The Oscars Project: Belated Week 15 — The Godfather

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, with the help of the fine folks at Casablanca Video and the Calgary Public Library, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

The Godfather (Best Picture, Best Writing and Best Actor)

Alright, so I’ve clearly been slacking. Weeks (plural!) have gone by without a pseudo-insightful interpretation of an Oscar-winning film. Well, no amount of tut-tutting will change what’s been done. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve left my job, taken a small vacation and dove headfirst into a new gig, but now it’s back into the breach.

I wrote my first impression of The Godfather not altogether too long ago, and I don’t really want to cover the same ground again. Suffice to say, it’s an excellent film, constructed about as well as any piece of entertainment I’ve seen. Watching it again, even after seeing the sequel, I was surprised how little my interpretation changed. Maybe it’s because, as I said in that first essay, I’d essentially absorbed the movie through all of the references to it in other bits of pop culture, but the second viewing didn’t bring out much that wasn’t present in the first.

The one thing that did strike me, though, was the movie’s efficiency. For a three-hour epic, there isn’t a lot of time wasted. Nearly every moment either advances the plot or reveals something new about the characters – which is certainly a sign of a well-crafted script. But, it also means that certain storylines that could potentially have been explored in depth end up taking place in a matter of moments.

Take the death of Luca Brasi (spoiler warning, I guess. And, further warning, there will probably be plenty more). In the film, we’re told that Brasi has a long history with the Corleones, and he’s obciously meant to be a beloved part of the family. Yet his faked defection is resolved in the span of a few minutes – he arranges a meeting and is put to death practically before the plan can start.

After watching a full seven seasons of The Shield (watch for that post sometime soon), it was actually a bit shocking to see a plot thread resolved so quickly. I’ve gotten used to the pace of serialization in my crime dramas, apparently to the point that even a movie like The Godfather now feels rushed, at least in places. I couldn’t help picturing the film as a five-season arc, and the development that would allow for. How much more heft would Brasi’s death have had if it came at the end of a 15-episode season? What about Michael’s transformation from clean-cut war hero to ruthless mob boss? The movie does a fine job – better than a fine job, an incredible job – of showing how Michael’s trip to Italy, his marriage and the death of his wife helps to seal off the humanity that had kept him out of the family business. Imagine, though, if his excursion to the homeland had taken place over seven episodes – wouldn’t the wife’s emergence as a real character and not just an idealized romance make that moment even more powerful?

Television these days is stealing a lot of the power from films. Sure, the time required isn’t insignificant – it took me seven months to work through The Shield, and anyone who watched it on TV had to wait seven years for their resolution – but the depth of characterization that you can achieve and the effect that has on your emotional involvement is something that movies just can’t match. Where 10 years ago a movie like Inception would’ve had me in absolute awe, something in me now wishes it could’ve been a TV series instead. I want to see more subconscious espionage. I want to know how else the world of Inception is different from ours – what other technology do they have? There are so many little touches, from the opium-den-like dream parlour to curiousity about the non-black-market side of dream invasion. How can I be satisfied with just the glimpse that Christopher Nolan provides? And wouldn’t the “just one last job” trope seem a little less cliche if it came after a few non-last jobs?

I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. Because saying that Inception (or The Godfather, which is what I’m supposed to be talking about) would have been improved by being 100 times longer ignores what I just praised Coppola for – efficiency. When I read, my favourite authors tend to be those who make their points quickly. Vonnegut may tell convoluted stories, but he tells them in the most straightforward manner he can. The weakest part of American Gods is the section in the middle where Shadow is in the small town – it builds character, yes, but it drastically throws off the pacing, which otherwise makes the book irresistible. The ability to tell your story without throwing a lot of nonsense around it really does seem to be one of the keys to literary success.

So is it wrong that I should wish, to some extent, that Coppola would give us more time in his world of mafia hitmen, crime counsels and consiglieres? Yes and no. The most obvious worry is that, given enough time, any series will hit a point where it loses whatever goodwill it originally established. The Godfather seems like a particularly good case in point there, considering the general reaction to the third film. But The Shield, The Wire and their ilk have shown the power of a pre-set end date, which makes that argument irrelevant. Shows can be good from start to finish, and a series that just ran the arc of the first movie, or even the first two movies, would have some outstanding potential.

The question I’ve been circling around – probably because I don’t have much of an idea of the answer – is why The Godfather is better as a film than as a TV series. But if I had to guess (and since there’s nowhere else to take this essay if I don’t, I pretty well have to), I’d say the benefit comes in the rapid succession of events that are a part of efficient storytelling. There isn’t time to pause or catch a breath or, as critics are wont to do, to try to put some kind of intellectual context around what’s happening. Sure, you can do that when the film has finished, and maybe even throughout on a second watching, but the first time through, it’s more visceral. As long as the story is well-told, and it certainly is in The Godfather, there’s really no choice but to be swept along. And if you want more (ignoring the sequel looming a few weeks off) the only thing to do is to rewatch the movie, to really pore over it. Because time is at a premium, every second has something to say, and every cut reveals something. The density becomes the film’s virtue. Developments might not have the weight that they could’ve earned over eight months, but they have the benefit of cumulative effect.

At this point, I’m still not sure which has the edge.

Coming up:

The Sting

The Godfather Part II

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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