Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Offer He Couldn’t Refuse: The Godfather and Coppola’s Compromise of Capitalism in American Cinema

”He’s a businessman, I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse”, are the iconic words of the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone that also illustrate the business behind the studio system which ushered in Francis Ford Coppola’s enduring masterpiece The Godfather in 1972. Struggling to compete with the television programming and a new generation’s cinematic appetite that favored risqué and gritty foreign films, the studios were desperate for a genuine blockbuster. Paramount studios turned to a young film school graduate and independent filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola to adapt the popular best seller The Godfather. Faced with debts and the future of his fledgling independent film company; American Zoetrope, Coppola was coerced into directing The Godfather (Schumacher 88). Coppola focused on imprinting a realistic picture of American capitalism through a mafia family’s collapse and rebirth. The reshaping of the Corleone clan infrastructure from Don Vito Corleone’s old world values to his younger son’s gritty and aggressive approach characterize American Cinema’s transition through the generation of New Hollywood filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola.
            A melodrama of one family’s survival to stay on top, The Godfather captures the authentic Italian-mob culture through Coppola’s own Catholic and Italian heritage. The charming, aged patriarch, New York crime boss, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) hears the petitions from the serfs of his feudal clan around the pleasantries of his daughter’s wedding celebrations. He peers out at his empire from the discretion of blinds and marks the return of his youngest and favorite son Michael (Al Pacino) a WWII hero, bringing along an outsider, his non-Sicilian, all-American girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). One member of “the family” celebrity Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) comes to Vito desperate for him to jumpstart his career. Vito sends his adopted son, the cool calculating, Tom Haggard (Robert Duvall), the family consigliere (legal counselor) to Hollywood to make the difficult producer an offer he “cannot refuse”.
            The tide turns for the Corleone family when Vito takes and old world stand against a rival crime boss’ offer to go into the drug trade. Sollozo (Al Letierri) the rival crime boss soon targets Vito and his men shoot up the Corleone Don in the street. Michael is drawn into the family business as his older brother the hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) triggers the first mob-war in ten years. Michael is nominated to mediate for ‘the family’ and uses the opportunity to assasinate Sollozzo and his corrupt police captain counterpart and then flees to Sicily. Leaving Kay behind he falls in love and marries a fragile Sicilian girl from his father’s native town. When Sonny is lured to his death at a tollbooth shoot out, and Michael’s wife is killed with a car bomb intended for him, the weak Don Vito negotiates a truce for Michael’s return compromising to engage in the drug trafficking, a vice he considered unethical before.
            Michael returns a hardened man. He marries Kay and has a son with her, but he moves swiftly with Machiavellian agency to reinstate the Corleone family’s power. Vito is able to impart to Michael his final insight on how the rival crime families will attempt to entrap him when he is gone. While playing with his grandson Vito dies in the vineyard. Now don, Michael stands in as godfather at his nephew’s christening while rivals to their ‘family’ are assassinated. The film closes with Kay’s realization that she is cut off from her husband by the family of men that encompass him and literally close the door on her.
            The narrative themes of honor, greed, and ambition in the film go beyond the mafia backdrop and paint a picture of capitalistic American values. The Corleone family is the story of “American expansion and capitalism in the twentieth century” (Dauth 2). In contrast to the “goonish stereotypical mobsters” in old gangster films Coppola’s smooth, professional, mafia in The Godfather becomes more “like a corporation in a corporate society” (Phillips 109). Even in the ritualistic depiction of the Catholic rituals the mafia’s involvement visually strikes the viewer as a well-oiled machine. At Vito’s funeral several men step out of their cars in sequence bearing aloft a single red rose. The “profit driven culture” of 1970s America is reflected in the aggressive ambition of Michael to overcome his competition (McBee 102).
Coppola’s stylistic mark reflected fresh cinematic innovation as well as subtle throwbacks to techniques from classical art. Coppola fought for the film be shot on location in New York and Italy over the Hollywood back lot, the result is an authentic gritty realism reminiscent of the style of the Italian Neo-Realist filmmakers (Phillips 92, Braudy 18). Stylistically low-key lighting gave The Godfather its recognizable texture to the film’s sinister figures and action. The godfather’s office is shrouded in shadow in contrast the sunny brightly lit wedding taking place outside. The business of the mafia is marked by darkness: “the don is the personification of evil”, explains cinematographer Gordon Willis (Phillips 99). Sound engineer Walter Murch draws attention to the diagetic sound of screeching of train brakes that trigger Michael’s murder of Sollozzo as a “metaphor for Michael’s anxiety” (Phillips 103). Within the mise en scene Coppola embeds a throwback to classical art via memento mori (a reminder of death). In many renaissance portraits the presence of fruit signifies the potential decay of death, in The Godfather the motif of oranges in the frame become Coppola’s memento mori particularly at moments leading up to violence, like the bag of oranges Vito drops right before he is shot.  
A critically celebrated film and a blockbuster at the box office, The Godfather reeled in three Oscars including ‘Best Picture’. The film’s success firmly established Coppola’s career as an auteur and gave him the freedom to actively pursue his following films and launch the careers peers like George Lucas on their next venture with American Graffiti (Schumacher 127). In hindsight of the production battles Coppola out maneuvered to make The Godfather the powerful film that it remains today, I cannot help but see an allegory between the mafia families and the Hollywood studios with Coppola as Michael foraging forward with the new generation’s alternative filmmaking in American Cinema.
Works Cited
Braudy, Leo. "The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese." Film Quarterly 39.3 (1986): 17-28. Jstor. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
Dauth, Brian. "Great Directors Francis Ford Coppola." Senses of Cinema 7.39 (2006): 1-12. Senses of Cinema. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
McBee, Randy D. "Hollywood, The Working Class and Emotional Realism." Reviews in American History 32.1 (2004): 97-104. Jstor. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
Nystrom, Derek. "Hard Hats and Movie Brats: Auteurism and the Class Politics of the New Hollywood." Cinema Journal 43.3 (2004): 18-41. Project Muse. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.
Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: the intimate Francis Ford Coppola. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Print.
Schumacher, Michael. Francis Ford Coppola: a filmmaker's life. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999. Print.
The Godfather (Coppola Restoration) [Blu-ray]. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. 1972. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2010. DVD.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Femme Fetale between Jules et Jim

One of the most influential films of the New Wave is Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). The film follows the destruction of a bond between two men through the woman who comes between them. Truffaut captures the love triad between Jules, Jim and Catherine from the turn of the 20th century through a world war and into the roaring twenties. The time frame parallels the change in culture with the fluctuation of love between the characters. Through the period piece Truffaut depicts the dangers of a down to earth femme fetale, Catharine, through her transformation into the modern woman.
Jules is a foreigner in Paris, an Austrian, and a man very much naive about the vices of women. His best friend on the other hand Jim is a Parisian, a flagrant womanizer who always seems to return to his faithful mistress Gilberte. Jules and Jim are drawn to Catharine initially not for her complete self, but because of her resemblance to a statue they are fixated with. She had the same enigmatic smile as the statue. Jules marks her as the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, going to the extent of warning Jim off in the famous line: “Not this one, Jim”. When Jules discusses the prospect of marriage, Jim sees the reality and warns: “I’m afraid she’ll never be happy on this earth. She’s a vision for all, perhaps not meant for any one man alone”. Jim suppresses his attraction to Catherine out of difference to Jules. Shortly after Jules marries Catharine, the First World War breaks out and separates the two friends for the time being.
Catharine refuses to live life by the rules. She dresses in drag wearing the clothes of a boy with a grease moustache on an outing with Jules and Jim. They race across a bridge; however, Catharine cheats to get a head start. Later when she hears Jules talking to Jim about traditional marital expectations that the woman’s fidelity is more crucial than the mans, Catharine protests by leaping into a canal fully robed. Her impulsive act is foolhardy and irrational. She never explains her actions when Jules and Jim fish her out. The reference in the dialogue about marital roles foreshadows how Jules will be forced to eat his own words later when he is cuckolded over and over again by Catharine’s whims.
Obsessed with vengeance, Catharine believe she must get “even” with every perceived injustice done to her. She does not take into consideration whether it was intentional or circumstantial injury, but seeks to punish her perceived persecutor nevertheless. Catharine later justifies herself to Jim when he visits their Chalet on the Rhine after the war that because Jules’ mother had offended her at their wedding she cheated on her wedding night with an old flame in order to be even with Jules.
Catharine’s selfishness fuels her agency. She dominates her marriage with Jules. He tolerates her every whim with patience lest he loose her completely. When Jim visits their Chalet, Jules even offers Catharine to him in marriage so that she will not be “taken away from him” by another man. The love triad is not a permanent solution, because Jim finds himself jealous of his friend when Catharine chooses to seduce Jules on whim and Catharine grows disillusioned when she cannot have Jim’s child. She becomes self-destructive spurning Jim in the fear that one day he will leave her for a younger woman now she is no longer young.
In the late 1920s, Jules and Catharine move back to France with their daughter Sabine and by that time Jim has let Catharine go deciding to marry the woman who has waited for him all along, Gilberte. Catharine cannot handle loosing Jim and soon grows restless. Jules tells Jim that she is depressed and has purchased a revolver. One day Catharine drives her car off the road around the trees outside Jim’ apartment. She lures him to her bedroom but when Jim refuses to sleep with her. Instead he points out to her the sacrifices he made for her that she was unwilling to make in return, but in the end Catharine cannot see beyond herself. She asks him “What about me?” cries and then turns on Jim pulling her revolver on him. Jim barely escapes by jumping from a window.
A few months later Catherine triumphs when Jules, Jim and her have a chance encounter at a movie theater. Afterwards Catharine lures Jim into her car on the pretext of “having something to tell him” and then coyly tells her husband to “watch them closely”. Jules watches and to his horror Catharine drives her car quite intentionally off a broken bridge taking Jim’s life along with her own. In that act Catharine defines the femme fetale – the fatal female.
As a liberated woman who does as she pleases Catharine compromises her family and the friendship between Jules and Jim. As time passes and the dresses get shorter and shorter, Catherine grows bolder and bolder. She wraps her lingerie in a package before Jules and Jim before leaving them to openly have an affair with another man. Perhaps Truffaut is attempting to illustrate the dangers of gender role reversals. In their marriage Catharine could arguably be the one who wears the pants. She drives the car and is she who has numerous infidelities. Truffaut defines a down to earth yet very volatile femme fetale in his characterization of Catherine in Jules et Jim.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cinematic Reincarnation: Hiroshima Mon Amour

The universal themes of love, loss, and memory transcend dimension in Alain Resnais’ tour de force masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Thrust together by need and desire Elle a French actress and Lui a Japanese architect share a one night stand in Hiroshima and delve into a didactic on their very different, but also very similar world experiences. Resnais creates a hybrid film overlapping between the documentary, unrequited love-story, and even pushing the envelope through the metaphysical aspects of Hiroshima Mon Amour.
There are overwhelming references to rebirth and perhaps even reincarnation within Resnais’ film. The opening image that the credit runs over is a still of a plant growing out of the sand. During the opening documentary montage of Elle and Lui’s didactic on the catastrophe of the atomic bomb, Resnais returns to that same image when Elle alludes to “new vegetation rises from the sands”. This time we see beside the plant a cigarette box with the words “Peace” printed on it.
The bond that forms between Lui and Elle also alludes to something rising out of the ashes. From the moment that Elle sees Lui’s hand lying in bed the morning after their tryst, she immediately ties the connection to her first love 15 years back in WWII. Resnais conveys this with a jump cut insert as if we the spectator where in Elle’s mind pulling up the memory with her. Later when Elle concedes to give in to Lui’s desire to be with her again, she unravels little by little the significance of her first love with a Bavarian soldier during the occupation of France in a quiet little city: Nevers. She begins to project the soldier onto Lui recounting the experience by saying things like “You are dead”. Lui encourages her to tell her whole story by reinforcing the illusion and asking “Am I dead?” in order to keep his place in Elle’s non-linear recounting of events.
By the end of their revelation Elle decides it is best to part ways in their conversation she admits there is very little likelihood that they will ever see each other again unless there is “another war”. The significance of the reference to war and the catastrophic losses that brought them together is in a way another reference to the theme of rebirth. During the film’s opening montage when Lui and Elle are exchanging counterpoints while making love Elle says over and over again “you’re destroying me you’re good for me”. Her paradoxal statement epitomizes the consequences of forbidden love and sweetness of it in her own life. Her liaison with both the Bavarian and the Japanese man are liaisons with the international “other”. Japan and Germany were allies to each other during WWII and in the post-war world an inter-racial union with either would be considered risqué.
Resnais balances feelings of familiarity through contrasting symmetry. The black cat that shares Elle’s isolation in the cellar is mirrored by the white cat she pets on the set of the film. In editing Resnais parellels the significance of identity through a place origin when shots of Nevers and Hiroshima are intercut together.The link to the Bavarian soldier is established because Elle sees him in the way Lui lies in bed asleep.

Contracted to do a film on the atomic bomb, Resnais instead chose to show the catastrophic aftermath of the experience of the bomb through the individual. His non-linear narrative conveys a very tactile experience for the spectator through the inter-cutting of inserts that correspond to Elle’s description of the abrasive cellar she endured her madness in or the blurred memories of her affair with the Bavarian soldier. The multi-valent layers of narrative and human emotion keeps Hiroshima Mon Amour in the circle of one of my favorite films of all time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Irrational Youth of Breathless

One of the defining films of the French New Wave, Jean Luc Goddard’s Breathless is a picture of the irrationality of the youth culture. The film follows the obnoxious Michel on his adventures to collect the money owed to him, evade apprehension by the police and entrap the stubborn independent American girl Patricia to run away with him to Rome.
Through Michel Goddard shows the youth’s self-consummation through the media. At the film’s opening in the car that Michel has stolen he finds a revolver in the glove compartment. Playing up the image of the gangster he hunches over the steering wheel uttering, “Bang, Bang!” as he drives along the country road. Moments later when cop pulls up behind him, Michel shoots him dead with the same revolver. The connection to cinematic influences are made apparent throughout the film through the enigmatic film score by Martial Solal that echo the intriguing nuances of the classic film noirs out of classic Hollywood. Michel himself is constantly trying to channel Humphrey Bogart. In one scene in the film he stands in the street staring at the star’s headshot, smoking and dragging this thumb across his lip in mimicry.
Patricia the object of Michel’s desire is an independent American student studying and working simultaneously in Paris. Like Michel she is a free spirit. The way Michel will leave on girl on the pier or steal money from another from under the nose in her apartment, Patricia will also use the men around her to her advantage. She takes a lunch meeting with a journalist who is promising her a story and makes out with him in his car directly after. When she attends a press conference for a famous writer she allows the writer to disregard all her questions and flirt directly with her. Patricia fluctuates between the working-woman in the pants like when she is trying to sell copies of The New York Harold Tribune on the streets of Paris or when she wants to use her feminine wiles to her advantage over men when she is in the Dior dress.
When Patricia discovers the full extent of Michel’s entanglement with the police, she appears to go on the run with him at first, even saying goodbye to the journalist that same night in a café. The morning after they have safely stayed the night in a hideout she goes out on the pretext of getting groceries and informs to the police where Michel is. When she returns to the apartment she confesses to Michel what she has done. The only explanation she can offer him is that she did what she did only in order to prove to herself that she did not love him.
Faced with betrayal Michel succumbs to the death of a tragic hero. Refusing to run off with his friend when the money is delivered. Michel stumbles down the street as the police arrive on the scene and open fire. In the end Michel refuses all rational alternatives and chooses to take on the death of a tragic hero. Patricia’s betrayal is perhaps reflexive of her need to be independent of men. In the end she stands over Michel as he dies unmoved.
The reckless youths of Michel and Patricia overlap in Breathless for a brief interlude only to part ways through an unfortunate turn of events. Perhaps Goddard is trying to show that the youth’s obsession with characters from popular media, are mere attempts to fulfill the writer’s ambition: “to become immortal and then to die”. Goddard’s subtle premise for the future of an irrational youth.