Thursday, September 25, 2008
Live Happily For A Hundred Years
They ran the restored versions of both THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II at the Cinerama Dome this past week and there was never any question that I was going to go. I was lucky enough to see the new version of the first film a year ago, so even though going to that one wasn’t a necessity, I still figured I’d kick myself in a week if I didn’t. And besides, there’s something to be said for seeing the two films in such close proximity in a venue like that, all the better to heighten the ‘one big film’ feeling. Still, I was looking forward to seeing PART II much more since it had been a while. As expected, it was beautiful.
Seeing the two so close together reminds me how there are some films which always stay with you, where you know that they will continue to gain in resonance as you revisit them through your life. They’ll change as you change. I’ve preferred PART II for a long time, but I understand why somebody prefers the first film. It’s a work of pulp mastery, but it’s also more fun, more quotable. The things that I look forward to in PART II after seeing it who knows how many times—the immigrants standing silent before the Statue of Liberty, the gold telephone being passed around, “That man’s name was Moe Greene!”, Robert Duvall and Michael Gazzo smoking cigars, “Michael Corleone says hello!”—are of course memorable, but they all seem to have deeper meanings to them than the equivalent scenes in the first film. But for me, if you don’t have the first film, you don’t have the second film and then you don’t have that final flashback just before the end. And as James Caan’s Sonny steps into frame, placing back in 1941 on Pearl Harbor Day I always feel this tiny bit of happiness in the back of my head as we’re back in the days that we want to be in, the fun times. I want to follow the family into the other room so we can see Brando and have dinner with everyone. But I know we can’t. I know why we stay in the room with Al Pacino’s Michael. At the Dome the other night it occurred to me for the first time that it was this scene, what everything that’s happened in the preceding three-plus hours has built to, which is the reason more than anything why I prefer PART II, why for me it’s probably one of the best films of all time.
And even with that, on this viewing it was the De Niro flashbacks as young Vito Corleone which stood out to me this time. The way these sections seem to eschew plot for a simple, organic layout of the character’s life and ascent to power allow you to just soak in the moments such as the rickety stage performance of Senza Mamma, the comic exasperation of TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE’s Leopoldo Trieste as the landlord Signor Roberto or simply the grace moment as we follow De Niro through the street celebration after his final confrontation with Don Fanucci. And when Vito Corleone returns to Sicily, as we tour the olive oil plant the Nino Rota score seems to come to an ultimate culmination of triumph and anticipation of tragedy. For me, it’s a moment of pure cinematic rapture. It’s possible that I found myself drawn to the flashbacks so much because they are never locked into the plot machinations of the 1959-60 storyline. I still don’t think I can follow everything in the Hyman Roth/Frank Pentangeli/Rosato Brothers conflict. Of course, in the end I don’t care. How can I care when we’re faced with the power of Michael V.Gazzo in that post-dinner scene when he’s “had too much wine” and makes that observation about Michael sitting up there in the mountains drinking champagne cocktails.
A year ago I wrote about how there had always been minor technical issues which bugged me about THE GODFATHER and that, to me, it felt like the new restoration essentially took care of them. THE GODFATHER PART II was a much more expensive, elaborate production and while it’s on record that it was in no way an easy shoot—the production filmed over nine months in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Santo Domingo, Italy and Sicily—it always felt to me like the logistics of it held together better, making for a sturdier final result. As a result, the chief achievement from my vantage point with this restoration has been bringing the Gordon Willis cinematography back to its full glory. The darkness adds to the experience in a way I never felt before, especially near the end at Lake Tahoe when Fredo goes out fishing for the last time, the cold light of dusk gives the feel that the sun is setting for the last time ever and any sort of brightness will never be seen again.
The film was essentially the same GODFATHER PART II that I’ve always known, with no changes to the material but it was still revelatory to see on that huge screen--you need it to see the ever-growing quiver on Pacino's mouth as Diane Keaton's Kay tells him about the truth about the baby. The one difference for me was that the restored version contained an intermission which had never been there in the revival screenings I’d seen (of course, I wouldn’t know if it was in there during the original release). It wasn’t difficult to figure out where the intermission would come since it’s a moment (the end of the Don Fanucci flashback) which contains a musical crescendo that lends itself to curtains closing. That’s where the break comes on the DVD release from several years ago (I haven’t seen the new one yet) but it was certainly never there on any other version I’d seen and a letterboxed VHS cassette I rented in the late 90s had tape one end at the conclusion of the Cuba sequence.
Like THE GODFATHER, there’s extremely little I could say about PART II which hasn’t been said before and it’s hard not to lapse into just a list of scenes and shots, which maybe I already have. So what I’m left with are observations of moments that I’ve seen way too many times and my own private feelings of why I still respond to it. As well as why the reasons for that will be different as the years go on. “Times are changing,” Michael Corleone muses to his mother at one point. Of course, they always are.