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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Godfather and The Godfather: Part III

I'm taking Film Structure at UCLA with Professor Howard Suber. Our assignment was to watch The Godfather and The Godfather: Part III, compare them and write in 800-900 words why Part III was less successful than Part I. Below is the essay I turned in.

The story of The Godfather (G-I) is about Michael Corleone's rise to power fueled by his desire to protect his family (specifically his father Vito Corleone). Between Vito Corleone's rejection of Sollozzo's proposal to fund narcotic sales and the assassination of the heads of the five families are a series of events that are either a direct result of Michael's actions, or actions taken by characters in Michael's interest.

Once Vito is wounded in an assassination attempt, Michael proves to be a worthy leader of the family by taking action to protect him. Scenes where Michael stands guard at the hospital and where he assassinates Sollozzo and Chief McCluskey obviously serve this purpose. What makes G-I successful is that even scenes that don't include Michael are a direct result of action he has taken.

Even scenes without Michael bear his imprint. Sonny Corleone is the heir apparent however, his order to kill Pauli and his street brawl with Carlo demonstrate his impulsiveness and hotheadedness. Not only do these actions prove Sonny doesn't have the necessary leadership skills but they ultimately lead to his demise, clearing the way for Michael to assume the leadership of the family business.

The actions of Michael provides a strong spine for the action in G-I. Sonny's demise may appear at first as a simple sub-plot but it is directly related to Michael's decision to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. The assassination created a war between the five families fueling Sonny's desire for revenge. The removal of Sonny from power was paramount in fulfilling the other families' interests. Sonny's death results in Vito seeking a truce, which allows Michael to return home safely.

There is no equivalent spine in The Godfather: Part III (G-III). In fact, there is no concise, succinct storyline that unifies G-III. The action of G-III is split between the competing objectives of two characters: Michael, who alternately wants legitimacy for his family's business dealings and wants to absolve himself from his sins; and, Vincent Mancini, Sonny's illegitimate son who aspires to become a part of the Corleone family by being an enforcer.

An argument can be made that the main spine of G-III is Michael's quest for legitimacy through the acquisition of a controlling interest in Immobiliare. But is the acquisition of Immobiliare a result of Michael's quest to absolve himself of his past sins or vice versa? When the Pope delays his approval, Michael is powerless to do anything about it and is no longer an active force driving the story forward.

A strong argument can also be made that the main spine of the story is Vincent's rise to power in the Corleone family. Yet Vincent kills Joey Zasa under orders from Connie, not Michael. Nor is Vincent able to prevent the assassination attempt on Michael's life. Vincent intervenes only after the assassin's weapon is drawn and fired. Vincent does not possess or inherit Michael's skill of outsmarting and outthinking his enemies.

Many events and characters in G-III do not expedite or complicate either objective. Andrew Hagen (Tom Hagen's son) is introduced but never plays a pivotal role in any of the story's events. Reporter Grace Hamilton has no influence on Vincent. Mary provides minimal complications in Vincent's quest for power in the Corleone family. Even though Michael asks Kay for forgiveness, his request is neither accepted nor refused. Anthony's desire to sing opera doesn't create a void in the family power structure simply because Anthony was never strong or smart enough to be considered an heir to the throne.

In G-I, the motive behind the assassination of Vito is clear. The five families want Vito's influence to facilitate the sale of illegal narcotics and when he refuses his help, his removal is necessary to completing their task. There is a strong sense of cause and effect in G-I, which shows Michael's transformation from an honorable, almost naïve war hero and outsider into the ruthless head of the family business.

In G-III, the forces that conspire to stop Michael from acquiring Immobiliare do not appear to have any deeper purpose other than to stop Michael. Even though it is revealed that Don Lucchesi is behind the Pope's delay tactics, no deeper reason or motive is ever revealed. This conflict does not serve to force Michael to change or transform. Michael is merely a man haunted by a past that has finally caught up with him. It is a past that long precedes the events of G-III.

Though the events of G-III hint at a King Lear-like transfer of power from Michael to Vincent, the connection is lost despite a nearly inconsequential scene where Michael tells Vincent to use the Corleone name. Vincent very quickly demonstrates his ability to kill in cold blood leaving little room for character evolution. His estrangement from Mary at Michael's order does not factor as a cause for Vincent's ascension nor as a cause for her unfortunate death. Her death, which is pivotal to Michael's demise, is random, the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Structurally, G-III is less successful than G-I because the events of G-III seem unmotivated and arbitrary while G-I has strong cause and effect relationships. Michael is fundamentally a different person at the end of G-I than at the beginning. Neither Michael nor Vincent transform in any meaningful way during the course of G-III.


Blogger Vince DC said...

Nice to have you back, Isaac.

I burned my copy of G-III so I can't comment more than to say Coppola must have been on heavy medication when he made it. All I remember is Pacino croaking, "I tried to get out but they keep PULLING ME BACK IN!"

That's gonna be the epitaph on my tombstone.

PS: Did you ever read my budgeting post? Worked hard on that one for you.

April 20, 2006 12:44 PM  

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