Desert Island Films
Louis Black begins his ongoing list of "desert island" videos with his first pick: Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy
Reviewed by Louis Black, Fri., Jan. 7, 2000
Desert Island FilmsOkay, I'm washed up on a desert island: Which films would I want to have with me? Being a life-long film fan, the first question is: What format? Will this desert island come equipped with its own 35mm theatre with a variety of lenses and screen size adaptations along with the pre-approved 10 films? Or am I washed ashore with a VCR in one hand, a TV in the other, and a generator on a raft gently bobbing behind me? This doesn't affect the selection, but it is my first question.
In my mind, I start thinking where I'm going to show the films and how to store the library. These are the idle wanderings of an obsessive and should be ignored. But now to the films. I'm going to stretch my selections over several columns -- this, after all, is a column reviewing videos. This week, I'm just writing about one of the films, but stay tuned for more discussions.
In these 10 selections, I'm going to cheat like crazy. For example, I'm counting Ford's cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) and The Godfather trilogy as one entry (this desert island thing is, after all, a fanciful postulation at its very core). More audaciously, I'm going to try to carry all six of Kenji Misumi's Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance series as one entry. There is more room to nitpick here than on the previous two choices. Arguably, there is more textual and thematic richness in the Godfather and cavalry trilogies than in the Lone Wolf series. The films all follow the bloody adventures of Shogun's disgraced executioner-now-turned-assassin wandering the Japanese countryside, pushing his young son ahead of him in a baby cart, and each film covers essentially the same moral territory. Still, it is a damned desert island, and I want all six.
More importantly, this is not my list of the 10 best films of all times; this is a list of films I can watch over and over again. I love both Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but I can't think of any of their films I'd take to an island. Fassbiner's Fox and His Friends, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? are all masterpieces, but I can't imagine viewing any of them over and over again with much pleasure. Godard's films mostly seem very dated now, because every idea and even hint of an idea in them has been long-picked from their bones and imitated to death. Not just the ideas -- the pacing, the style, the story, and the look launched a lot more than a thousand films over the last 30 years. Now, when we are the grandchildren of Marx and Coca-Cola, daddy Godard's influence can be seen every day, every hour, all around the world -- not only in features and TV shows but even more in television commercials, music videos, ad shoots, and billboards. I'm too old for Band of Outsiders and A Woman Is a Woman or Tout va Bien (bizarrely different, amazingly distant ends of the same romantic stick), and even favorites like Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou just aren't to be watched, stuck on an island alone, over and over. Nah, give me Braveheart, The Wild Bunch, Dazed and Confused, or The Outlaw Josey Wales -- painless and pleasurable no matter how often you watch them.
I have already watched Citizen Kane too many times. On film and video, I've seen it literally over and over again. It wouldn't survive that many more viewings. Add to this list Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and many others. They don't come.
Those that do come are the videos I rent to watch over and over. For this list, I only considered narrative features -- films I look for late at night, wandering around the video store, searching for an old friend, a long submergence in the narrative bath. In no particular order and respective of no particular time frame, these are the favorites: Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, John Ford's cavalry trilogy, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, Mel Gibson's Braveheart, Clint Eastwood's (though Phil Kaufman wrote the script and directed the first week or so before he was fired) The Outlaw Josey Wales, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story, Kenji Misumi's The Lone Wolf and Cub series (also known as The Baby Cart series). If forced not to take all six, I'd settle for the one released as Lightning Swords of Death (#3, I think, Babycart on the Road to Hades). And one more film to be named at a later date.
The GodfatherD: Francis Ford Coppola (1972); with Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, John Cazale.
The Godfather: PART IID: Francis Ford Coppola (1974); with Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg.
The Godfather: PART IIID: Francis Ford Coppola (1990); with Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Sofia Coppola.
The Godfather trilogy is the most obvious of all choices, I'd argue, because they're the greatest of recent films. As with Citizen Kane, they can be watched again and again. Kane's greatness is not its cinematic innovations, brilliant look, or daring style; the film offers a complex presentation of a complex person. Each time you watch the film, your relationship to Kane and to all the other characters changes. This is especially true as you, the viewer, ages. Citizen Kane or The Godfather at 22 are very different films than they are when you're 50. Kane, himself, is neither that great a hero nor villain, but something more whole. The Godfather follows in this vein, though it dips a little more to the anti-heroic heroes. These are fully realized characters we come to know a little more every time we visit them. I would argue the six-hours-plus edited-for-television compilation of The Godfather I & II is the masterpiece, the form in which this massive storytelling is at its most resonant. The Godfather: Part III is a disappointment. It is filled with moments and ideas but falls somewhat flat when compared to the first two. But since I'm cheating anyway, the whole trilogy is the way to go.
Coppola's volcanic cinematic talents, anchored to a truly great and epic story, have never been better displayed. Narrative is almost as much a problem for Coppola as it is for David Lynch (who claims his lack of story skills as a strength). The accident in Lynch's career is Dune, the director's best movie, simply because his cinematic imagination is finally wrapped to a story rather than just ideas. In the first two films of the Godfather series, Coppola really hits his stride. Though multigenerational, it really is The Godfather as the rise and The Godfather: Part II as the fall in every way. The first film is dark, tightly focused and acted. It is the great Hollywood gangster film revisited and matured. It is a closed work -- all the narrative and character questions that are raised are answered. The second film is open, is light, is confused, is unanswered. The first film is comforting; the second disturbing. Together, they are an awesome work. You're there on the desert island, night after night, the same 10 movies over and over -- just pick a different actor to watch: from Brando, Pacino, Duvall, Keaton, Shire, Caan, to John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Richard Castellano, to the very great Al Lettieri, Abe Vigoda, or Sterling Hayden. That's a lot of nights.