The James Clayton Column: The Godfather Guide to Life

Does The Godfather provide the answer to all of life's questions? James firmly believes so...

The Godfather

If you’re lost for a New Year’s Resolution, look no further than The Godfather. Because the beginning of a new calendar year is a convenient point to re-assess and re-evaluate your entire life and look to set some fresh targets, people pull themselves into January with a purposeful conviction to better themselves… at least for three days.

All the guilt-tripping and impossible goal-setting can get depressing and tedious, which is why New Year’s Resolutions are well and truly forgotten and thrown aside by the 4th of January. If you’ve already given up and are regretting the bold announcements to give up smoking, become a gym-bunny (though I don’t often see rabbits togged up in tracksuit bottoms ready to take to a treadmill) or cease pulling the wings off ants for your own amusement, then I urge you to revisit Francis Ford Coppola’s classic crime saga.

For a start, The Godfather Part II is a good New Year watch with its whole Havana Judas kiss sequence happening at this time of year, 1958 (“I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!”). What’s more, though, is that through the three films of the canon you can gain immense insight into the nature of the world and, if you look and listen closely, can learn essential life lessons that will help you work your way through life in the mafia or – much harder – the mysteries of the modern world.

In You’ve Got Mail, the internet age retread of Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks’s character explains to Meg Ryan that The Godfather provides the answer to all life’s questions. After the two essential pearls of wisdom proclaimed in Forrest Gump – “shit happens” and “life is like a box of chocolates” respectively – that’s the most intelligent comment Hanks has made in his entire movie career. The man has a point: the Corleone family saga is the ultimate cinematic source of advice for lost and confused mortals.

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It’s like the Italian-American I Ching: a sort of cinematic lucky eight-ball that not only stands as an all-time masterpiece of epic filmmaking, but also enlightens and educates the audience. Alongside the instructive visual guidance offered (see here how a horse’s head can be utilised as an instrument of persuasion) and the simple messages in the story (amorous relations with cousins should be avoided at all cost and caution is advised when oranges are close by), the scripts of The Godfather trilogy run like scrolls of wisdom ready to be taken like fortune cookie advice and looked to in wider life. I predict that future generations will take the movies as ‘The Word’, prophesy from film-screening sessions and speak of Coppola’s classics with the same revered tones reserved for the Bible and the Qur’an.

What wisdom springs forth from our sacred source then? Amongst the plethora of proverbs and dialogue snippets in the classic gangster films, the following can be found…

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli” – a clear instruction not to devote oneself to aggression, dispute and negative thought. Instead, concentrate on the sweet and simple things in life. It’s either that or advice that it may be tastier to kill yourself by scoffing sickly sweet desserts instead of biting the bullet. There you go: forget the New Year detox diet. You have Clemenza’s permission…

“Go to the mattresses” – timely advice that solves many of life’s problems and operates in conjunction with many issues no doubt on people’s minds as they try and pin down some resolutions. Looking to ease stress in 2009? Go to the mattresses: get some more sleep and a better work-life balance. Having relationship problems? Go to the mattresses: have lots of sex and you’ll get the spark back in the crumbling marriage that’s gone stale, perhaps find some erotic self-confidence or have the family you and your beloved have long been dreaming of raising.

“Never go against the family” – This is a nice piece of advice, unless your family are feral, parasitical low-life who traumatised you through childhood. Blood is thicker than water, though, and perhaps 2009 is the right time to strengthen those bonds because you never know when you’ll need to fall back on your relatives (in the unsettled financial climate, it may be imminent). Obviously, it’s a bonus if your family has a vast array of connections, a fortified estate and legions of smartly-dressed thugs available on command.

“I believe in America” – Ultimately, in situations of extreme doubt and uncertainty, trust in the American Dream. Though this may lead you into ill-advised Middle East military operations, it may also push you towards perky all-smiling, all-singing, all-conquering can-do-ism. In summary, if it’s all getting too much, bury your head in the sand and wait for America to save the day and provide the answers (which is perhaps more likely to happen with golden boy Barack Obama ascending to the White House).

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“You can act like a man!” – An exclamation, courtesy of Don Vito Corleone, that you should stop with your sissy-boy singer sobbing and pull yourself together. Teary whinging won’t solve anything or help you get your way in life, so get some guts, grab your gonads and be tough! Perhaps also try decapitating a racing horse to give you that über-macho swaying edge…

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” – Michael Corleone’s grasping grumble in The Godfather Part III serves as a timely reminder that vigilance, self-motivation and determination are of the essence at all times. Follow Michael’s perceptive thought and take care not to let your guard down and lapse as you look to reach your goals. It’s either that or an exhortation that you should always be paranoid and figure that the world is out to get you.

Who needs The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? As outlined by whoever that guy Tom Hanks was, The Godfather has got the answers to all life’s quandaries. If The Dude of The Big Lebowski (another cinematic source of supreme intelligence) can be looked to as a sagacious swami whose wisdom has inspired online religious cults and philosophical texts, I’d say that Don Vito and the Corleone clan should be acclaimed in a similar manner too. In the New Year book sales then, don’t bother with How to Lose Weight the Orson Welles Way or Put That Vice on Ice by Sam Peckinpah; dig out a copy of The Zen of Don Vito and find yourself on the path to self-fulfilment and a more wholesome existence…

James’ previous column can be found here.

9 January 2009