More Than Any Other New American Director, Francis Ford Coppola Reminds Me of Orson Welles

In a recent piece for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, film director Francis Ford Coppola spoke of how he decided to make what he calls “student films […] I wanted to write and direct movies and not be forced to adapt them from a bestselling book […] little films that I can afford…” ( “Hard Choices”, Diane Brady, 06 September 2012)

This may seem peculiar coming from the man who gave us perhaps the late-20th century studio epic The Godfather Trilogy, as well as the gargantuan off-off-lot production Apocalypse Now. And yet when one scans Coppola’s career, this supposed ambiguity makes perfect sense. A graduate of UCLA Film School who has directed a Fred Astaire musical (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), Coppola has always had one foot in the university, the other cautiously tiptoed in the studios.

He acquired early career chops working for independent film guru Roger Corman, who shot films fast and cheap and also made quite a bit of money. For Corman, Coppola directed his first post-graduate feature, Dementia 13 (1963), a lurid family murder mystery with Psycho (1960) shadings. The film established a pattern: Coppola has most always approached cinema from the angle of story and style, with remuneration secondary.

Secondary, but not inconsequential. No artist craves poverty and obscurity. In 1970 Coppola won the Academy Award for his screenplay work on Patton. Such industry cache paved the way for future studio-backed projects, including the Godfather films, yet Coppola and the studios remained wary of each other, especially as the system became more commerce-driven, cinema-ignorant and executive-led. His remarks in Bloomberg Businessweek, a financial magazine, are simply a retrenchment of a career-defining position: “When newspapers started to publish box office scores of movies, I was horrified […] It was sort of embarrassing for me to go to these men with hat in hand and beg them, ‘Oh, can I do my movie?’ […] Film company owners used to be vulgar and tough, but they were showmen and they loved movies…”

More than perhaps any other New American director (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, William Friedken, et. al.), Coppola reminds me of Orson Welles. Both directors were prodigies of sorts, with heady early successes followed by careers full of trial and dare. Yet, unwilling to go the way of Welles — a life more gypsy than jetset of hustling money from would-be or, more often, would-never-be investors — Coppola had foresight enough to create his own studio, American Zoetrope, as well as other maverick enterprises such as Zoetrope: All Story magazine, and the hugely profitable Inglenook wines. Wedding his entrepreneurial impulse with his artistic temperament, Coppola has striven to free himself as much as possible from a rigid system of commercial returns, in order to remain a student of film, still enthralled with the medium.

The director’s oscillation between the studio and schoolroom is evident in the new Francis Ford Coppola: 5-Film Collection on Blu-Ray. The release includes Apocalypse Now (1979), Apocalypse Now Redux (2000), The Conversation (1974), Tetro (2009) and One from the Heart (1982).

Once more, like Welles, Coppola is a voluble showman capable of that crucial inter-genre, the nuanced epic. One could say that the multigenerational arc of The Godfather films is marked by nothing but nuance: Nuances of actorly business (Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone wiping his hands on a handkerchief, Brando’s hoarse sense and sleeping bull mannerisms); of art direction, set design and lighting, as in the Don’s office. The major tragic actions, such as the baptism/slaughter cross-cutting, or Sonny’s death dance, appear writ so large on the vast cinematic canvas only because they’ve been so well-finessed, so built up by smaller supports, somewhat like Cezanne’s mountains. Coppola is an architect, able to visualize and construct the whole through its parts.

Between the director’s run through the jungle with Apocalypse Now and The Godfather’s massive success, Coppola made The Conversation, a brilliant treatise on surveillance that is also a murder mystery. Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a lumbering, perpetually paranoid surveillance expert who gets lured into a possible murder plot after recording a conversation between two young lovers (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams).

Hackman has rarely been better. His Harry Caul is a laconic loner who wears a rain slicker like a membranous amniotic sac (hence his name) protecting him from human contact. His obsession with the title conversation festers, until eventually he’s curling up under hotel bathroom sinks with his gear and his ear pressed to the wall, catching muffled voices from the adjacent room.

With its fetishistic knob-turning, its reel-to-reel phasing back and forth in a kind of aural version of rack focus, the film is one of Coppola’s most tactile and aurally opulent. Again as with Welles, many of Coppola’s movies reward a close listening as well as a close viewing. The Conversation is as much a movie for the ear as for the eye. It tutors in the art of listening, notably illicit listening.

The film is a procedural and a précis, a complex formal elaboration of a compact thesis: not simply Mind Your Own Business, but Be Mindful of Your Own Business. Or maybe Take Heed of Your Actions Lest You Find Yourself in Deep Shit. The film’s final scene is wickedly, almost scientifically paranoid: Caul dismantles his apartment in search of surveillance bugs and cameras, all the while missing the only camera that counts: Coppola’s.

Apocalypse Now contains within its spiraling jungle sprawl similarly fine touches: Robert Duvall’s Kilgore crouching on his haunches to render his smell-of-napalm speech; the helicopter chopping of the ceiling fan. Detractors claim, justly it would seem, that the film is not an accurate representation of the Vietnam War, and I’m certainly in no position to argue. I’ve never fought directly in any war, let alone Vietnam. So from my pampered viewer’s position, the opposite argument for the film makes more sense: that it’s not a documentary depiction of Vietnam specifically but rather, with its origins in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899), a reflection of a psyche besieged by wanton depravity. Whether that psyche is national, collective or individual is another question.

The film has actually sometimes seemed to me a kind of slasher flick: a group of characters trapped in the woods get picked off one by one, until only the strong-witted, good-looking one survives to kill the bad guy. It even has obligatory false scares, such as the tiger jumping out of the woods.

But of course it’s much more than that. The film retains what has very often been called its “hallucinatory power”. In other words, it’s a mind-bending experience. Willard’s (Martin Sheen, looking crazier than his craziest son) inexorable descent downriver, like a black wormhole of anxiety tunneling through all that murk and mayhem, hypothesizes one terrifying question: What will be waiting for him, and us, at the end? The question is especially acute the first time around. Familiarity changes little, but for the benefit of knowing what awaits us at the end: Marlon Brando.

Brando is worth the wait, and, dare I say, worth the weight. Much was made over the actor’s packing on of pounds at the time, but now it seems ridiculously impossible to imagine a skinnier Kurtz or even a buffed-up soldierly Kurtz (as was apparently the wish of screenplay co-writer John Milius). The man is a lunatic philosopher, an earthbound proxy demigod who has been indulging all his immediate impulses and basest appetites. Brando’s dank bulk is as consequential to the film as his loose-screw performance. He’s the Bull and the Horror.

Apocalypse Now Redux contains a shifting around of the originally released material, with nearly an hour of additional footage and a tweaked sound design. (Mention should be made here Walter Murch, the renowned image/sound editor — The English Patient, 1996, the 1998 reedit of Welles’sTouch Of Evil, 1958 — who has been with Coppola from basically the beginning.) While some of the most welcome additions involve Duvall’s Kilgore character — who wouldn’t want that? — the most contended deletion from the released Apocalypse is what has become known as the “French plantation” scene.

In this sequence, Willard breaks off from his journey to have dinner with a group of French colonial holdovers. The sequence is earnest, seductive, atmospheric and, yes, expository. Its deletion from the original release makes some sense as the scene threatens to stop the action in its tracks, yet I feel its reinsertion benefits the film’s pacing and thematic. While affording a brief oasis of sorts for the viewer, it provides Willard a critical attitude adjustment. As the Frenchmen disabuse him of his military naiveté — “You Americans invented the Viet Minh!” — a widow seduces him from across the table, under shouts of “Communist! Socialist!” Willard’s resolve is dissolving. The Redux clarifies his character.

After the near life-taking toll of the Apocalypse Now experience, Coppola decided to work on a more personal and personally financed film from his own screenplay. The result was One From the Heart, a production that became, in its own way, just as rigorous, taxing and even more bankrupting than Apocalypse Now.

The film stars Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr as Hank and Frannie, a couple in Las Vegas who, after a 4th of July fight, go off on individual romantic fantasies — Forrest with Nastassja Kinski, Garr with Raul Julia. The film is a self-reflexive melding of old Hollywood musical majesty, Powell-Pressburger ciné-ballet and Method actor psychodrama. Needless to say, upon its release it threw audiences and critics alike.

Today, the film is quaint, beautiful and brave. After key supporting parts in both Apocalypse Now (as Chef) and The Conversation, Frederic Forrest leads with all he has, yelling and crying and yelling some more. He may seem an unlikely star, but his character actor “normalcy”, played up against the more traditional suavity of Raul Julia, is integral to the film’s sense of fantasy. Likewise Teri Garr, who is offset with the more exotic Kinski, an actress considered, particularly at the time of the film’s initial release, a pinnacle of cinematic glamour. But Garr is far sexier. A sometimes self-effacing actor — her humility is part of her charm — here she’s in full-bodied flourish, striking pinup-worthy poses in satin dresses and nighties. Some of the dialogue and line-delivery may seem stilted and a tad histrionic, but that’s sensible for a film steeped in artifice. In a story questioning commitment, all the actors commit for their clearly committed director.

Film critic Manny Farber famously described overwrought productions as “White Elephant” art and smaller, more personal films as “Termites”. One From the Heart is a hybrid creature — an elephant-sized termite: While its city-wide sets (Coppola rebuilt Las Vegas on a soundstage), minimalist neon swaths (shot by Vittorio Storaro, Apocalypse Now, Last Tango In Paris, 1972, The Last Emperor 1987), and ceiling-scraping actions, including an on-set plane takeoff, stomp and clomp all over one’s eyes, the staunch acting, airy composite dissolves (shots meld slooowly into one another across time and space), and slick-street score by Oscar winner Tom Waits nibble away with determined industry.

Unfortunately, the experience more than nibbled away at Coppola’s bank account. He spent the next 20 or so years repairing his credit, veering between studio safety-net and studious experimentation — sometimes in the same year, as with the aquarium-eye’s point of view of Rumble Fish and straight-faced yet still greatly affecting The Outsiders (both 1983), other times in the same film, as in the big budget/low-tech effects merging of Cocteau-Keanu-Nosferatu in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

With Tetro (2009), Coppola again returns to film school. An operatic melodrama about sibling and patriarchal rivalry, Tetro stars Vincent Gallo as a writer on permanent sabbatical from everything: his writing, his family, his past. The son of a composer/conductor (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who was as bad at parenting as he was brilliant at composing, Tetro (real name Angelo Tetrocini, though, as Gallo says, “Angie’s dead!”) retreats to Buenos Aires, living secretively with his beautiful wife-of-sorts Miranda (played wonderfully by the striking Maribel Verdú) until his brother Bennie makes an upsetting surprise visit.

With its resonant wide angle black-and-white photography, saxophone-driven score and color ballet flashbacks again recalling, even more directly, Powell-Pressburger films such as The Red Shoes (1948) or Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Tetro is proudly, unabashedly, an art film. It’s also an art film in the sense that it is a movie about art and artists — some successful, others unfulfilled. Dialogue includes such lines as, “How do you walk away from your work? Doesn’t it follow you?” and much talk of “genius without enough accomplishments…” Vexing and compounding these notions is the further onus of paternal expectations and betrayal, so the real philosophical crux boils to a simple yet critical question: What’s more important, family or art?

As with One From the Heart, the acting is variably theatrical, arty, deliberate — again, reasonable for a film about such topics as theater, art and deliberation. Vincent Gallo, who has an undeniable infamy as an actor and director (The Brown Bunny 2003), also carries an undeniable screen presence and naturalism. As I am somebody who appreciates hating things, I found Gallo’s Tetro pleasantly cynical:

“I hate ‘nice.’ Especially the word, ‘nice.’”

“Fausta: A Drama in Verse. What could be worse.”

Against the unaffected acting of Gallo and Verdú, Alden Ehrenreich, as Bennie, appears slightly underwhelming, particularly as he’s the catalyst of the drama. Bennie idolizes Tetro (Tetro tells him, “Don’t do me. Do you. I’ll do me.”) to the point where, when he finds Tetro’s cryptographic unfinished theatrical writings in a suitcase, he completes his brother’s play and submits it to a festival run by a feared critic hilariously named “Alone.” The result is a generational memory play, filmed by Coppola as a ballet in full color. There is a surprise ending that I won’t spoil, except to say that the festival’s First prize is called the “Parracidas”.

Lifted from over a 40 year period, the Francis Ford Coppola: 5-Film Collection showcases the director’s flexibility under circumstances ranging from dire to ideal. It also confirms his auteurist consistency. As different as each of these films is generically, they all bear the irrefutable imprint of a single and singular vision. And it is refreshing to know that, of all the so-called New American filmmakers, Coppola remains arguably the most independent. While Welles had to shill the wine of others in order to finance his films, notoriously selling “no wine before its time”, Coppola only sells his own, on his own time. “As long as I can makes lots of money in other enterprises,” he concludes in the Bloomberg piece, “I’ll continue to subsidize my own work.”

I’ll drink a bottle of Inglenook to that.

Extras for all five films are superabundant: audio commentaries, “making of” featurettes, rehearsal films, interviews with actors, music videos; in short, at least another five discs worth.