Francis Ford Coppola's 'Live Cinema' Is an Indispensable Jewel for Film Student and Film Aficionado Alike
A master filmmaker searches for new ways to tell old stories.
Live Cinema and Its Techniques
Francis Ford Coppola
Conventional wisdom tells us that the latest "Golden Age" of television began around the time of The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999, and remained shining through Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Weeds, and perhaps a dozen other programs. They were the perfect blend of dark stories, committed performances, and visionary creators. Less heralded (and usually for good reason) has been the resurgence of live "event" television. George Clooney's 2000 live adaptation/presentation of the film Fail Safe was adventurous, daring, and generally successful, but eyes and ears have seemed to gravitate more towards spectacles like Grease! Live, (2016), The Wiz, (2015), and the unfortunate Peter Pan (2014). The creative brains and ambitious money people behind televised entertainment understood in the '50s, as they seem to understand now, that sometimes the greatest rewards come when facing the most difficult challenges, and the idea of mounting a live dramatic broadcast of a narrative (dramatic or otherwise) equally at home in a cinematic format will probably always be the Mount Kilimanjaro dream for a Master Builder.
In Live Cinema and Its Techniques, writer/director Francis Ford Coppola offers some deep and informed reflections on what it means to create cinema, mount theatrical productions, and broadcast television programs (live or otherwise.) What are the differences? How do the challenges of one inform the other? Does each form operate separately from the other? Coppola certainly knows of what he speaks, and the informed reader of Live Cinema and Its Techniques will share his nostalgic enthusiasm for the old days. Take this passage, in which Coppola remembers a time in 1961, as a UCLA student, when he was invited to Jerry Lewis starring in and directing The Ladies Man:
"I always liked the movies he directed and starred in because they were eccentric and did unexpected things… I also got to see his brilliant use of TV cameras mounted on viewfinders… so he could review the last take he did on a playback… I always remembered his viewfinders and video recorder and wondered why that idea was never used afterwards by anyone else…"
Coppola notes that the influence Lewis had on him culminated in the use of video assist for his 1982 film One From the Heart, a legendary financial failure that was viewed in its time as a folly, artistically and otherwise. When Coppola notes that "…the whole industry would learn, from my failed experiment, to use video assist…" it's less false humility than simply reality. It's this tone of the Master as student that permeates Live Cinema and Its Techniques, allowing us to share in the wonder of something else, the beauty of telling stories in different and innovative ways. He waxes poetic about time making the romantic fantasy Finian's Rainbow (1968), with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, but Coppola is sympathetic and a natural storyteller as he recounts the struggles:
"Although I must admit I was as a twenty-five year old filmmaker most disgruntled when Warner Bros., due to a tiny budget, turned down my request to film… on real tobacco-growing locations… I was forced to shoot on the reclaimed interior and exterior settings of Camelot."
The uninformed or simply impatient reader will feel frustrated by these moments because they don't serve the seemingly endless need to hear about The Godfather, The Conversation, or Apocalypse Now. Coppola does feed that interest, but the purpose of this text is not about autobiography or creating his own myth. The lesson learned about early-career obstacles only allowed Coppola to understand how to adapt, how to create "live cinema". If location budget is restrictive, he notes: "…you can pre-shoot shots with live integration and integration at a later time, even making the location shots available via satellite…"
Coppola has always been a student of cinema, and in his preface he notes that the purpose of Live Cinema and Its Techniques is not to indulge in nostalgia for the early days of filmmaking, the golden age of television, and the brilliant wave of exploration that came in the early '60s from those who crossed over into that world to cinema. Coppola's goal was to explore the new medium of live cinema that has evolved from the digital format of (especially) the last approximately 20 years. How can it be used? How can it be taught? Coppola launched what he called two "proof-of-concept" workshops at a Community College in Oklahoma (2015) and the School of Theater, Film, and Television in Los Angeles (2016). Passages from the script and stage directions for the 52-minute drama that came from this effort, Distant Vision, are reproduced in Live Cinema and Its Techniques, but the purpose of this text is definitely not to assess the merits of the story so much as examine and analyze the methodology. There's an elegiac swan song sense by the time Coppola ends his Preface, as he notes that he may not live to see his dream of mounting a live cinematic event come to life and it adds to the importance of this volume. This is what he wants to leave those who follow in his trail, and it's surprisingly readable, even for the general film fan.
What, then, is "live cinema"? Coppola refers to Woody Harrelson's Lost In London, a recent live cinema event that was broadcast to select theaters and "…an imaginative display of imaginative technology." Again, the issue here is not the plot, a one night only, 19 January 2017 broadcast to theaters starring Harrelson as himself encountering mishaps as he makes his way through London to his home. It's all about the process, technique, or (from a more crass perspective) gimmick. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's 2014's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was a whirlwind of audacious brilliance, basically a one-shot film of an actor (Michael Keaton) experiencing a breakdown in real time. The informed reader will applaud the nearly octogenarian Coppola for his still infectious excitement over discovering and embracing this new form and feel compelled to spread the word on his behalf.
Live Cinema and Its Techniques is a small, indispensable jewel for both the film student and aficionado. He discusses shots, the basic unit of a film, by indicating that "a shot can be a word, but it's better when it's a sentence." In that sense, Coppola has always wanted film to veer more towards the basic units of all writing, the sentence. Theater understands that the basic unit is the scene, and live television embraces the event. How these elements all merge together is at the root of Live Cinema and Its Techniques. More than just determining ways these elements cooperate with each other, Coppola is on a mission here to forge a singular path that he hopes will be followed, if not by his actual filmmaking children and nephews, then by his scores of non-genetically related artistic offspring.
Coppola understands the history of film and television. The eponymously-titled chapter covering that topic is brief (15 pp) but the issue here is not to wallow in the freedom of length or running time. Interestingly enough, Coppola is perhaps better equipped to discipline himself and tell a clearer story in this format. He understands that the first Golden Age of Television (in the '50s) very successfully adapted elements of filmmaking for its own purposes: the close-up, parallel editing, and montage. That first Golden Age brought us legendary writers like Gore Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky, and Rod Serling. Sidney Lumet got his start during that era, and director John Frankenheimer brought a more distinct cinematic style to his television work.
It's the sweet nostalgia that Coppola unapologetically weaves into his narrative here that makes Live Cinema and Its Techniques a thrilling mix of handbook, history, and memoir. Consider the moment he recalls, in the mid-'50s, his mother telling him his father Carmine (a legendary session musician and musical director) was on television:
"I ran down to the television in his studio two floors below, and there he was-playing the flute on our TV. But I turned around, and there he also was, sitting at his piano watching the broadcast."
This was the shock of the new for a young Coppola, the introduction of the Ampex Video recorder that ushered in edited film productions and comedies like I Love Lucy. It was all about possibilities, what could happen next and what would happen next. The palpable thrill of live television was one thing, but life for American cinematic and television visionaries was about the next innovation, the higher step on the ladder. Approximately a quarter century later, Coppola recalls (in Chapter 6, "The Shame of Things to Come: Madison, Wisconsin") what he concluded was "…the most embarrassing and disastrous experience of my career…" He was shooting a live television event for then (and now) California Governor Jerry Brown's 1980 run for President. All the laid plans and choreographed camera shots somehow fell out of place, and moments of valuable live television were spent on shots of a man's leg and feet. Coppola admits, in his refreshingly honest style:
"One thing I tend to do is bring a concept as close to the brink of failure as I can, and by doing so learn what can and cannot be done."
The novice unfamiliar with Coppola's oeuvre or core elements of traditional cinema (Eisenstein, Ophuls), literature (Goethe), and the Golden Age of Television might be a little lost through parts of Live Cinema and i\Its Techniques. It's a little bit of everything for the film student, but its discursive qualities might prove distracting. For the reader who finds this text as a logical addition to their library of film and cultural studies, it will prove indispensable. We may not get a fully blown personal memoir from Coppola, Scorsese, DePalma, or any of the other young lions who started in the '60s and ended up owning the '70s, and perhaps that's a good thing. After all, the greatest products of that generation already put it all on the screen. Live Cinema and Its Techniques is a master class in informed commentary and awestruck observation of the artistic process, but it works best when it asks questions and remains humble enough to not think it can provide all the answers:
"Sometimes I wonder, what would happen if there came into existence a totally new instrument… with sounds that only recently had arrived from heaven… an instrument absolutely new that no one knew yet how to operate? How long would it be before some damn fool came along and tried to play it?... How do you get to new music when the old music is such a treasure…?"
With Live Cinema and Its Techniques, the great master writer/filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola understands that the future of his art form, the vitality of great storytelling itself (no matter the medium), will depend on our ability and willingness to respect the old melodies and create new ones using any of the wondrous new instruments that will come our way.