Comfortable and Furious

The Godfather Part 2

Written and Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

– Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
– Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen
– Diane Keaton as Kay Adams-Corleone
– Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone
– John Cazale as Fredo

Matt Cale has a soft spot for monumental greatness…

There are three things in this life that I can recommend without the slightest bit of hesitation: finding a job that requires minimal effort, finding a spouse that can engage in spirited conversation, and, perhaps above all, watching The Godfather Part II on the big screen as it was intended. Upon hearing that this masterpiece was coming to a theater in Denver (for one week only), I knew that at least until I left such a screening, my life was not complete. Guarded and averse to risk-taking that I am, I also knew that like never before I would have to protect myself – both from bodily injury or a sudden illness – so that I could attend, reflect, and view what for me is a cinematic experience eclipsed by no other.

It didn’t matter that the theater was a long drive from my house. It didn’t matter that the print was, according to an employee, at least twenty years old. And it certainly didn’t matter that the image was far from perfect (it snapped and crackled, when the image wasn’t faded from overuse). Here I was, watching one of the world’s greatest achievements – demonstrable proof that despite the savagery and bloodlust of the twentieth century, mankind was at least capable of producing a work such as this. When the book of my life is written, dull as it might be, I will remember this day as a seminal event; a transcendental experience that might not convince me of a higher power in the universe, but certainly one that demonstrates that for a brief period during the 1970s, a god walked in our midst – a bearded saint named Francis Ford Coppola.

The film should be familiar to all those who are self-described film fanatics. To discuss its plot points would be an insult to the website and my own sense of propriety. After all, if you need a “recap,” you also need several dozen swift chops to the scalp with a dull axe. When one speaks of “growing up,” or engaging in the rite of passage from soft-headed adolescent to rational adult, an uninterrupted viewing of The Godfather Part II is as indispensable as rebellion or a first shave. Why, you might ask, risking eternal shame and banishment?

At its core, it is a (excuse me, the) story of America – its existence as a land of wide-eyed immigrants, seeking fame, fortune, or merely the right to exist without oppression. More than that – much more than that – it describes our painful and contradictory legacy to the world, how our very opportunity masks a corrupt bargain. The story of the typical American, simplified and distorted as it is by the Horatio Alger myth, is in reality a journey of self-indulgence, greed, exploitation, and the abandonment of family for profit, usually at the expense of another, and always the expense of our souls. For the story of Capital – individual betterment and “success” – is inexorably linked to an elevation of the cash nexus above all else. And when the Corleone family attempts to distinguish between business and family (the private and the public) it is attempting an impossible dream that we all share, a great rationalization that excuses public indecencies and brutalities so long as we hug our children and flatter our wives.

And do we not attribute our public behaviors to a supposedly indifferent “ethic” that alleges no intentional callousness, only a “reality” that allows no alternative? From the destruction of unions, to the opposition to a living wage, to massive layoffs and corporate bonuses, do we not say that those responsible (and there are people responsible, despite the delusions of “invisible hand” proponents) are merely “doing their job” and that they are just as loving and nurturing as the rest of us? When Kenneth Lay’s wife cried on television, was she not saying that yes, we at the top also suffer, and that when things go wrong, in the end we are just folks – just a family?

The Godfather Part II, then, is a story of rot – the unbreakable bonds that link business, crime, murder, and death, and how, like the ad, we are all puppets on a string. And how life’s mission is merely the drive to be the holder of, rather than puppet on, those very strings. Michael, one of cinema’s most tragic creations because is so much like us, saw only the end of power – in a vacuum, without any decorations to lessen its impact. Even when he’d “won” (in the words of Tom Hagen), he still had the need to destroy, for power is nothing if not the impulse to reduce one’s environment to the bare essentials. With such a desire, there can be no love, no joy, and no experience at all, with the lone exception of an exercise of power. Even when there is no real threat (as in the case of the pathetic Fredo), Michael must erase his memory because for a brief moment, he was a source of vulnerability. Power must – and does – stand alone, for it is both the means and end of life in these United States. As Pauline Kael once said in her review back in 1974, the film reveals what we always knew capitalism to be, yet were too afraid to admit in public. Behind the rhetoric – of job creation, GDP, profit, and all the terms that have come to define our lives – there is an emptiness, an endless cycle that we simply, tragically, cannot put to an end.

To some, these pronouncements, or the film’s intentions, might sound like the naïve ravings of a mind trapped in the cynical, post-Watergate Seventies. Still, let it be said: The Godfather Part II is indeed from a different time, a time as foreign to the present as any I can imagine. The most striking thing one takes away from the experience (when one watches it in 2002), is that Hollywood, and for the most part even the so-called independent scene, no longer possesses such grand ambitions. When grand statements were sought and cultural significance (without being heavy-handed) was seen as vital for any motion picture. A time when directors believed in (not cynically, but genuinely, as an inescapable part of their filmmaking philosophy) irreverence – challenging the status quo and dissenting at the top of one’s voice. When sacred cows were routinely slaughtered and intelligence was respected as a virtue, rather than being dismissed as an elitist vice. Alas, we now want to be flattered at all costs; reminded of how good and decent we are, despite the odds.