So this week, Gini and I watched two old movies: Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Godfather. Sadly, all the violence was in the wrong film.
Don’t get me wrong, as Breakfast at Tiffany’s is fascinating from a historical perspective: you can see its proto-hipster DNA in every quirky indie movie made these days. Unfortunately, while for many this is like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, for me it’s like uncovering the lair of the Alien Queen.
Yes, Holly, you’re so forcefully odd! You do such whacky things! What a bold character you are, rebelling against the system by attending thrift shops and leading your childish little life! It’s endearing that you’re so purposefully irresponsible that you have to keep annoying the horribly stereotyped Asian because you can’t be bothered to carry your fucking keys! By the time she tossed the cat out into the rain I’m like, “YOU DUMB BIMBO, YOU’RE KILLING YOUR CAT OUT OF PIQUE! I HOPE YOU DIE IN A GREASE FIRE, YOU STUPID CAT MURDERER!”
On the other hand, I now see who Zooey Deschanel writes her royalty checks to. So that’s something.
Watching the Godfather, on the other hand, makes me think of how the horrifically fucked-up 1970s monoculture led to the glamorization of gangsterism. Because let’s be honest: at that time in American cinema, there was no way you could have a major motion picture about just an Italian family. It wouldn’t sell! America only likes looking at white people! So you had entire categories of ethnicity who only got shown in the margins – Italians, Jews, Mexicans, you name it, they only showed up as secondary characters, and often played by a white guy smeared in startlingly bad makeup.
So Coppola was smart: he threaded his Italian heritage into the movie, making The Godfather as much about everyday Italian lifestyle as it was about gangsters. It’s no error that the movie starts off with a long wedding sequence where not much gangstery happens at all – there’s some negotiations and stories, but mostly it’s a lot of random relatives dancing and food and people interacting with each other in a unique way. The movie is entirely about family, but one of the reasons it’s so effective is that family isn’t just held together by the mob, but it’s held together by all the cultural ties that held Italians together at that time. You think it’s an error that there’s actually a cooking lesson in the middle of the movie, on how to make good sauce?
If Hollywood had allowed a lot of stories about Italian families, well, Godfather probably wouldn’t have had its moxie. But because Godfather was notable for not one, but two elements being introduced to the mainstream, suddenly you had the love of tight-knit Italian clans AND the epicness of the mob, both of which became entwined to be interminably romantic. People were like, “Hey, this is actually kind of heartwarming!” not realizing that what they were reacting to was largely the Italian-ness that white producers had conspired to keep off-screen for years.
I wonder: if Hollywood hadn’t been so bleached in those days, had dared to show Italians as families without gangster ties, would Godfather have even made a dent? And if the Godfather hadn’t romanticized the mob, making it seem glamorous and appealing, would we have ever encouraged a culture that now glamorizes crime in the mainstream? In other words, did the enforced Anglo-ness of filmmaking back then lead, in a complex fashion, to the rise of the thug lifestyle?
I’m not attached to any of it, really, but… food for thought. Delicious Italian food.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.