Monday, May 31, 2010

The Godfather: "You broke my heart. You broke my heart."

(Warning: plot of both films discussed in close detail)

I don't quite know why it is I've fallen out of love with The Godfather--is it a case of 'familiarity breeds contempt?' A need to admire something newer, fresher? Is it that the flaws have become too glaring, the virtues too faded? A perverse reaction to seeing it on top of every 'best picture' and 'greatest films' list known to Man? I don't know.

We're familiar with the genesis of the film, from a novel that at the time of the film's production wasn't a bestseller yet, but grew in popularity during production; the pressures exerted on its neophyte director (thanks to all the fan expectations) grew accordingly. Coppola recalls he was constantly in danger of being fired after the first week's shooting, and it was only after the powers-that-be saw his staging of the Sollozzo hit--of Pacino as Michael walking out of the bathroom with a calm, distant look in his eyes--that they saw something there; the possibility of a good film, maybe even a hit. 

We know Coppola basically took a lurid potboiler of a crime novel, reached deep inside, and pulled out the book's true heart--a family epic that captured the mood and thoughts (somewhat dark, somewhat cynical) of America at the time. Instead of the book's pulpy pacing, he adopted a statelier rhythm, as befits a Major Production (he might have taken for inspiration Visconti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)--history and epic drama, in effect, told at a processional pace). Coppola had many collaborators, but two are crucial--Gordon Willis with his shadowy amber lighting (supplemented by Bill Butler in certain sequences), and Nino Rota with his swooningly sentimental score

The Godfather may be the peak achievement of '70s Hollywood, the supreme example of their brand of storytelling, but after all is said and done, it's just, well, pretty much conventional storytelling. It has, as Godard might put it, a beginning, a middle, an end, and arranges those elements in the usual order. It uses an omniscient point of view, only zooming in to identify with characters at specific moments (say, Michael during the Sollozzo hit) the way Tolstoy kept to the conventionally omniscient point of view in his novels, breaking convention only when necessary (Pierre plotting to kill Napoleon, say). 

Another perhaps more serious charge is that it glamorizes the Mafia--even their flaws (the sexism and racism, the cruelty, the cold-blooded murders) are depicted on a larger-than-life scale. This is a fairly accurate portrait (the inaccuracies--the Godfather's stance on drugs, for example--being more subtle crimes of omission and distortion than outright fabrications) warts and all, but of the overall impression one comes away with a feeling like--"Wow, I'd like to be in a family like that."

The Godfather Part II is a correction to that impression--a correction to both major objections I have to the first film. We see the ugly underside of both business and family relations, the destructiveness and decadence; at the same time Coppola attempts a more ambitious time scheme, taking the story of the father's rise, and pairing it with the son's consolidation of power and eventual isolation from anyone and everyone he knows or loves.

It's not perfect; fact of the matter is, I'd admire it less if it were perfect. Perfection implies absolute mastery over tried-and-true practices, implies a minimization of risk-taking, the avoidance and absence of imaginative leaps. Coppola does take considerable risk in attempting this scope and density of storytelling in not one but a pair of narratives, and as a result half the film--the '50s era story--tends to suffer in terms of coherence. Someone attempts a hit on Michael; the possibility is raised that there is a traitor in the family. Who is behind it and who involved takes up too much screen time--compare the plot to that of the original's first half, where we had a clear villain (Virgil Sollozzo) capable of plotting devious machinations and springing constant surprises on the hapless Corleones. Sollozzo created suspense; he managed to put the Godfather in a hospital bed, and you wondered what he was going to do next. His eventual elimination would take much of the momentum out of the film (in which case the question of succession--of who would take the Godfather's place in the family--came into play), but there's no real equivalent to the man in Godfather II.

Arguably there's no need for such a villain; Michael is his own worst enemy. One might say that Part II is basically a character study, the tragedy of a man losing the very thing he fought for--the subject of some of the greatest dramas (it's Shakespeare's favorite plotline, for one).

If the question of succession is the motor that drives the first film's latter half, Michael's conflict with his brother is the motor that drives the second film's latter half, and it's compelling enough--what does one do with the irredeemably weak, especially those of one's own blood? Mario Puzo objected to the possibility that Michael's older brother Fredo might be murdered, but that's the only direction Coppola can go. None of Michael's enemies can really touch Michael (even Hyman Roth (a.k.a. Meyer Lansky), memorably played by Lee Strasberg, is a rather ineffectual antagonist--or at least his most effective attack, assault by senatorial investigation, isn't as visually charismatic as, say, Sollozzo's hospital-room maneuver). It's people close to Michael who have the power to hurt him, either his wife Kay or his brother  (Fredo's actual betrayal wasn't much either, though Michael if were less quick-witted he would have been dead; it's the emotions evoked, of anger and betrayal, that deeply wound Michael).

As an example of epic directing I've mixed feelings about Coppola's twin achievements. He's inspired copycats through the years, of less and less subtlety and interest (Brian De Palma's Scarface comes to mind, all profanity and little substance; that said, his Carlito's Way is possibly what Coppola was trying for and failed to achieve in The Godfather Part III: an irredeemable man's attempt at redemption, done with poignancy and style). I suppose we can't entirely blame the progenitor for his bastards, though going through both films again, one can't help but notice how many of Coppola's devices, so fresh then, seem like hoary cliches now. It's a challenge to keep context in mind, to remember--and more to the point, feel--what was fresh and new back then in what is now considered old. If art has a sell-by or expiration date, this might be the basis for the establishment of such a date.

Then there's evolution--in art and not just biology. I believe that, say, Hou Hsiao Hsien's Bei qing cheng shi (A City of Sadness, 1989) unrolls a richer tapestry of changing relationships and passing time, presenting them in an atmosphere and against a delicate emotional texture that puts anything Coppola does in shadow, if not shame.

I believe Johnnie To's Hak se wui (Election, 2005) and its sequel (Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai, (Election 2: Harmony is a virtue, 2006)) both outdo Coppola in terms of plotting, action staging, suspense, economy of storytelling, and overall ambiance (a difficult-to-define combination of sentiments, from cynicism to despair to an invincible faith in man's capacity to seriously screw up his fellow man).

I believe Matteo Gorrone's Gomorra (2008) is a more persuasive, less glamorized depiction of the Mafia. And as for The Godfather films' combination of old-style visuals and punk-rock action filmmaking, James Gray's We Own the Night has set a new high water mark.

Mind you, most if not all of these films owe a huge debt to Coppola's twin epics; at the same time, Coppola's epics are not set on an unreachable pedestal, nor should they be; new filmmakers will come with new ideas, with films that speak to new times with greater, more relevant power. At least I believe these films do.

Even amongst Coppola's own works one might find superior fare, as Coppola himself might agree. I doubt if Coppola ever bettered himself in terms of action filmmaking when he did Apocalypse Now; I think he'll agree when I say he attains greater visual virtuosity and design in films like One From the Heart, Rumble Fish, even the dramatically flawed Dracula (which I consider more a celebration of old-school special effects than a straight horror film). Even a hard-to-like film like his Tetro speaks more directly from the heart, shows more integrity in its stubborn refusal to tell its story in an accessible, audience-friendly manner.

Basically what I feel about the two Godfather films is this: they work well, they're wonderful examples of understated, stately filmmaking, then and even now. But they don't speak to me with force anymore. They've run out of things to say to me (though I do feel something even now, watching them again), and everything I can say or write about them has basically been written down, somewhere else on the internet. Though I've tried through this piece to be more articulate and coherent about my sentiments, it comes down to this: I've fallen out of love with these films. They don't rock my world anymore. 


The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)

Smoke and mirrors and mirrors

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, as director Terry Gilliam puts it, a summation of his work to date, taking the freewheeling transitions of Time Bandits, the monumental scale of Brazil, the fabulously junky baroque designs of Baron Munchausen, the affection for the poor and marginalized in The Fisher King, the fabled air of The Brothers Grimm--all lovingly inscribed on yellowed sheepskin parchment and bound in ancient leather binding, with a latch opened by an ornate brass key. The Portable Gilliam could have been the film's alternate title.

It's ostensibly about storytelling, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) having challenged the head monk of a monastery (Christopher Plummer) to a bet: which has the more powerful appeal, stories or vices? The first to accumulate a dozen converts on either cause wins, and Gilliam contrives to fling across the screen a fleeting image of Christ surrounded by his twelve disciples (the monk, some centuries later). That's the hook, of course; Mr. Nick let him win, to whet the man's  appetite. Millennia later the monk--now named Dr. Parnassus--rides a rickety old cart towed by horses into London, and here the film proper begins.

Gilliam notes that this was the first image he thought up: a decrepit wagon rolling into the streets of London, to open like a clockwork flower into proscenium, stage, a burst of marquee lights--the extreme contrast (but Gilliam is all about contrasts) of an anachronistic theater group wandering in an ultramodern megalopolis. Parnassus over the years has been reduced from founder of Christianity to performer of a dilapidated song-and-dance routine with his tiny troupe: his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistants young Anton (Andrew Garfield) and minuscule but stout-hearted Percy (Verne Troyer).

Ostensibly that's the story. Mr. Nick plays Mephistopheles to Parnassus' Faust, alternately goading and leading him down one garden path after another. But Waits' Mr. Nick is not all malevolence--Gilliam has his fun with the man, from splattering him with bird droppings (from a supposedly mythical bird of paradise) to inflicting him with a reluctant sense of compassion (he's constantly bending his own rules to allow Parnassus a fighting chance). The two are adversaries, but they're more the kind of adversaries that through long struggle have perversely become friends, one always looking over the shoulder to see if the other's close by. The dynamic between the two reminds me of novelist Anthony Burgess' Tremor of Intent, where the writer railed against the 'neutrals.'

Simply put, Mr. Burgess likes champions for good, but even champions for evil he respects as being committed antagonists, necessary to the struggle; what he couldn't stand are 'the neutrals'--people who sit on the sidelines, who have no personal stake in the struggle, who take advantage of or ally themselves with you, as circumstances dictate. In his best-known novel A Clockwork Orange (turned into a famously ultraviolent film by Stanley Kubrick) Burgess created a memorably repellent protagonist--Alex DeLarge--who despite being a criminal, rapist, and murderer at the age of fourteen is nevertheless capable of that most human of abilities, moral choice. That makes him worthy of respect, or at least serious regard (“Will he or won't he be redeemed?” being for Burgess a question of real import, no matter who is being talked about). I don't know if Gilliam has ever read Burgess, but watching this picture one can see the director totally agreeing with the writer's concept of moral choice, and the nature of the true enemy.

In this film the enemy--the character that earns Gilliam's most intense ire--is Tony. He's Gilliam's idea of the modern man, ever shifting (as incarnated by Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell) in appearance and in loyalties. “I've been trying to nail him for years,” muses Mr. Nick, who watches Tony scamper across a vast desert.

But of course. Gilliam has stated his contempt for much of the modern world time and time again--its heartlessness, its constant state of amnesia, its utter interchangeability--and Tony as played by Ledger illustrates (or rather incarnates_ this quality surpassingly well. He's by turns a confidence man, a fanatic, a seducer, an abuser, all and/or any combination thereof, depending on how matters can be turned to his advantage. Ledger plays him with an unholy energy, as if he realizes that his time onscreen is limited; that he's played by three other actors (Depp, Law, Farrell) handily demonstrates Tony's mutable nature--you can't even count on him to keep his face on for too long. If one wasn't aware that Ledger died during the course of filming, that Depp, Law and Farrell filled in last-minute at Gilliam's request, one might think this a clever idea for visualizing the film's themes, not some desperate measure aimed at keeping the production afloat.

The true star of the film isn't Ledger of course, no matter how good he is, no matter how many actors play his role posthumously--it's really Gilliam's eccentric, ramshackle style, which expresses (in an eccentric, ramshackle manner) his themes. Gilliam is possibly the world's greatest proponent of archaic effects--the more archaic and theatrical, the better. He loves Rube Goldberg machines hidden behind curtains that shudder and belch smoke, then lurch forward to frighten children in the audience--one might imagine that he would, if he could, work with a steam-powered camera, on a silent movie. He's all about celebrating the marginalized and forgotten arts and artists. Especially the forgotten; his Parnassus isn't so much Christ (despite what the film suggests) as he is a sidewalk performer, struggling daily to practice his termite art.

Of which Gilliam's film is a wonderful example, one might add--for a production with the relatively modest budget of thirty million dollars, the picture looks and feels three times bigger (Funny, James Cameron's Avatar is some eight times more expensive yet less than half as substantial). Gilliam employs a cornucopia of sleight-of-eye tricks to extend his special-effects dollar, especially through the use of striking locations (London's Leadenhall Market, the foyer of the Vancouver Public Library) and (thanks to 8 mm Ziess lens) extreme wide-angled shots, but I'm especially enamored of his simplest effects--the scenery flats standing immediately behind Parnassus' aluminum-foil mirror, the transparent cube that holds Parnassus aloft in supposed meditation, the sleight-of-hand tricks Garfield and Plummer perform on Ledger's gold tube. Some of the imagery--the sky-high ladders, for example, or the landscapes in the style of Grant Wood, or the giant spinning police officer's head--recall Gilliam's Monty Python days, when he would push cut-out drawings around and call it 'animation').

It's in these moments that you begin to suspect the nature of Gilliam's true theme--not so much good versus evil or storytelling versus vice as it is sodden versus sleek, ancient versus antiseptic, handmade versus the insufferably mass-produced and hygienic. One imagines Parnassus' shambling wagon troupe rolling out onscreen, belching out colored smoke and uttering unholy roars while Gilliam works away backstage. The digital effects man with the keyboard sits silently in the dustiest, least-used corner of the theater--a necessary evil put in his proper place, humbly supporting film and story instead of hogging the center stage. Gilliam's got a heart as big and gorgeous as the whole world and for now--for this film only--it's the undisputed star of the show.

The DVD:

Subtitles and audio in English and Spanish; includes a deleted scene with optional commentary by the director; brief features detailing production background, an elaborate digitally composited model-and-effects shot involving a monastery (possibly the most complex in the film), test shots of star Heath Ledger trying on wigs and costumes; and more.

The commentary is worth listening to--Gilliam is full of amusing anecdotes, and tells a cute little story about his real intentions for the song “We Are the Children of the World,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. After which, of course, we are treated to the song itself, and the full import of Gilliam's words truly sink in. Hilarious.

First published in Businessworld, 4.20.10

Monday, May 10, 2010

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau); Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn)

Ironic, man
Prefer this sequel over the original and here's why: it's soapier. All that nonsense about Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) self-destructing, and Pepper Pott (Gwyneth Paltrow) worrying like a mother hen over him, and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over from Terence Howard) glowering from the sidelines like some forgotten authority figure--all that lingers in the head much longer than the mecha figurines flying around and shooting up the landscape. Metal junk bashing each other? That's so Mazinger Z. That's old, man, and the last time I enjoyed it was when Neon Genesis Evangelion was replaying on Cartoon Network. 

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Mortal (Mario O'Hara, 1975)

 Mortal [VHS] 

Watching Shutter Island, I was reminded of this, O'Hara's debut feature. My thoughts on the film (and on a certain Ron Howard movie) written for Menzone Magazine back in March 27, 2002: 

A Beautiful Lie

With the recent brouhaha over A Beautiful Mind--the autobiographical drama on mathematical genius John Nash, whose frontrunner position at the 2002 Oscar race was almost (but not quite) derailed by doubts about its authenticity--the question comes to mind: how true should a true story be? How much of the facts can you distort, modify, create out of whole cloth? Should one follow the truth, or at least approximate it, run parallel to it, ignore it altogether? And what is the truth anyway, while we're asking...?