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Out of the darkness of the opening frames comes a supplicant— Buonasera the undertaker. He pleads for the justice that the American legal system denied him. As the camera draws back, we see the outline of a face, a hand… Don Corleone holds court at the confluence of loyalty and duress, generosity and calculation, power and fragility. It is not money, but friendship that he asks of Buonasera. Within and without the world of the film, can one consider Don Corleone a great man? Or does his moral code, like his favor, always hide a transaction? Wes & Erin give their analysis of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film, “The Godfather.”
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Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Erin: Wes, where do you fall on the Part I versus Part II supremacy debate. I’m curious.
Wes: [laughter] I was worried you’re gonna ask me about Part II.
Wes: I should watch Part II as well. Which I didn’t. I mean, I’ve seen it, of course, several times, but God knows when the last time I saw it was, and I know that there are many people who say that the second one is the best one. But I haven’t seen it recently enough to evaluate. What do you think?
Erin: I used to be a Part II person. I think I’m now a Part I person, as I get older, weirdly. I think that Part II has that great prequel, with Vito’s rise and those great scenes of him coming as a kid through Ellis Island, which I love. And I love the scene at the San Gennaro Festival in the streets of Little Italy, when he’s on the rooftop looking down. It’s so good. But I think the stuff with Michael, in Cuba, it just gets so depressing. But I realized that one of the reasons why I like the first film better, which I don’t know what this says about me, is there are more deaths in the first film, and the deaths are way more interesting and creative. So even though my favorite death occurs in the second film, when Vito’s mom dies in the garden of that evil Sicilian…
Erin: …and those two guys come with shotguns and they just like, blow the mother… she’s knocked back, you know, she’s blown away by the blast. I love that. There’s something really poetic about that. But the first one has so many iconic deaths, death and murder scenes, and I just I guess there’s only one iconic death in it. Everything else is just murder.
Wes: In the second one?
Erin: In the first.
Wes: Oh, you mean… one non-murder.
Erin: One non-murder death, one natural… natural death. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Natural. There you go. [laughter]
Erin: That’s the word.
Wes: Struggling to… Yeah. [laughter]
Erin: It’s very natural. It has tomatoes and…
Wes: When the norm becomes murder and you can’t even think of what the other kind of death is…
Erin: Exactly! I mean, I wonder what that says about me or about culture, that I’m like, “Oh, this one is better because it has so many great deaths in it.” But I think that’s a big part of the appeal of these films. Or this one anyway.
Wes: I didn’t do a lot of secondary reading for this, although you turned me on to The Godfather Notebook, which is absolutely amazing and shows how much thought Coppola put into all of this. And, you know, I poked around for some contemporaneous reviews, and there’s one really cool one by Pauline Kael.
Erin: Oh, yeah. It’s great.
Wes: And but there’s one in The New York Times by William V. Shannon, and this was, you know, this was a time when you could still be morally outraged by sex and violence in the films and still be able to be published in New York Times. [laughter]
Wes: Let’s see. This is the way he describes the violence. “With startling close ups, vivid death agony sequences and Technicolor blood spurting everywhere, these new style movie murders do manage to hold audience attention. By the end of the movie, however, when the new Godfather presides over the murders of the heads of the New York underworld’s five families, as well as two or three miscellaneous enemies (I lost count) these deaths are becoming mechanical and meaningless. In one of its aspects, The Godfather is part of the growing pornography of violence, having done about all they can do to make sexual intercourse explicit and boring on the wide screen. [laughter] The movie makers are now in the process of acquainting everyone with many varieties of violence: murder by sub-machine gun is still a hearty favorite. The Godfather teaches some new lessons and murders, such as how to garrot your brother-in- law.” [laughter] Spoiler alert, by the way, spoiler… [laughter] The brother-in-law gets garroted. “These are in addition to examples of persons being murdered while starting a car, having a massage, paying a causeway tall, going through a revolving door, and eating spaghetti.” [laughter]
Wes: I love that.
Erin: If I remember correctly, Kael, in her review, doesn’t like the toll booth sequence. She thinks it’s too much.
Wes: Yeah, she likes the violence, if I remember it, but she just thinks that one is, she calls it…
Erin: She’s a slut for violence.
Wes: She says, the effect is too garish. Perhaps the director goes off key when Sonny is blasted and blood-spattered at a toll booth. The effect is too garish.
Erin: I remember Tracy Morgan in an interview, saying…
Wes: I asked the critic, Tracy Morgan. [laughter]
Erin: Yes, the great critic, Tracy Morgan, had one of the most insightful comments I have ever heard on The Godfather films when he said: “Sonny would still be alive today if he had Easy Pass.” [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] That’s awesome. Yes, that’s why you never take the cash lane. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Maybe Kael would have liked better if it was in the middle of the night, and you could just sort of see the vague suggestion of the mist behind him. A lot of mistiness actually in there.
Wes: What’s funny is that scene, I think, it cost $100,000 to produce and several days there’s some good pictures in The Godfather Notebook of them setting up that scene. I love just seeing Coppola wandering around [laughter] in his creation, looking very frumpy and unromantic. I remember reading that the studios asked him to insert more violence into the film at some point.
Erin: Yeah, and and they were upset with the lack of sex. Or maybe I’m just thinking about the incredible amount of sex that’s in the book, that I’ve only read sections of it. It is truly disgusting. [laughter]
Wes: I haven’t read it, but I… yeah, I read pieces, you know. But I… yeah, I heard [laughter] that it’s a sex fest. Of course, the movie would have been ruined by that.
Wes: I think directors and writers have learned their lesson. People just don’t try to pull that off today, for the most part, as far as I can tell, explicit sex scenes. They just understand it doesn’t really work.
Wes: And there are reasons for that. There are reasons why violence works in movies and sex works only in pornography. That’s a discussion for another time.
Erin: I think I agree with that. You know the amazing thing about this film, which is so troubling, I guess… You know, people are sort of troubled by movies as a genre because they think, how could something like Gone with the Wind be made with so many cooks in the kitchen, it sort of defies the laws of art.
Erin: And I think, in the same way, these two movies, Part I and Part II, that we’re only covering Part I today, they also sort of defy the laws of art in that Coppola took this potboiler, kind of trashy novel, which Puzo himself said was beneath him, you know, it wasn’t…
Wes: He just did it for the money.
Erin: Yeah. Yeah. And made it into, you know, maybe the greatest movie of all time. And how uncomfortable that tends to make me that he was able to distill from it, I guess, this incredible film. Though actually reading some of the pages in The Godfather Notebook that is copied and pasted, I mean, some of it is very silly, and a lot of it gets bogged down in the side plots and these, you know, oversexualized moments, but a lot of it is incredibly vivid. And, you know, a lot of the scenes are preserved pretty exactly from the book.
Wes: Yeah, I noticed that. I was really surprised by that. The dialogue and… yeah. Maybe I should just read the very beginning of the book. “Connie Corleone was not quite a pretty girl, thin and nervous and certain to become shrewish later in life. But today, transformed by her white bridal gown and eager virginity, she was so radiant as to be almost beautiful. Beneath the wooden table, her hand rested on the muscular thigh of her groom. Her Cupid-bow mouth pouted to give him an airy kiss.” (Fast forwarding a little bit), “Clemenza immensely tall, immensely huge, danced with such skill and abandon, his hard belly lecherously bumping the breasts of younger, tinier women, that all the guests were applauding him.” And then Coppola writes in the margin, next to that: “Keep”, which he does, of course. So anyway, that gives you… It’s pulp fiction. It reads like a romance novel. But, you know, it’s clear why Coppola can do so much with it, because it sets up a wonderful reflection on the immigrant experience. And it seems to think about Mafia violence, and the same Mafia, even though the word never occurs in the movie, right?
Wes: Or the phrase Costa Nostra, and it was actually cut out. [laughter] I think that there was, like, one instance of each in the movie originally and that was cut out, at the request of…
Erin: Mob pressure, right?
Wes: Was it that? I think there’s an Italian-American organization that requested it be taken out.
Erin: But this was not a legitimate Italian-American organization.
Erin: This was a cover. A cover. It was a Mafia based organization…
Wes: [laughter] Okay.
Erin: …that was calling itself the Civil Rights something or other. Yeah, you know.
Wes: That is hilarious. Yeah. So it thinks about Mafia violence in terms of a reaction against the (quote- unquote) “violence” involved in assimilation. So you get this, you know, wonderful beginning to the film “I believe in America”, which has taken, you know, a lot of this dialogue and the first thing is taken straight out of the novel. And then the description by Bonasera of his predicament, his desire for a kind of justice that he can’t get from America. You know, he believed in America, he behaved like a good American. His daughter was raped…
Erin: Attempted rape.
Wes: Or attempted. Okay. She was assaulted because she wouldn’t give up her more traditional ways, right? She was raised like an American, in the American fashion, as he puts it. But she kept something of her roots. She didn’t give in to the more libertine aspects of American society and then she was punished for it. She was punished for, in a sense, for not fully assimilating. And you can read that as Americanness, including liberal values, (and I’ll say why, in a second) Americanness being forced on her violently. Americanness in the sense of this system of justice that has failed in the movement away from a more tribal existence, honour codes and vendettas, and away from tradition, away from more robust cultural identity, something that’s been watered down all those forms of… I would call them discursive violence, let’s say, but violence in quotes. The idea that the movie begins with is that the violence of organized crime in a way is justified, not justified from the standpoint of the filmmaker, but has felt as a justified form of resistance to that. The part of what is at work here is an attempt to preserve tradition, and that’s a fascinating idea that actually does bear exploration. And the movie does it very well.
Erin: To take a step back for a second, I think I’ve, you know, hinted on previous episodes. The listeners might be surprised, given my name, that I actually come from a very Italian family, and there’s a lot of ambivalence in the Italian-American community about this film. Not so much the film itself, maybe as the legacy of the film and what followed. I mean, of course, there were mob movies of the past and movies with negative Italian American stereotypes that went back to, you know the silent era. But I think this contributed to an explosion of these movies about Italians and organized crime that maybe has only started to peter out relatively recently. You know, seeing as every… pretty much every ethnic group you know, that came through Ellis Island between, you know, a certain set of years was involved in some measure of organized crime. Italians had, I think, relatively speaking, I think they had lower crime rates than most other ethnic groups. Which makes me wonder, you know, and I think it makes a lot of people wonder, like, why this obsession with this particular form of the Mafia, the Italian Mafia?
Erin: I think that maybe the general consensus of the critics that I’ve read is just that the non Italian public is really fascinated by the idea of this culture because it’s… in so many ways, it’s really antithetical to the (quote-unquote), you know, “traditional American”, you know, basically white protestant culture. So it became sort of fetishized and exoticized, and you know, you have the foreignness of the way that many of these people, though not all of them, look compared to, you know, whiter cultures, the language barrier, the strong family ties, the big loud events, you know, the smells and bells, if you will. And then you can marry that to the subject matter of Mafia culture, which can dramatize, maybe, like nothing else, these Italian cultural values of family and loyalty and faith, and put all of that into place, so it’s like a perfect recipe for entertainment. And I think that the ambivalence of the Italian-American community about these films is that that is taken then as Italian culture, when, really, I think that what Coppola is trying to show, or rather, what he does successfully show, but which has become so glamorized, is actually that Mafia culture is a perversion of traditional Italian-American culture and that the moral values associated with that culture are kind of turned inside out.
Erin: So, for instance, I was sort of examining the opening scene and Bonasera’s coming to Don Corleone and asking for a favor as sort of a ceremony of loyalty and generosity. There’s something going on here, which is very ritualized, of course, on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, he is granting a favor to anyone who asks him as part of the Sicilian tradition. And loyalty and generosity are perhaps the two sort of central virtues of Italian American culture. You know, if there was a crest for all Italian-Americans, it would probably just say loyalty and generosity. You know, one is loyal and generous to one’s friends out of love and, of course, particularly loyal and generous to one’s family and then in Mafia culture, you know, we have this terminology of the family as muddled, so it can also refer to the crime syndicate since as first indication a we have this sort of like shadow Italian American culture. But anyway, you have to procure the Don’s favor by being loyal to him, by being a friend. And this is what Bonasera fails to do by insulting the Godfather when he comes in. Because he at first treats this ceremony as a transaction.
Erin: And he’s also failed the test of loyalty in the past, we’ve learned, right, like he has an extended friendship to Don Corleone, even though his daughter, I believe, is the… Don Corleone’s wife is her godmother, right. There’s like a familial connection there.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah.
Erin: So he has to be loyal in order to prove the… sort of his worth to receive his favor and then receives the Don’s favor as this, like, outpouring of generosity. You know, it’s like Grace, like he’s a God who’s been pleased by this event of the sacrament of his daughter’s wedding and he’s handing out these favors like graces. And yet, I think when I looked at it a little bit closer, I realized, okay, well, these are all bastardizations of loyalty and generosity because, of course, we see with Bonasera that the loyalty that you need to approach Don Corleone can just be a performance. The Don pretty much tells him, like what to say in order to get him to grant him this favor. And Bonasera then does it, performs for him. And I suppose, maybe in a harsher movie or in a movie with a less interesting Don, you might expect shortly on to turn around and say, “okay, now that I’ve taught you manners, you know, get out of my sight” [laughter]
Erin: You know, like “I’m not going to grant this to you” or even murder him though, I guess that wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of the day. Instead, he does grant him the favor, even though the loyalty is just performative and then it seems like a true outpouring of generosity on the Don’s part. But it’s, of course, a false generosity because it’s tainted, you know, it demands reciprocity. You may be called upon at any moment to return that favor, and then when you’re called upon to return the favor, you’re supposed to perform loyalty by actually carrying it out. You’re executed if you’re disloyal. And of course, you know that’s not loyalty, either. It’s just performed under duress. So all of these things are sort of veiled in the trappings of this culture and they’re seen in the world of the film as being good things. I think, partially because of what Roger Ebert really brilliantly points out in his, I think, 20 year retrospective review of The Godfather, which is just that this is a closed world. We never see the victims of this crime syndicate, so it looks like Don Corleone is actually, you know, a great guy who’s wonderful. [laughter] Really, you know, he’s a murderer. You know, I think people so have bought into the glamour of this film and so idealized it that these elements look like true loyalty, true generosity, true Italian-American culture, when in fact we know that that’s not true.
Wes: So I think we can say a little bit about what is perverting here, how this is a distortion of Italian- American cultural values, or however you want to put it, more traditional values, by getting at this relationship between justice and friendship, which will turn out to be related, by the way, to another dichotomy that arises in the film between what’s business and what’s personal.
Wes: But in this scene, what Corleone is trying to reinforce is the idea that friendship is prior, in a way, to justice, that justice must be subsumed under the concept of friendship. So what he criticizes Bonasera for is relying on the American justice system, you know, “Why didn’t you come to me before you went to the police? You know, the police protected you and there were courts of law and you didn’t need a friend of me. Now you come to me and say, ‘Don Corleone, give me justice,’ but you don’t ask with respect, you don’t offer friendship.” This, of course, is an old idea. It comes up, for instance, in Plato’s Republic. There’s a character called Paula Marcus, who, you know, when Plato is trying to figure out what justice is, how to define it, or Socrates, Paula Marcus proposes that it is hurting one’s enemies and helping one’s friends. And Socrates ends up rejecting that and getting that relationship reversed again, saying that actually, justice must be prior to the concept of friendship because you can’t really know who your true friends are unless you know about justice first, like your true friends can only be people who are actually just. And then you can’t be a friend unless you are behaving justly. And you can’t be someone who behaves justly unless you do that with both your friends and your enemies.[laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Catch 22.
Wes: So it scrambles that whole concept, which I think is a more… I would call this a set of tribal values. So I associate tribal values with honor codes and vendetta, you know, the rule of vengeance and the idea, you know, what you see in a society like in America with liberal values, there’s an institutionalization of justice that makes it highly impersonal, and it makes it have nothing to do with friendship. So justice, you know, in our system has nothing to do with the victims. For instance, even though that idea has kind of become more popular recently, because tribal values are sort of making a comeback in certain ways, has nothing to do with the victims. So, for instance, it’s not… you don’t punish people to satisfy the victims. You punish people to preserve a certain civil order. You give the perpetrators due process, right, which means that you could end up with the attempted rapists getting only a three year suspended sentence, which is what Bonasera is complaining about. So this new way is there’s a lot of ways in which it’s flawed and unsatisfying, and also, one could argue, it’s hypocritical, as, you know, Mike does at one point in the film. It’s hypocritical because the whole… the civil order is founded on violence, so this is kind of the paradox. You can call this foundational violence in order to leave the state of nature and establish a society, a civil society. You might think of that right, as some philosophers have. Contractually, you just get together and say that life sucks in the state of nature. Let’s get together and be nice to each other and settle our differences not by violence but with laws and contracts and courts and things like that. But in reality, right, lots of violence -and all you have to do is look at history- lots of violence goes into the establishment of states, into the establishment of that order. What the state essentially does is it monopolizes the violence. It takes the right to violence away from citizens, away from individuals, within that civil order and gives it to the institutions of government. You can extend that critique and say, look, in a way, the violence is still there, inherent in the system, [laughter] to quote a Monty Python character, but also to take another very popular idea these days, which is that it’s… the violence is systemic, and it’s not obvious. It’s not as obvious as a Mafia murder. It’s not as obvious as criminal activity, but it’s the same sort of thing. It’s just kind of spread out and institutionalized so you can see the system itself as injustice, injust, unjust, and leading to unjust outcomes. So, for instance, it leaves the immigrant, or any person at the lower end of power relations, it leaves them where they are, right. They can’t necessarily compete. So, for instance, business, kind of, is a good example of this because it’s a hybrid of state of nature stuff and civil society, right? It’s very competitive. It’s dog-eat-dog. It’s a zero-sum game, but it operates not according to violence, but according to legalities and contracts and things like that. But that just means that the rules have changed, right? You’re still competing. It’s still a competition for survival. And you see that in inequalities in societies, right? Some people end up at the very bottom with very little, and some people have lots and lots of money. So you can come to a society like the United States, and you see this paradox between the liberal values and those ideals. And then you see the dog-eat-dog kind of business existence, and you might get the idea that it’s all hypocrisy and that, in a way, there’s something more honest about conducting one’s business by way of explicit violence, instead of the violence that is kind of hidden [laughter] within its institutionalization, within a civil society. So the competition is transferred from the plane of, you know, explicit, violent, physical struggle. It’s the plane of the meritocracy where we have to, instead of arming ourselves and learning how to fight physically, we arm ourselves educationally. You know, just think about the enormous investment in education that it takes to get someone to the point where they can compete well enough in society to be middle class. So you really have to do a lot of work to get someone to that point, and that’s still competitive. There are still winners and losers. And who’s to say that people ought to be on the losing side because they’re less intelligent or less educated? Why isn’t that just as unfair as being on the losing side? Because you’re weaker, you’re physically weaker, you’re not as capable of violence. So the insight here is that there’s something inherently violent in meritocracy, inherently unfair because no one deserves to be on the losing end just because they are on the losing end of social power-relations in society or, you know, educational disparities, things like that, any more than they deserve to be on the losing end of things because they have lost a battle of physical force as an immigrant. And there are lots of fears at work, right? The fear is that your identity is going to be transformed. You are no longer going to be Italian because that’s what happens. You’re subject to cultural influence and that cultural influence works on you. But then the other idea is that you’re going to be worked over by a set of values in particular these, you know, the liberal values that inevitably takes you away from tradition but also, you know, tradition in general, not just Italianness but a more traditional way of life, or a thicker, more robust kind of cultural identity that it will water down, and also that it’s hypocritical that there’s something dishonest about it, so that to become civilised, so to speak, right to put this in a very pejorative way, if you see the new country as a civilizing force, if you look down on the immigrant from that perspective and see them as lesser than… From the immigrants perspective, it could be that the so called civilising forces are actually regressive and destructive of a more real moral… you know, the kind of moral fabric that you get with a small community, this kind of stuff that you see in the celebrations in the movie and the stuff that goes on in Sicily a little bit, right? The more local communal stuff can be compromised.
Erin: Yeah, I suppose… I don’t want to go too much into this, but I suppose you’re also getting at the ambivalence of a lot of Italians towards this film because I think in a lot of ways this struggle against American values was not one that the vast majority of immigrants took. You know, that was not the route that they went, you know, the vast majority subjugated themselves…
Erin: …to American values and often at, you know, tremendous personal cost. And there’s a lot of arguments about what it takes to become white or to earn the cover of whiteness in this country. Whether or not it’s something that can be earned. And of course you know to a certain extent, it is not. Italians were not always considered white people and had to work very hard to prove themselves, often in… by humiliating themselves and subjugating themselves to a culture which they… which was in many ways, beneath their own, [laughter] but…
Wes: Well, beneath in the sense, right, of, you know, what is the culture in America? It’s that melting pot problem, right? It’s generic, It’s…
Wes: …there’s not a culture in the deeper sense to it.
Wes: There’s many cultures, it’s pluralistic, and that’s great. You know, there’s opportunities, supposedly, for different cultures to thrive. But overall there’s a tug towards the generic, and one might fear that that, you know, obliterates any specific culture.
Erin: Yeah, Even in the book, I think one of the pages that I saw from The Godfather Notebook, Connie is placating her father by having this large Italian… traditional Italian wedding. She didn’t want it. And in my own family, you know, my grandmother, for instance, did not want to have many of the trappings traditionally associated with Italian-American marriage ceremonies because they were afraid of being seen as too Italian and they had to basically make everything blander in order to show that they were good Americans and that they weren’t… uh I don’t want to use this term. There’s a hierarchy in Italian- American culture where you don’t want to look like a carbon, which is, you know, a low class Italian who doesn’t understand what is demanded of you. And it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily involved in any kind of crime or anything. Just someone who doesn’t understand, maybe, what it takes to (quote-unquote) “pass” in America, someone who’s less educated, who doesn’t have the intellectual aspirations of, you know, many classes of Italian immigrants. So I know a lot of people who felt that they had to perform a more American way of life when it came to these large rites of passage and ceremonies, in order to not disgrace the family and to show that they had assimilated, in the same way that Italians were instructed not to speak Italian at home even though they heard it all the time so that they would learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. So there’s a certain split consciousness in the generation of Italian immigrants who came home and heard Italian or, more specifically, usually a regional dialect, like Neapolitan, spoken at home and were encouraged not to respond in Neapolitan, even though they obviously, because they grew up hearing it, they could understand it and, you know, could speak it in their heads. And so they had this sort of one consciousness at home and one consciousness at school, and where they were, you know, like embarrassed about bringing an eggplant parm sandwich for lunch and just wanted Wonder Bread and just wanted to fit in, you know, So that particular generation, I think, is Michael’s generation. And that, obviously, of course, is the part of the drama that’s being enacted inside him with his attraction to Kay versus his attraction to, I suppose, Apollonia, who, you know, represents that part of himself.
Erin: But I’m interested in what you say, too, about the submersion of violence in, you know, American culture, where it’s more explicit in Mafia culture. I think it’s sort of halfway submerged in Mafia culture, right. That’s why we get this… you know the same thing with the split consciousness that I’ve been talking about in Michael and in this generation. There’s the staging of the opening scene, of the split consciousness between, you know, the dark indoors, where the Don is conducting his business, and the bright, beautiful outdoors where the women and children play and everyone is having a good time. And I think that’s part, too, of maybe what I was talking about a little bit with the terminology of the family for the crime syndicate or even of the word ‘favor’. Favor is, of course, you know, an act of goodwill and kindness that I suppose, by its nature, you know, it doesn’t demand reciprocity because that’s not favor, really, that’s extortion. So the one may feel moved to return the favor. It also has to be out of one’s own goodwill if it’s going to be truly a favor. But here it becomes a cover for the reality of what’s going to be brought about, right, and I think I was reading that Coppola was inspired by some Mafia bosses, real-life Mafia bosses who I guess would say they wouldn’t say something like, “Hey, kill this guy for me.” They would say, “Hey, you know, do me this favor”, right?
Erin: So… and maybe it’s a way of lying to oneself or, you know, sanitizing one’s language in front of the women because that’s another problem of this film, which is that for being a movie, supposedly about Italian-Americans, you know, it’s really bereft of women, which again makes me think that this is about the bastardization of that culture by way of the Mafia, rather than a true expression of that. Like all the guys sitting around the kitchen table and, like, where are they? Like the women would be in this room if it wasn’t a Mafia movie, [laughter] you know, and that dichotomy, that split, of having the women in one area and the men in the other, that doesn’t ring very true to me.
Wes: Well, I want to go back to this idea of the line between what is extortion and what is an act of generosity or a favor, or an act of friendship in the way that that is blurred. And that’s kind of dramatized, too, right, with the offer [laughter] that can’t be refused.
Wes: Because that belongs to a different plane, of course, belongs to the plane of business where, you know, regular offer… you’re trying to appeal to someone’s desires, and, you know, the offer that can’t be refused normally would be just the one that’s too tempting, it’s the one that is too beneficial. But in this case it’s a matter of extortion or force or threat. So fear is the operative thing and not desire. So to what extent is the… you know, the idea of the favor at the beginning compromised by that? Favors… it’s something very primitive. It’s a staple of political power. So, for instance, the way an alpha male chimpanzee maintains power is through the administration of favors. And some of that is just… some of that’s grooming, some of that’s giving food. But you know, it’s not a matter of physical strength. And political power, right, isn’t just… it’s more a matter of status, primarily not of actual physical strength, because any, you know, bunch of male chimpanzees in a troop can band together and do, and this happens, to kill the leader, no matter how strong he is. And when that does happen, it’s often because of social failures on the part of the Alpha male, the lack of favors. So why is that so important? What the favor does, even though it’s transactional in this case, is it illustrates a cast of mind in which the benefits of power will be shared. So the Alpha male doesn’t seize power simply for the sake of himself. He serves the public good. [laughter] He serves the chimpanzee civil order, so to speak. He’s serving a kind of higher order and function. So what favors illustrate is that kind of orientation towards the good of the whole social unit, as opposed to one’s own good. So we get a year point about it not being a real act of generosity because it’s transactional. You know, one might say that even the ideal act of generosity is transactional in the sense that it’s for the sake of bonding, let’s say, even if it’s for the sake of establishing mutual intimacy and trust, there’s still something that it serves, it’s still for the purpose of something.
Wes: You kind of understand with Vito Corleone’s taking offense in the beginning and his desire to prioritize the “friendship” (quote-unquote) over justice. Bonasera has come to him and wants to treat him like a judge, wants to treat him as if he is part of this American… a more liberal system, which is very impersonal. And Coreleone takes that as a sign of disrespect, which at the level of friendship it is, it’s… for Corleone to be a judge, he can’t be an interested party. He has to be a disinterested party. And you lose something when you do that, when you move to that position, you do lose something of a more communal set of values and bonds that are more robust. One of the great things about the way this is acted… I was looking for the script, just to have it on hand for the podcast, and I found the script that seems to be not the shooting script to the screenplay, so you see lots of alterations. And the way things are written in the screenplay, at the very end of that scene, Bonasera gets the point and says, “Be my friend,” and Vito Corleone says, “Good.” And then he gives that speech about “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me, but until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”
Wes: And that, I think, is probably Brando’s improvisation because he refused to learn his lines and [laughter] was apparently improvising all over the place. In the original screenplay, he puts the justice part before the favor. So he says, “For me, you’ll get justice.” And then Bonasera says, “Godfather.” And then he says, “Someday, and that day may never come, I would like to call upon you to do me a service in return.” So that idea that “from me you’ll get justice”, that sounds a little bit too much, like it prioritizes justice over friendship, which is… the point of this is that friendship comes first and to ask for the service in return first, in a way, it gets it right, and then, to say until that day, accept this justice, this specific act, not justice in general. I’m not this impersonal judge, this impersonal agent of justice. I give justice out as gifts. I wrapped them in a bow and I give them… justice is a part and parcel of friendship, not its own abstract thing that transcends friendship. So I think that it’s actually very… if it’s true that Brando did that, he actually, instinctively, I think, understood the spirit of the whole scene. And instead of talking about justice, you know, you put this in front of it and you make it an act of gift-giving. the particular justice that’s to be done. So..
Erin: He should have gotten a screenwriting credit.
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Erin: From The Godfather Notebook, I highlighted this part of Coppola’s notes where he writes, “The scene with Bonasera is good and very important for it defines the Don’s power and puts forth the essence of what it is the Donn refers to as friendship, i.e., a pledge of loyalty. It is the gathering and manipulations of these pledges, which give the Don his extraordinary power in the first place. It is very important that after Bonasera gives his pledge that we understand he feels he is now under a grave and frightening obligation to the Godfather. Bonasera must be a super, super actor…” which I think he is a super actor, but I suppose that leads me to think about what the obligation he is under to the Donn, what will ultimately result in, which is actually incredibly sad, which is he’s going to be asked to do his job as the undertaker and clean up Sonny’s bullet-ridden corpse so that his mom can look at him. Which seems to me to be, you know, obviously in talking about these favors, and I talked about them rather generally in my long spiel at the beginning. You know, all of these favors are criminal activity, murders being committed, etcetera. But I think it’s really interesting that ultimately, what Bonasera is going to be asked is merely to do his job and to clean up Sonny’s bullet-ridden corpse to make him presentable to his mother.
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s really important. By the way, I think it’s funny that when The Godfather assigns the task of finding someone to beat up the boys who have assaulted Bonasera’s daughter, he says, you know, find some people that are not going to get carried away. We’re not murderers. [laughter]
Wes: This is hilarious.[laughter] So he doesn’t view what he does as murder. You know, in cases where they’re killing people Vito’s perspective is that that sort of thing is not murder. And one can think of different rationalizations. One can think of… it delivers justice by way of vendetta, or one can think it’s just business, it’s not personal, so it’s not murder. So you can kind of wriggle out of the whole concept of murder in either direction. And those things, of course, are not consistent. But the point you bring up about Bonasera being asked to do his job makes me think of the fact that there are favors and then there are favors. So there’s asking people to do things that are illegal, but not just that, but inconsistent with one’s identity, which again is evocative of the power of cultural influence on the immigrant and the ways in which identity might be compromised. But if you ask Bonasera to do something, that’s not him, not part of what he does, not his job, not his function as a person, you know, even if it’s, you know, “all right, go get me a sandwich now”, [laughter] which is demeaning, right? It could be demeaning, it could be criminal, it could be inconsistent with his character. And so even though it’s transactional, as you point out, you’re kind of asking him to do what he does and to be what he is. So that’s a different, more positive conception here of favor.
Erin: This gets to what I was… when I was talking about with a friend the other day, when I was talking about how the Don rebukes Bonasera, never inviting him over for a cup of coffee. And my friend said, “You know, I certainly wouldn’t want to have Don Corleone over for a cup of coffee” and I just thought, “Really? You don’t? Like, he seems like such a great guy to have over for a cup of coffee.” [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. Absolutely.
Erin: I mean, as you know, he’s probably a guy you don’t want to tangle with, but that’s what makes him such an appealing character, especially in comparison with his sons, who are, you know, as Coppola, I think, has on the very first page, if not the cover of The Godfather Notebook, he talks about how each of his three sons is a distillation of certain parts of the Dons character…
Wes: Mm-hmm… Mm-hmm…
Erin: …and, you know, none of them are as attractive, individually, though Sonny has certain charms. And the scene where he beats up Carlo in the street is like one of the greatest. I just love that so much. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Erin: But, you know, none of them is this strange mixture of parts that at the Don is, in that he can be so incredibly warm and cuddly and truly seem like a real administer of justice and someone qualified to make those decisions.
Wes: Yeah, Well, that’s a very good point, because I think the question of how he is an administrator of justice, actually, it’s not just there in that first scene with Bonasera, but it becomes the mechanism that pushes the whole film forward because you get a request from him from Sollozzo to use his political relationships, which are, you know, you pointed out Coppola says that are the source of his power, and that’s really important, to use those relationships to get them into the drug business, basically. And later on, the complaint when Vito calls the meetings of the five families, a complaint to him is that she didn’t act like a friend. Friends share.[laughter] It’s very basic. Friends share things. You didn’t share your political context. We all have to draw from… you know, we have to be allowed to draw from the well. For a price, because we’re not communists. [laughter]
Wes: Which is great. We’re not communists, after all, as if being a communist is so much lower than being a criminal. So what he’ll say to Sollozzo is that drugs are a dirty business. And in that scene where he’s rejecting Sollozzo and then later on, with the five families, he does say… he does have in mind the well-being of the family and, you know, the organization, because he thinks it will destroy… drugs will destroy that. But really, what’s part of what’s going on, right, is that he has the impulse to move in the direction of legitimacy, and part of that, you see in his relationship with Michael, and one of the things that happens at the very beginning of the film is that he wants to wait for Michael to take that wedding picture. He has this special relationship to Michael, and what Michael represents is the movement beyond foundational violence to the actual civil order that foundational violence is supposed to establish. So it’s as if the whole, you know, state of nature to civil order thing is being recapitulated, and that’s his hope. That’s his hope, it’s that, you know, you send Michael off to college, you insulate him from what’s going on in the family, and then hopefully you can be legit within a few years. And that’s what Michael’ll say to Kay as well, you know, “my dad understands that the old ways are no longer going to work, and this is all going to be legit soon.” What this suggests is that Vito has been a little bit too influenced by Americanness because he is becoming that impersonal agent of justice and that he rejects, with Bonasera, you know he rejects that role at the beginning of that movie. But to say “drugs are a dirty business” is to start to inhabit that role and to want to use Michael as a way to, you know, transcend the current predicament of being a family that preserves its status as a family, preserves its traditions and cultures by a way of violence to move to the point where you can do that legitimately. That’s the aspiration and that sets things off, right. That aspiration creates the problem that leads to a ton of violence. And then Michael will end up restoring things by getting back to the more personal element. And it’s brilliant the way it’s done in the movie, right. Mike’s transition in the movie is so subtle. It’s like you barely notice it happening, how he goes from being this green college kid that everyone laughs at: “No, you don’t know what you’re doing to the patriarch.” But the way he fixes things is to re establish a personal element. So you get the whole scene where Mike says to Sonny, that this is business, not personal. He wants him to negotiate after the attempted assassination of Vito. And then Sonny will end up saying the same thing to Mike, you know, “you’re taking this too personally, this is about business”, immediately transfers the insult. And then Mike will suggest that they kill… you know, that he be the one to kill McCluskey and Sollozzo. And then, at the very end of that says it’s, you know, “This is business. It’s not personal at all.” But it is personal, and the whole point of what… Mike’s function in the film is that he doesn’t… instead of restoring the civil order, he goes backwards and he establishes what is personal, because the way in which his father was slipping was he was slipping in that more generic sense of justice in which you could not do a favour to your friends, because something is (quote-unquote) “a dirty business”. What you see in Mike is this ferocity, all these looks and stares, and… But he’s not like Sonny right? He’s not rash, so he somehow re-incorporates violence, but he fuses it with his intelligence. So the lesson is, don’t send your son to college and then to World War II [laughter] and expect them to come back [laughter] and not around your crime family. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] I like what you say, too, about what draws him into the business is this sort of double pronged motive, if you will. This idea that it’s a failure of the American legal system that justifies this murder because Captain McCluskey is, after all, a corrupt cop, and they’re going to go after him in the papers for being so, but also because he has this now personal vendetta against McCluskey for breaking his jaw and for being, you know, a total jerk. So there’s that kind of anger underneath that we see motivating Mike a lot, which is truly scary. I think it’s a lot scarier than Vito’s underlying threat of violence at all times.
Wes: We know that Vito is capable of being ruthless. It’s part of the function of the whole horsehead scene. [laughter] You know, “we’re not murderers.”
Erin: That would never work on me.
Erin: Never work on me.
Erin: Very light sleeper.[laughter]
Wes: [laughter] They used a real horse head…
Erin: I know!
Wes: …for the filming.
Erin: I would wake up and I would start screaming. I would look down and start screaming, but it be because I’m looking at, like, you know, the guys carrying it over the threshold. I would wake up instantly, still they are holding it like a…[laughter]
Wes: I actually did think of this as a plot hole in the movie. I thought, you know, they must have drugged the guy because he’s covered in blood.
Wes: What a great scene. Iconic, nonetheless.
Erin: He sleeps the sleep of the just, right, in his mind. Probably. He’s out like a light.
Wes: Very good. That’s another problem with Justice…
Wes: …in the abstract sense. But yeah, so we know Vito can in one moment say we’re not murderers, just rough up those boys, and the next he can be killing poor, innocent horses [laughter] just to make a point, just to get his friend the movie gig. But, yes, there is something different, as you point out, about Mike’s ruthlessness, and I tried to… I thought a lot about that. I don’t know that I got to the bottom of it because something happens with, you know, something backfires in sending Mike to college, as you know, which is not the first time that happens, but.. [laughter]
Wes: You know, he’s supposed to become the kinder, gentler [laughter] member of the family. But instead you get a kind of monstrous fusion of… in the intelligence and the ability to navigate the other WASPy world with Kay and all the other stuff, and between that and then the violence of his family, which is ordinary to him and that, I think, is what Vito misses is that, you know, it’s kind of “don’t do as I do, do as I say,” go be a different type of person. Well naturally, Michael is gonna see that sort of violence as ordinary and be capable of it. It’s just now he’s going to be able to bring his impulse, his very, very high level of impulse control and his intelligence back to that. So he’s not a Sonny, he’s not rash, right? He doesn’t rush out to kill McCluskey and Sollozzo. There’s a whole plan. You might argue it’s impractical: he has to go to Sicily for a long time, and then there’s a lot of murder that results from it. But he’s playing a long game and it works. And he understands that, he seems to know that there’s an end game in which he can establish total authority and eliminate the heads of the other crime families, and he’s capable of waging all out war. And he’s smart enough to know how to do it, and smart enough to avoid his own assassination, although his father warns him about that. So what I’m trying to say here is, yeah, you get a fusion of the… what I think of as the tribal values, vendetta and all that, and then the more rational concern for the well being of the family and the organization. So he asked two questions: how are we going to get through this, how are we gonna actually preserve our business and our family? And then, how am I going to get revenge? And he makes those things work together. He can put them together in an effective way, and that’s part of what makes him such a scary person. And he can do that, of course, without a conscience, without… in this very, very cold way, that’s the way it comes across.
Erin: You bring up a lot of really interesting points there, but I think that not not college but you know, family itself, the family unity itself is the civilizing force, at least in an Italian culture. Sonny, of course, fails to be properly civilized by family in certain ways, though he understands maybe more intuitively about family than Michael ever will. I think Michael’s separateness, his being a part for the family, though the family is this organ of murder and cruelty and all this other stuff. He doesn’t get the warmth of that right. You’re divorced from the hotness, you know, the heat sources of passion, which is also where care and love and all of these important Italian values spring from, like any positive element of any culture, I think, It’s a double edged sort. So by being away from that, ultimately he restores the order in the middle of the film with the murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey. But this is why ultimately we get the Michael at the end of the film and in Part II, who will kill the family to preserve the business. He will do what Vito would never do, because the whole point of it is to preserve the family, is to preserve that passionate core of love that is trained and developed within the family unit itself. And in Part II also we see the origins of Vito’s involvement in crime are kind of holy in a way, right? He is trying to preserve the family. He is trying to help the extortionees, the people at the mercy of the black hand, and ultimately, in so doing becomes the extortioner himself. But he is offering a mantle of protection because of this love, this passion within him, that he has, which Sonny gets all of with no control, right?
Erin: So Michael’s baptism, if you will, into crime, doesn’t occur the way Vito’s does, where we have this near necessity, this concern for family, all of these real positive things that actually encourage him to go into crime and protecting the defenseless. With Michael, we have that his baptism is basically… yes, it’s restoring the order, yes, it’s a sort of a kind of a retribution for Vito, though even Vito himself is not angered by the fact there was an assassination attempt against him because even he will say that it was purely business. But I wonder if it’s actually a little bit of a personal thing with Michael just with McCluskey, that’s why he volunteers to do it because he wants to be the one, and that selfishness and that dead end of, you know, the pure murder within him that is not connected to a good reason, if you will, is I think, part of his problem.
Wes: Yeah, my thesis was that it is personal and like the whole, you know, that’s the art of the movies, that Vito slips away from the personal and messes up on the friendship plane. It tries to move too much in the direction of justice, and then Mike comes back, and so he makes it personal again. But, you’re right, he’s not doing it the way Sonny would do it, not rushing out to get himself killed.
Wes: You’re drawing attention to an important point, which is that. And like I said, I wrestled with this. The other side of this is that Michael is very cold, and, you know, he’s gotten too much of that WASPy coldness, hung out with Kay too much and been to college. [laughter] So he’s picked that up and brought it back and so his ruthlessness has a particular icy cast to it, and you can see the rage in his face and you can see that it’s personal, but you see, you also see that he has it under control and he can make a big plan of this. So it’s a more intelligent form of vendetta. He’s going to get back to the priority of the personal and of the friendship relation in a way, but over justice in the abstract sense. But he is going to make those ties survey a larger, rational plan for the establishment of power. And maybe it’s just for power’s sake. Then you have to wonder what he’s after, if this has just slipped into power for power’s sake, and so it’s not about the good of the family, necessarily. Although he did warn Fredo. [laughter]
Erin: Poor Fredo.
Wes: He did warn him. It’s not about the good of the family. It’s not about himself, exactly, but, you know, that’s the question that I was wrestling with.
Erin: Towards the end of The Godfather Notebook, and I suppose, towards the end of the novel, because it’s one of the pasted-on pages. A couple of works from… I guess when Kay is pregnant with their second child, Michael says something to her like, you know, “you’re more an Italian now than a Yankee because your two kids in two years now” you know, a lot of kids. And she said, “Well, you’re more Yankee than Italian, you know, you come home and instead of going to see your family, you immediately go to work on the business.”
Wes: He’s introduced the Protestant work ethic into the crime family. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Right. Right.
Wes: It’s a lethal combination.
Erin: And, of course, you know, Vito’s… one of his many maxims is that, you know, a man who doesn’t spend time with his family is not a real man.
Wes: Yes. Yes.
Erin: It’s interesting. Like you say, that Michael seems, like, with murder and, you know, the whorehouses that they run, and the gambling, and then eventually going into the drug world, and all this stuff, it seems the chief crime is becoming too much of a Yankee. That’s really the problem here.
Erin: Which, you know, it makes a lot of sense to me. But… [laughter]
Erin: Anyway, should we talk a little bit about the interesting moral quandary presented to Vito of the choice to go into the drug business, which he turns down, which will be actually, I think, a failure of foresight?
Erin: There’s a lot of money in that white powder.
Wes: You know, it puts him in a position of being in a conflict between doing a favor for a friend and serving some more general sense of justice. But as I said before, he casts it in terms of the preservation of the organization, of the family. The drugs would be bad for… The argument that someone else makes at the five families meeting is that drugs are here anyway. It’s impossible, too lucrative to prevent people from actually engaging in it, and so we got to manage it, you know, we got to keep it away from schools and kids. That’s what I take to be Vito’s error, it’s worrying too much about justice, about whether drugs are a dirty business and not about friendship.
Erin: Yeah, so I was just interested in the idea that the regulation of the drug business seems to, once again, tie together these two things that are opposed to each other, right? So you have this thing that is outside the law, obviously, that they want to impose a kind of a moral order upon, by choosing to regulate it according to what they think are, you know, good moral values, which obviously those themselves are suspect. They want to keep it away from schools, and they want to only put it in the hands of what they rather disgustingly see as, you know, undesirable populations.
Erin: And I guess I just sort of wondered, is it really a failure of judgment on Vito’s part? Is he right not to want to get his hands dirty in this particular kind of business? He obviously thinks, wrongly, as we later see, that his political connections will back out if he goes into the drug business because that’s a bridge too far. He seriously underestimates the disgusting [laughter] nature of politics and politicians, because, in fact, they’re all too happy to jump into bed with the drug business if it’s going to give them political favors. So maybe he’s a little bit naive about that.
Wes: What occurs to me, as you say that, you know, when you ask the question of whether he was making a prudent or practical decision in rejecting Sollozzo. Instead of rejecting Sollozzo, he could have just called this meeting that ends up happening after so much violence, or at the meeting of the five families. He could have recognized that this would be a, as one of the members of the five families says, refusal is not the act of a friend. He should have known that this would be a big, big problem.
Wes: In part, because it’s kind of… you know, rejection is humiliating and this is a very status-oriented, honor-oriented thing that they have going there. So if I were Vito, [laughter] I would have called the meeting. At the very beginning, I would have said, “Okay, Sollozzo, let me… why don’t we think more about this? Let’s talk about it with all the families. This is the drug trade. This is bigger than just us.”
Wes: That would have been the right thing to do, pragmatically, Of course, like from an ethical standpoint, from the standpoint of justice, in the larger sense, he’s doing the right thing by refusing to get into the drug trade. It’s weird because he’s already involved in a lot of other horrible stuff. But yeah, as an… ethically, it’s the right decision. Pragmatically, I think it’s the wrong decision, obviously. But then you know, if you look at this deeper, more tribal set of values centered on friendship, then you can see how the pragmatic error is rooted in what is arguably a moral failure. Because there is something to the ethical code that centers things on friendship. Like. I mean, ultimately, I’m a big proponent of liberal values and avoiding violence. [laughter] This sort of violence is exactly why we have them. But we should recognize that we lose something. We should recognize that they are intention, with something deeper and more connected and more substantial. And so it was really interesting about Vito as he… the thing he’s accusing Bonasera of in the beginning is the thing that he’s guilty of, right? Bonasera is too interested in the more abstract form of justice, and he defends him, you know, “will you be my friend?” And then he doesn’t do exactly that. He fails to be a friend. He gets more interested in the abstract version of justice.
Erin: That’s so interesting. I guess it never occurred to me that he could have just held the meeting earlier.
Erin: So that’s a good… I’m only looking at the possibilities presented to me. I’m not thinking about some third possibility.
Wes: Well, the reason I thought of that is because I kind of run my own crime family. [laughter] It’s a transitional home, and I have to have lots of meetings, lots of mediations, resolve lots of conflicts, [laughter] so I’ve had some experience doing this and no one gets killed.
Erin: Sure. I suppose what I’m interested in, also, is the idea that Tom introduces, which is the idea that it is ethical to get involved in the drug business and to regulate it properly, right?
Wes: Yeah. I forgot that he introduced that.
Erin: Right. Yeah. And so which is actually the correct ethical judgment? The Don’s desire to completely wash his hands of the whole business, which I think also comes with a… maybe he’s being blind there because of his willingness to view other people in a surprisingly positive light. Because I think the assumption is that maybe the other families won’t get involved because they are also going to pass on this because it seems to him to be so obviously beyond the pale that politicians aren’t going to want any part of it, maybe the Tattaglias… you know, Barzini, whoever else, is not going to want any part of it. And the whole thing is just going to pass.
Wes: And he says to Sollozzo, you know, “Do your thing. Our interests are not in conflict.”
Erin: Right. Right.
Wes: “So it’s all good. You know, I’m not opposed to you doing it.” So he tries to wash his hands of it in that sense. But of course, he’s really blocking it. By refusing to share his political context, he’s effectively blocking it.
Erin: Right. And Tom tells him, you know, you’re being shortsighted, that we actually have to regulate this now. There’s a double pronged incentive here. One is he’s appealing to him in a moral way and saying that if we regulate this, we can do it right. We can keep it out of the schools, we could keep it only in the hands of the people that we want it to stay in and that that would be an interesting, I think, moral argument there. But also, of course, that this is going to be a long term investment, that this has monetary implications for us. We’re going to get a lot of money, and we have to innovate. We have to… you know, our business has to expand, and we have to realize that we’re gonna have to branch out.
Wes: Well, yeah, because other people, the other families, will do it and they’ll get all that money, and that means that they will have all the power. And so their survival depends on competing. right.
Wes: So they are… it’s not an option simply to not compete. And this is where Vito is caught up in his fantasy of legitimization. That’s the other part of this. The interest in abstract justice, the legitimization, which is what Michael represents. Michael represents the hope of legitimization and the movement away from all this getting out. And that’s the tug that Vito lets himself get moved by that a little too much. And that’s what sets things off. So it’s really interesting that, in a way, his hopes for Michael, which are connected to the legitimization, are the thing that starts off this crisis, this wave of violence. It’s the fantasy of escape, the fantasy of getting away from it all.
Erin: I think it also originates in Vito’s aging. You know he doesn’t have the stomach for battle anymore, or for engaging in this kind of long term thinking. And we see this happen, too. You know, I mean, he is debilitated, of course, by getting shot countless times [laughter] and yet still surviving, I read somewhere that, I guess, only five bullets actually land, but that’s a lot of bullets for 1946.
Erin: And then in the later scenes, he really looks like an Italian grandpa. You know, I mean, he’s no longer wearing his suits, he’s no longer finally tailored, you know, he’s wearing a plaid shirt and pants, you know, looking like any Italian guy just hanging out at the house and really takes a back seat. He does, of course, give Michael that really important insight about who is going to betray him.
Erin: So he still has… you know, it’s not like he becomes some incoherent, babbling old man or something. But there’s certainly, you know, the retiree mindset [laughter] that he’s already kind of gone into by not wanting to get involved in the drug trade and to keep fighting. So we see the power of vacuum already happening. That Vito is not up for it anymore, and somebody has to step in. And, of course, at first it’s Sonny, and we see that that’s a really bad thing. No one even considers Fredo, which, you know he’s offended by… he’s at least smart enough to be offended by the fact that nobody takes him seriously… [laughter]
Erin: …but otherwise he’s not smart enough to figure anything else out. And so we see the necessity that this was always going to be Michael, even from the time…
Erin: …that Sonny was a kid and he displayed these really violent crazy tendencies.[laughter]
Wes: This reminds me of one of the drawbacks of the whole personal approach to power, which is that everything depends on Vito’s relationships, right? So his political connections are not… they’re not something that’s institutionalized, they’re not something that will survive when he dies. And so if he… you know, killing him is a transformative act at an institutional level. If you kill Vito, you politically castrate the Corleone family as a whole, because all the political connections, all that Vito has, all the judges and the cops and the politicians that he has in his pocket, he’s won those by way of favors and by way of (quote- unquote) “friendship”. And they’re all just personal connections and the friendships that are not transitive, they’re not transferable to anyone else in the family. Those relationships can’t be inherited.
Erin: That’s interesting, because when they say “it’s not personal, it’s just business”, you know, you’re right, the whole basis of his businesses, you know, his connections have been procured on personal charm and he’s basically being… I don’t know if it’s safe to say this, but being a good man…
Erin: …and winning people over…
Erin: …and then this is the double danger, then, of business and family colliding, because when you’re running your business like a monarchy, you know, that means that you have limited options for the takeover of the company, also, right, and that the business is going to rise or fall based on the personal qualities of the man at the helm. And you can’t choose someone, based on worth, who can work his way up and come into the business. I mean, I think Michael is chosen on worth, of course, I mean, he is a worthy successor in certain ways. In other ways, he’s really not, in terms of the way that this business is running. If he was just a CEO of GE or something, then he would be great. [laughter] You know…
Wes: [laughter] Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Mike would be good at whatever field he chose to pursue. [laughter]
Erin: Yeah. “Follow your dreams, Mike. You could be anything you want to be in America.”
Wes: Yeah. He went into his father’s business. That’s understandable, right?
Wes: But yeah, I think when Vito passes, a lot of the power is going to pass with him. What’s interesting about about it being an attempted assassination, an assassination that doesn’t work but puts him out of commission for a while, is if he had just been assassinated as opposed to debilitated, you wouldn’t get as much of the stuff with all the sons trying to run things and figure things out, right. So he’s gone but he’s not gone. It’s like a bunch of kids having to try to figure it out for themselves. But there’s always the prospect of their father’s return.
Wes: We get a situation in which succession can work itself out. You know, you’ve got Sunny’s rashness and Fedo’s cowardice and Tom’s cautiousness and then Michael’s seeming greenness. And then the question is, who emerges in this particular situation? Not in the situation in which the father is gone, but in the situation in which the father is like a ghost, in which he kind of hovers over the scene. He’s not present to create order, there’s a power vacuum, but there’s a… you know, you get a kind of limbo where they can be working through this, and where someone like Michael can emerge as the winner, as the leader.
Erin: He is the Mufasa, if you will.
Erin: And Clemenza, you know, is Timon and Pumba, teaching him how to make sauce, how to kill a guy, how to drop a gun properly, which he does not do. He lifts his arm and then drops the gun. I’m like…
Wes: Yes. Yes. I love that He does not follow the instructions at all.
Erin: Well, I also love in that scene…
Wes: He is not relaxed, you know, about the eating. He’s being really, really mean and angry.
Erin: Oh, yeah. He’s being so weird. And then he comes out and I love the moment of, like, “Is he actually going to do it?” Because he’s waiting a really long time, because he doesn’t come out shooting from the bathroom. He does it, actually, in a more clever way because… he sits down, everything is normal, it’s all fine. And then, “bam”, you know, But that hesitation, really, every time I’m just like, “is he going to actually go through with this?” and, you know…
Wes: Yeah, it’s an important part of his transformation, right? So he’s not just stepping into a role. He’s creating the formative influences that will change him. It’s one thing to have the capacity for ruthlessness, but it’s another to cement it by doing something that ruthless and then going into exile and going through all that. So he makes a decision, and he creates a different Michael at that point and then returns as someone who can take over the role of Godfather. Which makes me think that we should say a little bit about the meaning of Godfather, what it means to call someone a Godfather, which is, you know, it’s made especially important by the fact that Michael himself becomes a Godfather at the end of the movie. And it’s right, you know, the scene of him becoming a Godfather is interspersed with, or it’s cut with the scenes of all the assassinations that he’s ordered that are going to cement his power.
Erin: So amazing.
Wes: Yeah. So I thought a little bit about this. You know, what I knew about being a godfather is just that I’m the godfather of one of my nieces, which is just that if the parents die, I have to have to [laughter] take her in right, take care of her. At a religious level, it means, and you can say more about this, I might mess this up, but, you know, beyond being the witness to the baptism, you play some role in the spiritual formation of that person. You know, I mentioned Michael being a kind of formative influence to himself and making the decision to engage in that assassination. So I came to think of the significance of being a godfather as having something to do with the significance of being a formative influence and a preserver of formative influences, a preserver of value, a preserver of tradition. And in this case, one who does that by way of violence, right. So I think these two things are connected, right? Being a godfather, and then what you might call the perversion of that, the only way to do that is by engaging in violence.
Erin: Of course, there are requirements in the Catholic Church for being chosen as a godparent. You have to be, I think, over 16, you have to have received certain sacraments, you have to have, of course, major first communion and which is necessitated by also another sacrament of confession. You have to have been confirmed, and you have to be a Catholic in good standing. So basically someone who is living according to the precepts of the church and living in harmony with the faith. So there’s, of course, there’s a big irony there, and at the baptism, you know, you’re responsible for initiating the infant into the rights of the church. So when the child is asked if he accepts in this case, he, though it’s, I believe, that little baby Sofia Coppola.
Erin: Though the child, of course, can’t answer for himself, the child is ceremonially asked to accept the teachings of the church and to make a profession of faith and the godfather and godmother make that profession on the child’s behalf. Which is why he says, “I”, when he’s responding, “Do you reject Satan and all of his works?” He’s responding as if he is the child, because he has to make this profession on behalf of the child.
Wes: Mmm. Interesting.
Erin: Yeah, the drama and the irony of that moment, I think, reflects what you’re talking about with the many meanings of the term godfather and the initiation into the baptism by water in half of that scene and the baptism by blood in the other half, where he is initiated into the role of godfather by committing all these murders, which again, I think, is really also beautifully played out in the tension in Part II, between the prequel storyline and the sequel storyline, where we see how Vito was initiated and how different that is when we look back at how Michael was initiated in Part I.
Wes: Yeah, those two baptisms, which is not the way I thought of that before you said that, that’s very powerful, and that brings us almost to the end. I guess we have one more thing we could touch on, which is what finally consecrates him as godfather, which is the garroting of his brother in law…[laughter]
Wes: …and the lying, who deserved it, and the way in which he lies to Kay about this at the end.
Erin: I think of all the characters in the film, I like Kay the least. [laughter] I think that for someone who I think is presented in the novel as being… she’s supposed to be a very intelligent character, there’s a lot of willful ignorance on her part, which I guess makes her well suited to this Mafia culture and the culture of wilful ignorance.
Wes: I thought the same thing. By the way, she’s supposed to be sharply intelligent, and I think Diane… not that Diane Keaton isn’t intelligent, but that flake equality that she has is wrong for this role. I just think she’s miscast in the role…
Erin: I do too.
Wes: …and there would be a lot more dramatic tension in his relationship with Kay if she were a more incisive kind of person and less passive.
Erin: I totally agree. I’ve long thought that she was, and I hate to say that because I love Diane Keaton, of course…
Erin: …but I do feel that she is the big, big weak link in this trilogy.
Erin: Later on, I don’t really… you know, Part III I have a lot of problems with, and so that kind of changes. But yeah, I mean, you know, at the wedding, when she’s Michael’s date to the wedding and he tells her the story of his dad and Luca Brazzi, it, like, doesn’t even register for her, you know. And so I can… she’s been told, you know, she’s been warned what this is all about, and yet, somehow, she still doesn’t seem to understand what the family business is until really late.
Erin: Of course, at that point, she should have just finished out the wedding, then you go home and you never see the guy again, okay? [laughter] You move as far away as you can, you change your name, and that’s the end of it.
Wes: [laughter] You tell your future husband how you once dated a mob guy, right?
Erin: Right. You know, we didn’t really talk about the long sequence in the middle, either, with Apollonia, but that coming back into her life, too, after that whole… I understand why he marries Apollonia and why he basically thinks that everything with Kay is over. I don’t fault him for that at all. But the coming back into her life, like this shadow and taking her out of it and her just being like “okay”. [laughter] You know, I mean, at first, she’s a little bit resistant, but…
Wes: “We’re together again. Get in the car.”[laughter]
Erin: Right. Yeah. [laughter] You know, because Pacino is just such a… you know… (no, I don’t want to say that) He’s… I think he’s really attractive in this film, but she’s acting like “Uh, you know, the one that got away. He’s… he wants me back.”
Erin: So it seems, and this gets to something I touched on at the beginning, about again, the differences between Mafia culture and Italian culture. Italian culture you have, you know, a matriarchy. You have super smart women who don’t let you get away with anything. And what this Mafia culture requires are women who are willing to be the pond in some larger scheme, basically. You know, I think that they are willfully ignorant of what’s going on with their husbands. Maybe they’re comfortable being left out of this equation. There’s a suggestion, if I remember correctly, years back, I read a Molly Haskell essay on The Godfather, which I thought was really good, which contained within it the suggestion that these women are basically, like, turned on by the fact that the husbands do this, and they are perfectly fine not interfering and being the ones that the husbands come home to after a long day of murder. And so Kay is, I guess, supposed to be different from that, but the way that Keaton portrays her makes her perfectly suited to that female culture in these films, and she can accept what he tells her. And in a way, maybe this is her own initiation into being a Mafia wife. You know, this is her accepting the lie. She clearly does accept it. It’s immediately refuted when he’s made the Godfather and Clemenza comes in and kisses his hand.
Erin: But she clearly does accept it. And…
Wes: And I think his lie is convincing because he…
Erin: It is, yeah.
Wes: …he first he gets very animated. “Don’t ask me about my business” and they say, “Okay, you want this one time?” Yeah. So he gets really angry and then relents. And it’s in the moment of relenting that he gives her his noble lie.
Erin: And this is why I just… I’m like, come on, get him a strong… like Apollonia was maybe a little bit of that strong Italian woman. But, you know, “Oh, really? You’re going to tell me that this one time you’re going to let me ask? Oh, I’m going to be able to ask you this one time?”[laughter] You know, I just… I can’t imagine any woman, any Italian woman, not giving him hell over this, you know. Instead, she’s like, “Oh, great, Thank you. I’ll use my one lifeline.”
Wes: On the other hand, Kay might have had the sense not to turn the key in the car, but… [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Oh!
Wes: Sometimes there’s too much. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] She knows the right words: “Monday, Tuesday Thursday…” Anyway.
Wes: [laughter] Oh, yeah, that’s good. I think the noble lie aspect of that is important to him becoming the Godfather, because it’s the… like I talked about, a foundational violence in the civil order, and we tend to want to live with the illusion that the civil order doesn’t depend on foundational violence, that the states that we live in, for instance, the countries, don’t have violence at their roots and that violence isn’t in some sense necessary to the establishment of the order. So she wants to live, as we all do, I think, she wants to live that kind of lie where Mike can have become the patriarch but it was done with not clean hands, but at least he wasn’t killing family members, right? He didn’t make… at least he didn’t make his own sister a widow. How could he do that? At least it wasn’t that little of ruthlessness, but the underlying truth that we want to deny is that there is that ruthlessness at the bottom of things.
Erin: What would Vito have done with Carlo? Would he have sent him to… you know, a secondary city like Vegas and just given him…?
Wes: It’s a good question. I don’t see how you don’t kill someone who’s basically, essentially, gotten your brother or son killed.
Erin: Especially because he’s not a blood relation.
Wes: Also, he’s a douche. [laughter] So that makes it a little bit of a less fraught decision, beating his wife and…
Erin: Of all the characters in this, he is the true villain. He’s awful.
Erin: And Tessio… Ugh! Tesio the betrayer.
Wes: But he’s… Tessio is such a sweet guy.
Erin: Oh, I know.
Erin: Abe Vigoda.
Wes: Yeah. But… sometimes you gotta kill friends and family. So [laughter] that’s the moral of the story.
Wes: You know, we all wish we could sometimes, but [laughter] for them it’s a reality. Because it’s business. It’s not personal. [laughter]
Wes: All right. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.
Business Gets Personal in “The Godfather” (1972) | (SUB)TEXT Literature and Film Podcast