CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University film professor Jon Lewis was asked by the British Film Institute to contribute to its collection of books on landmark films by writing about one of Hollywood’s most noted productions.
In short, they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Lewis joins the ranks of Salman Rushdie, Greil Marcus, and Camille Paglia, all prior BFI authors, with his newest book, on the 1972 American film “The Godfather,” which will be released widely today. The book is available at book stores, libraries and online at: http://us.macmillan.com/thegodfather
Considered by many critics, scholars and historians as one of the greatest American films, Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal gangster movie, “The Godfather,” also has been credited with reviving the sagging film industry of the early 1970s.
In recent years, Lewis’ research has been largely focused on the business side of Hollywood – how and why decisions are made in accordance with the money and power structures. When it came time to explore “The Godfather,” however, Lewis found this perspective had already been deeply mined.
“There are many articles and books looking at the financial and industry aspect of ‘The Godfather,’ including my own,” Lewis said, referring to his 1995 book, “Whom God Wishes to Destroy . . .: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood,” which chronicles how “The Godfather” director Coppola tried to battle the powerful movie studios.
Looking closely at what already had been written about one of the most important films in American history; Lewis was surprised to discover that one of the most obvious aspects of the film had been widely ignored.
“For such a landmark film, its visual style has been shockingly neglected,” Lewis said. “What I did was something that, frankly, I hadn’t done in probably 20 years. I did a textual analysis and watched the film more than 100 times and watched scenes frame by frame to see what was there.”
Lewis discovered that despite its reputation as a ground-breaking movie, “The Godfather” is a film that both was jarring in the context of other films of the early 1970s, yet traditional in its use of theatrical-style lighting.
“The use of such low levels of light was just not done at that time,” Lewis said. “When the studio saw the dailies (raw footage from the film), they wanted Coppola to fire Gordon Willis, the cinematographer. He used long static shots on a sound stage. There isn’t much action or movement in the film and there are only a few locations. It was truly audacious to make a film like that – then or now.”
Lewis argues in his book that Coppola’s ability to direct actors to great performances (“a lost art” he calls it) and the director’s eccentric choices of lighting and camera shots made the “gangster film” – a genre that has been around since the early 1900s – relevant for a whole new generation of moviegoers. Without “The Godfather,” there would be no films like “Goodfellas,” and “The Departed,” or TV shows like “The Sopranos.”
“The second part of the book discusses how Hollywood has dealt with gangsters in movies, and how Hollywood interacts with real life mafia figures,” Lewis said.
“The Godfather” won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was nominated in eight additional categories. The American Film Institute has it third in its list of the 100 Greatest Movies and the best gangster film of all time in its genre list.
Next up for Lewis is a definitive introduction to cinema book that will include a parallel video project featuring Lewis interviewing film practitioners on how they accomplish their craft.
BFI Film Classics is a series of illustrated books that introduce, interpret and celebrate landmark films of world cinema. Each volume offers an argument for the film’s “classic” status, together with a discussion of the film’s production and reception history, its place within a genre or national cinema, an account of its technical and aesthetic importance, and in many cases, the author’s personal response to the film. For more information: http://us.macmillan.com/series/BFIFilmClassics