The Texture of Situations
In Lawrence Grobel's book Al Pacino he discusses with the actor the nature of doing more than one thing at a time. As they sit in a restaurant, Pacino looks over at a diner eating alone and reading. Pacino asks how he can be enjoying the food if the diner is also trying to read his book. What is interesting about this little anecdotal moment is that Pacino as an actor is someone who is usually doing several things at once. While it is often said Pacino overacts and shouts, maybe it is more fruitful to look at Pacino from the point of view of an actor who portrays hassles: the expression of mutually incompatible elements in a life.
This is central to many of his performances, and perhaps none more so than in one of his most intensely touching, Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon. Here he plays a man bungling a bank robbery with his friend Sal, while his life is equally chaotic outside the bank. Sonny has a wife and two kids he can't really support, and a male lover for whom he's robbing the bank: he wants the money to pay for his lover's sex change operation. About two thirds of the way through the film he's on the phone to his lover, and then to his wife, and the hassle-ridden aspect of his existence becomes especially conspicuous. "You know what's happening with me..." he says to his male partner, "you know the pressures I've been having, right. I've been having all these pressures and you know about it..." Later, as he speaks with his wife, what matters is less what he says than how he reacts. As she does most of the talking, we notice Sonny becomes increasingly irritated. At first he's sympathetic as she explains how he once called her a fat pig, and that it really hurt her, but by the end of the call he is yelling down the phone: the shouting seems inevitable as we have watched Sonny's face contort in frustration.
Sonny would usually be perceived as one of life's losers, but it is more generous and more helpful to see him as someone who lives incompatibly: that much of the stress in his life comes from elements that do not cohere. Dog Day Afternoon's strength as a film comes chiefly from incongruity as it layers dissonant elements on top of each other. Think of the early moment where Sonny, Sal and another friend have pulled their guns out in the bank only for the friend to say he can't go through with it. Absurd enough, perhaps, but then a few seconds later, after running from the bank, the friend returns - saying he has spotted a bank clerk hiding under her desk. He then takes off again. This captures the tonal shifts in the film that are really reflective of the changes at work in Sonny. Shortly afterwards, just before Sonny is about to lock the women in a vault, the women insist they need to go to the toilet. Sonny, who has hardly planned the robbery, is at the same time left with numerous contingencies that add to the chaos of the situation. This is a man for whom doing more than one thing at a time is the story of his life, but the bank robbery adds a few strands to the narrative.
Obviously not all Pacino's characters are as incompetent as Sonny, and indeed if we were to have an instinctive response to Pacino's career we'd be unlikely to propose incompetence as the centre of it. But it is less the ineptitude that interests us here, more the texture not only to a performance but also to the givens of a situation. Often Pacino's most interesting work comes out of this 'texture of situations'. Sea of Love comes to mind, for example, where Pacino is the tired cop, Frank, whose colleague has gone off with his wife, and who falls for someone who's responded to his lonely hearts advert. The only thing is the advert had been placed not so Frank could get laid, but because the department is looking to catch a killer. Here Frank ends up in two minds - this is a woman he desperately desires; but he also of course desperately doesn't want her to kill him. In a scene back at his apartment, the usual insecurities of a first night are hyperbolized as Frank overreacts when he sees a gun in Helen's (Ellen Barkin) bag, and she understandably starts screaming as he locks her in the closet. The film's interest lies not in its thriller plot, but in the Pacino schism: between a cop who must get the job done; and a lover who's not afraid to ask for love, but is afraid for his life. In one scene he tells her how he can't sleep alone anymore; at another he tells a colleague he feels like a teenager. What drives the film is the double-bind of a man who craves love and is at the same time professionally wary. This is a man who has clearly lived for his job, but now will he have to die for it as well - yet die for it not in the line of duty but as if out of an accumulation of emotional need? Early in the film, drunk on his birthday, he phones his ex-wife at three in the morning, looking for affection.
In each instance, in Dog Day Afternoon and Sea of Love, what we notice is the indecisiveness of the body, a sort of undecideablity of the body, certainly, yet not quite, as we'll see, how philosopher Gilles Deleuze might define it. Whether it is deciding to let the ladies go to the toilet or not in Dog Day Afternoon, or frantically hopping around his apartment, unsure whether he should arrest or fuck Helen in Sea of Love as he waits for her to come out of the bathroom, Pacino is good at allowing the body to register a range of conflicting emotions.
On both occasions however we would not generally say that Pacino's is a neurotic indecisiveness (which is central to the Deleuzian formulation), the sort of procrastinating indecision of someone in two minds in their own mind, though there need be no incongruity in outer reality, evident when Deleuze talks in Cinema 2: The Time Image of characters in films by Garrel, Akerman, Doillon and others. In Pacino's work there is often the external conflict, this texture of situations, and we notice it again in Serpico, Glengarry Glen Ross, Heat, ...And Justice for All and even The Godfather, as well as Scarface and the mock doc Looking for Richard. There is a scene in Serpico where Pacino is the plain clothes cop making an arrest who finds he's being shot at by a couple of colleagues. As he makes the arrest, the colleagues are still shooting at him assuming that he is also a criminal. It is another great example of Pacino's attempt at doing two things at once. If in Sea of Love he is a cop pretending not be a cop (Helen assumes he is a printer), and trying to deal with a situation where he is both cop and non-cop simultaneously, the same is evident in this scene from Serpico, where he must pass for plain clothed citizen before the arrest, and then hope to persuade his colleagues he is one of them during it. There is obviously nothing especially original in the idea of an undercover cop caught in difficult situations, yet both films seem consistent with the Pacino problem of situational chaos.
This also the case in a scene near the end of Glengarry Glen Ross, where Pacino's the hot salesman Ricky Roma who has sold someone a plot of land the previous evening, only for the man to come into the office the next morning saying he has talked to his wife about it and she wants the cheque back. He's been told that he has three working days to cancel it and Roma tries to convince the man they can talk about the problem the following Monday (using as an alibi for how busy he is another salesman masquerading as a client). This would give Roma enough time to have the cheque safely cleared, and thus render any discussion useless. However, at the same time the police are investigating a robbery that took place in the office the previous night, and as other salesmen are hollering about the injustice of being hauled in for questioning, so Roma is trying to convince his client the man has plenty time to think about things and they can meet up the following Monday. The conflicting elements in an already textured situation are exacerbated when it is Roma's turn to be questioned by the police. "Will someone get this guy [this cop] off my back, please?" Roma barks, as he returns to focus on his client. A couple of minutes later and the detective is asking again, and a moment after that his boss comes out and explains after the client asks what the police are doing that there has been a robbery but that his cheque has already been cashed, making Roma's reassurances useless.
This is a wonderful example of situational layering. Here the through-line resides in Roma's need to make sure the deal goes ahead, but simultaneously there are three sub-situations going on also. The first is when he has his colleague Levine pretending to be another client named D. Ray Morton, though all it would take is another character in the office to call him by his real name and the ruse is up. The second is the detectives who are interviewing the salesmen, and the third the boss who gives the game away. Each presents a high level of risk in relation to hassle that is consistent with the other Pacino films mentioned. When Pacino yells at the detective, this is the reaction of a man trying to do one thing, whilst other things dangerously wait in the wings. It is like a situational version of Stanislavski's ideas on the super-objective and the through action in Creating a Role. Here Stanislavski talks about the core of the role in relation to the other elements. "The super-objective contains the meaning, the inner sense, of all the subordinate objectives of the play." But it is as though in many of Pacino's films the super-objective seems secondary to the accumulation of subordinate objectives. What Stanislavski calls subordinate objectives we might be inclined to call hassles. This is the case with his self-directed almost mockumentary Looking for Richard. What could have been a straightforward adaptation of a play the actor so loves, instead becomes much more about the hassle of putting on Richard III. The super-objective of the character's ambition seems secondary to Pacino's fascination with the variables involved in getting the play staged.
But where does hassle fit into the role for which Pacino admits he will probably be remembered: Michael Corleone in The Godfather films? This is a quieter role than most, certainly, and hassle here does not manifest itself in an especially physiological response so evident in Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon: in the second Godfather film it so clearly results in a slowing down, as Pacino moves his body around heavily, a dead weight accumulating power like pounds of flesh. But this is partly the brilliance of Pacino's performance; partly the nature of a type of cinema that demands the performance be subordinate to the rigour of the characterisational and narrative throughline: that any feelings Pacino's Corleone possesses remain subterranean, forced into duty and obligation. As Pauline Kael said in her The Godfather review in the New Yorker, "these gangsters don't satisfy our adventurous fantasies of disobeying the law; they're not defiant, they're furtive and submissive. They are required to be more obedient than we are; they live by taking orders." Nevertheless this isn't quite the same thing as saying there is no conflict, and Kael adds later that "Pacino has an unusual gift for conveying the divided spirit of a man whose calculations often go against his inclinations."
This seems consistent with the situational texture we've talked of in relation to Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Glengarry Glen Ross and others, but that it happens to take a more subdued form in The Godfather. There are numerous such scenes in the film, and all predicated on an early story Michael tells to his sweetheart Kay. At his sister's wedding he describes how his father helped someone's career by making the person obstructing it an offer he couldn't refuse. Either the man's signature or his brains would be on the piece of paper in front of him. The Ivy League war veteran Michael tells her while this might be his family's approach, it isn't his, and we watch over the space of the three hour film how it becomes Michael's way as well. Later in the film after his father has been shot and Michael seeks revenge, he takes a phone call from Kay where she tells him she loves him, and, with his mind on other things, and the gang all around, he refuses to offer the same comment back. He may have Kay at one end of the line with the old Michael in her mind, but Michael is in the process of becoming another violent member of his family as Pacino captures well not the frenetic texture of situations in many of the films already mentioned, but the subdued nature of the situation. We feel Kay on one end of the line looking for love; the family at his end looking for vengeance.
It is there again in a scene where he hears of his brother's death while his Sicilian wife petulantly wants to drive the car, and of course at the very end, where Michael lies to Kay about his involvement in his brother-in-law's death. After his sister has come into his office hysterically accusing him of killing her husband, Kay asks him if he was responsible. He says this is the one and only time she can ask him about the business, and replies that he wasn't involved though we obviously know that he was. Michael makes a decision simultaneously to alienate his wife but also protect her: what could she do with the information even if she knew? At the beginning of the film Michael offers her the anecdote about the signature or the brains to distance himself from his family and prove how close he is to Kay. By the end of the film he tells a lie to Kay that finally illustrates how close he is to his family and how far removed he happens to be from his wife. This is the hassle of the situation - of the sister coming in hysterically accusatory, the need to tell Kay one thing while the truth lies elsewhere - but it remains a subdued hassle.
Once again however we notice that this has nothing to do with neurosis; that this is a Pacino character working with the complexity of a situation, first and foremost, and not with complexes within him. Though he is often regarded as one of the big three of his generation, alongside Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, as Grobel notes in his book, Pacino is maybe the least capable of projecting the neurotic, and thus perhaps the best at offering the hassles within situations. During a moment of self-criticism in Grobel's book, Pacino says of the film Bobby Deerfield that "it was a personal journey into someone who was isolated and depressed", and later reckons "Bobby Deerfield was a character who was lost. I just don't think I have the acting technique to handle that part. I found myself too subjective." Pacino uses the word subjective, but we might as readily use the word neurotic: that this was a neurotic character indicative of internal dilemma, where we've been proposing Pacino is usually an actor of external ones.
Sometimes this dilemma is so external it relies on the utilisation of off screen space. In both ...And Justice for All and Heat, for example, the films play up the idea of Pacino attending to an onscreen problem while off-screen hassles accumulate. In the former film, Pacino's Arthur Kirkland is the considerate, incorruptible lawyer who is trying to keep an eye on his aging grandfather at the same time he is defending various clients. One client, due to a series of cruel twists of fate and legal incompetence, has been banged up for five years and Pacino is doing his best to get him out of prison. However, as he's involved in one case, so he allows his colleague to take care of the unlucky client, and the colleague's incompetence leads to the client's suicide in prison. As Arthur rails against him, we witness someone who is dealing not so much with two situations at the same time, as several situations at different times and in different places. As he embarks on an affair with a fellow lawyer, as he tries to defend the client who ends up killing himself, as he insistently keeps up visits to his ailing grandfather, as he tries to keep an eye on a colleague who seems to be cracking up, so he also is forced to defend a judge he believes to be guilty. There are least five narrative strands in the film that he needs to keep an eye on, and though this doesn't necessarily make for a successful film, it makes for an interesting Pacino performance.
His performance is like that of an emotional juggler, trying to keep as many elements in his life in the air at once without dropping any of them. In a fine, brief article in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Actors and Actresses, Robin Wood proposes that Pacino's performances are less integrated into his films than De Niro's performances are in his, and believes this has much to do with the superior directors De Niro has worked with. This, though, is only a partial truth. It is also the case that Pacino's characters have far more hassles in their lives than De Niro's characters do. This is clearly so in Heat, which works on De Niro accumulating conflicts as the film goes on, as Pacino realizes he must eradicate or ignore them to get his man. In the famous scene in the film where De Niro's Neil MacAuley tells Pacino's Vincent Hanna that a man told him once not to get attached to anything that you're not willing to walk away from in thirty seconds if you feel the heat around the corner, this comes moments after Hanna has explained the stresses in his life. He's been married three times and his step-daughter is causing problems. As McCauley is having trouble with his gang and falls in love with a woman he cannot leave in thirty seconds, so he ends up with as many problems as Hanna.
Yet of course this is clearly seen as the norm for Pacino's character; the exception for De Niro's. Though Pacino himself has never married, and though Wood proposes that Pacino is "unformed", possessing "an aspect of...childishness", as opposed to De Niro who "is always a fully formed adult", we might beg to differ over the latter comment. In the early stages of his career De Niro frequently played single, neurotic and/or alienated: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Last Tycoon, The Deer Hunter, The King of Comedy; while the marriages in New York, New York and Raging Bull are violent spats. Sure Pacino can't commit in Serpico, but frequently he plays married men for whom love is much less neurotically present than it is in De Niro's work. He loves the woman he marries in Sicily in The Godfather, and also Kay when he dutifully marries her after his first wife is killed and he returns to the States. When he cracks up at the end of Scarecrow it is because he cannot be with his partner and child, while in Dog Day Afternoon he is trying to do right by his wife and kids and also his lover. In many ways Pacino's characters would seem to be more mature than De Niro's if we believe living a complicated, messy life is more mature than caught in a cautious, alienated one.
It is true we often sense that Pacino's characters cannot cope with the complications in their life, but this isn't quite the same as saying they are immature. At best we could say in relation to Woods' comment that De Niro and Pacino are immature in different ways. De Niro's immaturity resides in projection and emotional retreat (Taxi Driver, The Last Tycoon and The Deer Hunter), while Pacino's rests on an inability to cope with the emotional reality he throws himself into (Scarecrow, Dog Day Afternoon), or loses sight of himself as a consequence of that coping, as in The Godfather films.
Our point stands, however: that Pacino's significance is as an actor of hassles - and as an actor who is capable of capturing an emotional frustration in richly textured, mutually incompatible situations. Is this not so even in recent, lesser films like S1mne and The Recruit? In the former Pacino is the film director who wants to transcend these very hassles by creating a 'synthespian' - a computer generated image that will be the perfect superstar, someone who won't argue with the director over the script, who won't insist on having the longest trailer in the world, and who will respect the director's vision. But in many ways Pacino's character creates more problems than he started with as he tries to keep from the world the nature of his creation. Where the critics, the press and the public acknowledge that Viktor Taransky has created a star; what they don't know is the degree to which that creation comes out of ones and zeroes. As Vitktor gives the impression that she is a real person he happened to discover, so he finds himself running around making sure nobody uncovers the truth. Near the end of the film, in a hopelessly narrativised take on an interesting theme, it looks like Viktor is going to be convicted of murder: as he basically wipes S1mne out technologically, so the police wonder, now that she has disappeared, what happened to her. Taransky was after all the only one who seemed to know her well. But despite the plot mechanics there is a typically frustrated sense of mutual incompatibles in Pacino's performance. As he tries to be fair to his ex and his daughter, as he tries to be good at what he does and to be there for the people who care about him, this isn't too far removed from his performance in Heat.
The flipside of the human aspect in S1mne is the puppeteering element that also shows up in The Recruit (and of course The Devil's Advocate where Pacino gets to play a devilishly charismatic top lawyer) and echoes all the way back to The Godfather, with its famous poster image of the strings being pulled. Pacino amusingly reckoned that The Recruit's plot was so complicated in the second half that even he couldn't follow it, but the film nevertheless offers the commanding Pacino rather than the vulnerable Pacino. The character, at least, gives no suggestion of struggling to make sense of what is going on - his CIA instructor Walter Burke has basically created the plot. He tries to use a CIA hopeful to come away with a hefty sum of money after working for a CIA pittance for years. As Pacino's voice roars out homilies, this is Pacino in the mode of having seen it all, yet the film still offers vulnerability in the closing scenes, moments that resemble Dog Day Afternoon as snipers and hordes of officers wait outside the building Burke hides out in. What is interesting about both S1mne and The Recruit is that the characters' attempt at achieving the easy life leads to ever more complications - a Dog Day Afternoon aspect that allows for the vulnerable Pacino to come out of the commanding Pacino.
We may even wonder whether the very vulnerability Pacino shows in many of his films where he would not at first seem remotely vulnerable, stems from the actor's attempts to combine the mutually incompatible. There is a certain sensitivity that comes out of not stillness (as we find in insular actors like Brando, De Niro and Delon), but out of freneticism: a trait he shares with Dustin Hoffman, for example. When Pacino talks of his love for the theatre, and that life is like a walk on the high wire, this is the actor jugglingrather than puppeteering: a sort of improvisation of everyday life over a storyboarded existence.
Yet how does this fit into the two roles for which he will probably be most remembered - The Godfather and Scarface? Pacino says in the Grobel book that "It's funny about The Godfather, it is not obscure, it is still in the culture", and of Scarface that it is "surviving with tremendous gusto" twenty five years after it was made. These are however not only flipside works that show very different sides to the Pacino persona, but also seem to be important films without always illustrating the thrust of Pacino's overall career as we have traced it through a number of his other works. Is there a paradox here whereby Pacino's most memorable roles are the ones that have least to do with the general persona he has built up over the rest of his career? Perhaps this needn't be seen as such a paradox however if we see The Godfather and Scarface as the extremes of that persona. Put simply, The Godfather functions off the superego; Scarface off the id - Corleone acts out of duty; Montana out of desire. They are also relatively invulnerable characters, but that invulnerability is of course very different in each case. Michael Corleone acts for the benefit of the family, as if he were merely a piece of the familial jigsaw, while Tony Montana is the self-made man who wants to carve up Miami.
But the purpose here is not to offer compare and contrast criticism, but to try and understand how Pacino eradicates some of the traits for which he is known from many of the other performances, and gives us two films that seem to define him. Earlier we mentioned the scenes of mutual incompatibility in The Godfather: Michael receiving a call from Kay while he plans to enter the family business which has little to do with the soft cadences of Kay's cooing 'I love you', and also hearing his brother has been killed back in the States while his Sicilian wife petulantly wants to drive the car. In each case these are not moments that lead to what we can call incompatible momentum: the almost farcical aspect that is especially pronounced in ...And Justice for All, where each hassle leads to another. Michael sees each problem for what it is and deals with it accordingly. Kay must be sidelined while he concentrates on killing a corrupt police official and a gangster, and later in Sicily though he is clearly besotted by his new wife he knows her death in a car bombing is all part of family business. Later when he returns to the States and asks Kay to marry him, he explains that he needs her. This is the desolate man seeking comfort; but also the man who knows that he is part of a family seeking respectability, and that the sweet Wasp schoolteacher Kay can give him the requisite qualities.
To some degree there is a similar moment in Scarface, where 'spic' Montana woos the blonde and beautiful Elvira. One day he propositions this lover of his former boss saying "I come from the gutter...I've no education, but I know the street...With the right woman there is no stopping me...I want you to marry me. I want you to be the mother of my children." Though as with Kay in The Godfather Pacino's character wants Elvira to have his offspring, this is less the continuation of family tradition, than the creation of the Montana empire. Later in the film as he gets it all, the film constantly plays up the anxiety of nouveau riche expansion. The chair in the Montana office has his initials emblazoned on it, while there is also a montage sequence showing both Montana's accumulation of wealth as well as the spending of that wealth: right down to the luxury of having a tiger in the garden. In one scene after an argument with his right-hand man Manny and Elvira, who is now his wife, the film slowly cranes up and away from Montana lying in his bath in the middle of a vast bathroom, with numerous luxury accoutrements. This is the id given material form; while in The Godfather there is, if you like, a super-egotistical structure into which Corleone must fit. Kay is an addition to that super-structure; not simply the waspish trophy wife of Montana, which finally says more about Montana's misplaced desires than his social status.
Yet even in these two very different characters, in films where Pacino is at his most ambitious, and where both films give film form to his ongoing fascination with Shakespeare's Richard III, there is still evidence of the texture of situations. The difference is chiefly that in The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola subdues them; in Scarface Brian De Palma hyperbolizes them. When for example Michael goes into the restaurant and takes out the police official and the gangster, the film plays up the conflict within a man who nevertheless knows what he has to do to protect the interests of his family. As Michael goes into the bathroom to get the pistol he will use to kill the two men he is dining with, the film offers a rumbling soundtrack of a train going by as if to point up a certain inner turmoil in Corleone. If we were in any doubt that this serves a metaphorical more readily than a realist function within the film (giving us a sense of the restaurant's location), then why do we hear it again when Michael is back with his guests about to fire the gun? This is not quite the texture of situations objectively as we've proposed (the sound hints at the subjective), but it does represent a plausible rather than neurotic inner conflict. Michael, the Ivy League educated son who was supposed to escape from the family's begetting of violence and to build a legitimate life, gets caught up in the killing zone. The texture of the situation resides in a man who thought his life was moving in one direction now realizing it must move in another. But it does so in a subdued, subtly introspective manner: maybe the closest Pacino has got to introspection, taking into account his comment on his own limitations in relation to Bobby Deerfield.
This is obviously not the case with Tony in Scarface. Here is someone looking for credence, someone who has spent years in prison in Cuba, and wants to make it big in the States. He is a man for whom nothing should get in his way, yet several things do get in the way. There is first of all his love for Elvira, secondly his dubious love for his sister, and thirdly a killing that he can't follow through on when he sees that the man he is going to kill picks up his wife and kids. Montana seems to be a man of ruthless ambition, yet he isn't too far removed from the honourable ambition of Corleone. Corleone lives with the reality of family; Montana constantly hypothesises its possibility. But if Corleone is superego to Montana's id, it lies partly in the reality of family life in Corleone's existence, if increasingly sacrificed in the sequel; the possibility of it in Montana's. We may notice when Montana visits his mother and sister in their small home that he is respectful of his mother and doting towards his sister, but this isn't so much a family, la the Corleones, but merely the roots from whence Montana came. Roots are not the same as trees, and Montana, compared in the film to a monkey, wants to swing from the highest branches he can: Elvira is the beautiful woman whom he believes can help make that happen. No matter if she is one of the elements that unhinge Montana: she leaves him just as he starts to unravel.
But, and this is central to De Palma's hyperbole, there is a vertiginous aspect the film constantly play up with elaborate snaking crane shots that hint at an ambitious, power-crazed man's inevitable fall. Whether it is a couple of crane shot as Montana pulls off a drug deal early in the film, or the rising crane that looks down on Montana in the bath, De Palma plays up not so much the grounded hassles of so many of Pacino's other characters, but the highness of Montana in all its manifestations. Highness in the sense of a throne, which Montana's chair resembles; highness in the sense of the coke he inordinately snorts, and highness in the visual register De Palma adopts. In those early crane shots, one showing Montana going up to the motel room, and later, when he is stuck in there with a cohort waiting to be buzz-sawed to death, a retreating crane back down to the car that his other partners are waiting in, De Palma gives us a strong visual sense of a man living like Icarus - or perhaps as Pacino himself claims one should live: on the high-wire.
We've said that The Godfather and Scarface are Pacino's two most memorable roles and in many ways not especially typical. If we think of similar scenes in both Scarface and Frankie and Johnny where Montana and Johnny are working in the kitchen, in ScarfaceMontana is a seething figure incapable of lowering himself to the demands of the job; Johnny is a grounded figure happy to be given gainful employment after a stint in prison. Pacino might talk about life on the high-wire, and was so fascinated by Richard III that, as we've said, he made a documentary about it, but often Pacino is working through a less ambitious problematic: the day to day hassles and the consequent texture of situations that arises from them. Yet to talk of hassles in relation to Scarface and The Godfatherwould be too modest a term. In The Godfather's case because the problems Michael encounters are life-changing: his father's near murder, his own acts of revenge, his brother's death, his wife's death, his final act of betrayal to Kay at the end of the first film, hardly fall under the term hassle. In Scarface Montana is clearly not a man where responsibility falls upon his shoulders, but one whose ambition creates explosive events. If Michael deals with problems, Montana is a man who generates them: evident when he decides that he can't blow up the wife and kids, and so takes out the Colombian heavy who sits in the car with him about to flick the bomb switch. Further chaos will inevitably ensue from this kill.
The Godfather and Scarface are, as we've proposed, the id and the superego of Pacino's career, but it would be a pity if such albeit monumental works intrude on his singular skill at reflecting more modest actions. Dog Day Afternoon works for example not because of its high-concept robbery subject, but its low-key focus on a man trying to do his best by everybody. In films like Dog Day Afternoon, ...And Justice for All, Serpico, Sea of Love and even Glengary Glen Ross and Heat, there is that undecideability of the body: the way the body is caught in contrary states. Both The Godfather and Scarface do not create space for the undecidable; and not least because they are deterministic works. This is not a qualitative statement (The Godfather is generally seen as a controlled masterpiece; Scarface an uncontrolled if fascinating piece of gangster kitsch). It is merely to say that the hassles need to reside in a body language that cannot be too readily pre-determined. The more determined the story, the greater the determination of the performance it would seem: Corleone moves towards assured stillness; Montana towards impotent paranoia. The determination of the story ties in with our earlier comments about the super-objective.
In many of Pacino's other films however there is a sort of 'thespian suspense', and perhaps this is what Pauline Kael thought was missing in Scarface when she said in her New Yorker review that Pacino isn't a lazy actor but in Scarface "most of the time here he goes through the motions of impersonating a dynamo while looking as drained as he did at the end of The Godfather Part II." There is no space for the sort of thespian surprise we find when Pacino's character cracks up and jumps into the fountain near the end of Scarecrow, or disses his client at the end of ...And Justice for All, or still happens to be jumpy that Ellen Barkin's character might be a killer shortly before the end of Sea of Love. There are certain great films that simply don't give space for this type of thespian surprise, whether it is Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Raging Bull , to name three unequivocal American masterpieces. No matter Brando's playing with the cat while being expected to make major decisions at the beginning of The Godfather, or De Niro putting cold water over his erection in Raging Bull; these are still deeply integrated performances. The thespian surprise however would lie in the details that do not much affect the design of which they are part, even in some way takes it apart. Now when Robin Wood proposes that "certain of his key performances, in Panic at Needle Park, Scarecrow, and Dog Day Afternoon emphasize spontaneity, improvisation, and a flamboyance of manner and expression to a point where acting threatens to become the films' raison d'etre", he is making a similar point. It is partly why when Wood compares Pacino to De Niro he notes that the performances are much more integrated into the film's form in De Niro's work.
But often what makes an actor interesting is not always how they integrate into the form of the film, but the freedom they create within it. While it has become a critical clich to comment on Pacino's over-the-top performances, maybe it is better to think of them as attempts to find in the film a problematic that isn't necessarily a given of the film's form, but that Pacino searches out. Interestingly Pacino said of The Godfather films that "I had to move in a different way than I've ever moved before. All heavy, especially in Godfather II", and this would perhaps be the antithesis of the undecideability of the body as Pacino usually registers it, and an undecideability that can lead to thespian surprise. In anything from the early parts of Scarface, to Dog Day Afternoon, to Serpico and ...And Justice For All, Pacino moves with a sort of frenetic instability, as though more at the mercy of his body's needs and desires, than clear narrative expectations.
What we've tried to explore then is chiefly Pacino's capacity for capturing situational texture, and the way this is manifested through the undecideability of a body that lends itself not so much to overacting, but contrary actions. If no one would be likely to propose that Pacino overacts in the first two Godfather films, this is partly because the character does not over-react in relation to the situations he gets himself into. Yet in many of Pacino's other roles this over-reactiveness is part of coping with contrary elements in a life where one is more nervous system than puppeteer or puppet. Central to The Godfather films is of course Michael's dehumanization, and central to a notion of dehumanization is surely the deadening of a nervous system in situations where a heightened nervous system is expected: Corleone and Montana are great examples of this deadening at opposite ends of the spectrum. But if Corleone and Michael are the most memorable of Pacino characters, maybe the place to work from in making sense of Pacino's final significance as an actor is not The Godfather or Scarface, but with the film that kick-started this piece. Dog Day Afternoon's Sonny has so little to do with Corleone, so little to do with the heaviness of the body, that if we contrasted Corleone and Montana from the position of the superego in relation to the id, then we might usefully do the same with the deadened nervous system of Corleone and the alive nervous system of Sonny. One of the elements worth exploring would be how much of a nervous system resides in the performance. Pacino, who says he is often compared to Dustin Hoffman, and perhaps for this very reason, is someone for whom the notion of shouting, the frantic energy of the body, cannot readily be separated from a man nervously reacting to the complex nature of a situation that makes so many demands on the nervous system.
To end the piece we will mention again three examples of this freneticism, and all in otherwise average films, and moment from his own life. The first is the scene in Serpicowhere Pacino is caught between catching a villain and saving his own hide as the cops shoot at both Pacino and the man he is arresting. The second, also touched upon, comes in ...And Justice for All when a colleague's laziness leads to a client's suicide in prison. Pacino's character cannot quite believe how the law system can move so smoothly through destroying people's lives, and offers a fugue of pain as if he is feeling the very dead man's despair and frustration before he took his own life. The last comes from Sea of Love, as Pacino desperately desires Ellen Barkin's character as much as he wants to save his own skin. In each instance we have a character alive, in the nervous sense of the term, to the situation. To understand something of Pacino's career, to comprehend Pacino beyond the highlighted roles of Corleone and Montana and one or two others (including further gangster movies like Carlito's Way and Donnie Brasco), one could do worse than to try to work from how the nervous system functions in his oeuvre, and how it often gives birth to the texture of situations that form the basis of this piece. It is perhaps in his nervousness that Pacino is frequently drawn to films that do not focus so much on the super-objective, but play up the subordinate aspects of the situation. In a passage in Grobel's book Pacino says one day he was walking in New York late at night when a woman was "being sort of accosted by a guy walking behind her. He wasn't doing anything physical, but she was nervous. Suddenly I'm in a drama, the knee-shaking kind." Pacino decided to stand in the middle of the road, to make his presence known, and observed that "I'm in the middle of this. This is nuts...what the hell am I going to do if this explodes?" Nothing finally happened, but if it had, would Pacino have found himself in the very situational chaos he so often express well in his work?
© Tony McKibbin