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.

movie marathon: the Statue of Liberty and immigration

Remember when I suggested (implicitly) that you should watch The Godfather Part III alongside Thor: The Dark World because of all the juicy family drama?  Well, now I’m suggesting that you watch The Godfather Part II alongside An American Tail (yes, 80’s kids, that’s the first Fievel movie).  Despite the radically different audiences to which these two films were marketed, the similarity is actually pretty obvious: both follow the adventures of a European boy (or young male mouse) who arrives in New York Harbor during America’s golden age of immigration.  If you watch them together, you’ll see all kinds of connections.  Here’s a disclaimer: I’m writing this post as a movie fan, not a historian.  I’m getting some relevant details from Wikipedia and drawing my own conclusions.  If you want a thorough and thoughtful history of American immigration, don’t read this.  If you want an idea for a movie marathon that will involve your mind and your heart, keep reading.

1. An American Tail (1986).  The Mousekewitz family leaves Russia, fleeing violence,* and sails to America in the crowded third-class hold of a ship.  Their young son, Fievel, falls overboard and washes up in New York Harbor, alone and afraid.  During his brief stint as a street urchin, Fievel runs afoul of a nasty underground (literally) crime boss, attends a political rally, and has some cross-cultural immigrant experiences when he visits an Irish wake and makes friends with an Italian teen.  After participating in a successful plot to break the crime boss’s hold on the community, he is reunited with his family.

Oh, also–the Mousekewitzes are mice fleeing cat violence, Fievel is fished out of the harbor by pigeons, the crime boss is a cat, and Fievel also makes friends with a harmless (vegetarian, tender-hearted, and silly) cat during his underground adventures.  That Italian “teen” is a mouse, and so is pretty much everyone else in the movie.

But none of this detracts from the seriousness of the story.  An American Tail is still an excellent film about family, fear, injustice, resilience, and American diversity.  The animation is timeless, the story is taut and exciting, and the music, scored by James Horner (whom we miss), is emotionally pitch-perfect.  Some of the songs have become classics.  Even if you’ve never seen this movie, you’d probably recognize the sad split-screen scene in which Fievel and his sister both sing “Somewhere Out There” against the background of an enormous full moon.  And “There Are No Cats in America,” the rousing number sung in the hold of the ship, is basically the rodent version of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Land”–both are deliriously hopeful songs of immigrant dreams that America could never fulfill.

Much of this movie’s action takes place against the heavily symbolic backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, whose construction is completed during the course of the story.  In An American Tail, the Statue represents hope.  It’s there, to a nest in Liberty’s torch, that Fievel is first taken by the pigeons, and it’s there that the head pigeon (who is French, to represent the Statue’s designers) tells him, in song, to “never say never.”  The Statue is one of the last images we see in the film as well.  The overall tone of An American Tail is celebratory of the opportunities that American affords, yet it isn’t blindly so.  The irony of “There Are No Cats in America” sounds a cautionary note: no country can fulfill the wildest dreams of the desperate.

Fievel and Henri the pigeon fly past the Statue of Liberty www.tradingcarddb.com

Fievel and Henri the pigeon fly past the Statue of Liberty
http://www.tradingcarddb.com

2. The Godfather Part II (1974).  By the time the silent 9-year-old Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island (alone, like Fievel) in 1901, escaping a vendetta in his hometown of Corleone, Sicily, the Statue of Liberty has been finished for 15 years.  An immigration official misreads Vito’s identification tag and writes down his name as “Vito Corleone,” and the rest is history–movie history, anyway.

I’m not going to summarize The Godfather Part II for you.  It’s 200 minutes long.  (An American Tail is only 80.)  It has two major plot lines, and both of them sprawl over giant swaths of time and space.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll say that among all the film’s many themes (such as family, fear, injustice–actually, they’re really similar to An American Tail‘s themes), immigration–specifically, what we mean when we say that America is a melting pot–is a big one.  And that’s not only true in the young Vito, 1920’s-NYC plot line, but also in the plot line that takes place in 1958, after both the Corleone family and America have gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated.

I’ll give you one example: listen to the vitriolic ugliness of Senator Geary’s bigoted comments in the privacy of Michael Corleone’s study at the beginning of the movie, and then listen to the senator’s awkwardly well-rehearsed speech about his “Italian-American friends” in the hearing scene near the end.  Official tolerance masks private hatred in the hypocrisy (as Michael rightly calls it) of relations between politics and crime.

The Statue of Liberty isn’t a major symbol in The Godfather Part II, but young Vito and his fellow passengers take a slow, lingering look at it while they are still aboard the ship.  (Three-hour movies can afford a lot of slow, lingering looks.)  Some of the fellow passengers seem enraptured by the promise of America, but the young boy’s face is inscrutable.  There’s another shot a few minutes later in which Vito’s face is juxtaposed with a reflection of the Statue.  Again, he doesn’t appear to have any grand hopes.  For him, arriving in America simply means that he isn’t dead yet.

young Vito and Lady Liberty

young Vito and Lady Liberty

So, here’s the plan: block off five hours of your life, get your hands on these two films, and prepare to laugh, cry, and think.  After that, you might want to watch Fievel Goes West (a challenging exploration of the meaning of Manifest Destiny…well, sort of) and The Godfather (which opens with the line, “I believe in America”).  Stay tuned for more movie marathon recommendations!

*The violent event at the beginning of the film appears to be a cross between an attack by Cossack marauders and an anti-Jewish pogrom.  There are overtones of both.

Family drama

During the past 24 hours I have watched two movies that were good, but not great.  Both suffered–though not to a great extent–from cheesy dialogue and improbable plot lines.  Yet I was thoroughly engrossed in both, and now I can’t stop thinking about them.  The movies were The Godfather: Part 3 (generally agreed to be the least good–it would be false to say the “worst”–of the three) and Thor: The Dark World.  The reason I’ve invested so much thought and feeling into these movies has little or nothing to do with dark elves, astrophysicists, or bloodbaths in New York or Sicily.  It has to do with family drama.

Maybe it’s because my own immediate family has experienced mercifully smooth sailing over the years (I mean, we scream at each other sometimes, but that’s not enough to make a movie premise), but whatever the reason, I love stories about families trying to navigate the treacherous waters of heartbreak, betrayal, and that kind of stuff.  I’m especially a sucker for brother stories (see my poem on that topic; my latest Weasley fanfic also picks up on this theme), but any combination of sibling, parent-child, or husband-wife relationship will do it for me.

The Godfather trilogy is, of course, all about a F/family.  Though I consider all three movies to be well worth the significant time commitment, Part 2 is the one that absolutely blows my mind.  A lot happens in the three hours and 20 minutes we’re with the Corleones, but it all really comes down to sibling relationships, as the four children of Don Vito try to figure out what to do with his staggering legacy of blood and money.  We have a brother who blunders into an offense, a brother who can’t forgive that offense, a sister who is blindly loyal to her family, and a dead oldest brother whose presence is still there.  We have a fratricide–committed by proxy but no less real.  For me, the best scene in that movie is a flashback where all four siblings, young adults, are sitting around a table, celebrating a birthday (I think it’s their father’s).  We see Sonny, Fredo, Connie, and Michael having a very normal interaction that is bittersweet and fascinating only because we know who they will all turn out to be.  It is a brilliant scene.

In Part 3, though Michael’s problems with his own children and estranged wife take precedence, I was happy to see that the sibling relationships still get their due emphasis, even if only two of the siblings are still alive.  Connie is still there telling Michael the lies he wants to hear; Sonny is there in the person of his equally hotheaded son, and Fredo haunts Michael like Banquo’s ghost.*  I could have dispensed with all the Vatican stuff and even the rival mafiosi.  I could have just watched Michael sitting in a room surrounding by his closest family members with his conscience eating him alive.

Similarly, in Thor: The Dark World, I wouldn’t have cared if nobody ever visited Earth or any other realm (although I did feel like I was really cool when my limited knowledge of German helped me figure out quickly what “Svartalfheim” meant).  I would have been content to just watch the family drama play out in Asgard.  There’s certainly plenty of it.  Thor deliberately and calculatingly defies Odin’s orders, unlike in the last movie when he only did so on an angry whim.  And Frigga defies Odin’s orders too!  (Are you friggin’ kidding me?  Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)  And what is up with Loki?  Does he really love his mom, or is that part of his elaborate B.S.?  And then there’s the brother rivalry.  There are about five bizarre but wonderful minutes in which this movie becomes a fantastical version of a road trip comedy.  There is actually a conversation in which Loki criticizes Thor’s driving (flying) and Thor tells him to shut up.  This is spot-on sibling stuff.  I think my sister and I had the exact same conversation last time we were in a car together.

I’ve never read the Elder Edda, but from my limited understanding of Norse mythology, I don’t think the familial relationships were emphasized much at all in the original legends.  (Odin, to paraphrase a line from The Dark World, was far more All-Father than any specific person’s father.  And Loki was never actually adopted by the Odin family; he was merely a barely-tolerated mischief-causing member of Odin’s entourage.)  It may be blasphemous to say so, but I think Marvel Comics improved on the original by playing up and/or creating the deep connections between the characters.  It certainly made The Avengers much more interesting: Did you notice how Thor never really becomes just one of the guys?  The others keep their distance from him.  Surely this is not only because he’s semi-divine (like Superman, but without the human guise) but also, and probably more so, because he’s the villain’s brother.

I should stop.  Suffice it to say that I’m in serious geek-out mode right now about both of these fictional families, and I can’t wait to hash it all out with the next person I run into who’s seen either or both of the movies.  If you want to be that person, get the conversation started in the comments!

*Look, I know this is a spoiler, but I don’t think anybody has a right to complain about spoilers when the movie has been out for decades.