“The Godfather”: 45 Years Later

Just like a good book, a good movie deserves repeated examinations.   To commemorate the 45th anniversary of its release, “The Godfather” played in theaters last week and I went to see it again.

In 1972, I was too young to see the film when it premiered so it was a few years later when I saw it at a revival house.  However, I have strong memories of my older brother taking my father to see it because it was the last film my dad ever saw in a movie theater.  At the time, my parents rarely went to see new movies so it was exciting that my dad was seeing such an anticipated film based on Mario Puzo’s huge bestseller at the time.

Back then, multiplexes did not exist.   Each city had its own single-screen movie theaters:    Glendale had the Alex and the Glendale; Burbank had the California and the Magnolia.

And movies opened in select theaters, not in every city.  When a first-run film eventually screened in the San Fernando Valley, it was weeks, sometimes months later.  So, if one wanted to see “The Godfather,” a person would have to travel into Hollywood or Westwood and stand in line for hours if the film was popular.

Along with 1974’s “The Godfather II,” both films were nominated for 22 Academy Awards, winning nine including Best Picture for each; some critics even think the sequel superior to the first one.

All the still-living principal actors of director Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece—Al Pacino (age 77), James Caan (77), Robert Duvall (86), Diane Keaton (71), Talia Shire (71)—including Coppola (78) were on hand in New York recently, organized by Robert DeNiro (73) for his Tribeca Film Festival, who, even though he was not in the first film, portrays the younger Don Corleone (the Marlon Brando character) in the sequel.

Two things surprised me in seeing it again.  One, the film’s notoriety over its violence has much to do with the way Coppola handled those scenes.   Of its three-hour length, only minutes of it contain violent moments.  It is the way the scenes are edited that creates the impact on the audience.

The violence often erupts when you least expect it, and it is over quite quickly.  But the violent acts are depicted realistically, leaving the viewer with the impression that “The Godfather” is an ultra-violent film.

When Michael Corleone guns down the police captain and a mobster in an Italian restaurant, it is the acting of Pacino, the close-ups of his eyes, that holds the emotion in that scene, not the killings themselves.  The audience shares what is going on in his mind, that his next move is going to the bathroom to retrieve the hidden gun.

Also enlightening was that the film did not have one f-word or s-word.  It would be hard to make a film like this today without a plethora of obscenities.

Another integral aspect to “The Godfather” is the iconic music by Nino Rota whose Academy Award nomination for Best Score was ruled ineligible when it was revealed that the love theme music, while his, was actually composed for the 1958 Italian movie “Fortunella.”  He did win the Oscar for the sequel, sharing it with Coppola’s father Carmine.

Finally, this absorbing three-hour epic did not seem 180 minutes long, another reminder how riveting it is to watch a film on a big screen in a darkened theater.   Home viewing, be it on a 60” TV or a cell phone, drains the cinematic experience of its life.

Of course, just as with books, not all movies provide revelations upon repeated viewings.  A cast reunion of another 1972 offering, “The Thing With Two Heads,” has not yet been arranged.

Life Lessons: How to say “goodbye” to students

At the end of the school year, I often struggle finding an appropriate way to sum up all the work with the students.

Thanks to my son’s seventh grade English teacher at Muir Middle School in Burbank, Lynn Rothacher, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head.

At the end of the course, Ms. Rothacher passed out a handout entitled “life lessons from the literature we’ve read this year,” a brilliant idea that crystalizes all the important literary works students studied on a single page.

The lesson to “open your heart (and your pocketbook) to others” derives from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This inspired me to create a similar document as a way to say “goodbye” to my tenth grade students.  In addition to listing the life lessons and the works, I added a quote from each piece of literature that supported the lesson.

First, I modeled an example. For Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one lesson is to be tolerant of those different from you:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Next, I had my students come up with their own lessons and quotes for the other works including Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address.”

After they shared and presented these, I had them write reflections.  What they had to say made the previous 179 days of school with its ups and downs all worthwhile.

“This is my favorite thing we’ve done the whole school year.  I feel like at school, the place we’re supposed to be preparing for the real world, we’re never really taught life lessons.”

“I love these quotes so much I plan on keeping them with me because I feel that they can be seen at any point in life and give hope, or inspire you to do certain things. Reading them really made me reflect on life.”

“With these lessons and morals in mind, we can make ourselves better people and influence others to become better also.”

“This creates more of a long-lasting positive impact than anything else we could have done.  This activity reminds us of all that can be taken from literature.”

“School is not great on covering how to apply our knowledge in the real world.  This class had a purpose.  Now I know the importance of literature and I am more aware of life.”

“This is something that will stick with us throughout the rest of our lives.  We probably won’t remember the technical aspects of literature as well as the life lessons they provide.”

“I have gained an immense understanding of human nature as a result of these pieces of literature and I know for a fact that I will never forget any of the life lessons.  I feel like I know how to be a better person and hope others do as well.”

“This shows us why we spent countless hours reading and understanding these books.  It puts all our work into perspective and makes it worthwhile.  In this class I’ve learned the most about myself and what kind of person I am.”

“Talking about this definitely has an emotional element to it.  You don’t realize in the midst of reading, annotating, analyzing, and taking tests on these works that they’ve actually been specially chosen to teach you things that aren’t required by the school.”

“I loved doing this.  It made me explode with happiness and excitement.  No one really notices the meaning of why we read the books we read and why our teachers assign these books.  This lesson really opened my eyes.”

Even after nearly 30 years in the classroom, I am still learning new ideas.   Thank you, Ms. Rothacher.