Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Cinema Bestius: The Godfather and Citizen Kane

For the first time in 48 weeks, we have a tie…

#2 – Citizen Kane and The Godfather (TIE)
The more you look at them, the more these two terrific films seem alike. They were both game-changers, for good or ill, in terms of the film industry. They have many plot points and themes in common. They both represent the uncompromised visions of their respective directors. They are often mentioned in the same breath when discussing the greatest films ever made. They are the apotheosis of both personal and commercial filmmaking in the 20th century.

The Plot(s) in Brief: Both Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) come from great wealth. They both begin their adult lives full of promise, pursuing their passions—yet their personalities, circumstances, and luck transpire to slowly turn them both into cold, distant, lonely, controlling, violent pricks. What profits a man to gain the world and lose his soul?

Why is this a popular theme? Because even though art, both low and high, has been tackling this theme since the days of the Ancient Greeks (Oedipus Rex, anyone?) the fate that befalls these unlucky protagonists continues to rear its ugly head (Donald Trump, anyone?) Why does history repeat itself? Because people don’t listen the first time.
Of course, that might be horseshit. If movies and television are the opiate of the masses, could this persistent theme be an insidious way of keeping people down? Could films like Citizen Kane and The Godfather kill our motivation to become rich, powerful (and lawless) because we have been conditioned by the media to think that success will only make us miserable? This reminds me of all of those basic cable documentaries about the “curse” of winning the lottery, profiling the suddenly rich who wind up friendless and dead. On the other hand, maybe the artists behind these various entertainments are simply whispering to us all to define success differently.

Both films benefit immeasurably by the deep bench of supporting players that Welles and Coppola cast flawlessly. The following actors improved every film they were ever in, not just the two being discussed here: Agnes Moorhead, Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, William Alland, Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Al Lettieri, Sterling Hayden, and Richard Conte. Both films are feasts for movie fans that love great acting.

Both films feature technical breakthroughs, from Welles’s manipulation of the soundtrack and cinematographer Gregg Toland’s use of deep-focus photography to Coppola’s meticulous eye for detail in every shot and cinematographer Gordon Willis’s use of dark, chiaroscuro lighting. These two films were a sensation on every level: narrative, performance, technical, and exhibition.
I remember taking students years ago to what was then the latest restoration of Citizen Kane, screened at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, the happiest place on Earth. I was trepidatious at first; I really didn’t know how these teenagers would react. As the house lights in the theater came up, I turned to them and said, “Well, what did you think?” They were speechless—absolutely blown away by the film. They had never before seen any film like it.

Five years ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay, poking fun at movie fans that do not like Citizen Kane. You can read it here.

Two years ago, I jotted down some observations during a Cinemark “Classic Matinee” series screening of The Godfather. You can read that column here.
The films’ three miracles: Both arrived at a specific time in history and showed all other filmmakers the full scope and ambition of the medium; both include stellar individual shots and sequences that linger in one’s subconscious for a lifetime; and both represent the vision of their directors—two of the greatest filmmakers in history-- working at the full capacity of their talents and imagination. Thanks, Orson. Thanks, Francis. The two of you made me want to teach film in the first place.

In nomine Welles, et Coppola, y spiritu Cinema, Amen.

NOTE: The Pope of Film has been counting down the 50 Best English-Language Films for almost a year now. What might the #1 film be? Have a guess? Make your case in the comments section below!


  1. Damn! these were my picks for the top two!

  2. I thought these would be the top 2 as well, but now I'm trying to remember if there's been an entry on Vertigo yet, and I don't think there has been. So I'm going to lock in my vote for Vertigo. Final answer.

    Or perhaps the Pope will go with a more recent film. Perhaps something from 2016. That is, if there's any justice in the world. Maybe a....Dawn of Justice?

    For real tho, Vertigo.

  3. I had guessed that these and Casablanca would be the top three, so now I have no idea where this is going. Well played, Pope, well played.

  4. #1 is Good Burger, obviously

    but i'd go with Vertigo

  5. Probably Vertigo. But maybe Night of the Living Dead?

    1. Oooo fair point. Maybe another tie? Or maybe the Pope just puts up a mirror and says "it's you, you're the greatest movie. It's in you, it's in us." I'm changing my answer to that.

  6. Independence Day: Resurgence, for the win!

  7. You all are way off. Clearly it's Friday the 13th.

  8. Replies
    1. He already has The Bride of Frankenstein on his list, and the Pope has confirmed that that is his favorite horror film/

  9. I thought it would be lower, but it looks like Bigger, Longer & Uncut will be number 1!!!!

    Unless he throws a curveball and says Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World....which would leave me equally satisfied.

    Whatever is number one, I've very much enjoyed this series. Thanks JB. And I am a very little bit ashamed at how many I haven't seen. It would be good in the final "episode" to have a list of all the movies. We could call it the "Movie Bible".

  10. After thinking a bit, I'm SURE it will be Bigger, Longer & Uncut. We all know JB has a penchant for musicals....

  11. Has he done Plan 9 from Outer Space?

  12. Have we had a David Cronenberg movie yet? Maybe Dead Ringers for number 1? Naw, I'm sure it'll be Bigger Longer and Uncut