Saturday, March 28, 2015

Thinking about the "Godfather" films in the spirit of "the one-dot theory of history"


Can we imagine The Godfather without Brando? Or Coppola?

"History is the prediction of the present. Historians explain why things turned out the way they did. Since we already know the outcome, this might seem a simple matter of looking back and connecting the dots. But there is a problem: too many dots. Even the dots have dots. Predicting the present is nearly as hard as predicting the future."
-- Louis Menand, in "Thinking Sideways: The one-dot
theory of history
," in the March 30
New Yorker

by Ken

And I wonder whether what Louis Menand has in this wonderful piece to say about the inherent difficulties of writing history also apply to fictional history (not to mention the history of fiction).

Anyway, it's interesting approaching, or should I say re-approaching, the Godfather films (or at least the two great ones, I and II) with Menand's mediation on history fresh in mind. You really need to experience for yourself the way he uses the "too many dots" image to explain why none of the many ways we've devised for looking at history prove "wholly persuasive."

Here's just a taste:
No historian lines up all the dots. Every work of history is a ridiculously selective selection from the universe of possible dots. What the historian is claiming is that these are the particular dots that lead us from there to here, or from time step 1 to time step 1.1. Lots of other stuff happened, the historian will agree. But, if these things hadn’t happened, then life as we know it wouldn’t be, well, as we know it.

This can be an existentially entertaining thought—that, but for some fluky past event, experience would be entirely, or at least interestingly, different. We tend to imagine our own lives that way, a story of lucky breaks, bullets dodged, roads diverged on a snowy evening, and the like. Speculating about sparks that failed to ignite versus sparks that did and contingencies that failed to materialize versus contingencies that did is one of the reasons people like to write history and like to read it. There is even, to appeal to this taste, the subgenre of counterfactual history, in which Napoleon conquers Russia, or the Beatles give “The Ed Sullivan Show” a pass.
The problem: just too many dots. Which perhaps explains the appeal of the the "single dot," or "the x that changed the world" form, where everything that followed is explained according to the single person or event or year championed by the explainer of the moment. It's a form that Menand suggests is not only the most enjoyable kind of history to read but probably the most enjoyable to write.
They try to make the course of human events turn on a single phenomenon or a single year. Recent works in the single-phenomenon category include books on bananas, fracking, cod (that’s correct, the fish), the Treaty of Versailles, pepper, the color mauve, and (hmm) the color indigo. (All right, who’s the baddest color?) In the single-year category, we have books on 33, 1492 (huh?), 1816 (long story involving a volcano), 1944, 1945, 1959 (even though, without going to Wikipedia, you probably can’t come up with two important things that happened in 1959), 1968, 1969, and 1989.
This is part of Menand's way of leading up to writing about W. Joseph Campbell’s 1995: The Year the Future Began (California), "a worthy, informative, and sporting attempt to convince us that the world we live in was crucially shaped by things that happened in 1995" -- to which he adds parenthetically: "Campbell insists that there is a distinction between 'the x that changed the world' books and his own 'the year the future began' book, although it's hard to grasp."

"The book is not completely persuasive," Menand writes, "but that's not important. None of the 'x that changed the world' books are completely persuasive, for the reason that all dots have dots of their own." After all, "Whatever happened in 33 or 1959 or 1995 never would have happened unless certain things had happened in 32, 1958, and 1994. And so on, back into the protozoic slime. All points are turning points." Nevertheless, he argues, the valuable books of the single-dot genre are valuable because the make us look more closely at people, events, or whatever that we might not otherwise.

So how does this apply to the Godfather films? Well, only vaguely, since there are, after all, many fewer dots to connect in this species of history. Mostly it applies because this afternoon and evening I'm headed for screenings of both Godfather and Godfather II at the Museum of the Moving Image, in a series called See It Big, which in the case of these pictures I haven't in quite a while, and am really eager to. Only, to say that I haven't "seen them big" recently doesn't mean that I haven't seen them recently. In fact, I've never stopped watching them. I had them, and regularly watched them, on VHS and then on Laserdisk and now on Blu-ray -- and also the clever VHS Godfather Chronicles, which rearranged I and II in chronological format, gathering the "prequel" portions of II and placing them before I and gathering the "sequel" portions and placing them after.

For the record, I also have Godfather III on VHS, Laserdisk, and Blu-ray, and I'm here to tell you that I can actually watch the thing (though somehow I don't believe I've quite gotten around to watching the Blu-ray yet). As I've written here before, there are interesting things in it. But for our present purposes let's just say that in Godfather II Francis Ford Coppola made maybe the greatest sequel to anything ever, and then in Godfather III he didn't.

In case you hadn't detected it, I'm a little nervous. Am I possibly just a bit Godfather-ed out? I guess I'll find out.

Possibly by way of mental distraction, I found myself pondering a side question, which it occurred to me later is of the "single-dot" variety: Would the whole Godfather kaboodle have been what it was without Brando?

There is, of course, a vast literature about the Godfather films, which I've mostly tried to avoid dipping into. But I know enough to know that Paramount fought Coppola on almost all of his casting choices for I, generally preferring nice, safely bankable Hollywood types, and was prepared to dump him from the project over his fascination with Brando, of whom they were scared stiff, seeing him as a has-been who would make it impossible to get the picture made.

Honestly, I suppose there were any number of actors who could have made the part work. In much the same way that when Coppola went looking for an actor play the young Vito Corleone in Godfather II, with no "young Brando" available, he found Robert De Niro. There might even have been other actors who would have made the Godfather himself memorable. But, I'm thinking, not "Brando-memorable." And just think how much his presence saturates the Godfather films in which he didn't appear.

At some point in my idle speculations I found myself inadvertently bumping back into the question, what would the Godfather film(s) have been without Francis Ford Coppola? Certainly the first film would have been made, and with whatever version of a script Mario Puzo would have written for another director (I find it interesting that, for all my Godfather obsession, I've never been impelled to read Puzo himself), it probably would have been successful, maybe even very successful. But would it have achieved anything like the stature of the film Coppola made? And even if it had been successful enough to spawn a sequel, is it possible to imagine one of the quality of the one we got?

Which is all the more intriguing if we look at the rest of Coppola's filmography, where the closest thing there is to a point of interest is the mess that is Apocalypse Now. Hmm. What can I say except that in the grand scheme of thigns, when you make films of the quality of Godfather I and II, you really don't owe anyone any explanations or excuses.

And you know, it's been a long time since I looked at the Godfather Chronicles version. Yeah, I've only got it on VHS, but still . . . .

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At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are certain events which qualify as single dots. The bombing of Hiroshima ended the strategy of using large armies to capture and hold huge swaths of foreign territory. The subsequent scale of ground combat reduced by an order of magnitude or more, as more of the actual attacking is done by air power.

Wars are thus much more controlled, less random and unforeseen - perfect for corporate exploitation when some arms supplier plays both sides against their profit margins. The MIC has never had it so good!


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