes well I'll be reading philosophy at Cambridge next year. =D

Lester Hunt said...

That's pretty exciting. I've been there once. Simon Blackburn kindly took me on a personal tour of the campus. To say it was impressive would be a gross understatement. Good luck!