Title: Francis Ford Coppola
Series: Masters of cinema
Author: Stéphane Delorme
Publisher: Cahiers du cinéma Sarl (2010)
“Coppola had achieve what he had been trying to do from the beginning, to be a director free of attachments, directing and producing personal stories of which he was the sole creator. It was quite a journey to get there.” – Stéphane Delorme.
Francis Ford Coppola is an omnipresent figure in film history with masterpieces that include The Godfather I & II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, One for the Heart, Rumble Fish and Tetro. The films in his oeuvre are tightly knit worlds with paralleling characters and reoccurring images. The main subject is time which is pursued through stories of individuals and families in a changing world. This subject is explored in how time is used, gained, created, lost, held onto, the nostalgia for it and how it changes people and places. The director adapts his style to the subject of each new film, though they generally share a theatricality. And, there is something about the above Lucas quote that seems particular apt to describe Coppola’s attitude to filmmaking; whether it is the singular drive to take risks, the ambitiousness of the undertaking, or the glorious images that it conjures. Coppola is a natural storyteller whose varying projects, however impersonal, cannot help but reflect some aspect of its creator.
The story starts off when he was born on April 7th, 1939 in Detroit, Michigan. His Italian parents were Italia and Carmine Coppola, a flautist and conductor, he had an older brother August and a younger sister Talia. He would graduate in theatre studies from Hofstra University, New York in 1960 before going to UCLA to join its emerging film school. This background in theater will later come to shape his aesthetics. In these years he made a short-film Aymonn the Terrible and two ‘nudies’: Tonight for Sure and The Bellboy and the Playgirls. He also wrote a few good screenplays.
It continues with Roger Corman at American International Pictures where he made Dementia 13 and also worked on The Terror (both 1963). His work on The Terror, especially the women apparition seems like an inspiration for the elusiveness of the wife at the French plantation in Apocalypse Now Redux. Coppola also did some editing at AIP. You’re a Big Boy is his ‘official’ directorial debut: a young man in search of a hot blonde. New York nightlife at its most complicated. Then there is the Fred Astaire and Petula Cark musical Finian’s Rainbow: a father and daughter go from Ireland to Kentucky to find the girl an ideal husband, with a dollop of African American protest. If One From the Heart will emphasize Coppola’s interest in the musical, which is further confirmed in Tetro, with its references to The Tales of Hoffmann, then Finian’s Rainbow is the beginning of Coppola’s relationship with that old classical Hollywood genre. With the leprechaun’s lustrous green garments and the films anything-goes magical lyricism, the title could have easily been called The Tales of Finian.
His next film The Rain People is one of his little-known masterpieces. A pregnant woman (Shirley Knight) drives off and leaves her husband. She picks up a hitchhiker (James Caan), a former college football player, hoping for a one-night stand before she figures out that he’s brain damaged and she debates if she should take care of him or leave him. The feelings that come from watching the film are overwhelming, everyone is treated with such simpathy. The reoccurring motif of water and rain, how the characters always seem isolated in the frame, the subconscious flash-backs and a exotic, yet familiar, setting all contribute to an atmosphere of regret, melancholy, yearning and unfulfilled desire. It’s also the first mark by Coppola to distance himself from the studios.
The Godfather trilogy is the black hole of Coppola’s oeuvre, everything revolves around it. From the opening marriage celebration and the Don (Marlon Brando) attending appointments in his office engulfed in Gordon Willis’ dark shadows to an aged Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sitting alone on his property with all of his humanity drained from him, the trilogy offers a generational epic family saga in the tradition of The Leopard, East of Eden, and Gone with the Wind. It explores the inner-dynamics of the family through an America that is geographically expanding from that of the communal to the international. The Godfather was edited together piecemeal, with certain scenes added after principal shooting, which leads Delorme to call it, “A self-styled masterpiece of impassivity, The Godfather is like a necklace made up of stones of different sizes and colors, and is reminiscent of the cobbled-together methods of the Corman school.” Robert A. Harris recently digitally restored the three films for DVD.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in The Conversation seems like commentary on Michael from The Godfather, as did the anxieties and trajectory of The Rain People. Caul is a surveillance expert; isolated from his peers he becomes even more reclusive as the film progresses, though reserved to brief moments of satisfaction playing the tenor saxophone. Though a complete film, the screenplay was not entirely filmed and it is Walter Murch that edited together the final product as Coppola was elsewhere filming.
Coppola would make two Vietnam War films: Apocalypse Now and The Gardens of Stone. Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by Coppola and John Millius, originally offered to Dušan Makavejev to direct, set in the late 1960s a captain (Martin Sheen) is sent on an assignment up a river in Cambodia (filmed in the Philippines) to kill a rogue dissident general (Marlon Brando). One of its co-producers Mike Medavoy will be getting the Raimondo Rezzonico Prize at the Locarno Film Festival 2011. Where Apocalypse Now turns the war into a spectacular disaster, The Gardens of Stone turns it into a complex human drama. Dedicated to Coppola’s eldest son Gian-Carlo who had then recently died. An American sergeant (James Cann) works at the Arlington National Cemetery and tries to protect this young man from going off to war. Angelica Huston is moving as the romantic interest.
The electronic-neon musical One From the Heart is unforgettable, Coppola at his best. The story of a woman who leaves her boyfriend for a night gets a Busby Berkeley treatment in a stylized replica of Las Vegas with a whispering soundtrack by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle. Nastassja Kinski is just magical. And everything contributes to a haunting beauty. Delorme writes, “It’s a reversal that typifies the spirit of the 1980s, years of a retreat from the epic to the personal, but also, in parallel with that, a period of expansion of the image towards a mythology of the image (…) At the very moment when he was extolling the virtues of electronic transformation, what Coppola really wanted was to make theatre.” One From the Heart would be major inspiration for Claire Denis’ Friday Night.
Then there are the two greaser films: The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. “Stay Gold” says Ponyboy, which seems an apt tagline to describe the sunset engulfed The Outsiders based on S.E. Hinton book for high-schoolers. On Rumble Fish, from a Serge Daney extract (which is included in the book): “This mistake would be to think that Coppola is simply content to add his hypertrophied style to themes that are in and pretty much worn out. That is not entirely true (…) It is clear that Rumble Fish is the story of lost illusions (…) At bottom, the world barely exists. Coppola only works its material to regain a little of his soul.”
The Cotton Club is a hired-gun job, with some nice moments, such as the romance and comedy between the black Cotton Club dancers, but otherwise, like The Outsiders, is a disinterested illustration of a generic screenplay. Coppola made some short-films and commissions: there is Rip Van Winkle, Captain Eo and Life without Zoe (which he made with his talented daughter Sofia). There was a Megalopolis project, which was abandoned.
On Peggy Sue Got Married, a story of a middle-age woman who becomes a teen again just-in-time for the prom. She reconsiders her relationship with her goofy husband (Nicolas Cage). In a recent interview in Cahiers (N.665), Dean Tavoularis:
“I think Tucker and Peggy Sue Gets Married and Rusty James are under-valued. They are films that are strange (…) Peggy Sue was only a contract film for Coppola for him to repay his depts (...) On reading the script he told me: “what can we do to make it more interesting?” We decided on painting everything, the streets, the grass. (…) This gives it its aura, even if we do not notice it consciously.”Bram Stoker’s Dracula and John Grisham’s The Rainmaker are two more successful attempts at literary adaptation. The Dracula film continues Coppola’s interest in the horror genre which started with Dementia 13, also in Rumble Fish the guys watch a Bela Lugosi film, where the frights come from old-fashion special effects, a heightened sense of atmosphere and an eerie score. Like how The Gardens of Stone aesthetic was inspired by Japanese Kabuki Theater, Jack seems partly inspired by the philosophy and stories of Aristotle and Socrates. Delorme writes about the film, “Jack fufills Coppola’s dearest wish: to travel across time without losing one’s integrity.”
Then there is the Tucker Automobile creator biopic, which has similarities with Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons as it is nostalgic for a vanished time and there is an inventor who gets spurned. And Youth Without Youth with its theme of the unraveling of a person identity is his Mr. Arkadin. Peter Cowie writes: “The two directors are tightly linked, however by their fascination with the exotic and the diabolical, the notion of Man as a fallen angel.” Delorme at Cahiers (N.651) on Coppola’s newest film, “Tetro gives the sentiment of a little film indie transforming itself, without us knowing about it, into an ‘epic’.” Coppola with Tetro, starts again from scratch. (I wrote about the film here).
His wife Eleanor Coppola has a couple of books: Notes on a Life and Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now; and she also worked with Fax Bahr and the late George Hickenlooper on a documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which Jonathan Rosenbaum argues quite persuasively in his book Movies as Politics has little to do with the actual Vietnam (“But the biggest absence in Hearts of Darkness is not Vietnam itself, but the shadow of any awareness that it’s missing”). While for more biographical information on Coppola, a good resource is Peter Cowie’s book Coppola (the latest entry is The Godfather III). There is also a documentary Inside the Coppola Personality by Monte Hellman.
The career and films of Coppola and the earlier maverick filmmaker Orson Welles share many similarities which are worth exploring as a way to measure their accomplishments and to examine their innovations in relation to film history. Delorme would contrast The Godfather and Citizen Kane in his book’s introduction while Peter Cowie explicitly argues the link between them in his book Coppola and Rosenbaum compares Apocalypse Now to Othello and The Trial. Coppola and Welles most renowned films opened up new eras in American Cinema. André Bazin wrote, “The two most important events in film history since 1940 are the films Citizen Kane and Paisan.” According to Bazin, from Timothy Barnards’s recent translation of What is Cinema? (Caboose books 2009), the innovative use in Citizen Kane of Gregg Toland’s cinematography through depth-of-field and long single-takes changed the traditional decoupage into mise-en-scéne. As well it brought the director to the fore-front of public consciousness. Welles not only contributed to the screenplay and directed the film; he was its star.
Welles technological revolution involved bridging the effects of the silent-era into the sound age and this evolution will be furthered by Coppola through the possibilities of the Dolby Laboratories. While in the 1970s Coppola and his contemporaries (Lucas, Friedkin and Spielberg) changed the way movies were made as the old studio system was crumbling as this generation of young filmmakers found success in mediating personal impulses through commercial projects. This eventually led to Coppola getting the reputation of a megalomaniac who makes these commercial flops, with a public response of anticipation and scorn of his self-indulgence. This reception was also shared by Welles, who later on in his career found it difficult to get financing. And for Coppola and Welles, after baroque masterpieces so early in their careers, where do they one go from there? Coppola not only grew with the evolution of cinema from celluloid to digital, he predicted it, shaping it as it were evolving to standing at its forefront today. Though he took on director-for-hire projects and pursued business endeavors, his desire to refuel his utopian cinema production company Zoetrope got him to work better with others and make more financially sound choices.
On a mere surface level, one can spot Copolla’s dept to Welles like Don Corleone's make-up which resembles the older Charles Foster Kane, the short-focus black-and-white smoky cinematography of Rumble Fish seems in dept to Welles RKO productions and the Mercury Theater group performed Heart of Darkness on the radio which is one of the sources for the screenplay of Apocalypse Now. And also there are the earlier comparisons between the two brought up in this review. Just as Coppola is in dept to Welles, according to Bazin, Welles was only one director in a tradition of realist-humanism already set up by Von Stroheim and Renoir.
Welles background in theater is more readily known, especially since Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles with the titular lead putting on Julius Ceasar in 1937 at the newly opened Mercury Theatre, but Coppola also studied drama before film-school. And this background with the stage is a reoccurring base for his films whether in inspiration, technique, setting or through the casting of his regular repertoire of actors. This background in theater is shared with other directors like James Bridges, Ingmar Bergman, and John Cassavetes. Bazin also championed Olivier and discussed at length cinemas relationship with theater, for Bazin, ‘filmed theater’ was as an admission of the mediums theatrical origins: faithfulness to its aesthetic specificity as an increase in its theatricality.
The Frodon quote is from his editorial Tournant in Cahiers July-August 2009 (N. 647), after writing 66 editorials, the magazine was purchased by Phaidon Press and Stéphane Delorme was given the role of chief editor starting in the next issue (N. 648). Since then Delorme supervised 20 issues and wrote all of their editorials (except for one that he reserved for an Akira Kurosawa re-print, which was related to the recent earthquake in Japan). When Delorme first got to the helm of the magazine, in the editorial (N.648), he asked himself, “How do you put together a film magazine today?” and answers the question, “le cinema fait parler” [“movies make you speak”]. On the role of Cahiers, Delorme emphasizes that it will “provide different perspectives on film.” The provision of a different perspective on film is important to re-iterate as, I think, Cahiers provides alternative readings of commercial American films, usually in response to simplified reviews the films received in North America. This revisionism hawks back to the Hitchcocko-Hawksiens.
Other then editing Cahiers, since 2004 Delorme has been on the selection committee of the Quainzaine des Realisateurs (Director’s Fortnight), mostly under the Artistic Director Olivier Père (2004-2009) and now Frédéric Boyer. An earlier president of the Cannes sidebar, Pascal Thomas describes the festival as “ The Director’s Fortnight confirms its role year after year as a manifesto of youth, vitality, and insubordination in filmmaking.” And their primary concerns that guide their selection, according to Olivier Père are: discovery, surprise, admiration, audacity and emotion.
Delorme is actually a fun and smart writer. His taste is both auteurist and mainstream. He usually discusses French cinema more in depth, highlights the crème de la crème of French cinema, as well he provides a revisionist take on American directors. He gave both of de Oliveira newest films (Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired girl and The Strange Case of Angelica) the ranking of a chef-d’oeuvre, the biggest compliment a film can receive (and should not be used lightly). Some filmmakers that are hated (“inutile de se déranger”) include Tsai Ming-Liang, Jacques Doillon, Hong Sang-soo, Amos Gitai, François Ozon and Benoît Jacquot. Delorme’s style of writing is inspirational and some things that he does: he builds upon the existing literature whether it is Cahiers history, major works (i.e. 50 Ans de Cinéma Américain) and the writer Serge Daney. Subjects that interest him are brought up in other reviews as a way to reiterate his taste as well he cross-references. He has an interest in politics and classic literature. He knows that italics are a great way to put an emphasis and brackets are use to input self-questions. As well he shares with his readers some of his concerns and anxieties that go with putting together a new Cahiers every month, it is an immense responsibility and should not be taken lightly.
These great skills would be enough, but to make matters better, they are genuinely shared amongst the magazines regular writers. The ten writers that make up le conseil des dix are Sophie Avon, Laurent Delmas, Jacques Morice, Jean-Baptiste Morain, Isabelle Regnie, Stéphane Delorme, Jean-Philippe Tessé, Joachim Lepastier, Vincent Malausa, and Nicolas Azalbert. The le conseil des dix (the equivalent of Film Comment’s critics choice) at the back of the magazine is an easily navigable way to see the magazines taste. Other contributors include Clélia Cohen, Nicole Brenez, Ariel Schweitzer, Charlotte Garson, Nicholas Elliot, Bill Krohn and Charles Tesson. The individual writers all seem to have their specialty and Delorme, as a good chief-editor, knows how to best utilize them. Charles Tesson, who used to be an editor, frequently contributes, either Cinema Retrouvé or Portfolio, which are reviews of special presentations at either the Centre Pombidou or the Cinémathèque Française, as well the magazine covers other art gallery/cinema hybrids wherever and whenever they pop-up. Nicolas Azalbert is great at shooting down films, the ones that are too simple or too arty, as well as championing punk auteurs (i.e. MacKay, Rodriguez). Joachim Lepastier is great at discussing film technique. Essays and think pieces are elaborations on the magazines aesthetic and moral position, such as guest contributions from philosophers like Žižek and Badiou. The Nouvelle Vague bunch, the post-New Wave Cahiers-critics-turned-filmmakers (From Téchiné and Assayas to Jousse and Saada), the past Cahiers editor Serge Toubiana that is now the director general of the Cinémathèque Française and Emmanuel Burdeau at Capprici France all contribute to the magazines charm of inherent cinephilia, where the movies, and their discussion, is part of a pleasurable life burden. The magazines back-issues are an unquestionably important resource for the scholarship of cinema, for example one of Durgnat’s sections in his in-depth article on Bresson in James Quandt’s tome is Bresson at Cahiers.
The Le Journal are sort of random going-about related to the cinema. In the magazine there are short reviews of new books and DVDs. The Cine-Clubs des Cahiers, where the magazine puts on a screening, sound like a lot of fun and I find Julia Hasting covers to be nice. Their advertisement for hair-products are sometimes a little corny, but not a big deal (though the Vincent Cassel one was cool). Cahiers use of pictures, both the selection and placement, should be an example to other film-magazines.
Cahiers is the contemporary cinema magazine.
Cahiers (N.648) there is a special on de Oliveira and Hellman (Brad Stevens has a contribution); Cahiers (N.649) Delorme mobilizes his troop and Apatow and Fellini don’t make the cut; Cahiers (N.650) Alain Resnais; Cahiers (N.651) Tetro is championed and Delorme brings the year to an end (Les Herbes Folles, Vincere, and Inglorious Basterds are the trop three films); Cahiers (N.652) a decade is finished (Mulholland Drive is number one); Cahiers (N.653) in memoriam to Eric Rohmer (Cahiers ed. 1957-63), the magazines old American correspondent Kent Jones has a contribution; Cahiers (N.654) Bad Lieutenant: Herzog gets the cover. Madness. And, Delorme meditates on the future of 3D technology and how it will affect cinema, he quotes Chris Marker: “but we finally have had, the sentiment of captured space, and we know that this could be used for a cinematographic worth.” Cahiers (N.655) Alice in Wonderland, with a piece by Antoine de Baecque, who also just wrote a book on Tim Burton, just in time for the Burbank Goth Cannes Jury presidency. Delorme also champions the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie and Xavier Dolan, young and personal filmmakers: “It is vital that these really young filmmakers pick up the camera without waiting for financing or permission to film.” Cahiers (N.656) Delorme’s first Cannes issue, “Every year, there are the same laments, “Cannes does not look to good this year.” While they play the best movies that will come out in the following year.” As well, Delorme likes Certified Copy and the mainstream director Doug Liman; Cahiers (N.657) Apichatpong (“un des plus grands cineaste aujourd’hui”); Cahiers (N.658) the feature is American television series (Mad Men) and Delorme writes about the Louxor cinema in Egypt; Cahiers (N.659) Nouvelles utopias du cinema Francais and Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is written about at length, though is generally seen as a disappointment (nobody will like Devil); Cahiers (N.660) like Rohmer seven magazines earlier, a Nicolas Guérin portrait of the New Wave Cahiers-critic-turned-filmmaker Claude Chabrol sits on the cover; Québec cinema is looked at (see: Denis Côté); Cahiers (N.661) French cinema, alt; Les Beaux Gosses and Belle Épine are greeted with welcome. Cahiers (N.662), for Delorme's second year end round-up he seems to be more strongly embracing the magazines direction, embracing its variability; Cahiers (N.663) Aronofsky’s casting in Black Swan, Le Guay, Hongqi and Brooks; Krohn elaborates on Hitchcock’s unrealized project Frenzy (before he made the other one); the most anticipated films of 2011 are looked at; while Charles Tesson has a dossier on Mexican cinema (See: Nicolás Pereda); Cahiers (N.665) Delorme includes Cahiers on a national debate through discussings forms of represention and identity in French cinema; Cahiers (N.666) the devil issue with Hark, Craven and Kubrick; Cahiers (N.667) there are some notes about Cannes; and positive reviews of Hall Pass and Sucker Punch as well a focus on Libyan cinema. Cahiers (N.668), the feature is Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life. - David Davidson
*All of the English translations from French were done by myself.