Friday, March 28, 2008

A craft no longer.


Like a well-structured essay, a great film creates an argument using its acting, directing, cinematography, and plot. A great filmmaker knows how to effectively mould these elements so that his final product has visual, aural, and argumentative coherence. Neither innovative cinematography nor great acting alone can elevate a movie into the realm of greatness. Although not every speech will be momentous or every shot groundbreaking, every scene must contribute toward the film as a unified whole.

It is in this balance where Ridley Scott failed but the directors of The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and Scarface succeeded.

American Gangster is a flashy big-budget portrayal of Frank Lucas’ rise to power in New York’s underworld. Though supposedly a portrayal of real characters, even Frank Lucas has admitted only around 20% of the movie is true. In any case, the level of realism has little matter in this critique of American Gangster; it only serves to demonstrate that any faults in the movie do not lie in its attempted portrayal of real events, as The Godfather, Scarface etc. are entirely fictional movies.

American Gangster is the type of movie that trailer directors dream of; there is no shortage of tag-line dialogue, enticing grandiose scenery and hard-core action. These are the constituents of a film that intends to eclipse box-office receipt records rather than achieve new ground in filmmaking as craft. It is unfortunate that the audiences of such media as the above have devolved into awarding eye-candy rather than artistic brilliance. There is now a formula to making money on the silver screen that does not involve craft, but flash. The medium has become a marketer’s dream rather than an artist’s palette.

The Godfather became successful due to Coppola’s sheer mastery of the craft, and his ability to draw the audience into the humanization of the gangster lifestyle. Michael Corleone’s rise to power is not a matter of his bad-ass attitude, but of his callous, pragmatic innocence. He is best suited for the role of Godfather as he is an outsider to the criminal element of his family. Unlike his brothers, he is not blinded by the toughness of the gangster mentality, or the servile nature of an underling. Yet despite his distance from the criminal element of his family, it becomes clear that in some ways, Michael is no different from Sonny, Don Corleone or any others. Although some of the most memorable scenes are shocking and quotable: that of the movie producer waking up in bed with a horse’s severed head, or the lines “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” the film’s true magnificence is in the consistency of immaculate quality, in the clear, concise and focused image Coppola set to achieve, and in the details of film making.

My favorite scene in the movie involves no memorable lines, no action sequence and very minimal set or cinematography; in fact it is the final scene of the movie. It is the afternoon, Michael is in his office and is confronted by Kay. She asks him if he did it, if he had his sister’s husband murdered. Michael responds by saying he has told her to never to ask him about his business. After more pressure from Kay, he decides that this one time, he will let her ask him a question about his business. She repeats herself. He looks her in the eye and tells her he has not killed his sister’s husband. Kay says she believes him. Next we see Michael still in his study leaning on his desk as Kay is in the foreground washing dishes. Kay looks in Michael’s direction as some of his men come into the scene and shake and kiss his hand. The door to Michael’s office closes, Kay looks back at the dishes, and then turns back one more time to where Michael was. She knows he has lied to her.

The scene represents the culmination of Michael’s loss of innocence. The War Hero has become Godfather. It is during the incipit moments of the film, at Michael’s sister’s wedding, where his innocence and integrity are still intact, that he tells Kay “That’s my family, Kay, that’s not me”. The finality and polish of the movie are evident, without dialogue, but through acting, cinematography, directing and a well-refined plot, Coppola has created one of the finest endings in all of cinema. Kay realizes Michael is a Corleone, it is his family, and it is him.

I cannot think of a single remarkable scene from American Gangster. Every other scene attempted to be grandiose, trying to be that one groundbreaking image that would last in the minds of its audience, but instead were just lost amongst one another. The problem is that a movie can only have such scenes when everything else is said and done, the above Godfather scene serving as a case in point.

As today’s heralded movies demonstrate, Edward R. Murrow was right.

While speaking about Television (but by extension any medium),

"To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box… "