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,