Thursday, December 21, 2017

It's Not Even Past #4 - The Godfather - A Little More

So when I was a wee college lad, my Bubbie came to dinner with my family after a relatively decent performance by my University choir of Carmina Burana at Angelico's, the gloriously shitty Mediterranean food place near campus. When we were at dinner, she met my closest friend in college, his roommate who is now probably my closest friend in Baltimore, his roommate's girlfriend who is now his roommate's wife and one of my closest friends in Baltimore, and his ex-girlfriend who is my former flatmate and still one of the roommate and his wife's closest friends.

Bubbie was 84 at the time, she's now 97 and looks younger than any of us. And to stay so young for so long, she must have a mission, and her mission is her curiosity. She wants to know what makes people tick, she wants to understand what it's like to be people completely unlike her, and she can sit fascinated for hours with people she's never met as they speak about their experiences. And it therefore came as no surprise to me when she said, with absolute confidence and fascination:


So picture Bubbie in 1972, Bubbie is turning fifty-two, she's just moved into the vaguely upper-middle-class house she still owns two years before, which she bought from Maryland's Governor, Marvin Mandel, who had to put his personal holdings into a blind trust while in public office. Mandel was the same age as Bubbie, and only died two years ago. Five years later, Mandel would be convicted for racketeering, and after a few appeals he would spend 19 months in prison before President Reagan commutes the sentence.

Zaydie has just retired from thirty years as an engineer the Defense Department, most of them as a missile specialist at the Pentagon. His great moment of glory was at the very beginning of his career when he made a discovery that led to the invention of the radio controlled Smart Bomb. My father say always introduced him as 'This is my father-in-law Morris Witow, he killed millions!'

The Witows were one of the final Jewish holdouts of Forrest Park, the thoroughly middle Jewish neighborhood of West Baltimore documented in four different Barry Levinson movies. During the '68 Baltimore riots, the National Guard would ride my grandparents home from their jobs in a tank. I will not describe the long and terrifying campaign of harassment perpetrated against them as Jews to leave this newly African-American area forever, but it is more than enough to explain the hard turn toward conservatism of my mother's family, who used to be full of Communists. To this very day, in true Baby Boomer fashion, the Tucker marriage of 1505 Woodholme Avenue is still re-litigating the Vietnam War 43 years into a marriage that began just before the Fall of Saigon.

Richard Nixon is still President, and as my father would tell me with just a hint of apocrypha, there was a picture of Nixon in every room of the Witow household, while in the Tucker house there were pictures of Richard Nixon on the toilet paper. The Vietnam War is raging, and more importantly for this too intellectually abstract family, the debate about the Vietnam War is raging. My father is just wrapping up his PhD at the University of Chicago with its options for a front row seat at the 1968 riots and the lectures of relatively legendary thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Milton Friedman, Leo Strauss, Saul Bellow, Alan Bloom, Hans Morgenthau, Bruno Bettelheim, Edward Shils, and William McNeill. In addition to the Yiddish, English, and Hebrew of his youth, he learns fluent Romanian, French, German, and Italian. In 1969, he'd gone to research Romanian history in Bucharest while Caucescu is still consolidating his power in the wake of the Prague Spring - his research considered germane enough by the US military that he easily obtained a Vietnam draft deferment and even if the Romanian government followed his every movement as they did every Westerner, they would not dare keep him out.

And yet, being in the very eye of the intellectual hurricane of his time, he looked around, shrugged, decided that most of these charismatic teachers and students were bullshit artists, feinshmekerstrombenikspezzonovantes. While my Zaydie lived for another thirty years, he appeared close to death at the time, so my Dad returned home to marry my mother and help run his father's business in Pikesville.

If you ask me or Tony Soprano, the best scene in The Godfather is the hospital sequence. Michael goes to visit a Christmas-light bedecked hospital, he passes through an ominous looking old-school hospital hallway to find that nobody is at the Nurse's station, he hears a Bing Crosby record skipping right on the words 'Too Laaaate,' 'Too Laaaate', 'Too Laaaate' - and The Godfather has all sorts of ingenious subliminal cues exactly like that; the record is coming from the room of the security guard, who has a ham and cheese sandwich with only a bite taken out. He runs to his father's room, and you hear the haunting Nino Rota leitmotif of The Godfather at a whisper, which is later blasted at full cry when Michael murders Solozzo and McCluskey. The chairs around Don Vito's room are empty, and he goes into his father's room. Vito Corleone, this giant, this rough fictional equivalent to Don Carlo Gambino, is utterly helpless. Whatever Michael thought of his father until this moment, his father is now just a helpless old man, lying close to death in a hospital; not a murderer, but a father he loves in danger of being murdered.

If you watch it on a TV, you cannot tell whether Vito is asleep or awake. But see the movie in the theater, and when Michael says 'I'm with you' and kisses his father's ring, there are tears streaming down Marlon Brando's eyes. The reason is that at this moment, Michael Corleone is no longer a Dartmouth grad, no longer a war hero, no longer a rebellious son who avoids his family - he is a son who knows that the meaning of his father's life, all that his father has built towards, hinges on his father surviving this night. More important to his father than his own life is his legacy, and if Vito Corleone dies tonight, the Corleones will have lost everything. And at this moment, no matter how American an individualist Michael thought himself, he becomes the old world in this moment, a plant in the family garden forced to become the gardener. Family in The Godfather is not family in the American or modern sense, it's not something that helps you to grow the wings to fly, but roots that station you to history like bark on a giant tree. And in this moment when Michael loses his sense of independent self, he gains a sense of self so gigantic that it must eliminate everything which crosses him.

The lure of the Corleone family is because of the extreme foreignness to everything which America believed it stood for. 1972, in the land of individualism, in the land of Captain Ahab and Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane, came a family of modern Borgias, every one of whose extreme personalities were subordinated to an abstract collective glory that every American is taught to believe from birth does not exist in our country. More charismatic than any character in The Godfather is the idea of the Corleone family itself, whose glory its members are literally willing to kill each other in the name of its increase.

This was almost 1973. The promise of American individualism began to flourish on a scale as never before, and on such a scale that many Americans began to wonder for the first time if individual rights were really worth the trouble. Before '68, the average American generally believed in individual rights, and if it seemed like they didn't, it was because they rather believed that some people had the right to be more individual than others. Authoritarian, bigoted thinking will always be with us and take different forms, but for the first two-hundred years, the American democracy had to be balanced against the authoritarian ethos of the rest of the world. Now that democracy was solidly situated in a large part of the world, many Americans began to think that the world needed not more individual rights; less.

Nine months after the Godfather's release came the infamous coup d'etat in Chile that killed that killed their Marxist President, Salvador Allende, and installed Augusto Pinochet for seventeen years as the dictator of Chile. As far as horrific dictators go, Pinochet was not as bad as many dictators, with a toll of casualties that is far lower than even Fidel Castro, and if he is made to be worse than he was, it's because he was never forgiven for stopping a Marxist experiment in its infancy.

In some ways, the coup was particularly a shame because it could have been that much more evidence that Marxism and democracy don't mix at all. Whatever catastrophes that Junta provoked, it cannot be denied that the Allende president was a disaster. Allende nationalized the copper and banking industries immediately, which meant that foreign investors would never see most of their money again, and scared off foreign investors in every other industry, worried that every other industry was next. Since no money was coming in, Allende would spend deficit spending on social programs, which gave Chile had 800% inflation per year. The basic necessities of life were absolutely unaffordable without government welfare, which involves extreme bureaucratic red tape to obtain in the easiest of circumstances. By 1973, Chile's own parliament called for Allende's forcible removal by a two-thirds majority. In such circumstances, authoritarianism is practically inevitable, but is seventeen years of dictatorship, or even six months, ever a price worth paying to stop hyperinflation?

In any event, the evidence of American involvement in the Chilean junta is not quite as clear-cut as many people would have it. There is much more evidence of American involvement in a failed Chilean coup of three years earlier, and once the Junta occurred, there is amble evidence that Nixon's America helped Pinochet to solidify his position. But to this day, the most evidence that America was involved in the Pinochet coup was a phonecall Nixon and Kissinger had the next day approving of it. Granted, with the duplicity of these two, there's always a good chance that the phone call was meant to cover their tracks. (up to 1:28)

In the wake of Operation Condor, with the CIA's involvement in the suppression of leftists and democracy in so many parts of Latin America, this exchange could not be more prescient. It is extraordinary how this movie made so many of Richard Nixon's arguments for him. Nixon would have probably crossed the street to avoid any Italian immigrant who wasn't a Watergate burglar, but there was never any greater mouthpiece for his worldview than Don Vito Corleone. Has any other great movie held such reverence for tradition and order, and has any great movie ever so forcefully advocated against drugs, and has any great movie been so sure of itself about the necessity of using  corruption and murder to fight still worse corruption and murder?

And 45 years down the road, what liberal in thinking about it would not long for the intelligent, practical, efficient, prudent evil of Richard Nixon to be our enemy rather than the stupid, sloppy, potentially apocalyptic evil of Trump? When you compare Nixon's practicality to the slovenly explosion of idealism on the Left, who can wonder why Republicans have seemed the better option to Americans for a half-century?

I think it was Camus who said that no one holds political opinions with more respect for law and order than criminals. No great movie ever took such pains to uphold the establishment as The Godfather does. No great movie in history glorifies law and order with the same glorification of patriarchal structure. And by patriarchy, I don't mean patriarchy as it's bandied about in the rage of white feminist entitlement, but patriarchy in the ancient biblical sense of an authoritarian hierarchical structure that works. Carlo, the domestic abuser, is dispatched. Sonny, the hotheaded philanderer, seems to get what's coming to him. But in the first movie, the Corleones almost inevitably reward those who demonstrate loyalty and character. .

So much care do the Corleones, or at least Coppola, take in presenting themselves as respectable that there is no real sex in the movie - the movie's only erotic release is in its violence. Nearly the only sex in the whole movie is rendered as an absolutely pure act. Less than fifteen minutes later, this beautifully pure Southern Italian woman has the top half of her body disappear in a car bomb with only her lower half remaining in place. The ethos of the Godfather is of a world before the advent of birth control and anti-biotics. With sex, the discomfort is extreme, but it is half in love with easeful death.

The movie's only woman with more than five lines who is not mangled past recognition is Kay, and she seems completely sexless. She is neither male nor female, she's a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. She is a surrogate for the American establishment, and for all of us Americans, both female and male, who believe in the individual liberty with which this country is traditionally conceived, but who are allowed a limited glimpse at a forbiddingly strange world of gangsters who take care to have more air of respectability than most legitimate professionals

So what happened between the first and second movies, indeed, what happened in America and the world, that between 1901 when Godfather II opens, and 1960 when it ends, this patriarchal structure of authority as it was conceived for thousands of years, seemingly considered everywhere the best possible antidote most any civilization or community found against the chaos of nature human, biological, physical, and divine by men and women alike, was proven to be an historical nightmare from which the modern world can never wake. 

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