THE GODFATHER (1972, Coppola)

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I think you should watch the scene first! (Though if you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, move along, there’s nothing to see here.)  In this famous scene, to protect his family, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who is a squeaky-clean war hero turned civilian, is to murder his dinner-mates and enemies – Sollozzo and the bastard Captain McCluskey – which will doom him to a life working with “the family.”

The gun to do it with has been planted in the restroom…

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I’m obsessed with 70’s Coppola right now.  And what’s not to be obsessed with; this scene from The Godfather is a piece of perfection (as I consider the whole movie), down to the tiniest detail.  Today’s post continues the theme established in The Elephant Man post – ie, a brilliantly calculated close up coupled with amazing sound work.

I’ve been reading Walter Murch a lot lately.  Murch did the sound design on this film (and the groundbreaking sound work on Apocalypse Now, to name just a few of his more famous jobs) and this scene is a revelation of what inventive, imaginative design can do.

Coppola & Murch make no beautiful music together

To point – the absence of music (Coppola’s idea) and the screeching subway train (Murch’s idea).  It’s amazing to think about the fact that the train was a complete fabrication by Murch in post.  There is no train established nearby, no mention of it, and not one bit of visual proof.  And, what’s more, it sounds like it’s ON TOP of us when the murder’s going down. But no matter – it’s emotionally exactly right.  In fact, I don’t know how many times I watched this scene before I consciously noticed it.

And now the shot, which slowly pushes in on Michael Corleone (Pacino) seconds before he builds his nerve.  No suspense music, no cut-aways – just a slow push in on a brilliant actor after all the minutia of character and situation have been meticulously set up in the scenes & moments preceding.  And the fact that Italian is being spoken and is not being translated — because at this point, we know, words don’t mean a thing — THAT’S. SO. BRILLIANT.

This incredible shot, coupled with the lack of music and the exquisite use of sound create an indelible, gripping moment in an equally amazing sequence. Here’s a favorite quote of mine by Murch on the use of music, which he brings up in the book The Conversations, when discussing how they held off the music till after the emotional punch, especially in this sequence, but also throughout the whole film:

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[This scene] is a classic example for me of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than a device that creates emotion…Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids.  There’s no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music — just like steroids build up muscle.  It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it’s unhealthy for the organism in the long run.

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I love that — after all our emotion is built and spent with no artificial aid from music — the score kicks in with full-blown operatic grandeur once the deed is finally done and Michael’s fate is sealed.  At that point, we not only believe it, but we’ve actually experienced it with him.  That’s so rare in film.

Al-Pacino-The-Godfather

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979, Coppola)

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Martin-Sheen-Hearts-of-Darkness

I just watched this film again last night on the big screen. What an experience. It really is a vividly realized descent.  In the gut-wrenching documentary on the film’s creation, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (man, do I dig what Coppola has to say here), we learn that Francis Ford Coppola and most everyone involved went a bit out of their minds in the jungle, what with the sprawling story, never-ending production, and insane conditions like the Philippine Army’s helicopters leaving whenever they were called, Marlon Brando’s obesity, storms destroying whole sets and Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack.

Today’s shot, like the movie itself, is about discovery in the face of the overwhelming. All in all, 230 hours of footage were captured for the movie, which puts the shooting ratio at 95-to-1. For every minute in the movie, there are 95 ‘unseen’ minutes.  No wonder it took over 21 months to edit the picture and another year to create the film’s rich and unsettling soundscape.  This also explains, to an extent, why it’s such a poetic and rich visual experience. There are so many shots that seem to be the most abstract yet perfect comment or detail to a scene.  (I think of the squatting girl in Kurtz’s bunker, when Sheen finally arrives, as a prime example.)

Francis Ford Coppola’s Accidental Discovery

Today’s shot is one of those inspired moments that come from a year and nine months of experimenting with a deluge of footage. Coppola admits freely what an accident its creation was, and it’s a true testament both to Coppola’s genius and to the magic possibilities of discovery. Coppola explains in the commentary track that he was visiting the editing room about 9 months into post when he saw a barrel full of discarded film. He asked what the shots were and they explained it was “fill,” that is, parts of shots before the real action started.

Coppola pulled out, completely at random, what would be the opening shot – fill from the napalm bombing sequence. The camera had rolled quite a while in advance, as not to miss the explosions. Coppola immediately felt the footage was unusual, beautiful and thematically interesting. And then he reached over to the music bin and grabbed a song, saying “wouldn’t it be funny to start a movie with a song called ‘The End?'” (The Doors, incidentally, were Coppola’s film school buddies at UCLA).

Well, the rest is more or less history. Walter Murch went to cutting the opening montage and a dark and evocative glimpse into Sheen’s character’s psyche emerged from the depths. Amazingly, the connection of the ceiling fan and the helicopter blades was only discovered while Murch was cutting the sequence. Then, a year or more later, they would tie it all together with the final design and mix of the amazing chopper sounds.

So enjoy this incredible sequence, which kicks off with a shot that was never even intended to be seen. It’s just these honest and unpretentious moments, captured more or less by accident, that can sometimes provide us with the most honest, interesting and poetically rewarding glimpses into the world of the film.