R.I.P. Michael Corleone

Reflections on the Life and Death of America’s Most Influential Man

What people look for reveals a lot about what matters to them.  I have posted about everything from Mayan death rituals to Spider-Man, from Buddha to Jesus.  But more sought after than Jesus, Buddha, or God: the Godfather.  Every day since my first post, some random soul has stumbled across my blog because they were searching for Michael Corleone.  Well, here he is.

Don Corleone

(I’m about to ruin all of the movies, so if you haven’t seen them, please go do watch them now.  Yes, even III.) 

In an age of weaklings (Fredo and all of Connie’s husbands), Michael is the presence of strength; not of brute, physical strength (Luca Brasi), but of pure mental power and the will to act.  In an age of two-bit pimps and pushers (too many to name), Michael is the image of class and integrity; he never compromises his values, however unbiblical they may be.  In an age of hot-heads (Sonny), Michael is a man of cool composure and calculation; for this reason, he smokes but does not drink, other than the ocassional glass of wine.  When other men drag their feet, Michael is ready for action.  He keeps all his promises.  No price is too great.  He is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals.  And he always finds a way. 

Other men (Tom Hagen) might be willing to go to great lengths, but lack the vision to see all the possibilities.  He makes even his dad (Vito) look soft.  Thus saith Michael: “If history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.  Anyone.”

From his armchair, he can unleash more fury than the all the hounds of hell.  He says the word, and his men obey.  Why do they obey?  Because he pays them well, sure.  But they are willing to die for him.  They owe their alliegiance because they belong to an unspoken code of honor, of loyalty, of tradition, and of action for the sake of the greater good, for the good of the Family.

Don Corleone is a badass of the mind, the likes of which the world has never seen.  He suceeds so well at getting down with his bad self, that we all loved the Godfather I and II.  We see Michael first become the Don, then ascend to true criminal greatness, moral depravity, and selfish sacrifice.  Yet few people enjoyed the Godfather III.  Did Coppola and Puzo drop the ball?  Or did most of us simply misunderstand the movie?

Don’t get me wrong.  I and II could stand alone as movies in their own right.  III could not stand alone, but does serve to frame I and II as a Greek (or Sicilian) tragedy.  But in that it succeeds swimmingly.  The Corleones are the ultimate dysfunctional family and none of us knew how much until III.  All the Don ever really wanted was to protect his family.  He killed to save the life of his father.  He kept on killing to protect his wife and children, even if it meant killing his own brother.  He realized, before it was almost too late, that he must stop and swore on the lives of his two children that he would redeem himself.  Yet he failed and the sins of the Godfather were visited upon his children.  By doing everything in his power to protect them, Michael ultimately destroyed everyone he had ever loved, leaving him to die alone.  There could be nothing more tragic than that. 

Still, we love Michael Corleone.  It should be no surprise that Barak Obama’s favorite movie is the Godfather.  Sure, it’s about power and action, but its also about family, relationship, and spiritual and cultural identity.  Emulated by everyone from Snoop Dogg to the Muppets, the Godfather is here to stay.  God, help us to value the good in him, but to see the rest for what it is, for the road to hell is littered with bad-ass intentions.

Muppet Dogfather Snoop Dogg the Doggfather

Sudden Death

“All death is sudden.” – anonymous

Life is precious. We forget so easily. Many movies, most video games, and all advertisements help us to forget. They tell us that our value is in how we look, in how many points (excitement, pleasure, accomplishment) we score, and in what we own. And most of us believe them most of the time. We act and speak as if scoring points was all that mattered. Whatever it is that you enjoy, do as much of that as possible, because today is the only day that matters.

But tomorrow is already here. Death is knocking at the door. He may have been knocking for a while, but you hadn’t been listening. I know I haven’t. Maybe he’s not here for you yet; you’ve got friends and family in the house, along with some random acquaintances you might not miss. Surely he’ll take one of them. Won’t he?

Hedonism’s response to death: ignore it. 

Is that really an option? Then you have no chance to prepare for what’s next, because you have refused to venture to guess that might be. The “great religions” are great because they have at least made an attempt. 

 (***What follows is a brief survey of my understanding of these religions’ views.  If I have misrepresented your view or need to be more specific, please let me know!)

Maybe there is nothing after death. That is atheists’ response. I respect their insistence on only claiming knowledge of that for which we have evidence. But my soul is incredulous before that great emptiness. There is too much purpose in life for there to be no purpose in death.

Maybe there is more life after death: many lives, the next better or worse, depending on how you behaved in this life. And if you are good enough for enough lives, you will enter Nirvana. Or maybe you will escape into Nothingness. That is the Hindu response, with its Buddhist variation. But my soul is too weary of day after day. Life after life would be too much to bear, unless I were utterly transformed.  Plus, I know my own heart too well. I would never think, feel, love, act rightly enough to “graduate” to the next step… and I’m not sure whether anyone else would either.

Death is the will of God. I must accept it and obey Him. If it is God’s will, I will enter Paradise, so I had be get on His good side. I love the simplicity of Islam’s response. But I ache against the thought of God wanting death.

The Jewish answer is in the form of a story: death is the enemy of God’s work and it has infected His creation because of us (Genesis 3).  We have hope of being reunited with each other and with Him after death (Psalm 23), but such hope is vague and fleeting, so theories abound in Judaism as to just what happens next.  The Tanakh (a.k.a. Old Testament) does not tell us how the story ends.

The New Testament finishes the Jewish story: God used death to return any of us who are willing to life by letting His Son die in our place (John 3).  And not just any death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27).  God will destroy death itself when all of His dead have been made alive again. “Look!  I will tell you a mystery.  We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed….  For when this dying body puts on the undying, the sayings will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (Isaiah 25:8); ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (Hosea 13:14).  The sting of death is in the weight of our crimes, and the power of our crimes is in God’s law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives to us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57; FIV).

That death is neither the end nor my friend may be the only answer that I can live with… whether I deserve to or not.

Death is Beautiful?

Pseudo-Buddhism, “The Fountain,” and the End of Life

Life is beautiful. Some would say that death is, too. I disagree. I warn with Donne: Death, be not proud…. I taunt with Paul: O, Death, where is your victory? However, there is something beautiful about the other side presenting their case as clearly and winsomely as possible.

Classical Buddhism teaches that enlightenment comes to those who deny themselves and their desires. Life, death, and suffering are all illusions. All are nothing. “Do not try and bend the spoon… that’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.” (This is a gross, pop-Tibetan oversimplification; like all religions, Buddhism knows infinite variations.)

However, this “classical” version of the religion stands starkly contrasted to that of “The Fountain,” which incorporates elements of Hinduism, Mayan religion, and astrophysics. In this pseudo-Buddhism, the past is the present is the future. Death brings life and beauty and awe. Ours is to embrace it. If classical Buddhism is the road to the denial of all things, pseudo-Buddhism is the road to the embrace of all things.

fountain

“Death is the beginning of awe,” said the Mayan priest, as he drove his sword through the conquistador, who would travel through time and space to save his dying Beloved. Dr. Tom Creo was trying to find a cure for his wife Izzi’s cancer. She had accepted her fate, but he hadn’t. She had been writing a book, which he would have to finish writing. In it, he was the conquistador, in search for the Tree of Life.

After the conquistador died, he looked back on his life as a scientist. He had constantly sacrificed time with his wife in order to seek her cure. He was forever turning away from the Tree of Life in order to pursue the Tree of Knowledge. But knowledge could not bring life. In the end, that was a gift which only death could bring.

Many people did not understand or enjoy “The Fountain.” It was too rich with raw emotion, with layers of story, and with visions of Nirvana. However, death is overwhelming — and rich, if we are to believe writer/director Aronofsky. His film would have been a dissapointment had it been any less.

Death is not beautiful in my eyes. But I see the hope of Life, even in the midst of it. I pray that I will one day be able to approach it as fearlessly as Izzi. And I have nothing but gratitude for Aronofsky for letting me see the end through his eyes.

Published in: on June 21, 2007 at 3:32 am  Comments (2)