Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Vista Stretches On and On

Note: For those who haven't seen The Godfather: Part II, please note that there is a spoiler in the third paragraph.

I've occasionally mentioned on ISLF a former sweater-vest-loving Lit prof who rarely missed an opportunity to deride
interminable books. It didn't matter whether the work in question was classic or nouveau. If strayed into bloated territory, he would castigate it as indulgent and hardly worth his time. While it was fun to watch him rip into big names (neither Dante nor Melville escaped his ire), I didn't exactly understand his irritation. Sure, lengthiness was a flaw, but did it really merit such a reaction? Now having watched The Godfather: Part II (yet another cinematic selection plucked from the American Film Institute's Top 100 list) I believe I understand a little better.

My first thought was that Netflix had made a mistake. We subscribe to the el cheapo, one-DVD-at-a-time plan, so why had I received two in the mail? Upon realizing they both had the same title stamped on them, I guessed I must've received a special edition chock full of interviews and other goodies. But, no, a friend told me, Francis Ford Coppola's return to the underworld of Michael Corleone really was that long, nearly a full three-and-a-half hours. So my wife and I partitioned off a couple evenings and settled on the sofa to watch.

The film deserves its place in history, no doubt about it. From Coppola's cinematography to Pacino's smoldering performance to the thematic poignancy of a life undermined by its own decisions, the movie is compelling. One particularly striking scene comes when Michael realizes his wife's loss of an unborn child wasn't due to miscarriage: "Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion, something that's unholy and evil. I didn't want your son, Michael. I wouldn't bring another one of your sons into this world!"

A compelling movie, yes -- but not a potent one. Every time Part II rises to an engaging peak, it soon slides back down into the flat and mundane. Any sense of narrative structure falls away as the film continues to expand. (A congressional inquiry into the Corleone syndicate arrived so abruptly that my wife and I both wondered if we'd missed something.) This, I think, is why my professor preferred pithiness to length, retrenchment to expansion. Excellence is difficult to sustain over a great span. When the vista stretches on and on, even the mountains look scarcely higher than the plains.

(Picture: CC 1986 by


pattinase (abbott) said...

Tell it in two hours. That's more than enough time.

pattinase (abbott) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scattercat said...

I, personally, have always been more drawn to spare elegance than baroque extravagance. Tastes vary, of course, and sometimes I like a good bit of overindulgence. ("Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" comes to mind.) Still, making ones words or images work double or triple duty is always a more impressive feat, in my mind, than spinning a complex web.

Loren Eaton said...


I'm in general agreement. There are some worthy films that are longer, but usually the old cliche holds true: Less really is more.

Loren Eaton said...


Spare prose can be really fun (Terry Bisson does it well), but I enjoy a little complexity from time to time. William Gibson's tangled prose is wonderful, yet even he knows not to run into an insane page count.

B. Nagel said...

I've heard over and over and over that short stories are harder than long form fiction. And I wonder whether that's because readers let more slide in novels.

But this post isn't about an overlong, poorly executed story. It's about a fantastic story that just goes on . And on. And on.

That's where editors come in handy.

Loren Eaton said...

That they are, but how does one cut Francis Ford Coppolla after he made something like The Godfather? I think it's the same problem that afflicts Stephen King and JK Rowling -- success. Once you've written good stories and sold lots of copies (or tickets), people become afraid to edit you.