YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 6, 2013

The wild ones: Brando, Pacino, romantic rebels

Brando_-_The_Wild_OneIn prior blogs, I have tried to understand the appeal of such film masterpieces as The Godfather series. This blog will go beyond what I have written previously.

[Written in late August 2013:] Speaking of angst, on the flight home I watched all of The Godfather  (175 minutes). Like zillions of others, I thought it was a powerful and well-made movie; I have done zero research on it yet, but here are some guesses ahead of my future study. First, it was obviously Coppola’s FU to the Hollywood system. The first villain, though not identified as Jewish, was vulgar (rather like Citizen Kane/Cain). His name was Woltz (sounds German, could be German-Jewish). The corruption of Hollywood stands for a society that is utterly bought and sold by criminal elements: politicians, law enforcement, newspapers, everybody that shapes public opinion or protects us from the bad guys: (more Citizen Kane). The transformation of war hero, Ivy-educated Michael from “civilian” to his father’s successor as head of the family “business” could signify that brutalization of the young that is said by many historians to have followed the Great War. Note that conflicts between gang bosses are always referred to as wars, not disputes between criminals. In the world we see depicted everybody is guilty, except for the women, who are merely hysterical when they are not putting up with spousal abuse or neglect. They are both protected from the world of men, or are contented to be Sicilian breeders and feeders. Finally, I noted the importance of neighborhood, religion, family and ethnicity to Southern Italian immigrants. The Godfather series came out during the height of the social policy transition from an emphasis on class, to an emphasis on the durability of ethnic ties over class ties. The Corleone family has not assimilated, and doesn’t care. They hew to the colorful ways of 19th and 20th century urban ethnics with their scofflaw patronage systems, or in the case of the Corleones, Sicilian peasants and the patriarchal system. In comes localism, radical historicism, and multiculturalism. In other mass media offerings, the demonic is celebrated, in dangerous neo-Romantic fashion, see http://clarespark.com/2013/03/30/philip-roth-the-following-and-identification-with-the-aggressor/.

[This was a sentence from Hunting Captain Ahab (my book on the 1920s Melville revival), quoting a progressive American Rabbi:] Lee Levinger’s “exceptional individual,” the “genius or social discoverer” was linked to the “criminal or social rebel.” Mad and tragic misfits–like stubborn, hypersensitive, primitivistic Jews regressively merged with their “alters” or “other”– refused the “tolerant” “social self.”

In a Facebook comment yesterday, I expressed my discomfort with the Godfather series, arguing that it was typical counter-cultural in its intention and result. A few howls went up, as many view the first two in the series as masterpieces of movie-making. They are surely skillfully made, but I will continue to analyze them as morally suspect, even dangerously so.

First, are they artifacts of the counter-culture (including the Left)? In the days when I was on the radio or in graduate school at UCLA, I met countless leftists, some of considerable fame and reputation. Many of them urged me to prove my bona fides by engaging in some criminal act. One street theater fellow even urged me to steal something from a wealthy art-collector’s home. Another (in academe) attempted to borrow money from me (illegal), or to engage in an action that would help a red buddy to evade taxation. Being a first child, I am very disposed to following the rules, and such approaches were anathema. I always viewed my younger sister as the rebel in the family (which she was), which is typical first child behavior on my part. I was the Apollonian, she was the Dionysian.)

I left the Left because when the chips were down, these supposed freedom fighters did not support me when I was purged as program director by a Stalinist manager (who actually forged a document to “prove” that I had been warned as Pacifica procedures directed), and then the mostly Trotskyists or anti-Stalinist leftists for whom I went out on a limb, neither anticipated my imminent firing (which I did), nor did they go beyond letter-writing to the President of the Pacifica Foundation, a prominent Berkeley radical New Leftist, who ended up upholding “at will” firings–so much for solidarity with the labor movement and its allies. In retrospect, the leftist commitments of my “friends” did not amount to much. They were perhaps primitive rebels, of the type described by communist historian Eric Hobsbawm in one of his shorter books (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_bandit).

Then, after having received the doctorate in history, I was shopping my book ms. around. Verso books solicited the book ms., one of their editors told visiting academics that my book was to be published, but when I refused to drop the chapter on Tory resistance to the rising (crypto-Jewish) Whig bourgeoisie, I was warned to look elsewhere. Again, some prominent Left friends who had been published by Verso, sympathized with my “shabby treatment” but did nothing to defend my interests in getting the book published. Bucknell UP did the same song and dance; I must tone down the politics, or else. It was the Melville descendant, Paul Metcalf, whose close friend was on the board of Kent State UP, who took interest in my work and brought the ms. to the attention of Kent State UP, who not only published it with enthusiasm, but gave me no page limit, allowed extra photos, then entered it into every conceivable book award. These were mostly women younger than I, and exceedingly supportive.

Excuse this digression: the point is that these “leftists” or “counter-culture” types mentioned while I was still on the radio or in grad school, were all talk and no action. I was being the good lefty, encouraging the labor movement, while they were protecting their air time and such power as they imagined they had.

the-godfather-part-ii-poster

Back to the appeal of The Godfather series, or for that matter, of Al Pacino in the remake of Scarface. I have written before about ritual rebellion and the primitivist gesture.  (See http://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “ Rappers, Primitivism, and Ritual Rebellion”). No one would argue that The Godfather series (especially the first and second installments) are not virtuoso movie-making. Some aesthetes would argue that art and propaganda are not to be intermingled. I cannot agree with that judgment. Every art work is a cultural artifact and is positioned within the larger conflicts of the time.

Who does not want respect? Who does not want the family to be cohesive and protective of each member? How many of us get such respect or loyalty, in the family or out of it? How many of us crave the safety of the imagined family? The museums are chock full of jewelry or weaponry of bygone days, and they attract that infantile part of us that loves glitter, simplicity, and “honor”—no matter how bogus, no matter how far we fall back into a re-imagined early childhood.

Movies will do that to us, whether they serve as catharsis of violent impulses, or identification with heroes or antiheroes. Primitivism is a poor substitute for concerted political action grounded in the universalist ethics embodied in the laws that civilized people make. Enjoy the barbaric yawps if you like, but don’t pretend that they are a substitute for advanced morality. Above all, take note that these gangster sons in the Coppola movies never have to suffer through individuation. They neither “kill” the father, nor forge a separate identity from the Stern Patriarch. That’s where the wild things are.

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2 Comments »

  1. Everything comes unglued, the family that Michael wants, he destroys. I don’t know how close to reality any of this is. Puzio said the story was about the family and it’s problems, and he meant (in that article I read 30 years ago), I think, that it should be viewed as the story of a family, despite the violence. I looked at it that way from then on (including the movie). Of course, the story of a family being destroyed. It is the failure of morality, no matter how desperate Michael is to achieve it.

    Comment by Keith — October 10, 2013 @ 5:52 am | Reply

  2. The tendency to romanticize outlaws has long been justified by replacing morality with the observance of the sacrosanct “code” of the gang or family. The heroes are usually depicted as selfless martyrs who often die as a result of their “righteous” adherence to the so-called “code of honor”. If I were to draw a parallel with a biblical character, it would be Esau who in spite of being a violent man, zealously respected and served his father. This is in contrast to Jacob who, without having the same level of pretense, was concerned with perpetuating morality.

    Comment by Maimon Chocron — October 8, 2013 @ 3:54 am | Reply


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