Wednesday, December 20, 2017

It's Not Even Past - Episode #4 - Drugs and The Godfather - 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, feinshmekerstrombeniks, pezzonovantes. 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 if it was really worth it. (here's the place for disquisition on the Sixties' place in American history and how we all relate to it in the present day) ...The Vietnam War was never the catalyst of the Sixties, it was only the Sixties' most obvious symptom. The Sixties were about the meaning of liberty, and we are all, right and left, its rebellious children. The Sixties  part of the ideological spectrum is now reacting to its abuses.

If The Godfather is overrated, it's only because so people mention it as the greatest movie ever made. If it's not the greatest, it's at least in the top ten or twenty. I've seen it at least fifty times, and every time it's a completely different movie. But in every viewing, there is one thing that stays consistent.  No better movie has ever made about the temptations of evil...

Woe be unto them who call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. - Isaiah 5:20

I think it was Camus who said that no one holds political opinions with more respect for law and order than criminals. No movie takes such pains to uphold the establishment as The Godfather does. There are barely any women in The Godfather and no real sex in the movie - the only genuinely erotic release in the movie is the violence. Nearly the only sex in the whole movie is rendered pure and virginal, ten minutes before this beautifully pure Southern Italian woman has the top half of her body disappear in a car bomb.

Has any movie held such reverence for tradition and order? We feel the tension in The Godfather between two sides of twentieth century America - on one side, the political machine - threatening but morally neutral, on the other, the corporate superclass, as corrupt as it is threatening.

And did any great movie ever so forcefully advocate against drugs?

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