Sunday, August 06, 2006

Padrino Padrone

The Godfather has just been re-released here in a new print, with Part 2 at least to follow in a few weeks. I watched it tonight, for the first time in probably ten years, at the great three-tiered Max Linder Panorama cinema on Grands Boulevards. It is as hugely impressive as ever, even if thirty years of parody and 'homages' in bad Hollywood movies and even worse TV ads have rendered some of the more famous scenes and dialogue comical to say the least. When Brando first opened his mouth this evening, there was a big collective laugh from the audience.

If anything this shows that the film's iconic standing in popular culture has outstripped the film itself. Which is not unusual, the same can be said of other films such as King Kong, Psycho and Jaws. But underneath all this the film is a stunningly complete and organic work. Just as Michael Cimino's career has hardly been represented by his two early masterpieces The Deerhunter and Heaven's Gate, so Coppola has been outmanoeuvred by his early works of art, this film and its sequel and The Conversation, which was sandwiched between the two of them and won the Palme d'Or, as did his later Apocalypse Now, which is where, in my opinion, the rot began to set in. Coppola now makes films with Robin Williams and adapts John Grisham bestsellers when he does anything at all, being seemingly more interested in making wine, at which he is quite adept.

The film is seamless, so much that you find yourself wondering how it works structurally, and it is much more than the sum of its parts. Its most remarkable quality is its understatedness, and its use of unshowy elements, such as Gordon Willis' meticulously even lighting, which only begins to up the contrast in the final twenty minutes. The performances are superb, especially Brando; the famous scene where he keels over and dies while playing with his grandson is masterly, choreographed with the most throwaway gestures and tics that most actors would find it impossible to replicate never mind imitate. It is always surprising to see a non-shouting, non-swearing Al Pacino, and the youth of him and many of the other actors that have since become big stars, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton gives the film an extra layer of history. The film has matured since it was made, assuming different significations as the world has changed. A reading of the film that has long passed into truism is that it portrays American mafiosi as just another type of businessmen. And of course, this is, like any truism, basically correct. But in the post-Enron, post-WorldCom, neo-con driven US, The Godfather seems as prescient of a change in the mainstream business culture itself. The only relevant morality is self-interest. And the film, that wears Coppola's superb direction so lightly it looks like it might have been made by anybody, resolves any moral quandaries in the bloody final half-hour when self-preservation shifts gear into self-interest. Coldly, like in the great final shot, where Keaton's fretting wife, disappears behind a shutting door.