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It really does feel good to be bad, or so I discovered last Friday night. While more dutiful undergrads raced to the MAC to grab that last Stairmaster or trudged home to cram for midterms, I lazily popped The Godfather (Vol. 1) into the Eliot Grille VCR/14" TV, and sat back to enjoy the ride. But before you could say "I believe in America," my private screening had come to a close. Two couples, a security guard and the Eliot Grillemaster installed themselves in my immediate vicinity, pausing now and then to quiz me on the relevant merits of the mafia to the extent that I began to wonder at The Godfather's enduring appeal.
As of March 21, the Coppola/Puzio chef d'oeuvre will make its 25th anniversary return to theaters nationwide, with re-mastered sound as frosting on the birthday cake of an already incredible cinematic experience. Yet the imminent return of the don to the never-big-enough screen as well as the recent spate of mafia movies a la Donnie Bosco left me groping for the key to the mafia's popularity. Is it the films' documentary style? Are the Goodfellas so real they become funny? Funny how? Funny like a clown funny?
Determined to discover the family's elusive charm, I reached for the nearest concilliari: the On-line Mafia Guide. You could create a small (albeit criminally insane) nation from the number of mafia fans on the web. From "John Gotti's Homepage" to "Gangster Mansion," the devout are eager to share the legacy of "La Cosa Nostra," even with a confessed Irish girl from upstate.
The most important info I gleaned from these online encounters is that "mafia" has evolved into a blanket term applied to gangs from Tokyo to St. Petersberg, and the new generation is gaining strength. With the addition of multicultural dons--from Colombian Gilberto "The Chess Player" Orejuela to Japanese godfather Yoshinori Watanabe--'90s gangland has become a politically correct industry in which drug smuggling, racketeering and prostitution rings are all equal opportunity employers, an image which, needless to say, warrants a trip down memory lane.
Mob genealogy reveals that the New York City mafia powerhouse of the 20th century emerged from a chance encounter on a Brooklyn side street. The year was 1916, and 14-year-old Meyer Lansky was running errands for his father when he accidentally discovered young Benjamin "Bugsy" Seigel in the process of getting his butt kicked by Salvatore Lucania, soon to become Charles "Lucky" Luciano. After beating Luciano over the head with a monkey wrench until he calmed down, Lansky proceeded to befriend Seigel and eventually found the infamous hit squad Murder Inc., While Luciano built a prostitution (hence the nickname) empire that by 1935 made him the "Boss of Bosses" in NYC.
Success sealed the mass appeal of such violent thugs, who palled around with Capone and wiped out any don who dared bar his way to the top. "Why do you come to me? Why do I deserve this generosity?" Don Corlione asks, and the American public replies: sheer magnetism.
Just as conversation stopped in the 1940s when Luciano entered a room and an austere silence of mixed awe and respect descended, it is a cardinal sin to whisper and interrupt the don during The Godfather. As one of Luciano's buddies would recall in a recent A&E docu-drama, "The clink of a glass, the drop of a hat--you'd hear the littlest sound, everyone was so quiet when Lucky arrived at the club." These were high profile men: men who drank their whisky straight, men who traveled in a cloud of cash and Cuban cigars, leaving nothing in their wake save the thick black smoke of deceit. And the dead.
And therein lies the problem. As Solatzo the Turk says, "Blood is a big expense," and in reality being bad is all fun and games until someone loses an eye--or, in Bugsy's case, a head. After a tiff over Vegas (Bugsy said yes, Lucky said no, and the mafia world was divided forever after over the fate of America's top sleazepost), Luciano had Seigel shot, ending an era of mafia power that only the Corliones could revive. In Puzio's restive family we see all that Lansky and his pals could never capture: the tranquility of a mob network secure in its proficiency, efficiently camouflaging day to day bloodbaths with unequaled Sicilian suavity. As any half-decent concilliari would surely note, the movie's theme--family and duty--is the Sicilian equivalent of the American dream, bound up in that inimitable opening line: "I believe in America. America has made me what I am today."
America loves the don, and it is because of his tough-guy charm, his dare-to-be-great nastiness, that the film will continue to draw crowds decades after its original release. On March 21, hundreds of Americans will pour into theaters, eager to give in to the devils seated firmly on their shoulders, ready to re-live Brando's old-world pout and Pacino's charged stare, eager to sink their teeth into the juicy multi-hour saga of men behaving oh-so-badly.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a sophomore living in Eliot House, is a Crimson editor.
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