The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Confessional 1: The Godfather movies

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

UPDATED!  07-19-06 (And it’s a doozy!!) The Confessional: Confess your (cinematic) sins, accept your penance. I’m willing to bet that every one of us has lived through a scenario like this: a friend (or a group of friends) is speaking with you, and a movie is mentioned. Whether it is quoted, referenced, or used as an analogy to describe something else, the conversation proceeds with the assumption that you, along with everyone else in the world, have of course seen this film. Inevitably, you are asked for your opinion, and you are forced to admit that in fact, you have never seen the movie in question. When this happens, the conversation that up until that point had not focused on you at all, now turns into a recrimination that makes you feel as though you have actually committed a sin. Your friends are shocked (“You HAVEN’T seen it?”) and appalled (HOW can you call yourself a movie fan if you haven’t seen it?”), and they demand that you atone for your crime (“You HAVE to see it. You HAVE to”). The lecture ends with a disapproving shake of the head, and you are left to think about what you’ve done. However, in most cases, I’d wager a guess that despite this incident, you never did go see the film in question, since you probably had a good reason NOT to see it in the first place. At any rate, once someone goes through that scenario a handful of times, they learn to cover up their cinematic deficiencies. Instead of brazenly admitting that they’ve never seen the movie that comes up in conversation, they learn to nod and agree with the speaker. If they’re forced into a corner and pressed to speak, they have amassed enough thoughts on movies over the years that they can successfully fake it. (The sentence: “It wasn’t [insert actor/director/producer/writer]’s best film, but overall I was VERY satisfied, especially considering his mediocre later work.” can be used in any of a hundred different conversations, about any of thousands of different movies. For example.) By doing this, we are as good as admitting to ourselves that not seeing a movie is akin to pop-culture impotence – a shortcoming that we suffer in silence, since the derision that comes with exposure is far worse than the problem itself. No longer. We all have skeletons in our societal closet, and it’s time to let them out here, in a safe and (relatively) anonymous forum. No longer. We all have skeletons in our societal closet, and it’s time to let them out here, in a safe and (relatively) anonymous forum. Here’s how it’s going to work: No matter who you are – staff-member, contributor, or guest – you are invited to participate. If there’s a gap in your cinematic experience that you’ve been hiding, let it out here. Tell us what it is, and WHY YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT. Explain your decision, and justify your actions, in a way that the aforementioned scenario never provides. Once that’s published, other members of the Cin City community can read it over, and respond. They might offer a reasoned entreaty to buckle down and see the film you’ve avoided. They might profess their love for the movie, but concede that the reasons you’ve given for your avoidance are correct. Or, they might admit that the movie you’re so scared to admit you haven’t seen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  There’s no way to tell WHAT the responses will be, but no matter what, the debates that can and will occur will be memorable ones. And, it will not be limited merely to movies; anything in pop culture is fair game. So, if you’ve ever shied away from a conversation about a TV show, a book, or even a website, then this is your chance to be heard. Take advantage of it. Whenever we receive a new confession, it will get its own page. If there are any comments or responses, they will be publshed on that same page (and any comments I need to make will be done just like this, in parentheses (I love parentheses)). What we will create together is an ever-evolving venue for chest-clearing, and chest-thumping. Get ready. Since I have had more than my fair share of recriminatory talks about my own movie watching habits, I will start this off. I promise, the first one’s a doozy: The Godfather Movies These three movies earned a combined 29 Academy Award nominations, and won 9. Entertainment Weekly recently called the original the greatest film of all time, while TV Guide gave that same honor to Part II in 1998. The American Film Institute has the first two films ranked in their top 100 films ever.  In addition to this, people all over the world constantly and obsequiously rave about them (except for the third, of course) and refer to them with the reverent awe and respect that is normally reserved for religious fervor. And yet, despite knowing all this (with a bit of help from the Wikipedia), I have never seen them. ANY of them. While there’s no concrete reason for this, I think I can narrow down my Godfather embargo to two distinct causes: 1. Violence – I grew up in a very pacifistic family. I was raised to settle disputes with words, and NEVER to fight. (This was greatly aided by the fact that I was consistently two inches shorter, and twenty pounds lighter, than any other guy in my class. Therefore, I could either adopt this policy, or die rebelling against it.) When it comes to movies, I find that even to this day I have a problem with violence in a film if it is either too excessive, or too plausible.  Let me clarify. I like action movies as much as the next person, and I don’t even mind watching people get killed on screen. In most cases, these sorts of deaths are done with a minimum of blood and suffering (Commando, Terminator, Die Hard, etc.), or with enough special effects that they become effectively removed from reality (The Matrix, Se7en, etc.). However, when a film goes to great lengths to really show the pain and violence they mean to portray, I simply can’t watch it. (I still vividly remember the nine hours I spent in a theater watching Casino, for example.) The Godfather, known to be the quintessential mafia movie surely contains violence of the latter variety, and knowing myself as I do, I have always been certain that watching these movies would result in more queasiness than dining out at the carnival. 2. Length – There was a time when I wanted my movies to be as long as possible. This was probably right around the time when I had the least amount of money, and the most amount of time (in other words, college). These days, with the multiple time constraints of wife and work, family and friends, I simply don’t have the time I once did. Thus, when I sit down to watch a movie, much more often than not I simply don’t have three or more hours with which to devote to it. Now again, there are exceptions. I did see all three of the Lord of the Rings movies, but in each case I saw them once, in the theater, and I’ve never even thought about going back to them on DVD (and I CERTAINLY never considered watching the extended director’s cuts). So even as I have considered watching the Godfather movies (and I have thought about it more as I’ve gotten older, as my phobia with filmed violence has waned over the years), I inevitably balk at the ten hours of movie that awaits me, if I’m going to do it justice and see them all. And that’s it. My blatant rebuffing of some of the greatest movies of all time, boiled down to a weak stomach and a busy schedule. I’ve lived in shame for years, but I can’t write more, because I’ve got to keep my 3:15 appointment to throw up and cry in the bathroom.   Rebuttal: Dude … Just see The Godfather. Trust us on this one. What I can tell you is that you’re in for a treat. It’s a weird thing, The Godfather. There’s really nothing else remotely like it in our pop culture (well, except for The Godfather Part II).  The Godfather: the perfect synthesis between art and kitsch, refinement and vulgarity, high and low. It transcends class, intellectual, and racial divisions. I’m not saying everyone loves The Godfather. There’s always been contrarian cranks out there who try to distinguish themselves against the populus by hating whatever’s popular. I’m just saying that the percentage of contrarian cranks hating on The Godfather is considerably lower than probably any other pop phenomenon. More ink wells have been tapped dry waxing on about the first two Godfather movies (henceforth, all references to The Godfather will include I and II but exclude III, unless otherwise noted) than possibly any other movie…and yet I’ve never read a review or article or essay that really nailed down exactly what it is about these movies that makes them so special. “Operatic,” “Shakespearean,” “Tragedy,” “Epic”: all the adjectival heavies are routinely trotted out, drumming up as much sound and fury as possible, but signifying nothing in the end. Coppola and his collaborators tapped into some kind of powerful black magic on The Godfather, and the resulting six and a half hour of movie are, well, magical–and impossible to really capture in words. The Godfather taps into very classical, familiar themes: the story of a Father and Son; the story of the corruption of the American Dream; the story of Four Brothers, each perfectly embodying an aspect of human nature (think Brothers Karamazov).The pacing, the lighting, the music, the actors, the tasteful directing, the memorable lines, scenes, choices…you instantly know you’re watching an iconic moment. The only other movie that comes close in this regard is Casablanca, where the first time you watch it, not only do you get shudders of recognition on finally seeing the source of some line or shot constantly name-checked in our culture, but you understand exactly why it’s become so famous, and suspect that even if you were in the first audience to see the movie, you’d have known that line or scene was destined for fame, too. Your position of not seeing this movie, Mr. Van Winkle, can easily be compared to that of a nervous Paramount executive in 1972 worried that the movie they’re bankrolling, The Godfather, wasn’t going to turn out to be any good. According to movie folklore, Paramount Pictures picked up rights to Mario Puzo’s bestselling pulp novel The Godfather with the intentions of making a quickie mafia exploitation movie. They hired a cheap, untried director with a weird name: Francis Ford Coppola, confident they could steamroll over him so he’d deliver the commercial trifle their marketing division wanted. Unbeknownst to Paramount, Coppola happened to be a genius, as well as a perfect match for the source material. Using his famous powers of persuasion, he pushed and pushed to get his people cast: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, his sister Talia Shire, and most importantly of all, an unknown Al Pacino. All this raised eyebrows amongst the Paramount execs, and they were constantly a hair’s breadth away from taking control of the film from apparent madman Coppola. Coppola’s philosophy on dealing with studios was to “get them pregnant”–in other words, to shoot as much as you could before they got wind of what you were really up to, by which point they’d be so financially invested they’d have no choice but to support you in finishing the project your way. And this is exactly what Coppola did. The first thing he shot, according to legend, is the famous scene where the young, then-innocent Pacino shoots a cop and a rival mobster in a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant. On the DVD commentaries, Coppola talks about how audiences have seen thousands or murders on-screen by the time they hit adulthood: the trick is to add something memorable to each one you shoot. Well, there’s about eight million things memorable about this scene, from the production design and lighting of the Italian restaurant being so spot on you can almost taste the tomato sauce, to Sterling Hayden’s crooked cop’s utter venality, to the gun Pacino barely finds hidden above the old-fashioned toilet. But the most memorable thing of all is Pacino, and this is where maybe the true magic of The Godfather comes into perfect focus: a perfect cast, directed by one of the most gifted directors at working with actors of all time. Pacino is so small sitting at that table, so innocent, we the audience–despite knowing what’s coming up–can’t believe that this young, obviously nervous man will be able to shoot these people in cold blood… Mr. Van Winkle, this is on-screen violence at its most responsible, and also at its best. We feel these bullets as we feel few others (of the millions we’ve seen fired in movies). Pretend you’re a Paramount executive in 1972 Watch The Godfather up at least up to this scene. I think it comes in somewhere around the one hour mark–surely you can spare sixty minutes. If you’re not completely entranced by this scene and all that’s led up to it…then you’re off the hook. But these nervous execs–according to legend–went apeshit at how great this scene was, and Coppola getting what he wanted was never a problem after this. And if even studio execs get something, think how much you’ll enjoy it.{mos_sb_discuss:4}