Can we refuse the offer of rewatching Francis Ford Coppola's gangster epic?
Boomers: the generation that did it all. From Joy Division to Def Jam, from Spike Lee to The Young Ones, from Prince to Hilary Mantel, they blew it up and smashed the pieces back into different places. They also compiled the reigning cultural canon - some of it their own, much of it older - in which Generation X has been marinating for decades. It’s time to find out which bits were bullshit all along. (WARNING: spoilers are integral.)
Boomer Bullshit: The Godfather
Some disaggregation is necessary. There is The Godfather, the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo, which started the whole thing off; there is the Francis Ford Coppola film The Godfather, released in 1972; and there is The Godfather Part II, another Coppola film, released in 1974 and widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. (Coppola also made The Godfather Part III, released in 1990 and widely regarded as not very good.)
We like to think there are some weirdos among our readership, so for the benefit of the glorious shut-ins and refuseniks among you: The Godfather is the story of a New York Italian Mafia family, and in particular its ageing, outgoing boss Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) and its young, incoming boss Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino). Robert De Niro plays the young Vito in scenes set in early twentieth-century New York and Sicily.
Puzo’s novel was a sensation on release, selling a bazillion copies. A few years previously the world had been gripped by the Valachi hearings in the US Senate, in which a renegade Mafioso broke the code of omerta for the first time and revealed the nature and extent of Mafia influence in US society.
What were we told about The Godfather? It began with snatches of dialogue everywhere, from Morecambe and Wise to conversations in your local corner shop: I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse, he’s sleeping with the fishes, I thought I’d wake up with a horse’s head in my bed. ‘Well OK then’ you’d think as you paid for your Toffos and wandered out; just another case of adults saying weird shit. (For a long time we thought putting horses’ heads in beds was a standard gangster thing, rather than a one-off occurrence.) Then there were the Marlon Brando impersonations, Mike Yarwood stuffing his cheeks with those little cotton wool padding rolls you get at the dentist. Brando: every adult you knew just wet themselves every time he was mentioned.
At some stage you put all of these things together, perhaps when an older male relative (they were always men) bought the films on video and told you solemnly ‘Part I is good but Part II is the best film ever made’. And then suddenly there were nipples and garrottes everywhere and your mum made you go to bed.
When we were old enough to watch it for ourselves, the cultural cringe remained firmly in place: yes it is the best film ever made; no, The Princess Bride is not as good, shut up. Yes that is good acting, it’s not just mumbling. Yes OK these women are made of cardboard and people keep punching them in the face but they do get their breasts out and that means it’s a serious film for serious people. Yes we know they’re bad men and they do bad things but it’s interesting isn’t it? Isn’t it? You do sort of empathise with them don’t you? DON’T YOU?
The reality I: the book
Puzo’s novel is easily dealt with: it is bad. The writing is very similar to Ken Follett, all tiny sentences and prickly pomposity. It’s also an outstanding example of the misogynist seepage that uniquely dates and degrades Boomer Bullshit.
It’s a real problem, this, with so much of the mid-century canon: a whole generation of male creatives luxuriated in the ‘60s sexual revolution without recognising or dealing with their own misogyny. It took them about five minutes to convince themselves that everything that had previously been done to women, everything that had been thought about women, was fine. The only mistake, which they were now intent on remedying, had been a lack of sexual explicitness. As a result, a yellowing glaze of frenzied pornographic contempt disfigures many otherwise-OK artefacts. And indeed, as with Puzo’s novel, artefacts that are otherwise extremely bad.
In one of the weirdest and creepiest passages in modern literature, an entire series of chapters is given over to a woman’s slack fanny, which - Puzo fondly imagines - is ruining her life. Her fiance knows a frightening amount about vaginal tightening surgery (an outstanding example of an author shoe-horning his nutty research into a novel) so he tracks down a surgeon to perform the procedure on her and scrubs in himself so that he can stick his fingers up her vagina while she’s unconscious and tell the surgeon how tight he wants her. And he is - get this - written as a good guy; the couple go on to marry, God help her, and are presented as having the only well-functioning marriage in the book.
Anyway, on very much a secondary note - because, yes, women are more important and profound than the Mafia - the novel was most notable for revealing Mafia vocabulary to the general public: capo, omerta, consigliere, all that jazz. Every single article about the novel’s influence also points out that it was the first time the structural hierarchy of the Mob had been explained - capo di tutti capi, under-regime, soldiers - which just goes to show that some people are really into organograms.
So it is with some relief that we move on to the films. They are by no means a festival of feminism - Coppola and Puzo worked on various scripts for almost a year and in all that time didn’t give any of the female actors a line anyone could say out loud with conviction - but they do at least have the good sense to dispense with vagina nutcase guy.
The reality II: the films
As Meg Ryan says in Nora Ephron’s romcom You’ve Got Mail: ‘What is it with men and The Godfather?’
The films of the New Hollywood movement are mostly the product of modern men worrying about how to be a modern man. The films of Martin Scorsese are about how to be a Catholic man in the modern world; the films of Brian De Palma are about how to be a modern man in a Hitchcock film; and the films of Woody Allen are about how to be Woody Allen in a Woody Allen film. The Godfather, in one sense, is about how to be a modern film-making man in the hidebound, hierarchical world of Old Hollywood.
Like Michael Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola wanted out. He and his pal George Lucas moved to San Francisco to get away from LA, and to establish their own kind of film-making. And like Michael they got pulled back in; or rather, they pulled themselves back in. They took their non-Hollywood ways of film-making and applied them to the films they had watched as kids, and became Hollywood gods in the process. Lucas took Flash Gordon serials and invented the modern special effects industry to create Star Wars; Coppola took gangster movies and applied a whole new visual approach to create The Godfather.
Technically and atmospherically, they are extraordinary films. Coppola deliberately eschewed the conventional fast editing and modish tricks one expects from a gangster action movie. He opted instead for wide, static, tableau shots, creating scenes and ensembles in which actors moved together, building a world.
It is full of beautiful framings, such as a car isolated against a wall of reeds in the “take the gun, leave the cannoli” assassination. It has brilliant sound design by editor Walter Murch, using the rattling roar of a passing train to dramatise Michael’s turmoil as he gathers the nerve to kill Sollozzo. It has inspired casting: John Cazale is heartbreaking as the family fuck-up Fredo, and consigliere Tom Hagen might be the best thing Robert Duvall has ever done. And the low, often natural lighting - exceptionally difficult to pull off in film-making - is extraordinary, like an endless sequence of sinister Vermeers, as in the conversation between Michael and Fredo against the cold winter window in Godfather II.
Although they have much more dialogue than the female characters, the male characters are given as little to say as possible. Just as Michael Corleone is obsessed with making the family ‘legitimate’, The Godfather (and similar New Hollywood films like Scorsese’s Mean Streets) make the gangsters themselves legitimate, dressing violence and cruelty in a nice sharp suit of agonising soul searching and questions of honour. This is a film about male stoicism and repressed emotion; who needs words when Al Pacino can look soulfully agonised for five minutes in close up? That it makes art out of male emotional inarticulacy is part of its legacy.
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Bullshit or brilliant?
The Godfather Parts I and II aren’t bullshit; the problem is that they are too good for their source material. Coppola hated the book but saw an opportunity to deepen it into a story about American culture and capitalism. Fifty years later it’s apparent that while he gave us a compelling and immersive account of a particular phenomenon, he didn’t quite pull off a story for the ages. The book’s fundamental lack of interest in any humans who aren’t committed gangsters means that Vito and Michael Corleone don’t have much to say to us now, and the films become less palatable with each passing year.
Their impact on popular culture has been deeply mixed. On the one hand they have helped bring us later, more thoughtful gangster movies, including GoodFellas and Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine; on the other hand they are endlessly referenced, fawned over and used in PowerPoint presentations by twerps, and have inspired and legitimised an awful lot of macho nonsense.
Increasingly, these are films for enthusiasts and students; films that will remain on the BFI and AFI top 100 lists, but gradually fade from public view. (We rewatched them with a 20-year-old - a big fan of GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction - and he couldn’t see what the fuss was about.) The (male) performances, the direction, the storytelling and the technical work are great, but in the way that John Ford’s The Searchers is great; terrific film-making, important culturally and in the history of its medium, but so of that moment that they become a little more difficult to watch each time.
Frank Sinatra wasn’t in The Godfather - although there is a character based on him, which he hated - but there is plenty more violent gangstering in our look at all the other crime movies he wasn’t in: