At home with the Corleones

The Godfather: Pacino and Brando in the garden.

I’ve been craving 1970s American cinema lately; it may have been jumpstarted by my viewing of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) a couple of weeks ago, but it probably also has something to do with the dismal state of American cinema as it stands currently.  Re-watching The Godfather (1972) this weekend, I was amazed by how perfectly made a film it is, and how grown up, in addition to being almost compulsively watchable.  As with so many of the great American films from this period, watching it is something akin to slipping into a warm bath.  The Godfather’s impeccable craftsmanship, which is to say its status as a great work of cinema, is almost inseparable from its value as entertainment.  Pauline Kael was right to have called it one of the most perfect marriages of “commerce and art” ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system.  And the years from 1969 to 1980 were flush with such films: consider, in addition to Shampoo and the Godfather films, the embarrassment of riches that is Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Klute, Deliverance, Cabaret, Chinatown, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Barry Lyndon, Nashville, Jaws, Carrie, Network, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Raging Bull, and Dressed to Kill, to name only some of the most prominent titles. In addition to being enormously entertaining, they’re smart and stylish, and were made for adults as opposed to adolescent boys.

Sicilian pastorale.

Having last sat down with The Godfather roughly nine years ago, upon revisiting it I was struck most by Coppola’s command of pacing and rhythm; by the magisterial weight of the opening scenes at the wedding, which also feel completely fun (an example of “hangout” cinema at its best); by Brando, whose performance, for all its reputation for being showy and indulgent, is actually remarkably low-key and restrained (his voice barely rises above that now-iconic raspy whisper); by the lovely andante con molto tempo of the Sicilian sequences, which may strike a first-time viewer as digressive but which are absolutely crucial in developing the character of Michael, as well as in helping us to relax after the suspense of the assassination at the Italian restaurant (the film could be compared to a symphony in its construction as a series of rhythmic movements); by the beauty of Brando and Pacino's scene in the garden (ghostwritten by Robert Towne); by quietly brilliant throwaway sequences like the “mattress” montage, set to a mysterious and haunting jazz composition credited as “This Loneliness,” as performed by Coppola’s father Carmine on a jangling out-of-tune piano; and by such humorous grace notes as the posse of Sicilian chaperones that follow Michael and Appollonia during their courtship.  And that ending, of course, still lands like a sock to the gut.  I doubt that Coppola and Puzo’s Oscar-winning screenplay looks like much on the page—god knows that Puzo’s novel hardly qualifies as great literature—but it works brilliantly on the screen, right down to its simple and chilling final line (“Don Corleone…!”). 

The Corleones at table.

As I understand her, what Kael meant when she called The Godfather films a perfect marriage of commerce and art was that they were examples of how Hollywood could take the trashiest subject matter and turn it into gold—a mass product so well made that it also couldn’t help but be a hit.  (HBO’s Game of Thrones might be a modern-day analog, pulp fiction so artfully mounted that it’s impossible to resist.)  Perhaps more than any other film The Godfather is an example of how popular culture can transcend its lowborn origins without sacrificing any of their pleasures.   

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