Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Family Life


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.


Marilyn said...

I have always thought of mob films as urban Westerns.

ZC said...

How so? You can't drop a tantalizing line like that without filling us in!

(Also--I, of course, never offered a definition of 'mob movie' which, in immediate hindsight, makes my scattered musings somewhat less workable as material to critique...)

Marilyn said...

Hee hee. Sorry. I look at guns and brotherhoods of men as the common, defining elements of both mob movies (I define them as Mafia movies) and Westerns. Women are marginally involved, often as the icon for which the men are fighting, but nothing much more. For example, The Searchers is about the hunt for a kidnapped girl, but she barely appears and is not really an actor in her own fate.

Coppola did a very interesting thing with the first Godfather. He took Sonny's lover, a central character in Puzo's book, almost completely out of the picture. He reduces his women to abused and murdered sex objects or saintly, relatively useless mothers. Again, this is a world of "men of honor," just as in Westerns.

I don't consider Scorsese's films mob films because even the mobsters in them are marginalized from their own society, or they are wannabes, not really men of honor but rather petty criminals or legends in their own minds.

My favorite Westerns are the more complex ones, such as Ride the High Country, which chronicles the death of the legend of the West, High Noon, which shows the cause for which the hero is fighting to be a sham, or Red River, which unabashedly proclaims its homoerotic and father/son themes.

Virility is extremely important in mob and Western movies and sets them apart from other types of films. That may be why some people express surprise that I like both types of films, though I like mob films much less. I've read too much nonfiction about the Mafia to ever romanticize them.

Anonymous said...

Since Goodfellas is the least romantic of these mob movies (well, if we're not counting Prizzi's Honor), it's my favorite.

The best I can do in coming up with the emergence of this genre in the late 60s/early 70s is the familiar reactionary backlash to the threat to the primacy of family and authority via the counterculture, etc.

Alex said...

The reason why that plot is used is because there was a type of mob movie in the 1940s through early 1960s which focused on organizations as viewed through the lens of crime organizations. I.E., which eventually showed that there was little or no difference between crime and capitalist non-crime organizations. This is the theme from Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story, Fuller's Underworld USA, Karlson's The Brothers Rico, Boorman's Point Blank, etc.

Essentially, where the genre would go after that point in the early 1960s is to (properly) condemn the whole of American society as a brutal crime racket - something like Petri's Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion. The Phenix City Story is getting pretty close to that point.

What happened is that Americans clearly couldn't handle that level of criticism put in such a bold way. They wanted a vigilante with a big gun to blow away the "bad guys" (Dirty Harry) because it was unthinkable that to regard their society critically. That's why the noir tradition collapsed and people weren't able to even begin to process Cassavetes' Killing of a Chinese Bookie or Gloria.

So Coppola started reconstructing the gangster genre, which had ideologically collapsed into Dirty Harry. Since he couldn't show Revolution (or rather, Revolution against the machine was implausible after '68), he needed to ground gangsters in another way.

ZC said...

Marilyn, I suspect a lot of divergence in our Western tastes, I'm afraid. I'm overdue for a revisitation, but I actually thought High Noon was a genuinely bad, dishonest film when I saw it years ago, and I didn't like Ride the High Country particularly either (not a bad film, though). Red River is excellent of course. But to me the genre's greatest depth and complexity--aesthetic as well as thematic--comes in the works of John Ford, and after that, a bunch of others who are standard, if not always famous, auteurist heroes (like, say, Andre De Toth).

I think that, generically, and certainly in the works of great Western filmmakers (Ford, Mann, Boetticher, De Toth...) the landscape is such an incredibly expressive element, something that mob films don't replicate--or, at best, they invert it and the films become a model of interior spatial expression (back rooms, bars, warehouses at midnight, after hours, the underground: this is in fact a generalization one could probably make not simply about mob movies but crime/noir in general).

I'd hypothesize that, generically, crime (incl. mafia) movies more often say something about money, its circulation, capitalism, its enforcement and contradictions; whereas Westerns focus on history, movement (not of symbols e.g. circulation of money, but of people and materials) and communitarian/political conflicts in denatured or essentialized formats. That's not a considered judgment though, on reflection I could be quite off in this ...

Alex said...

"I'd hypothesize that, generically, crime (incl. mafia) movies more often say something about money, its circulation, capitalism, its enforcement and contradictions; whereas Westerns focus on history, movement (not of symbols e.g. circulation of money, but of people and materials) and communitarian/political conflicts in denatured or essentialized formats."

This is correct, because the Western movie is correctly imitating the actual economics of the historical West without delving into the underlying structure of the economy. The West was settled and structured by European capitalists (especially the English) in a worldwide agribusiness effort that also built up the Argentinean cattle industry, the Australian agricultural sector and many others.

But very little of this was evident or easily observable on the ground in the West at the time. Investment decisions were made in the financial capitals of the late nineteenth century (London especially) mediated through decision-makers in New York, San Francisco or Denver - i.e. capitalism remained in the city even though the West was just as much a capitalist investment as a steel mill in Sheffield or a jute plant in India.

All this is actually what drove the cliche "rancher vs. farmer" war in the Western. You rarely get any glimpse of what, economically, was actually driving that. A rare exception is Cimino's Heaven's Gate.

ZC said...

Thanks, Alex.

Heaven's Gate is another one I always seem to miss ...

Marilyn said...

Zach - I don't disagree that landscape is a vital part of the Western that is not really replicated in the mob film. That is one of the reasons I watch Westerns - for a sense of space to relieve my cramped urban existence.

I guess our taste in Westerns is quite different. I'm not as interested in the myth of the West - it doesn't engage me, and that is what I find dishonest. High Noon, for me, shows just how venal people can be, involved in their own self-interest. I think that characterizes the true history of the West in my eyes - kill and displace the Native Americans and stake out whatever you can for yourself. It is a place for the self-made man, for sure, but that's not frequently a pretty site. If you look at the modern Western from Australia, The Proposition, which I wasn't that fond of because of its violence as pornography, you'll see a very obvious depiction of beautiful landscape backing ugly human beings.

At their hearts, mobsters and cowboys are driven by the same economic imperative. Given the argument you persuasively put forward, the Western is even more capitalist (driven by back-East moneymen) than the mobster (who is really just a freelancer in many cases).

Alex said...

"At their hearts, mobsters and cowboys are driven by the same economic imperative. Given the argument you persuasively put forward, the Western is even more capitalist (driven by back-East moneymen) than the mobster (who is really just a freelancer in many cases)."

The men with guns do want money in both the gangster and Western. But: we know the West was actually settled, some sort of community however flawed did eventually arise. Of course, there are Westerns which effectively could be gangster / crime films, or vice versa. But the Western will always have that flavor of founding a city, while the gangster cannot. An interesting exception or addendum is Fritz Lang's 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, where Dr. Mabuse is the effective founder of a "society", but it's an entirely evil and perverse one.

Marilyn said...

Alex - That's true. The mob film is a much more limited genre than the Western, but I think in many instances, the comparison holds up. Rugged individualism, masculinity, settling scores at the end of a gun, lawlessness, the "family" (which started this whole thread in the first place) of the Wild West gang and the Mafia family. You can't just eliminate these strong elements from the Western to forward a theory that these films are all about settling the country.

edo said...

It's a little late to be making a comment, but hopefully someone will see it.

I have to agree with marilyn. But really the crucial difference in my opinion between the western and the gangster film is that the one is about immigrants before civilization, a new pact and pax among men is being established, while the gangster film is usually about how that pact has failed. In some way, it has bred a new kind of undesirable or untouchable, who establishes a parallel underworld society. The who is either an individual or community of individuals. I propose for argument's sake that the only real difference between the two genres is that of period, but otherwise they really are the same genre. They are variations on a formula. Different formal and historical evolutions of the same basic aspirations and concerns.

In this sense, I'm not sure the gangster film is more limited than the western, but it has been less fully explored, partially I think because its tropes have stagnated.