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My name is Jethro Wells, and the movies you love are terrible. Now, I know that it’s taken me a while to get this article out. But I’ve got 175 good reasons for why it took me so long. Well there’s really only one reason, but it’s a 175 minute long reason. Of course, I’m talking about The Godfather.
The Godfather is a terrible movie. The Godfather is like the War and Peace of crap movies. It’s too long, there are too many characters, and the only reason people are still struggling through it is to say that they’ve finished it. And why don’t we start the elephant in the room.
1. Most People Haven’t Seen The Godfather.
According to a study in 2011, roughly a third of the people who say they’ve seen The Godfather haven’t actually seen it. That’s right, you can exhale. It isn’t just you. The Godfather is one of those movies that everyone feels like they should see but no one actually wants to watch. And since Wikipedia is a thing, no one really has to anymore. You can just memorize the big names in the cast, maybe a fact or two about the Corleones, and if someone asks you something you skimmed over, you pull one of those, “I haven’t seen it in a long time,” routines. Just to be clear, I totally don’t do this. I have seen all the movies. I just haven’t seen some of them in a really long time.
Why aren’t people actually watching this movie? They don’t know that’s it’s terrible. They haven’t seen it yet. All they know is that it’s a movie that’s almost universally hailed (incorrectly) as one of the greatest movies of all time. They have no excuse – at least until they turn the DVD over and see that it’s almost three hours long. People don’t have time to watch a three-hour movie. It’s not every day that you’re escorted to the Portland airport and forced to fly back to New York just because your cheating sack of ex-girlfriend doesn’t see the romance in you flying across the country just to see if she’s open to giving it another shot. Now I’m not sure if that’s ever happened to you, but if it has, then you know it’s about a five-and-a-half-hour flight. That’s more than enough time to watch the movie, and then do something soothing afterwards to recover, like cut and paste words out of Skymall magazine into an anonymous hate letter.
Now, I know this isn’t really a reason why the film is terrible. It is, however, a reason why the film is so loved. The Godfather is to culture snobs what boobs are to high school boys. Once one kid says he’s seen them, everyone else needs to pretend they have too. Because no one wants be the only one left out, even though deep down we all know we’re a bunch of liars.
2. The Whole Movie is Borderline Racist.
The Godfather is about the Italian mafia. It’s not a film that features the Italian mafia; it’s a movie exclusively about the Italian mafia. It’s a movie that’s filled to the gills with Italian culture, and that makes sense, seeing as how it’s about the Italian mafia. What doesn’t make sense is why Coppola feels the need to beat us over the head with this fact in virtually every scene.
To go into every offending scene would probably take longer than the movie itself, so I’ll just give you two. They both star two of the most lovable Italian stereotypes: Peter Clemenza, and food. Let’s look at the scene where Peter Clemenza, played by Richard Castellano, teaches Michael how to make sauce. This might be the most obnoxious scene in the entire movie. First of all, you just struggled through the first forty-five minutes of this movie where nothing happened, and just when the plot starts to pick up, the film screeches to the halt and becomes the Food Network. There’s a general rule in screenwriting. Every scene should either push the plot forward or enhance your understanding of the characters or theme. This scene does not propel the plot forward in any way, and the only theme it’s enhancing is the theme of being Italian. Which needs no enhancement. It is a good recipe for sauce though.
Then, just to be sure that everyone knows that Clemenza is the most Italian fictional Italian in the history of Italians, we get his most famous line from the film: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” This is one of the movie’s most iconic lines and it basically wraps up all the film’s stereotypes into six words. And yeah, I know the line was ad libbed, but if Coppola didn’t like it, he could have done another take.
To say The Godfather is racist because it almost exclusively features Italians would be like saying 12 Angry Men is sexist because it doesn’t feature any women. But we can look at the aspects of the culture Coppola chooses to focus on, and those aspects are mostly iconic tropes of Italian culture. By the end of the film, the only character not involved in organized crime is Michael’s second wife, Kay Adams, a super American woman, with a super American name, played by the super American Diane Keaton. There are no Italian dentists in The Godfather, there are no Italian school teachers, there is no Italian therapist telling you to stop obsessing over the minutia of classic films and start confronting the problems in your own life. In The Godfather, if you’re Italian, you’re pretty much a gangster or you own a restaurant. Or you’re a gangster who owns a restaurant.
3. There Are Too Many Damn Characters
Take a minute and go to the Wikipedia page for The Godfather and count the characters. Actually, don’t bother. I already did. There are thirty named characters in the film. That’s too many. You can’t remember that many names. Now I know you’re going to be all, “I can remember way more names than that!” Let me just stop you right there. You actually can’t remember all those names.
Buckle up because I’m about to drop some science on your face. When we watch movies, we’re primarily using our short-term memory. Even the plot of a film as long as The Godfather doesn’t have enough time to become engrained in long-term memory. Psychologist George Miller wrote an influential article where he established the capacity of short-term memory to be approximately seven items. Seven. That’s a lot less than thirty. And before you go and say that this rule doesn’t apply to films, let’s look at how many films center around seven characters. There are Seven Samurai, and by extension, The Magnificent Seven. How many reservoir dogs are there in Reservoir Dogs? Seven. How big is the crew of the Nostromo in Alien? Seven. How many camp counselors are there in Friday the 13th? Seven. Well, eight if you count the camp’s owner Mr. Christy, but he doesn’t show up until Annie’s already had her throat slit, bringing the number back down to the magical seven.
Consciously or unconsciously, these films are structured in a way where we can keep all the main characters on the knife’s edge of our brain. The Godfather says to hell with your short-term memory and throws the phone book at you. Because to hell with you if you can’t remember all the people you met at Cheryl’s Christmas party last year. Sure they’re all your ex-girlfriend’s work friends, but it was very important to her that you remember each and every name. That’s just one of the 37 things my girlfriend and Francis Coppola have in common. I have a chart.
Alright, at the risk of stretching this thing out longer than the ungodly film itself, let’s wrap things up with a bit of rapid fire.
The Godfather has a definitive visual style. It harkens back to a romantic tableau of 1940s America. It’s a style that’s been often imitated and full-heartedly duplicated. I know you film buffs are telling yourselves to view the film in context, but it’s a little hard to do that when the entire film was shot through an Instagram filter.
5. The Violence
I’ve got no problem with violence, gratuitous or otherwise. What I have a problem with is terrible acting. Let’s go over some of the biggest problems real fast. First you’ve got Luca Brasi’s strangulation, which looks like the inspiration for the iconic Total Recall eye bulge. Then you’ve got the scene where Marlon Brando gets mowed down in the street in the single most awkwardly staged shoot out of all time.
The worst offender is the scene where James Caan plays at beat up with Gianni Russo. I say play at, because it sure as hell isn’t actual fighting. It’s just James Caan swinging his arms and legs around like a myopic four-year-old. Evidently Russo broke some ribs during this fight, but for the life of me I can’t see how. Shame maybe.
6. The Screams of Jack Woltz
Okay, the fact that actor John Marley’s screaming in the infamous horse head scene hasn’t been sampled into a techno song is almost weird at this point. It’s such a strange, syncopated scream; you need to wonder if it wasn’t intentional. It would certainly explain why Coppola holds on it for so long. Another director might cut away, or dub Marley over with another actor whose repertoire includes the base human reaction for fear. Nope, Coppola lets Marley choke out five individual misguided attempts at screaming. Is there symbolism in the number of screams? Does the number five mean anything?
It doesn’t. In case you were wondering.
Speaking of bullshit symbolism. Oranges. Oranges and the color orange show up all over the place in The Godfather, specifically in connection with death. Jack Woltz has a bowl of oranges in front of him when he denies Tom Hagan, then his horse gets decapitated. Vito Corleone buys some oranges before he gets shot, and eats an orange before he dies. At the meeting of the Five Families, oranges are placed at the table, specifically in front of Tattaglia and Barzini; both end up dead. Oranges are basically like the X’s in the 1932 Scarface, but all citrusy and delicious.
Except there’s a problem. First of all, an X is a pretty universal symbol for being crossed off or deleted, both solid euphemisms for being killed. An orange is a fruit. Even if it is connected with death, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a bit of movie trivia. It also doesn’t show up all the time. Luca Brasi’s death, for example, is orange free. Even Coppola himself admits this wasn’t intentional, at least not at first. They were initially just used to accent the somber color palate of darker scenes. It was only after someone mentioned it that they started to place the oranges consciously.
The issue of oranges is a tidy way of summarizing all the problems with The Godfather. The orange has become widely accepted as a symbol for death in the film, despite not being intentional, and not showing up all the time. Normally, I wouldn’t care about where it was intentional or not; if it’s in the film, it’s in the film. But let’s take a closer look at the filmmakers’ explanation for why they’re there in the first place. They were just used to add contrast to darker scenes. That means that every time they thought a scene was a little dark, or monochromatic, they just grabbed that bowl of oranges they had on standby. No need to think of a more interesting composition. You just add oranges. That’s not symbolism. That’s artistic bankruptcy.
And yet everyone thinks the oranges mean something. Why? Well, it’s probably because they haven’t seen the movie. And if they have, they think the oranges are important because God-damn-it, The Godfather is one of the best movies ever made! We’ve all been conned into thinking The Godfather is a near-perfect movie. No one wants to admit that the emperor, or in this case The Godfather, wears no clothes. Try getting that image out of your head.