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Psychology : Applied

Why Richard (meaning anyone under 30) should watch The Godfather: the value of investing in an epic


I always experience a kind of wonder and excitement when I meet people who haven’t yet seen

The Godfather; invariably I want to be the person who watches it with them for their first time. My friend Richard, who recently turned 29, is one of these lucky individuals who get to experience this epic film for the first time.  When he told me he hadn’t yet seen it, I made him a deal. Since I can’t join him on his cinematic adventure because he lives so far away, I have offered to watch The Godfather II with him when he next visits: one of the few sequels that equals if not betters the original. Of course this is on the condition that he watches the original film, without interruption before I see him next (I’ll have to take his word on this).

The Godfather is *just* older than I am. But in these days where technology moves and changes so quickly, a matter of a decade or so makes a big difference in the experience of watching something like a film. In 1972 when The Godfather came out, it could pretty much only be seen in a cinema. By the time I was old enough to watch it, the technology had changed. I could watch it at home, on a disappointingly small screen, in a room riddled with the distractions of ringing phones, barking dogs or the sound of an ironing board being erected on the other side of the room. I did not, however, have to contend with the myriad invitations to multi-task on a variety of mobile devices that we have today, and that’s why The Godfather has become more, not less important.

For Richard, and for all of you under thirty (and those of you, like me, who are over thirty and constantly distracted), watching The Godfather is an opportunity to commune with the art of a classic epic film in the absence of the devices that compete for your attention every second of the day. I beg you, turn off your iPhone, and turn on The Godfather: it’s a skill that will last a lifetime.

The Godfather is a movie of its time. It requires concentration, commitment, and investment. But such an investment is a joy that pays off as soon as the other devices are put away in service of the film; it is a captivating movie. Sadly, few people today know how to enjoy such a film. Anyone who watches The Godfather with a smartphone in their lap, sending text messages and tweeting quotes will entirely miss the point. It for this reason alone that Richard (and anyone under 30) should watch it as a matter of course, to see film as it was meant to be seen, in a dark room, without interruption (crunching on popcorn is allowed). The viewer has to allow themselves to be taken away by it, to have their disbelief suspended, and to be transported into the world of the cinephile.  If you can’t manage The Godfather without checking your phone, you may like movies, but you may not call yourself a cinephile.

A Three Hour epic verses six seasons at one hour a pop


Soprsnos-S5-Power-1

The Godfatherlike The Sopranos is a character drama – you have to pay attention to who’s doing what, what the motivations are, and the long game. The undoubtedly excellent Sopranos is also character driven and run to the tune of the long game, however it is written to be watched by the hour and it has today’s viewer in mind. While we tend to watch DVD box sets (or their downloaded equivalents) in binges, these were made to be taken in one hour at a time; they were written for a generation with a pause button: The Godfather was not and it should not be viewed as such.

That there is a generation that enjoys The Sopranos without having seen The Godfather slightly disturbs me: if only because The Sopranos owes so much to The Godfather that I fear The Sopranos  won’t be enjoyed enough by these naïve viewers. The Sopranos is itself a modern iteration of the iconic mob film. You could almost say it’s a third generation. The younger members of the Sopranos gang refer to Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas almost as much as they hearken back to Coppola’s 1972 classic to which I am referring here. Having The Godfather under your belt while watching The Sopranos is at least as important as having Freud under your belt when reading modern dynamic psychology: you can get modern dynamic psychology without Freud, but can you really appreciate it? Watching The Sopranos without having watched The Godfather is to miss all the inside jokes.

Think SLOW FOOD

Putting the obvious differences in setting aside (millennial New Jersey mob vs. 1940’s New York mafia) let’s take a moment to look at structure. The Godfather is an epic film that is nearly three hours long. It is a slow film and should be enjoyed similarly to the way the slow food movement (interestingly, founded by an Italian) encourages you to appreciate food – something taken one bite at a time, enjoyed and savoured rather than bought through a drive-though window and eaten in two or three unthinking bites on the highway (think The Expendables).

Think of the opening scene that begins in that tight dark space with the haunting notes of The Godfather theme playing in the background. Unlike a Bond film, The Godfather opens more with a wimper than a bang. It begins with a close up shot of a what we learn will be a minor character (aptly named Amerigo Bonasera), practically an extra, who has come to the godfather for some help in obtaining justice that the American legal system could not give him. Ever so slowly the camera pulls back allowing the viewer to watch the size of the man’s face diminish as he pleads with the Godfather, who we can barely see, who deliberates like some kind of a deity. The conversation that ensues sets up the rules for the entire film, it is about a complex power system, it is about respect, it is about honour, and it is about the particular rules of the house. It is a scene, nearly seven minutes long, that has only tangential relation to the dramatic thrust of the story as a whole; it is daring but it is essential. Only later we find that this dark scene is running concurrently with the lavish wedding of the Godfather’s daughter, a division of light and dark that continues throughout the film.


No Sicilian can refuse a request on this daughter’s wedding day

The Godfather is about family and namely, it is about blood in all its symbolic meaning. This is why Bonasera begs Don Corleone for his favour on this day. We learn from the start how such bargains are made, and the importance of family and particularly the way justice is meted out and favours are given and withheld in relation to dishonour and disrespect within this particular system. We are introduced, slowly, to the complexities of a life of “made” men and role of the women associated with them. The Godfather is about the slow build of complexity, the increasing tension of the braided storylines, the character development and trajectories in relation to each other and their world. This is a highy psychological film, but one in which the psychology can only be read by keeping close to the text of the film in all that it has to offer.

Like a fine complex wine, this film is something that opens up with the time and attention you give it. Like a tannic Bordeaux, it may feel astringent at first, but you mustn’t give up. Though it starts tight, it opens with time and with air (just like that first transition from the office to the wedding party), and the viewer has to give him or herself over to it, not with ease, but with effort.

The Godfather as an antidote to ADD culture

In many ways I think The Godfather is a challenging film even for its own time. Jaws which came out just three years later (also a great fim) is a bit easier to swallow (ha ha). We know what we have from the start, we know where we are going even though we are kept at the edge of our seats the whole time, we know we get Moby Dick without the Melville. The Godfather is a different proposition. We get hints, but on the first viewing, we can’t be quite sure what we are getting, or who we are supposed to be rooting for (another element The Sopranos deploys so well). Most of us are unfamiliar with the rules of the game that are being played in this clandestine Italian American family and we have to learn as we go along. It is a slow build to a climax that is no less exciting and action packed than Jaws but with a great deal more playing through it.


jaws

In short, The Godfather demands that we pay it close attention. In the end, we find that we are rewarded when we stick through what, by today’s standards is a slow dramatic build, short on action, to a rich drama that works on our psyches long after the film has ended. Now I like a good action film as much as the next guy, but a deeply psychological and extended character drama is really second to none (and don’t worry, there’s plenty of action to come).

A recent report by Google indicates that most of us use multiple screens simultaneously to accomplish a task (usually a TV and a mobile phone). That means that most of us these days rarely concentrate on one thing at a time. Whether you like it or not, it is pretty well proven that when we try to two things at once, we do it worse than when we concentrate on one thing, and that includes enjoying a film. Do we really want to give a classic film like The Godfather any less than our full capacity to enjoy it?

Now I don’t want to sound like an old fogey. In fact I am one of those people how has indeed been seduced into the multi-screen environment, and I experience myself, a great deal of the time, shifting from one locus of information to the other. While I find myself engaging in this multi-tasking multi-screening activity every day, I nonetheless find it harder and harder to concentrate on any single thing. I’m not alone. In a 2008 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr expressed similar concerns:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

For those of us in Carr’s generation, this feels like a worrying shift, but for younger people like Richard (and the rest of you under 30) this mode of constant multi-tasking is the status quo, is it getting in the way of enjoying classic film? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched Little House on the Prairie, I know that things change and I don’t expect them to stay the same. I don’t want to sit in front of the fireplace singing hymns all evening anymore than you do. Still I would be bereft were we to lose the ability to appreciate Homer, and Dickens, and Hawthorne and in the same way we also need to go back to our cinematic roots in the face of uber-distraction culture and remember how to enjoy a good long film. (And for the record, I’m still grateful to the character dramas of our own time, inclusive of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad which I consume greedily).

Richard, and everyone under thirty, do you get me?

To finish off, I don’t want to pick on people under thirty. I know a lot of them who can enjoy a good film without distraction, while a lot of older people can’t. My mother, who is well over thirty, could never get through a film without getting the ironing board out and plugging away at my father’s shirts (“I’m watching, I’m watching!” she would say); she was the original multi-tasker. The title of this blog, and this belaboured #longread of a request to Richard and others of his generation and after is merely a conceit that enables me to pontificate on what I fear is becoming the lost skill of patiently watching a good long film without interruption.

So this goes out to you, under thirty and over thirty alike. When’s the last time you popped in a DVD and watched the whole thing through without checking your phone? When is the last time you set aside an hour or two to read a book without reaching over to tweet, or answer an email, or just press the button on your device to see the little thing light up – just to make sure. How about you make a start on the slow food, the slow read, the slow watch.

Why don’t you start with The Godfather? Once you’ve nailed that, we can move on to The Godfather IIthat one covers three generations of the Corleones and is longer than the first. If you can nail these two without interruption, you’re on your way. What do you say, Ritchie?

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