Thursday, December 16, 2010

Movies 1968-1972: The Godfather and If...

As these are both iconic movies of a popular era in the cinema, I am going to assume that everyone already knows everything about them, and only give my own impressions as a potential means of sharing in the lively communal experience which popular art sometimes inspires.

I am not sure if I had ever actually sat down and watched the original Godfather straight through from beginning to end, but if I had, it was a long time ago, when my attention would have been directed primarily on the violence and not on the kinds of things I pay attention to now. Of course all of the famous scenes and lines and Lucca Brazzi and Moe Green references I recognized and anticipated, these having become ubiquitous in the culture during the ensuing 38 years, and I knew the basic structure of the narrative, but the movie otherwise had not made much of an impression on me because I was not able to get beyond all the murders which struck me in my tender naivete as pointless and callously portrayed. In my more developed maturity I realize that underworld murders are anything but pointless, that in fact they are more significant actions and assertions of humanity than anything that ever happens in bourgeois life, and, more specific to the movie, that the murders themselves in any kind of moral sense are not its focal point anyway, the stylization of them is. The murder scenes are thrillingly and to a certain extent even beautifully conceived, but there is nothing very real about them. Effective stylization in movies however is almost always more interesting than realistic depictions of life seem to be, and has always constituted their main appeal, whether in the mindless-popular-entertainment or challenging-the-complacent-intellect model.

The script and plot construction are Hollywood golden age (i.e. the 30s and 40s) classical. It coheres, each scene builds relentlessly upon those that have come before it towards its climaxes (the various murder scenes), the pace never flags or meanders, and the story is executed in a manner that at times both exquisite and grandiose. This all looks obvious and simple to do up on the screen, but you rarely come across it in recent movies as pleasingly smooth as here--I often wonder if people are too sophisticated and over-conscious to even do simple but affecting artistic work anymore. Of course I am humoring myself when I do this, as there are doubtless plenty of great artists at work in our own time; I seem to be incapable of taking pleasure in almost all of them however, so I am dissatisfied with the direction of the "culture".

Though the movie doesn't always feel like it takes place in the 1940s, it does in places a decent job of evoking that era emotionally. I especially like the shots of the department stores with the Christmas music playing in the background, and the murder scenes in the Italian restaurant, the Jones Beach toll booths, and the department store revolving door confirm to a great extent the feelings of love and comfort with which we have often associated these places but have never quite known how to express. I almost believe that if people could be assured that their murder would take place in a picturesque setting, with them presenting well in fine clothes or an elegant car, that they would be much less fearful of the potential crime.

It is difficult for me to comprehend how highly this movie is regarded by people for whom the film business and life are not disparate entities. I knew it had crept into the top 10 of the prestigious Sight and Sound poll of top critics and directors that is taken exactly every ten years (the last was in 2002), which is probably the most highly regarded such ranking due to the people involved in it. I hadn't realized that it had bolted nearly all the way to the top. The Godfather (together with Part II) ranked 4th in the critics poll, behind only Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and The Rules of the Game, and was the most recent film to crack the list, which like most such lists favors the real (old) classics. In the directors' poll it came in second, behind only Citizen Kane. (Note--in 1992 it made its first appearance in the directors' poll, at #6, and did not appear at all on the critics' poll, which at that time still filled half of its top ten with films from 1941 or earlier). I agree that it is a classic but I'm not sure it's that classic. There is still something about it which strikes me as fundamentally too shallow to merit that high of a rank. Obviously the generation that was young and most impressionable in 1972 has completely ascended to the chair of authority. I suspect it will score high again in the 2012 poll but begin to drop again by 2022, if anybody still cares about movies by then, which they probably will. Of course one can only shudder to imagine what kinds of movies the authorities of my generation will be voting for...

Among the film's more notable achievements is making the viewer feel at selected moments that Diane Keaton might actually be kind of pretty as well as a sympathetic person (I hadn't caught before that her character is supposed to be from New Hampshire, by the way--Ha!), which no filmmaker I am aware of has succeeded in doing since.

This is the first of the big 70s Hollywood movies I have seen, or re-seen, since I read the big sex drugs and rock and roll history of the era last year. Of course there are hundreds and thousands of books and essays on the subject, but I had never actually read any of them, so I really do find myself looking at it in a new way. Coppola came across as being the most natural as well as largest talent of that group, at least from 1968-75 or so, after which his career, according to accepted opinion, never approached these early heights again, to the point where by the 90s he was doing John Grisham adaptations for hire. I haven't seen these later films, so I don't how true this is, though it seems odd to me that even if his writing ability lost some of its edge, that the artistic sensibility and instinct so evident here would have abandoned him so completely. As far as the material being inferior, lots of great movies from the 40s and 50s, including pretty much the entire film noir genre, were adaptations of crummy pulp novels and magazine stories, so there is no reason to believe a good director couldn't make an interesting film out of a Grisham story. The Godfather itself is considered as a book to be not of the best quality (although numerous of the unlettered among my youthful acquaintance asserted that the book was far superior to the film, which would really call into question the ultimate profundity of any movie experience in comparison to the traditional high arts). Of course he has gone on to make millions more dollars on the side selling fine wines and cigars. I've tried some of his wine. The word that comes foremost to mind is clean--no residue, and a kind of oddly streamlined, uniform taste. The Pinot Grigio Bianco is the best of his line that I have had. It is very good.

Coppola's ego grew even more insufferable than it already had been for the several years between the success of the Godfather movies and the debacle into which the multiple-years-and-several-hundred-million-dollar-production of Apocalypse Now degenerated.

My favorite Coppola story is that while filming Apocalypse Now on location in the Phillipines some elaborate sets costing millions of dollars were in the process of being constructed near the beach when some lower level employee on the production blurted out the question "Why are we doing this? Monsoon season is starting in a month." To which Coppola replied, "What are you, a fucking weatherman?" You can guess what happened next.

I am no great technical critic of actors, and everybody and his grandmother has already felt compelled to offer the world their opinions on this, but it just further emphasizes that the surrealism-tinged awesomeness of Marlon Brando in this movie can hardly be overstated.

An old friend of mine who was gifted in the ability to entice women to sleep with him used to be very generous with advice and other wisdom regarding such matters towards me and other of his especially hopeless acquaintance, doubtless knowing it would never be put to use in such a manner as to constitute a threat to his own supply of pleasure. "Timing, (Surrender), timing is everything" was one of his favorite mantras. We frequently see this to be the case as well in other sensually-oriented fields, such as the arts are, and rarely has a movie been more fortuitous in the timing of its release than If.... was in appearing upon the scene in 1968. As engaging and even remarkable of a movie as it often is, it is impossible to envision it, or even a modified version of it, being a big hit--which it seems to have been, in England, anyway--at any other time than when it happened to appear. In recent years it has often come to be referred to, even by some of its admirers, as the original school shooting movie, due to its notorious final scene, though in context it is pretty clearly intended to be an expression of the spirit of the 60s, over the top undoubtedly, and probably a little more zealously imagined than we would find appropriate nowadays, but it should be noted that the targets of the barrage at the end are not hapless middle class bystanders, but literal representatives of the British establishment, generals, bishops, headmasters and the like, who, it should also be observed, begin firing back once they realize what is going on, as much of the right wing commentariat declaims that they would readily do under similar circumstances if only they were ever present at them.

I first saw this movie at a screening of the college film society, rather early in my time there (even as recently as the early 90s this entailed getting a print on a traditional reel in a traditional can and running it through an actual traditional movie projector. I'm guessing these traditions have finally died out however by now). I'm pretty sure I had no idea what was going on in it at that time. This is a real art movie, meaning that the greater part of its charm is in the small details and instants of fleeting beauty that it is able to notice, set off against the darker overlying story. Evidently my younger self could neither appreciate the fineness of these details nor really grasp the general drift of the plot. This is kind of funny because there are a number of occasions where the school in the movie looks quite similar to my school at the time, the dormitories and the gym especially. At the time I probably imagined everybody's school had more or less of a similar character.

I want to emphasize again that this is a very beautiful film, made by people who, whatever their issues with British society, were not oblivious to a sense of the grandeur that still pervaded not only its countryside, but also its hidebound and increasingly outdated social institutions. When you flip around the TV channels now or watch film previews, a lot of the newer stuff out of Britain depicts as a rather horrid, almost dystopian place, full of gloomy, nightmarish cityscapes, ugly, crass people speaking in horrid accents, surveillance, impersonal computerized barriers and signs everywhere, crime. There is very little suggesting any connection to pre-1997 English culture or history, which even anti-establishment 80s rock bands like the Clash and the Smiths were fond of referencing when the opportunity presented itself.

Malcolm McDowell did a portion of the commentary on the Criterion DVD, which I found worth listening to. He has considerable charm, as well as a healthily modulated amount of jerkishness, and his anecdotes about the film, Lindsay Anderson, the 60s, Britain, the other actors, and so on, are a lot more interesting than the usual film commentary pablum. There were a number of themes introduced which had the effect of making me question where I had gone so horribly wrong in my life--Lindsay Anderson's intellect, which was apparently formidable as well as deeply though as if casually learned, was brought up several times by both commentators (the other was a British film historian), and McDowell mentioned going to I believe the art director's spread in Sussex or somewhere and being floored by the absolute perfection of development of this individual's taste, which reminded me that even today the world swarms with thousands of these perfect brilliant people who understand everything and know how to do anything and get paid handsomely for it while the other 99.9% of the population of the western world slides ever deeper into a state more degraded that of mere traditional barbarism or serfdom. But other than that I mostly found the commentary enjoyable.

Lindsay Anderson (the director of this movie, by the way) had something of an enigmatic career, never quite being part of the film establishment but never exactly being completely cut off from it either. I hadn't realized he had made 1987's The Whales of August, which featured a number of legendary performers who had not been seen in a while, including 1910s silent goddess Lillian Gish, then well into her 90s, in what I am pretty certain was her last film. I never saw this, but I remember my 11th and 12th grade French teacher's being excited about it, (Les Baleines d'Aout, he called it) and Lillian Gish's comeback. Of course no one in the class, including me, was able to share in his enthusiasm. He was an odd little man, probably retired now, as he seemed to me at the time to be older than father, in his mid-40s or so. Like a lot of the teachers at our school, he did make a good show of engaging with the life of the mind in a pre-new age sense, traveling, keeping up with the arts, seeking 'cultured' experiences of a vaguely European refinement. He had never been married, and doubtless people speculated about his preferences in sensual matters, though he did once bring a female date to the well-known restaurant (this was in Maine) where I worked as a dishwasher and occasional busboy. This lady was his age, and of a rather dumpy build, though she had dyed her hair a rather startling orange color and had all kinds of oversized bangles and necklaces and one of those massive bohemian dresses. Whatever their relationship was, I would be curious to know more about it now.

Contemporary Bonus: I saw Greenberg, inspired by this link from the Virtual Memories website, where it is described as the tale of a 40-year old man who finds himself totally at sea in the world of 2010, which the writer/critic indicated could easily describe himself. As it could certainly describe me as well as anyone I am aware of, the curiosity which the man who considers no one to be in sympathy with him feels at the suggestion that someone with a prominent bully pulpit overcame me, and I decided to see the movie.

Sadly, as with many movies made by or about people who are of my generation, my main reaction was one that I almost never have when watching movies from 1925 or even ones where Europeans at elegant dinner parties suddenly open fire on each other for no obvious reason, that of "Are people really like this?" I have always felt this where my age cohort was concerned. To the entertainments of 1978 my reaction was "Are other children really like this?" I had the same questions regarding the cinematic teenagers of 1985, as well as the casts of the entire oeuvre of Winona Ryder from 1989 to 1994. Part of the problem is that even when the characters are supposed to be losers (professionally, that is, or through an inability to kick substance abuse habits or maintain stable relationships, as opposed to simply being uncool) they invariably still have more friends, more sex and display cooler taste in music in the course of a 100 minute movie about the lowest period of their life than I was able to generate in the entirety of mine. Another issue for me is that with a few exceptions--I'll have to try to generate a list of these for a future post--nobody in a generation x movie ever displays any evidence via their actual speech of having anything even symptomatic of an aspiration for any kind of real education, let alone the possession, or partial possession of one--even when the characters are supposed to be geniuses! Maybe this is realistic, and obviously my mind is only vaguely informed by familiarity or awareness of any kind of deep learning or contemplation but still--vaguely is a lot more than nothing, enough that nothing no longer resonates as a possible foundation for any person with whom one might have anything in common.

This movie did remind me of something I had forgotten, which is that I never managed to make it to a party where cocaine was being actively imbibed (needless to say I also have managed never to take cocaine). Not that I ever really wanted to do cocaine, but I certainly wanted to be able to go to the kind of parties where people were doing it, because of course I imagined that you had to go to those kinds of parties just to see beautiful girls--it was a portal to the world where one could perhaps then begin to have a glimmer of hope of ever getting any of them.

Sorry about the sloppy ending. I have to end this post now or I may never get out of it.

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