the good father in The Godfather

A few weeks ago I wrote about my excitement at the prospect of going to see The Godfather in a movie theater during Fathom Events’ special 45th-anniversary presentation.  Last Wednesday evening I finally got to see it, and I was once again floored by this brilliant piece of film-making that is, at its heart, a deeply moving story about the joy and pain (mostly pain) of being part of a family.

A simple way to summarize The Godfather is that it’s about Michael Corleone resisting becoming like his father until he finally can’t resist anymore.  But Michael may have been a better godfather and a better man if he had been more like his father.  The truth is that Vito Corleone cares very much about his family.  When he says early in the film, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family is no man at all” [all quotes in this post are from memory; please forgive any inaccuracies], we might initially hear this as a piece of hypocrisy that will serve to play up the ironic inconsistency between what Vito says and who he really is.  But that isn’t true.  I don’t think there’s a single scene in this film in which Vito isn’t with a member of his family.  He dies while playing in the garden with his grandson (in contrast with Michael, who at the end of Part Three dies alone).  And he isn’t forcing his company on his family for appearance’s sake or in order to use them: His family genuinely loves him.  Look at his sons’ reactions to the shooting that nearly takes his life.  Sonny responds with violence and vengeance because that’s who Sonny is, but his violence barely conceals his deep love for his father.  The whole reason Michael gets involved in the family business, which he said he’d never do, is to protect his father from further assassination attempts.  One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Michael leans over his father’s hospital bed (which he has just hidden in an empty room) and says, “I’m here with you now.”  Another moving scene a little earlier in the film is when, right after Vito has been shot, Fredo breaks down weeping in the street, unable even to call for help.  Clearly, these young men love their father.

But Vito’s definition of “family” isn’t limited to flesh and blood.  He remains loyal to his two oldest friends in America, Clemenza and Tessio.  He takes in a little orphan named Tom Hagen and raises him like one of his own sons.  He stands godfather (in the religious sense) to Johnny Fontaine and remains invested in Johnny’s life as the years go by.  (There’s a telling moment in the wedding sequence at the beginning of the film.  Vito seems pretty bored by all the requests people are making as they file through his office, but when he looks out the window and sees his godson’s car pull up, suddenly he takes an interest.)  We could say that Vito’s family is his entire community.  After all, as we learn in Part Two, he got his start as the don by acting as a neighborhood hero, rescuing powerless people from bullies like Don Fanucci.  Another beautiful moment in the first film is his funeral, attended by a multitude of people carrying a veritable field of flowers.

Vito Corleone grew his family by including as many people as he safely could.  Michael, in contrast, after he becomes the godfather, keeps narrowing his definition of “family.”  Throughout the three films, he systematically alienates (and, in most cases, kills) nearly all of his father’s old friends.  He gets rid of peripheral family members like his brother-in-law Carlo (though, in fairness, that jerk had it coming) and his not-quite-brother Tom Hagen (removing Tom as consigliere is one of Michael’s first acts as godfather).  Eventually, late in Part Two, he gets to the illogical point of killing his own literal blood brother in the name of the abstract concept he calls “the family.”  When Vito talked about family, he meant the people he cared about and tried to protect.  When Michael talks about family, it’s unclear what he means.  There’s an ominous conversation in the first film in which Michael tells Fredo (the brother he eventually has killed) never to “align [himself] with anyone against the family again.”  That doesn’t make sense; Fredo is family just as much as Michael is–if being family means being a Corleone.  But that isn’t what the term means to Michael, apparently.  When we get to Part Three and realize that he has driven away even his wife and children, we get the impression that there’s only one member of Michael’s family–himself.  And he realizes, too late, that it’s incredibly lonely being a family of one.

This post is EPIC.

Yesterday I watched the movie Troy for the first time, and while it could have done with some more editing (I feel asleep several times during the first hour and apparently didn’t miss anything important), I thought it generally had solid storytelling and performances, and it was nice to look at.  Yes, I’m talking about Brad Pitt in his prime, but I’m also talking about the lush colors and fabrics of the costumes and the beautiful art direction (not sure how much of that was on-location filming vs. sets vs. CG, but the effect was great).  During the movie, my friend and I got into a conversation about what constitutes an “epic” film.  I’m sure there’s an official definition somewhere, but our attempt to reach a consensus is more interesting to me right now.  (Of course, Troy is an epic because it’s based on an ancient Greek epic.  That’s obvious, but not that helpful to the present discussion.)

My friend cited Cecil B. DeMille’s statement that an epic must have “a cast of thousands.”  But is that to be taken literally–thousands of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, thousands of Uruk-Hai marching on Helm’s Deep?  Or can we take it to mean that the story just has to have a lot of characters?  At one point in the conversation, I suggested that The Godfather movies–individually or as a trilogy–could be modern American epics, and I used the large cast of important characters as evidence (along with another possible factor that I proposed–an epic should be really long).  I later backed down and said that The Godfather is probably a “family saga” instead, but what the precise difference is, I’m not sure.  Other suggestions that came up during the conversation: an epic has battle scenes (I think that’s often, but not always, true); an epic has a complicated plot with multiple threads (but that would mean Charles Dickens’ novels are epics, which doesn’t seem right).  We didn’t mention this yesterday, but a classical scholar would probably say that an epic has a hero you can root for, someone who is both strong and (usually) morally good.  Well, that disqualifies The Godfather.

Our conclusion was, essentially, that we know an epic when we see one.  My friend prefers older epics like Ben Hur and a bunch of other movies with Charlton Heston in them.  I, on the other hand, look to the 1990s as my decade for epics.  This was the decade that gave us BraveheartTitanicLegends of the FallDances with Wolves, and The Last of the Mohicans.  All of these movies are long, lavish, sincere (with very little irony), and straightforward in their storytelling.  Three of them (the first three I listed) have scores by James Horner–the king of the epic soundtrack (which is why it bugs me that so many people know John Williams’s name but not James Horner’s)–and most of them have some sort of “love theme” played during the credits and sung by a popular vocalist.  Although Troy came out in 2004, it participates in that tradition, though it’s notably a bit more cynical than those earlier examples.  It has a Horner score, and Josh Groban sings the song during the credits.  Troy, I think, was one of the last of a dying breed of movies (dying until the next time the genre experiences a resurgence).

So those are all the thoughts currently in my head about epic movie-making.  If you haven’t seen the movies mentioned in this post, check them out, and if there are other titles you think of when you think of “epic,” let me know.

Mafia zombies at Downton Abbey

Every once in a while I like to write a post about the Godfather saga, even though I know that many of my readers have never seen the films, because I hope that, eventually, you’ll recognize that your life is sadly lacking and you’ll actually watch them.  (And you have a great opportunity coming up to watch the first movie!  Fathom Events is showing it in select theaters on June 4 and 7!)  In the past, I’ve told you what The Godfather has to do with Thor and with An American Tail, and today I’m going to tell you what it has to do with The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.

I started thinking about writing another Godfather post this past weekend, even before I found out about the June screenings.  It was on my mind because I found a $5 used, good condition record album of Nino Rota’s iconic score to the first film, but also because I was thinking about a screenplay I want to write for a buddy road-trip tragicomedy set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse.  One of the themes of this screenplay (which currently exists only in my head) is that human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of what they can contribute.  This concept is sorely lacking in zombie lore, in which characters are so often rated based on the apparent usefulness of their skills.  Because of this value system, we end up with characters like Eugene in The Walking Dead, who is so afraid of being rejected by the braver and more skillful people whose group he wants to join that he concocts an elaborate lie to establish his usefulness to the world.  If you can’t prove your worth, the logic says, you’re the first to be thrown off the proverbial ship.

I started thinking about The Godfather because the world portrayed in those films has a similar value system.  Despite all the lip service paid to family and loyalty, you’re not valuable simply because you’re human; you’re rated based on the kind of man you are.  (And I use the word man very deliberately.)  If you want to survive, you have to be in charge, and if you want to be in charge, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have.  You have to be cold, which is why the hot-headed Santino would not have made a good Godfather.  (We see this clearly and tragically in the first movie.)  You have to be hard, which is why nobody ever even considered asking the soft-headed and -hearted Fredo to be the Godfather.  (Even in that patriarchal culture, I suspect they would have given that title to Connie before they gave it to Fredo!)  If you don’t have these qualities, you’re expendable.

I was also thinking about Robert Duvall’s character, the one who was sort of unofficially adopted by Don Vito and who grew up to be the family’s lawyer.  (I always forget his name.)  There’s a lot of talk about him being just like one of Vito’s sons, but the truth remains that he’s on the family’s payroll and therefore in that awkward (and ultimately dangerous) employee zone.  His position is roughly analogous to that of Tom Branson in the later seasons of Downton Abbey, who’s both the embarrassing Irish Catholic son-in-law (whose wife isn’t even alive to give him a blood connection to the family) and the family’s estate agent, and therefore still uncomfortably close to being a servant, even if he eats upstairs now.  Although I want to think well of the Crawleys, I suspect that if Downtown Abbey were set in a vendetta culture like that of The Godfather and things started going south, Tom would be the first to get…well, tommy-gunned.  That was a bit of a rabbit trail, but my point is that valuing people based on who they’re related to is just as flawed as valuing people based on a narrow set of culturally valued skills.

My point in this entire post (besides to suggest the most epic multi-world fanfic ever) is that when we stop believing that people are valuable just because they’re people–not for what they can contribute–that’s when we start beating people to death with barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and having our hitmen shoot our brother in the back while he’s defenselessly fishing (and those are just the things that happened on Downton Abbey! j/k).  Every one of us will encounter situations in which we feel like there’s absolutely nothing we can contribute.  And in those moments, we need to be able to know we’re safe just because we’re people.

Have you thought about your Hogwarts house recently?

Maybe it’s time you revisited that topic.  If you’re even moderately involved in online or in-person Harry Potter fan discussions, today’s post isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but I hope my personal examples will make reading it worth your while.

You’ve probably heard it said that your Hogwarts house (whichever house you identify with most–whether selected by you or by Pottermore) is more indicative of what you value than of the person you currently are.  That statement now seems incredibly obvious to me in light of not only the books (e.g., Harry’s choice not to be placed in Slytherin) but also my own house and those of my friends and family, but I had never heard the idea articulated until recently.

Let me illustrate it with my own story.  If you’ve been reading this blog long enough–or if you go back through the archives to around 2012-13–you may know that I used to consider myself a Ravenclaw (and still have a Ravenclaw blog title and tagline, which probably won’t change) and had a bit of an identity crisis when Pottermore placed me in Hufflepuff.  But over the years since then, I have become a very proud Hufflepuff.  There’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here–did I realize that I was really a Hufflepuff all along, or did I accept the Pottermore pronouncement as fate and write myself a personal narrative to fit?  Or–a third option–did my house identity lead me to aspire and strive to become a person who belongs in Hufflepuff?  I think this last theory best explains what happened.  Before being sorted, I already valued loyalty, hard work, and kindness (a quality not specifically mentioned by the Sorting Hat but popularly associated with Hufflepuff) to some degree–otherwise I wouldn’t have answered the sorting questions the way I did–but being sorted into Hufflepuff pushed me to articulate these values more clearly than I ever had before and to begin consciously striving to emulate them.

Now, here’s the key–I don’t always exemplify these traits, but I strongly admire them when I see them in others, more than I admire traits associated with other houses.  I think that’s a big reason why I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than a lot of people did–because, as I argued in this post, it’s a movie about one actual Hufflepuff and (as I see them) his very Hufflepuff-like friends.  People don’t necessarily think of Hufflepuff when they think of me, but when someone does place me in the correct house (this happened a couple of weeks ago), I’m very happy, and I take this as a sign that I am becoming the kind of person I want to be.  We see this with Harry Potter.  He probably could have fit into any of the houses, but his choice placed him in Gryffindor.  And throughout the series (especially in Chamber of Secrets, but later too) we see him worrying about whether he’s really brave enough to be in Gryffindor or whether, instead, he’s simply foolhardy.  I think we see it with Neville too–he doesn’t immediately appear to be a brave person, but being brave is important to him (because of his parents, we later learn), and he eventually becomes brave.  We could think of it this way: If you’re constantly thinking, “I don’t deserve to be in this house,” you’re probably in the right house.

This theory explains why I know some very sweet people who strongly identify with Slytherin–maybe they’re tired of being pigeonholed as sweet people.  It probably explains a lot of other things that I haven’t thought about yet.  How about you?  Do you think you belong in the house where Pottermore placed you, and why or why not?  I know this topic gets discussed a lot, but I never get tired of it, because I think it can be a fascinating and useful tool for understanding who we are and who we aspire to become.

More Beauty and the Beast thoughts: Be my guest

Sorry, I just really wanted to use one of those cheesy thematic post titles that I told you last week I wasn’t going to use.  Before I move on to other topics (such as, possibly, another Fantastic Beasts post next week, since the Blu-Ray is coming out tomorrow!), I want to share a few more observations about Beauty and the Beast  (the live-action Disney adaptation released earlier this month, as if I needed to clarify that).

  1. Last week I wrote about literacy, which crops up a number of times in the film, and I later posted on Facebook that the literacy issue is also an issue of wealth and poverty.  Many of Belle’s fellow townspeople would probably argue that they are too busy working to have time to read or even learn to read, and there’s also an access issue: clearly the town has a shortage of books and of educators (and the limited resources that do exist are allocated almost exclusively to boys).  Meanwhile, the Beast in his castle can afford a magnificent library and, as a member of the leisured class, has plenty of time to read the books it contains.  Maybe I’ve just read A Tale of Two Cities too many times, but the castle storming scene in this film had definite French Revolution overtones for me, especially when I remembered the Prince’s pre-curse ball we witnessed at the beginning of the film– lavish and luxurious almost to the point of being laughable, and very Marie Antoinette-style.  I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a political point necessarily–after all, the Beast isn’t really the bad guy, and it’s hard to pin down the exact time period (as it should be in a fairy tale)–but the contrast is definitely there.  Two more things to consider on this topic: a. The Enchantress is portrayed as an impoverished outcast.  b. On the other hand, it does appear that the Prince’s castle was a source of steady work for some people in the village.  We learn at the end of the film that both Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth were married to townspeople.
  2. If you’ve read my review of the Walt Disney World restaurant Be Our Guest, you know it really bothers me that in the original animated film, Belle doesn’t get to eat during that iconic song.  I argued that this results from the misguided idea that a fairytale princess could never be seen to eat because eating is somehow a coarse, unfeminine, embarrassing activity.  So I was happy to see that in the new film, Belle at least appears to be hungry (she frantically reaches for several dishes as they dance by), but disappointed that, in the end, she still doesn’t get to eat anything–and that she walks away from the table seemingly okay with that.
  3. Before the film was released, someone told me she’d heard that Belle has to save the Beast in the wolf attack scene.  This is not true.  The scene plays out almost identically to the parallel scene in the animated movie.  The Beast is perfectly capable of saving himself (he is a beast, after all), but Belle does have to help him get back to the castle.  So rather than an in-your-face attempt to make Belle a proper 21st-century feminist, this scene is actually a lovely example of two people caring for each other in a budding relationship (well, a relationship that’s about to bud).  Because Belle was already such a strong character in the animated version, there was really no need to update her to make her extra tough, so I’m glad there was no attempt to do so.  The reason Disney’s Belle is still one of my fictional role models is that she’s both brave and kind (like Disney’s 2015 Cinderella), capable and feminine.

Please continue to send me your thoughts about the movie!

Beauty and the Beast

I wanted to come up with a clever title for this post, like “A Tale as Old as Time and as Fresh as 2017,” but that’s actually pretty cheesy, and since I’m surely the millionth blogger to enter this discussion over the past few days, there’s no point in trying to be original.

Well, I really enjoyed Beauty and the Beast.  For me, it struck exactly the right balance between appealing to the nostalgia of people who were seven-year-old vicarious princesses when the original animated Disney movie was released (e.g., me) and providing the psychological depth and historical detail that has come be expected of fairy tale adaptations in recent years.  I want to focus on the latter and tell you about an innovation that I appreciated in each of the two categories that I just mentioned.

  1. Psychological depth: In the animated film, Belle and the Beast–and even Gaston–were already surprisingly fleshed-out characters, but many of the minor characters were pretty flat (and I’m not talking about the 2D animation).  One of those characters who gets some new depth in the new adaptation is Maurice, Belle’s father.  The animated Maurice was exceedingly absent-minded and a rather clueless father, leading us to wonder where Belle got her good sense from.  (I also always wondered why he was half Belle’s height and perfectly spherical.)  When Gaston had him thrown into the asylum wagon, I felt bad for Maurice, but I kind of saw Gaston’s point.  In the live-action film, Maurice (played by Kevin Kline) is still a bit of a dreamer–perhaps even more so, since he’s now portrayed as an artist rather than an inventor (in a neat twist, Belle is the inventor!)–but his speech and mannerisms are abundantly rational, which underscores the cruelty of Gaston’s and the townspeople’s insistence that he is crazy.  Maurice gets added depth from the film’s revelations about Belle’s mother, who (this is not a spoiler; you find out very early in the movie) died of the plague in Paris when Belle was a baby.  I like how many of the recent Disney movies are either showing two-parent families or at least making it clear that it takes two people to make a baby.  (At the end of this one, we discover that there’s a Mr. Potts!)
  2. Historical detail: The fact that Maurice and Belle came from Paris is also significant because it explains why Belle is even literate, let alone the insatiable reader that we love her for being.  The first few scenes of the new film subtly but clearly demonstrate the low priority that has been placed on reading and writing, especially for girls, throughout much of history and even in many places today.  (I have a feeling that Emma Watson, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights, including the right to education, may have had some influence on this aspect of the movie.)  Notice, especially, the tiny collection of books Belle has to choose from in her town in this version.  Instead of the good-sized bookshop of the animated film, here we see a single shelf of volumes that appear to be owned by a clergyman, probably the only other educated person in town besides Belle and Maurice.  The literacy theme comes back in the Beast’s castle, when we learn that not only does the Beast have a really nice library (cue all the Hermione references you can think of) but that he also has apparently read most of the books in it.  I think this is the moment when Belle starts falling in love with the Beast–when she realizes they’re intellectual equals.

I don’t think I’ve quite done justice to the film yet, so I’ll probably return to this topic next week.  Meaenwhile, go see it, and let me know what you think!

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.