The holiday season has finally come to an end, taking with it all the attendant sights and sounds we experience on an annual basis. A smattering of snow, an inescapable barrage of Christmas music, a shopping public with behavioral tendencies that put one more in mind of a Venezuelan food riot than the birth of a child that a large percentage of the world believes was sent here as a savior. And a decision by the powers that be in the cable TV world to run the three Godfather movies consecutively on a more than once-a-week basis. I don’t know what the specific market research was that generated this programming diktat but the marathon presentation and uptick in frequency regarding the airing of the films is undeniable. Which is fine with me. As an adult American male I have never come across an airing of the movies (the first two, anyway) as I channel surf and thought that there was a bad time to watch them. Having sat through various sections of the first two films at several junctures during December, I was fully refreshed on even the smallest details of the Corleone family saga and ready to engage in a longstanding American tradition; work related time theft in the form of bloviation masquerading as cinematic analysis. Fortunately I work with someone who was more than up to the task. Eric Landro, whose name I’ve mentioned in the past (Liebowitz For Mayor, The First Time Again) had spent some of his own Yuletide respite catching up on all things cosa nostra and was happy to take a few minutes to ignore a growing pile of paper on his desk and engage in a conversation focused on the cinematic introduction of Vito Corleone to the American viewing public.
Having beaten every other subject regarding the movie to death by then (we’ve worked together for years) we found ourselves in agreement about the masterful way in which Francis Ford Coppola had chosen to open the film, slowly allowing us to forge an impression Don Corleone. After a lengthy pull back from an undertaker (Amerigo Bonasera) seeking help from the Don, we finally see him from the rear, in silhouette. He is sitting, chin in hand, weighing the request of the man. When the camera reverses point of view he seems to be no more than a man of a certain elevated station listening to someone he does not know all that well ask a favor of him. As the scene continues we realize, by virtue of the use of small gestures and well placed moments of reflection, that he is orchestrating the other man’s eventual demonstration of obsequious fealty in exchange for satisfaction. There is no instance more demonstrative of the control he exerts than his seemingly distracted petting of a housecat as he listens to Bonasera describe the injustice that has befallen his daughter at the hands of her American boyfriend. His thirst for vengeance is voiced as an appeal for Vito to have the boy killed. Corleone’s face looks as if the man might have asked for forty dollars until the next payday. Everything which we go on to learn about The Don in the ensuing two plus hours is present in that scene. Calm, thoughtful and measured in response, but in no way unwilling to use whatever degree of force he deems appropriate to the circumstances at hand.
Having blathered on in unrehearsed cooperation and reaching a place of unalloyed erudition, to the interest of absolutely no one else on earth, we pursued this theme a bit more. With a couple of minutes left to us to kick it around we were able to come up with a few more examples of an introduction that perfectly encapsulated the character in question. We agreed apon Hannibal Lecter almost immediately. I refer to first shot of him in The Silence of the Lambs. Standing motionless, he gives the impression of having been waiting in perfect isolation for Clarice Starling to appear.
He seems not just to have been anticipating her arrival at that moment, but to have known she would be there long before she herself had been assigned to go and meet with him. His fixed gaze, unshakeable but in no way vacant, effectively presenting the idea that he is not only unsurprised at her visitation, but can not be surprised in any way at all. Her reticence at his asking her to move closer to his cell so that he might read her credentials matches our own discomfited state at the thought of having to be any where near him. I can remember thinking that any proximity to Dr. Lecter would create a palpable sense of threat. Small, of neutral mien and economical in his movements, he was the most frightening human being I’d ever seen on screen. Everything that followed, despite it’s profound unlikelihood, felt completely believable after that chilling start.
After that we struggled for a bit to find another such entrance, I think in part because we were fixated on an image that conveyed power on the part of the subject. Letting go of that, we were able to come up with another “first look” that quickly gave us comprehensive insight into the dramatis personae of a film. When meeting Captain Miller in the movie Saving Private Ryan, our first image of him is a close up of his trembling hand. He shakily grabs his canteen and takes a long drink which seems to allow him to assume an air of resolve, if not genuine calm. His face, as the landing craft he’s on makes it’s way to shore, tells us all we need to know about him. Looking at him we can see a man who manages to take in everything around him without letting it get the better of him. Clearly frightened, but unwilling to bend to that fear, he is certainly aware of the danger he is moving towards but undeterred in his assumption of the responsibilities of his command. A drafted citizen soldier, he accepts that fear, physical distress and misery are just part of his job.
We could have gone on like that all day but neither of us are of independent means. We went back to our jobs and tabled the remainder of the conversation for some unknown future date. While spending the day taking care of patients I ran through further possibilities in my mind. After a while my thoughts began to drift to other introductory moments that were memorable and interesting, but in different ways than the ones listed above. The first one I thought about was the shark, in Jaws.
Bruce (as the shark was named by the crew), was something of a nightmare for the director, Steven Spielberg. There were several life size models that had been constructed for the shoot and the one thing they all had in common was that they were prone to frequent malfunction. Between the prop fish not always working and Spielberg’s foolish insistence on filming in the Atlantic Ocean, as opposed to a controlled setting, the production ran over budget by one hundred twenty-five percent. The silver lining in all those clouds was that he was forced to think creatively in terms of how much he would actually lean on complete images of the shark. Realizing that the technical issues he was encountering were extending the time and expense of the production, he chose to display the shark with limited exposure, generating tremendous tension in the viewer, without necessitating pricey re-shoots or, more importantly, disrupting the audiences’ credulity.
It isn’t until we see the top half of the creature arise behind an unaware chief Brody that we get a good look at it and have a sense of it’s size. In remembering the awed terror I felt at that moment I understand that the impact would not have been half so powerful if I hadn’t spent so much of the movie seeing this leviathan unveil itself in pieces. If I had seen the whole thing right away the rest of the movie would have been reduced to me waiting to see it again. If the film maker had chosen to have the characters describe the shark in epic terms without us ever getting so much as a glance at it, the eventual reveal could never have lived up to expectations.
After pondering the tactical genius Spielberg displayed I, for no discernible reason, began to think about the Woody Allen film, Manhattan. Released in 1979, Manhattan is something of a transitional film for Mr. Allen. Although a comedy, it has a generally more serious tone than his preceding work. While still thoroughly entertaining it’s comic moments are more, well, adult than the belly laughs that his previous output (Sleeper, Take the Money and Run) had been peppered with. Except for one absolute screamer of a sight gag.
Throughout the film Mary (played by Diane Keaton) makes repeated reference to her first husband, Jeremiah. She tells Alvy, as played by Woody Allen, about the immense impact that he’d had on her. Mary paints a picture of him as an overwhelming figure in her life; an august personage who awed her intellectually and filled her with an almost insatiable lust. Late in the movie’s ninety-six minute running time she happens to have a chance meeting with Jeremiah, while she and Alvy are out together. Finally we see the person she has spent a fair amount of the film mythologizing. And there he is, up on the screen, Wallace Shawn. For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Shawn, he is an actor, playwright and essayist with a lengthy and impressive career. He is also not someone who is going to be confused with Brad Pitt. It’s not just that he isn’t conventionally handsome. It’s that his face is comically unattractive as opposed to conventionally ugly. It’s a genuine laugh-out-loud moment, only enhanced by Alvy’s stunned visage. The shot of his jaw hanging agape as Mary fawns over Jeremiah is priceless. Narratively the scene isn’t essential but it lends real insight into the flighty nature of Mary.
Manhattan popped into my head without any distinct provocation, but the last example I thought of had been lingering in the back of my mind since Eric and I had initiated the conversation, hours before. When I was studying film production as a college student I wrote a paper on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Having developed an obsession with the movie I decided that the only way to do it justice was to view it enough times to recall it in it’s entirety, just in case the nine pages of notes I’d compiled were in some way insufficient. I can think of no piece of information regarding my twenty-year-old self that could be more telling than the fact that I watched that movie thirteen times to make sure that I didn’t miss a thing. The production was extremely troubled and I don’t think that another five thousand words would adequately cover it. Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the shoot. The location (the Philippines) suffered through a series of typhoons that destroyed the sets and ate up studio money as hungrily as it did scenery. If you want a first rate recounting of the events, you can’t do better than Hearts of Darkness, a 1991 documentary on the making of the movie. As impressive as the list of mishaps is, I have no problem picking out a personal favorite.
I can’t imagine anything more immiserating for Coppola than expecting Marlon Brando to bring to life the part of Colonel Kurtz, a rogue Green Beret officer. That kind of character generates a reasonable expectation of a certain level of fitness. Already heavy when cast, Brando committed to getting in shape for the role. Not so much. With a very expensive meter running Coppola did the best he could. Carefully framing Brando in shadow and dressing him in black, Coppola did his best to present him in a way which would allow the audience to see him as a broken but dangerous warrior.
As a young man I thought of it as a failed attempt. I could only view it in terms of it’s aesthetic success, or lack of it. As I have aged and lived through a few “Brando is a disaster” occasions myself, I’ve come to be a bit more generous in my appraisal. With the given being what it was I now admire how much he was able to achieve. Although Brando’s physique was not inspiring his face was still compelling, and Coppola worked it as much as he could. Despite assiduously avoiding a well lit shot of the actor, the director made use of that incredible profile and jawline, giving us a first look at Kurtz that renders him believable as a man who was once capable of almost superhuman military discipline. When I watch the movie now and I see that scene, my first thought is not that he’s unconvincing as a member of the special forces, but very much relatable as a man of purpose driven past his limit, still magisterial even as he has obviously lost command of himself.