Monday, November 9, 2009

Films I Love To Hate

Too often, some of the best critics are asked by their readers if there is anything they actually like, since their reviews are so often negative. Some of the greatest critics - like Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, George Jean Nathan, and John Simon - were notably negative most of the time. Their reasons were the same - called on to review whatever is available every week, month or quarter means being forced to write bad reviews, since the notion that everything - every book, play or film - is worth reviewing is simply ridiculous. The result is that, out of several volumes of criticism, the critics mentioned above end up with only a handful of truly positive opinions. But having to spend most of their time tearing something to shreds must have given them a genuine taste for it.

Hereafter are some of my favorite films "I love to hate." Often they are films that I single out to deplore because they have earned a great deal of praise from a lot of very misguided people. My only advice to them, or to anyone who may still have an unformed opinion of the films, is: Look again.

The Godfather(s)

If there is one thing that Italian-Americans are in desperate need of it is an organization like the Jewish B'nai B'rith - an anti-defamation league that safeguards them against racial discrimination and their stereotypical portrayal in popular media. At the very least, such an organization would have protected Italians from their almost invariable portrayal in American films and television as murderous mafiosi.

More than two hours into Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather (1972), whose complete title is actually Mario Puzo's The Godfather, there is a scene in which a group of Mafia bosses has gathered to discuss the terms of a truce, and the subject of narcotics trafficking comes up. One of the bosses stands up and says, "I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don't want it near schools. I don't want it sold to children . . . In my city we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway, so let them, lose their souls." That such an obviously despicable person as a Mafia don should make the distinction between human beings and animals, in a film in which every Italian, with a few exceptions (most of them women), is manifestly sub-human, is unintentionally funny.

The Godfather was not the first edition of the genre, but it is by far the most egregious. It is also not the first time that a gang of murderers had been portrayed as Just Plain Folks, but it is reponsible for an avalanche of mob movies and TV series, each of them more spurious than the last. Far from being an honest examination of the workings of a Mafia family, or an attempt to understand them, the film is an obscene love letter to them. Every act of brutality depicted in the film - every shooting, knifing, strangling, bombing - is lit, decorated, costumed and photographed with magisterial care, all the way down to the color of the blood and the contortions the victims make in their death throes.

Even Michael Corleone, the son of the Godfather, who is initially innocent of murder and happily cut off from the uglier aspects of his family's business, soon descends to their level, and for reasons that are not satisfactorily revealed or explained. The attempted murder of his father, the murder of his brother and of his pretty Sicilian bride are supposed to be sufficient grounds for Michael taking his share in the slaughter of countless others and the assumption of his father's position as the head of his murderous clan. His transformation from a recognizable human being into a werewolf would have been more convincing.

And yet the American Film Institute, which has its work cut out for it, has ranked The Godfather as the second greatest American film ever made, and the number one "gangster film." Under the auspices (if you could call it that) of Sight & Sound magazine, the British Film Insitute ranked it, and its sequel The Godfather Part II, the fourth greatest film(s) "of all time." It is yet another example of how genre and mainstream films often get mixed up in some people's muddled minds, and how this shuttling back and forth between two sets of standards makes nonsense of criticism itself.

. . . more to come

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