By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Over the last couple weeks, I got sucked into watching the six hour saga known as The Godfather I and II. It had been awhile, so I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of the dysfunctional Corleone family. One thing that struck me was that the films are more enjoyable to me now, as I realize that they are largely the tale of a father’s relationship with his children. I am continually amazed at how having children completely changes your worldview. But, that is for another blog post.
What I have been thinking about since watching the Godfather films is their depiction of violence. Of course, the violent scenes in these films are infamous. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, Vito’s murder of Don Fanucchi, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, the decapitated horse head in the bed. These films are part of Hollywood legend, and have made a mark as cultural references instantly recognized by the majority of Americans. As I sat down to watch the movies for the first time in a decade or so, I remembered that violence was the norm in the world of the Corleones. What I did not remember is how ‘unrealistic’ the physical depiction of the violence is. The gun shots sound fake in the film. The bullet wounds look absurd. The death of gun-shot victims is glamorized in an old Hollywood style (slowly staggering on their feet, only to dramatically fall to the ground.) Most notably, the bloody wounds are almost laughable (the blood is a bright orange-ish red.) As I watched this, I thought to myself, “Hollywood special effects sure have gotten more advanced”. ‘Realistic’ physical reactions to violence are an absolute must at this time. (See: The first twenty five minutes of Saving Private Ryan.)
But then, I had two important realizations. The first was, how in the world do I know what is realistic, and what is fake? I have never been a part of a gangland hit. I have never stormed a beach facing mortars and machine gun fire. And of course, not only have I never took part in these events, I have never even seen anything resembling them. I have no idea how the human body reacts to physical violence. And yet, I have no problem proclaiming if violent movies are ‘real’ or ‘fake’. How odd this phenomenon is. Evidently, Hollywood has created a sense of real violence in my mind so powerful that when actual violence does not conform to the Hollywood version, it can seem staged. Does not the actual news footage of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald seem far too quick and clean? This is not graphic, ‘real’ Hollywood violence.
The second realization: The gruesome, ‘realistic’ violence of films today doesn’t always disturb me, and yet the ‘fake’ violence of the Godfather films is extremely disturbing. Like most other Americans, I can watch bloodily disgusting films such as 300, and feel no effects from the dismembering of bodies or close-up decapitations that are central to the film. In fact, such physically ‘realistic’ violence becomes passé. In comparison, when Michael Corleone guns down his family’s enemies in the Italian restaurant, signaling the beginning of his eventual status as head of the Corleone crime family, I get sweaty palms, dry mouth, and an uncomfortable lump in the throat.
What is going on here? Simply put, realistic violence is not just about the physical effects on the body, but about the emotional effects on the mind. Some of my students a couple quarters ago pointed this out. I showed them a ‘realistic’ war film, The Thin Red Line, and had them compare that to an ‘unrealistic’ war film, Pearl Harbor. One of my students stated that The Thin Red Line is much more violent. But how so? Pearl Harbor has its share of horrifying deaths. There is no shortage of blood. In fact, The Thin Red Line is really not that graphic of a WWII film, especially compared to the more famous Saving Private Ryan. After discussing why it seems so much more violent, my students and I realized it was because of the emotionally wrenching nature of the violence in The Thin Red Line. All a viewer feels during the bombing scene of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is awe. Not awe at the violence, but awe at the technological ability of the movie makers. The emotions you feel while watching the battle scenes of The Thin Red Line are dread, fear and shock. You don’t need a slow-motion decapitation to feel the realism.
Special effects in the Godfather I and II were quite primitive, but like all great stories, the wrenching of emotions these films provide for us are primal, and timeless.