The Godfather (1972)

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Many years ago, probably back in high school, I read The Godfather – the novel, that is.  I don’t know why.  Maybe there was a copy hanging around the house, maybe my brother had read it.  Or maybe, as in my current project, I’d learned that it was a cultural icon and thought that I should experience it somehow, in writing if I couldn’t see the film.

I have a terrible memory for books, so I don’t recall now whether I liked it or whether it left an impression on me at all.  The horse head stands out, not necessarily because of how gruesome it was (and let’s just start with, how could you possibly not notice that a horse head was crammed under your bedsheets until morning?) but because of how frequently that scene had been referenced or parodied.  There’s like five big scenes and lines from this film that have been churned out and run through a parody generator for virtually every comedy act in the past forty years.  More mythos without context.

Given that, I was surprised at how readily I could get immersed in the mafia world.  It’s distasteful, of course, and its true appeal leans more on the hyper-masculine side with the gunfights and macho postures and vendettas.  Mario Puzo supposedly knew actual members of the Mafia, from which he drew the information for many books on the subject.  I feel like there must be some kind of modern equivalent – militia groups or terrorist organizations or something – where you just throw together a bunch of angry men and guns and see what happens.  Maybe there’s an evolutionary advantage in that.

Several years ago I read an article about some kind of sociological study of how immigrants transition from illegal or illegitimate means of making money (too bad I don’t know how to go about finding it again).  I believe the gist of it was that even those who are involved in sketchy means of employment early in their American experience, they quickly become upstanding citizens as soon as the opportunity arises.  Working for the mob essentially is just the hustle you do to reach the American dream.

Michael Corleone did not read that article.  It’s an odd story, essentially, in that Michael is not the hero through whose eyes we see the sordid world of his father’s Mafia.  Instead, he’s the one who could have escaped (and, it seems, was supposed to escape) but gets drawn back into the same old fight.  I tried to figure how what it was that drove that change.  His decision to avenge his father is definitely part of it, but even that could have been a one-shot deal.  Somehow, he returns from his exile in Sicily as if he’s been initiated into the secret club.  He even looks more godfatherly.  Michael learns how to be ruthless.

I found myself wanting to know more about the women in the story – like the poor Sicilian woman (did she even have a name?) that Michael decides to marry and who pretty much never speaks.  How did they tolerate this life of violence and uncertainty?  And (spoiler alert), the movie leaves us on the poor, naïve Kay, who also decides to marry Michael despite having learned pretty much the worst of his family.  What the hell was she thinking?

Oh, yeah, Marlon Brando was also in this movie.  Though I associate him most with this movie (before having watched it, obvs), he didn’t seem to play much of an active role in the story, except as the scary patriarch who everybody avoids because they don’t want to make him mad.

 

Theme:  Marlon Brando

First Time Watching?  Yes, but not reading

Final Verdict:  Can’t refuse

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On the Waterfront (1954)

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Technically, my first experience of Marlon Brando was watching Superman as a kid, not that I would have had any clue who he was then.  Later, in my grad school Shakespeare class, we watched bits of Julius Caesar, where he famously portrayed Mark Antony.  But beyond that, I mostly know him only from the Truman Capote profile in The New Yorker.

Capote has his own mythos surrounding him, in much the same way as Brando – the center of everyone’s attention in New York City.  While Capote placed himself at the heart of a web of society, almost reveling in the fakeness of it all, Brando went the other way, receding ever deeper into seclusion of his own making.  You can almost see that moment of decision in the profile (though it’s probably more interesting to read about how it came about).

Anyway, I thought about that sort of mythos a lot as I watched On the Waterfront.  There’s that famous line, about the contender and the bum, and I found myself wondering, every time somebody used one of those words (happens more than you’d expect in this movie) when the famous moment would come.  Like so many other iconic scenes in cinematic history, when it comes, and you already know to expect it, it’s kind of a disappointment.

Brando plays Terry Malloy, a longshoreman whose older brother is right-hand man to a mobster.  The mob runs everything in New York, including the longshoremen’s union.  He decides to stand up to the mob, and embarks on a Christ-like journey that is inspiring, but also kind of futile.

One of the thoughts attributed to Brando in Capote’s profile, as he laments the idea of being a movie star and not making some kind of meaningful art, is “Movies date so quickly.”  It’s true – how many of these Best Pictures will we watch in another forty years?  That’s not a criticism of movies per se, so much as of entertainment or history of any kind.  The things of contemporary life that survive us are not necessarily those we would choose, or expect.  Much of the profile focuses on Brando’s current film, Sayonara, based on a novel by James Michener.  Both have faded into the mists of the twentieth century.

I guess I’m also thinking about the idea of legacy, thanks to my recent stint of (finally!) listening to Hamilton.  Brando has this legacy of brilliance, but what did he really do that lasts?  What makes him so much better than the other actors of the time, if not simply the story that everyone tells of his superiority?  He’s the kid sitting on top of the pile of candy, maybe buying into the mythos a bit, maybe not, but ultimately, like anything mythical creature, he’s forever alone.

 

Theme:  Marlon Brando

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Contender or bum?