May I suggest an acronym? "The Hollywood Establishment's Glorification Of Downright Fascists As Tragic Heroes Exceeds Reason".
-- Dale Thomajan (via Theo Panayides)
Recently I watched The Godfather (my second viewing, and the first in probably eight years or so). I'm not a FF Coppola fan; I haven't seen everything and maybe I'll love One for the Heart whenever I get around to it, but the "master" who made four of the greatest films of the (allegedly) greatest period of American cinema just does very little for me. So revisiting The Godfather over the weekend, while hardly the painful experience my most pessimistic self had been hardening myself for, was for all intents and purposes a fairly cool three hours. What can I say? I honestly can't say much about the film, one way or the other. But here are a few notes it sparked.
There's a certain stance that Coppola's film takes toward the mobsters that reappears in and structures I think almost every other contemporary American mobster movie (including what I've seen of The Sopranos): a frisson between the comfort and ritual of family life--eyetalians and all their surrogate relatives (and there are always outsiders let in a certain ways: James Caan in The Godfather, De Niro in GoodFellas), the pasta dinners and feisty little grandmas and mistresses and the Church; and the brutal and basically romanticized violence of that other kind of "family life," the beatings and killings, the money movement, the drugs/gambling/theft. The two are frequently played off of each other; no sequence could possibly exemplify it better than the famous Godfather baptism sequence. In fact the baptism sequence literalizes what is often, I think, an unforced, maybe even unacknowledged source of energy and drama in these works--drawing in people through comforts of ritual and familiarity (dinnertime, mundane things like the "everyday" problems of the Soprano family), through certain family values (tribalist, socially authoritarian: everyone from Sonny to Scarface has got to look out for his sister), and then using the credit won in that account to take us "into" the minds of the mobsters--recto capitalist gangsters to the Enron/Halliburton verso. Likewise perhaps there's a basic consumer-pleasing element, a kind of wish fulfilment, in the reverse: that the violence and crime are sprinkled throughout certain reflections of mundane middle-class life. It seems like a perfectly reproducible, workable formula; Scorsese and The Sopranos are compulsively watchable; I wonder why there aren't more mob movies and shows like this.
I type all this in not as a means of trying to attack the likes of Scorsese, Chase, Coppola, etc. There are worthy parts to all their work; but I'm not concerned in this instance with the bottom line of quality obviously, but with the meaning and functions of certain generic (even "authorially" generic) elements in a certain framework. What propels these mob movies forward; why are they so often balanced in this way; is this particular balance of 'family life' perspectives a defining structural feature of the 1970-present mob film?
Exceptions: Abel Ferrara (whose mob films are just of a different order altogether: a different creature) and, at least, the first two features by James Gray (his third hits American screens in October). Little Odessa and The Yards are excellent films that I have watched only once; they are--especially the latter--perfectly fine narrative films, a little Oscar-bait even; they also appeared on first go-round exceptionally smart and clear-eyed about family life, family love, money, mob/metropolitan politics and strings-pulling. I keep meaning to Netflix these two films, analyze them more closely, and write a little about them ...
And one caveat: I have not yet seen Once Upon a Time in America, I always miss it when it comes to the repertory scene here and I really would prefer to see it on the big screen.