My wife and I recently decided we should take a break from the ephemera that Hollywood continuously churns out and devote our movie viewing to films with a longer shelf life than the proverbial carton of milk. We printed out The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American films of all time and rented the first one neither of us had seen -- The Godfather. I was expecting a thrilling tale full of gunfights and extortion, bodies dumped on lonely roads and lots of Italian-American culture. In other words, all of the archetypes of Mafia crime stories. And Francis Ford Copolla’s epic gave them to me in spades. But it also gave me something I didn’t expect. My wife and I were quiet as the closing credits rolled, and when I asked her what she was thinking, she said, “We just got done watching a tragedy, didn’t we?”
It may be difficult to think of a story that concludes with the protagonist amassing huge amounts of power, prestige and wealth as a tragedy. But Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone loses his longtime goal of an existence apart from organized crime due to an overweening love of family. It's a love that barely considers the depth of evil in which the objects of its affection are mired. Though Michael thrives outwardly, his hope for a legitimate life traces the descents of Othello, Macbeth and Lear. Only the context changes, soliloquies being replaced by stilettos.
Archetypal critics like to argue that narratives can’t help but fall into such patterns. (See Northrop Frye’s monomyth, on which he claimed one could place the structure of every sort of story.) But while these theorists have interesting insights, they also have a tendency to crowbar texts into artificially narrow readings and a difficult time explaining the existence of noir and horror. No, The Godfather seems to intentionally turn genre’s conventions towards weighty matters of ethics and identity, themes mankind has explored for thousands of years. And why shouldn’t it? Should genre lovers cede the deep things to ivory tower intellectuals just because they happen to like knights and zombies and hard-bitten PIs? No, that’s an offer we must refuse.
(Picture: CC 2006 by mueredecine)