Tuesday, November 19, 2019

American Realism

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) apotheosizes the American gangster picture genre. It subsumes all other classic gangster pictures, from Underworld (1929), The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) to The Roaring Twenties (1939), White Heat (1949), and The Killing (1956). But The Godfather Part II (1974) does what no other gangster picture—even The Godfather—ever did. With the relentless, excoriating scalpel of nineteenth-century novels and the plays of Chekhov—the laboratory of literary realism—Part II flayed the layers of superficiality (those earlier movies’ stock in trade) off the underlying complexity of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). As a study of despoiled idealism and the effects of social organization on the members of a powerful tribal family, Part II analyzes Michael as profoundly as any of the main characters are analyzed in the novels of Balzac, Howells, Wharton, or Eliot.

The Godfather was perhaps the single greatest example of epic romanticism in the New American Cinema. The tidal-wave sweep of the story and the gallery of characters are rich and expertly acted but framed in melodramatic terms scaled to the spectacle of the film. Michael, his siblings, his father (Marlon Brando as the old Corleone, the family man as institution), his family’s caporegime and legal retainers, and the maze of partners and “soldiers” are realistic types, but types (and stock characters) nonetheless: the proud patriarch; the thoughtful, independent younger son; the hothead older son (James Caan); and the array of lackeys, bodyguards, and operations men. These characters are vibrant examples of literary and cinematic creations, but they don’t really evolve or reveal new shadings over the course of the movie, and we aren’t shown their doubts or twisted self-hatred. The movie succeeds as brutal enchantment—as a charismatic cast of characters in a sophisticatedly stylized melodrama. There’s something Dickensian about the dramatic parade of character types passing across the screen. The movie’s visual richness, framing, and montage (which speeds up and cross-cuts so suspensefully you may be reminded of the competing and ultimately colliding stories in the climax of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance) are pitched to the dimensions of the theater. (More than just about any other movie of its era, The Godfather deserves to be seen on the big screen.)

Real men. Al Pacino
The Godfather Part II is equally a triumph of personal filmmaking, but its analytical mind is far deeper. It goes beyond the romanticism of its predecessor into a new vein of realism in American movies. Part II puts Michael, Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) and Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg)—and perhaps even the Frank Pentangeli of Michael V. Gazzo as well as Robert De Niro’s beautifully realized Vito Corleone—under closer scrutiny (as if the camera were a magnifying glass), demonstrating a complexity of character analysis you almost never saw in genre movies until this one. The treatment of these characters fills them out with the complications and completeness of real human beings. Coppola replaces much of the mythic resonance and symbolic significance of the first Godfather film with a new naturalism and verisimilitude. Michael’s and Fredo’s motives and moods alternately lurch forward and fold back on themselves in unpredictable yet totally believable ways, their emotions bubbling to the surface one minute and being sublimated the next (Pacino excels at abrupt flareups of anger—you’re shocked but fully convinced of his frustrations). These characters are anything but stock and they aren’t even symbolic here. They are far too complex for facile symbolism or the creaking mechanics of traditional storytelling devices. Like us, they change their minds and grapple with the messy self-doubts and sordidness of life. The complexity of Part II is that these men aren’t mouthpieces for ideas or dramatic “techniques” or tools for advancing the plot; like the great characters in novels, they seem to have lives outside the text—lives, in fact, that are far richer than even Coppola’s operatic vision can capture.

As an epic generational saga and a portrait of the moral ambiguity at the heart of finance and business (possibly a metaphor of the movie business itself), The Godfather Part II is peerless. It casts an influential shadow over just about everything after it, including John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and Martin Scorsese’s rather facile Goodfellas (1990). Even Quentin Tarentino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Brian De Palma’s nervy, erotic thriller Carlito’s Way (1993) pay homage to Part II (and have to grapple with new styles to escape its massive imprint). Of what other postwar American film can you say that even major works look like tinfoil up against it?

No comments:

Post a Comment