Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reflection on "The Godfather"

My AP students have been clamoring to watch movies after the AP exam in May. They argue that it is a time-honored tradition, a veritable sacred cow, which must be preserved and protected at all costs. For a high school experience without movies after the AP is, of course, not a high school experience at all. I didn’t quite cave to these silly rumblings, but I gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

I made a deal with my AP students that they could watch a movie after the AP Exam in May, but they would have to read, on their own time, the novel that went with the film that they selected. I gave each of my three classes a separate list of seven memorable films that were adaptations of a contemporary novel, memoir, or nonfictional work. I limited the students to seven choices to ensure some degree of consensus, and thus a sense of ownership and accountability for their selection. I gave each class a different list, so I could watch three different movies they could have a sense of individual class spirit. One class picked Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the second voted for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and the third opted for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

I hope that they will actually read the texts since they voted for them and have seven weeks to do it. We’ll see how the little experiment goes since there will be no academic incentive for reading. The only real incentive is the joy of reading a book upon which a famous flick was made and being able to mull over and discuss how the screenwriter and director’s vision of the story converges or diverges from the author’s original purpose with his work.

This week I read Mario Puzo's The Godfather. I was pleasantly surprised with how close the movie cleaves to the novel, though there were some significant differences. However, I have no wish to list the differences or comment on them directly. What I thought particularly fascinating was how Puzo poignantly describes the transmission of Old World problems to the New World. For example, he nicely captures the relationship between political corruption in Sicily and the rise of the Mafia as a response to it, and then the Mafia’s own descent into corruption and eventual collusion with the former polity that it was created to counteract. All of this was brought home in Coppola’s rendition of the Corleone family’s mob culture in his film. The novel, however, helped me to grasp how such a crime family could come about in the first place and to appreciate, if not agree with, how it is internally consistent to its own system of ethics, which is independent or strives for independence from the secular authority.

The mob culture did go hand in hand with the ghetto mentality of the nineteenth and twentieth century ethnic communities of the greater cosmopolitan areas of the U.S. As those ethnic communities assimilated and melted into the larger American nation, the initial motivations for a society-within-a-society may seem to have disappeared, but I’m afraid they may come roaring back. Consider the similarity between Islamic communities that impose Sharia law amongst their members and prefer to handle legal matters internally rather than the through the secular authority. This is quite common now in England. Is this not eerily similar to the Corleone system of family justice? In other words, there might be self-imposed religious ghettos in the twenty-first century that creates parallel societies. This seems very probable in Europe. I’m not sure if it will take off here, but it just might in certain areas, like near Detroit, which now boasts a quite sizable Arabic population, the majority of whom are Muslims.

Basically, the more the government becomes an unreliable bureaucratic machine, the more you are going to see the reemergence of Mafia-style (ethnic based) or Sharia-style (religious based) communities that are very real parallel societies that work with the rest of the country when it suits them, but do their own thing when it doesn’t suit them. These worlds apart from us may seem very remote, but they may become increasingly common and dangerous to us all if the government continues to expand and usurp areas of governance that are not its legitimate constitutional fiat. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.

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