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Ian Coomber iac3


Assignment 1

Choose Two Pieces of Academic Reading on Cultural Identity and Analyse Them
in Function of Their Usefulness for Film Study.

‘The Representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’


– Vera Dika

‘North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian Perspective’


– Jim Leach

As the title of the essay suggests, emphasis in ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The

Godfather’ is placed on how race and ethnic backgrounds are represented throughout

the three parts of The Godfather Trilogy (Coppola, 1972, 1974, 1990). Other ideas of

cultural identity, such as values, habits and gender and family are also explored

throughout, but Dika never strays far from the main discussion, and all points are

brought back to how they relate to ethnicity. Predominantly Sicilian, and Italian-

American.

The essay starts with two quotes from Patrick Gallo and Frank Stella, which both help

to show the extent of the effect The Godfather Trilogy has had on the image of

Italians. The first tells us how ‘Traditionally, a godfather means an alter ego in place

of a parent in time of need’, but now, ‘the term Godfather will be understood to mean

a ruthless Italian killer.’ 1 The use of this quote is important, as it makes it clear that

the new meaning of the term Godfather does not refer to anyone of any nationality,

but exclusively Italians. The second, explains how ‘some people link every Italian to

the Mafia in a half joking way does not bother me. Actually, the Mafia has always

been considered glamorous.’ 2 this is also important because of the distinct choice of

words. By using the word ‘joking’, we can see that people do not assume that all

1
Gallo, as quoted in Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’ p.76
2
Stella, as quoted in Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’, p.76

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Italian Americans are linked to the Mafia, but the term ‘half joking’, also refers to the

historical fact that much of the Mafia was made up by Italian Americans.

The majority of the essay, regarding the first two films of the trilogy, is set out in

several sections, discussing authenticity, Italianicity, nostalgia and submerged

ethnicity. As well as this, Dika gives the reader a brief overview of Coppola’s film

career before The Godfather, as well as a brief history of gangster movies, making

several mentions, and comparisons to Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) but without

digressing far from the central idea of the essay.

In the essay, Dika places The Godfather in context with other gangster films, such as

Scarface, and in doing so shows how different the other films portray ethnicity, ‘The

Godfather’s Italians are different from the other film representations of this ethnic

group because they also embody a return to “La Via Vecchia”, or to the old Sicilian

ways.’ 3

The section of the essay given to submerged ethnicity, or ‘alternate voices speaking

through the film, and ones that are not always overtly apparent’, 4 merely discusses

how the central characters are not just Italian, but also one example of those who are

‘predominantly white, male and upper class’ 5. However, she leaves out the idea of

other ethnicities, and also that of mixed Ethnicity. The Corleone family brought up

the character of Tom Hagen, with the old Sicilian ways from the age of twelve

onwards, but his original background described in both the films, and the original

3
. Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’ p.88
4
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.94
5
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.95

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novel as German Irish. Despite this combination, his name is only mentioned once

throughout the whole essay, and only when in relation to Andrew, ‘the now-priest son

of Tom Hagen.’ 6 However, she does discuss how Kay, as an outsider, marries into the

family, but ‘never really understands the codes for Sicilian womanliness.’ 7

When discussing the trilogy, Dika discusses Part III separately. Not only is this

because the last film in the trilogy is both set, and was made nearly twenty years after

the first two, but it also features noticeable differences in tone, style, and also the way

it represents the ethnicity of Italian Americans. As Dika points out, and one has to

agree with, the main reason part III is so different is that ‘Godfather III can be seen as

Coppola’s attempted commentary on his own work,’ 8 and ‘works as a kind of family

reunion’. 9 The film can be seen as a commentary on the earlier films, in the way that

as well as continuing the story of the Corleone family, there are many homages to the

earlier films. The idea of the film as a family reunion is not only shown by the fact

that, as audience members, we are seeing characters we have not seen for many years,

but also due to the involvement of Coppola’s own family. Not only did his own father

compose music for the film, but also his daughter, Sofia Coppola, played the role of

Michael’s own daughter, Mary.

Throughout the essay, Dika is very conscious of how she phrases her arguments, and

the choice of words she uses. When discussing how the Godfather focuses on one

ethnic group, she describes this as ‘an antiseptic dream of racial and ethnic purity.’ 10

6
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.99
7
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.91
8
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.97
9
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.99
10
Dika, ‘The representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’p.96

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The use of the word antiseptic has the extreme connotations of something that is

completely sterile, with no impurities. Without the word antiseptic, this statement

would lose much of its meaning and impact.

During the essay, Dika often refers back to another essay by John Hess, ‘Godfather II:

A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse’. Although Hess does not pay much attention to

how Italian ethnicity is presented, he does make several references as to how the story

itself is a metaphor for American culture. As quoted in the essay, Coppola always had
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the idea of ‘Michael as America’ in mind. Hess also goes beyond this, relating the

film to other American ideals, such as capitalism, and how this has had an adverse

effect on family life. ‘Godfather II presents a constant interplay between the most
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sought after bourgeois values … and their destruction or corruption by business.’

As Hess points out, ‘the Corleones have moved away from their ethnic roots –
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everything Italian has been forgotten, now that they live in Nevada.’ This can

especially be seen when compared to the Vito Corleone sequences of the film. Not

only do these sequences focus around a strong idea of family, friendships and loyalty,

they also feature a frequent use of the Italian language, and all but one of these

sequences take place in either Little Italy, or Sicily itself.

Dika’s essay is important to film studies for various reasons, but the main reason has

to be that she points out both the films strengths, and also its weaknesses regarding

ethnicity. She examines how ethnicity is represented not only in terms of Italianicity,

11
Coppola, as quoted in ‘Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse’ p82
12
Hess, ‘Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse’ p86
13
Hess, ‘Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse’ p86

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but also through gender she describes how characters fit into the traditional Italian

familial roles, how they represent the ‘men of patience’ and ‘women of seriousness’.

As well as ethnicity represented in films, another issue regarding film and cultural

identity is that of national cinema. In film, as in many things, Canada is often

overshadowed by its more influential neighbour, The United States. The fact that

many people are unaware of how many well-known actors such as William Shatner

and Michael J. Fox are actually Canadian, due to them acting in American TV shows

and films is just one example of this. It is this idea of Canadian (and indeed

international) cinema being influenced and surpassed by Hollywood’s monopoly of

the film industry with which Leach starts his essay regarding Canadian cinema.

Leach expands on an earlier essay of his, ‘The Body Snatchers’; examining the idea

seen in several Canadian films, that show the idea of the body being taken over. This

idea being a metaphor of Canadian ways being taken over by American ones. When
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discussing this idea, both Leach and also Will Straw refer to novels of Margaret

Atwood, Surfacing and Survival respectively. Surfacing is a perfect example of this,

as the central character has a ‘fear that Canadians are “turning into” Americans’ 15.

Survival illustrates a more universal idea that ‘the thematic unity of Canadian

literature (in both its English and French language forms) was based on a persistent

preoccupation with the notion of survival’ 16.

14
Straw, ‘Canadian Cinema’ p475
15
Leach, ‘North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian Perspective’
16
Straw, ‘Canadian Cinema’ p524

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Perhaps then, it is no coincidence that Canada has had so much relatively recent

success with the genre of Horror. Not only is this the preferred genre of David

Cronenberg, possibly Canada’s most successful filmmaker, but Canada has also had

much success with other films, such as the trilogies of Ginger Snaps (Fawcett, 2000,

Sullivan, 2004, Harvey, 2004) and Cube (Natali, 1997, Sekula, 2002, Barbarash,

2004). The three Ginger Snaps films tell the story of two sisters trying to overcome

the effects of transforming into werewolves, whereas the Cube films are centred

around several characters trapped in a mysterious, and also deadly and

incomprehensible maze, as they try to escape. As with all horror films, these trilogies

explore ideas of survival, identity, individuality and subjugation. Ideas that can be

attributed to other nations trying to hold their own America’s vast influence of the

film industry.

Another way in which Leach shows Americas influence on Canadian film is by

demonstrating the pressure to make many French Canadian films in the English

language, such as ‘Born for Hell’ (Jean-Claude Lord, 1981).

In the same way that Dika explains the arguments for and against the accuracy of how

‘The Godfather’ represents Italian ethnicity, Leach does the same for how Canadian

ethnicity is presented in both Canadian, and Hollywood films.

When looking at this, Leach examines the original film of The Fly (Kurt Neumann,

1958), rather than Cronenberg’s 1986 remake. He does this, as he uses it as (a

possibility of) an example of the Canadian Cooperation Agreement,

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‘Under which whose terms the Canadian government agreed not to

encourage the growth of a feature-film industry in Canada in return for

Hollywood’s agreement to promote tourism by mentioning Canada in as

many films as possible and by actually making a few films north of the

border.’ 17

Originated in 1948, this deal lasted for around a decade. Although this deal would

have given more attention to Canada, this attention may not necessarily have been

advantageous, and the deal would certainly have been a big hindrance in the

development of Canadian cinema. Although Canada would have been mentioned

and seen more in Hollywood films, would these films be presenting an accurate

picture of Canada? Had Canada not been referred to so much during this period,

then presumably it would not have to be fight so hard to distinguish itself with it’s

own cinematic tradition, rather than be included with the United States when

described as ‘North American Cinema’. As leach points out, it was only in 1963

when the Canadian Film Development Corporation was initiated, but this may

also have been set up earlier had the Cooperation Agreement not been agreed

upon.

David Cronenberg is used in this essay as an example of Canadian directors and

filmmakers, but as Leach himself admits, ‘many treatments of Cronenberg’s work

do not mention Canada or do so only in passing’ 18. If one of Canada’s leading

filmmakers is not recognised as Canadian, then this is only adding to the influence

of Hollywood, or the combined ‘North American Cinema’.


17
Leach, ‘North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian Perspective’ p478
18
Leach, ‘North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian Perspective’ p480

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Leach does later refer to Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986), first as a horror

film, but then later he does discuss Cronenberg’s films within the context of

Canadian culture. As before, The Fly is related to Margaret Atwood. This is done

when Leach refers to the work of Gaile McGregor, as he explains ‘For

McGregor, The Fly is best interpreted in a Canadian context in which

Cronenberg’s fear of “the breaking down of the barriers between Self … and

Other” can be related to similar fears expressed in the poetry of Margaret


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Atwood.’ This idea of the self and the other is again referring to Canada (the

self) and the United States (the other).

Obviously, one cannot talk about Canadian cinema without also discussing

French Canadian cinema, and Leach also does this, referring to Pouvoir intime

(Yves Simoneau 1986) and Un Zoo la nuit (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1987).

In conclusion, both these essays can be useful for film studies. Not only do both Dika

and Leach offer a fair representation (i.e., explaining both positive and negative) of

their chosen subjects, rather than a didactic account of their own opinions, but the

ways in which they do so can also be transferred to similar films and national

cinemas. When looking at The Godfather Trilogy Dika examines a few issues faced

when producing the films, where the films can be placed throughout the history of the

gangster genre, and in what ways is ethnicity represented. One could easily use this

clear and concise framework when analysing most films. The same could also be said

19
Leach, quoting Gaile McGregor, ‘North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian
Perspective’ p482

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for Leach’s, in the same way he looks at Canadian cinema in relation to American,

one could analyse Belgian in relation to French.

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Bibliography:

Written Material Used:

• Dika, Vera, ‘The Representation of Ethnicity in The Godfather’, Francis Ford


Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy, Nick Browne (ed), Cambridge, New York,
Melbourne, Madrid: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 76-108.
• Hess, John, ‘Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse’, Movies and
Methods, Bill Nichols (ed), Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press,
1976, 81-90)
• Leach, Jim, ‘North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian
Perspective’, Film Genre II, Barry Keith Grant (ed), Austin: University Of Texas
Press, 1995, 474 – 493.
• Straw, Will, ‘Canadian Cinema’, The Oxford Guide To Film Studies, John Hill
and Pamela Church Gibson (ed), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 523 –
526.

• Fane-Saunders, Kilmeny (ed), Radio Times Guide To Films 2003 Edition.


London: BBC Worldwide Limited, 2002.
• Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. London: Random House, 1969.

• Corleone Family Tree – The Godfather Special Edition DVD

Film Material Used:

• Barbarash, Ernie. Cube Zero. 2004.


• Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather. 1972.
• Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather Part II. 1974.
• Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather Part III. 1990.
• Fawcett, John. Ginger Snaps. 2000.
• Harvey, Grant. Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning. 2004.
• Natali, Vincenzo. Cube. 1997.
• Sekula, Andrzej. Cube 2: Hypercube. 2002.
• Sullivan, Brett. Ginger Snaps: Unleashed. 2004.

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