This week, I sat down with my friend and colleague, writer/teacher/musician/podcaster Daniel DiFranco, for his first viewing of The Godfather. We then discussed his thoughts on seeing such a revered film for the first time.
Rob: First of all, what the hell kept you from seeing The Godfather for so long?
Dan: The list of movies I haven’t seen is pretty astounding, so I don’t think this is significant in that pantheon. Unfortunately, there are a ton of awful movies I have seen — I probably could have used one of the nine thousand times I watched Billy Madison to watch The Godfather.
Rob: What made you want to watch it now?
Dan: Having time off for the summer. I watched Tootsie for the first time a few weeks back and figured it was time to start watching some of these old movies.
Rob: Homework, basically.
Dan: Essentially. Growing up, I never really wanted to watch it. I had a friend in my twenties — he was Italian, as well — who also hadn’t seen it. Then he watched it. He’s one of those guys who will watch something like The Godfather or Fight Club, those very “male” movies, and just become that movie for the next few weeks. In this case, it was for months. He would only speak in quotes from the movie, and that turned me off, big time.
Rob: That’s the worst. The Godfather not only codified a lot of Italian stereotypes, but all those perceived norms about masculinity. “A man should always do” this and that. I remember my family throwing those around in a half-ironic way while also really wanting to take them to heart. How did the movie play for you, overall?
Rob: Did it meet your expectations?
Dan: I try not set expectations with movies too often. It leads to less disappointment in the end. I felt so distanced from it to begin with, so I watched it with a shrug—“Ok, this is the thing I’m watching now.” That said, the movie seemed very clinical. That tone was set from the beginning, so it was clear there wasn’t going to be a lot of melodrama. Instead, it was a very slow boil that happened to include all these famous lines that people always remember.
Rob: It’s funny, because you were asking me questions about Fredo and the horse head while we were watching it. It’s one of those movies that you absorb so much through pop cultural osmosis without even having to see it. What was it like seeing all those famous moments in context?
Dan: A little let down. Like seeing the Mona Lisa in person for the first time. Those scenes and quips felt a little shoehorned in. But that’s not the movie’s fault. It’s probably just a byproduct of pop-culture.
Rob: It might be one of those cases where you came to the movie too late for them to be really effective.
Dan: Maybe. A good example would be Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It’s one of my favorite movies, but I hadn’t seen the Johnny Cash movie it’s predominately making fun of until after, and now I can’t see it without laughing. So it ended up having the opposite effect on me.
Rob: I have flashes of Mafia sometimes when I’m watching The Godfather or Casino, so I totally get that. I want to go back to what you said about the movie feeling clinical. I think a lot of that is by design, but did you find it really affected your enjoyment?
Dan: It did, especially from a storytelling point of view. Michael Corleone loved his family, but he seemed really distanced from them. The movie didn’t really show his loyalty to that family or present the reasons why he would be the one to act in that moment of crisis.
Rob: I always think of the hospital scene where he tells his father, “I’m with you, now.” He sees the gravity of what’s going on and makes that decision.
Dan: We just never see that reasoning. The characters were pretty static. Sonny flies off the handle, Fredo is a loser, etc. There were too many characters, and I didn’t understand anyone’s motivations aside from Vito.
Dan: They could have done another one of those newspaper montages: “Meanwhile, Five Years Later!”
Rob: The whole thing is played close to the vest. Very few characters show their cards until after the fact, which fits thematically, but I can see how it draws away some of the tension. You even said that you didn’t understand why Michael was confronting Carlo until halfway through that last scene.
Rob: That’s so bizarre to hear because I feel like I’ve known what Carlo did since I was like eight years old. But you’re right in that the movie rarely leads you where it wants you to go.
Dan: It’s very minimalist.
Rob: Coppola has always described it as the story a good man becoming evil, which we see in the last scene when the door is shut on Kay just after Michael lies to her. Something that’s touched on a lot more in Part 2 is how a person who thinks they’re fighting for their family is actually doing so for themselves and driving their family away. Do you think the film’s cold nature affected some of those themes?
Dan: Michael doesn’t even seem aware of his family. It’s almost like once he made his decision to change, he uses them as an excuse to fulfill his ruthless fantasies or desires. Like, Brando Corleone was all about the family and trying to run the most respectable crime business he could. I liked that repeated line about the old ways dying…
Rob: “Young people don’t respect anything,” and so on.
Dan: So of course, Mike comes in and kills all the old people! It’s like first order of business after Vito said he wasn’t going to seek vengeance.
Rob: Which shows his ruthlessness. Ok, so as a writer, how would you have improved the film?
Dan: Well, it’s a little hard considering we just finished the movie fifteen minutes ago.
Rob: I know. This entire line of questioning is totally unfair.
Dan: But what was up with the middle? Freaking Lord of the Rings in Sicily?
Rob: I think of that as his meeting with the goddess. He returns to his father’s home, marries a local girl, and reconnects with his Corleone-ness.
Dan: I think you’re being too clever. That part was boring as shit.
Rob [giggling]: So how does this compare with something like Goodfellas, which was kind of presented as a deconstruction of the classic mob story?
Dan: I think Goodfellas is a way better movie. I actually care about Henry Hill, and I always believe that characters have to be sympathetic. Not that you have to like them or want them to succeed, but just that you have to be invested in them. I was invested in Vito — he was a man of principle and reason — but everyone else was one thing: Sonny is a hothead, Fredo is the black sheep…
Rob: Which is paid off in Part 2, but I get your point. I was just thinking about how another one of the repeated lines is “Never let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking.”
Dan: Including the audience! Never let the audience know what you’re thinking! This is definitely iceberg writing, like Hemingway or Salter. You have to infer everything, which will probably pay off the more I think about the movie.
Dan: Yeah, I’m basically giving one of the “Greatest Films Ever Made” a solid B-plus. I lump it in with The Pianist and other prestige movies. It’s not Batman or Wonder Woman, something made to sell popcorn.
Rob: Which is ironic when you consider that this was the biggest movie of all time for a while.
Dan: Why? What were people spending money on? All the little cups?
Rob: You and those cups. Did you at least have a favorite character?
Dan: I really liked the conceit of Robert Duvall’s character. I’d love to see this told from his point of view as the witness. He’s like Nick Carraway — he’s not allowed to do any-thing, but he’s there for everything.
Dan: A bit of both. I want to be a completest, and people say you have to watch Part 1 and Part 2, but that you can skip Part 3.
Rob: I’m actually a Part 3 apologist. It has its moments. What do you hope to see more of in Part 2?
Dan: I would like to see more of Michael’s point of view and really get into his psyche. And definitely way more walking around in Italy. How long is Part 2?
Dan: Jesus Christ. And it’s played mostly in flashbacks?
Rob: It’s half and half. Robert De Niro plays Vito as a young man.
Dan: Oh, I didn’t know that! Do you think that informs people’s opinions about the original?
Rob: You mean like how most of the things we like about Star Wars are actually from The Empire Strikes Back? I think so, in some ways. You’ll understand a lot more about Michael and Vito’s motivations, which definitely shapes your later viewings of the first film.
Dan: So, I’m counting on it to completely salvage my opinion of Part 1.
Rob: Apparently. All in all, do you feel more in touch with your Italian side now?
Dan: No, not really. No amount of watching The Godfather is going to make my father not abandon me.
Rob: I’m using that.
Dan: You should. Just end the interview right there.
Rob: I will.
Daniel DiFranco lives and teaches in Philadelphia. He graduated from Arcadia Universi-ty with an MFA in Creative Writing. His words can be found in Smokelong Quarterly, LitroNY, and others. Full list of pubs and miscellany can be found at danieldifranco.net, and @danieldifranco. He is 1/3 of the podcast book.record.beer.