Monday, January 18, 2010

The Godfather Part II

If The Godfather served as a haunting eulogy for the American nuclear family, its sequel charted the death of the American Dream, ironically through those who unquestionably achieved it. Irony and cynicism pervades its narrative and its aesthetic, the golden hues of its tinting a comment not only on our sepia-toned nostalgia but America and its amber waves of grain. The Godfather Part II is a portrait of a tragic hero who is neither tragic (in that he is not deserving of a sliver of pity) nor heroic; though the film bifurcates and splits focus with another character from another time period, it is ultimately about the fall of Michael Corleone.

Its predecessor closed with a baptism juxtaposed with a killing spree, and The Godfather Part II opens with violence set to a communion, showing a young Vito barely surviving the murder of his family by the don of Corleone, Sicily and escaping to America, before Coppola cuts to Vito's grandson, about the same age as the Vito we just saw, coming into symbolic manhood just as Vito did with the dissolution of his family. Illustrating the progress of Vito's family is the sharp contrast between the two: Vito must become a man because he's lost everything. He watched his family murdered one by one and narrowly escaped to America with literally the clothes on his back, and he commemorates this radical shift by sitting in quarantine for tuberculosis, making the first noise he's made thus far by singing quietly to himself. Young Anthony, compared to the bloodbath his grandfather endured, accepts symbolic blood and flesh (the Eucharist) to confirm his adulthood, and where Vito sang quietly to himself, the boy is sung to. His father, Michael, orchestrates a celebration that seems more a coronation than communion, a boys choir praising the young lord among them while powerful men -- politicians, even -- come to pay their respects to King Michael and to thank him for his patronage.

The continuing juxtaposition between Vito's rise to power in America from 1901 through the mid-'20s and his son's ultimate consolidation of that power in 1957-58 illustrates how these initially vast differences belie a terrible unification, and, for all its leaps back and forth, The Godfather Part II presents a story with a completely logical progression. Sepia colors the story of Vito Corleone, who lost his identity upon arrival at Ellis Island when the immigration agent mistakenly identifies his city as origin as his surname, a clerical error that ironically ties him closer to his heritage; as such, Coppola and Puzo establish the character as the ultimate immigrant, literally named for his homeland, allowing the director to completely subvert the American Dream by charting Vito finding prosperity through nightmarish actions.

The first few times I watched this, I saw the difference between Vito and Michael was Vito's ethical code, his attempts to preserve his heritage and his method of creating a Family that worked doubly as the family that Vito lost. Now, the only particularly noticeable discrepancy between the two is that Michael, a vision of pure evil, merely lacks his father hypocrisy. Vito Corleone, like his youngest and favorite son, is soft-spoken and contemplative; he speaks so rarely that his voice rarely rises above in a whisper in either of first two films. Yet his actions are no less brutal than Michael's; they simply lack the scale. He kills Don Fanucci not for intimidating and extorting the Sicilian community in New York but the personal annoyance of being directly affected by the mobster's hold over the community. His first friendships -- with Clemenza and Tessio -- are forged with exchanges of favors, placing a physical value on their bonds instead of emotional connections or solidarity. Only after years of looking out for each other does some level of trust and appreciation emerge. Perhaps the greatest clue to the truth of Vito lies in the casting: he was played by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, two of the most dynamic and intense actors to grace the screen. These are not the people to play a gentle man who brings ethics to organized crime: these are men fit for tyrants and warlords, and any genteel feeling we glean from them is nothing more than shrewdness.

The ironic sepia of Vito's bloody rise is counterpointed by the overpowering gold of Michael's story: his father slowly gained control of New York, but Michael is poised to conquer America. He's bought a senator (G.D. Spradlin) to help clear him of a Senate committee investigation, exonerating him publicly to fulfill -- in his own mind -- his promise to Kay in the last film, that he would make the Corleone family a legitimate business. Michael has wormed his way into the upper rung of American's power ladder -- that of the wealthy, not of the politicians -- and he realizes that the only difference between a legit business and a criminal organization is public perception -- when Senator Geary tells Michael how deeply he despises the Corleones and their attempts at decency, Michael responds, "We're both part of the same hypocrisy, senator, but never think it applies to my family," a statement that shows how Michael cannot fathom just how deeply he's dragged his family down with him and the sick optimism of his attempts to clear their name. The golden color tinting in Michael's scenes reflects how he's become richer than God; the frame brightens so much at times I recalled Danny Boyle's Sunshine, a film about astronauts headed to the sun. Michael meets with other high-ranking businessmen in Cuba just before its fall to the revolutionaries, and we see that the representatives of corporations came closer to conquering Cuba than the United States government ever did.

Michael's arc reveals the pitfall of the American Dream: if we're meant to work hard and make better lives for ourselves than our parents, where does that leave the children of those who reach the top? Vito came to America with nothing and built an organization which Michael has turned into an empire, and references to Rome and its rise and fall are scattered throughout the picture (the Catholic imagery, Tom subtly guiding caporegime Frank Pentangeli to commit suicide in the old Roman fashion, and of course Part III would directly involve the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church). Michael's life follows the borderline Randian subtext of the capitalist dream: born into riches, he sacrifices what ties Vito did have with family -- his touching affection for his wife and children, best evidenced when he picks up his infant son and says, "Your daddy loves you, Michael -- for the sake of pure material gain.

If The Godfather dealt a crippling blow to the concept of family, Part II delivers the coup de grâce: Michael and Tom's plan of securing Geary's loyalty involves drugging him and killing his prostitute, thus leading him to believe that he killed the girl. Tom arrives -- thank God Mike's brother Fredo (John Cazale, who very nearly walks away with the film) owned the hotel -- and assures Geary that the Corleones will make it all better. "She's got no friends, no family," he soothes the senator, "It'll be like she never existed." At the start of the film, we get to meet Vito as a boy without friends nor family; at the end, Michael loses everyone he holds dear. He ahas Fredo whacked for accidentally selling out Michael to his conniving business partner Hyman Roth, and he throws out Kay when she tells him that she aborted their son because she so hated the monster Michael had become and refused to continue the cycle. In the penultimate scene, Coppola flashes back to Michael's decision to join the military, an action that both underpins the tragedy of his downfall from a man who wanted to lead a good life to the most terrible criminal in America as well as showing how far back his attempts to rid himself of family go. When Vito gets his start, he barely exists to a country that doesn't particularly want him, in a community that barely registers him, and at the end Michael sits alone in contemplation, king of everything and nothing.

As long as time remains, a debate will rage over which is better: Part I or Part II. When Kang and Kodos conquer this world, they will force their slaves to debate the collective merits of each and decide who lives and who dies based on their answers (of course, one will love the first and the other the second, so everyone shall lose). And while it is a pointless argument, I must confess that I will cast my lot with this every time. Never have I seen a performance as compelling as Pacino's; his eyes in the scene where Kay reveals her abortion can tell prospective actors more about the craft than a lifetime of classes at Julliard. His is but the tip of the iceberg, however, as Part II gets better performances from all of the actors carried over from the first while extracting equally superb ones from newcomers like De Niro. Aesthetically, Coppola, cinematographer Gordon Willis and editors Barry Malkin, Peter Zinner and Richard Marks craft an epic eulogy for America, a deconstruction of our social and political infrastructures through juxtaposition and irony without losing feel for its doomed, twisted characters.


  1. I've never watched TGF Part 1 or Part 2. My dad owns them and he's always begged me to watch them, but I just don't see the point. There's not much of a reason to really like the characters, and from what you've said, the main moral of the story is something that we (hopefully) wouldn't care about anyway. I know I haven't watched them, and the acting's probably good, I just don't understand the point.

  2. Spencer has made one of the most ignorant statements I've ever seen on a comments section. If I were you, Spencer, I'd consider watching the films. Then maybe you'd want to delete that ridiculous comment.

    The fact that you think one has to have likable characters in a story with some kind of moral reveals an extremely reductive sensibility when it comes to cinema.

  3. lol Tony, I really couldn't care less about what you think. My comment is not ridicolous or ignorant. My statement was simple, and if you really think that's one of the most ignorant statments you've ever read, you really, REALLY don't know that many people. I can only pity you.

    I KNOW the main character doesn't have to be likeable, believe it or not. That being said, what is there to actually care about? If all these characters are bad, why should we care about them, and if we're not supposed to, what's the damn point of watching the movie? To hear the music? To watch the scenery? To see the lives of characters we don't care about anyway? You've failed to answer my question, only pointlessly insulting and being pointlessly hostlie to someone you don't even know and have just read a one paragraph statement, and am now acting like I'm the next Hitler. I'm impressed.

  4. "...what is there to actually care about? If all these characters are bad, why should we care about them, and if we're not supposed to, what's the damn point of watching the movie?"

    Again, an ignorant statement... that is, a statement which results from a pronouncement rooted in ignorance of a movie that you've never even seen. Who says all of these characters are bad or unlikeable? Who says these are characters we don't care about anyway? You do. And you haven't seen the movie.

    You're nothing but a troll.

  5. That's right, I'm a troll. And you're nothing but a sweet, innocent, mature, perfect child that doesn't judge anyone. I didn't say the characters were bad, I asked that if all the characters were unlikeable, and if we couldn't relate to their stories, then what's the point of caring about the movie. No, I haven't seen it, and I'm not judging it, I'm pointing out some of the things that the movie seems to be centered on, according to his review, and I'm asking why I should consider watching it. Maybe I don't want to waste two and a half hours, or however long it is. If you think that makes me a troll, you are unquestionably insane. And by the way, I'm not a troll no matter what in fuck's name you have to say about it. I know who I am, so please, stop wasting your time and trying to tell me. You're only entertaining me. If anyone's a troll on here, it's you.

  6. Look, I'm sorry, ok? Whatever I did, and I'm honestly still not sure, I'm sorry for it. I know you're not a troll, and since we seem to be arguing about who's a troll, that leaves me as the only suspect. I guess. So if I'm a troll, I guess I'm supposed to apoligise. What else?

    What exactly am I supposed to do that would redeem my trollness, other than watch the movie, because you can't tell me that all you want me to do is watch the movie after calling me a troll and saying that my post is one of the most ignorant statements you've ever read. That's a harsh statement, rather bold, and it's a statement you would've surely saved for someone that really deserved it. I looked at your profile and you seem like a decent guy, so I guess that at the least, if I'm a troll, I wasn't aware of it. Is that a fair statement?

  7. Nothing to lose sleep over, Spencer. You seem sincere in your apology, so likewise.

    I really don't mind arguing about movies. Even my very favorite ones, like THE GODFATHER PART II. I just think that discussion should be saved for after one has seen a movie. There's nothing wrong with inquiring about a film. But to be so dismissive of something one hasn't even seen is a personal pet peeve of mine.

  8. Yeah, but I would (logically) need to watch Part one first, and combined they would be....five hours long? And my dad, being a fan of the movies, would certainly force me to watch them with him, and we can never watch a 90 minute movie in the same day, let alone two and a half hours. Some movies are good, but that doesn't neccesairly make them my types of movies, so I'm hearing the praises before making sure this as something I want to invest in. I'll probably eventually watch it, though.

  9. Not likeable characters?
    Well, I certainly don't dislike all of the characters.
    I thought that the audience was supposed tohave a soft spot for Michael Corleone because he has fallen from being a war hero to a Mafia mad man!
    I certainly feel something for Michael and even Vito Corleone.
    Yes, on paper we're obviously not supposed to like them, but on screen, of course we do.
    They wouldn't do three movies on a character everybody hated. No way.

  10. Oh yeah, an Spencer you really should watch it.
    It's bloody brilliant.
    My Dad also encouraged me to watch them andI thought they were like the ultimate man's film but no,I definitaly understand why everybody rated them so much and how there are so many references to Godfather in other films and programmes it's unreal.
    Best trilogy ever.

  11. What an idiot. No one ever said fiction was about liking the characters. It's about charting their progression, watching their arc, finding meaning and, perhaps, beauty and artistic truth in their struggles.

    Coriolanus, Shakespeare's most underrated work (I allege) and one of the finest English language dramas, is a play bereft of any likable, or palatable characters. At times, Shakespeare deliberately turns the action so that Coriolanus does something rotten just as we come to understand him.

  12. If you'd seen The Godfather, you'd understand that the characters aren't all "bad", as you put it... actually, usually, in good movies, like The Godfather trilogy, you can't put characters into boxes of "good" and "bad", because they're human. If they're successfully portrayed as human beings, you won't say they're good or bad... and it's incredibly simplistic to put it in that way. To me, that's one of the reasons why these movies are such masterpieces: because you can't just categorize the characters, nothing is that simple... they make you see the human beings behind the criminals, even when the things they do seem unnacceptable. The characters are incredibly complex... and this is one in a million things I could say about the Godfather. My favorite movies, without a doubt...