The Godfather: Storytelling is Manipulation

I watched The Godfather again the other day. I believe it was only my second time all the way through, though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years.

It is one of my favorite movies (duh!), but I started wondering why. The characters are racists, sexists, adulterers, murderers, drug pushers, back-stabbers, liars, and overall criminals. In general, if a movie offends my morality too deeply I’ll stop watching it, regardless of how many awards it has won. So, why do I love these characters, even though, especially in real life, they would not like me?

I like the characters, and the story, because they are spoon fed to me gently. The movie opens with the sad wailing of horns, a refrain that will play over and over throughout the movie. Even if you hadn’t seen the movie, you would get the impression that you were going to see a sad story. You feel ready to empathize.

The Godfather title comes on the screen. It has puppet strings over the “father” part. So, we subtly get the impression that someone is going to be manipulated, or feel out of control. This  prepares us to feel sorry for that situation, to care. We’re not put in a judgmental mood, in other words. Again, we’re ready to empathize.

Next, we see a man with an accent talking to us, looking into the camera. His first words are “I believe in America.” Yes, he turns out to be just another person begging for a favor from Don Corleone, but we don’t know that yet. We’re ready to like this guy and embrace what he has to say.

Next, this guy tells us a story. It’s a riveting and emotional story of a good girl, his own daughter, getting abused. By now, we’re totally sucked in, wondering who’s going to right this terrible wrong. And who does it turn out to be? None other than the Don. We’re ready to approve of whatever punishment the Don metes out to this heartless abuser. The movie has prepped us to accept murder and violence as justified. Why? Family. Family is everything, right? Any one of us would kill for our families, especially our kids.

It’s genius. We don’t discover all their problems until later. By then, we don’t care as much. Michael is our guy, and he’s trying to do the right thing. He just wants to help his father. Plus, he’s sexy. And he’s the marrying kind. We don’t become scared of him until the end, but he has our loyalty by then. By the time people are killing for him and kissing his hand, we’re married to him too, just like Kay. What can we do at that point? (Watch The Godfather II, I guess, which I will do!)

Storytelling, at the end of the day, is manipulation. As storytellers, we have to know how we want our audience to feel, and then not let up until they feel that. In order to do this, however, we have to have empathy. We have to have a genuine understanding of how human beings think and feel. The more natural empathy you have (which is a gift that not everyone has), the better writer you are capable of becoming.

The fact that Coppola, Puzo, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, and the rest of the crew could make me, an arrow-straight, law-abiding, moralistic black female care deeply about a bunch of racist, sexist, murderous Italian men is no small feat. And it’s not just me. My mother saw this film in the theater when she was pregnant with me. She held her pee until the end because she couldn’t bear to miss any of it. Wow!

I hope one day I can write a story that’ll make a pregnant woman hold her pee.

Peace and love,

Raven

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The Skin They Fear: A Poem

THE SKIN THEY FEAR

Wading, wading

through mucous,

Ugly judgment,

Moving, monitored,

Second-guessing simple

things.

Aware that the skin I wear

Is the skin They fear.

 

Guarding, guarding

Erratic aggressions

Piercing peace.

Misunderstood moods,

Prove it, prove it,

Prove you belong here!

Aware always

That the skin I wear

Is the skin they fear.

 

Swimming, peeling

Cobwebs of

Sticky, noxious

“Supreme” white

Scales that blind,

Certainly

Every American eye,

Whispering

Awareness

That the skin I wear

Is the skin They fear

 

Purposeful predatory

Poverty rules,

Grinding,

Grinding

‘neath free market boot

Dancing denials

From fair skinned

Foe friends

Forgetting not

That the skin I wear

Is the skin They fear

 

Some say get paid,

Freedom’s financial back way.

Others say

Schooling, voting,

Fragrant power, that.

Strong fabric, no holes.

New clothes,

cancelling out the old.

But flush or poor,

Corrupt or good,

Dull or shrewd…

 

Painted beautifully black,

Deck against me stacked,

‘cause

The skin I wear

Is the Skin they fear.

 

 

The Shape of Water – a Critique of its Love Story and “Representation”

*spoilers*

I read an interesting article about The Shape of Water the other day. The article 18_05_05_The_Shape_of_Watercelebrates the idea of “queering” in the movie – non-traditional love between “queer” bodies – in this case a mute woman and a “monster.”  The author, Stephanie Monteith, seemed to love the movie as a discussion of the monster as “other,” as a way for us to examine our own humanity through the idea of the monster.

I like Stephanie’s point, but I didn’t really like the movie. It didn’t work for me because I thought the theme was too blatant and simplistic. It felt like Oppression Olympics. The movie had pure, uncomplicatedly good characters: a mute woman, her black female friend, and her gay best friend, all struggling on the brink of abject poverty to save the sweet, loving monster from the horrible, uncomplicatedly bad rich white man who practices unflinching bigotry and cruelty.

I think humans (and monsters) are more complicated and faceted than that, so I tend to get bored with statement pieces that have angel and devil-people functioning as stand-ins for a discussion about social justice. I have no problem with movies that discuss themes of social justice, as long as the story and characters ring true.

The exception, for me, are morality tales, which I love. These stories tend to have very simple plots, and a main character who struggles with his own contradictions. In these stories, the main character is usually the only complicated character, and the plot may or may not be plausible, but the moral struggle rings true. The movie A Simple Plan is my favorite morality tale. I think Fatal Attraction and The Firm (the movie, not the book)  also fall under that category.

The Shape of Water appears to be using the love story to make a statement. But, the love story didn’t quite work for me either. I believe the notion of pure unselfish love would have been more powerfully advanced if the woman and the creature had not had sex, at least not until she had been transformed into a sea creature.

The Inter-species sex introduces a strange element that takes away from the idea of love being selfless and sacrificial. Picture Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Will fought for the life of “Serena” instead of Caesar, and they made love in a tree. Will’s love for Caesar was no less poignant without the “love story,” and Elisa’s love for the Amphibian Man would have been no less touching without the sexual component.

Once Elisa dies and comes back as Amphibian Lady – since their true love had already been firmly established – sex makes sense at that point. Before that, you wonder (well, I wonder) if she was simply horny and desperate. She was a daily, vigorous masturbator, after all.

Having Elisa and the Amphibian Man consummate their relationship in the water – as equals – would have been a lot more beautiful and romantic in my opinion.

So, while I found myself rolling my eyes at some of the more obvious “messages” in The Shape of Water, and while I found the inter-species sex a little creepy and unnecessary, I love it when something unusual gets top honors. I hope the success of the movie will inspire the industry to continue thinking outside the box.

Incidentally, I believe that no group can claim true equality until the individuals in that group are looked at realistically – not all good, not all bad. Not villains. Not angels. Not comic reliefs. Not magical saviors. Not innocent victims who need rescuing. Not sexualized. Not asexual. Not serving merely as support props for the mainstream (white) character. And not as quirky side-kicks who appear when needed, and conveniently disappear when not. Three dimensional characters, just like real people, hold multiple and contradictory characteristics at once. There are no saint groups and no sinner groups.

We’re getting there, but I believe we still have a ways to go.

Peace and love,

Raven