Wednesday, August 29, 2007
According to the novel THE GODFATHER, Connie Corleone’s wedding takes place on “the last Saturday in August 1945”. I’m not sure if it ever gets any more exact than that, but this bit of chronology makes the end of the month the perfect time to revisit THE GODFATHER yet again. Not that there’s a point in the calendar that isn’t ideal to revisit the film, but I’m going to choose to read something into it: THE GODFATHER begins in late August, so in some ways what you need to do should begin in late August. Time to get your act together. Otherwise, by the time Christmas comes around you just may yourself being garroted at a bar just after being offered some pre-war Scotch. All right, the metaphor doesn’t really make sense. It doesn’t matter. “I can’t have this conversation again,” said Tony Soprano once, when Paulie asked him what his favorite scene was. But moments later Tony is reminiscing about it anyway. THE GODFATHER does that. Sometimes you need to return to THE GODFATHER.
The important news is that THE GODFATHER has been given the full 4K restoration treatment by Robert A. Harris. Despite a theatrical re-release in 1997 and DVD box set of the trilogy in 2001, Harris would comment in interviews about the terrible shape the film was in—there’s a 2000 interview with The Onion, where he refers to the state the film was in as being “a mess…THE GODFATHER was butchered by the laboratories. It was handled horribly, like a piece of garbage”, something I’m sure was a factor in this occurring. It’s a fair statement to make that this restoration marks a hugely important event for cinema.
Though I only know as much about the making of THE GODFATHER as I’ve read in various books and articles published on the subject, repeated viewings of the film (I’ve seen it countless times on cable, tape, DVD along with four or five theatrical viewings) has made it seem more and more as if there were technical issues always involved with the physical production, maybe indicating how much was repeatedly redone in the cutting room. Some shots that didn’t seem to cut exactly right, some scenes that seemed looped after the fact, that sort of thing. This is not an issue of quality, so much a growing awareness of a film that had problems in the making and it occasionally flows over into the final product. Maybe some of this had to do with the generation of prints that I was seeing and with the inferior film stocks that were the norm during this period of the 70s.
Seeing the film in this new version screened at the Paramount Theater on Melrose Tuesday night, those problems feel less present than ever before. The colors pop off the screen, the darkness feels richer. It’s not a case of making the film look more slick—that’s not what THE GODFATHER is about. But it now looks more like the film that it is supposed to be. Even a few minor issues have been dealt with; there’s a close-up of Diane Keaton late in the film, when Al Pacino shows up at the New Hampshire school she teaches at looking for her, that has always looked misframed, as if there was a lab error. For a long time I’ve wondered, is it just me or does that shot look wrong? I suppose I have my answer, because the shot now looks framed correctly. For the record, there have been no alterations or extensions to the film, with the exception of a new Paramount logo and additional restoration credits during the end crawl. With THE GODFATHER, changes are not necessary.
Here’s one minor issue with the film: in the opening scene, just after the first shot of Brando, I found myself noticing the sound of birds chirping on the soundtrack. After trying to sort out this bit of audio, I began wondering, how can we hear birds? Isn’t the wedding taking place outside? Then, when the door to Vito Corleone’s study opening for the first time, letting the sounds of the festivities in, I realized for the first time in numerous viewings how the audio for the opening moments seemed very carefully calculated. Later scenes in the study during the wedding let the music bleed into the room, but not letting us hear the sounds during the opening moments, while not totally logical, is actually rather brilliant. Which makes the sound of chirping birds in the first scene of the film all the more annoying. After that, it was hard not to hear them throughout during sections set at the Corleone compound. I checked my DVD and the I did heard the birds in some scenes…but not when Brando is first introduced. That said, much of the sound work throughout is impeccable—even things I had heard many times before, like Sterling Hayden’s first line of dialogue (“I thought I got all you guinea hoods locked up!”) shoots out with a tone and force that is genuinely startling. And many of the gunshots during the baptism montage have a force like never before, particularly when Moe Greene gets it in the eye. On the DVD it feels like a pop—now it sounds like a ricochet into my skull. That my biggest complaint with this restoration is the sound of birds chirping in one scene has to say something about the level of care and artistry that went into this endeavor.
There’s very little I could say about THE GODFATHER which hasn’t been said before except for personal observations, something I’ll do another time. For now, I’ll simply say that the film remains as great as it is. THE GODFATHER is one of those films which remind you that the idea of film as an art form can be something worth fighting for. And now, it’s time to get my act together.