Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they figure out how the only sequel featured on the list changes the way we view the original.
In the #31 (tied with Taxi Driver) movie on the list, Michael Corleone continues his ascent as the head of the family while descending into a personal hell.
But why is it one of the best movies of all time?
Landon: So we’ve arrived at the first and only sequel on our list. And The Godfather: Part II definitely follows the major rule of a sequel: go bigger. Spanning two generations, a library of supporting characters, and multiple countries, this 3.5 hour film is clearly built from the success of the first. Let’s start with the age-old question: is bigger necessarily better?
Scott: Well it let them hire a Senate committee and overthrow a dictator, but even beyond that I’d argue that bigger works better in this case. The movie is still firmly invested in its characters, but the stakes are disproportionally expanded. We’re not dealing with cannoli and hidden toilet guns anymore.
Landon: Agreed. In many ways, it’s expansive on the former film’s themes: the tension between assimilation and heritage, but on a much grander scale.
Scott: The borders are farther apart.
Landon: One thing that’s obviously different about this film (and a point of contention for those who find Part I superior) is that it’s structure is much looser. Vito’s story has something on an arc, but Michael’s is mostly a character study, a detailed portrait of gradual descent and loss.
Scott: Very gradual. But despite the structural differences, I’ve always struggled to see them as two separate movies.
Landon: As one sweeping epic novel about a family? Or as a long story of a single character?
Scott: How about a sweeping epic about a family anchored by a single character? I don’t deny that there are tonal differences, but the structure of the second movie as a prequel and a sequel makes me think about it as the second half of a single movie even more.
The Godfather ends with Michael getting his capos and ascending to his leadership position, Godfather II opens with a Communion party and Michael mirroring Vito’s duties from the first. Even though there’s a jump in time, you could glue the two together and simply keep watching if you have 375 minutes to spare.
Landon: They did that, but they included The Film That Shall Not Be Named. But of course, making The Godfather linear totally takes the effect away of paralleling Vito and Michael’s stories.
Scott: Right. My solution is just to chop off credits and go scene-to-scene. The non-linear nature of the second half makes complete sense considering we’ve come to know the family intimately over the course of the first.
Landon: And I’ve always viewed the first two as one film as well (the first the rise, the second the fall), but an article you sent me a few months back made me think of Part II a bit differently.
Scott: I don’t remember, but I’ll take credit. What changed?
Landon: Richard Brody argued that The Godfather is the basis for the “complicated men” characters we continually see on serious TV (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) by presenting us characters who are not heroes, but morally complex, which engenders our fascination.
I think Brody’s point was exactly one film off. Michael in The Godfather: Part II closely resembles the Drapers and Sopranos of television (and Walter White since, say, episode 4): he’s a complex, morally compromised character that is capable of horrible things and completely compelling.
Scott: And in the first we get to see the events that shape (or draw out) that darker side.
Landon: Yes, and it’s in this respect that I see Part II as a decidedly less romantic version (or even a cynical corrective) of Part I.
Scott: Corrective? Do you mean that it changes it?
Landon: I mean that it, to a degree, complicates or even dismantles the romanticism we see in Part I. Tradition and family and ways of doing things play a big role in the first film. And the characters themselves are nostalgic (for Sicily, for the past) and they assert this nostalgia in their principles (Don Vito’s rules about dealing heroin, for example). We take their romanticism about their heritage by their authority alone, their imbuing of tradition, be it at weddings or baptisms.
Scott: It also gives us a moral anchor to hold onto even as bullets and horse heads fly. We can look at the Corleone family and think, “Hey! At least they aren’t peddling bad drugs!”
Landon: Exactly, the end of Prohibition forced new terms to be created for the good gangster. But in Part II, besides the issue of culture and heritage (which is indeed a big one), Vito’s and Michael’s respective ways of doing things aren’t all that different. When we see Vito’s life, it’s perhaps lensed in this romantic and nostalgic way, but the vision itself is more complicated. I’m thinking for instance about his revenge on the Sicilian mob boss who killed his family. It’s so awful and pathetic. There’s not even the slightest tinge of narrative satisfaction to it. His murder of the mob boss in Little Italy is glorious, but with this man in Sicily, it’s like gutting a cow.
Scott: But I wonder if that’s simply because we know Michael better. We’ve seen his downfall, Vito can afford to be tied to the “innocent” past, and there’s a certain level of detachment that he earns.Or maybe because Part II had to Empire the first (before Star Wars existed).
Does it injure Part I for you?
Landon: No, I like the way it complicates Part I, especially in that birthday party scene we flash back to at the end. We talked previously in this column about Sal Tessio’s line about it being “just business.” Well in this film we see how Tessio, who came to betray Vito, was basically family for the orphan Vito. Well before Fredo’s betrayal, brother had already betrayed brother. The significant difference here is that it’s between so-called protagonists.
Scott: That’s why you never ask who put the hit out.
Landon: Exactly. It seems to me that Part II illustrates how the traditions, the narratives of heritage, and the principles are a world that these characters make for themselves that masks the essential and largely unchanging brutality of the lives they live. It’s a sequel that not only continues or expands upon the former, but is in active conversation with it.
Scott: Here’s the thing. I agree with you for the most part – but for me the conversational shift in the second film essentially says, “So you thought Michael was a likable guy, huh?” much in the same way we’ve been asked about Walter White, et al.
Landon: I see that. Michael is an absolutely convincing hero type in the first who becomes an antihero in the last few minutes, and his overall arc does resemble Walter White’s. But with Draper and Soprano (and in other shows like Low Winter Sun), the character is already an antihero when we meet them, already compromised – and that seems to resonate with Part II if we see it as a solo film (which is, admittedly, impossible).
Scott: Now I want to see if we can split all of it up into 44-minute chunks.
Landon: Haha. As long as these films are, they really are incomplete on their own. Though I’ve been saying it for years as a fan, it’s an odd thing to say Part II is better than Part I, as all of its meaning only resonates in connection with Part I. Also, Coppola released The Conversation the same year (which is insane), and I think some of the darkness, paranoia, and cynicism particular to that brilliant film is present here as well.
Scott: Well, that’s a weird caveat with all sequels. One that trips up the ones that are better than the predecessor. It can be amazing, it can be an improvement, but it couldn’t have existed without the first.
Landon: It can also make you wonder when Robert De Niro started to look like Marlon Brando. I assume his cheeks and jaw expanded at some point in the 30s.
Scott: All that going to the mattresses. And chewing marbles.
Landon: A closing question about something that I’ve always wondered.What did Fredo do, exactly? Tell some hitmen when Michael’s bedtime was? Did he somehow keep the blinds open himself?
Scott: Hahaha. I think he read it in the script.
Landon: I did some research to try to figure it out. It turns out Fredo is just some actor named John Cazale.
The Godfather: Part II: worst documentary ever.
Scott: Now that definitely steals all the romance out of the first.
Next Time: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver