Jul 26, 2007

Hegemony and Counter Hegemony in The Godfather Trilogy

Part 1. Introduction

The Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci argues that mass media plays a significant role in the creation of values and beliefs that are to be followed by the general public. Political power is derived from the moral and intellectual leadership, authority, or consensus that arise from this 'false consciousness'. (Hainsworth,2000) Hegemony in mass media lies in the way it makes the ruling ideology seem natural, distracts the masses from their oppression, and enhances the social stability. It is the dominance and subordination that exists within people's practical and un-self-conscious awareness of the world, a lived system of meanings, a more or less unified moral order, which is confirmed and nuanced in experience to c onstruct a person's sense of reality and identity. ( Bell in Forbes 2000) . Hegemony is the "social basis of the proletarian dictatorship". (Gramsci, 1971: 443)

"I believe in America , America has made my fortune". These are the famous words Francis Ford Coppola chose to open his epic "Godfather" trilogy. This apparently ultra-hegemonic exclamation is soon rendered sardonic as the scene develops and the viewers are exposed to more details. The speaker, Amerigo Bonaserra, a middle-aged undertaker, has come to ask for help in avenging the abasement of his daughter. Having lost his faith in the dysfunctional police and judicial system, he now seeks justice in the hands of Vito Corleone, the head of America 's most powerful crime organization.

Even before hearing the full story, Bonaserra's opening line is implicitly cynical. " I believe in America ". Why? Because " America has made my fortune". It seems that, in this undertaker's opinion at least, even faith is driven by a financial imperative.

Unlike many other things, the popularity and acceptance of a text are not dictated by crime lords or politicians. As Andrew Hart states "…the meaning is not in the text, but in the reading" (in Hanes 2000). While critics might grasp and wrestle with an author's original meaning, or a text's initial ideological purpose there is no assurance that viewers, or readers, will respond in the same way. (Papke 2004) The Godfather 'case' is fascinating as it is a rare occasion when public, critical, and intellectual opinion almost unanimously agrees on the quality and significance of a film. (CultureVulture.com)

Ever since the beginning of the 20 th century, the American culture industry had established cultural hegemony in all branches. (Saraki 2004) In this essay I will examine the ability of a cultural product, a mainstream film in this case, to convey multiple, and opposing ideologies, and show how an author's subversive critique of existing society, may be read as a song of praise for the ruling ideology.

Part 2. Undertaking Capitalism
The trilogy tells the story of the Corleones, an Italian-American family of Sicilian origin, whose patriarch, Vito, and, later on, his son Michael, head one of the major crime organizations in New York .

The story of Michael Corleone is an ultra-moralistic plot about a man who loses everything in the quest for ultimate power. Traditionally, power and control are needed in order to secure the family. In the pursuit of these, Michael sacrifices his family and ends up dying alone. Coppola contrasts Michael's moral disorientation with the life of his father, Vito.

Don Vito was no less ruthless or ferocious, but is depicted as a man who always forgives his kin. He has, in his own words, a "weakness for his kids".

Don Vito forgoes vengeance for crimes committed by, or against, his sons and values family, and loyalty, above all (Voytilla, 1999:168). Michael, on the other hand, uses these same values as an excuse to kill his older brother and brother in law, as well as dozens of other people, in order to secure his own supremacy, a supremacy that serves only itself.

Michael's hypocrisy is further emphasized in the final scenes of the 1 st and 2 nd movies, in which murder is juxtaposed with religious sermons. Michael's vendettas are presented not as self-defense, but as infamia , a sin. (Crowdus, 1994:87).

In line with other films of the Post-Vietnam-Pre-Watergate era, like A Clockwork Orange , Dirty Harry, and Straw Dogs , The Godfather depicted a society excessively violent and morally bankrupt. (Man, 1994) Francis Ford Coppola hoped to use the family business as a metaphor for American greed and Capitalism. (Papke, 2004). Michael's story is the story of America , a nation that, while fighting for the supremacy of its constituting values, compromises these same values and forsakes the end for the means. Coppola believes he depicted Michael Corleone as nothing short of a "Monster"(in Ibid.). And so, critics such as Glenn Man, Pauline Kael, and Leslie Fiedler (Papke, 2004) see "The Godfather" as a scathing critique of American Capitalist society. (Man, 1994).

It is thus possible to claim that the aversion the audience feel towards Michael Corleone, as the signifier of capitalism, serves as a subversive agent that works to disturb the existing status quo, and undermines some of the fundamental values of capitalism.

But, as every Mafioso knows, one should never accept a first offer. According to Paul Kooistra, author of Criminals as Heroes , the movie not only tells us that Michael Corleone robbed and killed but, more importantly, that he did it with style. The outlaw is endowed with "endearing qualities- loyalty to friends, compassion for downtrodden, courage… honesty (most of the time), and cleverness in abundance".(Kooistra, 1989:22)

Seeing the criminal portrayed as the hero and being rewarded for his actions makes the viewing public believe they can, and should, succeed in his way. Rebelling against authority, it seems, produces fame, and, often, good fortune. (Mills, 2004) As Noam Chomsky claims, by so depicting such individuals, the film industry may seem to sell to the public the idea that it is possible and, even necessary, to rebel against authority (in Ibid.).

Reading this, a person with no prior background might think "The Godfather" films are underground propaganda, known only to neo-Marxist scholars and distributed secretly. The truth is, the first two "Godfather" films were the largest grossing movies of their time (Denault, 2000), and the whole three are still considered as some of the most popular and profitable films ever made. The success of the movies was not a result of a grassroots counter-revolution flamed by scholars and social critics, but a production of one of Hollywood's biggest studios, Paramount Pictures, that was embraced by the establishment and swept 9 Oscar awards.
Part 3. Overtaking Socialism
As Blumler and Katz point out, audiences actively consume various texts, and popular texts are those which are able to satisfy one (or more) of four main needs (in Hanes,2000): Diversion, Personal Relationships, Personal Identity, and Surveillance.

By understanding the way in which The Godfather satisfies each of these four needs, it is possible to explain the trilogy's immense popularity, as well as potential hegemonic agency.

The movie helps viewers escape from the pressures of daily life.(Ibid) While concentrating on the problems and concerns of fictional characters, they are rendered oblivious, if momentarily, of their own problems.

This occupies the masses with fictive trivialities, and distracts them from facing real issues in the here and now.

While watching the movie, viewers also fulfill the need for personal relationships. The highly charismatic Michael and Vito Corleone are seen as mentors for many (mostly male) viewers worldwide. As the movie becomes more and more popular, it provides viewers a common interest around which they can interact and thus create new bonds. This, in turn, serves as a diversion, as virtual communities are established on the basis of fictive trivialities and the masses are distracted from issues of real concern.

The role "The Godfather" films play in satisfying those two needs is not different from that of a soccer game, a good meal, or any other form of entertainment. It is in the satisfaction of the latter two needs, for Personal Identity and Surveillance, where things become less obvious. Viewers look at the media for information about the world and often compare their own life with the lives of the characters on the screen in order to re-affirm, or question, their personal identity. (Ibid.) The media tells them what is acceptable and what is considered abnormal or perverse. By use of narrative, the media also shows them the possible consequences of various behaviors.

As mentioned earlier, the three movies depict an excessively violent and morally bankrupt society.(Man,1994) While describing crime may seem counter-hegemonic, or at least critical, it also plays an important part in defining the boundaries of good and bad. Simply put, the portrayal of crime in the movies defines what crime is, it outlines what is, and what is not, socially permissible.

By saying that corrupt politicians are bad, the movie implies that politicians who are not corrupt are good and accepts their sovereignty. The depiction of explicit violence supports the common view that oppression and subordination are necessarily affiliated with physical force.

The Corleone family's aspiration for respectability and social acceptance often seem conventionally American (Crowdus, 1994:86), and it is easy for contemporary audiences to identify with their motives, if not with the specific tactics. But even as far as the tactics are concerned, some would go as far as to claim that since the days of the puritan settlers and the Indians, Americans created a cultural myth of a communal Eden that must be redeemed through violence. (Grant, 1999:23-40)

This means that violence, physical as other, is an acceptable mean to the realization of the American Dream, and "The Godfather" reinforces this view.

It is possible to say, then, that the film is Hegemonic and its pervasiveness works to reinforce the ruling ideology. While this point is still argued by audiences, critics, and even the director himself, there is one thing on which almost everyone agree.

Part 4. "It's my family, Kay. Not me."
In the world of The Godfather , bending the rules is permissible, and usually profitable. But while many social and religious values are forsaken, one stands untouched- Family.
The concept of family is most important to the Mafiosi, because it is the one that must come first, the one that provides justification and comfort. Don Corleone is first and foremost a family man.(Browne,1999) Many will not approve of the manner in which the Corleones conduct their business, but few will not sympathize with Vito's deep concern for his family.

Vito Corleone has built an empire on murder and abuse. Like any other man, he makes his sacrifices (loses his son and his health), but ultimately his life is depicted as a success. He is rich, powerful, has a family that loves him, and dies in old age while playing with his grandson in the family vineyard, after passing his business to his son and successor, Michael.

Michael dies alone, in Sicily , after being renounced by his wife and son. His daughter, brother, and friends are dead by, or because of, him. He has no apparent heir, and the only witness to his death is a little dog.

Both Vito and Micahel have been ruthless criminals. Both of them successfully conducted the same business in the same methods. How could it be, then, that Vito's life is an American dream, while Michael's is an Italian tragedy?

The answer lies in the difference between the two. On his quest for power and control, Michael betrayed one value too much- he compromised his family. He killed his brother, Fredo, and brother in law, Carlo. Both were rogues and deserved to be punished, but in killing them he betrayed the mere value that he was set out to defend - he compromised the means for the end, the power for the family. As Michael himself puts it, while trying to be strong for the family, he lost the family.

Michael is not punished for being a criminal or going against his fellow men. He is punished for going against his family. The trilogy establishes, on all levels, that Family is the ultimate excuse for all evils, not only the ones committed in the main narrative but also for such non-diegetic evils as the casting of the director's sister (Talia Shire), Daughter, Father, and Mother into the films.

Part 5. Conclusion.
The nuclear family (no pun intended) is the bedrock of domestic life under capitalism. The family provides emotional support for the labouring population, and a measure of social cohesion and stability. A wage earner, demeaned at work, could accept his lot more readily if he/she had his/her personal needs met at home where he/she was "boss". Domestic responsibilities also reinforced the power of the employer- a worker has to consider his dependant wife and children before slugging the foreman or voting to go on strike. (Capitalism & Homophobia, 2004) The family is the main instrument through which views and wealth are passed on to future generations,(Durkheim,1978) and thus plays a fundamental role in maintaning social stability and promoting the ruling ideology.

America was established on equality, freedom of speech, and human rights. While trying to protect and promote these virtues, the Americans have forsaken many of them. Positioning the Corleones as a metaphor, Coppola tries to warn America of the tragic outcome this may entail.

Still, this is not to say that the movie is a scathing critique of capitalism. "The Godfather" does not depict the dangers of capitalism, but the dangers to capitalism. It is an ultra-hegemonic praise song for the family institution and serves, for many, as a guide and model of capitalist success. While the criticism is there, most viewers choose to overlook the violence and take in only the Corleone's cunning business instincts and admirable family values. They leave the guns, but take the Canolli.

Dror Poleg, January 2004

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More about The Godfather Trilogy Links:
- http://www.thegodfathertrilogy.com/godfather.html
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Godfather

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