Sunday, July 30, 2006

"GODFATHER III: GOOD VERSION." I never saw Godfather III before this weekend, having been advised by everyone in the civilized world that it sucked. Lately, though, I'd felt an urge to finally get through the trilogy. Maybe it's because I've grown older and gained a little more patience -- or desire to be patient, anyway -- with long-distance artists. I just knocked back #2 in Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, and am steeling myself to read #3, not because The Manticore psyched me for it, but because I have developed a superstitious feeling about leaving such things unfinished.

G3 reaches back into the saga's first two parts, and the cinematography, sets, and costumes are a nearly seamless match. As before, they are not only impeccably of their time and place, but deeply imaginative and expressive of the psychology of both scene and character. In the big Corleone party at the beginning, there's a lot of brown and burgundy, velvet and flounces, in spacious but visually overheated rooms: a modern Medici feast. Sicily is a tropical backwater scorched to near-barrenness, the Vatican a labyrinth. And Michael is dressed impeccably but slightly loosely -- to accommodate his Richard III hump, and to suggest a man close to death.

Coppola makes some good use of the franchises' stored-up riches. When he shock-cuts from familiar Corleone environs to the neon sign of the China Bowl, or has Elvis Costello's "Miracle Man" blast from the windows of Michael's Sicilian villa, the thrilling sense of dislocation reminds us how deliriously inventive Coppola can be. (In fact, I'll go further: it reminds me of Scorsese.)

The acting, with one major exception, is perfect. Two of the veterans are sublime. The development of Talia Shire's Connie is organic and chilling: the cowering wife of G1 becomes a terrifying Electra. And Diane Keaton launches her acting renaissance with increasing layers of justification for her relationship with Michael. The new guys are great: Eli Wallach is Tuco resurrected as a Mafia Don, and Joe Mantegna puts spit in John Gotti's polish.

Sofia Coppola's performance is a common object of ridicule, but I find her suprisingly effective. She is, by Hollywood standards -- well, I guess the best word in English is ungainly -- her teeth and lips are badly out of sync, her nose is prominent, and her collegiate drawl has all the simplicity of youth without its charm. (I think she's cute, but I'm a big perv.) But she is believably a great man's daughter (no shock) and her lack of acting skill translates on-screen as a lack of guile -- which makes her attractiveness to Vinny (a brilliant update of young Jimmy Caan by Andy Garcia) more poignant than a more conventional starlet might have suggested. Vinny is Sonny Corleone's bastard son, and he identifies deeply with the Corleone family; his desire for Coppola's Mary is almost sickly familial: his romantic pet name for her is "Cuz." Coppola is clearly in love with him, and Garcia, with seeming romantic innocence, gobbles up her wan screen presence, which suits his character, his circumstance, and Michael's objections.

As in the sublime Godfather II, Coppola wants us to understand what Michael Corleone understands: that the further the Corleones rise, the more crooked things get. He also wants us to understand something Michael never understands: that the desire to rise must destroy. G1, Michael's story, and G2, Coppola's, are the bookends of a tragic vision -- arguably the closest thing to an American tragedy since O'Neill.

What then is G3 for? What is its connection to the first two films; how does it magnify their power or settle their debts?

I can see why Coppola would want to tackle the Vatican Bank/JP1 scandal. In the go-go era in which the film was made, it may have seemed natural for the Corleones to globalize. And, giving Coppola extra credit, that circumstance also gives an opportunity to resuscitate an important character trait of Michael's: his belief that he and his family are different -- that when he wins, it is something more than a tribal victory.

If Michael were merely a competent successor to his father, the Godfather saga would just be another story of a Local Hood who Makes Good -- a version of all our other great gangster stories, only without retribution. But in his youth Michael went to great lengths to evade his family's business, and when family ties finally proved too strong for him, he yet held onto the one part of his father's dream that served his deeper self -- "I never meant this for you... Senator Corleone... maybe even... "

The Kennedy parallel has always been screamingly obvious in the Godfather saga, and one of its great insights has been that a man might dare anything in pursuit of power without relinquishing one conviction: that he and his are yet something better than the most successful brutes in the jungle. Michael's comments on the harsh realities of power -- "Who's being naive, Kay?" -- were never signs of acceptance so much as of contempt. Michael swallowed the corruption of the world without ever believing that it applied to him.

But the Michael of G3 is not capable of showing us this, and it's not just the writing that makes it so. I love Al Pacino, but I think he got boxed in here. At the end of G2 Michael was nearly a living sepulchre: so hardened around his idea of power that he'd lost most of his capacity to express feelings. That was a brilliant performance, referring back to the opacity of Brando's Don, but it left Pacino with no emotional wiggle room for any future Michael Corleone performance -- and in G3 Coppola not only drags him into the future, but visits upon him several emotional extremities designed to expose that weakness. You can almost see Pacino struggling with his strait-jacket; only in a Lear-like explosion after the Atlantic City massacre can he release the deep frustrations of his character, and Coppola perversely films the scene in medium shot with a thunderstorm drowning out much of his ravings. Even when he re-courts Kay in Sicily, Pacino looks like Boris Karloff as The Mummy.

With Michael thus diminished, the international and Sicilian intrigues are allowed to overwhelm him and the story. The widening gyre of corruption expands only itself: the Corleones remain in a small, incestuous knot at the center. All that separates their final agon from any other drive-by resulting from petty blood-feuds is our familiarity with the characters, and despite their copious histrionics, and our sentimental attachments, it's not enough.

"I wanted the film to end as a tragedy... sort of like Hamlet or something," Coppola says in the DVD commentary. He adds, referring to Welles' Magnificent Ambersons, "Michael Corleone got his comeuppance." Coming from a mature artist, that sounds rather feeble. Better to understand that Michael hit the wall in 1962, and that the curtain drawn on him then should stay closed.

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