Reaction to The Godfather: Part II

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By Tim Barlow

In The Godfather: Part II, the character of Michael, cuts a tragic, pitiable figure.  He tries to be good, to do right by those whom he is closest, but he can never quite turn that corner.  He can’t simultaneously grow the family business while trying to uphold his pledge to turn legitimate and law-abiding.  He can’t have his cake and eat it too.  Even when his conscience, personified in Tom, the family’s consigliere, attempts to finally intervene towards the end, asking Michael, if it’s worth it to go on, Michael can’t let go yet, or even consider it, and he rebukes Tom.  There’s always one more thing in his way, one last thing to accomplish, to finish up.  In the end, he is the villain, despite his best efforts.

I can relate.  Sometimes I wonder if despite my best efforts to do good, in the end, I’m just a villain too.  There is always one more thing to buy, or one last word in an argument, or one more rung to climb, one more raise to get, and each and every time, I’ll have managed to convince myself that after this last time it will be enough.  I’ll be satisfied.  Then I can focus on what really matters.  But if you’re playing the game, even with the best intentions, it’s never enough.

I first saw the Godfathers several years ago, and what stood out to me about Part II was the tragedy of Michael’s crumbling morality, culminating in the ordering of Fredo’s murder, his own brother…his family.  Michael’s story brings the audience front and center to a man eroding as his empire is under attack.  This downfall is only further punctuated by the juxtaposed flashback scenes focused on his father, Vito’s, rise to power as a Mafia Don.  Everything from the cinematography and lighting down to the score treats Michael’s plight as tragic while his father’s is heroic, and after this first viewing I was sure there must be something in Michael’s ways that differed from his father’s, and which could serve as a barometer for my own daily struggle with wanting more; a trait, a way he operated, something, anything I could use to make sure that my own refusal to fully let go stayed under control and below Michael’s tragic levels.

During this week’s viewing though, I focused more on the role of Vito and I gradually realized that both father and son intimidated, and stole, and murdered.  Both also tried to do what was right when they could, and treat those who were loyal justly and with some grace.  In the end, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a lot separating these two men, except for the cold hard fact that one was on the rise and the other was in decline.  For Vito it was morning in Rome and for Michael the sun was setting.

But that still doesn’t change the fact that Michael’s is a tragic figure.  While Vito is safely tucked away in the past, and his reputation can rest on the empire he built and passed along to his son, Michael is burdened with that weight in the future.  Maybe Vito’s inheritance was a curse, a fall, sin.  The tragedy of Michael’s story is not that he squandered the family business, in fact quite the opposite, he massively grew the empire.  The real tragedy for Michael is that he was his father’s son.  And not just Michael, but his brother, Fredo, and his sister Connie as well.  All of the living Corleone children continued to live under the shadow of their father’s moral downfall.  They looked back and thought they saw greatness, and they tried their best to measure up, but were all missing the truth: like Adam to Cain, the weight of Vito’s broken nature had trickled down.

The Godfather: Part II

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By Craig Joseph

A few Saturdays ago, I got together with my friends, Brian and Melissa, to undertake a monumental task: introduce Brian to The Godfather trilogy by watching all three films in one sitting.  A daunting endeavor, to be sure, and we were so emotionally exhausted after the first two installments that we couldn’t suffer through Sofia Coppola’s abysmal acting in the third.  But the day did confirm one thing for me.

This is the greatest movie sequel of all time.

It’s got fantastic acting.  A killer screenplay.  DeNiro and Pacino together.  A story of ascendancy and another of decline being told in tandem.  A seminal score.  This list goes on and on.  It’s better, I think, than the first.  And the only other time that’s happened is when The Empire struck back.

But it took watching this in community with three very different people to appreciate the film’s finest attribute: its ability to generate (and support) a wide multiplicity of readings and meanings.  For Brian (the father of two young children, upsetting the current balance of his family’s life to head to med school), Part Two was about how present-day Michael destroys the family for which past-tense Vito struggled and provided.  Melissa (his wife) saw everything (in the first two films, in fact) building to the climactic moment when Kay confesses and likens her marriage to the abortion she’s recently had; the closed door motif breaks down and – for the first time in the series – a woman’s voice must be heard.  What I saw this time around terrified me.

Myself.

To be sure, I won’t be hacking up a prostitute any time soon in an effort to blackmail a Canton city councilman into allowing gambling in my gallery.  But I am capable of fervently pursuing a misguided course of action, despite the warnings of others and means that don’t justify the ends, if I can fool myself into thinking my motives are pure and honorable.  And that’s what was chilling about Pacino’s performance for me this time around: he actually thinks he’s protecting his family – even if it means killing his brother, imprisoning his wife and driving an old-time associate to suicide.

But isn’t that the truth about humanity?  Very few of us are just evil, wicked and cruel.  But all of us are prone to self-deception and, at our worst, we’re delusional.  And that’s what makes us (and movies) fascinating to watch.  Say what you want to about Dubya and oil and greed; I think that somewhere – in his heart of hearts – that guy actually believed that we were fighting a life and death battle against terrorism – and that he needed to play hero.  Remember Oral Roberts and his shenanigans?  You’d never behave that audaciously unless you actually believed that God had given you a divine mandate.

I cite some extreme cases, but I don’t know that I’m that far off.  The desire to be proven right and vindicated runs so strong in my blood that it’s a rare day when I’ll abandon a conviction that I’ve passionately held – even if it’s going disastrous.  And so, even though I’m not ordering assassinations, surrounded by henchman, I’m starting to view The Godfather, not as the chronicle of a Mafia boss unlike me, but as a sort of Everyman who has a few things warnings to dole out.

Reaction to Garden State

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By Craig Joseph

Garden State used to be part of my DVD collection.  And why not?  It perfectly captured a season of life that I – and many twenty-somethings –experienced: the moment beyond the safe college haven when one has to figure out career options, explore romantic possibilities, and work through some familial issues.

I got it.  Though my clan was suicide-free and I wasn’t over-medicated, many questions rang true.  Was my emotional stoicism and wariness of intimacy related to my upbringing?  Did I have to live far away to avoid being pulled into roles I didn’t want to play?  Was Thomas Wolfe correct in suggesting that “you can’t go home again?”

During my early thirties, though, I sold that puppy on Amazon.  I can’t remember why.  Possibly, I needed to subsidize my glorious existence as a starving artist in Chicago.  More likely, as selling a beloved DVD is like abandoning a child, the film no longer resonated.  I’d been in therapy, worked through some things, and Largeman’s angst had perhaps lost its lustre.

But, if you’re reading this blog and you bought that DVD from cjoseph41, I want it back.

There was something very sweet about watching Garden State from my current vantage point: approaching 40, living back in my hometown (and even in my childhood home, with my parents for a spell), surrounded by my younger siblings.  I’ve begun to wonder if it’s one of those films that will mean new things to me in different seasons.

Because what popped out to me this time is a very unflashy scene between Largeman and his father, capped off with the simple affirmation, “You and I are gonna be alright.”  My twenty-something self would have vehemently denied the possibility of my thirty-seven year old self’s life.  I’m happy in Canton, Ohio.  Difficult episodes in Joseph family history have been survived and overcome.  We all are learning to act with a greater measure of grace and mercy toward one another – and ourselves.  We even returned intact from a family vacation to the Outer Banks; we were confined to an island for a week and it was nothing like Lord of the Flies.  In short, we are alright.

What a lovely place to arrive at, not only because of the destination, but because of the journey.  And so, I’m learning patience as I see my younger brother and sisters struggle with the gap between the happy idyll of family they have in their minds and the actuality of who we are.  I’m reminded of Largeman’s words: “Maybe that’s all family really is.  A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”  Time will bring them to the place where they are grateful for who we are – broken people trying to love each other – instead of bummed about who we never became.

And what of the day when we all have adult children of our own whose heads and hearts we screw with (albeit in new and more creative ways than our own parents)?  I hope that Ill be able to hear and receive hard truth as graciously as Ian Holm, as my own parents.  Maybe so, maybe not.  Perhaps I’ll pop in Garden State and see how it instructs me.

 

Garden State

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By Tim Barlow

“…makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real life emotional teenager, then you think again.” – Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem

Garden State has fallen on tough times.  Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s no longer cool to like it.  It’s creative driver, Zach Braff has lost his Hollywood buzz and become something of a punchline.  The movie itself has been decried by the late-twenty, thirty-something Internet blogging community as void of real substance, laughable, a melodramatic plot surrounding by a melodramatic (and overly adored) soundtrack.  As a blogger for the site Grantland puts it: “People who express opinions on the Internet, almost as a rule, despise Garden State down to its marrow.”

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This is all such a bummer cause I really liked this movie. I saw it for the first time at a matinee showing on a weekday afternoon, by myself, in a theater near my parents house where I was temporarily living, the fall after I graduated from college.  You’re gonna want to let that last sentence soak-in; was I not in the most awful-awful (wonderful-wonderful) position to fall completely head over heels for this movie?  And I did, I LOVED it.  I’m shocked I didn’t start a diary that night and cry dance around my childhood room to the soundtrack.  But even if I did, I can’t just write it all off so quickly because, and I don’t say this without a cursory understanding of the implications…Garden State changed my life.

Go ahead, come at me, hipsters.  Say what you want, you boutique agency creative directors, and post-modern graffiti artists, and you too, snapback wearing baristas, cause I’m not afraid anymore!  Garden State changed my life!

For starters, it introduced me to the earnest Indie movie genre.  Before that, it was all summer blockbusters and Brad Pitt.  It also introduced me to Indie music, the magical land that laid beyond the realm of Top-40 radio, watered-down alternative acts, and club hits.  Garden State also validated a sense of loss I felt about leaving behind institutional education, and my lack of direction or purpose about what to do next.  Before that I was putting on a brave face as I procrastinated towards an eventual job I would undoubtedly hate and work at until I died – but Garden State showed adventure and purpose within that transient anxiety.  And finally, and most importantly, Garden State helped me get married.  Wait, WHAT?!  Yep you actually just read that.  Watching this movie actually (helped) encourage me to reach back out to a long-distance, ex-love interest to try and rekindle what still felt unfinished.  And even crazier, that ex-love interest is now my wife of nearly 6 yrs.  So, as much as this movie’s proximity to my real-life marriage makes me want to throw a shame party from now until forever… I have to accept that (cough, mumble) Garden State kinda helped me get married.

But then again why is that a shameful thing anyways?  I mean don’t get me wrong, it clearly is, but why?  The tragedy of historical criticism, like the kind found in this very blog, and scattered willy nilly by those who express opinions on the internet, is that it’s far too easy to view our artifacts (movies, music, art, tv shows, clothes, books, whatever) strictly through the present tense.  And when the emotion that accompanied watching this movie, or listening to a certain song, or surrounding a beloved piece of clothing fades, it’s easy to dismiss the artifacts along with it.  Without that genuine emotion, it’s a quick step to the dismissive conclusion that loving or hating or worshiping what you did back in the day was sooo stupid or sooo weird or silly or embarrassing.  I can’t believe I did that, what was I thinking?!

And this recency bias isn’t just for us in the audience, artists go through it too.  I heard an interview with Radiohead’s, Thom Yorke, where he was discussing the band’s first hit, “Creep” which came out in 1992, and he spoke to how hard it is to rationalize that he even wrote that song because he feels so removed from it in every way.  And in the face of fans continuing to love “Creep” and attribute it to him, he has actually grown to despise it.  Given this, I start to wonder if maybe things would be different for Garden State or for Creep if they never became popular in the first place?  Maybe obscurity would safeguard them from our judgmental retrograding and they could remain cherished relics in the past?

This feels a little like when the small, little known thing you found early-on gets popular, be it a band, a movie, a style of clothing, and as it stops being your thing and becomes something shared, your feelings change, not because that thing changed, but because the way it made you feel begins to fade, i.e., you’re not more special, or more creative, or smarter, after all, you’re still kinda, a little bit like everyone else.   On one hand, this makes sense, we like what we like because of the way it makes us feel, and we want to feel special.  But while evolving and changing tastes are bound to happen, they shouldn’t come at the cost of undermining the past.  Our former artifacts, which we may be embarrassed of, and call silly, or weird, or stupid, are still formative and can leave lasting, positive legacies long after they’ve lost their popular cultural appeal.  So don’t be so quick to discount Garden State, or your former obsession with 98°, or that faux hawk you sported for a little too long, or how all your clothes were from Abercrombie, or what you wrote in white out on your backpack or any of your other personal artifacts, because you may owe them quite a bit more than you realize, maybe even your marriage.

Reaction to Time Bandits

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By Tim Barlow

Lets get one thing out of the way, this is a very creatively envisioned movie, from the script and plot to the sets and costumes, Time Bandits feels original and imaginative.  And despite dipping into some familiar waters: time travel, disenfranchised children escaping home, Sean Connery in a leather skirt, etc…, it still brought a lot of new and fun (and lets be honest, weird) moments to the screen. From the surface level like John Cleese’s take on Robin Hood to broader themes of theology and addiction to technology, Time Bandits is more than just a straightforward children’s adventure or late-night comedy.

But, and this is a Mix-A-Lot approved one, I didn’t really like watching it, in fact it took me two tries just to finish it.  And yet, I think I could like it, as in eventually, as in, I don’t right now.  Okay let me explain, so as someone coming into Time Bandits for the first time, and seeing names like Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and John Cleese attached, I had certain expectations.  But Time Bandits isn’t Monty Python, or Holy Grail or Life of Brian.  The humor was more subtle.  There were underlying themes (or what I took to be themes) and they felt obtuse and nuanced.  Almost like Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal or Weezer’s Pinkerton album, Time Bandits shows elements of Gilliam and Palin, but seems separate from their other collaborations, unique, and a little darker.

And it was because of this nuanced layering that I struggled during my first viewing. But again, maybe I could learn to love this movie, to appreciate the subtler humor.  I could get better at recognizing and making sense of the underlying stream of themes.  For example, I knew while watching that this movie has more to it than just dwarves fumbling through periods of history using a map of creation’s loopholes.  I knew that it was more than just a kid escaping his boring life in the suburbs.  But I only got a taste, and that taste left me with more questions than answers.  Are they implying we’re all just dwarves fumbling around in a cosmic struggle we don’t really understand?  How come the kid seems to “get it?”  And what’s all this about the role of evil?  Is evil just an experiment?  Or is it a forgotten accident as is implied at the end?!  Goddammit!  My effing head hurts trying to understand this crap.

When you come across these efforts by creatives, the ones that just don’t fall in line with everything else, it can feel as though this is their true feelings despite being the outliers, this was the pet project, the one they had been dreaming about, the one they made because they wanted or needed to, not because it would sell. And that’s both the allure and the problem with these pet projects – I can’t stop my brain from trying to figure out the point.  What are you trying to tell me?  It has to be important or you wouldn’t have deviated from the system, so just tell me!  TELL ME!

So in conclusion.  This movie took me two tries to watch.  It seems like there is more to it that just adventures through time with a team of thieving dwarves.  Needs more viewing, but don’t want to.  Not Holy Grail. My head hurts. Sean Connery in a leather skirt.

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Time Bandits

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By Craig Joseph

There’s a moment in Time Bandits when Randall and crew are dressed as dragons, performing for King Agagmemnon, and robbing him blind.  As the music speeds up, they gather all the gold and jewelry in the room behind a huge tapestry of sorts that they’re draping over themselves and then – suddenly – disappear.  Robbery successful!  The guests applaud, but are soon befuddled; the “magicians” are not reappearing – and neither is the treasure.

When my younger brother and I shared a bedroom, we kept ourselves up many nights, playing imaginary games.  One of them was Time Bandits, which often involved Aaron (as Randall) crawling under the bed (our version of the time portal) and emerging to find what new epoch he’d entered, inhabited by some historical character that I’d concocted (the green-bearded witch was a favorite).  But every evening ended with Aaron re-creating the above robbery, except when the tapestry (his blanket) dropped, the time bandit was still there.  With his pajama pants down around his ankles.  Blowing a huge fart into his brother’s face.

Gross?  Yes.  But this is what we loved about the movie.  It was wild, chaotic, unpredictable, bawdy and ribald in ways that we probably didn’t even understand.  It was like someone had taken all of the crazy little boy energy and imagination that was bottled up in our room and turned it into a movie, one that we could watch over and over everyday on HBO.  A bad guy who blows up his minions, splattering their guts all over the camera lens?  Awesome!  A midget who bites the head off a rat?  Radical!  Shelly Duvall getting clobbered by people falling from the sky every time she’s about to kiss the guy from Monty Python?  She was just going to kiss him, right?  Right?

The problem today is that I’m watching this movie and my adult brain thinks there is more going on.  Before the bandits even appear, the script seems to be making a strong critique of modernity.  Delightful Kevin lives in his room, a shrine to the ancient Greeks, the Middle Ages, heroism and chivalry.  Meanwhile, his loutish parents are glued to TV game shows and measure life’s validity by their ability to have the latest gadgetry in their kitchen because the neighbors do.  I’m expecting to see something I missed as a nine-year-old: a trenchant satire of our addiction to technology.  Except for some ideas muttered by the villain, later, though, the idea gets lost.

I also begin to follow some thoughts on theodicy vis a vis the Supreme Being chasing after his beloved map.  But the initial complex questions that the film sets up about God’s motives toward humanity and God’s relationship with evil aren’t even given layered answers.  We’re asked to settle for a Ralph Richardson cameo (he’s great) and some clever quips and one-liners.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking Time Bandits to be a thought-provoking film.  But why put this stuff in there at all if you’re not going to see it through?  Why not let it be what I always thought it was – a bonkers kids’ movie?  Instead, it now seems only a partially successful hybrid beast of some sort.  It makes me disappointed.  And I want to fart in its face.

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Reaction to The Blues Brothers

by Craig Joseph

I’m not sure how I’ve made it this far in life without watching The Blue Brothers.  It’s a massive hole in my movie-viewing history, so I was surprised – upon watching it – at how familiar the whole thing felt.

Perhaps it’s because the film is – on one level – a love letter to the great city of Chicago, my cherished home for ten years.  As Jake and Elwood drive through the Maxwell Street market, eventually dropping in on Aretha Franklin’s soul food establishment, I recall my own days walking down those sidewalks, years after the market had closed, wishing I’d been around to experience the diversity the market played host to.  The film – unexpectedly – allows me to do that.  The brothers’ cop car careens past the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza, triggering memories of a much calmer evening when I sat under that sculpture in the rain, soliciting the attentions of a grad school crush.  Murals appear and I scream at the TV: “I rode my bike past that every day!”  John Lee Hooker strums his guitar and I’m back at a dive bar on the South Side, where I first heard him play.  My twenties – a formative season – come rushing back to me – and I realize how the geography of the Second City is tied to important moments, decisions and turning points in my life.

And yet the whole thing is unfamiliar, too, and frankly, a little weird.  It defies easy genre classification.  It’s sort of a buddy film, and not quite a musical, but also feels like 15 or so Saturday Night Live sketches strung together into a wildly coherent whole.  The humor ranges from slapstick to puns to satire and is punctuated with full-on action sequences and no less than three car chases.  And let’s not forget that Carrie Fisher keeps turning up with increasingly deadly weapons of mass destruction.  WTF, indeed.

But, come to think of it, Chicago is weird.  There was a nun at the rectory on my street whose scowl could make the toughest gang member slink back into an alley.  Mountebanks do drive their megaphone-outfitted cars down your street, advertising their latest humbug – and your whole neighborhood does pay a couple bucks do get in.  And I did live two floors up from a guy who collected Third Reich memorabilia – yes, that’s right, an Illinois Nazi.

If it’s possible for a film to do so, The Blues Brothers feels like home to me.  Sweet Home Chicago.

And it feels like a celebration, which, I’m guessing, is why it remains on Tim’s list years later.  A celebration not only of a city, but of great music, of a great comic talent now deceased, of all the things that make movies fun to youngsters – one-liners, lots of cars getting destroyed, singing and dancing, surprise celebrity cameos and the like.  It’s a really wonderful, still timely, piece of entertainment and – in an age where other films seek to pretentiously do more and fall flat on their face – that is not a bad thing at all.