Heroes & Villains
I love the social aspects of Facebook and hate its politics. The site has struck another blow against free speech. Headline from foxnews.com: “Facebook ‘permanently’ locks account of conservative children’s book publisher.” And the sub-headline: “Heroes of Liberty publishes books about Amy Coney Barrett, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Sowell.” FB is my second best marketing tool after selling books directly on the street. My posts generate a few sales per year. I don’t want to give that up, nor do I want to lose contact with everyone on my friends’ list, although I feel I’m doing wrong by staying.
No sunshine, too much wind and cold temperature put the kibosh on the floating book shop today. I got the annual physical out of the way. I was elated that my BP was 120/80. Seems the deep breathing exercises do the trick. Now it’s wait and see if the blood work turns up anything foul.
Here’s an essay I wrote circa 2000: Mafia Fiction and Its Detractors
There is animus among many in the Italian-American community regarding the popularity of the mafia in film and television. Although I feel the theme has been overdone, I do not believe the works reflect bigotry. If prejudice against Italian-Americans still exists, it has little to do with the portrayal of organized crime. In fact, I’ve always sensed a misguided respect for the mob in non-Italians, even though most people know we are now in all walks of American life. No one is more admired at present than Rudolph Giuliani. Alas, there will always be that small percentage of humans of all nationalities that fails to see beyond prejudice. I’m more miffed at the Italian-American politicians who helped drive New York to the brink of financial and social disaster before Rudy and the dot.com entrepreneurs came to the rescue.
I’ve watched only one entire episode of The Sopranos, one in which a friend, John Billeci, had a small role as a manager of a mob run Wall Street firm. He and Michael Rispoli, another actor, jokingly refer to the pigeon-holing to which they’re subjected as something like: “Guineas on call.”
It’s not that I think The Sopranos isn’t good — I just don’t see anything new there. I find it extremely difficult to devote hours to creeps, especially week after week. Of course, one may argue that all art recycles the same few themes again and again, and that only spin makes it fresh. Mayor Giuliani is a fan of the show, as are many of my friends. I wonder if I’m merely ticked at its popularity, as my fictional portrayals of every-day Italian-Americans continue to languish in obscurity.
America’s fascination with the Cosa Nostra is more a reflection of its long love affair with the outlaw than bigotry. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch and Sundance, Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, the films of Bogart, Cagney and Raft, enthralled Americans long before the Mafia became a staple of screenwriters. Like porn stars, gangsters connect with a longing for freedom, a shunning of convention, a doing what pleases whenever it pleases. Of course, these rebels may be no more free than the rest of us, but the mythology that builds around them makes it appear they are.
While I do not think The Godfather is a literary masterpiece, it is highly entertaining, and it spawned a great film trilogy. Mario Puzo, who also collaborated on the screenplays, deserves the utmost credit and respect. The Godfather Part II is as good as any film ever made, and The Godfather is as entertaining as any. Should Italian-Americans shun these works because of a perceived insult to them? That is a turning of the back on high art. The Mafia is a fact of life, not an invention of Hollywood, which has always loved those who live on society’s margins. Of course every-day Italian-Americans are under-represented in film — all people of decency are. Decency, the struggle for it, does not sell many tickets.
The only criticism of the Godfather series that I find irrefutable is its sanitization, especially in the original, of the mob. Unlike Goodfellas, whose characters bludgeon an audience with unrelenting thuggery, The Godfather has good Mafiosi and bad Mafiosi. Puzo cast Vito and Michael Corleone in a heroic light. I don’t know if he really believed certain Mafiosi are heroic or if he was merely storytelling. It doesn’t matter. It’s still great. While I admire Martin Scorsese’s uncompromising passion to present the truth, I prefer the fiction of The Godfather. It is better art. The story of Michael Corleone, a potential renaissance man who shelves his dreams to come to his family’s rescue, resonates with anyone who has forgone a dream. The fact that the family business is crime makes the tale all the more compelling. The evolution of Michael from war hero/scholar to cold autocrat, the antithesis of the renaissance man, is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.
I am one of the few who like The Godfather Part III, although it pales in comparison to its predecessors. Even Francis Ford Coppola believes the film fails, citing Michael’s frailty as the reason. I see this weakness as inevitable devolution. Michael’s sins, especially the murder of his doltish brother, have beaten him down. Despite his wealth, power and intelligence, he is unable to save his family. It may even be argued that he contributed to its demise. In the end he loses that which he loves most, his daughter, who unwittingly takes a bullet meant for him. It is his death blow. Shakespeare would have loved it, Dostoevsky too. I’ve always believed The Godfather was influenced by The Brothers Karamazov. The tyrannical father was transformed into the benevolent Don; the hot-tempered Dmitri became Sonny; the saintly Alyosha became Michael; the adopted, sickly Smerdyakov became Fredo; the intellectual Ivan became the family lawyer/consigliere, the adopted Tom Hagen. The parallels end there, however, at least as far as I can see.
There has never been a more appropriate, more ironic opening quote than that of the original: “I believe in America,” says the undertaker, who has come to the Don for justice. Of course, the Mafia is a perversion of the American dream. Italians have prospered in this great land as far back as the Revolution — legally. Still, this work about a minority within a minority hits home. How many lines of dialogue from part one and two remain in the memory? Too many to mention. “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Although the Mafia is an infinitesimal portion of the Italian-American community, it accounts for seemingly 99% of its presence on screen. It is no wonder, then, that the most genuine portrayal of an Italian-American is contained in the Godfather series. Michael V. Gazzo’s depiction of Frankie “Five Angels” Pentangeli rings so true. He reminds me of many of my family’s friends, although none were Mafiosi. His genuineness allows him to steal each scene in which he appears. On the other hand, James Caan, widely praised in the original, was not genuine, at least to me. I always have to remind myself to cut him some slack. After all, it is acting, and he is not Italian-American. No doubt the general public thought he was excellent. Brando, an incredible talent, was almost genuine as the Don.
And just when I thought I’d had my fill of gangster fare, along came Donnie Brasco, and the great performance of Al Pacino, and a surprising one, at least to me, by Johnny Depp. Pacino is awesome when he underplays, when he avoids the bizarre tangents he takes in so many roles. I’ll never forget the look on his face in The Godfather Part II when Kay tells him she aborted their child to put an end to the “Sicilian thing” going on for a thousand years. Although not a single drop of blood is shed, it is the most violent scene in the trilogy, a riveting psychological maiming, one of the all-time great moments in cinema. Kudos to Coppola and Puzo.
Who knows — maybe in ten or 20 years the Russian mob will be the object of the public’s fascination, and not its scorn. Gangster movies are not likely to go away, and one group or another must fill the void, unless a multicultural mob develops. And even that would likely offend someone.
What do you think?
The Godfather — Albert S. Ruddy/Paramount 1972, Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola/Mario Puzo
The Godfather Part II — Francis Ford Coppola/Paramount 1974, Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola/Mario Puzo
The Godfather Part III — Paramount/Zoetrope 1990, Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola/Mario Puzo/Vincent Patrick/Dean Riesner.
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