There is shockingly little written about The Godfather in terms of critical textual analysis. There’s plenty about the film’s production, influence, and overall importance in film history. Nearly everyone loves it and can’t say enough good things about it, but the film is either strikingly simple to understand or strikingly difficult, eluding the comprehension of critics and academics to such an extent that they hardly bother to footnote it. Articles have been written about the role of music in the film – in the trilogy, really. Books have been written about how Paramount got it made, how Coppola finally got attached, how Brando and Pacino were eventually given the lead roles, how it draws from and departs from the gangster genre, and how it was integral to the formation of “New Hollywood” in the early 70s. These things are all interesting, but it leaves the interested viewer lacking proper resources to get down, simply, to what the film is about and how it achieves its meaning(s). Certainly there is no pretense that this medium will be able to pierce very deeply at all into the answers to those questions, but a modest attempt should be made.
It turns out that the gangster genre, so popular especially in the 30s and 40s, was largely about morality plays. Pre-code films like Scarface, Little Caesar, and Public Enemy may have been about morality as much as the later code films (White Heat, The Roaring Twenties), but the earlier ones tended to blur the line between condemning violence and glorifying it. What is interesting about The Godfather is the way that morality initially seems to be of little interest to the film but then becomes so intrinsic to its narrative and ultimate meaning. Why is Don Vito put in a positive light, or at least in a morally ambivalent light, from his first appearance in the film until his death, while Michael’s timeline of moral progress is what condemns him? Vito’s business may not be a legitimate one, but the film associates him with family and business equally. In his business life, he holds the obviously familial title that he embraces so much that he even chastises a man who asks a favor of him without addressing him as “Godfather.” Subtextually, it’s possible that Coppola means to critique Vito for pretending not to be about the business; for pretending to be the loving patriarch in a large family that is headed for certain destruction. Michael, on the other hand, initially distances himself from his family, citing business as the main problem with his family. Once he is drawn into the scuffle, he is shown to be far more ruthless and immoral than his father ever was. Though Vito’s mind dulls as he ages, he cannot be completely blind to Michael’s tendencies, and he allows Michael to lead with a brutal, iron fist even though Michael’s priorities are not the same as Vito’s.
To be sure, we’re confining this discussion of the (im)morality of Vito and Michael to the narrative, not to other, formal elements. Still, once form enters the discussion, the observations above become all the more apparent. The famous early wedding scene pits the Don’s family life against his business life, exposing the contradiction between the two worlds that he attempts to conflate. Outside, life is bright and cheery. People sing, dance, and drink wine while celebrating a wedding. Inside, people ask favors of the Don, who cannot decline a request on the wedding day of his daughter. But inside, it is dark and ominous. While Vito is able to look through the blinds at the happiness outside, no one is able to see into his darker life who is not permitted. Favors are asked, some with more respect than others, and favors are granted. There is no indication of unhappiness or problems from the outside, but on the inside the opposite is the case. Does the film mean to imply that Vito excels at separating two lives that can coexist as long as they do not overlap? Or does the film hint at a moral contradiction, and one that is bound to lead to problems?
Outside, only Michael dares to acknowledge the other reality of his family’s life. He does so with contempt, promising never to be a part of his family’s business. Even his attire sets him apart from the rest of the family, associating himself with another, larger organization: the US military. Ironically, perhaps, the film’s first line, from a business associate asking a favor of Vito, is, “I love America.” This statement is used pragmatically, as a means to persuade Vito that the man’s request does not clash with the nature of his request: the vengeful murder of men who violated his daughter. Incidentally, one of the first things out of Vito’s mouth in the film is a corrective response to this man, who insists that justice be served for his daughter’s sake. Vito tells him, “That is not justice.” This moral rebuke establishes Vito as a man who is not unaware of moral boundaries, but a man who, when catered to, is nevertheless willing to violate those boundaries. In this way, the film seems to be a moral test for the viewer. Knowing at the outset that Vito and Michael both have consciences, able to make ethical distinctions, how will the viewer respond to the fairly static, seemingly “positive” portrayal of Vito and to the more dynamic, negative portrayal of Michael?
But, back to national affinity. The man requesting Vito’s intervention for his daughter’s sake associates himself with America and, by the nature of the appeal, identifies Vito with the country as well. The act of requesting a favor, using affection for the nation as a bargaining tool, associates one with the other. It is as if the man is saying, this is way things are done here, as we both know. The fact that Michael, too, appeals to patriotism in his attempt to set himself apart from the rest of his family exposes the contradiction not only in the Corleone family but also in the nation of America. One uses patriotism for one end, one uses it for another. However, the film’s narrative eventually takes the viewer to the place where the contradiction is uncovered and shown to be based on a single idea. When Michael makes the shift to the other side, we see how flimsy is the patriotic deference.
As the film progresses, national identity shifts to ecclesiastical identity. By the end, rather than the film using its tools to associate country with the family business (dialogue, wardrobe), it uses cross-cutting to expose the contradiction between church loyalty and the family business. And just as Vito, in the film’s early scene, transgressed a moral boundary of which he was fully aware, the editing at the film’s end shows that Michael’s religious vows to live a righteous life and renounce the devil is done in full rebellion to the ultimate symbol of morality in his universe: the church. The murders that are committed, one after the other, clash with each individual promise Michael makes to be godfather to his nephew. Willing to gain the title of his father at all costs, Michael begins his tenure as Don with as little moral integrity as is possible. The film’s form, through this cross-editing, more than anything else betrays Michael’s deeper vices in contrast with his father’s. The film does not offer the viewer the image of Vito fulfilling his promise. In Michael’s case, however, the editing betrays not only Michael’s inability to separate family from business as Vito at least attempted to do, but also Michael’s much more severe vices. The multiple murders, all cross-cut with his vows, being broken at the moment they are being made, emphasize that the family is getting worse and not, as Michael promised Kay, more “legitimate.”
Incidentally, it should be pointed out, if someone hasn’t already done so, that Michael’s wife’s name is interesting. “Kay” is a homonym of the letter “K”, and it is a letter that is not contained in the Italian alphabet. As if there were any doubt that this blonde-ish woman was not an Italian, even her name sets her apart from the culture and, by relation, sets Michael apart from his father’s traditions.
Another concluding aside: Jon Lewis’ chapter on the film in Film Analysis: A Norton Reader is generally only an “analysis” in the terms described above that are so common for The Godfather. It mostly restricts itself to the production background of the film, relation to the gangster genre, and cinematic influence. Lewis does note that Marlon Brando’s acting style inadvertently injured the intent of Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, Brando’s follow-up performance to The Godfather that earned him another Oscar nomination. Brando’s somewhat infamous brand of method acting, Lewis suggests, ultimately created a character that was sympathetic to the audience – by virtue of his poetic improvisation and extremely detailed performance – when Bertolucci’s intent in the film had been to illustrate the vacuity of such a life and such a philosophy of life. Considering again all of the aforementioned contradictions in the character of Vito in The Godfather and the apparently different light in which Vito and Michael are portrayed, is it possible that Brando’s acting in the film subverts the film’s intended meaning? This could possibly account for the seemingly more positive character of the patriarch, or at least part of it. There can be no doubt that the film presents Michael as transgressing more boundaries than his father’s legacy would deem permissible. A possible answer to this question lies in the sequel. By going back in time and depicting a younger Vito, portrayed by Robert DeNiro rather than Brando, the next film presents two major moral possibilities. First, it may suggest that Vito is more evil than Brando’s performance led us to believe by giving us a different version of Vito. Second, and contrarily, it may show the underlying account of how Vito rose to such heights as the head of the biggest family in the Five Families and in so doing imply that Vito had good motivations for his life of crime or that the truth is grayer than simple black-and-white morality. A subsequent review of The Godfather, Part II is apparently in order.
A respite from respite films (coughHowToStealAMillion) brings one back to less confection-y, more complexity-works such as the archetypal “art film” by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation. Considered a masterwork of understatement, it is only so when put next to anything else Coppola has ever done. This should not be misunderstood to mean that Coppola has no gift for subtlety, or that subtlety is necessary for masterworks. Coppola likes making epics, and this film is simply not an epic. Its content, however, is huge, but Coppola keeps it reigned in like Siegfried & Roy reign in wild cats. And just like the tiger trainers, it would only be a matter of time before Coppola got eaten by one of his projects.
As discussed recently in Kieslowski’s Decalogue VI, the theme of voyeurism, the gaze, the spectacle is arguably the one most integral to cinema, since it deals with the very nature of cinema and the act of watching. This makes “small” films concerned with this theme, like Decalogue VI and The Conversation all the more delicate, since they can easily treat their subject matter naively. The Conversation could be seen as groundbreaking, in some sense, since it takes the visual theme of voyeurism and translates it to the aural: surveillance. Articles and essays on the film observe that historically, The Conversation is situated in close proximity to important cultural and political events that heightened national paranoia over surveillance. The Watergate scandal alone illustrated the impact that audio tapes could have on the highest office in the land, dwarfing Nixon to the status of a crooked, foul-mouthed liar with the push of a “play” button. Coppola takes advantage of this growing paranoia among his spectators and puts on display the cutting-edge technology that allows such surveillance and makes nearly impossible any attempt to discern it while it’s happening. Nowadays, however, the image of a wiretappers’ convention is almost comical, going as it does against the grain of the very notion of secret surveillance.
The film begins with a long take from the top of Union Square in San Francisco, which draws comparisons to scenes from The Third Man, Touch of Evil, Psycho and even Children of Men. Something about the notion of being watched demands the long take, the bird’s-eye view that slowly closes in on human ants and renders them unknowing persons. The camera eventually zooms in on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), briefly deceiving the audience into thinking that he is the watched, when it turns out he is the watcher. Of course, this deception is itself an ironic deception, as the narrative will show. Shots in the film begin long and gradually shorten, until an effect of stifling interiority is achieved. Caul is the object of cinematic surveillance/voyeurism, a fact that becomes diegetically true, as well. Caul’s worst nightmare is that anyone know anything about him; he is consumed with such paranoia that he insists that he has no personal possessions of his own. His lack of subjective identity (restricted only to playing the saxophone and a brief fling with a woman) is transferred to his professed lack of subjective concern over his surveilled victims. He states that he cares not about those he is assigned to surveill, only that he gets a “nice fat recording.”
The Conversation reveals an ironic phenomenon within the act of watching or listening-in: that which would seem to be centripetal is in fact centrifugal. In surveillance, an image or frame would seem to capture that which is being sought or viewed. Attention would, presumably, be focused toward the center of the frame. In the same way, the cinematic image, it would seem, is no different than a painting. Painted art is known for its centripetality, drawing the eye of the viewer toward the center and often being constructed in such a way as to balance the various elements within the frame. In reality, however, and thanks to the observations of Andre Bazin and others, the cinematic image is centrifugal, always most interesting for what it does not show, always drawing attention past its own borders. These borders, classically, are blackness. The darkness of the cinema theater (or even the home theater!) gives a distinct border to the film frame, surrounding it with a nothingness, an abyss of aether that suggests literally infinite possibilities. This reality is, of course, what allows particularly for such genres as suspense, thriller, and horror. Anyone who has been frightened by a horror film knows that true terror occurs not at what is shown but at what might be shown. Hence why cheesey horror films are so bad: they put the horror image right out there, instantly disarming the spectacle of its ability to terrify.
As this is all true of the cinematic imaged, so it is with the surveilled image. The Hitchcockian suspense created by the recordings to which Caul listens lies not in what is said but rather in what what-is-said might mean or allude to; that which is beyond the aural scope or the visual frame. As words and images are signifiers, the signified is elsewhere, allusive, at some level even impossible. Caul’s disdain for the signified is both lazy and dishonest; lazy for his attempt to evade ethical concerns and dishonest because the human mind, like it or not, seems to strive after structure, order, rationality, meaning. Signifiers alone are naked, incomplete, even abject. They are the facade of a neither-nor, disturbing for what they may mean and for pretending to mean nothing. Caul would have them mean nothing or not worry over what they may signify. He is, however, as enslaved to the inevitability of the signified as anyone. This reality is evident in the technique of surveillance: stationary or swiveling cameras, automated, mindless and without prejudice for whoever or whatever might wander into their range. Haneke’s Caché brought this fact to new and more criminal levels.
The final shot of The Conversation features an optical change from the rest of the film. Heretofore, most shots within Caul’s apartment have been stationary, not unlike a hidden camera. Caul blends in perfectly with his domestic surroundings, moving through the spaces of his apartment in a chameleon-like manner. The camera cuts to different rooms like a closed-circuit television. An irony here is that what appears to be objective surveillance is in fact Caul’s own paranoia. He imagines himself always being watched, even with his apartment’s multi-deadbolts. So, throughout the film we see Caul through a series of calm, unmoving camera shots. As Caul descends into complete myopic paranoia, so nearsighted that even amateur cinematic spectators want to talk some sense to him, he tears his apartment apart. He externalized his interior state and, as others have noted, reverts to a primal state. This was already hinted at in the hotel bathroom when Caul’s toilet flushing led to a regurgitation, an abject vomiting of blood in reverse-Psycho manner. Instead of the primal subsiding as the blood goes down the drain for Norman Bates, Harry Caul’s primal state returns and is visualized by that none-more-primal appliance: the toilet. Finally, back in his apartment, Caul returns to his saxophone (a nursing baby?), and now the camera moves – slowly swiveling, automated, unbiased – but more active, more concerned than it has been throughout the film, consistent with Caul’s state of mind.
The result is an effect that has already made numerous appearances in the film: visual and aural abstraction. Earlier, Caul’s primal descent included waking up in the hotel room after an attack to an extreme closeup of a distorted television image. What appears at first to be inspiration for later Kieslowski films turns out to be an episode of The Flintstones, a primal image if there ever was one. The image begins at the level of abstraction, effectively correlating the cinematic image with Caul’s own half-conscious subjectivity. Aurally, a piano forte soundtrack throughout the film has hinted at a state of simplicity, perhaps deceptively so, since the narrative itself is headed into a most foggy direction. Between and within these piano pieces, Caul’s audio surveillance provides the soudtrack with sounds qualitatively equal to the extreme closeup of the distorted television screen. They are incomprehensible, alien to the senses, and noetically vacuous. The act of surveillance is first of all passive; information only becomes knowledge at the stage of activity. Until facts become truth, until phenomenology becomes epistemology, sensual data is an abstraction. Coppola dwells on these visual and aural images much in the same way that Kieslowski later will, perhaps especially in another film about surveillance, Red. That The Conversation finishes on a visual note of abstraction reflects Caul’s primal subjectivity, his inability to translate date into knowledge, to render a signified out of the innumerable signifiers that now surround him.
Thankfully, Francis Ford Coppola’s return to cinema following a long break after films like Jack and The Rainmaker is a rich and lush story worthy of extensive thought, discussion, and multiple viewings. A short essay of Youth Without Youth has noted that of chief importance in Coppola’s contribution to cinema is his “stretch[ing] the narrative form to its breaking points.” Watching the film immediately following Godard’s Passion sets it apart from (Second) New Wave style. Godard’s abstract cinematography and image-driven philosophical ponderings are markedly set apart from Coppola’s experimental form and palpably vibrant lighting. Also, Godard’s proud lack of a story (including in the film within the film) starkly differs from Coppola’s remarkably complex narrative. The initial segment alone is provocative enough to stand alone; when it shifts for the first time (not to mention the second), the film takes the viewer on a really gorgeous episodic journey.
It’s been labeled “self-important” and other such things, but some fairness is due to one of the pioneers of modern cinema. Coppola, to be sure, has been affected by premature burnout, as noted here (which is only part of the review, but the comments are good additions). But the man who directed Apocalypse Now and was the subject of Hearts of Darkness clearly has been through a lot; this much he admits in Youth Without Youth, subtly identifying himself with the character of Dominic. The Romanian scholar has been incapable all his life of completing his goal: to discover the origin of languages. Distracted by the fascinating details of the languages he encounters along the way, Dominic is much like the Coppola of Hearts of Darkness. So concerned are they with the perfection of their work, they nearly fail to grasp the nature of their goals.
The film features a lot of impressionistic imagery: crooked or upside-down shots, collage-like montages, and highly sensual textures according to seasons and moods. To say that such techniques “save” the film implies that it displays its potential failure, which isn’t quite right. However, the various metaphysical questions asked in the film would have come across as portentous and pretentious (especially in their lack of strictly “rational” answers) without Coppola’s aesthetic, form, and narrative. On these the films depends and succeeds. Coppola gutsily does ask lots of questions, and sometimes the clichéd terminology doesn’t perfectly fit with a super-developed and professorial mind. (Dominic questions his double at one point, “So the ENDS justify the MEANS?!”) But this is a film, and Coppola does well to avoid the kind of vernacular that would exclude the masses and preclude something greater than a merely intellectual reading. Just because Youth Without Youth addresses sublime matters doesn’t make it “self-important,” and just because it doesn’t answer them philosophically doesn’t make it a failure. It’s probably the very lack of a philosophical answer that makes it work so powerfully. It could never be more truly said of a film than of this, that it was a labor of love. It should be viewed accordingly; i.e., more than once.
We learn that before the first lightning strike, Dominic planned to commit suicide. The knowledge that he could not succeed in accomplishing his life’s work led to fatalistic despair. Once he re-experiences “youth,” a flashback shows the sad end of his earliest love. The scene can hardly be viewed without recalling Ebenezer Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Like that Dickensian character, Dominic’s singular focus blinded him from a more important aspect of life. Later in the film, Dominic is given another chance with another woman; one seemingly identical to the first. Veronica’s psychological condition would seem at first to match him perfectly. They are both divided and have epistemological access to Dominic’s great historical questions. Dominic splits Veronica apart further into two roles: lover and object of study. When Veronica discovers her rapid aging, Dominic implicates himself and leaves her in order to save her, effectively committing suicide as he was earlier unable to do. Through this story, Youth Without Youth lives up to its title. Dominic’s rediscovered youth isn’t celebrated the way an already-young person might envision; this is no Cocoon. One of the first things he attempts to do is create the impression that he is older. His knowledge continually prevents him from experiencing those tangible pleasures he knows he can never enjoy. From the stocking-Swastika to the failure of Malta, Dominic’s blessing of youth is a mixed one at best, but too good to be called a curse.