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THE GODFATHER, PART I: THE GUN, THE PEN, AND THE CANNOLI [This is an expanded version of our “Anthropology and Humanism” article of the same title. This version will be included in a book to be published in 2009.)

Peter Wogan and David Sutton, August 6, 2007.

Colleagues often wonder how we got interested in the anthropology of U.S. film. The short answer is: fieldwork. A somewhat longer answer might be: reverse culture shock after returning from fieldwork. This chapter, in particular, serves as a good example of this process. Upon returning to the U.S., both of us found that we could not stop thinking about certain cultural patterns that we had been studying while abroad, and that is what led to this analysis.

Peter Wogan had been studying in highland Ecuador, where he found that the Quichua Indians often used written lists of names for magical purposes, such as witchcraft and communication with ancestors on the Day of the Dead. Peter came to see this writing symbolism as a complicated commentary on church and state power in Ecuador. Then, a few years after he had returned to the United States, Peter happened to watch The Godfather, and he was surprised to find remarkably similar writing symbolism there. He noticed writing throughout the film—telegrams from senators, written contracts from bandleaders, newspaper stories commissioned by the mafia—and he couldn’t help relating these images to his concerns about writing and power. It turned out that his work in Ecuador was relevant, which made sense, since states and churches around the world have long used writing as an instrument of bureaucratic power.

David Sutton, at the same time, had been studying food and historical consciousness in Greece—the way cultural identities and notions of history are wrapped up in food consumption. As he started looking at the film, he was struck by the many scenes of food and drink: wine, wedding cakes, Chinese food, elaborate dinners. He could see that these scenes had deep social meaning.

Once the two of us started discussing the film together, we realized that we were looking at related phenomena: writing and food function as paired opposites in the film, and their interplay provides a crucial commentary on U.S. society. Those discussions, which took place over several years, resulted in this chapter.

As we dug into previous research on The Godfather, we were glad to see that critics, from Frederic Jameson onward, had explored the way the film deals with capitalism and family life, placing the film in a long-standing tradition of gangster films that focus on the relationship between the individual and society.1 This research confirmed our sense that the film was dealing with important cultural issues. However, we never found any mention of writing and food symbolism, which surprised us, because we saw those symbols as crucial aspects of the film’s commentary on capitalism and kinship. With this in mind, we wrote this chapter, focusing on "orality,” which stands for a gift economy, and “writing,” which stands for capitalism and its legal arm, the state.2

The symbolism of writing and orality has deep roots in Western culture. James Clifford (1986:115-116) makes this point in his analysis of writing as a symbol of civilization's inauthenticity: "Since antiquity the story of a passage from the oral/aural into writing has been a complex and charged one. ...Words and deeds are transient (and authentic), writing endures (as supplementarity and artifice)."

Clifford’s writing-orality complex also informs The Godfather. Just as Clifford argues that the flip side of this view of writing is nostalgia for a lost world of orality, we will argue that the appeal of the Corleones largely lies in nostalgia for an ethnic solidarity that has not succumbed to writing's "irretrievable loss" (Clifford 1985:115). But more than a simple binary opposition, the film juxtaposes and questions the distinction between orality and writing. Through writing and food symbolism, the first scene sets up a strong contrast between mainstream, “unhyphenated” U.S. and Sicilian-U.S., but, in the later scenes, the lines separating the two cultures are increasingly blurred, creating a complex, ambiguous commentary on the relationship of ethnic identity to U.S. mainstream society.

Other useful theorists here are James Carrier, Daniel Miller, and Keith Hart, who confront questions about the relationship between the private and public spheres. Carrier and Miller have recently called for anthropologists to engage in “a rearticulation of the private and the public through a clear understanding and portrayal of the consequences of each of these for the other” (1999:43). And Keith Hart uses the image of “the hit man’s dilemma” to argue that the “public” and the “private” are not as easy to separate as modern capitalist ideology presumes. As he notes: “Our language and culture contain the ongoing history of this attempt to separate social life into two distinct spheres. This is the core of capitalism’s moral economy; and gangster movies offer a vicarious opportunity to relive its contradictions” (Hart 2005:4).

We agree with these authors that the public and private realms are related in complex, vexing ways, and we argue that The Godfather plays upon precisely this issue. We are extending the work of Carrier, Miller, and Hart, since none of these authors analyzes The Godfather, nor gangster films in general. To be specific, we argue that the image of the Corleones in the film is compelling because it offers the possibility of reconciling capitalism and personalism, the public and the private. The Godfather offers a mythic capitalism redeemed—capitalism with a sense of honor, family, and personal commitment, seemingly bridging the split in industrial capitalism between the “public” world of markets and the “private” world of morality and strong emotion (see also Carrier 1990). The movie also offers a vision of the opposite: the destruction of private worlds that goes along with a commitment to “rational” market behavior. It captures these oppositions, mythically, in the twinned symbols of orality and writing.

It is important to state from the outset that we do not assume that The Godfather tells us anything about the actual Mafia or Sicilian culture, but only that it tells us something about how U.S. dilemmas concerning capitalism and family life, as played out against the fantasy space of ethnic “authenticity.”

Our focus is on the film text itself, rather than viewer perceptions per se. Our premise here is that the film has fascinated audiences precisely because of its ability to target strains and tensions in U.S. culture. A central aspect of the movie's appeal is that, like a good myth, it toys with viewers’ ambivalent feelings about these messy strains and tensions (Drummond 1995). Accordingly, we would never expect an audience to come away with a unanimous, untroubled interpretation of the film's meaning; there will be as many different interpretations as there are different opinions at any time about U.S. capitalism, the state, family life, and so on. We are not trying to offer a single, final interpretation, but only to uncover hidden symbolism that we believe to be fundamental in the film, making it likely to be a factor in individual interpretations.

This symbolism will be explored in three pivotal scenes that correspond to three major stages in the Corleone family's trajectory.

In the opening wedding scene, the symbolism of writing and food establishes a stark contrast between U.S. and Sicilian society. Writing is identified with mainstream U.S. society, specifically the state and capitalist relations; while the Corleones are implicated in this society, we also see—through their disdain for writing, and use of food and drink—that they belong to another cultural order.

For example, FBI agents in the parking lot are writing down license-plate numbers on notepads, an FBI agent flashes his identification badge at Sonny, Don Corleone's son, and the legislative and judicial branches of the government are represented through telegrams sent by Senators and judges.

The most striking example of the symbolism of writing, though, is the story of Don Corleone making a bandleader "an offer he can't refuse." As the Don’s son Michael tells the story, a bandleader denied requests to release the Don’s godson from a written contract, so "Luca Brasi held a gun to the bandleader's head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on that contract." The Don's “offer” highlights a precise equivalence between guns and writing. Brains and pen ink are both liquids that control life: without your brains, you‘re dead; and by signing a contract in pen ink, you “sign your life away,” as the expression has it. Both use small bits of liquid to control life, in other words. The gun is also comparable to the pen in that both are sleek, hand-held instruments.

These parallels, however, only serve to highlight the showdown between these two types of power: the written contract symbolizes the U.S. legal, capitalist system and its ostensibly supreme power, but, in this case, legal contracts run up against the brute force of the Sicilian Mafia, and writing clearly loses. Inverting the saying about the pen being mightier than the sword, Don Corleone shows through this dramatic power play that, when push comes to shove, he is more powerful than the U.S. state and its written contracts. Moreover, his style of power is different. Whereas the state’s power is abstract (based on laws), mediated (communicated through writing, not face-to-face interaction), and supposedly inflexible (tied to the letter of the law), the Don’s power is physical (the gun to the head), personal (the Godfather-godson relationship), and flexible (allowing for changes in circumstances).3

This contrast between the Old and New Worlds gets further developed in this first scene when we see how the Don forms bonds with his supporters. Rather than legal contracts, the Godfather's own "contracts" are sealed with gifts (usually food and drink), gestures, and verbal pledges—in short, a gift-giving economy. As we observe different visitors in the Don's office, we learn about the rules—the "Do’s and Don'ts"—of this symbolic economy.

The undertaker Bonasera is particularly revealing as a negative example, a textbook case of everything you should not do when dealing with the Godfather. Bonasera comes to the Don because the U.S. legal system has failed him: the two boys who beat and raped his daughter have been freed by the courts with nothing more than a suspended sentence. Bonasera therefore turns to the Don for vengeance, but he makes a crucial mistake when he asks, “How much shall I pay you?” In response, the Don gets up, and, after a long, painful pause,4 he says, “Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” The Don is deeply offended by Bonasera’s attempt to invoke a contractual relationship in which services are immediately rendered upon payment of a named cash amount. Presumably Bonasera makes this sort of faux pas because he has been overly U.S.ized (the movie opens with Bonasera saying "I believe in America"), so the Don has to educate him on the conventions of this patron-client relationship. Rebuking Bonasera and reframing the relationship as one of long-term gift exchange and friendship, the Don says: "You don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you, uh, ask me to do murder, for money.” The Don says "for money" in a tone of disgust, almost unable to utter the words. And then, after agreeing to grant Bonasera's request, the Don ends by saying “Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do me a service; but, until that day, accept this justice as a gift on the day of my daughter’s wedding.” Eschewing capitalist contracts, the Don prefers long-term gift exchange, with its idiom of generosity and friendship.

Disregard for money is also expressed by the Don's eldest child, Sonny, who breaks a reporter’s camera and then throws bills on the ground in a contemptuous gesture suggesting that money is trash. No attempt is made to count the money, so we can assume that Sonny has thrown much more money on the ground than the camera was actually worth–to count the money would be beneath him. Like his father, Sonny belongs to a world of honor, expressed in his statement to the FBI agent in the car: “Goddamn FBI, don’t respect nothing.” The clash of the two worlds is further highlighted by the juxtaposition of the wordless FBI agent flashing his badge and Sonny responding by spitting on the ground. Both Sonny’s actions and his father’s set up a basic contrast between U.S. capitalism and what Pierre Bourdieu characterizes as a “gift economy”:

The gift economy, in contrast to the economy where equivalent values are exchanged, is based on the denial of the economic (in the narrow sense), a refusal of the logic of the maximization of economic profit, i.e., of the spirit of calculation and the exclusive pursuit of material (as opposed to symbolic) interest, a refusal which is inscribed in the objectivity of institutions and in dispositions. It is organized with a view to the accumulation of symbolic capital (a capital of recognition, honor, nobility, etc.) that is brought about in particular through the transmutation of economic capital achieved through the alchemy of symbolic exchanges (exchange of gifts, challenges and ripostes, women, etc.) and only available to agents endowed with disposition adjusted to the logic of "disinterestedness” (Bourdieu 1997: 234-235).
Bourdieu’s characterization, which recalls Weber on pre-capitalism and the formalist-substantivist debate in economic anthropology, may be problematic as an ethnographic generalization, but it aptly captures the contrast embodied in the film’s social imaginary.

Obviously this contrast should not be overdrawn: the Corleones are not opposed to money per se, nor are they a familial haven in a heartless world of capitalism.5 In fact, the Corleones are committed businessmen. This becomes increasingly clear (and complicated) as the film progresses, but even in this first scene, viewers will immediately recognize that the Corleones are running a business: they meet in an office and make references to "jobs" and the "family business."6 In fact, if the Corleones were not capitalistic to at least some degree, comparisons with U.S. would be untenable. The Corleones are our distant cousins, not distant exotics. Nonetheless, the Corleones are capitalists with a difference: they value honor, kinship, and long-term gift-exchange. They represent a culture in which counting money and naming cash values is antisocial behavior.

The correct model for interaction in this gift economy is provided in this opening scene by the baker, who asks the Don to help his future son-in-law remain in the United States. The baker never mentions money. After his request has been granted, the baker leaves the room saying "and wait ‘til you see the beautiful wedding cake I made for your daughter," showing that he participates in food exchange like the Don, who, of course, is providing food and drink for everyone at the wedding.7 The Don has also specifically given the baker a drink (held throughout this scene), a drink that represents conviviality, as opposed to the drink Bonasera accepts as solace when he starts to weep.

Simply put, the undertaker represents death, while the baker represents life—not just literally, but as metaphors for social life and death, the forces that keep society alive and moving. Not only does the baker provide food (physical sustenance), but he engages in the male-dominated gift exchange that leads to the social reproduction of the family: he is visiting the Godfather to insure that his daughter will marry Enzo, an Italian boy who has been working in his pastry shop. In this sense, the baker and the Don (whose daughter is also being married) both participate in the exchange of women that perpetuates social life and family honor; by contrast, the undertaker has been thwarted in his proper male role as benefactor and protector of female honor ("she will never be beautiful again").

As the baker’s example shows, this symbolic gift economy also involves male exchange and nurturance through food—men feeding other men. In another example, Don Corleone is shown physically embracing his godson Johnny as he leaves his office, saying, “You look terrible, I want you to eat.” These words follow the Don’s lecturing Johnny on the importance of being a “family man,” and also stand in contrast to the bandleader’s exploitation. Nurturing other men and being a “family man” are all part of being a good businessman in this gift economy.

Thus, the contrast of these two characters is a perfect lesson in the Do’s and Don’ts of the Don’s social world. Whereas the undertaker offends the Don, the baker and Don communicate well, with the Don even guessing what the baker needs before he to explicitly verbalize it (“You understand everything”).

Returning to the bandleader’s contract, we also see that speech performatives do the work of cementing mutual commitments with the Don, rather than writing. For example, Luca Brasi vows "I pledge my never-ending loyalty, Don Corleone," and the undertaker says "Be my friend, Godfather," after which he bends down and kisses the Don's ring to confirm their new relationship. Also, jumping ahead for a moment to the later scene with the heads of the Five Families, Barzini says, "We all know him [Don Corleone] as a man of his word," adding "Look, we are all reasonable men here. We don't have to give assurances as if we were lawyers." In other words, a man of his word can be trusted; not only does he abhor a lawyer's written contract, but even speech performatives can sometimes be dispensed with.8 In this sense, a man’s word approaches the most binding “contract” of all: kinship bonds, which are so strong that they do not require explicit expression.

The Corleone family is bound together by such ties of kinship, placing them at the opposite end of the spectrum from written contracts. Most U.S., too, believe that written contracts do not mix with family life: this belief underlies the outrage over pre-nuptial contracts, which represent the invasion of formal market principles into family life, one of the only domains that is supposed to be exempt from these principles. Dependence on State contracts impugns family trust, the very basis of the “diffuse, enduring solidarity” of kinship (see Schneider 1968). By the same token, it would be simply unthinkable for the Don to ask his sons to sign a work contract.

The Godfather suggests that “family values” should carry over into the “rational” world of business decisions. This ongoing tension in U.S. society has been recently raised by “socially conscious” companies such as Ben and Jerry’s or Smith and Hawken.9 But, at the same time, the film plays upon the fact that the gift economy is already present in U.S. society--in the form of dinners, lunches, and drinks with clients and colleagues, the talk on the golf course, the expense accounts, the entertaining hosted by spouses, etc. The problem is that, despite the ubiquity of these personal gift exchanges, rational interests and economic efficiency are still supposed to be the decisive factors: you can't come to a corporate meeting or press conference and say "I gave John the contract because he's my friend and he took me to the Knicks game." The movie plays upon this contradiction between ideals and practice, the tension between an ideology that propounds the importance of objective, rational, efficient decision-making versus actual practices based on subjective, committed personal relationships. In response, the Corleones offer the possibility of a cleaner, less dissonant reconciliation between U.S. ideals and practice, between emotion and objectivity.

In particular, the Corleones offer a resolution to the split between public and private, family and business.  Bourgeois ideology opposes the mixing of these two spheres: work is supposed to be rational and efficient, and the family is the realm of strong emotion. This split causes considerable social and psychological strain as work time competes with family time, and family members with differing occupations often become distant from one another, both psychologically and geographically. For the Corleones, though, business and family are one and the same realm, and both are thriving.

The family business is, of course, decidedly patriarchal: the men run the business, women do not enter the office, and business is never discussed at the dinner table. Nevertheless, it's remarkable that the Don's office is located in his home (especially in the early 1970s when the film came out, long before the “electronic commute”), where the men can quickly move back and forth from the office to the kitchen. Children play just outside the office, as we learn in the very first scene, when several children burst into the room just as Luca Brasi is finishing his pledge. Immediately after this, the Don walks out of his office into his own backyard to dance with his wife at a wedding that, as part of ongoing gift exchange, is ultimately all part of his business. In this sense, work, family, and gender boundaries are much less rigid than they might appear at first glance.

This work-family unity, then, is specifically based on men fulfilling traditional gender roles as breadwinners, protectors, and active fathers. The film also specifically depicts close familial relations among men. Indeed, male love between fathers, sons, and brothers is expressed in the course of their “business” relationships. That a movie in which a father and his sons work at the same business, men cry, sons try to save their father and the father affectionately hugs and kisses his sons could be so compelling to the many U.S. males who revel in being able to quote line for line from this movie10 is suggestive of the social tensions being mythically “resolved..”11

This is also not to deny that the movie portrays a certain horror at the Corleones’ “business,” even in the early scenes, reflected most prominently in Kay’s open-mouthed shock at the story about the “offer he couldn’t refuse." This horror notwithstanding, the overall effect, as many commentators have noted and in keeping with Clifford’s analysis, is to create a nostalgic appeal. Having primarily emphasized this Old-vs.-New World opposition in the first scene, though, the film proceeds to show that the Corleones are not all that different from U.S., especially when the family starts changing under the leadership of Michael, who represents the second-generation's attempt to bring the Sicilian and U.S. worlds closer together. The film suggests that the authentic ways embodied by Don Corleone will become corrupted as the family moves away from its “ethnic roots.” Once again, these shifts are symbolized through striking images of the oral and the literate.

The Don’s son Michael is clearly identified with mainstream U.S. society rather than his father's business: he's an U.S. war hero, he went to college, and he doesn’t work in the family business. As he tells his WASP girlfriend in the first scene, "That's my family, Kay, that's not me." Michael's distance from his family is also indicated by the fact that he only learns about the attempted murder of his father from a newspaper headline, thus depending on the mediation of print rather than face-to-face interaction.

However, in this second stage of the film, it is precisely Michael's understanding of print media that allows him to propose an innovation on his father's methods, an innovation that sets him on course to become the Don’s heir. Michael’s proposal is offered in a crucial scene in which the sons and the caporegimes are debating how to respond to Sollozo, the drug dealer who has just tried for a second time to kill the Don. Sonny, the hot-headed eldest son and interim Don, wants to take revenge against Sollozo and his ally Tattaglia, but the Don’s adopted son Tom Hagen, the voice of moderation, advises against any immediate action, lest it cause an all-out war that can’t be stopped. Tom clinches his argument by informing everyone that Sollozo is at least temporarily invulnerable because he’s being guarded by a police captain named McCluskey.

At this point Sonny concedes to Tom, but, to everyone's surprise, Michael then proposes that he will kill both Sollozo and McCluskey. Sonny and the caporegimes, Tessio and Clemenza, start to laugh at Michael’s proposal and Tom looks away in disbelief. The others did not understand what Michael had grasped: the power of print. Drawing on his understanding of literacy, Michael’s solution is to kill the drug dealer and police captain, and then follow up with newspaper stories about "a crooked cop who got what was coming to him," i.e., putting a different spin on the killing and precluding retaliation from the state and the public. Michael's killing was an innovative blend of guns and newspapers, a combination that was not envisioned by the others, who were still operating on the Don’s own gun-versus-pen opposition.

This shift is even captured in the seating arrangements in this scene. As the camera slowly zooms in, we see Michael seated directly between two figures: hot-headed Sonny, standing for brute force, and sensible Tom, who, as a quasi-outsider (not only adopted and of German-Irish descent, but also a lawyer), has until now controlled literacy (contracts) and family relations with the outside world. Appropriately, Tom is even sitting behind a desk and typewriter in this scene. Michael’s proposal unites Sonny’s gun and Tom’s typewriter, bringing the Old and New Worlds closer together.

As we saw earlier, the U.S. and Sicilian worlds were initially opposed in the story about the bandleader who had to choose whether his brains or his signature would be on that contract. Creating a similar binary image, Sonny says to Michael in response to his proposal, "What do you think this is, the army, where you shoot 'em from a mile away? You gotta get up close like this...budda-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit." In other words, just like written contracts, Ivy League suits should be kept clean and pure, unstained by blood and brains; the worlds of blood and suits are separate and opposed. Moreover, like the initial contrast between legal contracts and family connections, the difference is a question of impersonal vs. personal relations: mainstream U.S. interact at a distance, through written contracts and by shooting from a mile away, whereas the Corleones talk directly to each other and put a gun right up to their enemy's head. In fact, if we consider Mario Puzo’s book, we find that, in the traditional Sicilian view, even a handgun was considered impersonal and U.S.ized, compared with the more direct, traditional garrote: "The caporegime, Clemenza, took Sonny in hand and taught him how to shoot and to wield a garrote. Sonny had no taste for the Italian rope, he was too U.S.ized. He preferred the simple, direct, impersonal Anglo-Saxon gun, which saddened Clemenza" (Puzo 1969:219). 12 Michael, however, sees a way to combine the Mafia’s “up close and personal” style with the more distanced, mediated relationships of mainstream America, making the press work for, rather than against, the family's violence.

Food symbolism also marks this change. Shortly before the scene laying out Michael’s plan, Clemenza is shown giving Michael some pointers about cooking. In a scene with echoes in many subsequent Mafia films, Clemenza is shown making spaghetti sauce, while narrating the recipe to Michael. As an “old school” figure, Clemenza is part of the tradition that includes Don Corleone and his godson (“I want you to eat”), in which men cross over into nurturing roles as part of a gift economy. Of course, it is significant that Clemenza is not teaching Michael any old recipe, but a recipe for spaghetti sauce, which is clearly associated with “authentic” Italian traditions. In utter contrast, Michael and the others are shown involved in a new kind of food consumption in a subsequent scene before Michael’s killing: while waiting for a phone call at Sonny’s house, everyone sits around the table eating take-out Chinese food. This quick, non-Italian food is neither nurturing nor “authentic,” marking the new, U.S.ized relations that are being ushered in by Michael’s proposal.

Michael’s killing takes place in a restaurant, seemingly associating him with the oral interactions described above for Don Corleone. However, though sitting at the table with his two victims, Michael does not eat and barely speaks at all during the scene. By keeping his mouth closed to food and not touching the drink that Sollozo has handed to him as a gesture of truce, he resists the vulnerability of social interaction. Michael’s resistance to food (and vulnerable social relations) is comparable to the way he remains impassive when Clemenza teases him about his girlfriend and teaches him how to “cook for twenty guys.” Finally, in a significant jump-cut, the scene of Michael retreating from the bloodied bodies of Sollozo and McCluskey is immediately followed by the image of newspapers being printed and then men eating spaghetti. At least for a brief moment, Michael has managed to reconcile the two worlds: he has found a way to bring together food, writing, and violence.

As we realize by the end of the film, Michaels’ killing of Sollozo and McCluskey was a turning point in the Corleone family’s trajectory. Once Michael started to use the U.S. system (symbolized by the newspapers and Chinese food), and given his determination to make the family "totally legitimate" within five years, the family was set on a path of ethnic self-destruction, moving toward the ideal-typical U.S. business model of “rational” profit-making. The culmination of this movement occurs in the Moe Green casino scene, in which the symbolic structures of the opening wedding scene are completely inverted.

Whereas in the wedding scene Vito Corleone provides a party with food, drink, and music, Michael arrives at Moe's casino and coldly dismisses the women and musicians that Michael’s brother Fredo had brought for a surprise party. Echoing his father's line from the wedding scene, Michael also tells Fredo he is going to take over the casino by making Moe "an offer he can't refuse," but then Michael does something that would have been unthinkable for his father: he asks Johnny—the Don’s own godson—to sign a stack of written contracts (taken out of Tom's briefcase), agreeing to sing at the casino for the next five years. Michael has completely inverted his father's ways. As noted above, the movie starts with a joyous celebration with food and drink, a story about the Don getting Johnny out of a legal contract, Johnny singing voluntarily for the party, and the Don embracing Johnny and telling him "You look terrible, I want you to eat." Now the exact opposite is occurring: Michael is coercing Johnny into signing a legal contract, they are sitting at a dinner table with empty plates and untouched drinks, and everyone in the room is somber and joyless. Michael has entered the world of legal contracts and capitalism, precisely the world that his father had repudiated. Michael is both symbolically and literally leaving behind his father, taking the Corleone business to Las Vegas, a strange town several thousand miles away from his father's neighborhood and connections in New York. Michael is also shifting the very nature of the family business from food to money. Instead of the olive oil business, a symbol of Italian authenticity and a gift economy where greed at least seems secondary, Michael is moving the family into the casino business, inverting the first scene in which direct involvement with money is seen as an insult to honor. 13

In other words, in the process of trying to become a legitimate U.S. businessman, Michael has been forced to lose his Old World ways. Without the authenticating symbols of ethnic roots—food and the oral contract—Michael is not a benevolent patriarch, but another corrupt, corporate raider. Making Johnny sign a contract can be seen as a prelude to the stunning, horrific killings during the famous baptism scene that ends the movie. Johnny’s contract marks the transition to a world in which honor is no longer the guarantee of a man’s word. Violence is no longer hidden behind honor, but revealed at the heart of the U.S. system of doing business. Indeed, this was foreshadowed in an earlier exchange between Kay and Michael, in which Kay claims that Michael is naive in thinking of his father as a typical powerful U.S. male. The Don, according to Kay, is unlike U.S. politicians and businessmen, because these latter “don’t have people killed.” Michael’s succinct reply is “Who’s being naive now, Kay?”

It is also important to note that on another level these oppositions are always blurred: all along the Corleones have obviously been devoted to wealth-making (if not capitalist profit-making) in a cruel and efficient manner. At the same time, though, the film suggests, at least initially, that perhaps capitalism could be redeemed by a more humane, “honorable,” and personalized system of values that transcends “the bottom line” and the cold impersonality of the State and multinational capitalism.

The written and the oral, then, are key symbols for this refracted image that plays upon contradictory ideas about business and family. Initially we are provided with the image of an “authentic” ethnic world in which business can be personal and run on principles of honor, but ultimately we see that this combination is extremely problematic and difficult to maintain under the corrosive influence of mainstream society. The Godfather suggests that U.S. society is both like the Mafia in its quest for the consolidation of power and worse than the Mafia, since this power is unredeemed by the gift economy, which buffers the effects of power and offers a certain justice.

The movie closes with a triumphant Michael clearly identified with the written word: he is in his office, reading papers, and surrounded by books on the floor. When his sister comes in crying about the murder of her husband, she slams down a newspaper on Michael's desk and screams to Kay, "Want to know how many men he had killed before Carlo? Read the papers, read the papers! That's your husband." Michael clearly belongs now to a world of the written word, that is, distanced, mediated relations. Then, in a gesture befitting any contemporary U.S. politician, Michael denies everything to Kay, showing the devaluation of his own word. The final image is Michael’s office door closing on Kay as she prepares Michael a drink, the final rejected gesture of social connectivity that leaves the new Don in his office, cut off from his family and his father's Sicilian ways.

Written and oral symbolism, then, are woven into the film's fabric from the first to last scene. This symbolism resonates with the writing-orality complex—including the nostalgia and sense of “irretrievable loss”—that Clifford identified. Expanding upon Clifford’s analysis and extending it to mass media representations, we have demonstrated the relevance of this anthropological perspective to less familiar territory–the “other” (if not lost) world of popular culture.

This is not a minor point. Writing and food symbolism affects the entire meaning of the film, leading to conclusions that are fundamentally at odds with those of earlier analyses. Previous scholars have claimed that the film's social critique lies in its revelation that U.S. business is like the Mafia, but we argue that the critique comes from the opposite direction: the film shows that U.S. business is not enough like the Mafia.

For example, Frederic Jameson assumes that the film shifts criticism of capitalism onto the "pure Evil of the Mafiosi themselves" (1979:146). Glenn Mann echoes Jameson (useful qualifications notwithstanding) in his discussion of the film's "myth of the Mafia as evil" and its suggestion that the "Mafia's evil is society's evil as well" (2000:115). Mann concludes that "The romanticization of Vito/Michael and the whole Corleone family deflects from the prosocial myth of the Mafia as evil and puts on hold the subversive myth of society as evil" (ibid.).

While Bourdieu's gift economy can be equated with what Mann refers to as the film's "romanticization" of the Corleones, we do not see this romanticization as a deflection from the critique of society, nor do we find the deflection that Jameson (1979:146) sees as the Mafia genre's primary ideological function: "the substitution of crime for big business...the strategic displacement of all the rage generated by the U.S. system onto this mirror image of big business...." To the contrary, we argue that the Corleones’ romanticized image is the critique, in the sense of what Clifford (1986:114), following Raymond Williams and Stanley Diamond, calls a "critical nostalgia," a way "to break with the hegemonic corrupt present by asserting the reality of a radical alternative." To fantasize about lost worlds is to criticize the present, since "every imagined authenticity presupposes, and is produced by, a present circumstance of felt inauthenticity" (ibid.), a point we will develop further in Chapter Five, in our analysis of The Village. The romanticized image of the Corleones' gift economy presents just this sort of critical nostalgia—a world without legal contracts, and a world that is unabashedly based on strong emotional ties formed through food, drink, and kinship.

Our analysis is perhaps closest to that of John Hess (1976), but whereas Hess focuses on the critique of capitalism in The Godfather Part II, we have limited ourselves to the first movie in the trilogy, where the critique is much more ambiguous. Our approach also has a strong affinity with that of Thomas Ferraro, who argues to good effect that previous scholars have mistakenly treated family and business as separate themes in the film. But as much as we agree with Ferraro's basic point, we cannot agree with his specific conclusion about the critique of capitalism offered by the film (or, in Ferraro's case, by Puzo's book): "Professionals often complain about taking work home with them, mentally if not literally. How much more frightening, then, is the alternative Puzo presents: when some Americans go home to papa, they end up confronting the boss" (Ferraro 1993:38). Quite the opposite, we suspect that most people wish at some level that their work and family lives were more integrated; even if this wish does not literally translate into desire for a family business (still not an option for many, given all the other economic and ideological forces mentioned earlier), there is at least enough ambivalence to make the Corleone image intriguing (cf. Hart 2005). As for Ferraro's excellent point about the importance of U.S. valorization of ethnicity as a reason for the film's popularity, we would add that the film deals not only with ethnicity, but with what ethnicity symbolizes, including male solidarity and, more generally, ongoing dilemmas about reconciling “personal” and “business” lives.

More than 30 years after it was released, The Godfather remains extremely popular, something that can be said for very few films from the early 1970s. If viewers just wanted blood and guts or an image of outlaws, they could watch any number of other mafia or action films, most of which are much more violent than The Godfather. The reason that The Godfather is still watched, obsessively in many cases, is that it skillfully addresses vexing, unanswered questions in U.S. culture about the proper boundaries between personal and impersonal relations.


1 The best, most relevant previous analyses are the following: 1) Ferraro (1993); 2) Jameson (1979); 3) Hess (1976); and 4) Browne (2000). On the general relationship between gangster films and society, see Warshow (1975). Also, note that the director of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, has even said that he consciously treated the Mafia as a symbol for U.S. capitalism: "I always wanted to use the Mafia as a metaphor for America. If you look at the film, you see that it's focused that way. The first line is 'I believe in America.' I feel that the Mafia is an incredible metaphor for this country...Both are totally capitalistic phenomena and basically have a profit motive" (quoted in Farber 1972:224).

2 "Orality" is being used here loosely as a rubric for the various methods employed by the Corleones (gifts, food, gestures, speech performatives), not to reify the opposition between the written and the oral.

3 The “intelligence” of the bandleader is also being devalued. Brains are commonly a metonym of intelligence–-as in the expression “he’s a brain”–-and, given the importance of education in U.S. society, intelligence of any sort is also symbolized by literacy. This literate intelligence is now being devalued in the worst way: those brains are about to be splattered all over the written page.

4 This pause actually lasts for 16.3 seconds, which, in movie time, is an eternity.

5 We obviously concur here with Ferraro's (1993) argument that, for the Corleones, business and family are one and the same.

6 For example, Tom says, "Who should I give this job to?" and the Don responds, "Give him [Carlo] a living, but never discuss the family business with him."

The bodyguard Paulie's reference to cash values—he fantasizes about stealing the bride's wedding purse, which contains "twenty, thirty grand, in small bills, cash"—is an exception that proves the rule about attitudes toward money in this first scene: it foreshadows Paulie's later betrayal of the Don due to greed. The presence of the bridal purse itself does not contradict the Sicilian emphasis on gifts: as in U.S. culture, money can be converted into a gift if it is properly dressed up as such, i.e., by placing the money in a sealed envelope and putting all the envelopes in a special container (in this case, a white silk bag), without counting the money in public view. Luca Brasi, for example, would never just open up his wallet and hand the Godfather some bills for the bridal purse (see Carrier 1990).

7 To the extent that this mention of the cake seems like an over-eagerness to repay the Don's favor, it could be considered a violation of the usual rules of delayed gift exchange. Such telescoping can be partly attributed to the film's need to condense maximal information in this one scene, and, moreover, the true, delayed repayment occurs later in the film when the baker's son-in-law risks his life to help Michael protect the Don at the hospital.

8 In this scene, the Don actually does make a promise, saying he "swears on the souls of his grandchildren." However, with Barzini's implication that the Don does not even need such a speech performative, this scene comes close to the scene in "The Freshman" where Marlon Brando tells Matthew Broderick that "everything I say is, by definition, a promise." The Don's disdain for writing is also strikingly clear in this passage from Mario Puzo's book:

The president [of the bank] always treasured that moment when he had offered to give Don Corleone a written document proving his ownership of the shares, to preclude any treachery. Don Corleone had been horrified. "I would trust you with my whole fortune," he told the president. I would trust you with my life and the welfare of my children. It is inconceivable to me that you would ever trick me or otherwise betray me. My whole world, all my faith in my judgment of human character would collapse. Of course I have my own written records so that if something should happen to me my heirs would know that you hold something in trust for me. [Puzo 1969:277]

9Carrier (1997) provides an analysis of the philosophy behind Paul Hawken’s company “Smith and Hawken,” which derives from some of the tensions explored in this article. In particular “Smith and Hawken” is posed as a response to the impersonal world of bureaucratic organizations and the systematic pursuit of monetary profit. Instead of written policy books and employee manuals, Hawken argues for employees who make “moral” decisions based on personal feelings: “‘You must give permission to your employees to do what they think is right....No policy book could cover all...contingencies. Don’t even try to concoct one. Our policy book says this: it has to feel right’” (cited in Carrier 1997:142).

10 As Meg Ryan put it in the film You’ve Got Mail, “What is it with men and The Godfather”?

11 Gender images are certainly not the only source of the appeal of The Godfather. The portrayal of Italian ethnicity was also one of the sources of the film’s popularity, as argued by Dika (1997) and Ferraro (1993).

12 In the film, on the other hand, if not used in the way Sonny suggests, guns could act like bombs in twentieth-century wars, notable for their increasing distance and mediation, as documented by Bourke in An Intimate History of Killing (1999). Bourke, in fact, argues for a general nostalgia for “intimate,” face-to-face combat in contrast to “the horrors of modern mechanized warfare” (1999:48) in the accounts of U.S. and British soldiers during the Vietnam war and the first two world wars. The bayonet was seen as the weapon that could bring back the chivalric personal element in warfare seen to characterize the past, but which had been increasingly displaced in modern warfare.

13 This inversion is highlighted in the first scene of The Godfather, Part II, also a wedding scene, but in this case one in which Italian food and music have been replaced by standard U.S. fare (Uncle Leo asks for red wine and traditional music, and is given champagne cocktails, canapés, and “hickory-dickory-dock.”). As with the first scene of The Godfather, Part I, Michael is conducting business in his office during the wedding, but in another striking inversion, Michael is shown eulogizing the value of money to his niece’s fiancé. For an excellent analysis of this sequel, see Hess (1976).

Bourdieu, Pierre

1997 Marginalia--Some Additional Notes on the Gift. In The Logic of the Gift, Toward an Ethic of Generosity. Alan D. Schrift, ed. Pp. 231-241. New York: Routledge.

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Browne, Nick, ed.

2000 Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Trilogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Carrier, James

1990 Gifts in a World of Commodities: The Ideology of the Perfect Gift in U.S. Society. Social Analysis 29: 19-37.

Carrier, James

1997 Mr. Smith, Meet Mr. Hawken. In Meanings of the Market. James Carrier ed. Pp. 129-158. Oxford: Berg.

Carrier, James, and Daniel Miller

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Clifford, James

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Drummond, Lee

1995 U.S. Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Farber, Stephen

1972 Coppola and The Godfather. Sight and Sound: International Film Quarterly 41:217-224.
Ferraro, Thomas J.,

1993 Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hart, Keith

2005 The Hit Man’s Dilemma: Or, Business, Personal and Impersonal. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Hess, John

1976 Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn't Refuse." In Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Bill Nichols, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jameson, Frederic

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Puzo, Mario

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Schneider, David

1980 U.S. Kinship: A Cultural Account. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Warshow, Robert

1975 The Immediate Experience. New York: Atheneum.

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