The Rear-View Mirror: The Godfather (1972)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You could easily forget how reluctant Michael Corleone initially is to take over the family business. There are many reluctant heroes in the movies or in literature; reluctant villains are much rarer and often don’t see themselves as villains. They are set to do what seems necessary, blaming the times or the circumstances, acting for the greater good – and it’s their definition of ‘necessary’ that movies like Coppola’s The Godfather are really about. Continue reading

A rabbi, a Mormon and an angel walk into a bar

I’m not a big fan of Meryl Streep. Obviously she’s a good actress and has done some very fine work – but I find it difficult to watch many of her performances without thinking that they are too visible, too clearly acted for my tastes. Streep is too much of an institution to vanish behind her roles, something that I also feel with respect to many of Robert de Niro’s performances in the last ten years or so.

Having said that, though, I very much liked Streep’s performance in the HBO miniseries Angels in America – or should I say, her performances? As was the case in the original stage play by Tony Kushner, most of the roles were doubled, with actors playing two or three different parts. It’s something I enjoy in stage plays, but it rarely works in film, which tends to be too caught up in presenting a realistic surface while sneaking the most outrageously unrealistic plot elements by us. Angels in America, Part I: “Millennium Approaches” starts with a funeral sermon delivered by an ancient, doddering rabbi, played by Ms. Streep. Yes, it’s showy – we can make up one of the preeminent American actresses so she looks like nothing like herself! – but it works.

There’s a lot about “Millennium Approaches” that works. The cast is pretty much perfect, my favourites probably being Patrick Wilson’s Joe (I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in so far), Mary Louise Parker’s Harper and Jeffrey Wright’s Belize. Under Mike Nichols’ direction the play translates very well to the small screen; the humour and the pathos are all there and highly effective. After watching the first part, I was all geared up for part II, “Perestroika”.

I’d read both plays years ago; I did an amateur production of “Millennium Approaches” in 2000, and afterwards we did a reading of “Perestroika”. Back then I thought it was the weaker of the two, failing to do a satisfying pay-off to the cliffhanger ending of the first play. However, I didn’t expect “Perestroika” to fall on its face with quite as resounding a thud. Yes, there were elements of camp melodrama in the first three hours of Angels in America, but they were pulled off well. Part II, however, descends into scenes that would have made Ken Russell embarrassed. The actors try their best, but some scenes – especially the ones featuring the angel whose appearance “Millennium Approaches” leads up to – are cringeworthy. There may be some way to make lines such as “The blood-pump of creation! Holy estrus! Holy orifice!” and groin-bumping scenes between Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson work, but if there is, Nichols hasn’t found it.

It’s not just the HBO production, mind you; Kushner’s original play falters badly in the second part. There are still some strong scenes (especially the ones that eschew operatic metaphysics), but the script becomes prone to hamfisted speechifying.

I’ve rarely seen a play, film or series that does so well in the first part and fails so badly in the second part. And based on what I’ve seen, I am very glad that we decided to leave it at the evocative cliffhanger at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. The thought of making people I like deliver those lines… Nothing angelic about that.

P.S.: One thing I liked from beginning to end, though: Thomas Newman’s score.

It’s a Mann’s world

Yesterday we watched The Insider, Michael Mann’s 1999 film about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, 60 Minutes and the evil machinations of big US tobbaco. I like Mann’s cool jazz style, the calm rhythm of his movies. Watching The Insider for the fourth or fifth time, though, I was struck at how much the director’s cinematic world is a male one.

Insiders inside a car (duh…)

Like in several of Mann’s movies, it’s not so much that there isn’t any sympathy for the women (in this case especially Wigand’s wife Liane, played by Diane Venora), but that the film’s focus always remains with the man, and as a result the women are seen in terms of whether they remain loyal to their men or not. It’s really weird – if I write it like that, it makes Mann sound like the worst misogynist ever. However, I don’t think that’s quite fair. Venora’s character in Heat (this time she’s together with the Pacino character) also decides to walk out on her man because his job is more important than his family. It’s not that he doesn’t love her, but he’s obsessed with what he does. Perhaps that’s why the films aren’t straightforward exercises in sexism – Mann’s men are obsessive-compulsive, they choose their duties like lonesome cowboys. There’s something glamorous and admirable to the male protagonists, but at the same time they’re stuck in adolescence and in the belief that they don’t need anyone else, except the other boys they play their lethal games with.

By comparison, the women live in the real world much more than the men. Things aren’t as clear cut for them. Venora’s Justine Hanna in Heat realises that she will always come second to her husband. Her Liane Wigand knows that Jeffrey (fantastically acted by Russell Crowe, by the way) will not give up his quixotic quest against big tobacco, not even for the sake of his family. She comes off worse, perhaps, than other women in Mann, because Jeffrey Wigand is so clearly doing the right thing. But there is understanding in the film for her plight.

In the hands of a lesser director and actress, Liane and Justine would simply be shrews who screw over their good-guy husbands. It’s difficult to completely shake the feeling that they are disloyal and selfish. But they have a strength and a dignity that makes us look and think twice.

But it doesn’t change that, at its heart, Michael Mann’s world is a man’s world indeed.

Tom and Jamie,/Sitting in a Car…