Guides | September 24, 2008 | Comments ()
A little over a year ago, Dustin selected his favorite film trilogy, Evil Dead, and then backed his way into the decision by carefully setting out criteria that would support his point. Although subjective criteria can never fully guarantee an airtight process, this was a rather idiot-proof strategy. One could certainly disagree, but actually wrangling Ash Williams to the ground and pinning him into a chokehold was pretty hard to do. Then came the inevitable announcement of fourth installment of the series, confirmed by Sam Raimi, which disqualified the Evil Dead franchise from the rules — as set out by our (somewhat) fearless leader — needed to establish a perfect trilogy:
I spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with a set of rules and limitations specifically designed, in my mind at least, to create a scenario in which the Evil Dead Trilogy could be considered the best trilogy of all time. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to figure out a way to disqualify every single trilogy better than The Evil Dead threesome? Oh, shut the fuck up — it’s not that hard. Whatever. Point being: It’s all moot now.
Then, Dustin threatened to rewrite the Guide and substitute the next best fit for his rules, The Mighty Ducks trilogy. Well, Pajibans, for better or worse, I’m determined not to let that happen, and you may not agree with me, but it’s sure as hell better than letting those Disneyfied piles of crap skate onto the trophy shelf. Now, I’m not gonna go through the process of reassigning criteria for the best trilogy and duly picking off the offending trilogies. However, since The Bourne Trilogy was described as “the only real competition,” I feel rather obligated to shoot that one down. The Jason Bourne films were, admittedly, a great ride, but, as Dustin points out, they did lack a human element that would otherwise allow us to at least want to get inside Bourne’s mind. Instead, as a protagonist, Bourne is all go-go-go, and while we’re certainly happy to follow along, this emotional detachment quickly grows rather homogenous and certainly doesn’t permit any sort of epic scope to the trilogy. So, let’s see exactly why The Godfather trilogy was originally disqualified:
Godfather II may be the best sequel of all time, but most of us would simply like to go on believing that Godfather III never existed, thus disqualifying the Godfather trilogy from competition.
Let’s be totally honest here and acknowledge the main sources of disappointment with Godfather III: (1) Francis Ford Coppola’s controversial casting of his own daughter, Sofia Coppola; and 2) the apparent drastic change in the Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) character.
That first complaint is, quite frankly, bullshit and not worth arguing, but it seems worth it to mention that this casting decision could have been much worse. When Winona Ryder, who was originally set to play Mary Corleone, dropped out during the first day of filming, the studio wanted to replace her with either Madonna or Julia Roberts. Considering those alternatives, Sofia Coppola was a relative casting dream.
The second complaint is much more understandable. In a sense, watching Michael search for redemption and reconciliation brings about the same sort of issue bought up by some hardcore Terminator fans in relation to Terminator II: Judgment Day: Some audiences didn’t like seeing the kinder, gentler version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg, now complicit in his own destruction. Of course, comparing Michael to a cyborg isn’t going to get us too far, but this analogy is meant to stress that the transformation of a film’s main character really does throw an audience for a loop. Folks didn’t take too kindly to the idea of Michael Corleone possessing a conscience or showing even a remote interest in confessing his sins. Admittedly, watching Michael Corleone return to totally kick some more ass in Part III would have held a certain satisfaction, but, honestly, the trilogy’s first two films can be re-watched indefinitely for that sort of thing. Part III draws out some of the inner workings of Michael’s character and strengthens the case of him as one of the greatest antiheroes of all time.
Let’s do this.
Obviously, we can’t discuss this trilogy in anywhere near its deserved depth, so we’re gonna concentrate on the main character, Michael Corleone, that ties all three films together. In addition, despite the many phases through which the trilogy progresses, Coppola infuses it all with a common perfumery that is unique to the Corleone family saga. Throughout all The Godfather trilogy, each film follows the same basic narrative structure of beginning with a family celebration and ending with a montage of vengeful deaths intended to settle “all family business.” Also in each film, Michael loses those he loves the most: Appolonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), Kay (Diane Keaton), and Mary, respectively. Even though Michael has always acted to protect his family and emerged victorious from his individual battles, he still loses everything in the end.
The Godfather (1972): “There wasn’t enough time, Michael. There just wasn’t enough time.”
I’m going to reference my original review of The Godfather, which concentrated mainly on Michael Corleone and his rise to power. Here, Coppola introduces the saga of a Sicilian mafia family and the transfer of power from Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to his youngest son, Michael. This part of the saga opens with the wedding of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire); includes the pivotal act of Michael avenging the attempt on his father’s life; and closes with the baptism by fire, which establishes Michael as Godfather to Connie’s child and also, by the simultaneous murder of Michael’s enemies, inaugurates him as the new Godfather, Don Michael Corleone.
As we watch Vito carry out the family business while Michael learns the ropes, we urge their legendary actions on. Vito presents himself as the virtuous gangster, the honorable family man who (as we see in Part II) helps his Italian immigrant community rid itself of the Black Hand extortionists, who have been amplifying the struggles of Italian immigrants by demanding “protection money.” As an audience, we both admire and respect Vito as he assists widows and works favors for those who call him Godfather and promise a service in return. We root for his victory in his battles and feel a sense of justice when he prevails. However, Vito is not satisfied with merely ruling the underground and, although he knows that time has run out for him to be respected by American society at large, Vito hopes that Michael can have a different sort of future:
I never wanted this for you. I live my life, I don’t apologize to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That’s my life I don’t apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone. Governor Corleone. Something.
The Godfather: Part II (1974): “I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart.”
In this sequel, we’re essentially given a double bang that emphasizes, in Coppola’s words, the “Sicilian waltz of vengeance” that father and son perform in unison. The film’s parallel structure illustrates the symbiotic connection between Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro in flashbacks) and his youngest son. Essentially, Part II details Michael’s further descent into the “family business” and also recounts Vito’s Sicilian childhood, including his family’s murder by local Mafia and his subsequent escape to America, and, finally, his rise to power as the new Don Corleone. Arguably, Vito creates his own version of the American dream by way of subversion of the justice system. Michael, of course, follows in his father’s footsteps but proves to be a much more Machiavellian and ruthless Mafia leader. Thematically, Part II presents the breakdown of role that family plays in modern society, which is initially illustrated by the jacked-up marriages of Connie and Fredo (John Cazale). Later on, Michael’s marriage also disintegrates when Kay finally comes to the conclusion that her husband will never change and take the family to legitimacy as promised. Kay even aborts Michael’s third child to cut short the Corleone legacy of violence and also because she knew Michael would never forgive her, so she would be released from her Mafia marriage.
Like the first film, Part II opens at the celebration of Anthony’s first communion, which is yet another scene that illustrates the empty displays of religious belief by the Corleone family. Like his father, Michael puts on a public display of these Catholic sacraments in an attempt to legitimize his family. During the festivities, Michael, like his father, privately conducts business in his shadowy offices. The enigmatic face of the youngest Corleone son, now the head of the family, almost completely disappears into the frame’s darkness as he shrouds his full presence from his opponents.
In flashbacks, Coppola shows us how the criminal traditions of Sicily had followed Vito into America and amplified the struggles of immigrants. After assassinating the Black Hand extortionist, Vito begins his rise to power and an irrevocable life of crime. As Part II progresses, we watch Michael continue to ascend the criminal ladder as he simultaneously descends further in his corruption. Towards the end of Part II, both Vito and Michael avenge earlier acts of treachery. Vito kills the Sicilian Mafia boss, who murdered his family, upon returning to Sicily to exact vengeance against those who murdered his family and father. Michael was compelled to avenge the attempt on his father’s life. Both were pulled into a corrupted way of life by a seemingly inescapable Sicilian pattern of vengeance.
By the end of the film, Michael controls his world of organized crime after having killed many enemies, including his arch rival, Hyman Roth. For the treachery of his remaining brother, Fredo, Michael orders him killed and, from a window in his Lake Tahoe compound, Michael stonily watches as his enforcer, Al Neri (Richard Bright), does the deed. As Michael sits alone and remorseless in his isolated compound, his victories are meaningless; he is without the respect of American society that he and Vito both so desperately wanted. More importantly, Michael has lost his family, having destroyed everything in his desperate bid to protect them from the horrors of the world. Alone with his bittersweet success and tattered memories of the past, Michael remains wrapped in a prison of self-righteousness. Michael was always convinced throughout both of the first two films that all of his crimes were motivated by his desire to protect those that he loved. However, at this point, his acts have all but destroyed his family. Michael isn’t quite a tragic hero yet, but his successes have come at quite a steep price and the true American dream still eludes him.
The Godfather: Part III (1990): “Just when I thought I was out, They pull me back in.”
This third installment, while nowhere near as close to perfect as the first two Godfather films, is still a bloody wonderful movie. Well, it is. If you go and watch it again, you’ll probably reach the common conclusion that it’s not as “bad” as you seem to recall. Coppola and Puzo probably got a bit too crazy with interweaving of the film’s plot with historical intricacies of the Vatican Banking scandal, but, altogether, the third film truly pulls the entire multi-generational saga together and provides a proper ending for the tragic figure of Michael.
At the beginning of the film, Michael is inducted into the Order of St. Sebastian as a Knight because of his sizable donation to the Roman Catholic church in the name of the “Vito Corleone Foundation.” Afterwards, we are reintroduced to the remaining Corleone family members at a celebratory party. In the absence of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Connie has stepped in as Michael’s confidante and ally. We also meet Vincent (Andy Garcia), a character conceived by Puzo and Coppola for this sequel. Supposedly, Vincent was conceived within the first film, up against a wall and during Connie’s wedding reception, by Sonny Corleone (James Caan) and Lucy Mancini (Jeannie Linero). Vincent is Michael’s heir apparent as the head of the Corleone crime family, and, as such, Coppola crafted him as a combination of the four Corleone men: the temper of Sonny, the smarts of Vito, the calculations of Micheal, and the warmth of Fredo. At first, Vincent is clearly the family’s black sheep, but he slowly and cleverly edges his way into the family business by methodically eliminating Michael’s enemies and also seducing his daughter, Mary.
While Michael himself appears to have changed quite a bit in the 20 years since he sat alone in his Lake Tahoe compound, his essence hasn’t changed so much as his own perception of it. As stated above, Michael has always been on the prowl for a sort of redemption in the form of legitimacy, but his tone switches from conspiratorial (in Part II) to confessional (In Part III). Michael’s suffering and search for redemption are spawned by the full realization and sheer magnitude of his errors of judgment. Never before had he admitted to the awfulness of his deeds and, indeed, had always justified them as completely necessary to protect his own family. Michael truly thought he was doing the right thing to protect them, but as the family head, he led almost exclusively with his mind and not nearly enough with his heart. In this third film, Michael is struggling to cope with the fact that, despite his actions, everyone in his wake always ends up dead. Previously, Michael always thought his love for his family would insulate him from lapses in judgment, but now he finally questions whether all of his murderous acts, all the way back to avenging the attempt on his father’s life, were entirely the wrong solution. During the whole of those first two films, Michael singularly focused upon his family’s future safety, and he was so convinced that he is doing the right thing that it blinded him to the possibility of being wrong.
After traveling to the same Sicilian village (standing in for Corleone) that appears in the other two movies, Michael now wonders where he went wrong and whether it was his heart or mind that betrayed him and led him to do evil. This anguish is the source of Michael’s monologue as he kneels alone by the coffin of a lifelong cohort:
Goodbye my old friend. You could have lived a little longer, I could be closer to my dream. You were so loved, Don Tommasino. Why was I so feared, and you so loved? What was it? I was no less honorable. I wanted to do good. What betrayed me? My mind? My heart? Why do I condemn myself so? I swear, on the lives of my children: Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin, no more.
As an individual, Michael pretty much realizes that he doesn’t deserve redemption in the eyes of God, but he does ask for a chance at forgiveness. Just as with all of his seemingly monstrous acts as Don Corleone, Michael is largely trying to secure his family’s future. Now, he’s realizing that, despite everything that he’s done and all of the people that he’s killed to protect his family, they are still in danger. All of the murders he committed were, in his mind, the only thing that could have kept the Corleone family in power and from certain extinction, whether perceived or real. Now, even this chance at redemption that Michael seeks isn’t really for his benefit either. Ultimately, all that Michael wants is to die with the knowledge that the future generations will be free from the burdens of his evil acts.
Meanwhile, Michael has also been attempting to buy his way into public legitimacy, also in the interest of his family’s future. Through the Vatican, Michael aims to be the controlling shareholder of Immobilare, a shady European real-estate conglomerate who, in utter hypocrisy, begins all meetings with a prayer. Eventually, Michael realizes that he’s merely made a lateral move from his Mafia leadership to an equally corrupt way of business with a faux-religious pretext. The hypocrisy of the church itself, ironically, parallels that of the Corleones throughout each of the films. Somehow, despite all of his family’s empty displays of religion, Michael now expects that the church, either in its secular or spiritual sense, can some how cure the future from his past sins and secure the Corleones’ future legitimacy. Unfortunately, despite Michael’s intelligence and ability to reason, he is quite wrong in this instance.
The Godfather: Part III, therefore, illustrates the immutability of Michael’s entrance into a life of crime. As Michael nears death, he comes to the terrible realization that, no matter what he does, nothing can erase his terrible deeds or protect his family from their future effects. Still, Michael’s unquenchable desire as a protector continues to drive additional futile attempts at legitimacy. Inevitably, despite outward appearances of the Corleone family edging out of the criminal underworld, Michael’s children (specifically, Mary) will ultimately pay for the sins of their father. Just like Vito, who never wanted the Mafia life for his youngest son, Michael himself is running out of time, and he needs a successor, pronto, and, by the way, he’d certainly like Mary to stop making out with her cousin, Vincent, if that’s not too much to ask.
At this point, Michael makes his final mistake by passing down the Corleone throne to Vincent. For what it’s worth, the fact that Sofia Coppola plays Mary awkwardly and, well, unprofessionally, actually adds to the doubt concerning Vincent’s motives in succeeding Michael as Don Corleone. Vincent, who is very handsome and something of a womanizer, may have been a Corleone outsider for most of his life, but he gets to know Michael well enough to figure out his weakness, family, and, more specifically, his two children. Vincent, I am convinced, never had more than a passing affection for Mary but, instead, used her as a pawn, so that Michael would offer him succession if Vincent would break things off with Mary. So, just after Michael had sworn on his children’s lives, he almost immediately hands over control of all Corleone family affairs to Vincent, who had already proven himself to be just as impulsive and hotheaded as his father. As a leader, Vincent is sure to return the Corleones to their violent past. What’s even worse is that, while Michael doesn’t tell Vincent to kill anyone after becoming Godfather, he knows of Vincent’s violent tendencies and doesn’t exactly stop him. Michael’s ultimate sin is one of omission, and he pays for it with his daughter’s life.
Meanwhile, the family prepares to watch Michael’s son, Anthony, make his opera debut in Sicily, and Michael’s enemies hire an assassin to kill him at the opera house. For his part, Vincent knows the drill and arranges to have his underlings settle all family business (this time, he means it, dammit!) during the opera, which just happens to portray a vendetta in a Sicilian village and ends up running parallel to the offstage montage of violence. So, we get one final bloodbath, much like the endings of the first two films. Initially, the assassin fails to kill Michael during the performance but makes another attempt outside the opera house, hitting Michael in the shoulder and fatally wounding Mary, who dies in Michael’s arms from a bullet meant for him. In killing Mary, Coppola aimed to punish Michael to a far greater degree than by merely killing him. Instead, now Michael must continue to live with the torturous knowledge that his daughter died for his sins.
So, the tragic hero is now fully qualified. Michael made that fateful decision, decades earlier, to protect his family by avenging his father’s attempted murder, and he’s spent his life, and the life of others, paying for it. Even though Michael spends his last years desperately trying to peddle backwards, he just can’t turn back the clock to that moment before he fired that gun during the first film. As Vito Corleone lamented, there just isn’t enough time for that. Through Michael, however, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola created three films of epic nature that not only revolve around one of the greatest antiheroes of all time but also make a damn riveting qualifier for The Real Greatest Trilogy of All Time. Sorry, Evil Dead, but we’ll see you soon.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can also be found at agentbedhead.com.
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