Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Flicks Files Flash: "The Godfather" Restored

Monday night, I was invited to a special premiere showing of the newly restored version of Francis Ford Coppola's classic film The Godfather at the Senator Theatre in Baltimore, one of five "historic presentation" theaters in the country chosen to showcase the restored versions of this film and The Godfather, Part II.

At the request of director Francis Ford Coppola, the 1972 film has been restored in what sounds like a meticulous and painstaking process by film preservation expert Robert A. Harris.

Paramount delivered the film’s surviving elements — original camera negative, YCM separation masters, intermediate separation masters and thousands of feet of miscellaneous elements — to Pro-Tek Preservation Services in Burbank, where an inspection confirmed that radical surgery was required. Held together with tape, the original negative was filthy and riddled with scratches, rips and tears, some of which broke into the image area; in some sections, parts of the image had actually been torn away.

According to Senator owner Tom Kiefaber, Harris was very impressed with the Senator on a previous visit, when the theater showed his restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, and it was Harris who suggested that the Senator be one of the theaters allowed to show this new restoration of The Godfather.

The two Godfather films begin showing at the Senator on Friday, October 10, but I got invited to the free private screening Monday night, because I am on the Senator's mailing list. If you live in the Baltimore area, this should be reason enough for you to go to the Senator's website and sign up to be on their mailing list yourself.

I feel a little silly reviewing this film, because it is routinely listed among the best American films ever made, and probably there is nothing I can say about it that hasn't been said before. The Godfather came out when I was very young, and I've been hearing people talk about it for at least the last 30 years. Usually what they say is it's exceedingly good or exceedingly violent, or both.

I, however, had never seen it, and that was for one reason only --- I don't like violence. I'm not a puritan about it, and I don't always succeed in avoiding violent movies. America has an obsession with violence, and much as I hate it, it's part of our culture. I sometimes end up seeing movies I know are violent if the subject interests me for other reasons, if I like the actors or the director, if the violence is cartoonish and bloodless, or if the movie gets so much praise that it must be a real work of art. The Godfather falls into that last category, so when I got a chance to see the restored version on the big screen, I decided to put aside my natural revulsion to the subject and go see it.

This is the story of an organized crime family, the Corleone family, and their various disagreements and vendettas against other Italian mob families. In it, an attempted hit against Vitto Corleone, the Godfather, begins a series of violent repercussions and revenge. These are guys you don't cross, and if you do, bad things happen to you.

Having heard this movie built up for 30 years or more, it's hard for it to live up to the reputation. In my opinion, this is neither the best movie, nor the most violent that I've seen. But I do have to agree somewhat with the general verdict --- this is a very fine movie. What makes it great is the writing, the characterizations, the compelling performances, and the chilling difference between the tenderness the members of the Corleone family show each other and the way they turn into absolute monsters when handling their "business."

Marlon Brando was superb as the Godfather, Vitto Corleone; Al Pacino was likewise as his innocent-looking young son Michael, who becomes ever more corrupt as the film progresses. Pacino is so young in this film that it took me about half the movie to realize who the actor was. And was that a very young Diane Keaton as Michael's girlfriend Kay? (Yes, it was, but again, it took me a long time to recognize her.)

I'll confess there was one major thing I didn't get about this movie, which kept nagging me throughout. What did the members of these crime families think they were gaining by all this violence? Power, maybe. Wealth, maybe, except they seemed to have little time to enjoy it, and all of their houses looked like funeral parlors. Nobody in the movie seemed to be enjoying life, so where was the benefit of this lifestyle? I just didn't get why these people considered their lifestyle one worth pursuing. Really, they seemed like ugly, mean little people living ugly, mean little lives. Perhaps that was the point.

Ultimately, I think these questions are criticisms of our society, and not of the film. What do we gain by our obsession with violence? Money? It sure doesn't look like it these days. Power? Again, I would question that. Are we enjoying life? Is this making us better? I don't think so.

The special engagement of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II starts Friday. The movies will play for one week only. The Godfather will play at 12:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and The Godfather, Part II will play at 4:00 p.m. You can see one movie or both for the admission price. If you want to catch the restored prints of these movies on the big screen, now's the time.

In any case, if you live in the Baltimore area, please sign up for the listserv and support the Senator Theatre. It's one of the few classic old movie theaters left, it's beautiful and architecturally unique, and it deserves to be preserved.

The Godfather receives the Pass the Popcorn rating in the black cat rating system, indicating it’s well worth watching.

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