Monday, April 20, 2015

Illuminations: The Godfather and Character Framing

This blog has made it a bit of a mission to mention Marlon Brando as much as possible. So I'm going to talk about The Godfather. This is going to be my attempt at an essay on film technique, which you might be aware I am interested in. So, let me make you an offer you can very freely refuse because I know very little about film. Also, well, spoilers for The Godfather

There's a lot to be said about The Godfather, I'm sure, but I find it one of those things that's so well-crafted that it leaves little to say but "yeah, good, well done." But one thing I picked up and liked a lot throughout the movie was how characters were framed. For instance, here's the opening shot:

It's good—great, even. But, by the end of the shot, what becomes of this character is this:

Who starts out looking powerful and in-charge becomes tiny and entrapped by his surroundings—more or less, I think this is the story of the entire movie, told in the first minute or so, which is just fantastic. But the way characters are trapped in the frame is of particular interest to me, because I think the message changes as the movie goes. For instance, these sorts of wide shots happen throughout the movie:

But shots like that, and like this:

I read as a show of excess. I mean, they serve a basic function as establishing shots, but looking at how that wedding cake towers over the wedding attendants and how that villa dwarfs the man that owns it speaks to the excess of the people involved. This is a mob movie, these people are rich, of course they live in excess. But what starts as excess becomes entrapment, especially in shots like these:

In those last two shots, the context makes the feeling even more anxiety-producing, as the Corleone mansion is guarded like a fortress—keeping people in and out—and Michael is waiting to be taken to a dinner with the men responsible for the attempts on his father's life. Despite the wide open spaces, these shots are extremely claustrophobic—you're focusing on single people, small as ants, surrounded by things pressing in on all sides. Coppola even goes so far as to shoot some of these shots from within further constraint, adding a doorway or a gate:

Hell, whether it be death—

or life (well, a baptism, whatever)—

the characters are lorded over and made into ants, their struggles petty squabbles, leading up to a final death-montage so overflowing with what is gruesome that it feels like nothing at all. The surroundings trap these characters, and we even see it in progression with Michael. Halfway through the film we see him, in a very visual turning point, halfway gone:

But, in the final scene, after having become Don, Michael is through the door, at the desk, in power and under command of everything outside of himself:

The final shot of him doesn't leave him empowered, it leaves him trapped: he cannot go back, he's a killer now, and the door has closed:

Just like how we saw his father, Mr. Brando, in the beginning:


Part of the reason I've developed such an interest in film as a form of storytelling is, I think, because of the ability for visual metaphor. Not that writing lacks anything by comparison—they're just different mediums—but literature lacks image, which is the prime form of technique in cinema. I think that part of me is just jealous: the toolset cinema has with things like framing and camera movement and visual storytelling is something that can't be done, at least not to the same effect, in writing. I've heard the claim that film is the ultimate form of art—combining writing, sound, and image, among other things—and while I don't buy it at all, there's something about movies, man. 

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